It was one of those perfect, blue-sky days in Texas when I found Ola Tharpe. And luckily for me, it was also a great day for a road trip.
I didn’t know I wanted to find Ola Tharpe until a few months prior to that April day, when she and her husband had turned up in an 85-year-old land deed as part of some title research I was doing. But what started out as a simple mineral interest soon became the story of a little girl from Arkansas, the youngest of eight children, who ended up a lonely widow in Texas. It was my job to find her family, but it became a mission.
It was about a 150-mile drive to Palestine, and I had gotten nowhere fast sitting at my desk Googling, so the boss finally gave me the go ahead to pay a visit to the Anderson County Courthouse.
In my adventures as a landman, I have learned that each courthouse is unique, with idiosyncrasies that are as individual as a person’s might be. Some small towns in Texas and Oklahoma might start to look the same, but the courthouse—each courthouse was always a different animal with its own challenges.
The Anderson County Courthouse was no exception. Located in the public square in Palestine, it’s a stately Classic Revival-style building with red brick, stone and terracotta façade accented with cream, Ionic columns and topped with a silver dome where Lady Justice looks down on the landscape below. Built in 1914, it is actually the fourth building to sit on the lot after an arson fire destroyed its predecessor.
I am not an architecture expert, but I do love a good courthouse and always take a few minutes before I start my research to look around and read the appropriate plaques. When I got down to the business at hand, which happened to be a probate record search, I learned I wasn’t allowed to search the books myself. The clerk would have to do the research for me. I reluctantly handed over my names.
I love digging around in old books, and I find it difficult to trust the search results of a person without a vested interest in digging up clues, or at least not as vested as someone who had already been elbows-deep in genealogy records for multiple months, but it was out of my hands. When she informed me that her search had come up empty, I talked her into checking a few alternate name spellings and then I had to admit defeat and be on my way.
Of course, I wasn’t going to let one dead end ruin a day’s drive, so after grabbing an early lunch at a local café, I decided to hit the public library. Considering all the empty buildings and shuttered businesses in downtown Palestine, I really shouldn’t have been surprised by the state of the building that my GPS led me to.
Despite the caution signs and busted windows, I still got out of my car and approached. A large sign read “Palestine Public Library” in front of the darkened building. I peered inside, half expecting to see one sad librarian beckoning me over to a microfiche viewer with a flashlight.
But no, the building was abandoned. So like any good child of the cyber generation, I Googled it.
Okay, I was at the right address.
Guess I need to call them. Dialing the number, I still stood gaping into the dark recesses of the once beautiful building—another small town casualty of the crap economy—and listened into the darkness for a phone to ring. I was surprised when someone picked up. The library had recently been relocated due to budget cuts, and soon I was on my way to the new location.
The library’s new home was no less disappointing, inside a large mall that stood mostly empty, except for a coffee shop, a smokehouse restaurant that I saw a sign for but never confirmed actually existed, and a VA services center.
I decided I better give my husband a call with my location in case I disappeared forever, and then entered the boarded-up mall. The gamble proved successful, and I found another clue in the library’s microfilm collection—an obituary in a newspaper from 1936.
D.H. Tharpe, 72, Dies At Home Near Elkhart After Long Illness
D.H. Tharpe, 72, died at 12:35 a.m. Thursday at his home three miles east of Elkhart, after a lingering illness.
Funeral services will be held at 3 p.m. Friday at Pilgrim cemetery with the Elkhart Methodist minster officiating.
He was a native of Tennessee and is survived by his wife.
Arrangements were by Bailey Funeral Home.
Okay, it was a clue but not a great one. Ola’s husband was called Bell Hamilton Tharpe, B.H. not D.H., but the date was right. She isn’t listed by name in the obit, but I had nothing to lose. A trip out to Pilgrim Cemetery seemed in order.
It turns out that the old Pilgrim Cemetery was build next to a log cabin church from the 1800s. The church has been rebuilt multiple times, but the congregation of the Pilgrim Presbyterian Regular Baptist Church has been worshipping at the site continuously since 1833. When I arrived in Elkhart, I convinced myself that someone would be out there at the church or tending to the graveyard. Maybe that someone had been in Elkhart for a long time and could tell me all about the Tharpe family.
It was still early afternoon when I arrived, bright and sunny, so quiet and still. The log cabin church obviously hadn’t been in use for several years, and the modest red brick church nearby showed no sign of life. It turns out that the grounds of Pilgrim Cemetery are cared for largely by volunteers now, though the landscape appeared cared for and not neglected.
I stepped under the iron arch labeled simply “PILGRIM EST 1833” and took in the scenery. A light breeze made nearby trees shiver and sing. No traffic on the road nearby. I could think of worse final resting places. It was lovely actually.
In a whisper, I spoke to Ola.
I’m here Ms. Ola. Help a girl out. Help me find your family.
It was not a large cemetery, and I found B.H. Tharpe’s large monument without much trouble.
Nov. 7, 1864
Dec. 23, 1936
He believed and was received.
Now where was my widow? I almost missed her humble plaque next to his. It said simply:
Sept. 14, 1875
Oct. 20, 1959
Her simple stone next to his monument spoke volumes, and I felt sad for this widow who spent another twenty years in Elkhart after her husband’s death. Alone? I wondered. Without the money she obviously had in 1936. No flowers on either grave.
Does anyone visit you?
Another dead end, I guessed, looking around. I sighed and stood in front of Ola’s grave for quite some time thinking the thoughts you think in a cemetery. And thoughts that I would rather leave in the cemetery.
Time to give up and go home.
And then my eyes wandered to Ola’s right, to a matching plaque for a “Julie A. Guist.” Surely, it was just a coincidence. Probably a basic design shared by several graves, but I did a cursory look around, and no—these two definitely matched each other and not other graves in the vicinity.
I felt a surge of hope and pulled up the family tree I had started for Bell and Ola, with her parents’ names as well as the names of her seven siblings. My eyes stopped on “Julia A. Taylor, born January 16, 1860.”
I looked at the plaque again:
Julie A. Guist
Jan. 16, 1860
Aug. 24, 1941
Eureka! Ola and her sister resting side by side.
I was elated, not only to have another possible lead—married names for women born in 1860 aren’t always easy to come by—but also because the story I had about Ola already started to seem a little happier. Okay, so Ola’s sister still died way earlier than she did, but it was something, and eventually, it led me to the names of at least 30 other family members.
Of course, when I met Ola in Pilgrim Cemetery, I didn’t know if I would find her family, but I drove home into the sunset through the shady, tree-covered back roads of east Texas so full of hope.