July-August 2009

Byron G. McKeeby

Evidently I was not done with the McKeeby family yet. I received in the mail copies of articles from the Knoxville, TN newspapers which gave substantial information about Byron G. McKeeby and also pictures of him and some of his prints.

Prior to receiving these copies, I knew that Byron was a printmaker of some renown at the Univ. of Tennessee. Also Cecil Douglass had reported in a 1977 letter, that Byron had been to Scotland, thought Edinburgh a beautiful city, and did not understand why his grandfather had not held a plaid instead of a pitchfork when he posed for Grant Woods’ “American Gothic”.

Byron’s dry wit and the wry humor is reflected in many of his prints. His student, Paul Wenzel, said that Byron always wore a Scottish Tam-o-shanter hat, with a fuzzy knob on top and ribbons down the back. Even after he used the hat to beat out a fire someplace and it was singed and darkened, he continued to wear it; he did not care what others thought. He had such presence he could carry it off without drawing ridicule; no student would ever, EVER snicker at him.

As is often the case with some oddity, the hat became legendary from another story students told. Byron would toss his hat over “No Smoking” signs before he lit up.

Despite Byron’s reputation as an intense artist and stern teacher, Charles Moore, a UT professor of chemical engineering who knew McKeeby through their children, said he was a gentle, patient father. “One time when our children all wanted tree houses, the two of us entered into a silent competition to see which dad could build the best one. Byron put me in the shade. His tree house was first class. He even put in windows with etched glass.”

Though early-onset acute diabetes shortened his life, Byron made a name for himself and his art in his 22 year career. One article noted that he single-handedly did much to revive the art of stone lithography. Soon after his death UT made an exhibit of more than 50 of his prints available for display at venues across the country.

(Lineage: Byron G.-8, Miriam McKeeby-7, Wm.Gordon-5, John G.-4, Robert-3, John-2, Alexander Douglass-1)

A Road Trip

I was so inspired by my field trip to Allen County Library that I began thinking of all the other places I would like to go to look at records. If I made field trips every few months I could visit different places each time. OR I could make one long field trip and visit many places on the same trip. The latter idea grew and gradually I began to put together an itinerary. On August 5th I set out in my trusty Chrysler van, intent on camping my way across the U.S. so I might look up all those elusive bits of information I wanted.

One of the first places I stopped was in Lee County, Illinois. I knew that the MacKinnons (Catharine Harrison branch) from Canada had lived all their lives in Lee county, where John MacKinnon had been a cheesemaker. I had not been able to find obituaries or death notices for them. In the Dixon, Illinois, library I found a front page article in the local newspaper. John MacKinnon had dropped dead of a heart attack while fighting a fire at the local hotel. See excerpts from this news piece at headliner.

Then I went on to Wisconsin to follow several elusive clues for Giles Douglass and his son Robert. Looking for Giles in Wisconsin has been like trying to track down a specter or a ghost, a will-o-the-wisp or one of the “little people”. I get a clue that there just might be something but when I look, it’s not there, or it only hints of what I hoped for. Checking county records in Janesville, West Bend, Wisconsin Rapids, Black River Falls and Sparta netted nothing that even was close to info on Giles or Robert. There are several Robert Douglasses but none fit the info I have for him and nothing at all for Giles. Many records were not instituted until after the time span I need which means very little will be in the public records. If there is anything anywhere, it is going to be informal, in someone’s diary or letter or church newsletter or such. I have to keep reminding myself that untold numbers of people lived and died upon this earth leaving no scrap of written record. Giles Douglas remains the only one of the nine siblings that I have been unable to trace at all. Next stop: the archives in Albany to see what they have from Jefferson County before 1848, when Giles left for Wisconsin.

One of the places I really wanted to visit was Platteville, WI, where Agnes Jean Douglass had taught Art in the college there. I arrived in Platteville on a Saturday evening and was disappointed that the library was not open on Sunday. I did a lot of reading Sunday and walked around the small town and found a large map of the Platteville/UW campus. I was able to plot out where the administration building was and where I could park. The campus was deserted except for other walkers. Monday morning was rainy. I first stopped at the Alumni office and they were very helpful, going through old college yearbooks to determine when Agnes had taught there. They copied several pictures for me and referred me to the Luce Room archives which were in the same building.

Just as I was leaving the Alumni office the fire alarm in the building went off so we all had to exit, of course, and it was raining steadily right then. Since I had an umbrella, I offered to shield Lois, the woman who had been so helpful to me, and we stood really close together under my small umbrella for at least 15 minutes. Finally the all clear sounded and we parted company. In the Luce Room they had copies of the student newspaper, which had been indexed, and I found a few more references to Agnes. I was unable to determine whether she retired or left due to ill health. She evidently taught there in 1947 but the college directory for 1948 has her listed as on faculty but “on leave”. Her classes had been taken over by someone else. I searched in vain for any retirement notice in the newspaper and when I wanted to look at city directories to see how long she continued to live there, they had no directories that went back that far.

And I found no clue about when her mother died. I knew her mother, age 82, had been living with Agnes in 1930 in Platteville. Marjorie Douglass Detlie thought her grandmother was buried in Worthington, MN, but I had been unable to find a date when Caroline Church Douglass (Wesley’s wife) died. It would have been extremely time consuming to read local newspapers on microfilm, with just no idea at all of when she died.

So I left Platteville with one question answered. Agnes Douglass taught Art at the Platteville college from 1926 -1947. She was the only Art teacher and had a full complement of classes. She arranged for art exhibits to be displayed at the college. She also participated in conferences where she presented on the topic of Art Occupations. She spoke to community groups. More notes on Photo page.

(Lineage: Agnes-5, Wesley-4, Robert-3, John-2, Alexander-1) – another artist from the Robert Douglass branch of the family.

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