Ice Cream Melons & Foxes: It’s the Mouth Watering Details that Bring an Ancestor to Life

The trickster figure Reynard the Fox as depicted in an 1869 children’s book by Michel Rodange

Sometimes we don’t know much about an ancestor so it’s the littlest thing that can add a bit of spice to their life, which is otherwise just a recitation of census records, a wife and children. Context can help fill in the story if we can add what was happening during the time and place they lived. Sometimes we get lucky and we get a slighter better view from a county history or a newspaper article. Such is the case with my 3rd great grandfather Daniel Charles COATS. These tidbits are particularly delightful!

Dan was born about 1816 in probably near New Lisbon, Otsego County New York to Rufus COATS and Zipporah PALMER. The family moved to Allegany County, Pennsylvania by 1820 and then to Gustavus, Trumbull, County Ohio by 1830, before finally settled in Stafford Township, De Kalb County Indiana in 1836.

 History of De Kalb County, Indiana :1885 Page 957-58:

Dan Coats and the Fox

So we learn quite a bit of detail about Dan here– Dan was quite large and stout! And he had this sad encounter with a “mad” fox that had hydrophobia, known today as rabies. The fox affectionately named Reynard here, traces back to the 12th century. Reynard was a sly fox whose cunning made him a sympathetic hero. We also learn that Dan and Mary M ALLEN were the first marriage to occur in Wilmington where they were wed 18th of January 1838. Also in this History we learn that the family of Rufus COATS (his father) along with 25 other souls left Trumbull county, Ohio and arrived in Stafford Township the 4 October 1838 and were among the earliest permanent settlers.

I am lucky to have photos of Dan and Mary although of poor quality they are shown colorized here. The photo seems consistent with his description. He looks to be a large man.

Dan Coats

And here is his wife Mary M. ALLEN COATS.


The 1840 census for DeKalb County shows first their parents. The fourth name below is Ira ALLEN who just happens to be Mary’s father. The next name is indexed as Rufus CATS,which is actually Dan’s father Rufus COATS followed by Joseph A COATS Rufus’ brother. Lesson: always look for relatives when you can’t find the person you are looking for. These would have been some of the 25 souls traveling together from Ohio as mentioned in the county history above.

1840 De Kalb County Indiana Census p 483

And a few pages later we find Dan and Mary COATS just the two of them before the arrival of any children.

Daniel COATS De Kalb County Indiana Census p 489

Dan and Mary went on to have 5 sons and 3 daughters. The 3 eldest sons served in the Civil War: Charles Noyce, Sylvester G. and Aaron Daniel. Sadly Sylvester G. died the 16th MAY 1863 at Champion Hill Battlefield, Mississippi. We often forget to check what was happening what may have influenced our ancestors lives. Dan’s sister Sarah dies in 1864 and their youngest daughter, Hortense Lilian COATS is born to Mary and Dan the 17th Oct 1864  in  Bureau, Bureau County, Illinois. Some time between 1864 and 1870 the family moves to Colfax County, Nebraska where he was a farmer. And it’s here we find the most interesting news story about Dan.

The Crete Democrat NE 14 Oct 1875

From Mother Earth News we learn the ‘Ice Cream’ Watermelon Citrullus lanatus, was one of a number of “heirloom watermelons in circulation under the name Ice Cream, but the true Ice Cream of the nineteenth century had white seeds and white flesh. The melon was round, with pale green skin, very early to fruit, and well adapted to cool-climate areas of the country. White-seeded Ice Cream is now difficult to obtain, largely replaced by the black-seeded variety with pink flesh.” And we know that our man Daniel COATS grew a watermelon that weighed nearly 50 pounds! This kind of detail is literally mouth watering—ALL PUNS INTENDED! I like to imagine Dan, nearly 60 years old doing everything to grow his watermelon into the biggest in the area. There are no more mentions of Dan in the paper but what a lovely glimpse into his life on the farm.

I was able to locate the farm from the property description in his will. And I learned something else (perhaps forgotten or overlooked) that in addition to his farm in Nebraska he owned land in the “Dakota Territory.” (Another rabbit hole?)

Dan COATS Will written 13 December 1880

Transcription: “Devise to my wife Mary M COATS my homestead the West Half of South East Quarter of Section 26 Township North 18 Range no 4” In the map excerpt below I have highlighted in red the parcel belonging to Dan COATS. In Blue I have highlighted the parcel of J.L. PADEN husband to Millicent “Millie” Almena COATS PADEN, daughter of Dan and Mary COATS. Millie is my 2nd great grandmother and the eldest daughter of Dan and Mary. Until I plotted this parcel I had not realized how close they lived to one another and that there was a school in between. Every little detail adds more interest to the life of an ancestor. Do not overlook the details—they often hide in plain sight!

Part of Colfax Precinct from Colfax County Nebraska Atlas Geo A. Ogle & Co., 1917

Old Dan must have known his days were numbered as he dies the year after he wrote his will on the 23rd of August 1881 at 64 years of age. Remove the stories from the Almanac and the newspaper clipping and Dan’s life loses so much of its character. Never underestimate the smallest of mentions to bring your ancestor to life! In death Dan rests in the Purple Cane Cemetery just down the road to the East of J. L. PADEN’s farm (0n map above) in Dodge County, Nebraska. There’s another lesson—check adjacent counties!!! Our relatives often lived near borders–so if you can’t find a record in one county look in another! In very small letters at the bottom of his grave marker it reads, “Gone but not forgotten.” Each story brings an ancestor back to life.

Daniel COATS grave Purple Cane Cemetery, Dodge County Nebraska
Photo by Malia Hammerstrom used with permission.


Colfax County Nebraska Atlas Geo A. Ogle & Co., 1917

The Crete Democrat, Crete, NE 14 Oct 1875

Heirloom Watermelon Varieties” By William Woys Weaver in Mother Earth News October 10, 2013

History of De Kalb County, Indiana : together with sketches of its cities, villages and towns, educational, religious, civil, military, and political history, portraits of prominent persons, and biographies of representative citizens : also a condensed history of Indiana, embodying accounts of prehistoric races, aborigines, Winnebago and Black Hawk wars, and a brief review of its civil and political history.Chicago: Inter-State Pub. Co., 1885 Page 957-58

Kelly Wheaton Copyright 2021. All rights Reserved.

4 Comments on “Ice Cream Melons & Foxes: It’s the Mouth Watering Details that Bring an Ancestor to Life”

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