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Archive for Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The old stone at Stony Point

A mysterious monolith south of Lawrence leads to Depression-era family story

The home of the Lawson and McMillen families circa 1917.  In back: Sara and Logan Lawson. In front, from left: Wes Lawson (younger brother of Bertha McMillen) and the first grandchildren, Dale and Don McMillen.

The home of the Lawson and McMillen families circa 1917. In back: Sara and Logan Lawson. In front, from left: Wes Lawson (younger brother of Bertha McMillen) and the first grandchildren, Dale and Don McMillen.

February 24, 2010

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What is that thing?

This story is part of our new “What is that thing?” series, which takes a look at the stories behind unusual objects around our community. If you have a mysterious object that you’d like us to look into, e-mail it to features(at)ljworld.com

Find all stories in this series.

The mysterious monolith in the Stony Point valley.

The mysterious monolith in the Stony Point valley.

In the 1920s, Letha McMillen was growing up in a house in the Stony Point valley 12 miles south of Lawrence.

She remembers spending a lot of time with her brothers and friends exploring the Baldwin Woods around her home. They’d find all kinds of things in the woods from bygone days — old glass, forsaken belongings and whatnot — but one thing stood out in particular.

“There was an old house that had been burned down in Quantrill’s raid,” remembers McMillen from her room in Vintage Park assisted living. “You could still see the broken dishes and the posts that had been burned.”

I looked up McMillen to talk to her because, 90 years later, I was exploring the same Baldwin Woods and came across a similar scene — only it was her house.

Mysterious monolith

It’s a surreal feeling to stumble upon an elaborate limestone foundation in the thick of almost impassable cedars. Decades-old trees growing between the stone steps that once led down into a basement have a way of robbing your own home of its sense of permanence.

Stranger still, though, was what I found about 30 feet away: a mysterious concrete monolith.

It looked vaguely like a headstone — it was about the right size, with weathered lettering. But it seemed to be too industrial for a headstone, and if the letters spelled a name, it wasn’t apparent anymore.

What was left read “JEMCMIII” on one side, and “EN” wrapped around another. Now it appeared to be less of a name and more like a riddle.

My best theory was that the MCMIII part, or 1903, was a plausible date for the monolith’s creation. The placement of E and N corresponded to the cardinal directions they faced. Maybe this thing communicated some other lost secret?

I took a photo and showed it to a variety of people to see if they might have some sort of clue. Eventually I showed it to Ray Wilbur, a retired stonemason who lives near the Stony Point valley.

Wilbur’s something of a historical preservationist in the area. He’s repaired and restored several century-old buildings in the area, and has known enough old-timers to have a pretty good idea about all kinds of local history.

He was fascinated by the monolith, and perplexed by the lettering — until I told him where I found it.

“I wonder if that doesn’t say McMillen,” he said. “Chet McMillen’s family lived around there, and he’s still up in Baldwin. You might ask him.”

A photo of the waterfall Letha McMillen remembers from her childhood, taken in Feb. 2010.

A photo of the waterfall Letha McMillen remembers from her childhood, taken in Feb. 2010.

Undated photo of a saw mill owned by Bill Sinks near Stony Point where the McMillen boys sometimes worked. When the McMillens cut wood on the Kelley's land, they sawed everything by hand.

Undated photo of a saw mill owned by Bill Sinks near Stony Point where the McMillen boys sometimes worked. When the McMillens cut wood on the Kelley's land, they sawed everything by hand.

The fire

Sure enough, I’d stumbled across what remained of the old McMillen home, where siblings Chet and Letha had lived until it burned to the ground in 1934.

Now in their 90s, they both have vivid memories of that place.

“It was nice. I can still see it,” says Letha. “The house sat down along the lane. Grandpa had a garden off to the side, and if you followed the lane down further there was a waterfall down there.”

The home was small — maybe 1,000 square feet — but at times it had housed nine people: Bertha and Jack Edwin McMillen; their kids, Don, Dale, Chet, Carley and Letha; Bertha’s dad, Logan Lawson; and Jack’s dad, John “Grandpa Mac” McMillen.

Through much of the Depression, the family provided for themselves off their 10 or so acres. They had pigs and a couple cows, farmland for corn, a vegetable garden, peach and apple trees. They hunted squirrel and rabbit, and they harvested wild edibles — lamb’s-quarters, dandelion, blue stem, black heart, wild lettuce and mushrooms.

In the winter, the men worked harvesting firewood from the Stony Point valley, usually from the Kelley family’s land, says Letha.

“That’s how they made their living and kept our table filled,” she says. And that’s where they were that February of 1934 when the house burned.

“Dad had just bought mom a new Home Comfort cook stove, a nice big stove. She was so proud of it. She had a big ham in there cookin’ because the boys would be coming home from working all day,” Letha says.

She says no one’s quite sure what happened, but the fire apparently burned through the chimney and spread to the house before anything could be done.

“Grandpa was not able to walk by then, so she got grandpa Lawson out of the house in a rocking chair and set him out in the yard. She had that great big ham in the oven, so she got the ham out,” Letha laughs. “Guess who got the ham? The dogs got the ham.”

“Of course all the neighbors came. We had an old crank telephone, and somebody yanked that off the wall. Mom’s rings were there, so they grabbed them. But a lot the stuff couldn’t be saved,” she says.

Remains of that day

Now that woods have subsumed what’s left of the McMillen’s home, the monolith is the lone remaining clue as to the life that was once there.

But Letha doesn’t recall seeing it there before. It can’t be a headstone — most of the family is buried in the Vinland Cemetery.

However, she does remember her grandpa working with concrete and figures he taught her dad, Jack Edwin, his technique.

“My grandpa McMillen lived in Lucas, Kansas — where the Garden of Eden is at — and he mixed the cement for the Garden of Eden,” she says. “They’ve never been able to figure out what the recipe is for the mixture, but it don’t deteriorate like a lot of cement does. I can’t help but wonder if dad didn’t get the recipe from him. For standing that long, there must be something to it.”

Her brother Chet remembers the monolith being there, but he can’t say for sure what exactly it was for.

“It was out between the house and the barn,” says Chet. “There was an old one-lung engine on top. He used it for something, but I can’t think what it would’ve been.”

Chet’s nephew Danny McMillen had only been out to the old family land once about 60 years ago when he was 10. He doesn’t remember much from that visit, but the monolith piqued his interest, so he asked around to see if his cousins might have some idea.

McMillen family photo circa 1942. Front row from left: Chet, Bertha, Jack Edwin holding Jackie Fischer, Lucille (Robinson) McMillen holding Alice McMillen. Back row from left: Lila (Markley) McMillen, Dale, Letha (McMillen) Fischer and Don.

McMillen family photo circa 1942. Front row from left: Chet, Bertha, Jack Edwin holding Jackie Fischer, Lucille (Robinson) McMillen holding Alice McMillen. Back row from left: Lila (Markley) McMillen, Dale, Letha (McMillen) Fischer and Don.

“One of them made the comment that that’s where the old generator was,” Danny says. “Hard to say what it was used for — the house wasn’t wired for electricity, but maybe they had one bulb wired up or something.”

He was amused that Jack Edwin put his name on the monolith: JEMCMIII ...EN

“He sure went to a lot of trouble to get his name on there. That took a lot of intricate work so that the concrete would even push out into the letters,” Danny says.

“There was just something about him — he liked to leave his mark. And when he built something, it was going to last through hell and eternity,” he laughs. “You never know when you’re walking through the woods — how silent they are today, but how many stories are in there.”

Comments

Sean Rudisel 4 years ago

This was a really interesting article. Appreciate the leg work it took to get this much back story

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SpiritTat 4 years, 1 month ago

Oopps ~ something weird happened .. .it tripled my post!

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SpiritTat 4 years, 1 month ago

Also sharing my appreciation and enjoyment of this article. Indeed keep up the wandering, hunting, and question ~ I look forawrd to reading about what you discover next.

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SpiritTat 4 years, 1 month ago

Also sharing my appreciation and enjoyment of this article. Indeed keep up the wandering, hunting, and question ~ I look forawrd to reading about what you discover next.

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SpiritTat 4 years, 1 month ago

Also sharing my appreciation and enjoyment of this article. Indeed keep up the wandering, hunting, and question ~ I look forawrd to reading about what you discover next.

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HOMETOWNBOY 4 years, 1 month ago

Great Job! The writer should keep it up. Interview the elderly who have lived in the area all thier lives. Get the history right from the source! My family settled in rural Douglas County before Kansas was a state in the 1850's. I wish I could have heard some of thier stories.

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jmcmillen 4 years, 1 month ago

Thanks for the story Phil. I know you enjoyed talking to Letha. She's a real hoot. She's got a lot of stories of the Vinland and Stoney Point areas. I saw the monolith 20 years ago with Chet and Danny's dad and they remembered it having a generator on it. In the picture you can see bolts inbedded in the top. Grandma Mac told me she use to listen to soap operas on the radio so the generator may have charged batteries. Put that on hte list of question I wish we had asked while they were still here. We all need to record as much family history as we can from our seniors.

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David Klamet 4 years, 1 month ago

Just wanted to express my agreement with all those who expressed an interest in more stories like this. There's a lot of interesting local history.

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cutny 4 years, 1 month ago

I've read this newspaper for 25 years, and along with the "100 years ago" archival information that the LJW prints, this is by far one of the best stories I've ever come across. Nice work!

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bobbie1207 4 years, 1 month ago

Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! The McMillen's are my cousins and I'm so sad my mom died before this article came out. She'd have loved reading it and it may have sparked some memories. I'm going to be sending the link to our cousins out in Salina. Again, THANK YOU for this piece of our family history I never knew about.

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CrystalKU 4 years, 1 month ago

I love this new column! I hope they continue it...there is a natural spring out by Lone Star my friends and I like to call the black hole, unfortunately I can't find any pictures of it on my hard drive, I guess I have to make a trip out there to take some pictures, I would love to know the history behind it!

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davidmcg 4 years, 1 month ago

This is the kind of history that people love to find and hear about. Thumbs up to the LJ World for printing it.

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neolib 4 years, 1 month ago

It's almost comical that somone felt it necessary to blemish the commentary with negativity.

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blue73harley 4 years, 1 month ago

Just another "atta boy!" to Phil. I look forward to more stories like this one. I love local history.

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oneeye_wilbur 4 years, 1 month ago

What is more encouraging about this story is that the house had nine people living in it and no one complained and on top of that they kept their clothes clean, were able to feed themselves and look what society has degenerated into now.

Handouts, food stamps, housing assistance, separate bedrooms required by the Housing Authority, and on and on.

Another Depression is needed as a wake up call for this country.

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Stacy Napier 4 years, 1 month ago

I agree. Great story. I have been to Garden of Eden and didn't know that work was done by McMillen. A great piece of local and state history. Too bad about the house. I would guess the stove was too big or hot for the old chimney.

We need more local stories like this.

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heytoto 4 years, 1 month ago

Thank you, Phil Cauthon--I loved this story!

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Shelby 4 years, 1 month ago

Everyone should check out the audio clips from Letha and Danny as well...located in the middle of the article...really great insight into their lives, and greatly entertaining.

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Jeanette Kekahbah 4 years, 1 month ago

CKennedy - Where in New Jersey? My family has owned a farm in Middlebush for 80 years.

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editer 4 years, 1 month ago

Wow, thanks so much for all your kind words — they're sincerely appreciated! This was a fun story to research. Hopefully there's many more like this to come. Of course, any leads are welcome! ~phil

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hannahss 4 years, 1 month ago

Great story, Phil. I'll share it with your fellow hiker, Will.

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Rae Hudspeth 4 years, 1 month ago

Great story.. someone really needs to get these folks' recollections into the Oral History project reported a few days back.

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hillbilly_jim 4 years, 1 month ago

From viewing the thumbmail of the family pic, I must say Letha's quite a looker!!!!!

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Reality_Check 4 years, 1 month ago

And we can see the waterfall by.....how?

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LoveThsLife 4 years, 1 month ago

This is such a neat story. Thank you for sharing!

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workinghard 4 years, 1 month ago

If you are lucky enough to have the abstract of title to your house, they are absolutely fascinating. Mine goes back to the actual transaction were it was bought from the American Indians.

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workinghard 4 years, 1 month ago

Whenever I buy tripe at the store, my wife makes me cook it myself. Same with chittlins, but she makes me cook those outside. She says it smells up the house.

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acg 4 years, 1 month ago

What a great story. It's a shame that we're losing this generation of people so quickly. They worked so hard and perservered. Could ya'll imagine what would happen if today's America had to deal with the stuff they did?

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Pywacket 4 years, 1 month ago

Excellent story and photos. How cool it must've been for Phil Cauthon to find that mystery in the woods and then be able to trace it to its source--and even to find people who still remembered the old house. To find Ray Wilbur, who provided the key to everything, was a real stroke of luck.

How remarkable that both Chet and Letha are still among us and sharp enough to share memories and insights of the house and family that inhabited that area so long ago. It must've been wonderful for Danny (who is himself a treasure in the Baldwin area) to learn a few new things about the old family homestead after so many years.

But the story behind the story isn't all about luck--if not for Phil's diligence and curiosity, it might have been another 20 years before someone else took note of the concrete block. And by then, it would've been too late to interview some of these folks. Excellent work, Phil! Keep up your explorations of the countryside around here--who knows what you might turn up next?

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trinity 4 years, 1 month ago

i am getting old, i guess; i loved this story! and would so much like to see more like this, instead of some of the inane tripe that shows up from time to time-especially the blogs.

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wprop 4 years, 1 month ago

very likely the "monolith" is a carriage step....they were often inscribed with family name

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Aisling 4 years, 1 month ago

I love this story, thank you for sharing.

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Ken Lassman 4 years, 1 month ago

Great picture of the dogs crossing the waterfall! Or are those the mysterious flyiing hounds of the Baldwin Woods? Was it full moon?

Seriously, there was a Black Bear who wandered into the Baldwin Woods in the 1960s. Too bad someone had to go and shoot her.

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christy kennedy 4 years, 1 month ago

Yes, fascinating. Thanks.

When my brother and I were kids we loved to explore our grandparents woods in a part of New Jersey where Washington and his troops spent a winter. You could still see remnants of a "corduroy road" — logs laid side by side like a raft — winding on and on through the trees (wagons hauling equipment of the day would have gotten stuck in some of the softer ground otherwise). And by the side of the road we found hand-blown, teardrop shaped glass bottles. Very exciting.

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angel4dennis 4 years, 1 month ago

What a great story! i love hearing about history and talking to people that have lived through it. History is all around us and if we open our eyes and hearts to it, we can learn about the struggles and successes it took to shape this country. The monolith was well thought out and left us guessing. Good story!

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