My grandfather, Alex Cowmeadow, was born in 1878 in Drybrook, Gloustershire, in the Forest of Dean. The Forest is an ancient wood, the first protected by being proclaimed a Royal Forest, originally set aside centuries ago for the exclusive use of reigning monarchs. It is the largest oak forest remaining in England. Those who are born within its boundaries have the right to let their sheep roam free, which is a serious driving hazard.
Granddad came from the small Forest village of Drybrook. As a teenager, he worked in a tin mine, no child labor laws having been enacted. His best friend emigrated to America and found his way to New Castle, Pennsylvania, to work in the tin mill there.
My grandfather followed him in 1896, coming through Ellis Island. He took up work and residence in New Castle, named after Newcastle-on-Tyne in northern England.
He married American Anna Mae Cooper. They raised four children, including my mother, Mildred Cowmeadow. Three of them became teachers, one of whom – Margaret (Peg) – became my inspiration to a love of books and a life of bookselling.
We called him “Little Granddad” because my father’s father was so tall, and Granddad Cowmeadow was a short, wiry guy. He liked to wear suspenders under his vest to hold up his well-worn black trousers (not “pants” to an Englishman). He sported a pocket watch with a gold chain slipped through his vest’s button-hole. Perhaps he received the watch as a retirement gift from the tin mill.
I remember going to my grandparents’ house on Beckford Street after Sunday church. Grandma went to church but Granddad stayed home, ostensibly to look after the roast – beef, lamb, or pork – whose aroma welcomed us into their house. He never was much for church and if watching the food could keep him home, then he became the best food-tender there was.
He loved to show off his small backyard garden. As we walked out to it past the cherry trees – one sweet and one sour, which gave us many a stomachache – and then the garage, he bent down and pinched off a leaf of spearmint, and urged us to do the same. To this day I have mint growing in my yard, pinching a leaf off as I pass by, thinking of Granddad each time. Funny how little things like that can keep someone alive forever.
Grandma died in 1954, and for the last few years of his life, Granddad lived with three of his four kids for a few months at a time, including his daughter in Okanogan, Washington. When he lived with us, he would sit down at our old upright piano and bang out a lively “Little Brown Jug”, singing along loudly. We kids happily joined in. I can’t recall any other songs he played. He liked to drink tea in our coffee-drinking house. He would overfill his tea and cream till it spilled a little into the saucer. Then he’d slurp the overflow and smack his lips with satisfaction. He never drank from a mug, as I do now. My wife drinks coffee, and I don’t mind it, but I follow my British blood, drinking Earl Grey to start the day.
He died in 1960.
In 1998, Linda and I visited Drybrook on a Saturday afternoon. We knew that Granddad’s father John had been the songleader for several chapels (churches) in the Forest of Dean, and was buried in the churchyard of the Drybrook chapel.
We drove the length of the sleepy village without finding the chapel, so we stepped into a little pub, figuring they would be able to help us. Pubs along with post offices are the best places for address information.
The bartender looked up from a conversation at the short bar, and pegged us as strangers immediately. Not many tourists make it to Drybrook. Our foreigner status was confirmed when I said “hello”. We sat at the bar, our eyes adjusting to the lack of light inside. The bartender asked what we’d like, and trying to ingratiate myself with him, I asked for a pint of whatever ale was brewed nearby. He drafted me an Old Speckled Hen, which I drink to this day. We had the attention of the few patrons – all male – when I asked if he might be able to help us find something. “American, are ye?” he asked. I explained that my grandfather Cowmeadow had emigrated from Drybrook and that his father had been a songleader in several chapels, including the Drybrook one, and that I was looking for it. He smiled, looking around the pub, perhaps enjoying being the tourist information center to these Americans who had Drybrook blood.
He explained the easy directions, which Linda wrote down. After chatting with him a bit more while I drained my beer, we thanked him and headed out to our rental car, pleased with our pub experience.
A word about our rental. It was a Kia, built with British driving in mind. The steering wheel was on the right. Linda laughed each time we turned a corner, because the windshield wipers would come on instead of the turn signal, the controls reversed from an American steering column. And in the frequent rain, English drivers behind us must have been confused when our turn signal came on as we drove straight ahead, unwipered rain coating our windshield, further complicating my driving.
Driving on the left wasn’t so bad, for we’d done it before. However, that time had been with a Renault we’d bought in Bonn, Germany, the year we lived in Romania. After nine months of mostly hell in Iasi, we drove across Europe to England, where we met my brother Bruce and his wife. The Renault was left-side steering wheel, so we managed to avoid fender-benders and running over stray sheep that time, so I was a little experienced at left-lane driving.
We headed for the chapel and found it easily, pulling up in the parking lot (car park in British parlance) in front. With high anticipation we strolled the graveyard, looking for John Cowmeadow’s tombstone. We knew what it looked like, for my brother had been there several years earlier and had photographed the stone.
Amazingly, we found several other Cowmeadow graves, and finally great-granddad’s headstone leaning up against the back wall. Naturally I photographed all the Cowmeadow markers. We wondered if there were still any living relatives around. It occurred to me that just like going to the pub, the place to find out about Cowmeadows was towering over us. I suggested to Linda that we might want to return the next morning to make our inquiries.
And we did, surprising not a few worshippers as we slid into a seat near the back, looking forward to the service as well as our mission. The vicar in the small chapel seemed a friendly chap, and after the sermon, asked if there were any announcements to be made, a weekly request. Several people stood up and announced a jumble sale, or someone who needed prayers said for them.
Finally a large, self-assured woman stood up who had clearly been waiting to be the last speaker, little knowing that I was intending to be the last. She was a missionary for the congregation, just back from Africa. She gave an impassioned plea for financial support to help the children who barely lived day to day. It was obvious that the worshippers were moved by her words.
“Are there any further announcements,” the vicar inquired, clearly expecting to wrap up the service on the missionary’s plea so that the mission-giving would be strong the following week.
My hand went up, my heart hammering with nervousness – for not only speaking up, but also knowing that I was about to inadvertently trump the missionary’s entreaty.
“Hello, folks,” I began. “My name is George Cowmeadow Bauman, and as you can probably tell, I’m from America.”
Chuckles all around.
“My wife and I are here today because my grandfather Alex Cowmeadow was from Drybrook, and his father John was the songleader here back in the late 19th century, and is buried in your churchyard. We were walking among the graves yesterday and noticed a few Cowmeadow tombstones, and began wondering if there were any living Cowmeadows still in the parish. So we decided to attend your lovely service and make inquiries.”
Smiles and louder chuckles at my statement and question. African children were displaced by the enjoyable sense of recognizing an old parish family by connecting with these visiting Americans.
I sat back down.
“I think,” responded the smiling vicar, “that you will find that indeed there are a few Cowmeadows yet residing in this parish.” He turned to the fidgeting parishioners – knowing the source of their squirming – and said, “Those of you who would like to talk to Mr. Bauman and his wife, please see him after the close of service.”
People started buzzing as we received the final blessing and sang our “Amens”.
Within a few minutes the line to talk to Linda and me was a half-hour long. It seemed like much of the congregation wanted to give us a Cowmeadow-welcome.
The last person in line shook my hand and said, “I’m Nancy Cowmeadow, and I must be one of your cousins. I’m married, so my last name isn’t Cowmeadow any more, but I think we may be connected.” After a few minutes of conversation, she asked, “Would you like to come to our house for a traditional British Sunday dinner?”
Would we?! “Yes! We’d love to…if it isn’t too much trouble.”
“Not at all, but I have to go home and tell my husband and son that we’ll be having Americans for dinner! Please give me about an hour and then come to the first house on the right as you leave the parking lot.”
We thanked her and said we’d be there, thrilled with the invite, knowing she was going home to clean up the place for the American visitors.
The vicar had hovered behind her the whole time, pleased with the interruption of routine for such a pleasurable reason. He saw how well his worshippers had responded to my request.
“If you would like, please feel free to wait in the chapel,” he offered. “I live nearby and will come back and lock up later.”
We thanked him and turned to each other with glee. We hugged and exulted in our good fortune and in our new friends’/relatives’ willingness to embrace total strangers.
I naturally took photos of the chapel from various angles. As I was doing so, a wonderful idea occurred to me. I handed the camera to Linda and walked up onto the pulpit and stood behind the podium. I was standing where my great grandfather had stood as he led the parishioners in worshipful song. His and his son’s DNA might well be somewhere on the premises. I imagined the chapel back in the 19th century. We’d been told that there had been minimal structural changes, so I was seeing substantially what my great-grandfather had seen. It was a thrilling, chilling moment. Linda preserved the moment with a photograph.
The hour passed quickly and soon we were being welcomed into Nancy’s modest home, with nervously grinning husband and antsy son standing behind my distant cousin, waiting to shake our hands.
We thought that Nancy had rushed home not only to spruce the place up, but to fix more food, having invited us despite having prepared dinner just for three. Roast beef with potatoes, carrots, and onions roasted in the same pan with the meat and juice. Just like my grandmother used to fix and granddad used to tend while we were in church. MMMmmmmmMMM!
We chatted amiably, enjoying the special moment of hands/cousins across the water. Finally we knew we needed to leave them to the rest of their Sunday, so making (unfulfilled) promises to stay in touch, we took a few final photos and thanked them profusely for their kindness and hospitality.
That evening we had appointment with Dave Cooper, married to a Cowmeadow. He was a retired agent with her majesty’s spy agency, MI5. My brother had been in touch with him as Dave was the most knowledgeable person about Cowmeadow genealogy. As we arrived, he welcomed us into his study while advising us that if the phone rang, he would have to take it as his daughter was in the hospital, seriously ill with cancer. We realized with alarm that he had come home from the hospital to talk with us. What a noble thing to do. We certainly would have understood if he had called our B&B and cancelled. I think he was pleased to talk about something other than the family’s woes, especially if that conversation was about his extensive Cowmeadow research.
He had shelves of binders with material he’d uncovered. He winked as he said that his training and experience in MI5 had come in handy as he dug for data about the family. Clearly this was a labor of love, though he was personally not a Cowmeadow.
He had made copies of many articles and photos that really were beyond my interest, but of course I expressed great gratitude for his efforts.
He wound down a couple of hours later, and asked if we had any questions. I inquired about the Australian branch of the Cowmeadows. We knew that at some point a couple of brothers had gone Down Under, for we’d been visited by our Australian cousins a couple of times. And my wonderful Aunt Peg – my mother’s sister – had flown with her friend Ann to attend the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, where a Cowmeadow cousin was the Lord Mayor of the city.
Dave told the story of how the two local brothers in their early teens were mischievous lads. “This one time they were out after dark, and were harassing passersby along an unlit trail. One man came by and one of the boys took his hat and sailed it to his brother when the traveler tried to retrieve it. In what they thought was great fun, they ran away with it, never intending to steal it, just to tease the man.
He was not amused, and went to the nearest constable and reported the “theft”. Apparently the constable was fed up with the boys’ delinquency. He chased them down and brought them to court. The judge agreed with the cop that the boys needed to be taught a lesson that would be an example to the other young rapscallions in the area. For taking the man’s hat, the boys were deported to Australia.
After that scary story, I earnestly asked what the earliest record of a Cowmeadow he had found, knowing how the Brits had kept wonderful parish and civil records – if fire hadn’t destroyed them along the way.
“Do you want the sugar-coated answer,” he replied, “or do you want the truth?” implying that something rather unsavory might be part of the answer.
Linda and I glanced at each other and smiled. We wanted the down and dirty.
“Good!” he exclaimed. “I found a 16th century record of an Elizabeth Cowmeadow being arrested for prostitution!”
So it seems that I come from a less-than-distinguished family of thieves and hookers.
We talked for several hours. After thanking Dave for his kindness at leaving his daughter’s bedside and giving us so much of his time and research, we headed back to Cirencester where we were staying at a rural B&B that had once served as a courthouse. We had been turned on to it by the antiquarian bookseller in town.
We had to drive through Drybrook again to get there – watching out for mid-road sheep, and it was just midnight as we cruised the empty main street. I spied a red phone booth and was inspired. I retrieved my Aunt Lo’s (Laura’s) phone number from my address book and dialed Okanogan, Washington, where my grandfather had taken ill 38 years earlier with the colon cancer which would eventually kill him.
“Aunt Lo! This is George and Linda, and you’ll never guess where I’m calling from!” She was gleeful with the call generally, always appreciating that I kept in touch with her, so far away from the rest of the family in Western Pennsylvania. She had moved out there with a friend in ’46 after the war and had married a cook, who would go on to have his own restaurant, hotel, and be featured in “National Geographic” as the chef for one of their remote Canadian expeditions.
“I’m calling from the very center of the village of Drybrook, home of your father!”
She was stunned. She knew that we’d been in Slovakia for a year from our letters and postcards to her, but to receive a call from her father’s home – which she had never visited – was a great joy.
We didn’t talk long. We’d had a long, wonderful day and were exhausted, but it seemed like the right thing to do at midnight in Drybrook, Gloucestershire, England, just blocks from where my ancestral Cowmeadow home had been.