Burgess Wesley Lewis
1869 - 1955
Submitted by Arnold Lewis
August 8, 2017
“What seemed to be against me was usually for me, and what I thought was for me was generally against me.”
B. W. LEWIS (circa 1952 or 53)
“What I thought was against me….”
The tales I tell are, of course, put together from stories or comments by aunts and uncles, by a few more distant cousins, and my father, and each person seems to have had a slightly different experience, something natural, I suppose, with 10 children born over 20 year period, and various cousins, each with different experiences and personalities. I have attempted to understand them the best that I can, and hopefully there is something worth learning from them, if no more than the history of things.
My father used to say that he was thirteen – or fourteen – when he watched the trucks pull away loaded with furniture, and his that his father had borrowed my dad’s savings, $13.00, that he had earned by working as janitor at the one room school across the fields from their house on the Smithfield Rayland Road, sometimes walking on top of the snow with his brothers and sisters who attended there also. He built and started the fire in the coal stove that sat in the center of the room, carried in the bucket of water from the pump outside for the new day, and cleaned black boards and the building after school closed.
This was the same schoolhouse where his brother lost a couple fingers when he set off a dynamite cap during class. Later, this same brother had his leg hurt while filming the movie. He and a sister were the middle children in the chain of but ten links. And, as I have mentioned, the movies ended just after the bi-plane crashed in the orchard. Signs of what was to come, or not, the events happened, but nobody seemed to notice particularly, other than the feelings one has for children – or anyone – harmed by the accidents that very often could have been avoided.
The shift in everything took place when the trucks left the house, driven by cousins of BW, and watched by other cousins and business partners from across the road, this just after the old friends had gone through the house to make certain that nothing had been removed from the structure – something that amazed my grandfather and the family from that time on. The thought that he’d steal was an overwhelming defeat for a man who was really was active in his church and who seems to have meant well all along. However, little do we know of all that happened during the preceding years.
These business partners were co-owners of the banks that he had started, then used, and that finally had foreclosed on his life in so many ways. Some other cousins were driving the trucks - from the ice-house that they owned in Martin’s Ferry, and their son was the man who told me that my grandfather was a good man, and that I needed to know that and remember it. He had helped with the moving, too, and he also shook his head when thinking of the business partners who watched and ascertained that, indeed, nothing had been taken. This cousin, Johnny, would bring that up on occasion, almost in tears at the misery of it all.
However, life is what it is, and life moved on.
My father told of his mother’s selling a Christmas cactus from the wicker birdcage and plant stand that had been in one of the sunrooms. She sold it to the new buyers of the property for $20, an amazing sum at the time. Perhaps the new lady of the house realized the tenuousness of life, or perhaps she just wanted the cactus.
They drove away in the one car that he had left, a Ford that he kept until a few years before he died. How the rest of the family moved away, I don’t know. There had been quite a few people living in that house, but some had married and finally moved on.
A cousin of mine used to say that Grandpa’s negative thinking brought this loss, as he was then going around saying, “I’m going broke, going broke.” Cause or not, the statement was a valid thought. And, as with so much in the past, I wonder where the fall started? Where the turning point was? What was the thing that tripped him? However, having lived as long as I have, I realize that those points are not generally seen as any particular stumbling for long term, but are seen as a stumbling block that might still be repaired, or that might be recovered from.
Or, that the particular event, such as moving might be the point of no return. We have no way of knowing, but the devastations are real and valid for those experiencing them, and the view from that particular point in time is shrouded in mists of tears and sadness, with no thought of the long term, or even wondering if a long term exists at all, often believing that it does not.
Somewhere along the line, the grocery business had ended. The auto dealerships, also ended, as had other businesses including mining coal. Coal was still mined, but someone else then owned the equipment and the land. Did some of the business partners benefit from his loss? I have no way of knowing now, and things might have been alluded to such as this, but they were quietly said, almost embarrassingly said, as if saying them showed weakness – or, being wrong by making an excuse. Again, I have found that very often one person’s loss may well be someone else’s definite gain, involved or not. But, that does not change the fact that the one losing created a system leading to the loss. Did he not listen to that still small voice within? Did he not pay attention to the events around him until too late? Did he listen when he should have decided on his own? We have no way of knowing the inner workings of any other person. We can only guess or surmise.
It seems that the beginning of the loss is at first ignored, and the results of the loss are not recognized by the many or the few until it is too late, and the loss remains forever.
After living so very well for the area and the day, the loss and the move forever altered life for those involved. No longer did they own multiple cars, a Delco electric system, an orchard nor lawns and gardens designed by specialists, a house decorated by decorators.
The furniture, as said before, lasted for a long time, and was enjoyed wherever it was by the family. The things remained, but the repository of the things did not.
From this house, they moved to one owned by another coal company; an old house where the oil lamps were again a necessity; where it was said that the wind blew in the front door and out the back; where Grandma built another sun porch for her plants using windows that she found in the barn, and the kitchen contained the beautiful coal cook stove and her painted congoleum rugs rather than new ones; where the kerosene stove was on another porch, and the gasoline washing machine was in a different basement.
This house was on top of the hill going out of Fernwood to Bloomingdale, now long gone, of course. It, then, became the residence of the many adult children and spouses or cousins arriving for the summer, and life itself went on, but it went on very differently, and this is where BW seems to have learned about “for and against.”
BW had said many times that he considered suicide. He said how sad he was, how almost mortified he was at the prospects, but he said he had no choice but to go on, as who would take care of all of the children and his family? He had this conversation on different occasions when I was young, but old enough to remember.
Who indeed? It seems not to have dawned on the elder children that they could be responsible for helping him, but some seemed to continue to expect him to help them. The eldest, as mentioned before, was married to a dentist, who did help to some degree in spite of the evaluations of his tightness and personality, and I never heard Grandpa say a negative word about him. Doc and family later moved to Washington, D.C.. But, they sent their children to Ohio for the summers, and so the ebb and flow of people from the house continued.
It was many years before I learned that Doc moved to Washington so that he could be closer to the headquarters of the KKK, in which he was very active, and that their family friend was close to J. Edgar Hoover, and the connections between the groups was more from the F.B.I to the Klan rather than the other way around. Is this the reason that Doc’s family in Cadiz, whom I met many years later, had little to say about him? “Oh yes, he was this person’s brother, the two doctors.” That was it. No more, no less. And, this was told to me by a lady who could not have been more diametrically opposed to the stands or actions of the Klan, but who was a part of Doc’s extended family. I doubt that very many other of his family had his beliefs. He rarely visited Cadiz, I understand, but their daughter would stay with other family members in Steubenville while her brother stayed with the Lewis family.
How did Grandpa and Grandma sort this out in their minds? Here was BW attending church services including the AME Churches, or any other, and making sure that he did no harm to a group of people who had little chance, while he had a son-in-law who was working to limit the hope and chances of this group as well as any other who did not fit his concept of perfection – as hateful as the concept was and remains.
The next brother, or son if you will, the one who had lost the house on Wheeling Island and had married sisters, began working in a traveling job, selling across the United States. He and his wife drove and enjoyed life as they choose. Many years later, he stopped at our house and was visiting my father when I got home from work. My dad asked him, “If you could live in any state you wanted, which would it be?” He replied that he could live in any state he wanted. But, he’d choose Montana because of the space and sky. I thought at the time, I am sure you’d like the space. His life certainly had been a mixed bag.
Just after he left, my father said, “You know, I could never like him.” I asked him why?
My father told me this: “He’d come home and pull a roll of bills out of his pocket, shift them through his fingers, and smile about his success. He drove a new Oldsmobile. I was very shy, and we had nothing. I had the money to catch the train and streetcar from Fernwood to go to high school in Steubenville and then Wintersville, and I walked down the hill and then back up in the afternoon. Finally, I got the courage to ask him for fifty cents to go to a movie. He got out the roll of cash, and looked at me, and said, “You have to earn it, kid,” and walked away.
But, as in all families, there were other brother’s and sisters who loved him very much, and helped him as he needed it. My father did not, nor did all of the others.
I think of my father as the black sheep of the family. He walked a straighter and narrower path than most of the others – although there were some definite twists and turns in his path, and he was no more perfect nor correct than anyone else. Nobody is perfect, and most of us are a long way from it. We need not judge the others, only observe to see what we might learn.
Grandpa returned to his former trade, becoming a huckster again, traveling to the same places where he had lived when having money and working his way up in the world. He’d go to Wheeling to the Market House, and buy whatever he could buy, put it all in the Ford, and drive around the area stopping at houses or in neighborhoods in Steubenville, and sell the fruits and vegetables from his car. Imagine the feelings he must have had to overcoming with his thoughts to sell to the same people whom had known him in prior times. But, he also might have thought that those people might be a better market for him, because they did know him.
I have met a few people over time, now quite a few years ago, who asked if I were related to him, and when I’d say that I was – never quite knowing where the conversation might lead, I was invariably told, “He was a good man. They used to own an airplane – or have a lot of money, or whatever. But, when he’d come by, he’d offer the kids a piece of apple or other fruit and ask us to tell our mothers he was there. Sometimes, I know, either my mother or someone else might not have the money to buy, but he’s just give it to us and drive on. There were many times he never got paid, and he never said a word about it.”
Grandpa planted a large garden of lima beans, and people would shell them when ripe for him to sell. Some of the family worked in the field with him, but some did not. Those who did remembered who had not.
As his children aged, there were more marriages and divorces. There was some drinking. There were a lot of things going on, and I have no idea of how either Grandpa or Grandma adjusted. Perhaps, they had simply learned that, indeed, life brings many events we like and many we really dislike, but most are in the middle. Judging them will bring more pain than not judging. Accepting is truly easier than judging or working against someone. Loving is just that. Being kind and open to differences, even though the differences might be painful or not understood, is much easier than being upset about what cannot or will not change anyway.
The divisions of before, during, and after the fall from money remained many years among the siblings. Each saw a different event, or saw the same event through different eyes and from different experiences. Most remained close or semi-close, and there were absolute breaks among the brothers and sisters. At times, the breaks were based upon money, an all too often event, it seems, but certainly not always. There are always reasons for breaks and disconnects. Sometimes it is much better to simply move on and let go, probably more often that thought.
The younger had very different views of life from the elders.
But, when Grandpa told me that what was for him was often against him, and what was against him was for him, I had no idea of what he meant. Much later, I believe he may have meant that the wealth harmed more than helped the children affected by it, and he remained responsible for the problems that he had caused. He did, indeed, not treat his children absolutely fairly in an objective sense, but he did do what he could to make up for his errors in positive and negative ways. He helped those he believed he had harmed. And, he did not so much ‘not help’ the younger as much as he thought he wanted to make them stronger.
Or, this is what I think he meant.
That lesson is still valuable, and it did, indeed, save my life when I, too, considered, ending it all. That lesson has been a mainstay in my life for many years, and it is something I have taught when working with others. Knowing that little gem has helped many people whom I know. We all face many serious problems, but knowing his lesson helps us get through those problems more logically – not necessarily with less pain, but with more objectivity and a more open mind to various possible reasons his “for and against” lesson that may be important to know at any given time.
If people would understand this, there would be fewer battles and much less hate. There would be support the differences, and compassion given. People might look for the good rather than the bad in others or situations. We’d have nicer nations and worlds.
The gains were great on either end, and the losses were great also, but when we look at the spectrum, we can seriously consider the adages and moralistic approaches we have learned, and dig deeper. We can see that we are responsible and accountable for our thoughts as well as actions, and that we have choices in our reactions to either the “good or bad.” And, with proper thought, we should discern that what we are declaring one or the other, is, quite probably, the reverse.
It has taken me a long time and multiple events and conversations to finally grasp what was, to me, hidden content of the lives of my grandparents, aunts and uncles. I wish that I could have learned more easily and earlier, and neither sat in judgment or nor given misevaluations of who and what they all were, and respected and valued more what each brought to my life. I did not. I wonder how many do learn earlier? It would be better if we did, but I doubt that many do. And, some never do, I am afraid.
Really, I think often that I am glad I had this family of eccentrics and differing views, and that I was shy enough to listen rather than talk, and that finally I asked questions, albeit judiciously. Most people live ordinary lives, look askance at differences or behaviors not understood, sit in seats of judgment rather than simply accept life as it comes along. Judgment divides, acceptance unites. It is better to unite – or to walk away from the ones judging and simply live by finding people whom we love and live a life of living. Most of the rules we are taught are better off being strongly considered before applying in our own lives.
First, accept or eliminate, and then live.
“What seemed to be against me was usually for me, and what I thought was for me was usually against me.” Burgess Wesley Lewis, circa 1953.
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