Granny’s tales fuel quest to identify his kin
The crackling fire danced in the eyes of young Don Renfroe as he sat on a shell box listening to his Granny Bess Renfroe tell tales.
The stories were always based on true events or things his granny had experienced herself. To keep Renfroe entertained on long, cold winter days, Granny Bess might have embellished the stories just a bit, but Renfroe said she never strayed too far from "reality."
"It was oral history at its finest," Renfroe said. "I was about seven years old when my curiosity went into high gear. I can’t explain why I was so interested in knowing about where I came from and who I was, but I was always listening and asking questions."
Curiosity was Renfroe’s constant companion and he developed an ear for a good story or any story mentioning the Renfroes.
He collected bits and pieces of family history even though they seemed as useless as an old maid’s ball of wound string.
"After a while, I had put enough of the puzzle pieces together to get some idea of the people I had came from and who I was," Renfroe said.
The puzzle pieces set the family tree up through Renfroe’s great-granddaddy, Pleasant Green Renfroe, but that’s where it stopped.
"Nobody could tell me anything past my great-granddaddy," Renfroe said. "I was stumped and more curious than ever. I had been told things often get changed in oral history and that was a possibility in my search for my great-great granddaddy.
Granny Bess was telling one of her tales and Renfroe’s great uncle, Dewey Renfroe, and his granddaddy, "Old Dad" Renfroe, mentioned their granddaddy fought and died in the Civil War, but they didn’t know anything more about him, not even his name.
"Granny Bess didn’t know his name either, but said his wife’s name was Rebecca Williamson," Renfroe said.
"Uncle Dewey said three Renfroe brothers, Jim, Andrew and Enoch had migrated to Florida from Kentucky. They missed the rolling hills of home so much, they headed back; but made it only as far as Pike County. That information provided me with a few more pieces to the family puzzle, but didn’t really get me any closer to finding out about my great-great granddaddy than I was."
In 1971, Renfroe met noted Bullock County historian Dean Spratlin, who encouraged him to keep searching and one day the pieces would come together. Taking Spratlin at his word, Renfroe kept looking.
"I wrote down every bit of information I had," Renfroe said. "I had just about given up on places to look, though. I’d visited every cemetery around with my grandmothers and had visited the Renfroe Cemetery at Josie with my Grandmother Hixon many years earlier. But Granny Bess had told me we weren’t kin to the Renfroes in that cemetery and I took her at her word."
Had Renfroe not visited Bonnie Plants in Union Springs, there might still be a missing piece to the puzzle.
"While I was there, the lady helping me asked, ‘Just how many Renfroes are there and are y’all all kin?’" Renfroe said. "I said there was a bunch of us and we are all kin if we could figure out how."
On his way home his own words kept spinning in his head, "We’re all kin; we’re all kin."
"Granny Bess had said we weren’t kin to the Renfroes in the Renfroe Cemetery, but I thought, maybe, because things can get changed in oral history."
Renfroe stopped hesitantly at the Renfroe Cemetery. To his surprise, he found the missing piece of the family puzzle, the tombstone of Rebecca Williamson, the wife of Pleasant W. Williamson.
"Pleasant Green Renfroe was my great-grand-daddy," Renfroe said. "So, there was the connection. Next to those tombstones was the tombstone of Sarah E. Renfroe, ‘Wife of Neil Renfroe,’ but there was no tombstone for Neil Renfroe. He was my great-great granddaddy.
"For the first time I knew his name. Almost 55 years after I had started to look, I finally knew my great-great granddaddy’s name and it had been right under my nose all the time. Granny Bess had just gotten confused. Rebecca Williamson wasn’t my great-great granddaddy’s wife, she was his mother-in-law."
Renfroe later learned Neil Renfroe had died at age 24 of a sickness caused by measles and was buried in the Confederate Cemetery in Charlottesville, VA.
The earlier information was true about three brothers who came to Pike County from Florida around 1850, but their names were Neil, Thomas and Enoch. All three enlisted in the Civil War and were placed in Company L 15th Alabama Infantry Regiment and fought with the North Virginia Army of the Confederate.
"Neil Renfroe died in a hospital in Charlottesville and Thomas died in Virginia, too," Renfroe said. "Enoch got his leg shot off at Gains Mill, VA, but came home to Pike County and raised a large family. Neil Renfroe had three children, Pleasant Green Renfroe, who was my great-granddaddy, and his two sisters. My granddaddy was Jessie Edgar Renfroe. My daddy was Max Bufford Renfroe. I am Donald Edwards Renfroe and that’s where the line ends. I don’t have any sons to carry on the name."
But Renfroe’s story doesn’t end there. It’s a story that will be told by his daughters’ children on through his own great-great grandchildren. They will tell how their great-great granddaddy and his wife, Susan, traveled 900 miles from Josie to Charlottesville, to visit the gravesite of his great-great granddaddy, Neil Renfroe, who is buried in a mass grave with 1,026 other Confederate soldiers.
They will tell of the emotions he felt when his finger traced the name of the man he had been searching for since he was seven years old.
They will tell how he gently removed a clump of the turf with a scoop and took Neil Renfroe back home. And how, on a cold windy December day in 2010, their great-great granddaddy placed the sod in front of the memorial marker bearing the inscription, Pvt. Neil Renfroe Co L 15 Ala Regt CSA 1837- July 1, 1862. Buried CSA Cemetery, Charlottesville, VA.
Next to Neil Renfroe is his wife, Sarah Elizabeth. After 150 years, Neil and Sarah Renfroe are together once again.
May they rest in peace.
Jaine Treadwell is a freelance writer from Brundidge.