At some point I mentioned that Gilbert Hiltman, the protagonist of my novel The Witch Watch – was named after my great-grandfather. I’ve always been fascinated by grandpa Gilbert. I’ve recently obtained some photos of himMom got some photos and she’s been posting them on Facebook. so I thought I’d share. I never even knew these existed until now.
It turns out I’ve got some English ancestry in my family tree. The running joke in the USAActually, I think the joke is over now, but when I was a kid people still obsessed over this. is that everyone claims to be English colonists that overthrew the British but we’re actually mostly Europeans that immigrated at the turn of the twentieth century. I assumed this was true of me as well. Not that I care one way or the other. I was just betting on the averages. I assumed “Heginbotham” was some horrible Anglican butchery of a German name. I figured some Hanz Hegunchbachataluntz arrived on Ellis Island and “Higenbotham” was the best the immigration officer could manage.
But no. William Heginbotham immigrated from Jolly old England in the early 1800’s. I don’t know why he left home, why he came here, or what he did to earn a living.
(You’ll notice the name spelled “Higenbotham” and “Heginbotham” here. I can find examples of both spellings in my notes and I don’t know if it’s a typo or an official change somewhere along the line. For the record, “Higenbotham” is how it’s spelled in newsclippings and “Heginbotham” is how everyone pronounces it. This is less confusing than other immigrant names, which would often fragment a single name into multiple spellings. The same family of immigrants might end up named Baer, Burr, and Barr, depending on numerous factors such as handwriting, immigration, mail delivery, and feuds.)
Eventually William had a son, who he named after himself…
…and who looks kind of Sam Elliot-ish to me. William II got stuck in the same naming rut his father was in and added yet another William to the bloodline. But then in 1886For reference, The Witch Watch takes place in 1885. he broke out of the naming rut and had a son named Gilbert. This is Gilbert:
|Emma and Gilbert in 1909. That same year, Carmen Miranda, U Thant, and Hugh Beaumont were born. Emma would outlive them all.|
This was taken in 1909, when Gilbert was just 24 years old. He lived in SaxonburgMaybe that’s one of the reasons I assumed he was of German descent. People in New York are new Yorkers, so obviously people in Saxonburg MUST be Saxons, right?. That’s his wife Emma. As crazy as it sounds, I actually met her. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Gilbert had five children. The first was his son Regis. The next four were daughters, who I’ll get to in a minute. Here is my great-uncle Regis with his mother:
|This was taken in 1914. I think hats like this are what inspired the invention of the automobile tire. They might also have inspired not wearing hats anymore.|
Gilbert started out learning tinning from his older brother William. But when the automobile showed up he started his own business and ran a bus between Saxonburg and Butler. Automobiles were not yet ubiquitous and the road system was still rudimentary, which means lots of people depended on Gilbert’s bus for school and work. This is where most of the “you kids don’t know how good you have it” stories came from in our family.
Brutally cold winters and nascent automobile technology made this work a lot more challenging than simply driving between towns. Antifreeze was either not available or not very good at the time, because Emma would have to drain the radiator when Gilbert got home and refill it again before he left for work the next morning. The road was gravel, which – when combined with the narrow tires of the day – made it prone to forming ruts in the rainy seasons. Snowplow infrastructure didn’t exist yet, which meant that Gilbert sort of did that too. Not on purpose mind you, but shoving the snow with his car and digging himself out when the drifts got too deep was the closest the road came to being plowed.
According to Google, the trip is just short of ten miles and can be done in about twenty minutes today. But it could take hours in the snow back then. Sure, a horse could probably have made the trip faster. But a horse can’t carry a half dozen passengers. I’m telling you, these automobile things are amazing.
In 1925, Emma was pregnant with their final child when this happened:
So Regis died by sledding down main street and slamming head-first into a car. That sounds like a Jackass-level crazy stunt, but the truth is that it wasn’t normally seen as a particularly risky thing to do. Cars were still rare, and people were still getting used to them. Today we have a healthy respect for their danger, but back then word of new dangers spread at the speed of newspapers and gossip. This probably needed to happen a couple of times in every town for people to get the idea.
The tragedy here is that Regis could have lived a nice long life if he hadn’t been taken out by this bad luck. The Heginbothams are ridiculously long-livedActually, I’m willing to bet the best of the long-life genes come from Emma’s side. and there’s no reason to think Regis couldn’t have lived well into his 80’s. I could have met him. He was born at just the right time where he would have been too young to get dragged into World War I and too old for World War II.
In the 30’s, Gilbert sold the bus line and went back to metal smithing. You know, just as cars were getting good and the roads were getting paved. Maybe he was worried that the job would make him soft if it no longer required him to occasionally push a bus from town to town. (Actually, I’m sure he sold it because travel was getting easier and cars were getting more common. It was smart to get out of the business while the business was still worth something.)
1949. In the center are Gilbert and Emma. It’s strange to see Gilbert standing below his daughters like thisMan, that modern food and medicine is amazing, you know?, because in my mind he was always ten feet tall.
The young ladies are their daughters. (Left-to-right: Polly, Margaret, VirginaMy grandmother., and Evelyn.) The young men are Gilbert’s sons-in-law. This picture looks very strange to me, because it looks exactly like the Thanksgivings I remember in my youth, except everyone is unaccountably young. I knew these women as charming old ladies, not vivacious young mothers.
The thing was, all of these women survived well into their 70’s and 80’s. Emma made it all the way to 99 years old, passing away in 1987. Polly is actually still alive in 2014. She’s over 90, but is still busy and still has her wits.
The Heginbotham house was the family meeting place for most of the twentieth century. Gilbert and Emma formed a strong family that made a point of coming together as often as they could. They didn’t have any big feuds, and everyone liked everyone else. Now they’re mostly gone. When I was a kid, eight out of ten people in that picture were still alive. By the time I started my own family it was down to three. Today, it’s just Polly.
But the one guy I most want to talk to in this picture is Gilbert, and (statistically speaking) I just missed him. He died six months before I was born. I’d love to have an hour with the guy and see what kind of stories I could wring out of him.
My advice: When you’re young, sit still for as many stories as your elders are willing to tell. They offer context that you will treasure later on. When you’re old, tell all the stories that young people are willing to endure. There are a lot of details of life that don’t show up in photographs, and if we don’t tell our stories those details will be lost.
 Mom got some photos and she’s been posting them on Facebook.
 Actually, I think the joke is over now, but when I was a kid people still obsessed over this.
 For reference, The Witch Watch takes place in 1885.
 Maybe that’s one of the reasons I assumed he was of German descent. People in New York are new Yorkers, so obviously people in Saxonburg MUST be Saxons, right?
 Actually, I’m willing to bet the best of the long-life genes come from Emma’s side.
 Man, that modern food and medicine is amazing, you know?
 My grandmother.
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