Of what significance are the things you can forget?”
…I realized my grandfather knew things that other people did not…And as I came to know him…As I came to know him…Oh I could hardly believe my good fortune. I swore then I’d cleave to that old man like a bride. I swore he’d take nothing to his grave.”
— Ben Telfair in Cormac McCarthy’s The Stonemason
Your great grandfather built one of the coolest things in this county.”
— Kathy Freundel
There was a mill — there still is — on the old road from Westminster to Taneytown in that region of northern Maryland called the Piedmont. It was both a grist mill and sawmill and its name among locals is Roop’s Mill, though you will see it on some maps identified as Roop Mill. It was originally built in 1794 and it lies on the south side of what is now Maryland Route 140, which on this particular stretch is called Taneytown Pike, though my family has always called it Taneytown Road (the first two syllables are pronounced like the word “tawny”).
The Roop’s Mill complex, which includes the mill, a barn, the 1825 homestead of David Roop and the ruins of a four-span iron footbridge, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2008. The Maryland Historic Trust claims that Roop’s Mill is significant for its association with Carroll County’s grist milling industry, and notes in particular that “the remains of the sash saw and the hydroelectric system are especially rare” and “the variety of extant machinery is particularly significant”. The trust also asserts that the pedestrian suspension bridge, which it calls “innovative”, is the only example of its type in the region. The bridge links the house with the barn over the wide bottom through which meanders Meadow Branch Creek, a branch of Big Pipe Creek.
Folks, my great grandfather Benjamin built that bridge. Or at least, it is common knowledge in my family that he did.
The story has come down to me and my siblings through my father, who remembers sitting in the back seat of the car on trips out along Taneytown Road for family events in Mayberry, a village near Taneytown, and hearing his father James say as they passed the old bridge at Roop’s Mill, “Kids, you know your grandfather built that bridge!” Of course they knew. He reminded them of this fact every time they passed the bridge.
Below is a photo taken when the foliage was off, in which you can see what’s left of the bridge spans in the distance running out from behind the right side of the mill building.
This is an example of collective memory working perfectly right up until now and hopefully beyond now, because when I drive past Roop’s Mill I’m going to say the same thing to my daughters in the back seat, only I’m going to prepend two additional greats.
On my dad’s side, starting with him, I know the names of my forebears back six generations (I’m a seventh son) to Johann, the German farmer who immigrated from the Palatinate (Pfalz) region near the Rhine in 1738 aboard the Davy and settled in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, then later moved south into Maryland. In 1992 I visited my relatives “back East”, and my dad’s sister Miriam and I buzzed around the countryside looking for our forefathers in various churchyards. No one knows where Johann’s bones repose, but his son John, my great great great grandfather, is buried below a stone at Baust Church that is illegible and would be unidentifiable except that at some time in the last century the Daughters of the American Revolution put a metal plaque on the back of it, because of his services in that dust-up with King George.
Miriam, or Mim or Mimmy as we call her, took me to see this grave, the oldest in the family that we have knowledge of. Like a loose tooth the marker leans out of the row it shares with its neighbors, one of which marks the grave of his wife, Margaret, my great great great grandmother. The spelling of our last name on Margaret’s stone captures our surname in transition. We also found Benjamin II, the farmer and stonemason who built the bridge at Roop’s Mill, in a Mayberry cemetery. But we didn’t know for sure where to find Elder Benjamin, whom we also call Benjamin I, and his grave was the great historical treasure we were looking for that day. From written family records, we suspected he was buried in Uniontown or Copperville.
On our adventure that day we passed Roop’s Mill, and Mim confirmed the story my father had told me. She said that every time they passed that place my grandfather would say — and here she interjected that they would always look at each other and mime him and giggle as he said it — “you know, kids, your grandfather Benjamin built that bridge!”
We got to Uniontown late in that warm spring day and quickly found the town’s cemetery across from the United Methodist Church on the main drag (there is no other drag; it’s a town along a rural highway) and searched it thoroughly but could not find Benjamin or his wife Catherine. We were hailed by a clergyman who saw us groping around and took us inside the rectory and showed us a detailed map of the cemetery. Our kinsman was not there. It was then that the question of my great great grandfather’s religious denomination was raised, and we were told a moment later that we must be at the wrong Uniontown cemetery. There was another? Yes, St. Lucas Cemetery, on the edge of town where another road branched off to the north.
The sun was already down. My aunt and I disappeared in that cartoon way that left behind a bullety sound and a couple of curled whoosh lines where we had sat a moment before. Gravel spat out from behind Mim’s tires as she gunned the engine and spun her old Buick out onto Uniontown Road again. We had nor flashlight, flint nor tinder, but we figured there might still just be time before dark to find the old man’s grave.
I want to pause here and return to the West Coast to pose a question. How does the hull of a ship that wrecked on the beach less than ninety years ago emerge from an eroding wall of sand without anyone in the nearby town being able to remember what ship it was or even the fact that it was buried there? Historians are pretty much in agreement that the bulky wooden keel and ribs that last winter’s storms uncovered at Washaway Beach on the Washington coast are those of the Canadian Exporter, which missed the entrance to Wilapa Bay in a fog in 1921 and broke in two, but no one personally remembers this. No one has come forward and said, “oh yeah, my grandfather used to talk about this big wreck on the beach. It was visible for decades before the sands covered it up,” or “I have a memory of my dad taking me out to see this old wooden hull.” The emergence of this maritime skeleton from its sandy closet has caught everyone by surprise.
How does that happen? How does an entire community forget individual components of its history? How does a family lose the graves of its forebears?
The question of how collective memory fails is one that my friend Michael and I ponder in conversation ever and anon. He has a lithograph, one of only a handful made, of a painting of Lincoln signing the Declaration of Emancipation. It belonged to his mother while she was alive and he has had it restored. It is worth some not insignificant coin. His mother could not remember who — her uncle, her father — had given it to her, but the story in Michael’s family is that somebody or other was refurbishing a county courthouse or some other such government office and discovered the thing, for all he could tell abandoned, and salvaged it. Michael similarly asks, how does a body of humans collectively forget something like that, like the fact that among the courthouse’s assets is this lithograph, which is a rare item and should be kept track of?
There are lots of stories of diaries or letters being found in someone’s dusty garret that belonged to someone famous, writings that change our understanding of history. In 1997, a workman crawled into a dirty attic in Washington, D.C., and discovered signage that indicated one of the apartments in the building had been used by Clara Barton — before she became famous as founder of the American Red Cross — in her efforts to locate missing Civil War soldiers. With the door sign were letters from and to the Missing Soldiers Office and heaps of Civil War photos. How does something like that lose itself? How can an event or an item that is so uncommon or so inherently interesting drop off the radar of the collective memory of a society or a community or a family? Does someone forget to say before they die, “Oh, by the way, kids, I’m getting old, and I think you should know that there’s a handwritten libretto penned by Puccini in the basement in that chest next to my old toboggan”?
Or is it that the young are not listening or not interested? Do those who know assume that everyone else knows, too? Or is it sometimes a case of unharvested data resources? Are descriptions of personal encounters with the shipwreck at Wilapa Bay languishing on microfilm in some local library whose repository of newspapers has not been queried since the age of the Internet dawned?
How do we collectively forget? All of us? The failure of an entire community to remember a shipwreck, or what’s left in an attic or broom closet in a public building, or a piece of family lore, is alarming to me, but also mysterious. At some point in time, there is one person left who knows something no one else knows, but they may not know that they are the only one who knows this.
To me, all of this suggests that we are moving too quickly, that we are losing even what little grip on our tumbling through time that we may ever have had. We seldom make things that will last into a time after our own, and of things that we encounter that were made in a time before ours and have endured into our own we can often say very little. The fact that some physical works have outlasted our collective memory about their creators does credit to those forgotten artisans, but it does not flatter us as rememberers.
The only bright side I can see in this is that the failure of collective memory provides opportunities for the thrill of discovery. Someone opens a trunk in the attic, or someone opens a long-locked closet in a courthouse, or goes upstairs in an old hotel. Or a storm uncovers lost secrets on a sandy beach.
Mim overshot the weedy little driveway of the old graveyard just oustide of Uniontown on Trevanion Road, but backed up and turned around with more dust and dirt flying. We surely woke the dead arriving. I ran up and down the rows, checking out the graves under the boughs of trees first because that’s where the dark was taking hold. Nothing. I called to Mim, who was bent over perusing stones in another corner. She was having no luck. We reconvened at the center of the graveyard, about to give up.
The light was dim and blue, and the shapes of crosses and obelisks were receding into night. I remember standing with my back to a group of stones that I had quickly glanced at before, but I had a funny feeling about them. I turned around and peered, and saw ever so faintly the name Catherine, and some dates. The stone was the tallest of several in a row, and aside from her first name the inscription was worn to mere shadows of indentation. I bent low in front of the low rounded stone to its left, my eyes straining. I reached my fingers in front of my eyes to trace in the bone-white marker what I could barely see, could sense more than actually see: the name Benjamin, and my last name after it.
“It’s here,” I said.
An instant later the day was all gone.
Later that year my father visited and stood next to the stones of his great grandparents, and someone (I think Mim) took his picture. Even with my family’s strong collective memory, we almost lost another two names to the non-place of forgotten ancestry.