Sunday, August 13, 2000

``The grandest sight I ever saw/Will in my memory flow./Eight thousand handkerchiefs in wave/Like drifting flakes of snow.''

So wrote Dorothy Cullis in a poem in which she attempted to capture the soul-stirring excitement of famed evangelist Billy Sunday's 1913 crusade in Wilkes-Barre. Cullis, who lived with husband John on Kidder Street, often turned to poetry to express her thoughts on the big events of her life.

These days, Cullis' great-granddaughter, Linda Brown of Los Gatos, Calif., reads and ponders on those poems as part of her genealogical studies. While Brown describes herself as ``grasping at straws while searching for information on the Cullis family,'' one value of the poems is clear - they offer powerful insights into the thinking, the values and the beliefs of a century-ago Wyoming Valley ancestor.

Billy Sunday wasn't the only subject Dorothy Cullis wrote about. The death of coal miner William Branch in a 1914 explosion brought forth a tribute beginning ``Then suddenly the Master called.'' It is a 28-line poem portraying Cullis' fellow churchman Branch as a Bible-reading Methodist man and ``follower of the lamb'' whose life and death demonstrated the importance of being ready at all times for God's summons.

Cullis' belief in the godly nature of work and family obligations is evident in several of her poems. In ``Salvation Train'' she portrays Christ as ``the head engineer'' of a train to Heaven, but it is a train whose fare is something more than cash. ``Have you worked all the day/For your family and home?/No other enjoyment you share.''

The conviction that God's mercy is boundless (no less than a dislike of drinking and smoking) shines through ``Brother John.'' This one-time reprobate who used to come home ``With tobacco and beer a pennyless bum/And the juice running over my chin'' tells how his eyes were finally opened and he became ``happy and free.''

The Billy Sunday poem was Dorothy Cullis' most ambitious production at 19 stanzas and 76 lines. Newspaper accounts of the time say Sunday's local backers bought a South Main Street property, tore down a house and built a whole new building for the crusade. An estimated 668,000 people attended over seven weeks, and visitors donated the then-immense sum of $23,500.

The poem gives testimony to the excitement Cullis evidently felt as Sunday thundered about what awaited ``the drunkard'' and ``the careless mother'' while the huge audience waved handkerchiefs in tribute and thousands of latecomers outside passed their donations through the windows.

``Mr. Sunday preached with power divine/He labored deep and sharp/His words increased the Christian's faith/And pierced the sinner's heart.'' ... ``The workmen waved and cheered him/As far as they could see./And sang `The Brewer's Big Horses/Can't Run Over Me.' ''

The genealogical value of such poems?

They show us that sometimes fascinating information about an ancestor lies far beyond the census forms, the newspaper clippings and the wills. Personal writing that tells us what stirred a long-ago relative to action or to tears can be the most illuminating of all.

Searching: Warren B. Bintiff of Pennsylvania wants to locate descendants of grandmother Jennie Hoffman of Shickshinny, married 1909 to Burnett Bintiff, eventually moving to New Jersey. Her sisters were Mary Rex, Elizabeth Mourey, Sarah Tidd, Phoebe James and Emma Tidis/Titus. Contact Warren Bintiff by postal mail at 323 Wood St., Richmondale, PA 18421; or by e-mail at snapper@nep.net.

Beth Anne Jones-Berger of North Carolina, a former resident of Pennsylvania, is trying to find ancestors of Harold Edward Jones and Rachel Jones of Forty Fort. Harold's parents were Edward Jones and Ida Mae Davis of Old Forge. Rachel's parents were Carolyn and Reese Jones of Taylor. Contact Jones-Berger at bbberger@aol.com.

Local History Moment: A book published 47 years ago is a virtual time capsule of Wyoming Valley life of the mid-20th century. It's ``This is Wilkes-Barre,'' put together by the League of Women Voters in 1953. Leaf through its pages and you will learn of everyday life in an era now fading into history. Sample data: A ton of chestnut coal, sufficient to heat a house for a month, cost $18.90; the largest number of local families made between $2,000 and $3,500 a year; there were 13 Catholic grade and high schools in Wilkes-Barre and Kingston alone. A copy is on the shelves at the Bishop Library of the Luzerne County Historical Society.

News Notes: As the summer draws to a close, consider joining the Northeast Pennsylvania Genealogical Society. Its meetings, suspended during the summer, resume in September. Membership is $15 a year. Send your check to the society at P.O. Box 1776, Shavertown, PA 18708. While anyone - member or not - may attend the monthly meetings, as a member you will also receive the informative quarterly newsletter and have access to the society's library.

Retired history professor Gwen Midlo Hall is drawing raves for her compilation on CD ROM of documents on thousands of 19th-century slaves in Louisiana. Historians are calling her work potentially highly valuable for many African-Americans tracing their families.

Said the Associated Press, ``In her searches, she has found court transcripts with testimony from slaves, documents that recount how slaves either bought or were granted their freedom, and even papers listing their birth countries and languages they spoke. ...''

Yet another state - Alabama - has opened up adoption records to adults from adoptive families. Until the law took effect two weeks ago, said the Associated Press, ``the original birth certificates of adopted children could only be unsealed with a court order.'' Former adoptive children in more and more states are now petitioning for their records to be made available to them as they seek to unlock their family histories.

``Out on a Limb'' may be found online at timesleader.com.

Have you solved some tough genealogical problems in your research?

Do you have some tips you'd like to share with others? Would you like to report a success story? Drop me a line here at the paper. I'll get in touch with you and help you bring the benefits of your experience to others.

Tom Mooney, The Times Leader, 15 N. Main St., Wilkes-Barre, Pa. 18711. Email is tmooney@leader.net