Fulks Run Woman Unearths Family History
Built by Leon’s great-great grandparents, William and Johanna Heavner, in 1852, the home had been passed down through the generations by the women of the family, including Leon’s mother.
But the couple didn’t realize just how much history was in that house until Judy found a box of letters.
After decades of living in the home, Judy decided the attic needed to be thoroughly cleaned and reorganized. With several generations having come and gone, the storage space had accumulated unnecessary clutter.
In a corner of the attic, Judy found a box that held the family history.
“There was this box and there was this cloth bag in it. I looked [inside] and there were these letters,” she recalled, pointing at the stack of papers and envelopes covering her kitchen counter.
These letters — all written in ink, on paper turned an antique brown over the course of decades — contained exchanges between Leon’s ancestors. Judy estimates there are more than 600 letters, with the earliest dating from the 1700s. The collection ends in the 1900s — when the family installed their first telephone.
“I read about all of the letters. When I found those things, I lost a lot of sleep,” she said, laughing.
“I read, and read and read, they were so interesting.”
The majority of correspondence is between Evaline Aubrey, who inherited the home from her parents, William and Johanna, and her relatives.
Evaline, who had rheumatoid arthritis, relied on her daughter, Dorcas, to transcribe letters to people in the area or family members who had gone west, Judy explained.
“[The letters] talk about what the weather was like [out west], and when they got machinery and whether it was a good crop that year,” Judy said, explaining how relatives would update those who had remained in Virginia.
The letters mention elections and moving to Oklahoma during the Land Rush, or visiting the world fairs.
Judy said the letters are simply updates about everyday life, especially from the late 18th to early 20th century, providing insight into how people lived.
“It’s as if you get to know them,” Judy said. “These people that you never met in all your life, but you know them — know what they thought, how they felt about things ... how they did things, how they spoke.”
The area of Fulks Run, referred to as Dovesville in the earliest letters, was predominantly an agricultural town. The letters describe the farm on Heavner Homestead — the name given to the family property.
“They were very self-sufficient here,” Judy said. “They had hogs [and] sold hams; they had an orchard; they raised their vegetables, they had horses, [and] they had cows.”
The letters even explain how the family brought water down from the mountain spring, and would heat it up in the tank beside the wood stove.
Some of the letters contained a more serious tone, however. Evaline Heavner married George Washington Aubrey, who fought in the Civil War as a Union soldier.
During the war, Aubrey was captured in a raid and taken to Libby Prison in Richmond by the Confederates.
From there he wrote a letter to his wife.
“One of the letters talks about his experience in Libby Prison, with 400 or so other prisoners,” Judy said.
The letter was written in 1862, toward the beginning of the war.
“They were waiting for the war to be over. You can tell from the letter he wrote that he was expecting to get out and come home,” Judy explained.
However, George never marched home nor did he meet his daughter, Dorcas, who was raised by her mother at Heavner Homestead.
Although Dorcas spent time transcribing letters for her mother, she composed her own correspondence, as well.
Dorcas met a man named Jacob Brenneman, who lived in Dayton. He was 10 years her junior, and studying to be a school teacher at what later became Shenandoah College.
“She wrote him and he would write back telling her about Dayton, about going to the college and things like that,” Judy said, explaining that some of the notes she found were love letters between the pair.
But the couple was forced to adopt “fictitious names,” as Dorcas’ mother did not approve, Judy said.
“Back then, the mail was delivered by horseback or whatever, so when the mailman rode between houses, [and there] weren’t that many houses around, he had time he could read letters and look over them and see who wrote to whom,” Judy explained. “So, they tried to keep it [secret], because Evaline did not like it at all.”
Evaline, who owned the family property and other land in the Fulks Run area, as well as land in Ohio, did not want her daughter associating with a man whose possessions consisted of his horse and his clothes, Judy said.
So, to keep their affair secret, Dorcas wrote under the pen name Peggy; Jacob adopted Ralph.
“They were really formal,” Judy said of the love letters. “They’re getting to know each other.
“She was kind of flirty and he was the big masculine man writing back — the important person.”
Eventually, the letters would stop, but not the affair. Dorcas and Jacob later eloped.
Judy’s excitement about the letters is clearly evident. As a former history teacher at Broadway High School, she understands the importance of preserving the past.
“I think [the letters are] historic, not that they are [about] the nation’s leaders, but they are about the people who actually built the nation,” Judy said.
She’s spent countless hours transcribing the letters and compiling the family history into two books, “When This You See, Think of Me!” and “With Pen In Hand” —both self-published.
She’s also dedicated to researching the history not found in the letters, piecing together missing information.
This collection of history has become a huge part of Judy’s life, but she says the letters are also important for others.
The letters once ran in a local paper, with a letter printed each week.
“One of the reasons I wanted to [print them] is because it talks about people in the area, their ancestors,” Judy explained.
Judy would receive phone calls from people after reading a letter who would say that it referenced a great-grandparent or other relative.
“I have these letters that mention all these people and I have no way of knowing who their descendents are,” she explained. But by publishing them, Judy was able to reconnect with individuals who knew her husband’s family — a goal she’s proud to have accomplished.
Since her husband’s death four years ago, Judy now owns the family home and plans to stay there as long as she can.
She’s unsure what will happen to the property, which has now housed eight generations, including the Liskeys’ great-granddaughter.
But she plans to keep the letters together as a collection, so that the history of the family remains preserved.
“We don’t want to forget the ordinary, common person, [and] the contribution they made to put this country together,” she said.
Contact Sarah Stacy at 574-6292 or firstname.lastname@example.org.