140th Burton Family Reunion

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Base of monument to John Pleasant
and Susannah Burton

This Sunday marks the 140th Burton Family Reunion at Burton Grove and Burying Ground in Mitchell, Indiana. I have participated in 20-25 of them, including almost every year since 1996, and a few years growing up when my parents would drag me there.

My branch of the Burton family arrived in Indiana in 1826, although the father of this tribe, a man named John Pleasant Burton, had been in Lawrence County earlier to secure land and seek out a place to move his family.

John Pleasant Burton and his wife Susannah Stamper Burton were prolific, as were there children. John and Susannah had 13 children, plus written records indicate they had adopted six more children. The attendees of the family reunion this Sunday all trace their roots back to John Pleasant and Susannah. A tall monument to them stands in the cemetery, erected in the 1800s by their descendants.

Neither John nor Susannah are actually buried at this location, but in an original and smaller family cemetery about three quarters of a mile away, tucked into the corner of a cornfield. Their markers are still there, although we had to repair them in the last 15 years.

Nearly all of the 13 children were adults with their own families in 1826, but they came to Indiana as well. Only one of the 13 remained in North Carolina. John and Susannah’s children harvested a great crop of children as well, and John and Susannah had 167 grandchildren.

Over the next couple of generations Burtons spread out all through Lawrence and Orange counties, and census records detail 1,700 of us there in the mid-1800s. Many moved west with the country’s westward expansion, though. A large group moved to Kansas, while others continued to the northwest part of our country. A big group has its annual family reunion in Kansas about the same time we have ours in Mitchell.

Our numbers of attendees have dwindled as people have moved away, and our attendance this year will likely be somewhere between 60-80. For our 125th reunion we had 165 attendees, the largest number anyone could remember.

There certainly have been bigger crowds than our 165. Two newspaper articles late in the 1800s ran a photograph and story of that year’s reunion, and it was much larger than any we have had of late.

All families have stories, and the Burton family is filled with them. A favorite is the story of John Pleasant Burton’s burial, in which a newspaper story gives an account of the large number of people there to pay their last respects. The number the paper gives is quite unbelievable, but it remains a family story nonetheless.

Also, John Pleasant Burton is reputed to have been buried in a vertical rather than horizontal position; that is, he was buried standing up. The lore also says that he was buried with a musket under one arm (he fought in the American Revolution) and a whiskey jug under the other (nearly everyone ran a still in those days.)

Spring Mill, a Special Place

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Some memories endure to the end of a person’s life. They might be pleasant or disturbing, and their images could possess life-shaping power.

Driving to Spring Mill State Park in Lawrence County, Indiana, revives indelible half-century memories for me. Mom and Dad nearly always packed up the car with food and their four children on Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day during my youth to go to this place. The drive seemed agonizingly long, although it was right at an hour from our home on Maple Street in Sellersburg.

Once we arrived, though, the park did its magic work of forging memories.

There is something about the area which I did not know or understand at the time, but of which I am now aware, and the explanation for its whispering to me of “Welcome home” is simple. Although I knew my dad was born nearby, I did not know or did not understand the extent of the Burton family, which had arrived in Lawrence County in 1826 and filled Lawrence and Orange counties with 1700 Burton family members by the mid-1800s. I know this seems remarkable, almost unbelievable, but the records exist to attest to the fact. Apparently there was a Burton around every corner, some of them well-liked and respected, others not so.

Spring Mill used to have a huge lake for swimming, fishing, and boating, constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corp in the 1930s, and which was fed by a spring of cold water that emanated from a cave. We always parked and picnicked at the lake area, went swimming in the greenish water, which took forever for the body to get accustomed to because it was so cold, and then hiked to the pioneer village. The sand at the beach could be so hot a body could scarcely walk on it bare footed, while the water was so cold a person had to catch his or her breath when going under the first time.

Dad grilled hamburgers, and we usually had watermelon except on Memorial Day. I do not remember any other food we may have had; hamburgers and watermelon could well have filled the entire menu, but I can still taste them in my memory. A stream runs through the village, along with ample picnic areas, and people often chilled their melons in the creek while cooking their food. My family never did this then because we always had our picnics at the lake area, but I always marveled at it.

The pioneer village was a fascinating place to a child. I could walk through the old buildings and could picture what life might have been like in the 1800s. The musty smell of the structures, even when I visit today, floods me with those memories.

My favorite part of the village was a small souvenir stand. My parents probably could not afford it, but they always let my younger brother and I purchase something from there, usually a rubber tomahawk or knife, some stones, fake money, a pinwheel, a bird call, or some other inexpensive trinket. Sadly, that souvenir stand has been closed for a number of years, but I still look longingly at the structure whenever I visit.

The stream through the village is fertile ground for the imagination. After heavy rain it can be running so rapidly and so high that it is not safe to get into, but during a visit in the summer months children can usually be found playing in it, and its cold nature turning feet blue. I recall one time when the stream was up and flowing swiftly that a couple of children were on inflatable rafts, careening down the stream, barely able to float underneath two bridges which connect the parking lot to the main picnic area.

In the heart of the village stands a water powered gristmill, fed from the same cave that fed the lake. This is an amazing stone structure which, according to a park employee, took 100 men a year to build. There are three stories to the building, and the mill still grinds corn hourly. It is not difficult to stand mesmerized while the mechanism is in operation. Attached to the gristmill is a water powered saw, which I never remember operating in my youth, but it operates during the summer months now. Each of these things is amazing in its design.

The second and third floors are like a museum, filled with items from pioneer days. The park used to have parts of it set off to appear like old businesses. For years there was a spot on one of the floors that had a sign on it that read “Burton Blacksmith.”

Hiking through the vast woods at Spring Mill was full of adventures. There are marked trails throughout, and a person could spend a couple of days of days walking the park in its entirety. In one particular section are huge, ancient trees. Like the rest of the county the park also contains numerous caves which can be reached via the trails. Up hills and down the trails wind, frequently taking the breath away from adults, but children are usually found running them.

Autumn in southern Indiana equates to beautiful foliage, and the park overflows with visitors. Crisp air, breathtaking colors in the trees, family gatherings, and demonstrations of pioneer days in the village make for a wonderful afternoon here.

There is a Burton family cemetery about four miles from Spring Mill, and that is where I intend on being buried. I think I should like it if, before my remains are taken there to rest, my family would drive me one last time around the park in the hearse. I know it will only be my body and I will not really be there with them, but in honor of the memories this special place put in my heart, I would like that very much.

There is a song that makes me think of Spring Mill every time I hear it and would be appropriate to play in the automobile during my final procession around the park. This was the lead song for the movie Gods and Generals and was written by Mary Fahl, Byron Isaacs, and Glenn Patscha.

Going Home

They say there’s a place
where dreams have all gone
They never said where
but I think I know
It’s miles through the night
just over the dawn
on the road that will take me home

I know in my bones
I’ve been here before
The ground feels the same
though the land’s been torn
I’ve a long way to go
The stars tell me so
on this road that will take me home

Love waits for me ’round the bend
Leads me endlessly on
Surely sorrows shall find their end
and all our troubles will be gone
And I’ll know what I’ve lost
and all that I’ve won
when the road finally takes me home

And when I pass by
don’t lead me astray
Don’t try to stop me
Don’t stand in my way
I’m bound for the hills
where cool waters flow
on this road that will take me home

Love waits for me ’round the bend
Leads me endlessly on
Surely sorrows shall find their end
and all our troubles will be gone
And we’ll know what we’ve lost
and all that we’ve won
when the road finally takes me home

I’m going home
I’m going home
I’m going home

Our Cat the Huntress

We have a potential cat problem at our house, and I find myself debating within whether or not to fix it. Generally speaking cats produce a positive atmosphere for the home, they have an uncanny sense of when someone is ailing and  attempt to comfort the sufferer, and properly fed, watered, stroked, and made master of the domain provide companionship, although I tend to believe that we provide them rather than they provide us.

We have a mother cat with a recent litter, so naturally she has taken care of them in a very commendable way, bringing them out of seclusion for the first time when they were ready to be acclimated to our human world. One particular thing at which she has excelled is she has attempted to train her children how to be good hunters, a task she accomplishes with ease.

Since these kittens have arrived, she has secured a balanced diet for them consisting of mice, birds, shrews, squirrels, and rabbits. She is never content to let her babies eat only amply-provided cat and kitten chow. No, she insists on supplementing their meals with fresh kills.

Yesterday evening I walked out the door to take the precious meow-boxes their evening meal. I walked around the corner, and squarely in our breezeway lay a fresh squirrel, still intact, though its head and face were rather mangled from the kill. I grabbed a spade and scooped it up into the garbage can.

I did not see Momma anytime the rest of the evening, even though I sat out under the stars with her brood immediately after dusk. I think she may have been upset with me because of her missing squirrel. Possibly she believed I ate it when she intended it for her young ones. Regardless, this morning I walked out the door, and what lay there on our steps, but a rabbit. The kittens apparently had it for an overnight snack, for not much of it remained.

I have concerns about this cat. She is the best hunter we have ever had, even better than our beloved Callie, who lived to the ripe old age of 17 and frequently left us gifts on the porch. This cat far outdoes Callie in capture. My concern is, “What is she going to bring home tomorrow?” I do not want a dog, but my fear is one will be sitting on our front porch one morning, dragged in by the cat and forced to become our pet.

A hawk lives in our neighborhood, and I believe he should exercise caution when circling the house.

I would not be at all surprised to find some appliances, like a washing machine or a dryer, left for us as a present one morning. Neither would it shock me to wake up and find a 1964 Studebaker sitting in our driveway. The parcel delivery people also should be aware when coming to our home, which they frequently do. I do not one to turn up missing.

Possibly I should consider going into the pest control business, specializing in rodents and birds. That cat might make me wealthy yet.

Catfish Festival

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Some things would be very troubling, if one took thought of them. One question that makes an occasional but fleeting passage through my mind is, “Why do I purposely waste portions of my life on things that are fruitless?”

My older brother George and I traveled together frequently beginning in the mid-1990s, and we have compiled a long list of places not to visit. Some showed great promise but were fool’s gold. The majority, however, were a self-evident waste of time. Still, they had a mysterious appeal that we could not resist.

A prime example is Taco Bender’s. Our sister lives in Grand Junction, Colorado, where she is an oncologist. We spent a week with her a few years back, and while she worked, George and I made day trips to various sites in the beautiful cliff, canyon, and mountain country of western Colorado and eastern Utah. This particular day took us to Arches National Park and then Moab, Utah, the location of Taco Bender’s.

A person possessing a modicum of intelligence would have depressed the accelerator when seeing the converted gas station with the restaurant’s logo prominently displayed in the old Sinclair Oil sign frame.  Even if the car inexplicably stalled and forced the travelers to stop, the cardboard-and-magic-marker sign propped against some desert scrub outside the front door that read, “Today’s Special Burrito and Fries” would keep reasonable tourists safely on the outside.

The Burton brothers were there to absorb all the atmosphere of the great western states. Though our internal voice of reason screamed at us to keep driving, our sense of adventure overwhelmed us. George pulled our sister’s Lexus into a parking lot whose main features were gaping cracks with thick clumps of grass growing from them.

The adventure did not overwhelm, but it is possible that our taste buds needed more time to become acclimated to the food of that locale. Not surprisingly, Taco Bender’s no longer exists—at least in that location. A few years later I revisited the town, and another business occupied the premises. I do not recall its name, but it was not a restaurant. I surmised that burritos and fries became the rage and Taco Bender’s relocated to a more affluent area, but I may be incorrect in that assumption.

Though there is seven years difference in our ages, George and I possess some similar traits. Thanks to our father’s genes each of us suffers from hearing loss in varying degrees. Actually, our sister and younger brother do as well, and during family get-togethers all the spouses sit and marvel at the incongruousness of the Burton family’s conversations. We are not rude to each other, we simply do not hear what the other one says and start new topics without completing the previous ones.

Another similarity is that George and I have worn beards most of our adult lives, and we have frequently been mistaken by friends, thinking he was I or I was he. I once worked at a job for 11 years and wore a beard when hired. Seven years into the job, I decided to shave, and when I showed up at work the next morning many of my fellow workers did not know who I was. I have not shaved my beard since.

George no longer wears a beard. Overnight—at least it seemed like overnight—his hair went from brown to white, along with the beard. He has a streak of vanity, and when someone mentioned that the gray made him look older, the beard came off forever.

Our wives concluded that the trait we share the most is that we are slow learners because we did not seem to learn from our trips.

Most people I know enjoy live music. George and I do, and we thought we were in for a unique and memorable experience a few years ago when we visited the ParkeCounty (Indiana) Covered Bridge Festival, just north of Terre Haute. This festival is huge, attracting 250,000 visitors or more over a 10-day span. The live music this particular year was a group of pan flute musicians from Ecuador. The festival is held in towns throughout the county, and two different groups of musicians played at two of these locations. One was in a small town named Bridgeton, aptly named because a 140-year-old covered bridge dissects it. Adjacent to the bridge is an old grist mill, complete with water wheel, and the musicians set up their equipment in the grass next to the mill.

Their music could be heard throughout the town, even by two middle-aged men who have limited hearing. When I first heard the music, but before I had seen them, I thought the group was going to be a bunch of Ricky Ricardos, with puffed sleeves and singing “Babaloo.” Most of them, though, wore jeans and flannel shirts with tennis shoes, certainly Latin in physical appearance, but outfitted at Wal-Mart.

There were eight musicians present. Most of them played a pan flute, but one played only the drums, while another played acoustic guitar. The pan flutes were remarkable. Not being a pan flute connoisseur, I did not realize they come in different sizes. As might be expected, the larger the flute, the deeper the sound.

We anticipated this group would play songs from their native country, which they did to a small degree. Most of their songs, however, were popular American songs from the 1960s through the present.    Simon and Garfunkel had a song in the late 1960s titled “El Condor Pasa” and in this song is an instrument that is the type we heard, but we did not expect to hear that on Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water.” It is easy to see it just did not work well, even though the musicians were very talented and shone through on songs of their native land.

One day close to the Fourth of July in the early part of this decade, George telephoned. My wife answered, and as usual, upon hearing his voice, rolled her eyes. A trip with George always involved an entire weekend day, possibly more. She had resigned herself to the fact I was going, wherever it was, so she mouthed, “Go ahead,” even before she handed me the receiver.

A couple of other traits the Burton brothers share are the ability to be sarcastic with each other and to appreciate the other’s sarcasm and laugh at ourselves.

“I’ve found a new place,” he exclaimed, chuckling at the same time.

“What now?” I could not hide my skepticism, which he simply ignored.

“Shoals Catfish Festival.”

“Shoals…Catfish…Festival,” I repeated.

“Yeah. You know where Shoals is?”

“Sure. Been through it a number of times. Can’t say I know why they would have a catfish festival, though.”

Shoals is a small town in the southwestern quadrant of Indiana, about an hour and a half from where I live. It has never been prosperous.

“What do they do at the Catfish Festival?” I inquired.

“I don’t know. Probably have catfish. There’s a river there. Must be a lot of catfish. I bet it’s like a lot of these other festivals we’ve gone to—”

“Then that should eliminate it,” I interrupted.

Although I innately knew this was a waste of time, I agreed to go. It is like the proverb, “As a dog returns to his vomit, so a fool returns to his folly.”

George pulled his late model Crown Victoria into my driveway. He always drove, and he always picked me up. There were a couple of reasons for this. He and his wife had more than one vehicle, so if George was gone for the day, his wife could still get out of the house. My wife and I possessed only one, and if I took it, she would be home for the entire day. The second reason was the most important one. I am a law-abiding driver and never intentionally top the posted speed limit. George was born with a birth defect: his right foot has lead in it. If we take the number of minutes it would take me to get from one place to another and multiply that number by .625, then that would be the approximate number of minutes it would take George to arrive at the same location. Amazingly, George went for over 20 years without receiving a speeding ticket.

On another adventure in the late 1990s, we went to North Carolina for some genealogical work. On the way home we had to pass through two tunnels in West Virginia. Of course, George was doing the driving, and as he exited the tunnel traveling approximately 85 miles per hour and accelerating, he passed a state trooper whose sole mission in life was to wait at the end of that tunnel and capture speeders. George never saw the patrol car, but I did and I calmly pointed it out to him, but it was too late. He got his first ticket in two decades. Over the next four weeks, he received three more tickets, forcing him to attend driving school. This produced no longstanding effect on his driving habits, though.

“I did a little research about the Catfish Festival,” said George with a smile after I climbed into the passenger seat.

“You mean there actually is research to do? Where did you find information?”

“I called town hall,” he said.

“And?”

“The guy I talked to said they have booths set up along the street and sell things.”

“Define ‘things’.”

“Crafts and things, like we saw at the Covered Bridge Festival.”

That got my interest. Even though the Ecuadorian music at that festival left us unfulfilled, the festival itself is outstanding. Almost any craft or artistic item is there.

“Think they’ll have chain saw art?” I asked.

“I would think so. Of course, there’s catfish to eat as well. That’s what the festival is all about. By the way, why didn’t Denise come?”

Denise is my wife. She accompanied us on exactly one trip. I am a Civil War buff, and in 1998 there was a huge re-enactment of the Battle of Shiloh, the battle that made Abraham Lincoln take notice of Ulysses Grant, future star general for the boys in blue. We made plans to stay in Jackson, Tennessee, for three days while this re-enactment was to take place. Unfortunately, a deluge dropped on the event and cancelled it. We spent one half of one day in the pouring rain and mud and saw nothing. Denise swore never to go with us anywhere again.

“What else is in Shoals?” I said, ignoring his query about my wife. George smiled and paused. “Just tell me,” I said.

“The guy I talked to at city hall is the town marshal. He said the jail is used more on the Saturday night of the Catfish Festival than at any other time of the year. He said most of it’s for drunkenness.”

“Now that sounds like a strong selling point,” I said.

“There’s a parade, and a queen, so you know there must be something to it.”

“Yeah. Right. The Catfish Queen?”

July in the Ohio Valley is hot and humid. Some nights the temperatures never drop below the 80s, and the humidity generally is in the 70-90 percent range. My sister still laughs at the people in Colorado who complain that “this humidity is unbearable” when it climbs to the 15 percent range. This day was a typical summer day: hazy, hot and humid. George usually cranks the air conditioner to the max on days like this. Then, because the air conditioner is so loud, he has to turn the radio to max as well. It really makes no difference since we cannot hear the music.

My hopes were not high as we made our way over the serpentine road to Shoals. I have taken my family on it and they have gotten motion sick as a result more than once. The motion, the heat, and the prospects for a strange festival played on my mind.

The town’s claim to fame is a large rock on the main thoroughfare appearing in the form of a huge jug balanced upon another stone. The local school’s nickname is the Jug Rox, taken from the town’s signature attraction.

We had to cross the White River to enter Shoals. I peered over the bridge, trying to spot frantic catfish attempting to escape the nets of the Catfish Festival, but I saw none.

George pointed the car in the direction of downtown. It was not difficult to find. We drove through the main street, but saw nothing on it. However, down one side street, going in the direction of the river, we spotted some booths.

“There it is,” said George excitedly.

“Not much there,” I replied.

“Probably just the outskirts of the festival,” he said.

We parked and made our way there. It took us no longer than two minutes to deduce that this was not the outskirts at all, but the festival in its entirety. A handful of booths lined the street, but most of the booths were uninhabited at the moment, and completely void of not just people, but wares. Besides us, there were a few other people there, maybe 20 or so, but no one was buying what little there was to buy.

When I was young, the town in which I lived had a yearly event called the Street Fair, which was a benefit for our local volunteer fire department. A person could extract as much fun as there was to get out of the Street Fair in 15 minutes or less. The Shoals Catfish Festival made the Street Fair look like Disney World. There were no attractions that we could find at the Catfish Festival. The few booths contained yard sale items, none of which interested us.

We did stop at a local store. I do not recall its name, but it was the rough equivalent of a Five and Dime-type store that existed when I was a child. There were items that are no longer manufactured, covered in dust, and candy sitting in open barrels, which I would not buy or eat.

To be fair to the Catfish Festival, I believe the day we went there was the set-up day and the festival had not begun in earnest. I have seen photographs from a local newspaper of the festival queen riding in an open convertible during the festival’s parade, and there are plenty of people lining the street in these photographs. It is possible our timing was off by a day or so and therefore our observations were not accurate.

George and I drove an hour and a half, one way, to visit the Catfish Festival and stayed less than a half hour total. The Shoals Catfish Festival immediately became the standard for which we measure all other fruitless things we have done. It is the low-water mark for poor decisions we made in how to spend our free time and money.

We did stay out of the jail, however.