Canna lilies have deep roots in family history

Carol Landers is guest columnist.

The majestic crimson canna lilies that now live on the banks of Charleston’s Ashley River have traveled a long way and have a special story to share.

This is their story, of two families deeply immersed in the history of this great country beginning with the first arrival in America in 1637.

I am proud of share their story and my 378-year-old American history with my Charleston friends. The lilies help connect the lives of two families that, against all odds, met, married and became an important part of shaping this nation.

In 1637, Capt. Samuel Walker (my grandfather nine-times removed) left the security of his English homeland, crossed the Atlantic Ocean, and arrived in Boston.

Well-educated and industrious, Walker soon became a land owner and obtained the first license for an inn and tavern in Massachusetts. As active community leaders, his descendants thrived there for the next 130 years, but when Colonists were requested in the 1770s to enlist to fight for our freedom, many Walkers did so and, with their families, traveled as soldiers into Virginia.

The second main character of my story is my grandfather (seven-times removed) Samuel Stalnaker, who left Vienna, Austria, in 1735 and sailed into the port here in Charleston.

Traveling north into unchartered lands in western Virginia, he explored, fought Shawnee Indians (losing his wife and one son in a raid), fought in the French and Indian War, and later became an aide for Gen. George Washington.

Washington sent several letters to the Continental Congress applauding Stalnaker’s contributions; these letters are now stored in the Library of Congress. Under instructions from Virginia Gov. Robert Dinwiddie, Stalnaker built a fort in Drapers Meadow, Va., in 1752 that was called Fort Stalnaker. As noted by the Daughters of the American Revolution, Stalnaker established the farthest western settlement at that time in the Colonies. The western Appalachian Mountains 50 miles northwest of what is now Charleston, W.Va., were now his family’s home.

From this point, we now fast-forward 278 years from Walker’s and Stalnaker’s landings to a cool May morning in 1915.

A five-month pregnant young woman, Alma Walker Stalnaker (my grandmother) lifted her 5-year-old daughter up on the back of a black horse named Beauty whom Alma had raised from a foal. Climbing up behind the child, they began a two-hour, five mile trip up a steep mountain trail in the Appalachian Mountains to the home place of Alma’s parents, Andrew Jackson Walker and Almira Hanshaw Walker.

Theirs was a two-story Victorian home that had been ordered in 1908 as a kit from the popular Sears-Roebuck catalog, delivered by train to the bottom, flatland below, hauled by wagons up the mountain and assembled.

Arriving at the home, the child and her grandfather dug up some of the tuberous roots of the tall red canna lilies that outlined the white house.

Alma had grown up with the majestic flowers surrounding her childhood home and now wanted to grow them around her new home for her growing family to enjoy.

After lunch, the mother and daughter began their ride back down the mountainside with two burlap bags containing the roots slung over the withers of the horse.

Alma was the granddaughter (seven-times removed) of Capt. Samuel Walker. Her husband, Willie Blaine Stalnaker (my grandfather) was the grandson (five-times removed) of Samuel Stalnaker.

Against all odds, this young couple, children of two courageous families, had managed to meet in the Virginia mountains from descendants from Massachusetts and South Carolina. The 5-year-old girl riding to her grandparents’ home was my mother, Ruby, an adored first grandchild of this very large family.

Thus begins a Charleston West to Charleston South connection for me. When Ruby married and built her own home in Charleston, W.Va., 15 years later, she transplanted many of the prolific plants there where they flourished.

In 1986, I moved from there to Charlotte and, of course, took many of the plants with me.

They and their history were already playing such a beautiful part of my life. My mother had told me the story of that first transplanting so many times that I could close my eyes and relive with her the ride, the lunch and the happiness that she experienced. This year is the 100th anniversary of that trip up the mountain.

While in Charlotte, I began sharing the lily roots with family members throughout the United States; I wanted them to also appreciate the extensive history of our family.

Now living in Charleston, I am sharing these gloriously tall, prolific plants with newfound friends. Since that first transplant in the mountains in West Virginia in 1915, these same plants are now growing in the gardens in seven states, proudly representing a rich American heritage from the cool mountains of Charleston West to the hot sands of Charleston.

Alma would be proud.

Carol Landers and her husband, Okey, live in Charleston They have two children. She has been a teacher and a library volunteer. She is now devoting time to genealogy research and spending time with her twin grandsons.