Just east of Beckley, W. Va., you can take a drive along Rte. 3 between Shady Spring and Flat Top, stop at any house, knock on the door and ask for Mr. Lilly. The odds are good that you'll find one, since Lillys are as abundant as pickup trucks and double-wide trailers in this coal-rich section of southern West Virginia. But for two days every year, they're even easier to find -- as they were over the past weekend, when an estimated 30,000 people came to the annual family reunion;
This is the home stomping ground for descendants of Robert and Frances Lilly, who settled along the banks of the nearby Bluestone River in 1740. The patriarch of the West Virginia Lilly's must have been taken by the clear waters and verdant 3,000-foot ridges that surrounded his newfound home. And he was in no hurry to leave -- he died, they say, at age 114.
Many of his offspring felt likewise, and now the Beckley telephone directory contains as many listings for Lillys as it does for Smiths. Over the years, of course, a number of Lillys drifted away to at least 42 states. But despite the toll of years and distance, Lilly clansmen from across the nation returned to Beckley this weekend to attend what is billed as the largest family reunion in the world.
Jack Lilly, a Canton, Ohio, butcher who serves as president of the Lilly Family Reunion Corporation, said, "It looks like more than last year." In 1978, an estimated 20,000 Lillys and their friends took part in the festivities.
The Raleigh County sheriff's office in Beckley estimated this year's crowd at 30,000, and more were expected on Sunday afternoon, when Gov. Jay Rockefeller and every high-ranking elected state official was scheduled to deliver speeches to the family assembly.
"THIS is the most Lillys I've seen since I was a little boy," said Ron Lilly, who attended a record-setting reunion in 1941.
Saturday's 110-unit Lilly reunion parade through downtown Beckley was the largest the town had experienced in at least 20 years, according to observers.
On Sunday, the family held a roll call of the states and gave out awards to those who had traveled the farthest to attend the event. Distance honors went to a Lilly who made the trip from West Germany. A dinner for out-of-town Lillys was held at the Civic Center, with tables spanning the circumference of the domed structure, which normally seats only 5,000 to 6,000. "We ran out of food earlier than we expected," said Ron Lilly.
It was impossible to get a motel room anywhere in the Beckley area throughout the weekend, and traffic in the already bustling community of 20,000 could scarcely move.
A certain degree of down-home charm is lost in holding a reunion on such a massive scale. There are no picnic tables buckling under the weight of home-cooked food, no clang of horseshoes being pitched, or unlces and cousins picking tunes on clawhammer banjos.
Instead, Akron radio announcer Jay "Jaybird" Drennan flashed his considerable array of perfect teeth and announced in Ted Baxter baritones such professional music acts as the Country Lovin' Express and The Beckley Star Thrus.
"We found we needed a professional emcee," said Ron Lilly, a Beckley druggist and a vice president of the Family Reunion Corporation. "We just couldn't keep the program moving along on time by ourselves."
Because of the throngs for the past two years, the family has rented the domed Raleigh County Civic Center, the largest meeting facility in the area.
The family corporation is negotiating to buy its own reunion grounds on Flat Top Mountain southeast of Beckley, near the gravesite of family pioneers Robert and Frances Lilly.
Hand-drawn family trees were as common as leisure suits at a miners' convention, as Lillys traced their roots with the fervor of Alex Haley. Heads of different family branches are often referred to by their nicknames -- which include "Shootin' Bob," "Miller Bob," "Jerusalem Jim" and "Ground Hog Bill."
"Genealogies are the thing at the moment," said Jesse Lilly Dale of Springdale, La., a descendant of "Miller Bob" Lilly. "I think 'Roots' helped stimulate the interest, but this family has been digging into its history for a long time." Mrs. Dale and her brothers, J. R. Lilly (also of Springdale) and Roy Lilly (of Swickley, Pa.) were in Beckley to share genealogical research that would trace their roots beyond the Revolutionary period, where history becomes hazy for their branch of the clan.
Lilly family lineage has been traced back to ninth-century Normandy, where family forebears lived in the city of Lille. The name underwent a variety of changes over the years, having been spelled Lillie, Liley, Delisle and Delilis at various times and places.
In America, family historians say, the oldest Lilly colony was founded in southern Maryland in 1634 by John Lilly. Robert Lilly, founder of the West Virginia clan, is a grandson of John.
The first Lilly family reunion was held in 1930, under the leadership of A. A. "Cousin Abe" Lilly, a Charleston attorney and one-time West Virginia attorney general. According to Jack Lilly, "Cousin Abe" was noted for referring to all those attending the get-together as 'cousin' as well as for maintaining a careful balance of activities among country Baptists and Methodists, Republicans and Democrats.
The reunions flourished, reaching a reported attendance peak of 75,000 in 1941. In 1949, however, a polio epidemic was sweeping the state, and health officials discouraged mass meetings of any kind. Cousin Abe took ill in the early 1950s, and died in 1956, and the reunion fell into a 20-year decline until last year, when Jack Lilly revived it.
Although there are a number of better-known members of The Lilly clan, "we are mostly hard working Middle Americans -- what I call the backbone of the country," according to Jack Lilly.
"We're just a real gregarious bunch who know how to enjoy themselves," said Ron Lilly of Beckley. "I've never seen anyone here who didn't have a good time.