Due to a weird quirk of my family I have a somewhat skewed sense of history. I am one of the younger siblings of seven. My mother was the youngest of nine and my father was the second youngest of seven. We come from big families. My Grandfather Taylor was born in 1880, and for some reason that is my dividing line. Anything before that is history. Anything afterwards has a direct familial connection. It’s a strange way to look at history, but it is what it is.
The upshot is that my grandmothers were already quite old when I was born and I never knew either of my grandfathers. Both grandmothers were in their 80s when I was a child. I remember attending my Grandma Taylor’s 85th birthday when I was only about nine years old. Here’s a photo of her a year before I was born.
When I was young my Grandma Ellenberg broke her hip and could no longer live by herself. She spent six weeks rotating between her nine children. I can only imagine how tough that must have been to be uprooted so often.
I remember both grandmothers as being very pious and somewhat stern, maybe even a bit scary. When my Grandma Ellenberg lived with us she was always after us to mind our manners, especially at the table, and was always critical of anything that came on the television.
My Grandma Taylor had an even sterner disposition. Old photos always show subjects never smiling. In her case it wasn’t just the fashion. In this photo she looks almost unhappy.
Mamie Catherine Leapard and my grandfather, Oscar Eugene Taylor met while both were teaching at Altamont Bible Institute on top of Paris Mountain.
They were married there and had their first two children, Mary and James, while teaching at the college. Here’s a photo of the institute students, with the faculty seated in front. I also have a close-up of my grandparents with Mary and James.
My Grandma Ellenberg was a different story altogether. Which leads me to this tale…
This may be legend or apocryphal, but my sister Glynda says that Grandma Ellenberg told her this story herself. When she was young Annie Elizabeth Smith was quite the wild child. In this photo of her about age 17 she still has the unsmiling pose of Mamie Leapard, but there is mischief in the eyes, as if she were a teenager just looking for trouble.
And if my grandmother’s story is true, that’s exactly what she was. According to Glynda, Annie was constantly getting into trouble. So much so that her father, John Lafayette Smith, thought that marrying her off to the older, more settled William Thomas Ellenberg would be a good idea. Apparently that didn’t work, because Annie continued to cause trouble.
Even after she was married, one of Annie’s favorite activities was to go down to the Pentecostal tent meetings that occasionally came through. They would make fun of the evangelist and throw rotten fruit and vegetables. The story goes that at one of these tent meetings Annie Smith Ellenberg paused to listen. The next night she came back sans friends and vegetables, this time to participate in the service. The rest is history.
I relate these stories because they got me thinking about age differences. If John Lafayette married off Annie to an older man, how much older? I didn’t really know. I started to wonder about other age differences. While exploring family gravesites last week I remembered an activity I had done with students and realized I had the perfect tool for some analysis.
Many years ago I was teaching my fourth graders how to use spreadsheets. It was getting close to Thanksgiving, so I created an activity based on the Mayflower passengers. I set up the scenario this way…
You are visiting Plymouth, Massachusetts, wandering through an old graveyard that contains the passengers from the Mayflower. The only information you have is the name, year that they were born, and the year that they died. What conclusions can you draw from this information?
The students entered this information into a spreadsheet then created simple formulas to calculate their age in 1620 when the Mayflower landed and the age when they died. With this simple information they could begin to put together family units based on names and ages in 1620. They could also see how many survived that awful first winter in the new land and how many perished.
Using this same concept I created a spreadsheet for my ancestors. Using the year of birth, year of death, and year they got married I calculated how old they were when they got married, difference between partners’ ages, age at death, how old they were (or would have been) when I was born, and how old they would be now. Here’s that spreadsheet in Google Sheets:
From this spreadsheet we can get some answers. Bill Ellenberg was 26 and Annie Smith was 18 when they married, a difference of 8 years. Bill was older but not out of the ordinary. I was really surprised how old my Taylor grandparents were when they married. It was quite late for the time. O. E. Taylor was 32 and Mamie Leapard 29, yet they managed to have seven children.
There was some surprising information here, too. My great-grandmother, Carrie Richardson Day, was only 15 when she married Thomas Franklin Ellenberg (21). Here she is at age 48 circa 1910.
The biggest difference in ages was between William James Leapard and Mary Anne Hanback, Mamie’s parents. They were 27 and 17, respectively, for a difference of 10 years.
For the “Age Now” column I used 2021. I guess I’ll have to update that manually or use a current year variable. Also, I only calculated back to great-grandparents because of incomplete data for previous generations. I wasn’t sure of marriage dates and in some case multiple spouses were involved. I might still try to add to this list, though. It would be interesting to see these ages at significant life events and how that compares with the norms for our current age.