Academic journal article Thomas Wolfe Review

Commemorating Thomas Wolfe and His Pennsylvania Ancestors

Academic journal article Thomas Wolfe Review

Commemorating Thomas Wolfe and His Pennsylvania Ancestors

Article excerpt

Do you see, son? ... Pennsylvania ... Gettysburg... Brant's Mill... the country that I came from is there!... You must go back, son, someday to see the country that your father came from....

Of Time and the River (85-86)1

Outside the walls of recently renovated Gardner's Church, near York Springs, Pennsylvania, lie relatives, friends, and neighbors who have gone before us. Almost on a weekly basis, people visit this cemetery searching for the graves of loved ones and even distant relatives whom they have never met. Why are we so interested in our roots and our heritage? I believe this quotation by a Vietnamese monk sums it all up: "If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in this moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people." And so, when we search for our ancestors, aren't we really searching for ourselves? One such person who came looking for his roots in Gardner's Cemetery was writer Thomas Wolfe.

Being an English major in college, I had read and studied Wolfe's works, but I was unaware that he had a connection to the York Springs area. My Aunt Nellie Harbold asked me about it, saying that she recalled a road near the Harbold farm that was named Wolf Road. She also remembered hearing people speak of Thomas Wolfe, the author, but could never quite seem to piece together all the facts. Nor could I, and I knew that the only Wolfs buried in the cemetery spelled their last name without an e. I promised my aunt that I would keep looking, but for the time being, I had come to a dead end. I temporarily abandoned the search for Thomas Wolfe and turned my attention to the church renovation.

It's been said that the best way to find something is to stop looking for it. I can attest to the truth of that statement because of an experience I had the day after Thanksgiving in 2010. I was at the church by myself, doing some cleaning, and as I was working I happened to glance out the window, and I saw a man walking around the cemetery, leaning over, and peering at the headstones. I went out, introduced myself, and asked if I could be of any assistance. The man told me his name was Kevin Wolf, and that he was looking for the graves of some ancestors. We chatted for a while then moved inside the church to escape the bitter cold. As we spoke, I learned that Kevin had grown up in the York Springs area, and on this holiday weekend he had traveled from his home in North Carolina to visit his folks, Wayne and Dorothy Wolf. I then asked him the question that my aunt had posed to me: "Is there a link between the York Springs area and the author Thomas Wolfe?" Kevin's answer was a resounding "Yes." He said he was a relative of Thomas Wolfe's, and it was this line of ancestors that he was looking for that day.

As darkness approached, Kevin went outside to finish examining the headstones for signs of his relatives. A few minutes later, he came back in and excitedly informed me that he had found the graves he was looking for. He said, "You know I've driven by this church and cemetery a hundred times, but I never stopped in to see if any of my ancestors might be buried here." Kevin and I were thrilled by the sequence of events that transpired on a cold November day and that led each of us to an important discovery.

Some weeks later, I received a letter from Kevin, along with a couple of books--including Thomas Wolfe's Pennsylvania, written in 1978 by Richard Walser. Reading Walser's book, I discovered the story of Thomas Wolfe's father and his connection to York Springs. Born in Latimore as William Oliver Wolf, W.O. lived in a house on what is now Strayer Road. As a young man, he became apprenticed as a stonecutter in Baltimore, and, in fact, carved several of the headstones in our cemetery. After the Civil War, W.O. headed down south to the Carolinas where stonecutters were in high demand (1-4). …

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