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The Henry County Mercers

Mercer Lineage

   Our immediate family's story starts in Henry County where the town of New Lisbon stands today. One of the first pioneers, Joshua Mercer, was my great great grandfather. Joshua was born on April 25th, 1817 near Winchester in Frederick County, Virginia. When he was 15 (1832) he moved to Indiana and lived with "Aunt" Polly Grove in Dublin, Indiana until he married Catherine Swafford on October 24th, 1839. Catherine's family was from Randolph County, North Carolina. Aunt Polly was the sister of Joshua's mother's second husband.
   Joshua was one of two children (the other was a sister, Phebe) and it is not known why he chose to leave Virginia where he had many relatives. Perhaps he had a great desire for adventure, for the Indiana Territory was still occupied by Indians and only recently had Tecumseh's War come to a conclusion. It is fact that his father, William, drowned while crossing a "mountain river" on horseback (1815 or 1818). Perhaps this is why Joshua left Virginia, but in any event, he should be considered a true pioneer. Indiana was still the western frontier in the early 1800s.
   Joshua and Catherine Swafford had nine children, one of whom was James Madison Mercer, my great grandfather. The family lived on a farm they rented for six years (and later bought) near New Lisbon, Indiana in Dudley Township, Henry County. James grew up on the family farm and went to school nearby. He became a carpenter and followed that trade off and on for about ten years in Henry and Wayne counties. Later James became a farmer and continued part time as a carpenter. In 1902 he owned a total of 143 acres.
   My grandmother gave me James Madison Mercer's discharge papers from the Civil War. He was a private in Company A of the 54th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, Captain Thomas commanding. The regiment was sent to the western front as part of General Sherman's Yazoo Campaign. James' company fought at Chicksaw Bluffs (Mississippi) and Arkansas Post (Arkansas). During one of these engagements James was hit by a "spent ball" and was so disabled that he was discharged at Indianapolis in 1863. He may have been lost on the field of battle or wounded to the point that he wandered off because (like many others) he was charged with desertion. Later that charge was reduced to AWOL indicating he was probably just separated from his regiment. He received a pension of $8 per month for his service. I have seen newspaper articles mentioning his name as a member of the Grand Old Army when he was in Fourth of July celebrations and also his obituary (1931). After he was discharged his unit fought at Chickamauga and Vicksburg. I have his copy of Indiana at Chickamauga in my library.
   Returning to his farm, James married Elizabeth Hanby, daughter of William Hanby (Maryland) and Hannah (Kentucky). They had six children including Chester Clinton Mercer, my grandfather.
   James was a Sunday school teacher and the superintendent of the Sunday school. He belonged to Post 148 of the GAR. James was the first president and one of the organizers of the New Lisbon Telephone Company. He was known as a man of broad humanitarian principles who led an upright life and promoted the welfare of the community.
   He died on March 9th, 1931. Elizabeth passed away of "dropsy" on June 19th, 1914. While I never met James, I recall seeing his pictures in family albums and my father told me that when my grandfather bought one of the first cars in New Castle, Indiana, James would sit up front chewing tobacco and spitting out the side. The tobacco juice would often fly into the back seat!

The New Castle Mercers

   Chester Clinton Mercer, my paternal grandfather was known as "Chet" to almost everyone in New Castle, Indiana. Chet left the family farm and lived several places, finally settling down in New Castle where he became the telegrapher for the New York Central Railroad. He held this job for 37 years until his retirement. Before that I believe he farmed for a while in Illinois and Indiana.
   Chet was the youngest of six children and was born on April 17th, 1884 on the family farm near New Lisbon. He married Annette Gilbert on September 11, 1910 and the couple had two boys, Wayne and Mark, my father.
   Grandpa didn't talk much, but I remember going to their cabin on Dewart Lake, riding in their 1941 Pontiac. I had my first fishing experience on Dewart Lake; just him and me. I had a dough ball on a safety pin with some cotton string for a line and I actually caught a catfish. Allan and I learned to swim and canoe at Dewart lake. Grandma would take a needle and remove the leeches we collected on our legs by wading in the reeds. We had many excellent adventures and watched outdoor movies at the lakeside store.
   Those summer days at "Oakmont," the name of their cabin, were wonderful. I'm not sure if Grandpa built the cabin himself but I believe he did have some carpentry skills he probably learned on the farm. He and Grandma had the patience to teach us kids how to play Canasta, a popular card game in the forties. They had a radio up there and I still recall Phil Harris singing some of the popular songs of the day: Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette and That's What I Like About the South. That cabin and those summer vacations on Dewart Lake were important and lasting gifts given to us by our grandparents.
   After he retired from the railroad I don't believe Grandpa had any special interests or pastimes. He eventually grew forgetful and possibly had Alzheimers, but we were told he had "hardening of the arteries" and blood clots in the brain caused him to forget who he was and where he was. He wandered off throughout town and fortunately everyone knew him and would help him home. Finally Grandma had to put him into a special facility where he died on March 30th, 1955.
   Grandma's family lived in or near New Lisbon where she and Chet met. Her father was Charles F. Gilbert and her mother's name was Carrie. The story I heard was that in their eighties they got mad at each other and he moved out to a cabin in the woods on their property. I remember Grandma in the 1940s and 1950s when we visited her and Grandpa in New Castle almost every Sunday. She always cooked chicken and dumplings and cared enough for me that she would talk to me as if I was an adult. Based on those and later conversations, I believe she was a bright, intelligent woman. She was of a plain appearance with graying red hair and freckles. My dad said she was kind of wild in her younger years, a flapper using cocaine and going out dancing. In her later years she wore no makeup and attended the Christian Science Church. I recall she said, "I reckon," and "Pert near" occasionally, true to her rural Hoosier upbringing. I know she was a member of Eastern Star, so Grandpa must have been a Mason.
   I liked Grandma a lot because she stood up for me when Allan and cousin Richard (Wayne's son) teased me. She also was creative, making me a clicker from a tin can once when Allan and Richard each got one in a box of Crackerjack but I didn't have a nickel to buy a box. I remember sitting on her porch swing and telling her I was never going to get married, but she told me that yes, I would get married some day as if she knew how it was all going to turn out. I know she was resourceful in many ways. Once when Uncle Wayne was a boy, he tied the rope of his sled to the bumper of a delivery truck. When the truck stopped, the sled kept going and he ran his nose up the tail pipe. He ran home with his nose hanging on by a thread and Grandma calmly taped his nose back on with adhesive tape. It was still there when he died in his eighties!
   'Nettie was a good cook and always turned out a big Sunday dinner. After dinner she would read to us and as Christmas drew near she always managed to end her reading of The Happy Chaps on or near Christmas Eve. I still have that book. Another book she kept for us was one where a bullet was fired from a gun and each page showed a different object the bullet passed through, like a watermelon someone was eating. She could play the piano and had a pump organ in her house. It was she who made sure my dad and Uncle Wayne had music lessons when they were growing up. I remember she took us on the interurban line we called the "Doodlebug" for some obscure reason. Grandma passed away on May 6th, 1967, probably from a heart attack.
   Grandpa's sister, Aunt Eva, lived down the street and sometimes Grandma would take me down there to visit. Aunt Eva was the only sibling of Grandpa's that I clearly remember. She was ten years older than Chet. She wore dark clothing, was a Christian Scientist and was well-educated. I still have hand written minutes from the Mercer Family Reunion in the twenties and thirties at Memorial Park at which she presided as the secretary. I also have a family history that she prepared in the early thirties, probably for that same event which drew Mercers and others from several states.
   Eva was married to Enoch Abner Nation, the "blind lawyer" of New Castle. Enoch's brother James also married a Mercer, Mary Maude, but she was not from Chet's immediate family since his sister, Mary Leone, married Henry Secrest and later Nolan Ward. It was Maude Mercer, daughter of Joshua Frank Mercer (brother of James Madison), that married James A. Nation. They lived in Straughn, Indiana. This Nation family was directly related to Carrie Nation, the reformer, famous for her temperance activities.
   Another family, closely related, was the Kellam family. They became owners of the Mercer Farm at New Lisbon. I remember BernaDena Mercer Kellam, who I believe was the daughter of Charles Marion Mercer, one of Chet's brothers, who stayed on the family farm. There was also an "Aunt Matt" who I remember but haven't figured out her exact relationship. I recall going to Aunt Matt's farm and riding on the horse drawn manure spreader.
   Returning to New Castle, Chester and Annette had two sons, Frederick Wayne and Mark Lamont. Mark was born on June 18th, 1912. Wayne was born on June 22nd, 1911 and was apparently the quieter of the two. He was shy. After winning an event at a track meet in high school, he was embarrassed and went home rather than accept the award. Mark brought the award home for him. Wayne worked at Delco Remy and Chrysler in New Castle until he had to retire due to ill health. Wayne married Ruth Simmons in 1934 and they had two children, Richard (1938) and Linda (1942).
   From his earliest years, Mark was outgoing and excelled at athletics, playing varsity football, baseball, basketball, and running track for the New Castle Trojans. His basketball team went to the regionals during his senior year and the following year the same team won the state championship, without Mark of course. He ran the hurdles in the state finals and came in second to a runner who went on to compete in the Olympics. He was also an excellent swimmer and diver. He was a lifeguard at the YMCA pool while in high school. Mark took banjo lessons as a boy and throughout his life he was appreciative of music, especially Dixieland jazz.
   Mark was approached by famous basketball coach, Branch McCracken, to attend Ball State Teachers' College (Now Ball State University) in Muncie, Indiana. He was given a "scholarship" which consisted of painting the wrought iron fence around the campus. He noted that by the time he finished, it was time to go around again. He also worked his way through college as a short order cook where he waited on several Chicago gangsters, including Babyface Nelson. But sports were his main interest. He lettered in basketball, baseball, track, and football. He was also an accomplished gymnast and performed on stage in the White River Review, an annual college show doing a springboard act, but was banned when he tried to do a fan dance with an electric fan and wearing only an athletic supporter!
   Mark met Bessie Pope at Ball State. Bessie, aka "Betty", was from Kendallville, Indiana. She also helped earn her way through college by playing viola in a string quartet, often for the Ball family at their mansion in Muncie. They both received teaching degrees in 1936 and went out into the world.
   They found positions in nearby towns and married in 1937. In the summer Dad managed a large outdoor swimming pool (Laughing Waters) not far from Knightstown where he taught. They spent their honeymoon there, living in a tent on the far side of the creek which they had to cross on a log. Their first son, Allan Eugene, was born January 22nd, 1938 in New Castle, Indiana. Their second son, Jerry Lamont, was born October 27th, 1940, also in New Castle.
   When war broke out in 1941, Dad was 4F because he was nearly blind in one eye, so he took over the coaching position at Knightstown and spent many hours at practice with his teams which were fairly successful. I still remember the victory bell ringing around town after a Falcon victory in the same gym where Hoosiers was filmed decades later. Mom says Dad took up the drums as an outlet for frustrations resulting from coaching… and probably from teaching, too. Dad had a dance band for several years in which he played drums and occasionally sang. The band would sometimes practice at our house. Dad was always singing the old standards, especially in the bath tub with us boys in attendance and quickly learning the words ("My cutie's due on the 222. She's comin' thru on a big choo choo").
   Dad was also a part time deputy policeman and related many stories about his adventures. One night he was returning home from the police station when he noticed the town drunk attempting to reach into the library book drop. Dad stopped and asked him what he was doing whereupon the drunk tried to kick him. Big mistake. Dad flattened him with a right to the forehead and took him to the jail. Later as he was driving home he noticed a severe pain in his hand. Stopping at the doctor's house, he found he had broken the upper bones in his hand. I also remember coming out of the theater one night and seeing a glow in the sky. When we reached the sight of a barn on fire, there was Dad on the roof with a garden hose, trying to put out the fire. He always amazed us by doing one arm hand stands and riding us around town on his yellow Schwinn bicycle. He was always in good shape and was a pitcher on a semi-pro baseball team.
   During this time, Mom taught music at the Indiana State Soldier and Sailor's Children's Home near Knightstown. She excelled as a music teacher and had many successful students. She was also the organist at the First Christian Church and participated in many community activities.
   One day Dad, who taught Political Science and his principal had a falling out. Dad ws fired, but the school board reversed the firing when they heard the full story. Regardless, Dad left Knightstown and we moved to Wolcotville, Indiana where Mom took charge of the band and the chorus, and taught music. Later she would be my 7th grade English teacher. Dad taught at LaGrange a few miles north, very near the Michigan state line. This lasted two years and Dad quit. He sold vacuum cleaners for a while and then decided we should move to Florida. He went to Florida to find a place for us and when school closed for the summer, we left with a small trailer full of our belongings for Largo, Florida where we spent the summer.
   In 1952 we were in Callahan, Florida where Dad taught Political Science and Mom taught Band, Chorus, and Music. Callahan taught us a lot about the rural South. One of the highlights of this period was our frequent trips to Fernandina Beach where we barbecued chickens, usually black on the outside and raw on the inside. After that we spent the summer in Tallahassee where Mom and Dad attended graduate school at Florida State University.
   Our next stop was Groveland, Florida. Mom took on the usual music duties and Dad taught fifth grade at Mascot and (later) sixth grade at Clermont. I believe he also served as principal for a while. Allan graduated in 1956 from Groveland High School and went to Florida State University. I attended The Bolles School in Jacksonville, graduating in 1958. By that time, Dad had once more felt the traveling itch and decided he wanted to go to California.
   Mom and Dad taught in Joshua Tree and Yucca Valley in California's high desert east of Los Angeles. Allan and I visited during Christmas vacation and were both taken with California as will be seen later. At this time our parents decided to go overseas and teach for the US Navy in Morocco. This was to be only the first of their several overseas teaching jobs during the next few years. Before they left for Morocco, they purchased a house at Pine Cove on San Jacinto Mountain. That became our gathering place for the next few years.
   After two years in Morocco, Mom and Dad taught at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. During their time at "Gitmo" the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred and along with hundreds of dependents, they were evacuated on a Navy transport ship. The Navy then assigned them to San Diego for a short while until they were returned to Cuba. After finishing their tour in Cuba, they lived in Hemet, California for a while where Mom taught and Dad golfed. Next they went to Guam and then Tinian. Finally they returned to the states and decided to move to Morro Bay, California where they purchased some rental property. Dad golfed at the country club there and made his first (and last) hole in one on that course. He had a heart attack at this time and was revived by the aid unit. Later he told us, "If I do that again, just leave me there and I'll either get better or I won't." That probably sounds despondent, but it merely reflected his attitude about doctors, healthcare and well-being. He always had a "survival of the fittest" attitude. Then he found out he had cancer. He decided the best thing to do was move closer to Allan which turned out to be a wise decision, because he died of prostate and/or bladder cancer on April 22nd, 1979. He was a man of high ideals and broad intellect. Dad never tired of telling us humorous stories, his adventures around the world, and facts that he thought would help us through life. I believe he faced death in the same manner... as another adventure.
   At the time of his death, Mom was still teaching at a magnet school in Chula Vista. She taught there until age 74 when she finally decided it was time to retire. Energetic as she was, she soon became a volunteer at the local hospital and was playing the organ at church. She also entered the Senior Olympics in her eighties and won a running event (fifty yard dash) and swam also. A really remarkable woman, at ninety-one (at this writing) she is still going strong after defeating breast cancer, a broken femur, and various falls.

Jerry Mercer


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