Whittle: Shaking family tree explosive

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There's an old adage: "You can't go back home."

Recently, I felt right back at home, especially when a seismic 4-measured earth quake happened in the lower end of Bootheel farming country of Southeast Missouri.

Growing up in the Bootheel, it was nothing unusual for us farm folks to feel "tremors" and "shakes" as the earth heaved and breathed atop the infamous New Madrid Fault.

Recently retired Southeast Missouri television news anchor/personality Mike Shain described those early quakes in a foreword he penned for my book: "Canalou: People, Culture, Bootheel Town."

"Witnesses say the ground rocked, rolled in waves, uprooting great trees, geysers of sand erupted and even the mighty Mississippi River flowed backward. The quakes ranged far and wide and are considered the largest series of quakes in U.S. history. They were of a magnitude so great church bells in eastern cities rang and the quakes continued for more than two months. New Madrid, being the only settlement in 1811-12, gave its name to the disaster and to this day the area is known as the New Madrid Fault and Seismic Zone," Shain described.

Modern day quack-measuring instruments put the recent epicenter at Steele, Mo, a few miles north of the Arkansas state line, about 10 miles west of the Mighty Mississippi.

During my book signing tour the same week (April 4) at 'That Bookstore in Blytheville', a lady named Betty reported she was at the center of the epicenter.

"My home rocked and rumbled so much (around 10 p.m. the night of April 2) that I knew instantly we were having an earthquake," shared Betty as we shared mutual earth tremor experiences dating back to our youth.

Upon learning my book contains significant earthquake information and how Bootheel folks helped tame and drain the massive swamp that formed during the 1811-12 earthquakes, Betty graciously purchased one of my books.

But, it was more than just an invitation to sign and sell books at 'That Bookstore in Blytheville' that had me excited to go back to my family roots.
How far back?

I attempted to find the grave of maternal Grandfather Harve 'Hand Shake' Stockton that I never knew. All through childhood we'd been told 'Hand Shake' Stockton, of Burdette, Ark. (which is near Blytheville) had died of natural causes.

But that changed in 2003 when Mama Whittle shared from her own death bed her father had been shot in the back, out in the barn of his farm ... a murder she said that "was never solved."

While in that area of Northeast Arkansas, I started steps to trace down Granddad Stockton's death certificate and do research at the Blytheville newspaper office formerly edited by Murfreesboro resident Harry 'Hank' Haines, a legend in Arkansas newspaper annals.

I had asked Mother why they had never shared how Grandpa Stockton perished? She responded it was "family shame" that kept them from divulging the truth about his being gunned down in a barn. She went on to share Grandfather Stockton had been on the receiving end of a bad fistfight a few weeks earlier with a younger man.

"Being younger and stouter, the man beat up Daddy real bad," Mother noted. "We think it was over a woman."

She shared more about the 'Hand Shake' nickname: "When your grandfather shook hands on a business deal, bankers and everyone knew the deal was sealed. Thus one of the bankers of the 1920s-era coined the 'Hand Shake' nickname that stuck with him."

A huge highlight of my book-signing experience beside the old wood stove at 'That Bookstore in Blytheville' was when book buyer George Hale acknowledged knowing my ancestors, including mother's brother, the late Corbet Stockton a farmer.

Having been unable to locate 'Hand Shake' Stockton's grave at nearby Sandy Ridge Cemetery, Mr. Hale and his sister, Ruth, as residents of Burdette promised to attempt to locate the grave site.

My late Mother also shared that far back in her family ledger, "there was a governor in the State of Mississippi."

I remember saying, "wow ... that's kind of like royalty in the family!"

"But earlier, they'd hung the governor's older brother for stealing a mule," Mother continued.
That brought me back down to earth.

"But down through the years, legend has it they hung most honest brother," Mother shared, with an impish smile there on her sick bed.
I've learned when tracing back through family trails, there can be "land mines" of explosive information.

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Dan Whittle
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