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01 February 2021

Quarantine Quests: The Memoir of Ellis Willard Gibson 1893-1985

Ellis W. Gibson, 1914
By Chris Pattillo
A few months before the pandemic began Gibran Rath received a parcel of material about her great uncle Ellis Willard Gibson from her mother’s cousin. Included in the envelope was a 73-page memoir written by Ellis. This treasure came with some challenges, though. It was written in longhand with a combination of black and purple ink on both sides of the paper. On most of the pages the ink had bled through, making it difficult to read. Gibran’s first challenge was to figure out a cost-effective method of reproducing the pages so they would be legible. Once that was accomplished, she reviewed what she had and started focusing on documenting and augmenting the account.


This has been one of four projects Gibran has focused on during the past year while sheltering at home and helping to care for her three-year-old granddaughter. Much of Gibran’s previous family research focused on her Scottish father’s side so she was particularly pleased to receive new insight into her mother’s ancestors. For some reason unknown to Gibran her mother rarely talked about her side of the family. Gibran recalls meeting this great uncle on at least two occasions but she was too young at the time to remember much about him. This memoir, which she believes Ellis wrote for his youngest daughter who was interested in family history, has given Gibran “a window into a different time when my grandfather, Lyle (Ellis’s older brother), was a child and what his home life was like.” She shared one particular story told by her great uncle that I could strongly relate to. Ellis wrote of times when he and his mother would go to visit her father, Ellis’s grandfather, after church, and that Ellis would be anxious to leave, get home and have lunch.


Gibson family, 1900

The memoir shed light not only on what Ellis’s life was like but the pages he wrote include his recollections of his father and grandfather. The extended family all lived in and around a small town in Pennsylvania called Venango.

Gibran also noted that the memoir contained funny old remedies–one she remembered was that when Ellis fell and cracked his head, his mother bandaged his head with sheets soaked in turpentine and brown sugar.


Willard and Minnie Gibson's children, 1905

Throughout our interview Gibran’s allegiance to the facts, to the truth, was a recurring theme. She said the source of this sensibility comes from her scientific training and career as a licensed medical technologist. When I asked why she went to so much trouble to reproduce the original pages instead of simply retyping them, Gibran admitted to being suspicious of transcribed documents and noted how easy it would be to edit out details that might not jibe with the story the writer chose to portray. 

While in quarantine Gibran has researched this branch of her family, finding three men who served during the American Revolution, three who fought in the War of 1812 and two who were drafted during the Civil War but saw no service because they were farmers. She has augmented the memoir by finding some wills, other probate documents, a few censuses, and some portraits and she has filled in a family tree to help organize everything. Before the pandemic began Gibran had visited Pennsylvania and found family graves in the local cemeteries.

Ellis (right) and Pearl Gibson, 1967


While Gibran has undertaken years of research and worked on other family history projects, this project is the largest she’s taken on. Having extra time because of the pandemic no doubt is a factor as to why she is doing the project at this time. For Gibran the research is the fun part–that’s the scientist in her. She said she will leave it to others to take her material and produce a family history book, a picture book, a blog or whatever they choose to do with what she's found and assembled for her extended family.

Gibran concluded our interview by giving a description of Ellis as a kind and soft-spoken man who had an inner serenity.  She added, “whenever he would visit, he always washed all my mother’s windows and polished the silver.”

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