A grandson’s love reveals a surprise connection for two local families
On Jan. 18, Gaylen Ball, not pictured, Juan Ball and Sherwood Robinson met with Bill Webb, right, after discovering they shared the same ancestors.
Gaylen Ball’s great love for his grandfather, Horace Robinson, led him on a quest to find his family tree. Ball, who was born in Farnham, on Union Mill Road in 1964, was always close to his grandfather, following him into the tomato fields and wherever else he might go.
“My grandfather was a wonderful man and was well liked and known by all people in the Farnham community. He was a hard worker and was known as one of the fastest oyster-shuckers around. A stern, yet friendly man, he respected all people and demanded that same respect in return,” Ball said.
Robinson was also known for his prowess as a baseball player and worked as a logger at the mill, Ball said, adding that many older men who knew him said Robinson was one of the strongest men they had ever known. He was able to pick up and hold two railroad timbers, one under each arm, a feat that no other area men could do.
But what Ball remembers about him most was his kind-hearted ways. He truly was a wonderful man who had a love for family. He also liked tea, rice pudding, cats, dogs and especially German beer steins and cuckoo clocks. This last may relate to his family background.
“It was his love of family that over the years made me determined to find out exactly who my grandfather was,” Ball said.
“We knew some things about him such as he grew up in a place in Farnham called Millwood, and that he was raised by his paternal grandmother, Mary Virginia Miller until the age of about 14, when his grandmother, Mary, was forced to give him up and put him out of her house to live on his own – a painful memory that stayed with him for the rest of his life,” Ball said. “We also knew that my grandfather was half white and half African-American.”
According to Ball, Horace’s father was named Edward William Miller (b. 1896), the fourth son of Mary Virginia Miller. His mother was an African-American woman named Josephine Robinson. Very little is known of Josephine and the family is still determined to try and trace her ancestry.
“I don’t know how my grandfather ended up with his grandmother, but I am glad that he did because she must have loved him very much,” he said.
“When I was growing up, my grandfather would take me, my brother, Juan, and my sister, Juanita on walking adventures back into Millwood and visit an old Miller family cemetery. I didn’t know much about my grandfather’s grandmother, but I could sense that there was connection to that old cemetery and my grandfather,” Ball said. “I don’t even think my grandfather knew exactly how connected he was to it, or the land in Millwood. One of the main things my grandfather loved to do was to walk us back past his grandmother’s house along Union Mill Road until it ran deep into the woods to an old grist mill. This is probably why they called the road Union Mill.”
Ball said that the mill, the old cemetery, and his grandfather got him interested in finding out just who Mary Virginia Miller was and where did she come from.
Last year, Ball joined Ancestry.com and began his research.
“What I was to find out both amazed and surprised me, even though my mother. Patricia Robinson Ball, suspected it,” Ball said.
Ball learned his grandfather was indeed of German ancestry. His grandmother, Mary Virginia Miller, was born to German immigrant parents in 1864 in New Castle, Delaware. Mary’s parents were named Jacob Waltz (b. 1831) and Eva Barbara Froll (b1828) who both immigrated to this country through Ellis Island, NY, in the 1850s from Freudenstadt, Baden-Wuerttemberg, a small town in Germany, located near the Black Forest. They were married in 1862 in Philadelphia, in St. James Evangelical Lutheran Church.
Jacob and Eva moved to New Castle Delaware and had two girls, Mary Virginia (b. 1864), Caroline B. (1866). About 1867, they brought 90 acres of land in Farnham parish in Virginia and moved to Millwood. Here their third child, Jacob F. Waltz (b. 1868) was born.
In 1886, Mary Virginia Waltz married the son of a German immigrant named Conrad P. Miller (b. 1801). That man turned out to be Thomas Fielding Miller (b. 1844).
“Imagine my surprise to learn that my great-great grandfather Thomas Miller had served in the Confederate Army, for which my great-great grandmother, Mary Virginia Miller was getting a check for being the widow of a Confederate soldier,” Ball said. “Their fourth youngest son was Edward William Miller – my grandfather’s father.”
After graduating from Rappahannock High School and later Rappahannock Community College, Ball had a big decision to make, whether or not to go to the Naval Academy or accept a position within the Department of Justice while finishing his education.
“He patiently listened, as he always did, but didn’t tell me what to do, just offered sound advice. When I chose to work for the federal government as a Computer Systems Programmer Analyst he simply said, ‘Son, I think this is a wonderful thing,’” Ball said. “On the day I had to leave, he and my grandmother, Ethliene Robinson, came to me and he handed me a 50 dollar bill, which was a lot of money for them. He took his watch off his wrist and handed it to me and said, ‘A man should always wear a watch because time is an important thing.”
Ball and Webb discovered remnants from the old mill during their reunion.
Ball still has that watch.
“I wouldn’t trade it for a million bucks,” he said. “Just before I said goodbye, he gave me these parting words, ‘Look out for your family and be sure to come and visit me and your grandmother. When you get to your new job, do what I taught you. Learn to do the hard work first, then when you get the easy job, you will appreciate it more.’ I still live by those words today.”
My grandfather saw something in me that I didn’t see myself. If it were not for him, I wouldn’t be where I am today. It’s been over 20 years since he passed and there hasn’t been a day that I haven’t thought about him. He was a good man. I just wish I could have done so much more for him.
While Ball was learning all about his family tree from Ancestry.com, another Northern Neck man was searching for his family tree through the same site. When Ancestry.com finds two people looking for the same ancestors they usually try to connect them.
Bill Webb, of Northumberland, was looking for his family tree which also went back to these same German immigrants who came to the Northern Neck following the Civil War.
Ancestry introduced the two men and they were joined by Sherwood Robinson, Horace Robinson’s son. They met on January 19, Ball said and were surprised. They both shared Mary Virginia Miller as a great- grandmother, but had different grandfathers.
Ball grew up on Union Mill Road. Back in the early 1900s it was known as the main highway and ran straight back into Millwood where the Miller property was located.
Ball was more familiar with the area from his childhood adventures and was able to take Webb to the site of the old house, graveyard and mill. Ball remembered back when he was about 10 or 12 and his grandmother’s house was still standing under an old walnut tree. The old Miller-Waltz cemetery which once had a wrought-iron fence around it, stood at the edge of the tree line.
“My grandfather told me, when he was a little boy, his grandmother would send him to the grist mill with a sack of corn to have the miller grind it into cornmeal. While his grandfather waited,” Ball said, adding that he would sit on the bank and fish in the creek.
Part of that old mill is still standing today, along with its water wheel that was used to turn the grind stone.
The men plan another get together to go over the sites when the weather gets a little warmer.
Ball, his wife, Linda and sons Michael and Matthew now live in Maryland.