Effie Mae had "Shell" eyes, it was often told to me. She was my grandma and she had the bluest eyes I've ever seen. As a child, I regretted my draw in the genetic pool of family. The "Shell" eyes were not passed on to me, but rather the eyes of my grandpa, muddied with greys and greens and flecks of gold. It was from Grandma that I learned the old cliché "lost in her eyes". Effie's eyes were large, sky-colored, and bright, even after the blindness of old age set in.
Like her grandmother Margaret Ann Low Shell before her, Effie was a seamstress. Both of them were clever artists, making something from scraps of nothing, without patterns. Clients could point at a picture of a dress in the Sears and Roebuck catalog, hand Effie a pile of scraps or old drapes, and she could reproduce that dress. I don't remember my grandma without a needle or crochet hook in her hands. At times her hands must have been still on her aproned lap, but I don't remember them that way. In younger years, her hands had soothed babies, fed chickens, waved in the air at revival camp meetings. These revival meetings finally got her into trouble when, in her teens, she seemed to be singled out as having "the sight" by every tent revivalist who traveled through the county. Spirits "spoke through her" to the congregated believers. Always superstitious anyway, this spooked her to the extent that she was afraid to sleep alone. Her parents forbade her going to more revival meetings, but she carried this fear of spirits all her life.
I was a late-in-life grandchild. I trailed behind my cousins in age, and as a result, I knew a grandma softened by the leisure time of later years who did what she liked best. "Fancy Work" as Granddad called it. And she talked to me while she created heirlooms for us. Her favorite stories were from times long past: her daddy's house of seven daughters, her wedding dress muddied from the long, rainy wagon ride in March, her wedding ring (I wear it now) bought with love and chicken egg money, the ouija board that had predicted each of her children's births, and, best of all, her stories of grandparents.
It was predestined that I too would become obsessed by genealogy. I had been tempted by those fabulous stories. And as the official documents rolled in, I was not at all surprised to find that Effie's oral rendition of family history, even the most bizarre of stories, rang true.
A research trip to Effie's childhood countryside in search of tombstone dates and remaining homesteads was eye-opening to me. Illinois south of Decatur was truly "Southern" to us Wisconsinites. Children spoke with lazy drawls straight out of Gone with the Wind. Grits were on the menu at McDonald's. Steep winding, gravel roads led to shanty houses with broad front porches. And the cemeteries were crotch-deep in weeds. Ticks dropped from overhead branches. Often the only way to find the old sections of cemeteries was to wade knee-deep through swampland and hunch under rusty barbed-wire fences. Graves were frequently unmarked. Existing stones were sometimes half-buried with their coffins.
But the cemetery where we found Effie's mother's family was strangely mown and sunny. The cemetery's name was Bob Doane. The village of the same name was gone. The once blue-eyed Shells lay in neat rows, and the graves still with stones bore Biblical first names. Grandma's uncle enjoyed joking about their names. His name was Nathan Shell, and when someone asked if he might be Jewish, he replied with a straight face, "I don't know. My father was named Isaac and my uncle was named Solomon."
It was Isaac Shell who captured my interest. If a man were ever influenced by his times, it was he. Isaac Martin Shell was born in Warren, Tennessee, in 1805, and died in Dunklin County, Missouri in 1863. His great grandfather, Johann Casper Schell had immigrated to America from Wurtenberg, Germany. His grandfather John, born in Pennsylvania in 1750, had been a Revolutionary War officer in North Carolina and later served his country fighting Indians. He was present at the battles of Eulah Spring, Ramour's Mill and Sandy Mush. . His plantation, which contained a mill as well, covered 1,549 acres. His father, Christian Shell, another plantation owner and prosperous millwright, had lived in Shellsford, Tennessee, a town named for him.
At age 19, Isaac married Artemesia Thomas. She was the first of his two wives. After his father's death in 1827, they sold his inheritance and moved to Shelby County in southern Illinois where Effie would be born two generations later. One account lists daughters Lucinda, Desdemonia and Elmira (Myra) being born there. Another account adds the names Samantha and Joshua.
In 1832, Isaac enlisted for service in the Black Hawk War. For a short time he served as Sergeant in Captain Peter Warren's Company under Brigadier General Samuel Whitesides. Abraham Lincoln served under Whitesides as well. (Isaac's son Nathan would later marry the General's granddaughter, Mary Whitesides, who was also Captain Warren's niece.) Isaac's horse "gave out" during the war, but he returned home unharmed. Sadly, his wife died shortly after.
It is known that Isaac had a love between his two marriages. An affair with a woman from an affluent family resulted in a pregnancy. When the baby boy was born, the woman was sent away to relatives with the child. Isaac went after his child, probably named William, and brought him back to raise him. In this way it is said he saved the good name of the girl and restored the family's respectability. However, in 1837, Isaac married another woman, Margaret Ann Low, who had been present at Artemesia's deathbed. She reportedly was Pennsylvania Dutch, speaking the mixture of German and English. In later years when William was criticized for hanging around the house instead of working outside with the men and boys, she said, "But I don't know what I would have done without him. He took such good care of my children. I never had to worry about them when they were with him, and he is so good helping me around the house."
About 1847, Isaac moved his family to nearby Fayette County, Illinois. His children in the census were listed as Irvin, John, Lenoir, Artemesia, Elizabeth and Margaret. Nathan, my great grandmother Sena, and Francis were born there.
About 1860, Isaac and his clan moved again, this time to a large farm near Kennet in Dunklin County, Missouri. According to Nathan Shell, Isaac was a Renaissance man. He had built a wagon for Irvin, who fought with the Yankees, to break through Rebel lines. Irvin drove all day and all night to get through and no one heard from him for a long time. In addition to wagons, Isaac made looms, flutes, spinning wheels, violins, furniture, and almost anything. He was a millwright (as were his father and grandfather), a good general mechanic, and an accomplished, self-taught musician. He played violin so well that he was once asked to play for the governor's inaugural ball.
Their part of Missouri, officially listed as "neutral" territory, was overrun by both Rebel and Yankee armies, and the soldiers from both sides would get his sons, Irvin and Nathan, to bring them water. One evening, some of the soldiers were playing their violins, and one of Isaac's sons remarked, "My daddy plays fiddle too." So the boys brought Isaac. One of the soldiers said, "Let the old man go first." Isaac played a few tunes and then said, "Now, boys, it's your turn." They were quiet, and then one soldier said, "Oh, no, not after that!" The next night, Isaac and Nathan went as near to the camp as they could and hid in the grass, listening to the boys play. They laughed to hear the soldiers trying to imitate Isaac's songs.
Isaac was Republican in political belief. When time for election came, the four families from the North were told by three guerrillas not to vote for Lincoln or the guerrillas would be back to "get them". Margaret tried to keep Isaac form going to town to vote. He had to get out of his sickbed to do so. He took more cold. One Sunday, the preacher Gregory said in his sermon, "It won't do to go to the expense to furnish a rope to hang such men as Isaac Shell, Mark White, Ed Richards and the Wescotts. We can just skin bark and hang them."
It was shortly after this and the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, that the guerrillas returned to Ed Richardson's farm. They set his house on fire. When he ran out to fight the flames, they shot him. The guerrillas moved on to the adjoining Shell farm. When they got there, Margaret told them, "Death has cheated you." Isaac was already dead. They ordered her and her family out of Missouri, giving her only twenty-four hours to do so. Margaret and her children buried Isaac in a coffin made from the wood of a wagon he had been making for his family. They took a yoke of oxen and only the necessities they could load into the wagon. With Nathan, twelve, driving, they fled through enemy lines to the home of married daughter Artemisia at Caruthersville. Behind them they left what they'd owned--a mill, stock, oxen steers, crops and preemption claims after Isaac's death. Effie's mother Sena was Margaret's second youngest child. She was nine that year and her little brother Francis was just six. They spent the winter at Mant Sweeny’s house. Samantha was Margaret's married step-daughter.
After a time, Irvin, who was on furlough, came from Illinois to take the stricken family back there. It took twenty-eight days to reach Bob Doane, Illinois. Lenoir and John, two of Margaret's sons, died enroute. The land in Missouri was swampy and bred malaria. Children were prone to exposure. Her daughter, Margaret Ann, died the next summer. Apparently Margaret Ann shared "the gift of sight" that appeared off and on in that family. As she was sick and dying she said, "Mother, Artemesia is coming. They are having trouble about bringing their stock across the river. The man wants them to leave the stock." When Artemesia arrived, she confirmed Margaret Ann's story. She said that they had been asked to leave their livestock at the river. Margaret Ann was fifteen when she died. Irvin's wife, Letitia, died shortly after.
When the family got to Illinois, Margaret and her children were penniless. After having enjoyed "the good life", she gave up housekeeping to go out to sew fro a living. She was a talented seamstress and tailor and would stay in other people's homes for two or more weeks, making clothes for all members of a family. Usually her Shell-eyed daughers and her youngest children, Sena and Francis, would go with her. Nathan was only twelve, but he worked on a farm and attended school in the winter. He earned $15-$17 a month and sent it to his mother.
Margaret had learned to read in the Bible and she knew much of it by heart. After her sight failed, and she could no longer read fine print, she would have her son Nathan look for the place she wanted. Then with the book on her lap, she would read (recite from heart) the entire chapter.
Isaac had been fussy about being clean and well-dressed. In family records it is written, "He was a very rich and a great man." After his death, Margaret was asked why she didn't remarry. She said she could never find anyone to compare with Isaac Shell. Then she added, "I never saw him without a white shirt and tie on." One of the women laughed and asked her, "Are you sure about that?" (After all, Margaret had borne ten of his children.) This amused all of them except Margaret who was terribly shocked. "She was very religious," according to her son Nathan. When she was on her deathbed, she announced that Irvin had crossed a river, was on his way home from the war and that he would arrive before she died. The family largely disregarded this as the ramblings of her sickness. But Irvin did arrive and said that he had been crossing the river at precisely the same moment that she had "seen" him doing so. Irvin was on furlough until the funeral.
And this is the true story of Effie Mae's "Shell eyes." I pass it on to you, Colin, with your great grandpa's muddied eyes of greys and greens and flecks of gold, and to your sister, Cara, with those glorious Shell blue eyes.
Dedicated to Effie Mae Backensto Blickem
--by Linda Mae Arneson Mooney Courchane