Family trees in the land of forsythia bushes

March 7, 2013 

FORSYTH -- Jane Newton remembers the forsythia bush in her parents’ yard north of town.

It was always among the first flowers to arrive with the promise that spring was on its way.

Forsythia was special to her because it carried the name of the town where she was born, educated and would raise her own family. The yellow flowers would later inspire a festival, now in its 26th year.

Jane’s children, Frank and Susan, remember forsythia at the family dairy farm for a different reason, especially if they ever misbehaved. The rough, gray-brown branches were ideal for spanking.

‘‘They were called ‘switch’ bushes,’’ Jane said, laughing.

Jane may not profess to be a horticulture expert, but no one within 398 square miles knows as much about the family trees in Monroe County.

She can recite the names of people’s great uncles and half-sisters. She knows which grandparents settled in Culloden and who has ties to Box Ankle. Half the county roads, it seems, are named after somebody. Not only has she traveled them, but hugged most of their namesakes.

She is a genie of genealogy. That’s why the county commissioners have designated her as the official historian of Monroe County.’

Jane prides herself on helping others trace their ancestry and connect the dots of their past. What she has not committed to memory, she has filed away with the Monroe County Historical Society at the old train depot. Or she can locate it at the library, the courthouse or the archives room at the new county administration building.

“I tell people you can’t know where you’re going unless you know where you came from,’’ she said. “It gives me special satisfaction to help put someone in contact with an unknown relative or to give them the information they need to learn more about their kinfolks.’’

In four months, Jane will be 81 years old. That’s three times older than this weekend’s Forsythia Festival, but not quite half of the lifespan of Forsyth, founded in 1823.

The town was named after John Forsyth, a congressman, senator and Georgia governor who also was a U.S. secretary of state. (The forsythia plant, however, was named for William Forsyth, an 18th-century Scottish botanist.)

Jane’s roots have run deep in these parts for generations. Her parents, Jim and Durant Roquemore, ran a grocery store in Forsyth. She graduated from nearby Bessie Tift College and held different positions at the courthouse and in county government.

She is a widow. Her husband, Charles “Sonny” Newton, died 14 years ago. She enjoys quilting and has had season tickets on the 40-yard line for every Mary Persons home football game since 1979.

Jane credits her maternal grandmother, Lillie Grant, with planting the seed that fostered her passion for family trees.

“She loved people,’’ said Jane. “Everybody was her ‘cousin.’ ’’

When Jane would visit local cemeteries to photograph and record dates from the inscriptions on headstones, her grandmother would ride along in the old GMC truck.

“She would tell stories,’’ Jane said. “She knew the families, their children and some of the things they had been through.’’

Dorothy Edge, a longtime friend, called Jane a “goodwill ambassador” who has helped people across the country and all over the world find their links to Forsyth and Monroe County. Several years ago, the basement at the courthouse had to be cleared of the mountains of records.

“She could not stand to see them discarded, so she had the dump truck bring them to her home,’’ said Dorothy. “Through the years, she has gone through these and forwarded the majority of them to family members. The post office should give her an award for the most postage stamps used by an individual. She eventually had to purchase her own copy machine to make her job easier. She probably knows more officials in other Georgia counties than anyone.’’

Jane said she would rather celebrate her “flowers” now than at her funeral.

“I have shared my life with others,’’ she said. “And they have shared their lives with me.’’

Reach Gris at 744-4275 or egrisamore@macon.com.

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