This special page is dedicated to presenting my impressions of the 2013 Merriman Family Reunion and 400th Anniversary of the birth of my nine times great grandfather Nathaniel Merriman, co-founder of the town of Wallingford Connecticut.
Nathaniel was born on June 2, 1613 in Oxfordshire, England, and emigrated to America in 1632, landing as I understand it, at the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and eventually settling in New Haven, Connecticut. In 1670, at the age of 57, he along with several other “planters” from New Haven and Hartford, selected and set out the area on the “sand plains” between New Haven and Hartford to be established as Wallingford. He served in many capacities during the remaining 23 years of his life including clerk, magistrate, selectman, and other positions including Deacon of the First Congregational Church which he also co-founded, and raised a large family during his days in America. The Governor of Connecticut designated June 1, 2013 as Nathaniel Merriman Day throughout the state; his proclamation was read at the Cemetery Ceremony.
We arrived late May 31 at our hotel in Meriden, about ten miles north of Wallingford. After settling into our room, Dad and I hopped on the internet and spent two hours on Ancestry.com, before finally falling into bed about 2:00 AM Saturday morning. Sis was convinced we were nuts; she’s probably right.
Seven AM came awfully early, but we struggled through prep and breakfast, and finally hit the road for the brief drive into Wallingford. Slipping into a parking space on Main Street we grabbed our things and walked the short block to Wells Fargo Bank where, on the front lawn, we found the Welcome tent with breakfast rolls, coffee and juice, and the registration desk. Upon putting on our name badges and “Yes, there really is a Kalamazoo” buttons (dozens of which we handed out during the day) we waded into the “fray” and immediately struck up conversations with several distant cousins who lived in various places from Hastings to Southfield, to Grand Rapids, to South Dakota to Washington State to Florida. Everyone was smiling and laughing and just having a great time getting to know completely unknown cousins from different family lines.
Each of the 112 direct descendants at the reunion (there were a total of 158 registrants from 22 states and Belgium) wore a name tag that had our state abbreviation in the lower left corner of the tag, and the first initial of Nathaniel’s offspring through which we were related in the lower right corner. That made it really easy to get the conversations going.
It’s interesting that meeting total strangers with the same last name is way different from meeting total strangers with nothing in common. As soon as you start talking you immediately feel like old friends who are just catching up after a way too long absence.
Around 10:30 in the morning we queued up behind the Boy Scout Color Guard and trekked the three blocks to the Center Street Cemetery where after a bit more mingling we paused for the formal program including posting of the colors by a unit attired in 17th century British Infantry regalia, invocation and words by the Mayors of Wallingford, and Prospect CT, the Cemetery Society leader, and our host Peter Merriman, ninth in descent from Nathaniel through his son John. Proclamations from the state legislature and the governor were read. A new memorial stone honoring Nathaniel was unveiled next to his grandson Caleb’s headstone; apparently Nathaniel’s stone was lost, deteriorated, or never existed, so placing a special memorial was a very fitting tribute.
Following the service I was able to get some video of the 22 state flags and national flag of Belgium, representing current residencies of the 112 direct descendants attending the reunion.
Turns out Dad was the third oldest of all the attendees behind Bob at age 94 and Don at age 90; Dad is 85, soon to be 86. Every time the three of them found themselves together they were swarmed by family members armed with cameras and camera-equipped cell phones. The crowd got even more excited when Macy, from Belgium, moved in to chat with the old guys. Ah the price of celebrity!
Meanwhile the temperature was climbing, reaching 89 degrees by 11:30. It really felt good to slip back into the car and crank up the AC for the short drive down to Zandri’s Stillwood Inn for the lunch program.
Arriving at Zandri’s we found the crowd building nicely and clustered around the long North wall of the banquet room. Closer inspection revealed genealogy charts lining the the wall, beginning with Nathaniel and dropping through as many generations as could fit on the the charts which spanned about 100 lineal feet. Everyone was checking their branch of the family from Nathaniel on down and gathering as much new information as they could capture to update their own records. And the meeting and greeting and banter continued right where it left off from the reception and cemetery ceremony.
We hit it off with Helen and Roger Merriman from South Dakota, and their grand niece and her husband from Minnesota, as well as Roger’s older brother Don (the second oldest in attendance), early in the day and ended up joining them for the luncheon and conversing most of the meal. And what a feast it was, with pasta, chicken, fish, potatoes, vegetables, salad, and a slice of prime rib, followed by ice cream and chocolate sauce for dessert. It’s a good thing we sat for the next hour of presentations before gathering for the family photo, I don’t think anyone could have moved off their chair after that meal.
Cousin Peter shared the story of how this whole thing got started, described getting a professional genealogist to put the charts together, and then introduced the local historical society vice president Bob Beaumont, who talked about the early days of Walllingford and the family. John Stainton stepped up and offered some interesting background on Mansfield Merriman, an accomplished writer and professor and one of the organizers of the 1913 reunion, a truly fascinating story. Then Ruth MacKenzie Moynihan, another of Nathaniel’s direct descendants told about William A. MacKenzie, another key player in organizing the reunion 100 years ago.
Then Peter directed us toward the end of the hall where all of the direct descendants gathered for the mandatory group photo(s) to be published later. Considerable jockeying ensued in an effort to get all 112 of us into the frame, and the photographer, after what seemed like at least a dozen takes, declared it was the best he could do. I guess we’re left to judge his success when the photos are published.
Well, Peter continued to lots of applause about getting the reunion together. When he suggested that he’d like to be around for the next one but that wasn’t too likely for any of us attending this one, he speculated that perhaps we could shorten the interval from one hundred to fifty or twenty-five years, or maybe even ten years might be a nice time to do this again. I don’t think I heard a single protest and a lot of people mentioned the ten year reunion sounded great. We’ll see how it goes.
At the end of it all Peter presented the financial report, and a motion was made, seconded and unanimously approved to pass the hat to help cover Peter’s out of pocket expenses. Considering the number of large bills I saw as I made my own contribution, it’s a fair bet Peter came out close to even.
Following the organized activities for the day Dad, Sis and I decided to go exploring and headed into New Haven, then east along the coast. Just a mile from the junction with I95 we saw a sign for the Shoreline Trolley Museum, and serendipity kicked in, why not? So off we wandered through East Haven looking for and ultimately finding Sprague station and the site of the museum. Out in front a trolley car was parked and ready and after finding we could still take the last ride of the day we boarded and rolled off through the estuary and tidal marsh leading to the shoreline. The marsh was peppered with Osprey platforms hosting active nests. We saw lots of shore birds and just plain reveled in riding the rails that have been in use since 1907. John, our motorman and conductor as well as chief dispatcher, filled us in on the history of the trolley and showed us some of the basics of trolley operation.
Upon returning to the car barns, no one else wanted the backshop tour, so John gave the three of us a first class private tour of the shops and about a dozen restored trolley cars from horse-drawn to the early open cars to the bus-style cars of the forties. After spending more than twice as long as promised, we finally headed back on the last car of the day to the station where we profusely thanked John and bid him adieu.
A moderate drive back north got us to Berlin and dinner at Friday’s before we returned to the hotel and called it an early evening.
I apologize for the lack of photos and videos for the last two segments above, the phone/camera ran out of juice!
We got to sleep in! How nice to get seven uninterrupted hours of rest, and no fighting over the bathroom. When we arrived at First Congregational Church we were welcomed by all of the state and national flags on display the day before at the cemetery.
What an honor, and then to be able to read the monument to the church founders and see Nathaniel’s name etched on the stone, the congregation made us feel right at home.
The service included welcoming comments from the pastor, confirmation of many young people, a very appropriate message, and communion. The church also offered a joint reception for the confirmands and the Merriman Family attendees, complete with two special cakes; one honoring the confirmands, and one honoring the family.
At the reception we were able to talk with more of the Merriman family and with other members of the congregation. It’s a truly humbling experience to have people you’ve never met thank you personally and your family for founding their town and their church. How do you even respond to that? All I could think to do was thank them for so honoring us and welcoming us “back home”. It still leaves a lump in my throat as I write this ten hours later.
We lingered with our South Dakota family and Nikki and Chris from Virginia, and finally left last with Peter; seems like the Kalamazoo Merrimans are always the longest lingerers no matter where we are. But finally we said our goodbyes and were off to Peter’s recommended Atlantic beach to finish out the rest of the day.
Now that the scheduled reunion events were finished we just had to visit an Atlantic Ocean beach; yes, I realize this is actually Long Island Sound, but it’s good enough for me! We headed out to Hammonassett Beach State Park at Peter’s last minute suggestion. There used to be a huge boardwalk here many years ago, along with pavilions and an amusement park (if I got my state parks correct, although that may have been at Rocky Neck a few miles farther east).
A good walk along the sand, a nice sit at the end of a new boardwalk, a foot long hot dog with onion rings and a soda from the beach concession stand, and a stop at the Meigs Point Nature Center capped off an absolutely delightful afternoon. Debi walked out the breakwater and had a lot of fun watching a small group of kids fishing for crabs with raw chicken wings on a string!? Apparently they (the crabs) just grab the wings and hang on while you pull ’em out!
Well, it was time. With regret we pulled out of the beach parking lot and returned to the hotel in Meriden for a well earned nap. About 7:00 PM I was feeling the call of a Wendy’s Spicy Chicken Sandwich so us three musketeers headed off north toward Berlin in search of one of Dave Thomas’ creations. Once satisfied with a little heat (pepper that is) we found our way to our beds for one last deep sleep before the long trek home.
We came to Wallingford in search of a centuries old and long ignored connection. We found more than family; we found roots, a town we could truly call home, and a church community that welcomed us and thanked our family for the efforts of our ancestors nearly four centuries ago. We arrived as strangers and left as relatives and as friends. Writing these reflections of the weekend stirred some really deep emotions about family relationships and just how important history can be. It helps you to put your own life in perspective, and look beyond just yourself.
Nathaniel helped found a community and started an American Merriman family that now numbers in the thousands and spreads all across the continent. I wonder what impact I’ll have had when my family many generations removed looks back and finds my name in the family tree. Will there be the wonder that I feel when I look back 400 years to Nathaniel’s birth, and the mark he left on this country? Or will my mark be a footnote in the family’s book of life? No matter, it’s an honor to be any small part of the Merriman Family Story.
Peace my friends,