The Chattnooga Park (descended from Roger Parke, who came to New Jersey in 1682) reunion of 2005 really began in 2004 when, with a few first cousins, we cobbled together a reunion of first cousins, and managed to interest some third and fourth cousins at the same time. This event was enthusiastically received, and in the effort to pull cousins together, it became evident that there were a great many cousins in the Chattanooga vicinity. We also became aware of the Park Family Reunions of 1918 through 1923 from newspaper articles, complete with the group photos. At this reunion, the seeds were planted to resurrect the type of reunion held long ago, but little did I know what I was getting into!
However, before I get into the preparation of the 2005 reunion, I first want to speak a little about my personal journey in discovery of my Park family history. For most of my life, I knew little about my Park(e) ancestry. My father had had a hard life as a child, along with his mother and siblings. This was because his father had abandoned the family, and was otherwise a man short on responsibility and honor. This abandonment occurred just before the throes of the Great Depression. The pain inflicted on my father his family, and what my father had to endure to grow up, support his mother and younger siblings, beginning when he was only twelve years old, embittered him toward his Park family. The same was generally true of his siblings. As a consequence, I grew up knowing little about my Park kinfolk, as was the case of my siblings. I was an ancestry illiterate.
In 2003, my cousin George Mayo contacted me to encourage me to help him with marking the graves of our ancestors with memorial stones. George had previously discovered the unmarked graves of our great-great-grandparents, Lunsford Yandell Park and Isabella Barron Park. George and his brother Tim had two headstones prepared to mark these graves, and George was now interested in getting more contributors to help him get a proper stone on our grandmotherís grave (now nicely completed!). This got me interested, and began a process of considerable personal discovery for me. Mind you, I have ten living siblings, so anything I came up with was to get a lot of distribution!
George had followed a bit of information from his mother to find and contact a cousin in New York, Jonathan Guyot Smith. Jonathan had sent George copies of newspaper articles about the earlier reunions, and in one article it mentioned the placement of a grave memorial for James Park and Martha Yandell Park, my Park great-great-great-great grandparents. George had contacted another lead from Jonathan, Rollie Taylor. From Rollieís work, we could see the lineage of this family from James and Martha, down to my grandfather. This led me to Rollie Taylor.
One can imagine the feeling I had when I looked at a genealogical map of my family, almost down to my father. I was simply amazed, and so much of it was right near me. From Rollieís work, I could see the family of Lunsford and Isabella, and I learned the name of my own great-grandparents, Robert William Park and Austine Morris Appling. I never knew. George wanted to go to Lafayette (which in our part of the country has the accent on the second syllable, not the third) and try to find the grave of James and Martha, which he finally did on his own. He called me from Arizona to say the stone was not readable and wanted me to go and clean it up, take a picture and send it to him. He told me where to find it. I did as asked, and was flabbergasted to see the plot in Lafayette. I cleaned up the stone and took some digital pictures, which I emailed to many siblings, nephews, nieces, and cousins, none of which (other than George) had ever seen or knew of the existence of these ancestors. You can imagine the roar of feedback! This was the fall of 2003.
Now back to 2004. We pulled off a modest little reunion, and saw first cousins I hadnít seen in forever, and their children I had never met. I met cousins whose name I had seen on a mailbox for years, wondered about, and who upon meeting seemed like brothers. One third cousin said his young son looked just like me. We held a dance at the end of this reunion, and it became contagious. While we were polite and cordial before, once we started the dance the decorum turned into an upheaval of laughter, yelling, and clapping. Thatís how this reunion ended, with a lot of touching, breathing, smiling, and hugging and a consensus for a next year reunion!
When it came time to start planning the 2005 reunion, it was just me driving it. Rollie Taylor had emailed me his lastest long list of Park family descended from James and Martha on down. I wondered how to contact them. I had no phone numbers, addresses and sometimes not an update of those still living. Rollie often did have the city and state of last address. He also fixed me up with a system of look up, where one could combine the results of two different search engines and possibly get a phone number or street address. But I had 198 pages to the James and Martha genealogy. Hmmm, where to start?
I jumped in, starting with my nearest cousins, people whose names I could see, but no other information. Using Rollieís system of cross-referencing, I began to see how to crack open public information. I made my first fleeting calls to total strangers, who just happened to be my cousins. This was surely a nerve-wracking experience, sounding like some sort of weird come-on. I had to learn how to cut to the chase without sounding like a military first sergeant. I called cousins all over the USA and it would be easier to name the states I didnít call than the ones I did. Inevitably, the closer I got to the reunion cutoff, the more I eliminated calling the ones so far away. I implored contacts to seek out their siblings and first cousins to help me spread the communication. This worked fairly well, and in fact it is still working. In the end, I heard from cousins who heard about the reunion in their Sunday school class, at the grocery store and other odd sources.
With the feedback of about five out-of-town contributing cousins and our experience from the year before, we laid out an aggressive agenda. I was obsessed with making the trip worth it for cousins traveling long distances, and as a result we planned too much activity. We ended up with cousins coming from Washington State, California, Arizona, Colorado, Wisconsin, Indiana, Virginia, New York, Massachusetts, Maryland, Florida, and throughout the southeast. The attendance numbered about 115, counting the various parts of the reunion they attended.
Even though we over-scheduled activities at our reunion, I was proud of the things we attempted. Our base was a hotel in Chattanooga, from which we made an interesting trip to Frank Shaw, Jrís historical homestead in Kensington, Georgia, a few miles west of Lafayette. About half the participants made the trek to Kensington, and all who made it were thrilled. Frank has preserved the homestead of his great-great-grandparents, just as it was adapted through the years by successive heirs. Each successive addition to the home made it all the more unique, and each room was filled with period pieces in fine condition. In one room were two grand pianos, and as fate would have it, Cousin Bill Adams, a concert pianist from Lexington, Kentucky, was awestruck at their beauty and careful restoration. Finding a concert pianist among his visitors, Frank led Bill to the best sounding of the two restored pianos, and Bill entertained all to an impromptu concert, which carried throughout the rooms of the old home as it may have done many years before. Adjacent halls and rooms were filled as Bill played favorite pieces from memory, and it proved to be serendipity to all.
Frank has many historical items throughout the home, many family-oriented, while others are of a period nature. There were farming equipment and tools, a custom schoolhouse from about 1870, complete with the books used by students from the period, household items for canning, butter churning, and all the sundry jobs a homestead would have included. Did I mention Frankís collection of Cadillacs?
One effort that my sister and other siblings coordinated was a special gathering of the offspring of my great great Park grandparents, Lunsford and Isabella Barron Park. This was a very large family, partially separated in age by the Civil War. Isabella bore eleven children over twenty-nine years! Inevitably, the family split up, especially so after the early death, relatively, of both Lunsford and Isabella. Rose Park Cantrell opened her mountain home to all these cousins, about 65 in all, for a lovely buffet lunch on the lawn under canopies. Rose and her four sisters hosted a luncheon for all these cousins, many unknown to each other, and most others out of contact for years. For two hours we seemed to swarm over each other and at the end a sudden summer downpour entertained us (the canopies saved us all from a real drenching). How does one have an intimate conversation with so many cousins in two hours? Obviously, it didnít happen. I know I waved to many with whom I didnít get to chat.
Another interesting activity planned was a get together with many bringing their prized family heirlooms and genealogical archives. This activity appeared to me to be like bees in a hive, with so many stooped over looking at documents and admiring old family bibles, photos, and memories, clustering in groups to compare documents, and just plain finding and connecting to each other. I failed in the activity by not allowing enough time, as our dinner sat waiting on us as we connected. I wish now to have invested more time, somehow, in doing this. At the same time, older folks cannot be rushed, including me. My brother told me that after the banquet that followed this gathering, he went home to bed; he was just dead tired!
One event led to another, in rapid succession. After our banquet dinner, and to much fanfare for those in attendance the year before, we had planned another folk dance. This was at the regular venue for the local folk dance group, in downtown Chattanooga. One of our cousins, Fred Park, is a renowned contra dance teacher and caller. If Fred is in town, best to have a dance. Sure enough, we scheduled the hall and all migrated there. I would guess about 40% of the banquet attendees managed to make it to the dance. It was clear after our dance last year that there could be no reunion without a dance. To top it off, we invited many of the regular dancers from Chattanooga to join us, and in total there were about 90 dancers on the floor. Yes, we had live music, all the way from Asheville, North Carolina. The dance was a hoot! Like last year, everyone came alive, and even my 86-year-old mother, an Alzheimerís patient, jumped up, remembering the steps and her dancing past. Cousins who told me emphatically they would not dance but would come, I witnessed dancingóand smiling at the same time. We danced until 11 PM, but by 10 many reunion attendees had given it up.
A day that began with communal breakfasts, and went from downtown Chattanooga to Kensington, Ga., a few cemeteries going and coming, to Signal Mountain, back downtown, then to a dance, was done. I know many cousins who went non-stop the entire day. I went home and found two brothers (one from West Virginia, the other from Colorado), bunking with me, ready to chat about everything they had done. We drew line charts locating where cousins fit it, dug up old pictures of all of us, and didnít go to bed until 2.
It is my opinion that there is a reason one has a reunion. Somehow, I felt a bit like my feet were better attached to the ground I walked on; I felt better connected. (Iím also a lot wiser on how to sequence a reunion schedule.)
Epilogue: Reunion plans for 2006 are still somewhat fluid, but discussions are underway for a gathering at Frank Shawís family homestead sometime this summer. It will likely consist of an afternoon and evening gathering and covered dish supper. I can offer no specific details at this time, but we are working on as much notice as we can do. For more information, please email me, Ed Park, at email@example.com, or call 423-876-7883. I prefer email, but call if you do not have email.