by Lauren Sangster
The year 2020 marks the 100th year the Howell family has been gathering to celebrate the birthday of William Epperson Howell, my great- grandfather (born July 24, 1866). He began the tradition of visiting the grave of Nancie Lee (nee Crawford) Howell, my great-grandmother, on his first birthday after her death (September 11, 1919) at one of the family cemeteries, the Howell Cemetery. The property borders the Estill/Lee county lines. That first picnic, family members gathered near Nancie Lee’s grave with home cooked dishes to share. Thus began the tradition of the annual Howell Family Reunion that has endured these one hundred years.
The year 2020 also marks a strange new world. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and health concerns for family members who regularly attend the reunion, it was sadly decided not to hold a celebration at this time.
Cousin Scotty Durbin has been quoted as saying that as long as he is alive there will be a family reunion, even if it is just himself and one other person. Scotty was unable to attend the reunion this year. However, to commemorate the 100th reunion, with the true grit and determination of cousin Scotty, two family members went to the Howell Cemetery and socially distanced at the grave of Nancie Lee. Cousin Bettye Baker stood at the angel monument with a handwritten sign reading, “100th Howell Reunion 1920-2020”, while cousin Gregory C. Mays, our current President of the Howell Cemetery Fund, took the photo. That’s still a reunion of sorts! (Photo 1 – W.E. Standing with the Angel in c. 1920 if the photo prints okay!, and Photo 2 – Bettye Baker holding 2020 Reunion Sign beside the Angel)
In lieu of our special 100th gathering in July, I’ve collected memories from a few of the Howell descendants who have attended the reunion over the years. I have read the words shared to me and imagined listening to each family member telling their stories in person.
Cousin Martha McKnight Robinson discusses “The Book”. “…. The Ledger contains signatures of attendees at the reunions. The earliest signature page is 1948. It’s evident that pages prior to that [year] are missing… The Book was signed in pencil for many years, and [the names have] held up well.”
Cousin Martha has fond memories of the evenings after the reunion when her family would gather at either her grandmother Lou Howell McKnight’s or Dorothy McKnight Mays’ home when the question was often asked, “Who did you get to talk with today?”
Martha, “Each year, The Book would be consulted and anyone officially identified would be added…. Looking at signatures evokes memories of good people. My cousins were my best friends. First cousins, second cousins, and sometimes once or twice removed. Those genealogy terms weren’t used… good ole ‘cousin’ worked just fine! I’m confident the ancestor who grabbed something handy to start recording attendance had no notion how long that ledger would survive!”
Martha is the current keeper of The Book, and hopes to faithfully return annually to record signatures for a few more years. You go, Martha!
Martha says, “Somewhere along the history of the Howell family and friends reunion it became customary to ‘pass the hat’, literally…. W.E. may have started the tradition to pay for Nancie Lee’s angel tombstone…. As long as I remember, the money has been designated for upkeep of the Crawford cemetery and the Howell cemetery on the home place property in Crystal Kentucky.”
About the seven-foot angel monument, the story goes that W.E. bought the statue at a discounted price after the original purchaser rejected it when he discovered the arm of the angel was broken. The morning of the day the angel was installed at Nancie Lee’s gravesite, Doctor Tracy Wallace rode his horse by the cemetery on his way to make house calls. He couldn’t know that what he saw riding home past the cemetery that same evening was a tall white marble angel statue, and not a ghost glowing in the moonlight. He startled and was nearly thrown from his horse!
The family reunion was moved from Nancie Lee’s grave site after several years, presumably to accommodate the growing brood of family and friends attending each year, with 1951 seeing the highest attendance of 151 folk.
Reunions were later held in places such as Aunt Lou’s House, Bear Track Park, and in Lee County at Cave Hollow. When I was a child the reunions moved to Jacobson Park in Lexington. I can remember so many family members showing up that we overflowed the pavilion we’d rented for the occasion. Natural Bridge Park in Slade, Ky. was one of my favorite places to attend the reunion. A few years ago the reunion was held at Sandhill Christian Church in Irvine, where cousin James Howell was a minister at one time.
Cousin Greg shares, “My favorite memories were when I was probably 5 to 10 years old, and the reunion was across the creek at my mama’s, Lula Howell McKnight. The highlight of my year was wading in the creek with cousins from all parts of the country. I remember the picnic shed, built especially for the reunion, with tables full of food and the constant humming of conversation and laughter echoing up the hollow…. Something else that always stood out to me about my Mama and her siblings (Uncle Everett, Uncle Billy, Aunt Berdie) that I remember was their humble and kind spirit. I am so proud of my heritage!!!”
I’m glad Greg remembers his mama, aunts and uncles with such fondness. I remember my papaw, Everett Ray Howell as humble and kind. He was a hard working man; quiet…except when he chased me, chattering his false teeth while laughing at me running from him!
Cousin Bettye remembers, “…lots of food on makeshift tables and lots of cousins and aunts and uncles – that was when it was held behind Uncle Billy’s store. That was the first place I remember a reunion being held. That was back in the forties…. Also, there was a great big tent.”
Martha, “I remember staying at the house on the homestead, Mama Lou’s, and sleeping in the upstairs bedroom in the feather bed…. Mama Lou frying her chicken and cooking apple stack pies. Malcolm (Homer’s adopted/foster son) and I would fight over last servings…(lol). I remember my mom freaking out over rattlers around the well…. the spring “house” built into the side of the hill for cool storage…lots of memories.”
Anthony Moberly, grandson of Crystal McKnight Scarlett and son of Eldon Clay Moberly writes, “I was very close to my grandmother and would often go to the reunion every year as a child…. Tony fondly remembers, “Mama Lou, my great grandmother sitting on the porch of her old country house with grandmother Crystal snapping green beans…the country food made by many, fried chicken was always my favorite…. A memory I can never forget is the making of lemonade by Carl, the husband of Dorothy Mays…. A big box of lemons being squeezed for hours by Carl as we sat on the porch…. I was 10 at the time, maybe 1972’…it was the best lemonade I ever tasted.”
Over the years, many family members, including myself, moved away and left behind country life.
Tony shares, “I was never exposed to the ‘country life’ while growing up, until I went to the family reunions…tobacco in the fields, being hung dry and then cut in the barns…the pig barn, and the rolling hills with the lake…the old home place where it was covered and we gathered outside for the family reunions…vivid memories as a child when I attended the reunions…such a simpler time, no computers, and a piano in a home was a way to bring family and faith together…. humble, making their own clothes, living off the land. I can see the strength in life, forging through in living this way. Land was a valuable commodity.”
Cousin Misty Hudson Logan, daughter of Louis Howell (my uncle) shares a memory from 2012, “My dad was in town that summer and I told him I wanted to go to the reunion because I had never been. So, I got to go with him along with my aunt Judy, aunt Edie, my brother Wesley, my daughter Kailyn, and my husband Steve…. When we arrived, we got raffle tickets because they were giving away prizes…. Since it was my very first reunion, my aunts and my father gave me their raffle tickets. I won five prizes that day…. I was a little embarrassed that the numbers kept getting called and I had to go up there!”