HARPERS FERRY – Robert Kelly will travel nearly 500 miles to get a Bible into the hands of a descendant of its original owner, a man born in Pennsylvania in 1820.
“That Bible belongs with the family,” explained Kelly, a 79-year-old Kentucky native now living in Knoxville, Tenn. “I can’t wait to get this back where it should have been all along.”
Kelly says his visit next week to Harpers Ferry will mark the “final chapter” of a winding saga he became a part of in the early 1990s.
It all started when Kelly, then retired from the Army and living in Baltimore, made the trip to Stewartstown, a small community in York County, Pa., where a military colleague lived.
“My friend’s next-door neighbor turned out to be a collector – actually a hoarder,” Kelly explained in a phone interview. “It was so bad the second floor of his home ended up collapsing. He’d stacked up so many old books up there, the floor couldn’t handle it.”
When the neighbor learned that Kelly had an interest in history, he sorted through the mountain of books and handed him a family Bible that had been published in 1870.
“He said, ‘I’ve got the perfect book for you’ and came back with this beautiful old Bible,” Kelly remembers. “It was in pretty good shape and I just took it home and stored it away.”
Years later after Kelly and his wife Mary relocated to Tennessee, he became interested in genealogy research – a pastime he picked up from his son. “He got the bug and then I got it,” he said.
Soon Kelly was looking not only into his own family ties, but also using ancestry.com and other websites to learn more about Robert Smith, the man whose name appears in the opening page of the old Bible.
With such a common first and last name, Kelly had a challenge on his hands. “I spent about a year and a half looking into this,” Kelly said. “I just became determined to find someone who was a descendant.”
Luckily, Smith had married a woman with a more distinctive name and then remembered after her death. He also had five children, giving Kelly lots of family members to track down.
Kelly finally connected with a fourth-generation descendant of Smith’s, Edward Hume Carlson, a 77-year-old who lives in Silver Spring, Md.
When Carlson and Kelly meet for lunch, he’ll hand over the illustrated Bible published by the National Publishing Co., Ziegler & McCurdy, Jones, Junkin & Co. that includes a number of handwritten birth, death and marriage dates for the Smith family.
So why meet up in Harpers Ferry?
The town is not too far a drive for Carlson, Kelly notes. And Kelly will be in the area already to visit with family. His son is a federal government employee who takes the MARC train from Kearneysville each weekday.
Kelly says he began coming to Harpers Ferry starting in the mid-1970s when he lived in the Washington-Baltimore region.
He served six years in the Navy right out of high school and then spent 25 years in the Army before retiring in 1987.
“In the military, I traveled all over the world,” Kelly said. “Harpers Ferry is one of my favorite places – what better place for a get-together than this beautiful Civil War town?”