Friday, August 31, 2018


Last Saturday, I sat on the front porch of a log cabin where, nearly 200 years ago, a decision was made that determined my future.

The cabin, a few miles south of Abingdon in southwest Virginia, was built in the late 1700s by my great-great-great grandfather, David Dryden.

On that porch, high on a hill looking across a river into the mountains of Tennessee, two of David’s sons, Nathaniel and Thomas, decided in the late 1820s to strike out for the west. (Okay, I don’t know for sure they held this discussion on the porch — maybe they held it around the gigantic stone fireplace in the kitchen or as they were fishing on the river or hunting bears or whatever — but I'm telling this story and I’ve decided they were on the porch. If you don’t like it, nobody is forcing you to read this.)  

I imagine the conversation went something like this:

Nate: Bro, we Drydens have been moving west since the 1600s — from Scotland to Maryland, from Maryland to Philadelphia, from Philly to southwestern Virginia. It’s time for us to continue the family tradition. Where in the west should we go?

Tom:  Let’s pick a place that, two hundred years from now, will be as far as possible from a major airport so our descendants who leave the area will be inconvenienced to the max when they try to visit.

Nate:  Well, here’s a map of the new state of Missouri. Let’s move to the middle of that godforsaken place. No way there’ll ever be a commercial airport anywhere near that.

Tom:  Great idea. Our descendants will have to get to an airport an hour early, fly several hours into St. Louis or Kansas City, rent a car, then drive two or three more hours. It’ll take ‘em all day to get there!

And so the brothers loaded their wagons and moved to Missouri, putting down stakes two miles east of a Montgomery County settlement that was soon to be named Danville. 

The rest, as they say, is history: Thomas and his wife, Elizabeth, begat Gilbert I, who begat Gilbert II, who begat Gilbert III, who begat yours truly. 

The view from the porch with the
Tennessee mountains in the distance.
David’s cabin is no longer in the family but the current owner, a sweet, white-haired lady named Betty, kindly allows his far-flung descendants to gather every couple of years to share Dryden stories and admire the breathtakingly beautiful place from whence we all sprang. Betty even made desserts for Saturday’s reunion, including a blackberry cobbler almost as memorable as the setting. Hanging in her kitchen are photos of Thomas and Elizabeth, taken around 1860, the oldest-known photos of any members of my family. They were given to Betty by cousin Leigh, who organizes the reunions, and Betty displays them proudly to show visitors the son and daughter-in-law of the man who built her home nearly a quarter of a millennium ago. 

This year’s reunion was sparsely attended. Only four of the 500 or so descendants who were invited showed up.  Little matter. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting relatives I never knew I had, was awed to tour my ancestral home, and hope someday to have the pleasure of sitting on that porch with the future of my branch of the family tree — my two sons and the two sons my oldest son has begotten, one of whom is named Isaac Thomas Dryden. He was named in honor of me.

I doubt my son knows this but my father always told me I was named after the Thomas who left Virginia for Missouri. And so, therefore, is the newest begotten Dryden son, Isaac Thomas.

He is still in diapers but it is my hope that someday, when he is an old man like his grandpa, Isaac Thomas will have the opportunity to visit that cabin and will experience the same reaction I had as I sat on its front porch and realized that, somehow, after all these years, I was home. 

My dad always told me, "If you're going to do something, do it right."
Maybe that's something that was passed down to him because David Dryden built his
two-story cabin right. Check out the way the logs are notched. No wonder his house still stands after 250 years.

Elizabeth (b 1802) and Thomas (b 1800) Dryden
crossed the mountains from Virginia to Missouri in 1829.
Their photos are displayed in the house his father built.

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