When I planned my trip this past October to Louisville, Kentucky, it was with the intention of spending time with one of my best friends, Bryn. Even though my mom had mentioned that my great grandmother’s old house was in Kentucky, where she and her relatives used to visit as children, I figured it was like when someone says they’re from Perth, Australia and you ask if they know the one person you know from there—a long shot at best.
Not to mention, my great grandmother had quite the love life. She married my grandpa’s father, had my grandpa’s sister, and then divorced him. She remarried my grandpa’s father, had my grandpa, and then divorced him again. Then she married the grandson of J.P. Morgan (yes, the banker) and moved into the house in Paris, Kentucky where they had my grandpa’s half-brother. And eventually, they too got divorced and she moved on.
While I wondered if my great grandmother’s house would have ever come up in the conversation had I not been visiting Kentucky, I figured it couldn’t hurt to find out the address of the house and look it up on Google maps. But there wasn't much to be found, especially without an address.
My mom consulted her cousin and my grandpa’s half-brother who remembered this much:
-The house and it’s property was called White Hall Farm
-It was across the street from a horse ranch called Denali Stud
-It was a big, white house with thick columns
“Like the White House,” my mom explained. “When I visited the White House I didn’t think it was anything special because I’d seen White Hall Farm.”
Though, she added, by now the columns were probably gone.
I felt like I was given a Where’s Waldo book and told “He’s the one wearing red.” And yet, something in me wanted to find that house, wanted to see for myself a piece of my family’s history.
So there I was weeks later in a rental car with my two college friends, driving into the Kentucky countryside with the name of a horse ranch and the hope that the house had not been torn down.
As we neared the end of the GPS route, anxiety fluttered in my gut—what if I had dragged my friends an hour and half into the Kentucky countryside for a pile of dirt?!
The sentiment became much more of a reality as we passed patches of flat land and other run down homes that did not resemble anything close to the White House.
“Here’s Denali Stud,” I said as the horse ranch came into view. I hesitated. “Maybe slow down?”
“Let me pull over,” Bryn, said.
But as we looked around the narrow, two-way road we realized that might not be possible.
Thinking fast, Bryn turned right into the first driveway she saw and, as we passed the wrought iron gates, I glimpsed the etching on the stone wall, which read: “WHITE HALL FARM.”
My breath hitched as a very tall, very white house with four thick columns towered in front of us. Though the paint was chipping, the columns were beginning to lean, and there were several broken windows, I knew this was it.
“We found it!”
The three of us giggled and shouted with giddy astonishment. I could not believe after all these years, the house was still standing. And, best of all, I hadn’t dragged my friends to the middle of nowhere for nothing!
But as we got out the car to take a closer look, a red pick up truck pulled into the driveway behind us.
“He probably thinks we’re lost,” I said.
“Go talk to him,” Bryn said with an encouraging nudge.
I plastered a big smile on my face and walked over to a tall, sixty-something man who looked like he worked outdoors for a living. His jeans were worn and his shirt dulled, but his blue eyes still had a sparkle in them—despite the skepticism at my presence. “Can I help you?” he asked.
“Hi,” I began, “I’m Melissa and I, uh, think my great grandmother used to live here?”
The man cocked his head. “Who’re your great grandparents?”
I rattled off the story I knew about how my grandpa’s mom had married J.P. Morgan’s grandson and I was pretty sure this was where they lived.
“I know Dr. Morgan!” the man said. “Come on, I’ll give you a tour.”
The man, who I later found out was named Kenny, explained that he and his wife owned the ranch next door and had just bought the house on a foreclosure because the man who lived there before was indicted for $40 million worth of bank fraud. He said if we’d come six weeks ago, the house would have been hidden by overgrowth and covered in mold. It was his project now, he was fixing it up for himself and his wife to live in.
“I’m hoping it’s not a money pit,” he said after telling us about cleaning the mold.
Whether or not it was—and I was learning toward yes—I was overcome with gratitude at this man and his wife for undertaking the job.
He showed us all around, inside the house, the original fixtures, marble countertops, custom wallpaper, and beautiful wood floors. I couldn’t believe that this house had such a happy ending—a loving couple to fix it up and take care of it. While it was no longer home to my relatives, it was still a piece of my family’s history. And to be lucky enough to visit it was both surreal and awesome in the true sense of the word.
The rest of the day I was walking on a cloud. So many times my friends and I turned to each other to say, “I can’t believe that happened.”
I’d like to say I already knew this, but that day solidified for me the importance of family history and continuing to pass down traditions, stories, and knowledge from our ancestors. So this holiday season, whether or not you are able to visit with family members, or are creating your own new traditions, remember you can always find a way to connect to your history.
Here are 5 ways to get started:
Talk to a relative. If you are around family this holiday season, consider asking a relative you don’t often talk to questions about your ancestors or their own life story. So often we take family for granted and forget they are real people with incredible life stories. You might have more in common than you think or find something fascinating that they think is mundane.
Take a DNA ancestry test. Though there is still some fine-tuning to be done with this technology since each DNA service has it’s own proprietary database, the results can be fun and help you piece together your ancestry. Some people have even been connected to long-lost relatives! It can also create a family bonding experience if several of your relatives do the test.
Walk in the footsteps of your ancestors. While not all of us will go on a blind road trip in another state to search for a white-columned house where your great-grandmother lived with her second husband (or third, depending on how you look at it), there are many ways to retrace your ancestor’s steps. You can plan a trip to the country, town, or home your relatives used to live in, wear a piece of their jewelry or clothing, or go to a restaurant or place they used to frequent.
Go through old photo albums. I did this recently and was so surprised by how much I forgot about from my childhood! Seeing pictures of who was at my birthday parties, family trips we’d taken, and even pictures of what I ate for dinner were surprising and hilarious to revisit. Photo albums are a great way to spark conversation that leads to more answers about our history.
Start a family tree. Family trees get a bad reputation from those silly school projects, but they can really help you piece together your family history. A while back, my mom was contacted by a distant relative on her mom’s side who had been making one and it spurned her to start her own. It will probably take some help from other relatives, but then you have it for every family member to look at and future generations can then add to it as well.
Do you have other ideas for connecting to family history? Please share in the comments below!