Cockayne House Mysteries and Discoveries

by Thomas J. Tarowsky.

Column reprinted courtesy of The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register.


Beulah (Smith) Cockayne with son, Samuel Alexander Cockayne, Jr..

     This is the fourth in a series of columns about the curious and interesting items that the Marshall County Historical Society has identified and cataloged in the Cockayne House, and what they tell us about life in the Ohio Valley between 1850 and the turn of the current century.

A Mothers Day Story

     As every West Virginian knows, Anna Jarvis of Grafton initiated the celebration of Mother’s Day in Grafton, many years ago.

     Mother’s Day is the perfect time to introduce the last “lady of the house” of the Cockayne House. Beulah Smith Cockayne was the last of three generations to enjoy motherhood in the Cockayne House; her eldest son, Sam, was its last resident.

     Who was Beulah Smith Cockayne?

     We know that Beulah lived with her parents in Mc Mechen. She was a member of Mc Mechen High School’s Class of 1898—her diploma is among our files.

     Miss Smith was also a school teacher—it seems that she began teaching in 1903 or 1904. Although I do not have hard information in this regard, on July 1, 1919, the State of West Virginia issued a Lifetime Teaching Certificate to her, based on the fact that she had “met all renewal requirements for three five-year periods and given evidence of good character and fitness is hereby granted this First Grade Elementary Certificate for life.”

     She worked for the Union School District, and taught at the Mc Mechen School. Her last contract was for the 1919-1920 academic year. Most likely, she taught until she married in October—in those days female teachers were strongly urged to quit teaching when marrying.

     Alex Cockayne and Beulah Smith had known each other for quite some time before their marriage. The earliest documentation of their relationship is a note that was written when Beulah was just 22 years of age.

     Dated October 24, 1903, she expresses her concern to Mr. Cockayne at the illness of his father, and she states “…we will be glad to see you whenever you come, but will not expect you until your father recovers.”

     The letters and notes continued on a fairly regular basis, although they seem quite formal, by today’s standards. From December 25, 1905:

Mc Mechen, West Virginia
December 25, 1905

Dear Mr. Cockayne,

     Wallace was down this morning + told me he is to sing in a Cantata at the U.P. Church Wednesday evening. Mother + I are going and I thought perhaps that you might like to attend. We will go on the (street) car that leaves Gravel St. about 6:45 P.M.
     If it is not convenient for you to go, let me know if you get this in time.

Your friend,
Beulah Smith

     Many of Beulah’s letters were saved as keepsakes. The subject of the last letter in the file appears to be the illness of Cockayne’s mother, Hannah.

Mc. Mechen, W.Va.
Jan. 18, 1916

Dear Xan;

I received your letter at Noon today. I knew that you would not be able to leave home at this time. My heart goes out, in sympathy to you all.

Come when you can. You will always be welcome.

Yours always,

     Isn’t it a lot less formal? It appears that their relationship had evolved warmly over the years.

     In an era when people married and began their families at an early age, Samuel Alexander (Zan) Cockayne and Beulah Smith married late in life, marrying in Mc Mechen on October 14, 1919 —Beulah’s 38th birthday. (He was 43 at the time.) They were to enjoy over 25 years of marriage.

     Beulah and Zan Cockayne welcomed their first child, Samuel Alexander Jr. into the world on November 29, 1921. Their second child, John, was born on his mother’s 42nd birthday, October 14, 1923.

     In 2009, parents document the growth of their children with both digital photos and videotape—many also keep baby books and other mementos of childhood. Beulah and Zan were a lot like today’s parents in that respect—we’ve found plenty of snapshots around the house. There are pictures of the Cockayne parents and children from infancy into adulthood. Sam Jr. can be seen sitting on Beulah’s lap in one photo, probably from early 1923. In a much later photo, Sam is found standing between his parents as a young soldier, during World War II. This photo dates from about 1942—Sam’s wearing his rifle qualification badge, which may indicate that he had recently completed basic combat training. It is also a photo which appears in just about every family album in this country—the family snapshot of the young soldier, home on leave, with his parents. The clothing styles and the uniform designs change from war to war, but the looks on the faces are universal. Look through your photo album (or your parents’)—you’ll find a similar picture reflecting your family’s history.

     Many moms from around the country had sent their sons off to war in the early 1940s. Both Cockayne boys were in the military by 1943. Sam, in the Army Signal Corps, had shipped off to the Pacific that year, while John completed his Army Air Corps basic training prior to serving in Europe. A sobering thought: her only two sons—half a world apart—each thousands of miles away from mom, possibly in great danger.

     The immediacy of communication that we enjoy did not exist during World War II. Good news came home by mail from soldiers, sailors, and airmen; bad news, by telegram. Many of Sam’s and John’s letters to their parents have survived. They assure the folks of their safety and they say very little about specifics of daily life.


Beulah & Zan with son, Samuel Alexander Cockayne, Jr..

     We don’t have many letters that Zan and Beulah sent to Sam and John, but I am sure that they reflect a need to keep the boys updated on daily life in Glen Dale, and to express the hope that they would both get home safely. As a parent, concern for the safety (and survival) of the boys would be my foremost thought.

     Although our society expects children to survive their parents, that point of view is turned on its head during wartime, as we worry about our children in the military, and the threat to their lives. From the soldier’s perspective, there’s an awareness of the danger of being in a combat zone; that bad things can (and do) happen—the danger comes with the job.

     It is a cruel shock when a child, at war, survives one of his or her parents, at home.

     Beulah Smith Cockayne suffered what proved to be a fatal accident in the home on July 12, 1945. We have learned from a family member that Beulah had tripped and fallen, sustaining a blood clot that proved fatal.

     At the time, John was “somewhere in Austria”—the war in Europe had ended in May. Sam was on duty in the islands of the southwestern Pacific. Can you imagine the shock of receiving a letter from home, telling you of your mom’s death, while you are in the middle of a war zone? Neither boy could get home for her funeral. Sam came home (very quietly) from the war a couple of months after his mother’s death, to find a very different world than the one he left in 1942.

Next time: Sam Cockayne, U.S. Army, 1942-1945

Please submit questions to Tom Tarowsky, Cockayne House Preservation Committee, 1105 Wheeling Avenue, Glen Dale, WV 26038. Be sure to include your name and contact information, and let us know if we can use your name, as well. Selected questions will be used in future columns. Tom regrets that he is unable to respond to each individual request.