ELIZABETH MADOX ROBERTS
Family Ancestry Narrative
"Ken-tuck-ee. It is a good land, the most extraordinary that ever I knew. Meadow and woodland as far as eye can behold. Beauteous tracts in a great scope, miles. A fine river makes a bound to it on the north, and another fine river flows far to the west, another boundary. To the east is a boundary of rugged mountains. A place fitted to nurture a fine race, a land of promise." Such was the land promised to Diony Hall in The Great Meadow. The same land that Elizabeth Madox Roberts' family settled and farmed, fought for, bought and sold. Some left it behind to make their way in the world while others returned here to their final resting place. As fascinating as the characters in Roberts' novels, these are the stories of my family.
As a young man, Simpson Roberts witnessed the murder of his father by a group of Unionist Civil Guards during the early days of the Civil War. Terrified, Simpson fled to the home of his aunt in a neighboring county. Filled with resolve, a good night's sleep and a hot meal, Simpson made the journey to Frankfort and joined the Southern army. Simpson fought in many of the battles of the South including Shiloh and Stones River where his brother Columbus was killed. In the summer of 1864, while out on a scouting expedition, Simpson was captured by Union soldiers. The prisoners were marched through downtown Louisville on their way to a Union prison in Indiana. Many spectators turned out to view the prisoners. There was a lady who stood on the street corner and tossed apples to the prisoners as they marched by. Next to her stood a little girl about eight or nine years old. The little girl grew up and became Simpson Roberts' wife. While in prison in Indianapolis, Simpson and several of the other inmates hatched an escape plan. After making a successful break, Simpson wandered around in unfamiliar country for several days before being recaptured. Simpson's stepmother brought him clothes in prison, which the Yankees said were too nice for a prisoner to wear so she exchanged the suit for a less expensive one, which he was allowed to keep. At the conclusion of the war, Simpson was released in a prisoner exchange. To his dying day, Simpson Roberts could not stand to hear the name of Lincoln mentioned because of the pain and suffering wrought on the Roberts family during the war. After the war, Simpson graduated from Eminence College in Louisville. He worked as a surveyor for the L&N railroad. He designed many trestle bridges in this area. While teaching in Perryville, Simpson met Mary Elizabeth Brent. They married and eventually moved to Springfield with their two young children, Brent and Elizabeth. Simpson owned a grocery store on Main St. in Springfield and the family lived upstairs for a time. In 1904, Simpson purchased the house on Walnut St., which Elizabeth eventually renovated and named Elenores. Simpson was a scholar with an interest in many fields. The family lore was that with the monthly arrival of Scientific American, Simpson would cease all work to sit on the porch and read the magazine from cover to cover. He would read to his children every night after the evening meal, often from the classics. After his books were burned in a fire, he continued the story telling routine, relying on his keen memory. His grandson remembers Simpson as a distinguished, elderly gentleman, mindful of the proprieties. He recalls, "Once while at their house for dinner, John, Brent, Will and Ivor were there. One of the sons, by then in their 30s and 40s, came to the table without a coat on. Simpson sent him back to put his coat on. They say that when he was going to college, he resigned from his fraternity because they way his fraternity brothers dressed and behaved didn't suit his tastes." During the summer of 1932, Simpson suffered a slight stroke while pruning high in a fruit tree. He died the following year, the last Confederate Army veteran in Washington County.
Mary Elizabeth Brent Roberts grew up in a fine residential area of downtown Louisville alternated with time spent on her grandparent's farm at Blue Spring Grove in Hart County, KY. Her grandparents, the Garvins, raised tobacco. There were actually two farm properties, which included many barns and cabins for their slaves. At the outbreak of the Civil War, her father closed up his tobacco warehouse in Louisville and joined the Federal Army, sending Mary Elizabeth, her mother and sisters to Blue Spring Grove to stay. Her mother, while visiting with her sister during the war, witnessed the Battle of Munfordville and even helped tend the Confederate wounded. Life on the farm and stories of the Civil War were recounted by my great grandmother in the Filson Club History Quarterly in 1940. Mary Elizabeth was a wiry, energetic little lady, a one-time school teacher (with little or no professional training), interested in Kentucky history and her family lore. She was a true pioneer woman. Her grandson, (William Ralph) remembers, "When I was ten we went to Fountain Fair Park in Louisville. Since my mother and father were afraid to ride the roller-coaster with me, Grandma Roberts went with me. Once when we went to Springfield for a visit, Grandma was up on the roof, repairing it. When Aunt Elizabeth went to Florida for the winter, Grandma came to stay with us in Louisville. Every morning she and I took my dog, Moses, for a walk around a four block area. By then she was 80, at least." She and Lottie (her daughter-in-law), would piece a quilt in the summer while the family was in Springfield, and then quilt it during the winter in Louisville. In 1945, Mary Elizabeth broke her hip and never got out of bed again. Her later years were mainly spent in Louisville at the Puritan Apartments where she died at the age of 97.
Clarence Brent Roberts was first a teacher living in Springfield around 1900. He later became an owner and publisher of several small KY newspapers. To take the exam to become a postal employee he walked 32 miles from Shelbyville to Louisville, where he lived until he died. Brent was quiet, slow to anger, patient, liked to read - like his father, a proper person. In his younger days he was protective of his brothers and sisters. When the family went to Covington on the train he was careful to shepherd them ("like a mother hen") - "Everybody stand back, here comes the train!" It is said that in later years he contributed to the university expenses of some of his siblings. He followed his wife in death by only a few months. He died of cancer, the problem probably exacerbated by the family's losing almost everything in the 1937 Louisville flood.
William Garvin (Will) Roberts served in the military before the First World War, probably the National Guard. Like many others during the Great Depression, he was out of work in 1931-1932. His brother, John, hired him to work as a draftsman in his company in Waco, TX. Will lived with John and his family during that time. In his later years, he worked as storekeeper and gauger (to ensure that regulations on bonded whiskey were observed) at several distilleries in Louisville, KY. From his father, Will inherited the gift of story telling. His nephew, Jack, recalls long and involved tales about George Higginbotham as its principal character. Will made these tales up on the spur of the moment.
Richard Clifford (Dickie) Roberts was "a rolling stone, never settled down; seemed to avoid the family." At the time of his father's death in 1933, "Dickie" was living in Sacramento, CA. He died on a train in a sleeper berth. His brother, Brent, and his nephew, William Ralph went to meet the train in Danville and bring the body back to Springfield for burial.
Charles Rankin Roberts worked as a postman in Larkspur, CO around 1910-1915 - around the time his siblings, Lel and Ivor were at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. In the 1930-1940s, Charles and his family lived in Sparks, NV before ending up in CA. During that time, he worked as a telegrapher, possibly for the railroad.
John Douglas (Johnny) Roberts graduated from the Louisville College of Pharmacy. He worked at a pharmacy in Lexington, KY around 1910 where he met his future wife. Tired of the long hours in the pharmacy John took a job in 1913 with Texas-Carnegie Steel Co. in Galveston, TX. Around 1920, John became a junior partner in Central Texas Iron Works in Waco, TX. The company weathered the depression years and once again flourished during the war effort of the 40's. John was looked upon as a prudent, industrious, near intellectual achiever. While he rarely expressed an unsolicited opinion, he was willing to speak out, albeit softly, on issues which he considered fundamental. During his later years John was troubled by a series of strokes. After his wife's death, the remaining seven months of his life were spent in a convalescent home where he died of complications from cerebral thrombosis.
Llewellyn Roberts, generally known as "Lel," earned a degree at Colorado College, Colorado Springs, around 1914. After her graduation Lel was a teacher for a number of years. Lel's husband, Carl, was a fraternity brother of Ivor Roberts. Lel and Carl lived an unconventional life. In the 1930s, they lived in Burbank, CA. Her nephew, Jack remembers that in 1944 they lived in a small cottage at the top of a hill near Oceanside, CA, so remote that they had to carry water to their house in buckets from the bottom of the hill. Growing up, Lel, Ivor, and John formed a mini-group within the family. Lel and Ivor were closer, because John left home and married. Elizabeth, Ivor and Lel formed a strong connection because of more "intellectual" interests.
Ivor Simpson Roberts known also as "Kero," attended the University of KY and Colorado College, graduating from the latter around 1915. He served in communications in World War I, witnessing scenes, which he was loath to reminisce about. His nephew remembers, "He said one time when he woke up in the morning --they were in a little shack in France -- there was a piece of shrapnel sticking in the wall over his head. A couple of people had gotten killed." He later worked as an auditor for Price Waterhouse in New York, for the Shell Oil Co. in Venezuela, and for the federal Works Progress Administration. As Ivor was a great sun worshipper (possibly to alleviate skin problems caused by mustard gas during the war) he retired to Florida at a fairly early age; a bon vivant -- enjoying wining and dining, tailor-made clothes, music and the theater. In his earlier days he played the piano in a silent movie house, probably paying his college expenses in that way.
It was written about Elizabeth, "For some time she had made a custom of going to the Florida lake country each winter, returning with the warm months to stay in this city until autumn. She always thought of Kentucky as her home, pointing out that she had never 'lived' anywhere else -- she had just 'stayed' in Colorado a few months before her college years." Some of the descendants of Simpson and Mary Elizabeth Roberts truly never "lived anywhere else" -- not venturing far from the Pigeon River country with its rich earth and rolling hills. Others have been scattered around the globe, as far away as New Zealand and even Antarctica. But wherever our dreams may take us, we are never lost; never far from home.
"Rites held Tuesday for Elizabeth Madox Roberts." Springfield Sun 20 Mar. 1941: 1.
Roberts, Elizabeth Madox. The Great Meadow. New York: Viking Press, 1930.
Vallentine, John Franklin and John Douglas Roberts. The Roberts-Orme Ancestry Volume I. Dunedin, NZ: John D. Roberts, 1994.
I would like to thank my cousin, John D. (Jack) Roberts without whom this paper would not be possible. He had the foresight to collect family observations, write them down and engage a genealogist in research to discover our family history and keep it alive for future generations.
- Rebecca Roberts (Becki) Owens