Searching for Ada Latta
By Kit-Bacon Gressitt
It began when I knew my mother would die. A doomed attempt, perhaps, to revive the past and bind it to a family now scattered on the winds of a splintered clan, I’m not sure. But as Mother’s tremulous hands repeated their final diversion—rolling and flattening her napkin, rolling and flattening her napkin again—I knew she would soon be gone. I kissed her and my long-dead father farewell, expecting them to reunite on some ethereal dance floor, and I began my search for Ada Latta.
I knew little of my great grandmother, only the stories my elders told my siblings and me. They introduced us to Ada, the college-educated, single teacher, who boldly departed Clinton, Kentucky and rode into the Oklahoma Territory of 1893 to stake a homestead claim. Smitten by the handsome stakeholder next door—or maybe they were smitten by each other—Ada and John were married and made a passel of babies, while John attracted the animosity of the local bad guys, whom he lambasted in his newspaper, necessitating the family’s late night escape to Cuba.
Or Ada’s husband was a ne’er-do-well who curried the town’s disfavor with his drinking and shooting, and they were firmly invited to leave the town they helped settle.
Or Ada and John made a godly mission to save the heathen natives of Cuba, surely ascending to prime seats in heaven when they died on the island, leaving their children to beat it back to the states on a banana boat and find shelter with understanding kin.
The conflicting stories made Ada intriguing, surely a subject worth writing, whatever her story might actually be. I was enamored.
I cruised genealogy websites, made virtual introductions to cousins I hadn’t known I had, spent late-night hours reviewing digital records and conflicting interpretations, culled a rare fact here and there, phoned historical societies and university library archives, tracked one dusty connection to the next with few rewards, and questioned the sanity of my pursuit.
Then I packed my bag and hit the road in search of Ada.
And what a trip it’s been. From national archives in D.C. to Oklahoma’s prairies to the bottomlands and burgs of western Kentucky and beyond. Along the way, small town museums and crumbling courthouse records revealed pearls of information about Ada and her family that drew me like a worker ant on a pheromone trail. Just as enticing were the people, fabulously generous people who knew nothing of me or Ada Latta and did their darnedest to help me find her.
There was Lori, an unknown volunteer on the other side of the country, who dug into records and located an unmarked grave.
A Daughters of the American Revolution D.C. office staffer who gave me more information than was my due—“Hey, they’re long dead. You take it, girl!”
An Oklahoma Department of Libraries team that distracted me from their rotting leather-bound volumes to insist I join them for their ice cream social (ice cream stokes the search).
The neophyte bed and breakfast operators who put me up in a room fit for a queen (a French queen) and introduced me to the who’s who of historians in their town.
Curators who dug into their files for me and shared research war stories.
An aged cowboy, determined to find me some big bluestem prairie grass, grass Ada might have ridden through to stake her claim.
Delmar Smith piled me and my notebook into his humongous pickup and said, “I told them I wanted everything on it: This is the gas eatingist thing!” And off we went, on the ten dollar tour of an Oklahoma prairie that doesn’t stop until it reaches the edge of the world, where monsters lurk. “This is what they call the tallgrass prairie. Nobody slip up on you here. You know they coming.” …
Next: Makin’ lazy circles in the sky
Note: Makin’ lazy circles in the sky is from the song “Oklahoma,” from the musical of the same name, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, music by Richard Rodgers.