Josiah Thomas Showalter’s entire family assembled for a reunion in the last week of August 1906 at the Snowville, Virginia, homestead. The event was unusual enough to warrant a story in the Richmond Times-Dispatch a few days later, and a photographer from near-by Christiansburg took pictures of the group. As the reporter says, there were 49 around the table, including Josiah Thomas and his wife, Sarah Catherine Vaden; their 12 children, ranging in age from almost 45 to 24; the 9 spouses of the children who were married by that date; and 26 grandchildren, the youngest about 8 months old, the eldest about 18 years.
Front Row (left to right): Sarah Katherine Dudley, Josiah Thomas Showalter, Sarah Catherine (Vaden) Showalter, Julia Rowlett Massie, Benjamin Winthrop Showalter. Back Row: Jennie Taylor Showalter (later Randolph), Milton Vaden Showalter, Edward Thomas Showalter, Annie Beatrice Showalter (later Brown), Chester David Michael Showalter, Josiah Wesley Showalter, Alexander Merle Showalter, Amanda Louise Whitt, George Henry Pryor Showalter
My father was one of those youngsters; he was 8 at the time, but I do not remember him ever talking about the reunion. I haven’t found many references to it elsewhere, either, although some of my cousins may have letters or diaries from their parents that I don’t know about. One of the spouses, Walter Lee Dudley, published a memoir in 1943, called Footprints on the Sands of Time. He was married to the eldest child of the twelve, Sarah Katherine, and he relates their life together in somewhat tiresome detail, yet he omits this reunion altogether. In 1982, one of my father’s cousins, Celia Whitt, wrote to my parents from Kentucky about a planned visit to southwestern Virginia. My mother sent her a copy of the reunion photo, and she replied: “The family group portrait of the Showalter family brought back memories. I was there for that. I remember as a child I was quite proud of myself when I could name the members in order of age, giving the entire name.” Celia was 16 at the time, and almost 92 when she wrote to my mother.
This photo above shows the spouses and grandchildren at the reunion, gathered on the front porch; there should be 35 people, but I can count only 31, and none can be identified. The three photos below show the house and some of the surroundings as they appeared in 1981.
The journalist gave this account, focussing more on the old patriarch than on what went on at the reunion:
One of the largest and most interesting family reunions held recently in this section was that of Reverend and Mrs. J. T. Showalter, of Pulaski county, which was celebrated the last week in August. It was the first in thirteen years, and was an occasion of much rejoicing.
The family party numbered forty-nine: twelve children, six daughters-in-law, three sons-in-law and twenty-six grandchildren. There was not a single vacant chair. Mr. and Mrs. Showalter had reason to feel that the Lord has prospered them. Strong and vigorous themselves, they saw their children, grown to man's and woman's estate, well educated, prosperous, and holding positions of trust, and their acres have increased with the years until now they own a number of good farms, instead of the one with which they entered on married life. This has been due to good management, and industry on the part of both parents, principles in which the children were trained.
Mr. Showalter is a minister of the Christian Church, but has held personal views in regard to certain matters pertaining to church management at variance with most churches. One of these was his opposition to Sunday-schools and to organs in church, on the ground that they were not advocated in Holy Writ.
Mr. Showalter has been an apostle of the strenuous life. He run [sic] his farm and taught school during the week, and on Sunday took his entire family and drove to some neighboring church, or went horseback to some distant church, where he had an appointment to preach. The distance was never too great, the roads too rough or the weather too severe to keep him at home, and he never asked any money for his ministerial services. His appointments extended over a large section of country and he had a considerable following in the peculiar doctrines which he advocated. He had the Bible at his tongue's end, was a fluent speaker and strong debater.
At the reunion Monday this worthy couple gathered together nearly half a hundred of their own flesh and blood, and looking back over the past and forward to the future had only happy memories and anticipations. The party was photographed by Mr. W. H. Jewell, of Christiansburg, who came out for the purpose.
The names of the children are Professor and Mrs. Dudley, of Oranda Institute, VA; Mr. and Mrs. C. D. M. Showalter, of Roanoke; Mr. and Mrs. W. L. Whitt, of Montgomery county; Mr. and Mrs. J. W. Showalter and Mr. and Mrs. E. T. Showalter, of Snowville; Mr. and Mrs. G. H. P. Showalter and Mr. and Mrs. M. V. Showalter, of Lockney, Texas; Mr. and Mrs. Massie, of Clifton Forge; Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Showalter, of Gordonsville; Mr. A. M. Showalter of the University of Virginia; Misses Jennie and Beatrice Showalter, of Snowville.
A pleasant feature of the reunion was the presence of a bride and bridegroom, Mr. and Mrs. M. V. Showalter, who were married in Texas just before starting for Virginia.
Besides the group portrait of the parents and the twelve children, the photographer took shots of Josiah Thomas with his sons and Sarah Catherine with her daughters. In both pictures, the subjects arranged themselves in order of age, beginning with the parent on the front row at the left, the eldest child and the others in descending order to the right, then continuing on the back row from right to left. Josiah Thomas wore a full beard and mustache, his three oldest sons sported mustaches, and the four youngest were clean shaven; I assume that reflects changing styles. I’ve pondered whether there is any significance in the fact that the youngest son, Alexander Merle, was wearing a white or very light-colored tie, while all his brothers had dark ones; or that he, Edward Thomas, and my grandfather, C. D. M. seated beside the old man, were wearing long ties, while the others had bowties. So far, I have reached no conclusion. The women are more uniformly dressed, although Sarah Catherine is all in black, her youngest daughter Annie Beatrice is all in white, and the four in between have white blouses and black or very dark skirts.
Front row, left to right: Josiah Thomas Showalter, Chester David Michael, Josiah Wesley, George Henry Pryor; Back row, right to left: Edward Thomas, Benjamin Winthrop, Milton Vaden, Alexander Merle.
From left to right front row: Mrs. Josiah Thomas Showalter (Sarah Catherine Vaden), Catherine (Kate) Dudley, Amanda Louisa (Minnie) Whitt; Back row, right to left: Julia Rowlett Massie, Jenny Taylor (later Randolph), Annie Beatrice (later Brown).
My grandfather’s expression intrigues me. As in most photographs of the era, no one is smiling; in fact, they all look very stern. I have two theories about this: one is that film was slow then so the pose had to be held for a long time and it was easier to look glum; and the other is that most people had bad teeth which they preferred not to expose for posterity. So they all stare rigidly at the camera, as befits the family of a man who disapproved of organ music in church. Except for my grandfather, who has just the hint of a smile and is looking off into space. I’m sure he was dreaming of how far he had come from this austere rural home, and how far he was hoping to go yet. By 1906 he had moved his family to Roanoke, at that time a rapidly growing city, and he was in the insurance business, on his way to founding a fire insurance company and a bank.
It was an impressive feat to draw all forty-nine of the family members to the reunion. It’s clear in retrospect, though, that the family unity was fragile. The twelve children went their own ways; half of them moved to other states, and those who stayed in Virginia were fairly well dispersed. As I said in an earlier post, my father seemed to have lost contact with all his first cousins. I know that some of the others maintained closer contacts, but this moment of union was a tribute to a fading past, not the natural expression of an ongoing relationship.