“Over the river, and through the woods, to Grandmother’s house we go;

“The horse knows the way, to carry the sleigh, through the white and drifted snow…”

In 1844, Massachusetts abolitionist Lydia Marie Child wrote this immortal poem of going home that has become the song of directions to “Grandpa and Grandma’s House” for millions of hearts as they make their way to kith and kin.  While the song lives on, the actual instructions for getting to the ancestral home have changed.  Now it’s a variation of “Grandmother’s house is down Interstate 17; off at exit 293, east on 85th South to the fifth stoplight, right two blocks, turn left at the park, and it’s the third condo on the right.”  …It just doesn’t sound quite the same as “Over the river…..”  Not only doesn’t the horse know the way, the family car may not even have GPS on the dashboard.  And most of us have never even been in a sleigh!

The important thing is, there is a “Grandmother’s House.”  This is a special place in our hearts where there is always “roast beast” and delicious foods, special treats and cookie jars, fun games to play and old books to read, favorite trees and knees to climb, and backyards and swimming holes to frolic in; but especially… this is a place where we get to sing “Over the river, and through the woods,” and there are wonderful feelings of love drawing our hearts close to Grandpa and Grandma.  This is what makes Grandmother’s house… “Grandmother’s House.”

When Grandparents are Gone – Keeping the Magic

Eventually, Grandpa and Grandma are gone, and their house is someone else’s; most of the magic of that special place having gone with them. We drive by the House when we are in town, and reminisce about memorable times, but without Grandma, it’s never quite Grandmother’s House again.  Time passes, the old home crumbles, or is torn down to be replaced with structures of a newer era; the Jonathan apple tree in the back is cut down and the water holes are filled.  Another generation rises, and Grandmother’s house is forgotten, as new houses take its place. 

Still, Grandmother’s House continues to play a special role, if we allow it to. It can bless our lives and turn our hearts to our fathers as we seek it out.   It becomes a genealogy marker of beloved people and times gone by.  These places of the past provide us with illustrative tools that we can share with our family about our ancestors and the noble heritage from which we descend.  And here is where the magic of Grandmother’s House becomes important all over again as we do family history and temple work.    

A number of years ago, my wife Mary and I traveled to England and Wales, making such a journey to Grandmother’s House.   As guests of my parents, who were serving a mission at the London Temple, we roamed the countryside visiting the places where our ancestors lived as we conducted genealogy research on our family history and for our clients.  We made a special point of seeking out and locating ancestral homes and taking lots of pictures of “Grandmothers’ Houses”.  We made wonderful discoveries in cemeteries, archives, and museums, but the emotional bond made with this ancient land of our forefathers came from visiting the family homes and neighborhoods and historical sites of our ancestors’ generation. This is something that can help us all turn our hearts to our family as we seek to discover our ancestry on the “Family Tree of Man” and forge the links that bind us to our “Chain of Generations”.  Here are some of the scenes from those two weeks in Europe, sharing both the emotion and a few highlights of discovery. 

Over the Pond and through the Hedgerows – Grandmother’s House in England and Wales

On the Island of Wight, off the southern coast of England, we tracked down the home of James King, the 2nd Great Grandfather of Mary’s step-father, in the village of Northwood.  We found the family home, called “Pallance Gate” which dated from the 1600’s, still standing and inhabited. (In England the countryside homes have names rather than addresses; hence in this ancestral tradition, our home is called Windy Peak Corners.) What a thrill it was for us when the current residents, upon learning that our family had lived there two hundred years ago, welcomed us into their home, where we sat and visited in front of our ancestor’s massive fireplace. 

In the southern English village of Preston Candover, we found the mansion of the local manor lord.  At the end of the road leading away from that grand house stands a long white building that had once served as the carriage house and home of my ancestor, William Parker.  Here in the early 1840’s, he received the Mormon missionaries and heard the message of the everlasting Gospel of Jesus Christ that would change his life, and the lives of his family forever.  Across the manor road were the remains of an ancient church, which dated back to the 1100’s A.D.  It was surrounded by gravestones that were hundreds of years old; and we were shown footings of an even more ancient church built by the Celts before the time of Christ;  illustrating for us, that our ancestors for many generations had considered this “holy” ground. 

In Somersetshire, we discovered in the county archives, information carrying our Winter family lineage back hundreds of years in the tiny hamlet of Brompton Ralph.  Consisting of less than a few dozen buildings, we visited there and were entranced with the quaintness of this small English farm town.  Nestled down in a broad valley, Brompton Ralph was surrounded by fields, each partitioned by traditional English Hedgerows (high thick barriers composed of bushes and briars).  Looking down into the village we could see the 15th Century tower of St. Mary’s Parish Church, with its surrounding cemetery, and homes with thatched and slated roofs. 

The Winter family moved from Brompton Ralph in the late 1700’s to the cosmopolitan market-town of Bath.  Here we discovered the rowhouse of my 3rd Great Grandfather Timothy Winter, a Baker and Confectioner by profession.  He had lived at Number 10 Gassaway Building, just below the great chapel in the city, known as Bath Abbey, and owned a bakery shop nearby on a bridge crossing the River Avon.  While we were unable to go inside his home and the bakery no longer stood, we were delighted when the movie “Emma” was released a short time after our trip, to find that #10 Gassaway Building had been used as one of the homes shown in the film.  And to make things even better, the movie pictured the times with an early 19th Century bakery on the River Avon in the city of Bath.  We had a visual depiction of Grandmother’s House that would remain with us forever. 

In Myrthyr Tydfil, Wales, we tracked down the address that had been the home of Thomas Rees (Reese), one of the early Welsh LDS converts and immigrants to Utah.  He was listed there in the 1851 Census, living next door to the family of Dan Jones, the famous Welsh Mormon missionary.  This is the same Dan Jones who in 1844 spent the night in Carthage Jail with the Prophet Joseph Smith who prophesied just before his martyrdom that Dan would live to return to his home in Wales and fulfill his appointed mission.


  Elder Jones would become the voice that would lead thousands to join the Church, including our client’s ancestor, Thomas Rees.  Going to the address, we found the remains of old tenant buildings where these Welsh families lived prior to following the Gospel of Jesus Christ to America. We took special pictures of these humble beginnings for descendants to share with loved ones.

We drove down the narrow country road of the Golden Valley in West Herefordshire, one of the most beautiful parts of England, to the villages of Clodock, Orcup, and Michaelchurch Escley, where Samuel Eames lived in the mid 1800’s. He was a mason and house builder who joined the Church there in 1840, nearly 30 years before he was able to immigrate to Zion in 1868.   We visited homes and structures he and his sons built in the 1840’s and 50’s and stood around the baptismal font of the old parish of  “St Michael” where he had his children christened long before the advent of the Latter-day Saint message coming to England.   In his letter to his family already in Utah in 1860 he referred to this place as “a dark and wicked land,” and he yearned to join the Saints in Zion and leave this place where the Gospel of the Restored Church was so small and persecuted.  He arrived in Plain City, Utah in August 1868 at the age of 78 and died six weeks later in his true Golden Valley. 

In the great city of Birmingham, we followed the missionary journal of William Henry Wright, which he recorded during his mission to his homeland in 1882.  He was born there in 1827 to a single mother, Esther Ann Wright, and he and his siblings ran the alleys and cobbled lanes of the inner city as street urchins.  His journal entries led us to the addresses of his early lodgings and the significant places in his life as a “Brummie” (native of Birmingham).  We visited the site at Bishopgate Street, where the Mormon missionaries held their services.  There he met his future wife Emma Taylor and they were married by the Elders.  The gospel led them to Ogden, Utah, in America, where he and his sons established the largest mercantile store west of the Mississippi River, “Wright and Sons”. 

Turning Hearts Through Knowing Grandmother’s House

Each of these houses and places told us of the lives and history of the great and small on our family tree and by seeking them out, our hearts were turned to our fathers.  By literally bringing history home and learning where our forbearers lived, how they lived and the historical circumstances of their day, our lives and our loved ones were blessed through increased family history and temple work.  

Our ancestors may not have lived in castles or even mansions; it didn’t matter if they lived in great and beautiful halls, or in squalid tenement flats.  Learning and experiencing their homes and places in history testified to us of their strength, convictions, endurance, and faith.  The voices of the past that emanated from these buildings and homeland turned our hearts to our ancestors and opened up the doors of genealogical research and discovery by blessing us with greater knowledge and abilities to accurately discover and document our family on the Tree of Man.

Because I have journeyed to “Grandmother’s House”, now when I think of the names of my honored ancestors, my memory draws upon the images of the places where they lived.  Even though I’ve never met these people of my past, I’ve stood where they stood, and have seen the places they called home; I have an emotional connection to who and what these loved ones were and how they lived and contributed to history and to me.  And because of this, it seems I can hear their voices calling me, to come home to them, to come home for them and theirs.   I am reminded of days when people traveled over rivers, and through woods, on the seats of horse drawn sleighs… to Grandmother’s House we go!

This is the first part of our three-article series entitled “To Grandmother’s House We Go!”  In Part Two, we will discuss how you can discover where your ancestors lived, and how their homes might be found today and to make research travel plans.  And in the third part we will present a genealogy activity you can share with your children and grandchildren relating to “Grandmother’s House.”  Get on the sleigh and let’s go.

James W. Petty, AG, CG is the Board-Certified and Accredited Professional Genealogist, “Climbing the Family Tree Professionally Since 1969”.  He is President of HEIRLINES Family History & Genealogy, Inc. (www.Heirlines.com), the “Salt Lake City, Utah BBB Accredited Business” trusted professional genealogy research services firm, providing genealogical and historical research for a world-wide clientele.

For Heirlines-Quality professional genealogy services, resources, and products including free genealogy, LDS Family History advice and expert answers to commonly asked ancestry questions, visit Jim’s website www.Heirlines.com for free consultations and ordering custom family tree research services, and his genealogy blog www.ProfessionalGenealogy.com.