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The True Story of Grandfather's Death

In the story “News of Grandfather’s Death” I retold the straight story of the events, as I heard it many times as a child from my father. I had always accepted it uncritically, at face value.

Now as an adult, I step back and look at it from the vantage point of age with many years as a student of the human condition, and increasingly find reasons to be skeptical.

1950s Kentucky farmhouse
The Sunnyview farmhouse as I remember it as a child.

The country folk of Fleming County in the early part of the twentieth century were simple folk, with a deep religious commitment. Many often saw “signs and portents” in almost everything. Nearly any event, even trivial coincidences, could be inflated and construed to have mystical origins.

Beyond any overt predisposition to supernatural beliefs, however, is the simple fact that the county folk love a good tale, and will often embellish stories, whether based in truth or created from whole cloth, and create fantastic tales. These were the days before ubiquitous canned entertainment, and our ancestors often entertained themselves by creating and passing round stories crafted from real-world events.

The tall tale has a long tradition in rural America.

I suppose the first chink in this entertaining story came one time when I was looking at the old records and discovered Grandfather died on a Tuesday, rather than a Saturday, when my father might have been at a dance social as he had so often told. This was almost shocking, as I had been so convinced that grandfather had died on Saturday night while my father was at a public social event. Until that point, I had simply accepted the story of grandfather’s death without question.

Still, I reasoned, father was a young man of 21 and unmarried. The word “Dance” has often been an euphemism for other activities (ahem). He may have simply been returning home from some other sort of social occasion. Perhaps he had been simply reluctant to admit the true nature of his outing in his retelling of the events. Perhaps he was, in fact, closer to the farm than Sherburne, which in retrospect seemed like a pretty serious walk.

Walking through the woods at night plays tricks with one’s mind, and the various creatures of the evening are out and doing what they do. Noises in the night are plentiful. What we are not told is how many nights father walked home via the same route and similarly heard unexplained noises which, since nothing portentous happened, were quickly forgotten.

The next flaw in the story was exposed when I later talked to various people who had known my father as a young man and learned something significant about him. According to his contemporaries, my father was well known for always owning a car and always driving whenever he went anywhere. This was unusual in the 1920s farm community. His father, my grandfather, never owned a car. Neither did the husbands of my father’s sisters. If a farmer had a vehicle at all, it was a pickup truck. But in the 1920s rural Kentucky farm country even pickups were relatively rare, hence my father’s predilection for owning an automobile was remarkable. In hindsight, I really doubt he would have been walking. That claim simply does not ring true considering this.

Finally, we cannot ignore one other aspect. The event made a great story! This was the 1920s. There was no television, certainly no Internet. Phonographs were wind-up mechanical devices, and even radio was in its infancy. People who grew up before our modern entertainment era told stories for entertainment. Often, storytelling became elevated to a high art form, and stories embellished until the mundane truth of an incident was sometimes lost entirely. So perhaps it is really a bit of fluff, of entertainment, and never really happened as told. Perhaps in the frequent telling and retelling over the decades, he even came to fully believe it himself.

Although I was skeptical of the more fantastic aspects of the tale, I still quite believed that the basic elements of the story were true, I still believed that my father was at some form of social event, whether private or public, and was returning home when accosted by the neighbor with news of his father’s death. It would be some years yet before I would learn otherwise.

My father was many years deceased when in 2006 I visited Kentucky for a couple of weeks. One day I took my mother to the Walmart store in nearby Mt Sterling. As we were walking around the aisles, we encountered an elderly couple my mother knew. When stopped and chatted a while and then moved on. I asked my mother who they were. She told me that the elderly couple were Ackley and Opal Porter, and that Ackley was related somehow to my father, and they had visited some when my father was alive. She was uncertain exactly how they were related, and she had not seen them in many years. After she stimulated my memory, I began vaguely to remember Ackley and Opal, but still didn’t really know them, or their relationship to the family.

At the time I was working on a family genealogy project, and while I had not yet researched the Porter family, I knew my father’s sister Irene had married a Porter. After a little looking around, I discovered Ackley was my father’s nephew, the youngest son of his sister. For a while I let it lay there, not really considering that Ackley would know first hand anything of great interest.

As I continued working on the family history, I filled in information on the Porters, and in due course I returned to Ackley and his family members. I corresponded with Ackley’s niece, Irene Porter, daughter of his brother, Ivan. One day, she commented that her Uncle Ackley had told stories of my grandfather and how my father had practically raised him after his mother, my father’s sister, had died.

I was stunned by this statement, as I did not know that Ackley had figured so prominently in my father’s life. I tried to get information from Ackley indirectly through Irene, and the process was slow and uncertain.

In the intervening years, Opal had died and Ackley, now in his nineties, was living in a nursing home. After a couple of years working through Irene, I resolved I simply must visit Ackley in his nursing home and learn what I could directly from him. Irene assured me he would welcome such a visit, and that although he was very frail and elderly, his memory was sharp, and he could indeed tell me a lot about my grandfather.

Finally, in 2011, I made a trip to Kentucky and visited Ackley in his nursing home residence. When we walked in, he immediately knew who I was, and he turned out to be a fount of information on both my grandfather and father.

Ackley’s mother had been Irene Gregory, my father’s sister. Ackley was born in 1917, when my father was fourteen years old. My grandfather had purchased a neighboring farm and made a present of it to his daughter and new son-in-law soon after they had married. Ackley grew up next door to my father and was constantly over at “Grand-pop’s House.” He told me many little tidbits about those days, told me how our grandfather loved to play the fiddle, and was quite good at it, often playing at local social events. He told me about the small apple orchard that Joseph tended carefully, and the big barrel of apples that “Grand-pop” kept in the house, and how Grand-pop encouraged him to always help himself and eat as many as he wanted. But, he cautioned, “I had better not find any apple cores that did not have the seeds showing.” This was, he explained, Grand-pop’s way of saying not to waste the apples.

Ackley was a small child, not quite seven years old, when one day, our grandfather set out to visit the neighbor on the adjoining farm. Dan Harmon was a bachelor who lived alone on the farm that was directly behind Sunnyview and fronted on the road a couple miles east of and parallel to the highway that Sunnyview faced. It was a longish walk, a bit under two miles to the neighbor’s house. It would of course have been much, much further to drive around by highway. Grandfather was good friends with Dan and would frequently walk over to pay him a visit.

After a while, Ackley wondered why “Grand-pop” was gone so long, and asked my father about it. Realizing it had been a while, Nathan told Ackley to go “Find Grand-pop” and Ackley took off on a run to the neighbor’s house. Approaching the house, he saw a still form laying on the porch, covered with a sheet, and Dan beside him, in tears. He said that Joseph had come onto the porch and told Dan that he felt ill, and he asked for water. Before he could bring him water, he had collapsed and died right where he lay. Dan had tried to revive him without success.

Terribly upset, Ackley then ran all the way back to Sunnyview, and my father, seeing Ackley was in tears, asked what was wrong. “Grand-pop is dead,” he said. After explaining what had happened, Nathan told Ackley to go get “Old Lottie” and bring the horse and harness to where the old sled was beside the barn. Quickly hitching the horse to the sled, Nathan then picked Ackley up and placed him on Lottie’s back and then, walking, leading horse, sled and Ackley, he went to Dan Harmon’s house to collect Grand-pop’s body. At the neighbor’s house, they carefully loaded Joseph’s body onto the sled and took him home. Almost nine decades later, Ackley almost burst into tears, retelling the story as he related his distress at Grand-pop’s passing. He told of the trip across almost two miles of rough ground, him on Old Lottie’s back, the sled dragging along across the rough ground, and his distress at needing to stop occasionally and reposition Grand-pop on the sled, lest he fall off.

They officially listed Joseph Hampton Gregory as having died of Apoplexy, an obsolete medical term usually applied to any sort of cerebral bleeding or rupture. It is a catch-all term usually applied to any sort of sudden, unexplained collapse and death. They buried him two days later, in Hillsboro Cemetery. His wife, Lina Summers Hamm, died two years later from stomach cancer. They both died far too young.

After all these years, I now know the facts surrounding my grandfather’s death. Thanks to the active memory of a nonagenarian who was there, we have a wonderful account of what happened. However, the truth is much less dramatic, much less compelling and simply cannot compare to the tall story my father told me when I was a child.

Ackley Porter (2007)
Ackley Porter, 2007
Young Ackley Porter
Ackley in the 1920s
Joseph Hampton Gregory-topaz-denoise-enhance-sharpen-2.jpeg
Joseph Hampton Gregory
(June 29, 1861 - April 29, 1924)
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