For local families, reunions link past, present and future generations

By Lynne Conner for Chronicle Media

Bonnie Smith (left) and Dorothy Kauffman (above) look through a family scrapbook at the Moore Family Reunion held Aug. 12.

As the summer season wanes, most families will look back on fond memories of picnics, swimming, grilling-out and vacations. Some families will be fortunate enough to reminisce on the golden memories of a recent family reunion. Such is the case for three families in northern Illinois who count their family reunions as a revered time of rediscovery and fun.

Reggie and Danita Tillmon of Rockford have family reunions on their individual sides of the family; however the Tillmon reunion started in the early to mid-1970s, occurs every summer and could take place anywhere in the U.S.

“My extended family is pretty spread out, so typically we will decide which branch of the family will host the reunion and then the venue is pretty close to the host family,” Reggie said. “We’ve been to Columbus, Ohio; Jacksonville, Fla.; Gary, Ind. and Dallas to name a few.” In 2014, the Tillmon family reunion was held in the Rockford area as Reggie’s family was in charge of the planning.

Reggie doesn’t think of his family reunions as “destination” reunions because they are not always held in big cities.

“Our family roots trace back to Swainsboro, GA so, even though we don’t have a lot of family that live down in that area, that’s where we had the reunion this year,” he said. “So, we don’t always go to larger cities; the reunions are mostly held close to where family members live.”

Mindful of family members’ busy schedules, the Tillmon Reunion is held over a long weekend and usually draws between 60-70 people.

Reggie said that his family reunions rely on both social media and traditional mail letters to communicate reunion details.

“When it’s actually time to get signed up and figure out who is coming and who isn’t coming, the host family will send out a pamphlet through the mail with all the pertinent information.” The Tillmon Family Reunions are typically held in a hotel where they can get special group rates.

Some of the activities included in the Tillmon reunion weekend include: a meet and greet, formal dinner, picnic, fashion show, talent show and other field trips to nearby attractions. Family history booklets are printed and given out at the Tillmon reunion along with t-shirts commemorating the weekend.

Danita said that family reunions on her side of the family are less frequent, happening every four to five years and are held around the Midwest.

“We try to pick different places (to have the reunion), that are not too far; so we’ve had reunions in Minnesota, and Perry, Iowa where many relatives are from. Our last reunion was in South Beloit.” Danita’s family reunions include a meet and greet and a family barbecue picnic with games.

2018 marked the 80th year that the descendants of James and Fanny Moore have held reunions. The group gathers yearly on the second Sunday of August at Sumner Park in Pecatonica. The reunion’s noon to 3 p.m. time frame is a throwback tradition from when most of the family had to leave the gathering and head back to their farms for afternoon chores.

Nowadays, the Moore Family uses a Facebook page to notify members about the specifics of the reunion and the picnic doesn’t end early due to farming chores.

Cousins, Dorothy Kauffman of Ridott and Bonnie Smith of Rockford are two of the oldest members of the Moore family and represent the fourth generation of Moore descendants. “This year, we had some relatives come in from Wisconsin, but mostly our family is still in the area and comes from Pecatonica, Winnebago, Lena, Rockford, Stillman Valley and Byron,” Smith said.

“Family reunions are still important to have because it’s a time for families to pass on their history and family stories,” Smith said. “Many of the younger generation don’t know how family members are related; I can show them photos, but coming to a reunion, they can see and meet these people in the photos.”

For Kauffman, continuing the tradition of family reunions is important for two reasons.

“A lot of illnesses that people have are passed through families and knowing your family history is like having a health record that could help current relatives,” Kauffman said. “I also have fun finding the old recipes, for instance, the cake I brought to this year’s reunion was a recipe that I got from my Mom.”

At each Moore family reunion, there are also large scrapbooks filled with photos and family history, Kauffman says it is uncanny how family members will resemble those from previous generations. Perhaps Smith’s daughter Kathleen, who is in her 30s, puts the idea of family reunions in perspective,

“Our family reunions and the history in those scrapbooks can link past, present and future generations of our family. It’s all about family connections.”

Brian and Paula Smith of Belvidere view their yearly Smith family reunions as a week of bonding, adventure and fun. The reunions were started in 2002, at the request of Brian’s parents as a way for their four sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren to spend some time together. The Smith reunions are week-long vacations that happen every summer, usually in mid to late July, with each brother’s family taking a turn at planning the gathering.

“In the early years we would spend our Smith Family Reunion week around the Mid-West, but since the grandchildren have gotten older, we have expanded our destinations,” Paula said.

She added that the family who is planning the reunion chooses a large house in the destination city so that all family members can stay under one roof. The cost of the accommodations for the week are covered by Brian’s parents with each brother’s family providing meals for the week.

2009 was a special year for the Smith family as the brothers and their wives paid for the vacation to celebrate Grandma and Grandpa Smith’s 45th wedding anniversary.

“We did a Carnival Cruise which was really nice, but different because two of the brothers couldn’t make it as they had infants who were too small to go on the cruise,” Paula said.

The Smith family has a unique characteristic in that the four brothers are actually two sets of twins: Brian and Peter, then Kevin and Robert.

Another memorable family reunion vacation happened in 2014 when the Smith clan traveled to Pennsylvania and had an adventurous time whitewater rafting down the Lower Yough River.

“The family members, including Brian and daughter Maria, who went on the rafting trip were having an amazing time, until the raft flipped,” Paula said. “A few people got some significant cuts and scrapes. Maria was OK physically, but pretty shaken up for the rest of the day.”

The Smith family uses email and social media in the planning of their reunions and to share photos after the vacation has ended.

Getting to know extended family members and creating memories rank as Brian’s top reasons to continue the Smith Family Reunions.

“These vacations are important because the cousins get to grow up together and share adventures and memories,” he said. “I want future generations to see that our family was very close, we support each other and we’re always happy to be around each other.”

Whether a long weekend, a Sunday afternoon family picnic, or a week-long destination reunion; time spent with extended family members remains an integral part of preserving family history and strengthening family bonds.