August 11, 2010 will mark the 72nd anniversary of the death of my great-great-grandmother, Stella Ophelia Bowling Cunningham. I find her endlessly fascinating, perhaps because I know more about her than I many of my other ancestors. She left behind a diary (pdf), a letter to my great-uncle Alvin Cunningham, and several other letters I haven’t shared on this site.
Stella’s father served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, as did most of my ancestors who were the right age because most of my ancestors lived in the South. If I had relatives in the Union Army, I haven’t discovered them yet. He was captured and sent as a POW to Camp Douglas in Illinois, where he had a conversion experience and became a minister. Stella’s mother was Mary Elizabeth Kennedy. Stella and her mother both played the organ. They came from a musical family. Family legend has it that David Kennedy, Stella’s great-great-grandfather, charmed the secret for making gun locks from the New York factory from which he purchased them for his gunsmithing business by playing the fiddle for the workers. Probably untrue, but a great story.
Stella and her family traveled from Tennessee to Texas in a covered wagon and settled near Dallas, living in Wise County (1880 Census) and perhaps Collin or Denton County, as Stella married in Collin County, and her family lived in Denton when the 1900 Census was taken. She definitely lived in Denton with her husband after her marriage.
Stella was a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in Texas in the 1880’s and 1890’s. She seemed primarily to be concerned with keeping good order in her classes. She stayed with different families, one of which was the Cunninghams. She married their son Amos in 1894. They had seven children together: Herman Cunningham (my great-grandfather, 1895-1980), Dessie Mary (1897-1992), Lillie Manila (1899-1974), Alfred Morgett (January-April 1901), Velma Helen (1903-1996), Aubrey Bowling (1908-1977), and Nina Varena (1910-1990).
The family moved out the Panhandle region of Texas between 1910 and 1920. Stella lived in Swisher County, where my grandfather was born, and in Armstrong County. Her son Herman would meet his future wife Annie Lola Jennings in the same way that Stella met Amos: she was a teacher and boarded with Stella and Amos.
Stella had been engaged previously to John William Tolleson and Roscoe M. Payne. I actually had some really nice exchanges with descendants of John William Tolleson a few years back. All of us were very interested in the story of our ancestors’ engagement. Stella mentions burning some of Tolleson’s letters with Amos, though she did keep some from Roscoe, which I have copies of and have promised not to share. It looks as though Stella broke off her engagement with Roscoe because she didn’t approve of his business, which sounds like a pool hall.
For a time in the 1930’s, she lived in Rosebud, New Mexico, a town that no longer exists. Stella died in Claude, Armstrong County, Texas.
Perhaps one of the reasons I find her so interesting is that she did leave enough of herself behind in her writing for me to get a sense of her personality. To me, that’s what family history and genealogy are all about: learning about the real people in your family, what they were like, what they did. It saddens me that so many people think it’s a waste of time or that genealogists are only interested in finding famous ancestors.