Monday, April 6, 2009

The Ole Sourpuss

This is the first in a series of posts about my father's maternal family.

When my mom left her Texas house this fall to move into an assisted living facility, my brother and I packed up keepsakes we thought she'd want.

As she sat on her bed, supervising, I went through the old family things in her bedroom, much of which had been handed down from my father's mother's side of the family.

My brother gestured at an old portrait on the dressertop. "You want to bring Ole Sourpuss along?" he asked.

She declined.

My great grandfather's portrait has been a part of my memory all my life. He was the revered patriarch of my father's side of the family - his maternal side, for my father's parents divorced and he did not know his father's family.

The Ole Sourpuss was a notable Methodist clergyman of his day. His fine preaching style and fire-and-brimstone rhetoric had gained him recognition. One account of him says
He was known for his hellfire and brimstone sermons. He would tour... saloons and fleshpots and gambling halls in disguise and then on Sunday evenings he would call down damnation on customers and the establishments. It was said that the church was packed both from “the vestibule to amen corner” to see who he was going to indict next.
In his later days he served as editor of the Texas Christian Advocate, a Methodist Evangelist journal.

He had a wife, five daughters, and one son. In 1915, he died unexpectedly, from sudden indigestion that was probably a heart attack. When he was stricken he was attended by his second-youngest daughter - my great aunt Snow. She was a nurse, who had recently completed her training at Baylor School of Nursing in Dallas, and she was a 30 year old spinster.

His family worshipped him, that is clear. Recently, cleaning out my family's stuff at my mom's house, I found this envelope in a drawer full of Aunt Snow's things:

"The contents of this envelope are very sacred to me." In it were clippings of a newspaper account of his death. I am not sure who wrote the inscription - it might have been Aunt Snow, or it might have been my grandmother, who was a bit gaga over the old guy.

He was laid out in the parlor of the family home, and there are large mounted photographs of his flower-strewn bier among my family's papers. Here's a portrait of my grandmother - his youngest child, wearing a large oval pendant with his likeness in porcelain:

She was about sixteen years old - and my mother has always said that this portrait is the symbol of the family she married into - the worship of the patriarch, the bereft and mourning daughter.

He was very fond of this portrait. It serves as the frontispiece of his book, and numerous framed copies of it came down to us from the estates of dead aunts. A large wood-framed oval copy of it that came to our family is now hanging in my mom's house, dressing our entry way for the real estate sale.

They must have made copies of that pendant my grandmother is wearing for the entire family. I have one in a satin-lined box, that came down to me sometime during my childhood. It's hidden in a shoe-box full of junk and knicknacks of my own.

The one I have has the name of another great-aunt engraved on the back, my Aunt Louie Boyd. She was a pianist, who taught music. She became the second wife of a older man, a rich judge in Abilene, and was widowed without children.

It's kind of sad about the Ole Sourpuss. He came from a family of many kids, and he had six kids of his own. But his son died young without issue. His daughters had interesting and memorable lives, but having kids and carrying on the family line wasn't a top priority for them.

His oldest daughter Laura suffered two infant deaths before she had a daughter - Laura, Jr. - who survived. Laura Jr. had no children.

The next girl, Hattie, had a notable career - which I'll tell you about - but she married late and never had children. Louie Boyd's husband died on her, and Aunt Snow never married. My grandmother, Mary Ruth, had a failed marriage, but she also had my father, who is the only one to carry on the Ole Sourpuss's line. The four of us kids have given him seven great-great- grandchildren.

The only problem is - we're probably the kind of people he preached fire and brimstone against!

The internet age has given the Ole Sourpuss his legacy, and I think he would be pleased by it, if he knew.

In 1912, he wrote and published his autobiography. I grew up with a tattered and decrepit copy while I was young - I loved looking at the line drawings and the photographic portraits of members of my family. The complete text and illustrations are now available on the internet, from Documenting the American South, a digital publishing initiative sponsored by the University Library at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

If you want to read about the career of a late nineteenth century circuit rider and Methodist preacher - click on the link, he'll tell you all about it. Browse through the other offerings on the site, for a diverse picture of life in the American South in days past, for all kinds of people.

The Ole Sourpuss lives on, not just in portrait, but now in cyperspace, thanks to the internet. What better way to get his message out, after all?


mo.stoneskin said...

Fascinating. The sort of "worship" of him was bizarre!

Gary's third pottery blog said...

Pretty interesting story, and would that make the portrait 100 years old?

KBeau said...

I enjoyed reading that. Family history is so interesting.

CaShThoMa said...

What a fascinating story about your great grandfather and other members of the extended family. His picture is powerful; a patriarch for sure.

Tristan Robin said...


my family is so mundane.


of course, even though we don't worship each other, we are quite fond of each other...maybe that's healthier


Mojo said...

Heh... I wonder what he'd think of that bastion of libertines over in Chapel Hill publishing his book. Chapel Hill/Carrboro is well known for liberal leanings. At least if you ever listened to some of the local politicians around here.

cactus petunia said...

The image of him going in disguise to gambling halls, saloons and fleshpots, then condemning them in sermons brings to mind more than a few current day ministers... ; )

Woman in a Window said...

This was the first kinda reality tv, "He would tour... saloons and fleshpots and gambling halls in disguise and then on Sunday evenings he would call down damnation on customers and the establishments." Hilarious!

Lovely pendant and book. Ohhh, that book. Beautiful.

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