Some Interesting Genealogical Anecdotes

The Old Wash Stand Story
The Civil War Rose


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Photo by Adrian S. Gwin--it accompanied
the column he wrote and published in the
Charleston Daily Mail

Following is Dad's column from the Charleston, West Virginia,
Charleston Daily Mail, Wednesday edition, March 14, 1984, page 12A:

Looking Back
Grandma Couldn't Do Without Marble-Top Washstand

by Adrian Gwin
of the Daily Mail staff

      Yesterday's simple necessity is today's antique luxury.
      The old marble-topped washstand in our living room was one of Grandma's most useful pieces of furniture.
      In her day, and even when I was a boy, she used it regularly for taking her twice-weekly bath.
      It's well over 100 years old now, solid walnut wood, tall and graceful, with a carved gingerbread beadboard above, and old brass handles below.
      Grandma and Grandpa
[John Gwin note: i.e., John Forsythe Vardaman and Julia Ann Flynn Vardaman] got it about 1870 or '75 as part of a three-piece set of bedroom furniture. 
      While we of today often gripe of the inconveniences of modern bathrooms, consider what they did when the washstand was a way of life.
      I remember that Grandma's bedroom door at Aunt Maggie's house was always closed on Tuesdays and Saturdays because Uncle Jeff made a fire in her bedroom then, winter and summer.  Grandma's room had to be warm for her bath.
      There was a bathroom in the house when I remember it, about 1922, added on the back porch long after the house was built in 1906, but Grandma wouldn't bathe in the claw-footed tub there.  In her book, that wasn't the way you took a bath.
      Sometime in the afternoon she'd take the china pitcher from the washbowl on the marble-top, and shuffle off to the kitchen where Aunt Maggie had a fire all day in the wood-burning stove.
      She dipped near-boiling water from the reservoir on the stove, filled her pitcher, and carried it back to the bedroom.  When I was very small, I'd be allowed to stay in her room until she was ready to begin the routine of her bath.
      From her dresser she got clean underthings--a pair of cotton knit knee-length pants with a drawstring at the waist and tatted lace at the knees, and a top-piece that she called a blouse sometimes, but mostly it was called a "sack".  There was a chemise and an underskirt. Then her clean dress.  All these she laid out on the bed.
      From the top drawer of the washstand came a cracked china saucer with a cake of Cashmere
Bouquet soap, and a cake of cooked-out sheep's tallow that she called mutton suet.
      Next came out a clean washrag--she never called it a "wash cloth"; it was forever a washrag--and a clean towel.  Then I was shooed out of the room so she could begin her bath.
      I've learned long since that it was strictly a stand-up bath, for my mother often told us small children how* Grandma bathed at the old washstand.
      I remember that as kids we'd bathe in the old tin tub before our fireplace.  How could Grandma get into that little china basin to take an all-over bath, we wondered.
      And I remember that after her bath, Grandmother always smelled faintly and deliciously of Cashmere Bouquet soap, because she could never rinse all of it off her at that old marble-topped washstand.
      When she had toweled herself dry, Grandma always rubbed a little bit of mutton suet on her hands and massaged it all over her body.  She didn't know it way back then, but today's body-beauty lotions make a big deal out of "lanolin"--the chief ingredient of sheep's tallow.
      One day in 1931 Grandma went through the usual routine of her bath, and when she opened the blinds, the sun was shining, so she walked out on the porch and sat in the sun on the swing there.  She had bathed at that washstand for about 60 years, and she was 91 years old.
      Caught her death of cold.  Died of pneumonia three days later.
      The washstand stayed in her room at Aunt Maggie's house until about 1946 when my brother James got married.  He and his wife Evelyn had a bathroom in their home, so the washstand graced their living room for nearly 40 years.
      When James died on March 1, his daughter Juanita let me take the washstand apart and put it in the back of the station wagon where it rode home with me from Louisiana.
      It's a tangible reminder of the Good Old Days that nobody wants to go back to, but everybody wants to remember.
*[John Gwin note: The summer of 1999 while we were visiting Mom and Dad in West Virginia, Dad told me the story again that his mother, my grandmother, had so often told him, of how his grandma took a bath--the part he had evidently decided not to include in the above 1984 rendition of the story:
"She'd strip to the waist and wash down as far as possible, then put her clean top-clothes on. 
"Then she'd strip from the waist down and wash up as far as possible.
"And then she'd wash Possible!"

And so I've learned a new chapter to the old story and met two new cousins (and I'm sure more will follow), whom I believe to be direct descendants of the original owners of Grandma's and Grandpa's old washstand. 

Dad died 7 May 2001, and my wife and daughter and I loaded up the washstand and brought it to New Mexico to be here where Mom is.  And Juanita, if you're reading this, e.mail me so we can get this set of furniture back together!  :-)

*Dad's story, "A Rose of Long Ago", is better than my abbreviated one.  Read it in his book, Once Upon Ago from the Charleston Daily Mail's  "Looking Back with Adrian Gwin", McClain Printing Co., St. Albans, WV, 1993; ISBN 0-87012-508-7; LOCCCN 93-91687.  Or stick around awhile, and maybe I'll get it scanned here on the page!

I, John M. Gwin, have a tracing of the signature of my great-grandpa, "John F. Vardaman", taken from the floor of the top drawer of the old wash stand, above, at 7 Keiffer Drive, St. Albans, WV.  I traced it there in June 1999, where the washstand had been given to my father, Adrian Sutton Gwin, who wrote a column about the furniture (below) published in the Charleston Daily Mail, the local newspaper for which he wrote for over fifty years. 

On 20 Aug 1999, I received an exciting e.mail from someone who, from all indications, is my third cousin, Ms. Dona Lee Vaughn.  She told me her paternal grandfather's mother, Mary Ann Flynn, is the sister of my paternal grandmother's mother, Julia Ann Flynn.   Dona's brother, Thomas Lee and also a third cousin, also wrote, verifying Dona's letter.  Earlier, it seems, both of them had read a post I had left at the Flynn Family Genealogical Forum stating my connection to the Flynn family and listing the several details my uncle, James B. Gwin II, had included in his collection.  One of those details had been that Julia Ann Flynn, my great-grandmother, had a younger sister, Mary Ann Flynn,who had married a John A. Lee in 1861.

Alright.  It turns out that Mary Ann's and Julia's respective husbands, John A. Lee and the aforementioned John Forsythe Vardaman, had served in the Civil War from Alabama.  John Lee had already married Mary Ann in 1861, but John Vardaman waited to marry Julia until after the war. I had heard the story often from my dad, who'd heard it from his mother and grandmother, of how his grandfather, John Vardaman, had been at Appomattox with Gen. Robert E. Lee at the surrender, serving as one of many scribes writing individual orders for safe passage for each Southern soldier to return to their homes and had walked--WALKED--back home to Alabama.

An interesting aside here: While stopped to rest at a farm house somewhere in Tennessee, I believe the story goes, he admired a rose bush in the front yard and asked for a rooting to take to his sweetheart. Wrapped in a piece of burlap in his backpack and kept watered during the trek, the moss rose was planted in what would become their front yard in Alabama, where it thrived.  Years and another rooting later, my dad took yet a third rooting of it from Aunt Maggie's house to his--our--home in West Virgina, where he planted it in our front yard.  When we moved across town, he moved it, too, and today, the Civil War Rose lives on.*

Back to the story:  In Alabama, he married his sweetheart, built his house, bought some bedroom furniture from a neighbor couple who were moving from there to Texas (the same bedroom suite, of course, with the wash stand which stayed in my parents' living room until Dad's death in 2001 and which now stands in our dining room in Las Cruces, NM, still waiting for Juanita) farmed the land, raised four kids, and served as Superintendent of Coosa County Schools.

But today the story gets better.  Dona Vaughn, this new-found third cousin, tells me that John A. Lee was also at Appomattox for the surrender--they even have his "safe conduct" paper from Appomattox--and that he and Mary Ann had moved to Texas in 1871 from Coosa County.  It's at this point that several pieces to the puzzle may fall together.

When John Lee married Mary Ann Flynn in 1861, John Vardaman already knew and was courting Julia Ann Flynn.  But the war interrupted things, and both Johns enlisted in the CSA from Coosa County, Alabama, (we know John Vardaman enlisted in 1861 and John Lee in 1862, each in a different unit) and served for the duration, somehow ending up together at the surrender on April 9, 1865.  And so I submit the following as an interesting and plausible theory

I'm betting they walked home together, and that being with John Lee during the walk home may even have somehow influenced and reinforced John Vardaman's intent to marry Lee's sister-in-law, Julia, that December of 1865.  The two couples were country neighbors for five or six years, and when the Lees moved to Wood Co., Texas, in 1871, it was their furniture that the Vardamans bought. 

What do you think?  Dona?  Tom? Others?

I'm certain your Plausible Theory is right. I'm sure Tom remembers, as I do, our being told as children that our great-grandfather John walked all the way home from Appomattox.  I remember hearing that when he got home, so filthy and covered with lice, that he wouldn't let anyone near him until he had bathed, and that his old clothes were burned.

Dona Vaughn

Uncle James Bassett Gwin, Jr.'s, daughter, Cousin Juanita K. Gwin Russell, and her husband Scott, came to our home in Las Cruces, NM, in September 2012, and picked up the old washstand to take it with them back to Louisiana to be reunited with its other two members of the original bedroom suite--the dresser and bed.  We had a wonderful (though all-too-short!) visit, and sent the old piece back home with mixed emotions.  After all, it had been in Dad's and Mom's--and then our--possession for nearly thirty years!  But it will be good knowing that all three pieces are back together again, and we look forward to seeing them when next we visit Scott and Juanita. 

Below is a copy of the note Dad typed back in 1984 just after he and Mom returned from James' funeral with the washstand to West Virginia.  Dad had taped it in a plastic cover on the inside of the door to the washstand's cabinet, and I took it out and scanned it yesterday when I disassembled the washstand for its trip home to Juanita's.