A family’s journey

Published 10:53 pm Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Debbie Chappell is a history fanatic.

She loves hearing about it, sharing it and even collecting artifacts to display around her home.

“I have a love for family history and Virginia history,” she said. “I think it’s interesting.”

That love of history has led Chappell on a 15-year journey that finally ended earlier this summer.

More than a decade ago, Chappell began asking the elder members of her family if they knew where the gravesite of her great-great-great-grandfather, Dr. Anthony Person, was located.

“I knew where everyone else was buried, except him,” Chappell said. “No one I spoke with remembered.”

At first, it was a simple curiosity.

She began reading through her family’s history books and talking to other cousins to look for clues. But there were no real breakthroughs. All that people could remember was that Persons was buried somewhere in a Windsor peanut field underneath a very large magnolia tree.

Over the course of the next decade, Chappell began looking for more specifics of the exact site in Windsor, but the search always came up empty.

Two years ago, Chappell’s search took on more immediacy after her father, Thad Williams, died.

“I was really getting scared that it was not going to come together,” Chappell said. “Daddy died. I had an uncle die. And not that many people were going to be able to help. There were only a few people left in his family. I just wanted to find it and have a little something to pass on.”

Chappell began reading more books, looking at more maps and tracing back the family line for more clues.

Little did she know, the biggest clue was waiting just down the street.

Over the summer, one of Chappell’s cousins, Pete Williams, came into town. From the family’s history book, Chappell knew that their great-great-grandfather, Thad Williams, was a captain in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. In the Riddick’s Folly museum, there is even an exhibit dedicated to Williams.

Over the summer, the two cousins went to see the exhibit.

While there, Chappell and Pete Williams again brought up their search for Person’s grave. In a stroke of genius, they asked the staff at Riddick’s Folly if they happened to have a Civil War-era map of the entire Suffolk-Windsor area.

Turns out, they did.

In the corner of the map, in small handwriting the name “D. Parson’s” was written. Even though their ancestor was named Anthony and spelled his last name with an “e” not an “a”, Chappell was hopeful.

“I looked at that and couldn’t believe it,” Chappell said. “I thought that has to stand for Doctor Parson. We took a wild hunch that that was him.”

Within days, Williams, Chappell and fellow cousin Kit Webb piled into a car and drove out to Windsor.

Williams took the map and navigated the way as well as he could, considering the map bore no street names, no roadways and had no identifiable landmarks.

“He’s just turning that map and saying, ‘All right, turn right about here and then a little to the left,’” Chappell recalled.

Soon enough, the family members found themselves driving alongside a farm. As Chappell looked out the window, she found what she had been looking for: There in full bloom was a giant magnolia tree.

“I looked out, and I’m telling you, all I could see was this beautiful, blooming tall magnolia tree,” she said. “I just yelled, ‘That’s it!’”

The cousins carefully made their way back to the tree, which led to a mess of brush and overgrown bushes.

Using an umbrella Chappell had brought in case of rain, they pushed the brush around until they hit the concrete gravestone that read “Dr. Anthony Person.”

“We were all just so excited,” Chappell said. “I just thought it was so cool. I got my phone and called my son in Seattle and said ‘I just found your daughters’ great-great-great-great-great-grandfather.’ I had to call over 3,000 miles to let him know that I had found it.”

The cousins took plenty of pictures to send, and now Chappell said her next mission is to find out who owns the farm that the grave rests on so she can come out and clean the gravesite.

“It needs a little tender loving care,” she joked. She added she also is now trying to hunt down pictures of Person’s home in Windsor or of the doctor himself, but for now, she is thrilled with her big find.

“I know a lot of people could probably care less,” Chappell said. “But I just think it’s neat, and it’s the coolest thing.”