Finding family's history

PERSONAL JOURNEYS

A MEMORABLE PLACEIt was 11 years...

July 26, 1998|By Deborah Bowers | Deborah Bowers,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Finding family's history; A MEMORABLE PLACE

It was 11 years ago this summer that I took a sentimental journey to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia to learn about my roots. I didn't suspect that a place could change my life in such a meaningful way - would actually change the way I felt about myself.

I had been up late one night reading a family genealogy and learned that my great-great-great-grandfather had owned a mill in Forestville, Va. Not long after, my husband and I found it on a map and set out on a fact-finding mission. After a drive west on I-70 and then south on I-81, we broke away onto some secondary roads through beautiful countryside that to my imagination had not changed since my ancestors had seen these landscapes 150 years ago. My excitement increased as we neared Forestville. Expecting I would have to make inquiries to find the remains of the old mill on some farmer's back-40, I was astonished to find instead a standing mill, fully restored, close to the road.

The red, two-story mill sat behind the Westfalls' home, and they showed us a book by a local historian who made many mentions of my family. They told us we could get a copy of the book from a Mr. Zirkle, whose farm was just down the road.

Off a narrow country road we turned onto the Zirkles' dirt lane. We drove to the front gate and walked up to the porch and knocked. Blair Zirkle greeted us. I told him my name and about our mission to find my roots. He looked at me with some wonder and great interest, and asked me to recite my Bowers lineage. I did, going back to Jacob, the mill owner, and telling him that I had not been able to go back any further.

Blair Zirkle had us sit down on his porch with his cats and geraniums, and then he helped me a great deal in my mission - not only did he know of the Bowers family; he, too, was descended from Jacob Bowers. He took me back two more generations and told me our forebears came from Ittlingen, Germany, in the late 1700s.

I was amazed to be sitting there with this cousin I had never met and to discover that family roots in this rural place had a way of anchoring themselves in the soil, strong enough to last hundreds of years and to be here for me, the descendant of the one who left, coming home to a place I had never been.

A change overcame me as I learned who I was, that my name was not English, but German. In this place called Forestville, with its stone ruins and distant cousins, its vast, historic landscapes and country roads, I had found my true identity and felt myself embraced by a warm sense of belonging.

In the days that followed, I found many documents about my family at the county courthouse, and we visited the country church where I found the gravestones of many Bowers generations, the earliest ones written in German.

I return often to this rural place in the Shenandoah Valley, seeking replenishment of the soul, to honor my ancestors and to learn just a little bit more about the place they called home.

Deborah Bowers lives in Street, Md.

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Stephen Mandy and Sylvia Mandy, Baltimore

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