Forward To An American Family Sampler: The Founding Generation
Graveyards are temples of solitude and loneliness, yet their inhabitants were once vibrant living beings. Each grave in a cemetery holds a story. Wander any graveyard and a visitor will find one or two headstones or groupings calling out for further reflection or even research. What did this inscription mean? Why are two women buried on each side of one man’s grave but with different surnames? Who was this family with so many interments yet no one remembers them today? In America toward the end of thenineteenth century, great families, many newly rich or empowered, reserved large places for themselves and their descendants. By the turn of thetwenty-first century, many of these families had petered out or had been absorbed into other clans. A visitor to Ferndale Cemetery in New Jersey may pass one such enclave whose oldest inhabitant was interred in 1880 and whose newest in 1968. It is the final resting place for a family who for the purposes of this narrative is called Prescott, and who founded and ran a great enterprise through much of America’s history. Just down the path is another group of tombstones for the Gilbert family, beginning in 1899 and ending in 1962. Some of the oldest visitors might vaguely remember the last name written on most of the first group’s tombstones, and other aged visitors might even recognize one name in the second group. Should that visitor become curious about these inhabitants, there are the newspapers and other archives of their day to peruse. After diligent efforts, the visitor may know more about these families. One such visitor did more. The result is chronicled in the book below.
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To give the best account of these families—how they lived, how they prospered, and in some cases how they failed—the chronicle is broken down into individual chapters focused on one individual whose tombstone resides here at an important point in that person’s life. Through the telling of these key moments, the book is an attempt to weave a mosaic so the reader will know how two families traveled the corridors of time and the American century and ultimately came to rest there in Ferndale. A note of caution: As any historian will agree, one must look at an individual and his or her actions in the context of that individual’s times. Individuals lived their lives and committed deeds based on their experiences and cultural upbringing. It is not our place to judge them by our current standards, but by those of their day. The chronicler has attempted to weave the events surrounding these individuals in order to give the reader a better sense of what informed them. Without this background, one cannot fully appreciate how they lived their lives. As John O’Hara said, “We all die alone, but it is how we lived that is the story.”