Longtime Franconians Swap Memories, Tales

Longtime Franconians Swap Memories, Tales

Authors of 'Franconia Remembers, Volume III' speak at Story Swap.

Shirley Davis was careful not to give away too much. "Well, I wrote it all down, so they've got to buy the book," she told Jacqueline Walker, host of last Saturday's "Story Swap" at John Marshall Library in Franconia.

The event marked the unveiling of the third volume of "Franconia Remembers," both the Story Swap and the book were sponsored by the Franconia Museum. Saturday's event featured a panel of about 12 speakers. All were longtime residents of the area, and most had authored parts of the book. Each of the panelists shared a few tidbits from the personal histories they had written.

What emerged was a picture of Franconia as a quiet farming community populated by a small number of large families.

As a child, Davis told an audience of about 50 people, she had thought it fun to pump water by hand. Her father had owned several dairy cows and other livestock, and Davis said had enjoyed playing in the barns with the animals. "I guess my aunt, well, spoiled me, kind of," she said, recalling that her aunt had taken her into Alexandria on Saturdays to shop and go to the movies.

"I still would like to go back and live like that for a month or two," said Davis. "But I think I'd still like to come back to modern times."

Elizabeth Fenimore's father was a contractor for the Franconia Elementary School, among other projects. As a result of his job, she said, the family had moved frequently. "He finally decided to live in Franconia, and for that, I am so happy," she said.

Walker recalled that she had been the only girl on Valley View Drive until Fenimore's family moved in.

Fenimore had traveled from Florida to participate in the Story Swap, which fell on her 56th wedding anniversary. She noted that one of her flower girls, a niece, was present in the audience.

MANY OF THE PANELISTS knew several audience members, and most knew each other. In fact, most of them were related in some way.

For example, Martha Lyles, the grandmother of panelist Lillian Javins, was the great grandmother of fellow speaker Florence Hall. Lyles and her family had traveled to Franconia from Indiana in a covered wagon, said Javins. She and her husband, George Washington James K. Polk, had 10 children.

Javins was also related to panelist Clarence Devers, although no one could remember exactly how.

"That's what Franconia is, one big family, and we're finding that out more and more," said Walker.

Hall, the eldest of seven children herself, recalled that her father, Everett Lyles, had helped to build Valley View Drive. Walker recalled that he had also helped to build the George Washington Parkway, using a plow, a "scoop" and a team of mules.

Panelist Robert Potter noted that Lyles' animals had been renowned as "the meanest mules in the world."

John Milstead knew something of the importance of road construction, and of Everett Lyles' work in particular.

His family had moved from Alexandria to live on Potters Lane in 1931, he said, noting that Hall had lived across the street from him, and Potter had lived next door. However, when Milstead's father lost his job during the Great Depression, the family had moved into a four-room bungalow on a small, unnamed road. The road was later named Triplett Lane and, still later, South Van Dorn Street, which is now one of the area's major thoroughfares.

At the time, a man who Milstead now remembers only as "Mr. Francis" had lived on the road and claimed it to be his own. "Even when we were going to school, he used to come out and say, 'You can't even use the road to walk to school,'" said Milstead. "He wasn't a very friendly man."

AROUND 1938, Lyles, with some dynamite and his notorious mules, had built what is now known as Villa Street, in order to allow the family to get in and out of their home. A local developer later obtained a court order to see to it that the road that would become Van Dorn was opened to public use, said Milstead.

Robert Potter's son, Stephen Potter, an archaeologist and author, had some familiarity with the local genealogy. When he first looked over the new book's table of contents, he said, "I realized that, in some way, shape or form, I'm related to over half the people up here."

Stephen Potter recalled being annoyed by a clerk when he was registering for college, who did not believe that a Stephen Potter would actually reside on a Potters Lane. The street, which had been largely peopled by members of his lineage, had been unnamed, he said, until his mother one day posted a sign at the end, reading "Potters Lane."

"She was tired of giving directions to a place that was on an unnamed road," he said. The name stuck.

To give an idea of the area's changing real estate market, Marlene Shaughnessy noted that her great grandparents, Daniel and Bessie Simms, had bought their farm in Franconia for $500 in 1898. The couple made a living growing spring onions and selling them for a penny per bunch.

Fenimore recalled that the most rebellious activity in which the youth of her generation had engaged was a game of spin-the-bottle.

"We were just a bunch of naïve kids, and I wish I could say the same for kids today," she said.

However, Shaughnessy showed that some of the legacy of earlier generations might have carried over. Her grandmother, Maude Simms, she said, had been active in the establishment of Franconia Elementary, among other community involvements. Simms and neighbor Kathy Higham had petitioned the county to start the school.

In 1987, said Shaughnessy, Franconia Elementary gave "Mustang Awards," recognizing leadership and citizenship, to two of Simms' granddaughters. "The school was really amazed when I told them," she said.