Postcards: Taking time to wonder is the root of stories that find me

By Linda Emley

This is part two of “everything happens for a reason.”
This June 17, I was visiting the Todd’s Chapel cemetery with a friend. This cemetery is a beautiful spot on top of a hill that reminds me of south Missouri. It has many old pine trees and somehow still seemed cool on that hot summer day.
As we walked, I shared stories about some of the people I knew who were buried there. We stopped at a few tombstones and then wandered on to the west side of the cemetery.
Time has taken its toll on many local cemeteries, but there are still some very old stones standing on Todd’s Chapel hill. As we were walking back to the car, he paused at one stone and said, “I wonder what their story is?” I looked down at the stone and took a picture of it. I told him I would look for their story and let him know.
After I got back to the hill and the museum, I took out a piece of paper and started looking for the story of Burrell and Elizabeth Lee.
Their stone provided this information: “Burrell R. Lee August 1, 1829 – June 22, 1876 and his wife Elizabeth W. Lee June 4, 1827 – August 7, 1876.”
Their stone didn’t look old, so I didn’t think it was the original, but it did tell some of their story. There were two things about their lives that I noticed from the details on their tombstone. Burrell Lee married an older women (Elizabeth was almost two years older than he was). That was interesting, but the big question for me was, how did they both die the same year, only a few months apart?
I went to the Internet and even found pictures of them on the Web page Before the night was over, I had found them in a few Census records and pieced together the fact that Elizabeth died 46 days after her husband and left several small children.
I put the “Lees” in a file and moved on to some other work that needed to be done.
The following Saturday, Carol Proffitt and I were at the museum and I was telling her about our latest adventure to Todd’s Chapel. She joking asked me if I went to visit her great-great-grandparents who are buried there. I told her no and asked who they were. Carol replied, “Burrell and Elizabeth Lee.”
I started laughing and then told her I was working on their story. I went to my office and pulled the file to show Carol that I wasn’t making it up. We both laughed because that is just how it works sometimes.
Why did Tim pick that tombstone and why did I just happen to mention our Todd’s Chapel visit to Carol? There are at least 459 people buried there, so the odds are pretty low for this to happen. While writing this story, I noticed another really strange piece to the puzzle. Carol and I just happened to share this story Saturday, June 22, 2013, which was the exact date that Burrell died, 137 years later.
Carol started telling me the rest of the story about Burrell and Elizabeth Lee. It was even stranger than anything I could ever make up.
The family lore says that it was a hot summer day and Elizabeth fixed Burrell a pork sandwich that he took back to the field with him. Later that day he ate the sandwich, which had spoiled in the hot sun. Burrell died from food poising and apparently poor Elizabeth blamed herself.
It was said that she died from starving herself. I did some checking on how long it would take to die without food and it said it depends on your body weight, but 45 days would be an average time.
Elizabeth died 46 days after Burrell. Carol said the family thought she was part native American and this may have played a part in her decision to leave this world after her husband’s death.
After some more research, Carol found a story that said Elizabeth Lee’s maiden name was Nail and that her family was part Choctaw, so the native American rumor is now officially part of the Lee saga.
Burrell and Elizabeth’s story has one more twist that we are still looking for. It has been said that Burrell’s father was related to Lighthorse Harry Lee, the father of Robert E. Lee. Yes, we might have found a Civil War connection, so I will let you know if we find more.
When we have a slow day at the museum on a Saturday, Carol and I sometimes get out a couple of old newspapers and start reading. We will have two different years and share stories about what we find as we write down dates and stories to share later. Carol knows me well enough to know what I like so she called me this past week to tell me about her latest find in an old paper. I was thrilled when she had the following story about Alexander Doniphan.
This was in the Richmond Democrat, Sept. 18, 1879, page 3: “Quite a number of persons went from Richmond out to Hickory Grove Church last Sunday to attend the meeting that is being conducted by Elder Lockhart and others. Gen. Doniphan was one of the number.”
To me, this two sentence story is “golden” because it means that my main man, Alexander Doniphan, walked in the front door of my church Sunday Sept. 15, 1879, and sat down for a church service.
The Hickory Grove Baptist Church was formed in 1874 and the building was built in 1876. The original building is still standing, so I can say that Doniphan sat in my church.
Hickory Grove cemetery was established in 1869 and was around a few years before the church was formed. Some of the cemetery land was donated by Anna J. Smith and the rest was purchased from Jane Dulaney.
The first burial was Mary Smith, who was dragged to her death by a horse. Her grave marks the center of the cemetery, and all the land around her grave was donated. The cemetery gets its name from the hickory trees located here.

The Lees

The Lees

Hickory Grove church was organized March 28, 1874, but it hasn’t always been a Baptist Church. In 1880 it was a union church. Here’s a description I found from back in the day: “Hickory Grove Church (Union). Hickory Grove Church building is in Crooked River township, situated in a beautiful grove, not far from the river. It was erected in 1876, at a cost of one thousand two hundred dollars, and is owned by four denominations, all of which are prospering, and worship together in the most beautiful harmony.”
Eleven charter members met and organized the church. When it was first organized, Baptist services were held only once each month on the forth Sunday. Church services on the other Sundays were conducted by ministers from other denominations, but the same people came every week to hear whichever preacher showed up. Hickory Grove Church was a Baptist, Christian, Presbyterian and Methodist church all at once. Eventually, the congregation voted to affiliate with the Baptist denomination.
The original one-room building had three walnut columns in the center to support the roof and the foundation was large blocks of wood cut from white oak trees. In 1898, the decayed wooden blocks were replaced with stone blocks. In 1934, there was an extensive remodeling and a full basement was put under the building. In 1948, a brick veneer and front porch were added.
A new sanctuary was built in 1970 and the original building was converted into Sunday school classrooms. A few years ago, the two buildings were joined together with the addition of a new fellowship hall. When the fellowship hall was added, a doorway was cut out of the back side of the original building and the original wood siding and square nails were found.
When a new heat pump was added to the old building a few years ago, the furnace installer pointed out to my father that the I-beam was 60-foot-long solid wood timber. They took out a pocket knife to check the I beam and found it was as solid as the day it was installed. The same beam that supported my friend Alexander Doniphan has supported six generations of my family. My great-grandfather, Mike Kell, was two years old and living in the neighborhood when Doniphan visited the church in 1879.
It’s stories like these that make me wake up every day and wonder which one will find me next.

Have a story that wants to “find” Linda? You can email her at or see her in person at Ray County Museum during business hours, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.

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