By Eilene Lyon
Genealogy is about discovery: discovering your ancestors, discovering history, discovering your cultural identity, discovering new family.
Anticipating a uniting of the Davis clan in Latah County, Idaho, in late June, I undertook a special project. Though almost everyone gathering in Moscow was in some way connected to Melville C. and Sarah R. (Livengood) Davis, I had not met any, except four.
In years past, a small branch of the family held reunions at the Sterling and Clara (Ransom) Davis farm just a few miles from town. This time, family history was the focus and we reached out to other branches of the family – people descended from Sterling Davis’s siblings. I’ll write more about that event in a few weeks.
My job was finding the family homestead in rural Latah County. From BLM records, I knew where Melville and Sarah Davis established a homestead in 1886. Three of their sons also homesteaded on adjacent and nearby parcels. I carefully mapped them using USGS National Maps and Google Earth.
Then I went to the Latah County GIS (Geographic Information Systems) website to get addresses for current owners. I mailed five letters, accompanied by the 1902 photo (above) of the Melville Davis house. The people in the photo are Franklin C. Davis, Elmer Davis (both sons of Melville — the tallest and shortest!), and Frank’s wife, Ivy Harrison.
I was pretty certain the house no longer existed – and family lore indicated it had been torn down. But I hoped someone might know something about it.
Within a week or two, I received a phone call from someone in Idaho who had known Frank Davis’s sons. While we were chatting, another call came in.
When I called back, an excited couple told me they had bought a house last August and were in the process of restoring and remodeling it. They compared it to the photo I had sent and they were just sure it was the same house they were living in!
The photos (below), taken after they stripped off several layers of siding, convinced me they were right. And sure enough, they are living on the M. C. Davis claim.
Prior to the weekend of the gathering, I visited the homestead and the owners graciously gave me a tour of the house. An interesting historical note is that the house you see in the 1902 photo is actually two houses joined together. The portion on the right is the original house, with hand-hewn logs undergirding it. The other house was moved to the site and is constructed with milled lumber underneath.
On Sunday, June 29, a group of about 25 people headed out to see the farm. We posed in front of the remodeled house and in front of this barn – also believed to be from the Davis era. The last of the Davises moved off the homestead properties in 1913, moving to Moscow, Deary, and other places.
The very best thing about finding the family house still standing after more than 130 years, is the current owners. Many people who looked at buying there would have scrapped these two structures and built a fine new residence – wealth is moving into that area.
Instead, people who see value in old things and their history, who are determined to save these buildings and breathe new life into them, have bought the old homestead. (They also share a hobby of restoring classic cars.) In coming years, the land will be productive again, as well.
We Davis descendants are grateful for their loving restoration, and we wish them all the best in their “new” forever home.
Last, but not least, a couple gorgeous northern Idaho sunsets:
Feature image: Melville and Sarah Davis house. (Courtesy University of Idaho Special Collections) Photo restoration by Val Erde.