By Sarah Berger
Growing up, my grandparent’s house fascinated me. Everything from the silver artifacts around the house to the family photo albums filling multiple shelves provided hours of entertainment for my growing, curious mind. It was almost like my own, personal history museum. As I got older, these items started to have more meaning as I learned where they came from.
My favorite tea set in my grandparent’s formal dining room is a symbol of my family’s English heritage. Both sides of my grandmother’s family left England to come to the U.S. in the mid- to late-19th century. Engraved at the center of a silver teapot is the my great-grandfather’s family name — “Wilson” — surrounded by intricate swirls. The teapot was a parting gift to the family and one of the few items they were able to bring with them as they came to America looking for more opportunities.
The search for new opportunities brought some of my ancestors from the outskirts of London to what is now present-day Oklahoma. At the time, the area was barely populated, and Rufus Wilson, who would become my great-grandfather, had little access to education. As a young boy, he had to rely on his mother as his primary teacher. In our family’s oral history, he described splitting his days between learning to read and doing chores.
As he grew up, he would go on to find work on the new railroads. First, he started off just moving rocks on the new tracks, but eventually worked his way up to controlling the train routes.
While working on the railroad routes, Rufus met some new oil workers who showed him the potential for a career change. While he had a limited education, his personality and work ethic helped him find new opportunities. He was known for wanting to work hard in order to attain the same lifestyle he vaguely remembered living in England as a young boy. He wanted more nice possessions like the silver teapot they brought with them.
“He was known for being extremely clever,” said Mary Jo Moore, my grandmother, in explaining how he became involved in the oil industry. “He could fix anything and knew how to work with anything he had on hand. He was also known for dedicating hours to one project until it was finished.”
He eventually traded in train tracks for oil rigs and spent the rest of his career working in the oil industry. Eventually, the work brought him to Kansas, where he would live out the rest of his life.
The other half of my English ancestry was Louise Horner, who would marry Rufus and become my great-grandmother. She came to Kentucky from England with her her relatives. Upon arrival, the family got into the blacksmith trade. Her father and brothers learned the ins and outs of working with iron while Louise and her mother learned how to tend to their new homestead. In our family’s oral history, Louise said some of her favorite memories were of running and tumbling down the green hills of her parent’s new property with her brothers throughout the spring and summer.
The hills of Kentucky were similar to the English countryside where she grew up, but the social structure of the community was not. Louise detailed how she missed having neighbors and relatives in our oral history books.
“I always remembered her as a social woman,” my grandmother said. “Her living room was always full of guests over for tea.”
Tea was another aspect of England that my great-grandmother tried to keep alive in her new American life. She would always tell my grandmother about how she could never find anything quite like the tea she remembers drinking as a young girl in England.
Preserving culture and celebrating success
After Louise married Rufus, she added to the original Wilson teapot from England. Year after year, she bought plates, cups, sugar bowls and cake stands. Each piece, spoons included, had Wilson engraved in the middle. Each afternoon, she would drink from the custom-engraved silver teacups and entertain guests. According to my grandmother, it was her favorite part of the day.
Years later, hosting imaginary after-school tea parties would be my favorite part of the day during my early years of elementary school. Now, the full set still sits front and center on my grandmother’s dining room table with each piece turned to the front to display her original family name. My grandmother polishes the set monthly to keep it in pristine condition. She sees it as a way to show how her grandfather used his limited education and resources to make a new life for himself. His family’s one teapot from England is now the central part of a 25-piece set.