Tipping My Hat to My Ancestors


Synchronicity led me to write this post.

What other people think of me is none of my business.” I read this statement recently, and it stayed with me as the song heard on the radio in the morning that stays in my head throughout the day.

In the past few months, I immersed myself in the journal of my great grandfather on my father’s side. I’ve wondered about this man whose life story I knew nothing about until I read his account of his days as a Union soldier in the Civil War. As I finished readying the journal for publication, two bloggers I follow (Staci Troilo and Lori Crane) began posting about their ancestors and heritage. All of these events made me think of another of my ancestors, whose story intrigues me.

Emilene Stephens Hooper, my great grandmother on my mother’s side, was born 100 years before me in 1854 somewhere in southern England, most likely Cornwall. Twenty-two years later, she gave birth to my grandfather, Edwin Stephens. A few years before that, she gave birth to another son, Harry Stephens. That’s right—she gave birth to two sons whose surnames were the same as her maiden name.

But here’s where it gets rather fascinating rather than mundane. In the census from 1880, she is listed as the owner of an inn in Cornwall. The two sons are listed, and it’s stated she was pregnant. A roomer at the inn was a Frederick Hooper. By 1881, she was married to Mr. Hooper and gave birth to a daughter named Katie Hooper.

After her marriage to Fred, she gave birth to nine more children, all with the last names of Hooper.

My grandfather, Edwin, left school early to work in the China clay mines of Cornwall. He also became a minister–all before the age of twenty. In 1900, he left England forever and came to the United States where he worked in the copper mines of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Several of his half siblings followed him to the States, and I remember Aunt Katie and her minister husband Uncle Simon. I remember Uncle Charlie Hooper and Aunt Lillian Hooper. My mother and her sisters kept in contact with these relatives, both those in the States and in England. None of us questioned why they didn’t carry the name of Stephens.

My Aunt Nellie, the matriarch of the Stephens side of the family, took an interest in genealogy after her retirement as the school librarian and choir director. When she started the search, she realized something was amiss, and like the good stoic she was, she put away all the papers and told the rest of the family there wasn’t much to research.

Aunt Nellie didn’t want anyone to discover that her father, the beloved Reverend Edwin Stephens had been born to an unmarried woman.

I went to Cornwall fifteen years ago and met my English cousins.

with my English cousins

with my English cousins

Most of my grandfather’s siblings were gone by this time, but the stories remained. After Emilene’s marriage to Fred, she became a pillar of the society in their small town of Roche, Cornwall. How she did that in Victorian England I have no idea, except that she must have followed the adage, “What other people think of me is none of my business.”

The cousins who only remember Emilene in her older years told me stories of her famous hats she wore to church every Sunday. Not only was she respected, but she was a fashionista as well.

Here’s one humanizing story told by one of her grandchildren. In her final years, she would often pass gas at inopportune moments. The grandchildren remember when it happened in church. Their grandmother Emilene would turn around to the children and give them a scowl so everyone in the nearby pews would assume one of the Hooper brood made the offensive sound during the Sunday sermon. I giggle to think of this woman in her wide-brimmed hat all prim and proper letting loose with a big one, yet blaming it on her poor grandchildren.

So who was the father of my grandfather? We’ll never know. A cousin near my age in Cornwall did some research but found that all the birth records in the area where it was suspected Emilene was born had been destroyed by fire. All he found was the census of 1880 and her record of death in 1933. One of the cousins here in the States found the obituary of our grandfather where it lists a Joseph Varcoe as his father. That could have been invented for the sake of propriety as my grandfather died while a minister in a small Michigan town.

The older English cousins told me that Emilene would never say where she came from and she had no contact with her parents. She told one of her children that her father was a very mean and cruel man.

Emilene could have been sent to a large farm to work in the household. That would not have been unusual during that time for poorer farmers to send away their young daughters to work for wealthy landowners. She could have become the mistress of a landowner and perhaps his name was Joseph Varcoe. Then there’s another theory—one that is unsavory to consider. My English cousins told me their parents (children of Emilene) could never get their mother to tell them where she came from or who her parents were.

This woman, my great grandmother, defied the societal rule of Victorian England and raised twelve children. She lived her life in her own way, and obviously not caring a whit what others thought.

Emilene Stephens Hooper

Emilene Stephens Hooper


I tip my wide-brimmed hat in your direction, Emilene Stephens Hooper, and say thank you for teaching me lessons long after your death.



The Pasty – A Handful of Food with a Smattering of History

???????????????????????????????By Patricia Zick @PCZick

I love foods with a history, especially a functional one. The Cornish pasty not only qualifies, it touches my life history as well.

The pasty originates in Cornwall, England. The first mention of it in written history occurs in 1150 by Chretien de Troyes, who wrote Arthurian romances. The recipe migrated to the United States in the 1800s – to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Filled with meat and vegetables, the pasty’s invention came of necessity to the miners of Cornwall who spent long days in the copper and coal mines of southwestern England.

The pasty starts with pastry dough wrapped around whatever might have been leftover from dinner the night before. After baking, they wrapped it in warm towels for the miners to carry down into the mines. At lunchtime, a miner pulled out the pasty – still slightly warm – and enjoyed a complete meal that could be eaten with one hand. The crimped edges of the pasty were thick enough for grubby fingers to grab. The miners tossed the crust away after eating the innards. Legend says the crusts satisfied the ghosts that haunted the mines. In retrospect, it was probably the wisest thing they did because arsenic filled those mines.

When the Cornish miners emigrated to the mines in Michigan, they were revered for their expertise because mining in Michigan was in its early stages. The Michigan miners emulated everything Cornish, including the pasty. Today, if you travel through the U.P., you’ll see a sign on every diner window professing to offer the best and authentic “Cornish pastry.”

I grew up hearing my mother’s “oohs” and “aahs” whenever someone mentioned the pasty of her father’s homeland in Cornwall. She didn’t make them for some reason, but she nearly fainted in ecstasy at the mention of the food. I didn’t understand her affinity because my mother never made them. Maybe my father, a lover of liver and succotash, disliked them.

I never ate a pasty until I visited Cornwall in 1993. My cousin Marian made them for my family and me to take on our journey from her home in Newquay on the Cornish coast of England to London.

She made them the night before with leftover chicken and vegetables from our evening’s meal. When we readied to leave, she handed them to us in warmed tea towels. On the way back to London we stopped along the roadside and pulled out the still warm pasties.

Enjoying pasties and the landscape

Enjoying pasties and the landscape

When I bit into the crust and tasted the insides, I knew exactly what my mother meant.

Last night, I attempted to make pasties culled from various recipes and my memory of a sweet lunch on a hill overlooking the whole of England. It wasn’t as good as I remembered, although my husband, who’d never eaten one before, didn’t complain. Maybe that’s why my mother never made them – she couldn’t ever replicate the taste of a true Cornish pasty.

With my Cornish cousins in front of the former church my grandfather helped build in the 1890s

With my Cornish cousins in front of the former church my grandfather helped build in the 1890s

I dedicate this post to my mother – whose ninety-ninth birthday is today as I write this post. I also dedicate it to my grandfather, a man I never met, but who brought the pasty to my family when he left his homeland to work in the mines in Michigan.

Finally, I dedicate this recipe and post to the memories of twenty-nine miners who lost their lives in the Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster on April 5, 2010. May they all rest in peace.

Pasty Recipe from a One-Quarter Cornwall Prodigy???????????????????????????????

Pastry Dough

3 cups flour

1 ½ tsp salt

¾ tsp baking powder

1 cup vegetable shortening

¾ cup very cold water (you might need a little more)

Mix together the dry ingredients. Cut in shortening with a pastry blender until the mixture is crumbly

Add cold water slowly, mixing with a fork as you pour

When the mixture can be made into a ball without crumbling apart (add water as necessary), press it together firmly and wrap in plastic wrap and place in refrigerator to chill for at least an hour.

The Filling – be as creative as you’d like

1 chicken bouillon dissolved in ½ cup hot water or 1 TBSP melted butter

½ – ¾ pound of meat of your choice (or none – I used some turkey sausage patties leftover from breakfast the other day)

5 medium potatoes, cubed

2 carrots sliced

1 chopped onion

Any other vegetables you like (many recipes for pasties call for rutabagas and/or turnups

Mix the vegetables with bouillon water or butter.

Add salt and pepper to taste

Cut the chilled dough into six pieces. Roll out each piece to 8-10” circle. Place a cup or so of filling in center and fold over. Crimp the edges with fingers or fork. (I used both)

Make holes with knife or fork in top of each pasty.

Place on ungreased cookie sheet.

Bake for 40-60 minutes at 375 degrees. (Recipes varied on time so I started at the least – it wasn’t enough for my oven so they probably baked for nearly an hour.

Serve warm or room temperature. They freeze very nicely, too.

Enjoy your food knowing you’re participating in an honored and historical practice.

New Release from P.C. Zick

 Trails in the Sand covers both the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster of 2010. I use the description from my grandfather’s journal to describe his entry to the United States at Ellis Island in 1900. When he made it through customs he headed to northern Michigan’s mines. Later he became a Methodist minister and traveled the state with his large family, including my mother born on April 4, 1935.