Letters In The Attic
H. Joseph Grafius
In April 1999 I received an unexpected phone call from my Uncle Jerry regarding a documentary on the Underground Railroad a friend of his had seen on television and there was mention of a Grafius in the movie. Uncle Jerry hadn’t seen it and knowing I was the family historian, he wanted to bring it to my attention. I explained I was aware of this documentary titled "Follow The North Star" because I had helper with some of the research. I told him I'd get him a copy of the video. A few days latter I made a trip to my uncle’s in White Deer. I talked with Jerry about parts of the documentary and some of the characters such
as Thomas and Abraham Updegraff I explained that the Grafius family and Updegraff families were friends and neighbors originally in York, PA. then in Williamsport. In fact Thomas Updegraff and Abraham Grafius each married an Elizabeth Rothrock who were cousins in York. Several days passed after my visit with Uncle Jerry when I got another phone call from him. Uncle Jerry wanted to show me some letters he had been saving. Because of our previous conversation it had jogged his memory about some letters relating to the Updegraff family he had in his possession. Back in the summer his of 1957 he and my father, Thomas Gratius, were hired to work on a storage shed located near the banks of the Susquehanna
River, west of Williamsport on South Reach Road. This property was just purchased by Nelson Phillips who had moved from Boston to take on a position at the Armour Leather Co. m Newberry. The house on the property is the present day Thomas Lightfoot Inn. Mr. Nelson s father-in-law, Joseph B. Hoyt, lived next door and decided he wanted his house renovated by my uncle s company. While Uncle Jerry was tearing up the attic floor boards that were 12 inches by 12 foot virgin rough cut planks, he found a bundle of letters wrapped in tissue paper. As he carefully unwrapped the tissue paper he noticed the letters were date from the l860’s. The main subject of the letters was a William B. Updegraff. A couple of the letters
referenced him as a private in the 37°‘ Regiment PA Volunteers. Uncle Jerry thought there might be some historical significance to these Civil War era letters so he sent them to the United States War Department for their opinion. Several months later the letters were retumed to him with the reply that they were more of a social value than war related. Uncle Jerry then stuck the letters in a desk where they remained for the next forty—three years. My uncle said now was the time to relinquish the letters. He was sure I would find a proper home for them. So began my search for the answers to the letters in the attic.
Over.the years I have found the Lycoming County Courthouse to be an excellent source for
historical information as well as the James V. Brown Library. From these sources I was able to gather enough facts to identify William B. Updegraff his family background and the life at that time. · William B. Updegraff was born in 1844 or 1845. The sources don’t give the exact date. Hrs. parents were Daniel and Catherine Bennett Updegraff His grandparents were Daniel, Sr. and Catherine Palmer Updegraff and his great grandparents were Derrick and Susan Stricker Updegraff. Before moving any further with William I’ll take a few minutes to tell more about his ancestors.
Derrick Updegraff was born in Germantown, a section of Philadelphia, in 1731. His parents were Herman and Mary Ann Lowden Updegraff. The family was of the Quaker faith to begin with but some made changes and adjustments over time. In the 1740’s or 50"s the family moved to York, PA. which was a newly established settlement at that time. Derrick married Susan Striker on Nov.28, 1758 in York. They had nine children. After the Revolutionary War, Derrick bought 313 acres of land along the Susquehanna River in what was then Northumberland County. This stretch of land was known as the "Long Reach". In
1789 Derrick and his family traveled overland on Indian trails and finally down the Culbertson Path to . where Duboistown is now located. He then crossed the river to his property and built a log cabin and cleared the land for farming. This is where he raised his family.
Ten years later, after this area became part of Lycoming County, one of Derrick’s nephews,
Thomas Updegraff decided to move up from York also. Thomas had visited Uncle Derrick before and wanted to start his own business as a farmer in the new settlement of Williamsport. Through the help from his Uncle Derrick and his old friend Jacob Gratius, who had already been in Williamsport a couple of years, he was able to do so. Thus began the two branches of the Updegraff families in the Williamsport area.
Derrick and Susan had about nine children. With their children’s help they were able to clear as much land as they could farm. When Derrick passed away on June 20, 1815 he left a third of his land to his one son, Daniel. Daniel Updegraff Sr. was bom March 9, 1770 in York, PA. He married Catherine Palmer on Aug. 6, 180.1. They had at least six children with Daniel, Jr. being the youngest. He was bom March 3, w 1817. The family continued farming and planting fruit uees on their plot of land. After Daniel, Sr. died on Feb. 16, 1854 a portion of the land was willed to Daniel, Jr.
With the advent of the West Branch Canal in 1834 which passed right by the Updegraff ·
homestead, the family was able to ship their farm goods to Williamsport faster and friends and relatives could visit more frequently. Daniel Updegraff, Jr. was married to Catherine Bennett on March 17, 1842. Catherine was born in 1823 and grew up in a nearby area called Level Comers, now known as Linden. Daniel and Catherine had seven children: Emma C. (1842), William B. (1844), Catherine (1847), Fremont (1848), Augustus Wilson (1850), Helen (1852), and Abraham (1854). The family continued their tradition of farming, which included all the children doing most of the work. This work was very physical, mundane, and time consuming. The highlights in their lives were an occasional church social or a trip into town.
The nation was going through some troubling times in the 1850’s because of internal conflicts
between the norther states and the southern states on the issue of slavery. The Updegraff families in Williamsport and on the Long Reach were abolitionists and operated safe houses for the Underground Railroad. Eventually the southe states voted to secede from the Union. In April 1861 the Civil Warrn started. When William B. Updegraff became a teenager he was hearing stories from various visitors and relatives who traveled around the country and they talked about sights and new inventions they encountered. This would be interesting to any farm boy who spent his days pulling weeds and shoveling manure. Several of William’s relatives joined the army in 1862 when it was seen that the rebellion was not going to end soon. One of the letters to William was from a cousin, Albert , dated September 14, 1862
that says he just arrived in Harrisburg by train. "We just came back from supper. It was good. If it’s this good all the time I can get along. We are about a mile from Camp Curtin. There is 40,000 boys in it. We have 2,000 in this yard. I have a lot to write on what I’ve seen so far. I will not go back home for a farm." In another letter from a friend, C. M. Fisher, who was stationed near Camp Monroe, is dated December 7, 1862. Mr. Fisher writes: "We’re encamped within about 21/2 miles of a rebble camp. We have to take one whole company of armed men to guard the men who goes out to chop wood. Our pickets have skirmishes
with the rebble pickets about every three or four nights. We have long been wishing to get a peep at some of old Jeff`s (Davis) boys and no doubt we will soon be gratified."
In January 1863 William wrote to his friend, Jacob, who was in the army. William said he was
sorry for not writing sooner but he didn’t know where to send the letter. It was difficult for the mail to catch up with the troops who were on the move. William writes about "going over the River last night to a dance and we got some yam yam." He also talked about going sleigh riding every "knight". "Last knight we had another snow so we can goose it now on a git up and dust." William mentions that he and a friend had a great mind to join the army also, "1f we come there Old Jeff will have to leave right strait for down comes his shanty or any other men that will fight for him." In closing he said he had to "clean out that Eternaley Stable." "It has new com stalks in it and about 10,000 on top. Please answer soon and tell me about the war soon." This was all it took to spark a fire under William. A year later when Robert E. Lee was marching his army towards Pennsylvania, nineteen year old William was ready to jump at the chance to answer Governor Curtin’s call for all able body men to come to the defense of their state. William enlisted in the local 37"‘ Regiment, Company "G" PA Volunteer Militia on June 2, 1863. He was shipped to Harrisburg to protect the capitol and remain active for one hundred days.
The next four letters were all dated between July 26 and July 29, 1863 and all addressed to .
William. This was about three weeks after the battle of Gettysburg and word had certainly spread on how devastating that three day battle was as far as casualties. William’s sister, Mrs. E. C. Fessler, writes that it was nice to hear from him finally but was sorry to hear he was sick. She said they received the money and clothes he sent back home. The folks were done harvesting and "halling in." "Sam mowed some timothy down Saturday. Mother has not been well since you left. She was worse last week until we heard from you. Ives tobacco is gone up. He has quit it. He is going along with the boat when it comes back. Mother has just got out all of your pictures a looking first at one then at another." In ending his sister says, "l never wrote
such writing in my life. I have a peck of fleas on me and two million flies in my face, so between them and mother gabbling you couldn't expect anything better. You must excuse it. Your old sister E. C. F." The next letter to William was from his cousin, Abraham, dated July 27,1863. This letter was sent from Long Reach so that meant Abraham had already completed his enlistment and was home. Abraham apologizes for not writing sooner but didn’t know where to direct it until the family received his last letter. Abraham says, things are passing of here very smooth. Everything is lovely and the goose is hanging high. The girls is all right far as I know. I attend to all I can and the rest is assisted by some one else. Newberry lost one of her young girls on Wednesday night which was Lizzy Longan. But never the less the goose hangs high. ln closing he adds, "l want you to write me a letter as long as a studs prick immediately "
The next letter dated July 28,1863 is again from William`s sister. Mrs. E.C. Fessler. She said she was sorry for not being able to send him some provisions but might box something up later unless he was coming home soon. "We heard you were coming back as soon as the railroad was completed. Our folks are working at their timothy hay. Snoop and Pap are halling into the barn while Henry and old Hamon is hoeing the tobacco. Henry said I should tell you to come back in time to hall out the manure." His sister goes on to tell him what news they've heard about the war. "General Morgans was taken with his whole force and that General Meades army had cut Lee`s army into. Also that Fort Sumpter was taken but it has not been continued yet. There is some hopes that the north will subdue the south yet." Something else of interest in her letter is a mention of Uncle Tom stopping by that day. Not everybody was in favor of the war. She writes, "mother is trying to make him understand matters and things about you and the war but it is rather a difficult matter. Uncle Tom says you must be careful of your money. George Leonard sent home one more coat than his own. You better not show him much money." The last paragraph talks about Pap going to town to get stamps and paper. Mrs. Fisher gave lilly cents towards the same so her son John would be able to write home as well. She asked William to write for John or lend him stamps if he needs them because he‘s so backwards.
The last letter in this time sequence is from a friend named Flo and is dated .July 29 1863. lt is addressed to William in Green Castle, care of Colonel Trout. She writes: "l received yours ol`the 2.l"° ami perused its contents with all the pleasure imaginable." She was beginning to think he did not care enough to write. lt continues, "Oh dear but this is a warm day my face feels like a boiled lobster and looks as red as a beet. We are going to have a grand festival in the city of Newberry at our church on the 6th of next month for the benefit of the peoples in general and our Sabbath School in particular. l anticipate having a grand time. Don‘t you wish you could be here to see the fun?" The next part ol`the letter concerns William's letter
regarding him maybe having to break his promise about coming home with the rest of the boys. "William B. Updegraff if you don‘t come home when you are dismissed l will be as rad as l can be and l will never believe a word you tell me again. l would much rather you would not be a soldier any longer than the three months that you have volunteered for. lt is rather a dangerous occupation to suit my fastidious taste." Flo talks about going down on the Reach to see his family and sister, Em, showed her a picture William had sent her. "I have not one picture that looks like you. 1 don‘t think that ambrotype looks like you do anymore." She ends by apologizing for her writing and all the mistakes and says,"please answer soon and
tell me all the news, Your devoted friend Flo." From the faint writing on the envelope l think her name was Flora Brown. `
We aren‘t sure what William was writing about at that time other than the army was perhaps more appealing than returning back to the farm life. As it turned out, William did come home the following month at the end of his enlistment. Although he didn't like the idea of facing the thought of being a farmer for the rest of his life he also was homesick and knew his family needed him.
The next letter from the bundle is actually a song written by William for Lizzie Updegraff and is dated January 7"‘, 1864. This is an army song titled “hoist Up The Flag". I believe there are several versions of this tune depending on what unit you were in. An excerpt nom one of the stanzas goes: " Our troops at richmond were under good training, They were under the command of General McCLellan, Our troops at richmond were anxious for a fight, But the rebles they were cowardly and kept out of sight. Chorus: Hoist up the flag and long may it wave, Over the union our honor to save, Up with the Flag and long may it wave, Over the union the home of the brave". lt can be seen that William maintained his patriotism and that his thoughts were still on the war and the army.
On February 8, 1864 William wrote to a friend named Samuel. He said he was sorry for not
making it up to see him but he was sick. By the time he feels better the buck hunting will probably be over and it wouldn't be any fun to come up there just to run around the woods. William says how well the singing school is going. He also mentions they've had no parties this winter at all. He did attend an affair at Will Mahaffey’s and was invited to another but that was when he got sick.
The last two letters are from two female admirers. The winter was over and summer brought out the people to socialize. The first one is dated June 13, 1864 and ls from Carrie Griffin to William. "l hope you will pardon me for being so bold as to enter into a correspondence with you. But as this is leap year l think I am justified in so doing. lt would be my greatest delight to meet you and become acquainted. l have met you on the street and was captivated in seeing you. 1 would like to meet you next Monday evening at 8 o clock at Herrington's saloon. Write and let me know. Don't fall." This seems rather bold for those times.
The other letter or note was undated to William from Ella. "You may find l was somewhat surprised when l received your note but having overcome my surprise I will try to answer your note. you think I was very cruel not to leave one for you". She thought he was joking when he said he wanted to meet her and she would be much obliged to meet with him. I'm sure William courted many girls over the next several years until he found the right one.
On December 16, 1868 William B. Updegraff was married to Annie E. Elliot the daughter of
Ralph Elliot and the sister of ex·mayor, William G. Elliot. Annie was born in 1849. William and Annie had a daughter Emily, born in l869 but she died on September 7,1872. A son Ralph was born in May 1879 but he too died ten months later on March 15, 1880. William and Annie had no other children that I know oi Although the other Updegraff families were prolific, William and Annie had to play the role of aunt and uncle for the remainder of their lives. William eventually would be able to break away from farm life and embark on a business career. In 1891 he and his brother-, Fremont, enter into partnership to build and
operate the Updegraff Hotel. THe building was on the Fourth and Pine Streets in
Williamsport. It was the largest and finest hotel in downtown Williamsport in its day. The hotel replaced the Hepburn House on that site which previously was the Doebler·House. Later the Updegraff Hotel became known as the Ross Hotel then in 1975 the Center City Building.
Annie Updegraff died on September 9,1896 leaving William to live out his life on the family
homestead where he helped care for his father, Daniel, who the passed away on February 16,.1903. William lived another fifteen years operating the hotel until his death on May 18, 19l8. His brother Fremont died seven months later. William was buried in his parent’s plot in the Wildwood Cemetery along with his wife and brother. The family’s tombstones are unique. They are round but in a drum shape and are located near the cemetery office. That staff at the cemetery office said there aren't any others like them in the cemetery. After the death of William and Fremont it is assumed that other family members took over the house and property on Reach Road. The last person bearing he Updegraff name was Alma Brown Updegraff, he widow of the John B. Updegraff in 1932. In 1943 H. Merrill Winner and his wife, Katheryne Bennett purchase the property along with the old homestead property. Kathryne was a direct descendent of Thomas A. and Derrick Updegraff. In 1954 the family decided to move back to Williamsport and sold a part of their property to Nelson Phillips. This portion became the Thomas Lightfoot Inn. The house where the letters were found was sold to Joseph B. Hoyt in 1967, Mr Phillips father in law. In 1864 the property was subdivided and purchased by James D. Wither. His widow still resides there.
This brings us back to the beginning of my story. My hopes of being able to locate a descendent of William B. Updegraff weren't possible because they had no children who survived to my knowledge. The answer as to why the letters were hidden under the attic floorboards can only be speculated. william chose those personal letters to stow away. These weren't just from girlfriends; they were to and from friends and family. Perhaps they were just stored there for safe keeping during one of the floods such as the one in 1865, then forgotten about. one can only guess. For whatever reasons, these memories were wrapped in tissue paper, lost in time and kept safe in the attic.
Maybe it was fate that these letters were found by my uncle. Maybe the letters needed to reach my hands to tell William's story. Although I could not find a direct descendent to William I was able to locate two living descendents of the family William belonged to. Two of the letters written to William were from his sister, Emma C. Fessler. Emma C. Updegraff married Joseph Fessler. They had two children, Howard G. and Carrie M. Fessler. I couldn't track Carrie's line but I was able to follow Howard G. Fessler though. He married Ella M. Winner and they had a son, Henry M. Fessler. Henry married Edna M and they had two children, Robert H. and Barbara Jean Fessler. Howard died January 19, 1929. Henry M died August 30, 1960 and is buried in Picture Rocks Cemetery. Robert became a doctor but passed away at a young age on June 21, 1977. He left two sons in Easton, PA. Barbara Jean was married to Frank Wolyniec, Jr and she still lives in Williamsport. I made contact with her on April 9, 2000 to tell her of the letters her great grandmother had tenderly written her brother, William B. Updegraff, one hundred and thirty years ago. During our conversation Mary Lib Stockwell's name came up as being her cousin. This she said was through the Winner line. I then pointed out that their relationship goes back much further than that. They are related to the Updegraff line. Their great great grandfathers were brother, Thomas A. and Daniel Jr Updegraff. Mary Lib's parents were Katheryne and H. Merrill Winner. Katheryne's parents were Laura U. Mahaffey and William Bennet. Laura's parents were William J. Mahaffey and Catherine Updegraff. catherine's father Thomas A. Updegraff. I feel my journey is not complete bridging the gap in history. The letters in the attic have given Barbara Jean a family history that was lost.
H. Joseph Grafius