08 March 2017

The Unknown Relation (part 2 of 2)

(Continued from March 1, 2017)

Althea Chase Rowland Woodruff circa 1947
with 11 grandchildren!
In 2006 I received the last big batch of general family documents from my mother’s side of the family.  I added them to the filing cabinet which already contained my father’s family papers (inherited from him in 1992 and added to by other family members over the years).  The combined batch of documents filled more than six lateral file drawers and were not organized or protected in any way.

As I have mentioned in past posts, I am slowly making headway through the family papers in my possession.  The was the case, too, in 2010.  It was to these papers that I turned to try to solve the mystery of the woman I met in 1985 on the day of my graduation from college (see part one of this post).  I had made some small headway, at that point, in getting through the crowded file drawers (this is how I had previously come upon Althea’s wonderful photograph in the first place), but now I went back to these papers to see what I could find of Althea’s children.
The Rowland Descent, updated in 1999


In going through these old family documents, haphazardly crammed into several filing cabinets and awaiting proper organization, I came across a single document which proved to be a treasure trove in my search for my grandmother’s cousins.  This document was a write-up of the entire branch of the family – all the descendants of Lyman Sibley Rowland and Elizabeth McLellan Gould, my great-great grandparents and the parents of Althea and her siblings.  I would later find that the document had been result of a collaboration between my grandmother, Barbara, and her first cousin, Jack Woodruff, both of whom died soon after they completed this write-up.

Using this wealth of information, I was able to locate updates for Althea’s children, their children and even some of their children, up to the year 1999.  But there was still no telling who was this unknown relation.  So my next step was to look through my granparents’ address records.

The three address systems in use by
my grandparents
They kept a circular Rolodex for their addresses starting sometime in the 1970s.  Then in the late 1980s they decided that it would be better to keep index cards in a box for all their contacts – the index cards were larger and allowed for more information.  But there were several problems with the index cards.  First, they didn’t transcribe all the Rolodex cards to the index cards, so both filing systems sat side-by-side in the office next to the telephone.  But worse yet: the index cards weren’t attached, as the Rolodex cards were.  So the index cards would be taken away, to the typewriter to type out an address, to the breakfast room to write letters, to one of the other telephone extensions in the house, or just carried away without realizing it (this last applied mostly to my grandfather).

The index cards stopped working for them and they bought an address book and began transcribing their most-dialed numbers there.  Because there was no complete repository of all their contacts, they still needed to refer to both the index cards and the Rolodex in addition to the book, so now there were three sources to check for information.  When I inherited the family documents, these three resources were among them and I have saved them, using them as reference from time to time.

I started with the Rolodex records, thinking that the oldest records would still be there.  I also thought I should start at the back and work my way forward, in case her surname was also Woodruff.  So I rolled through the Rolodex looking for a Burbank address.  And I finally (in the “H” section!) found a listing for HILLER, Robert & Eleanor in Burbank.  There were three children named and several of them had notations, including on the back: “Topsy’s daughter” in reference to one of the children.

Topsy, age 16, in 1922.  I met her 63 years
later.  Photo courtesy of her daughter Beth
I then went back to Althea’s entry in the family document and found that she had a daughter named Florence Eleanor Woodruff, who married a fellow named Robert Hiller.  She was my grandmother’s first cousin.  Rather than call her Flo or Ellie, my grandmother obviously called her “Topsy” and she generally went by her middle name, Eleanor.

Eleanor Woodruff was born in September 1906, so she would have been 78 years old when I met her in June 1985.  I also saw that she died in December 1993, by which time she would have been 86 years old.  In starting this search I hoped that I might be able to meet her again, but quickly realized that time was against me in this regard.  The thought of her passing made me feel a little melancholy.

It’s interesting how removed one can become from the events of the distant past.  I see the dates of ancestors’ births and deaths, note that they lived to be 26 or 99 and move on.  One died as a POW in the Revolutionary War.  Two were hanged for crimes within a few weeks of each other in Colonial New England.  Some were killed by American Indians.  The very concept of them being ancestors means that they all died at some point in the unknown past.  But this was different: I had met her – and in my mind I remembered her as sweet and welcoming.  I also had a perceived connection with her mother through a photograph. I was sad that I didn’t have the opportunity to know either of them better.

The Rolodex card showed me that Eleanor (Woodruff) Hiller had three children and at least one granddaughter, who married in 1993.  The family records provided even more detail: Althea’s four children (my grandmother’s first cousins) had twelve children between them (eleven of them seen in her photograph from circa 1947), my mother’s second cousins.  Those twelve had twenty-two children among them, my contemporaries, born between 1959 and 1979 (I was born in 1963, on the elder side of the generation), my third cousins.  And they have children of their own.
Find-A-Grave listing
(see below for citation)

I did a search for Eleanor and her husband on Ancestry.com and found their burial information at FindAGrave.com.  There was an update to their page from one of their grandsons which provided his email address.  I sent an email and am now in contact with that branch of the family again.  I’ve visited with one of the children in the photograph and am in contact with another.  I’ve seen some of the family relics they have still and was able to tell them about things I’ve preserved that they thought were lost.  We’re Facebook friends and we’ve shared genealogical information.  I’ve even proven that Althea’s husband, Merle Woodruff, descends from the same immigrant ancestor as my Woodruff line, making us all distant cousins on the Woodruff side in addition to the closer generational connection through my mother’s line!

Chart showing the Woodruff connection
on both sides of my family.
Althea in 1931 awarded
her Master's degree
photo courtesy of
her granddaughter, Beth

Finally, I learned more about this engaging woman in the photograph.  After the death of her husband in 1922, she moved to Oberlin, OH from Akron and worked as secretary of the YWCA, raised her younger children and provided a home for her widowed mother.  She earned a Master’s Degree in religious studies from Oberlin College in 1931, retired from the YWCA in 1936 and moved to southern California to be close to her sister and several of her children, all of whom had moved there.  She lived in Westwood and then settled in Santa Barbara, working in hospitals and finally teaching sign language to newly-hearing impaired veterans during World War II.  She lived in southern California until her death in the fall of 1965, leaving behind a legacy of good work and a large, interesting family.


Records of all sorts are important.  If I hadn’t saved my grandparents’ personal address files, I would not have found Eleanor (Woodruff) Hiller’s information and name, nor her children’s names.  Knowing their names allowed me to find more about them in family history document written by my grandmother and her cousin Jack Woodruff, which I had also saved.  This led me to make contact with that branch of the family and form new family bonds.

I did so through resources that one may not think of immediately.  I found an email address on Findagrave.com that brought me through the second stage of contact, providing the key communication point that I needed to regain contact with this branch of the family.

Don’t discount any source and definitely don’t give up!  If you have a specific person to find or are lacking key information about that person, don’t give up.  You may not have immediate access to the resources you need, but you could suddenly come across a link where you don’t expect it, like FindAGrave.  So keep a list of unfinished business and come back to it now and then. The resource you were lacking before may now be available!

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