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Folklore: The KEMP Family Minstrels from Maine

GUEST,Uncle Jaque (Lost Marbles AND Cookies!) 02 Dec 08 - 02:54 PM
Joybell 02 Dec 08 - 03:21 PM
GUEST 02 Dec 08 - 03:39 PM
Joybell 02 Dec 08 - 05:25 PM
Leadfingers 02 Dec 08 - 05:51 PM
Joybell 03 Dec 08 - 03:50 AM
GUEST,Uncle Jaque 03 Dec 08 - 07:01 AM
GUEST,davlaudee 21 Jun 10 - 03:58 PM
GUEST,julia L 21 Jun 10 - 04:32 PM
GUEST,Azizi 18 Jul 11 - 10:54 PM
GUEST,Azizi 18 Jul 11 - 11:04 PM
GUEST,Azizi 18 Jul 11 - 11:24 PM
Charley Noble 19 Jul 11 - 05:23 PM
GUEST,Azizi 19 Jul 11 - 06:09 PM
Charley Noble 20 Jul 11 - 07:49 AM
GUEST,julia L 20 Jul 11 - 10:49 PM
Charley Noble 21 Jul 11 - 09:32 AM
GUEST 27 Jul 11 - 11:18 PM
GUEST,scott kemp 10 Jan 12 - 11:23 PM
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Subject: Folklore: The KEMP Family Minstrels from Maine
From: GUEST,Uncle Jaque (Lost Marbles AND Cookies!)
Date: 02 Dec 08 - 02:54 PM

Some time ago (a couple of months I guess I posted the start of this on another Minstrels thread, but since I think that it deserves it's own topic, some of this might be a little redundant. Since that last "reply" some more history has come to light, and research is ongoing.
Also, some links to photos are being added.



While out and about on the morning of Sept. 25, 2008, I popped into a nearby little "Mom & Pop" country store and gas station along US Rt. 202 in Leeds, Maine, where a friend had told me they served a pretty decent breakfast.

While posting a couple of fliers for upcoming events at our Fish & Game club, I noticed a small lithograph on the wall of a group of Black people apparently back in the days of slavery having a dance. In one corner one musician was whanging away on a banjo while another played an accordion.

Plantation Barn Dance

Since I study and collect 19th Century music, including that of the Minstrel era, my curiosity was piqued. It was even more aroused when I spotted an old framed broadside advertising a Minstrel Troupe - "The Colored KEMP Family".   

Somehow I associate the name "Kemp" with Minstrel music - but can't recall exactly what that connection is. I know there is a "Kemp's Jig", but that is associated with Will Kempe, who was Comedian and Morris Dancer with Shakespeare for a while back in the 1600s.

Then while I was munching my fried bacon & egg sandwich, I looked back up at the little lithograph of the happy plantation scene, and noticed what I'd overlooked the first time; a bit over it hung a black and white portrait of an elderly Black gentleman with a serene, gentle smile.

George Washington KEMP ~ 1832 - 1911

Now this was getting to me; I went up front and woke up the Cashier to ask him who that old fellow was.

All he knows is that his family bought the store from a KEMP Family, and those pictures were on the walls when they took it over.
Since they seemed quaint, they put some of them back up after refurbishing the interior.   He had no idea of who the Black gent was, or what, if any, connection he might have had with minstrel shows.
He did remember, though, that there was a very old lady who as far as he knows still lives in a trailer not far away in Leeds, Maine.
She might be the last surviving member of the Kemp Family, so far as he knew.

(Later discovered that this was probably "Aunt Lottie" who lived unmarried to be 107 but alas, no longer among us)

Now I've run all sorts of searches on the Internet, and can't come up with any "Kemp" associated with any particular Minstrel Troupe.
Do any of you know of any?

By the cut of his coat lapels in the photo, I would guess that it was taken in the late 19th Century - 1875-90 perhaps.

*************** Sept. 27, 2008 ************************

        The deeper we investigate the local phenomenon of the KEMP Family Minstrels, the more fascinating it becomes!

        Earlier this Summer I had been asked by the local Museum / Historical Society to provide "Civil War era" music for our annual "Apple Festival".

         Monmouth used to be a major apple growing community, and we still have a few pretty good sized orchards in town despite many of them having been put out of business by competition from China (juice concentrate) under pricing them.
Apparently some Americans are having second thoughts about what might be IN that Chinese juice, and our apple industry seems to be experiencing somewhat of a revival.

         There is a big orchard (big by Maine standards anyway) right across the road from us, where I walk our dogs on occasion. It's a beautiful place, especially when the trees are in blossom and the bees are buzzing harmoniously around doing their essential work of pollination. The sweet perfume of the blossoms is nearly intoxicating.... but I digress.

        So I set up in a little nook in the barn next to an old black "Moriah" horse drawn hearse and parked my banjo in an open coffin.
The place used to be owned by a local Mortician, and he left many of the tools of his trade to the museum, including a couple of cast iron child's coffins with little port-holes over the face so the grieving Parents might have one last look at their too-soon taken little one before they were surrendered to the cold, enfolding earth.   When we had a few women examining them, I sometimes broke out the guitar for a rendition of "Mother's Lament":

"Yon spot in the churchyard
How sad is the bloom;
That Summer flings 'round it,
in flowers and perfume;
It is thy dust, my Darling,
Gives life to each rose;
'Tis because thou hast withered,
The violet blows."

        There are several verses to it, all heart wrenching as a lot of these old songs tend to be.   The score I found it with in an 1840s era book is pretty nondescript (as a lot of music of the period tends to be) but it is a perfect metrical match (6s & 5s) to "Flow Gently Sweet Afton", which is what I use for it to excellent effect.
Metrical mix-and-match was pretty common practice back then, as scores and lyrics were not particularly "married" to one another until late in the 19th Century. So I'll bet that They (The Old Ones) did it.

        But again, I digress....

        While mixing it up with the Museum staff, I dropped KEMP's name several times, and indeed they are familiar with it.
It seems that they know several descendants who still live in the community.   As I went over to the Museum Store across the street to pick up my home-made apple pie as a reward for my musical contributions (not a bad gig considering my level of competence) one of the Museum Elders pulled out a book about prominent Blacks in Maine History.

("Maine's Visible Black History"; H.H.PRICE & Gerald E. TALBOT: Tilbury House, Gardiner, ME; 2006 )

There on the cover were several photographs of it's subjects, including the gently smiling one that I had seen at the diner.   The next thing I know, she comes out with a framed broadside for the KEMP Family Colored Minstrel Troupe, pretty much as I had seen on the wall of the diner!
This time I read the fine print at the bottom.

(Some details since filled in from an article by Descendant Elaine Bragdon)

        George Washington Kemp was a slave at the Culpepper VA Plantation of the Armistead Brown family. As the Union Army advanced on his area, he and 17 other slaves "surreptitiously abandoned" their Master and managed to connect with the Yankee forces, where "Wash", as he seems to have been affectionately known, made the acquaintance of one General Oliver Otis HOWARD of Leeds, Maine.

General Oliver Otis HOWARD

He was a West Point graduate who was the first Commanding Officer of the Third Regiment of Maine Volunteer Infantry... which is the unit that I have been a Member of, in it's Living History Reenactment tribute / educational nonprofit organizational form, since 1991. Although currently inactive, the last role I played with the Third Maine was as a Fifer in the Regimental Field Music (Fife & Drum Corps).

UJ Fifing - 3rd Maine Field Music

        Through Col. Howard (who later became a General), Kemp is alleged to have joined the Union Army where he served with distinction in the fight to emancipate his Brothers and Sisters who were still bound in slavery's chains, until the end of the war in 1865.

In reviewing the records of the Union Army in Maine and the "ORs" (Official Records of the War of Rebellion), however, no record is found of him. He may have served in one of the "Colored" Regiments of another state or the Federal Army, or have served as a civilian non-combatant Teamster, Cook, Mule Skinner, or in some other logistical support role.   More research is indicated.

        At the end of the Civil War, General Howard, who had apparently developed a close personal friendship with Mr. Kemp, invited him to return to Maine with him to help him on his farm in Leeds - apparently more as a member of his family than as a "servant" per se.

        Although Kemp enjoyed his new life and freedom in the scenic fields, orchards, and rolling hills of Maine, he missed his family whom he had to abandon when he escaped bondage at the beginning of the Civil War. After about a year in Maine, when he requested a leave of absence in order to return and try to find them from Howard, he probably never expected the kindly General's response.

        Howard probably knew that a lone black man with limited resources and connections would have little chance of success, and would more than likely be at considerable personal risk in a still very hostile and racist environment .
So he told his friend to stay in Leeds to mind the farm and look after his family, while the General himself mounted up and returned to the scene of the recent bloodletting in the deep South to search for the Kemp Family himself.

   Surely these men from markedly different cultures and climes had become close; you don't usually do that sort of thing for an "Employee".

Surely an Army General had access to a lot of resources that a former slave would not - I would not be surprised if Army Intelligence (and they did have plenty of spies back then) was working on the case at Howard's behest. He was very well liked and respected in the Union Army and had earned the trust and affection of many of the Southern Black community for his sincere advocacy and generosity on their behalf. Many of the former Confederate Leaders, including General Robert E. LEE had been Teachers or Classmates of Howard before the War while he was a Cadet at West Point.

        It seems that after George's escape, his "Master" had sold his entire Family - Wife Maria along with John and Mary, his two children - "down the river" - which usually meant hard labor in the sugar cane plantations in Georgia or Louisiana under severe conditions and particularly cruel management. To a slave, it was often a death sentence.

        Howard relentlessly perused all leads until at last, miraculously, he found Kemp's Family - still alive. It turns out that they had only been sold as far as Lynchbug - which is probably why they were still alive.

As soon as possible, they were all on board a train, or possibly a coastal steamer under the protection of the kind General, bound for Maine and a surely joyous reunion with their beloved Patriarch.

        Upon settling here in Maine, the Kemp Family formed a Minstrel Troupe consisting (as best I remember from the broadside) 12 members. Pretty big family, I guess!   They also seemed to have had a "Kemp Family Jubilee Company" which performed throughout New England and the mid-Atlantic States for about 25 years.

        None of the numbers listed on the playbill are known to me; "How to spell CHICKEN"; "Baby Don't you Lub Me No Mo?"... "The Broom Dance" etc..   

        By way of an Internet search, I managed to find the music and lyrics of "Chicken" - and they are racist as all git - out, as much of the Minstrel music of the 19th and early 20th Centuries was.

        Alas; it seems according to the Monmouth Historical Society Staff, that one family member descendant who cared not a whit for history or heritage threw away all of the troupe's "stuff" years ago (I hate to imagine what that might have included!) and nothing other than a couple of the broadsides and the photograph that we have seen seem to remain.

        Hopefully I'll get to interview some of the local Descendants (talked with one today - Dec. 2 08)and see if they can shed any more light on this fascinating tale.
There is already enough passion and intrigue involved here to base a novel - or even perhaps a feature length movie on, in my opinion.

        General Howard, who lost his arm in the War (at the Battle of Seven Pines), was a devoted advocate for the rights and advancement of the American "Negro" for the duration of his life. He served for years as the Director of the "Freedmen's Bureau", and was very concerned for the educational opportunities of the American Black, who under slavery was forbidden by law to be educated - or even taught how to read.

        While you're on "Google" some time, look up "Howard University" just for hoots. See who founded it, and who it's named after.

        I can't help but wonder if General Howard's early association and friendship with a runaway Black Minstrel Slave had anything to do with his consuming compassion and activism for that Minstrel's oppressed Race?   How much influence did that old white bearded Black gentleman whose picture smiles down with gentle, beautiful serenity from the wall of a little Maine Country store have on the eventual acceptance and integration of his People into American culture?

        What songs did he and his Family sing to the folks of rural 19th Century Maine? What stories did they tell? What legacy did they leave us?

        Has it all been lost - or do illuminating fragments of it still lie hidden in old, forgotten scrap books in dusty Yankee attics, or in cardboard boxes stashed in the back of an unused closet somewhere, or hidden in the loft of some barn?

Lawdy, Lawdy; I shore would like to find out! This is a story that has only begun to be told!

        I may be spending some time in the Maine State Archives in Augusta - a place that I am familiar with from many hours of research on the Third Maine.   I wonder if there is a Third Maine connection - was Howard still in command of the 3rd when he met Kemp?

        That's almost a little too weird to be coincidence, don't you think?

        Digging in; Stay tuned!


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Subject: RE: Folklore: The KEMP Family Minstrels from Maine
From: Joybell
Date: 02 Dec 08 - 03:21 PM

Hello Uncle Jaque. You're an interesting story-teller. Breathlessly awaiting the next installment.
Cheers, Joy

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Subject: RE: Folklore: The KEMP Family Minstrels from Maine
Date: 02 Dec 08 - 03:39 PM

Thanks Joy!

I do enjoy writing, although all I've ever earned from it has been trouble for the most part.

The idea of writing a book about KEMP and HOWARD has occurred to me - have probably written the equivalent of several books on line so far, but a little too ADD to do anything approaching the level of organization required to author a book. My brain is like a desk out in the barnyard; I cover and pile it up with interesting papers and pictures in no particular order...

...Then the wind comes along... {8^{(~

Chasing thoughts; chasing dreams down the winds of time... and I ain't gittin' any speedier in my old age!

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Subject: RE: Folklore: The KEMP Family Minstrels from Maine
From: Joybell
Date: 02 Dec 08 - 05:25 PM

Chasing bright elusive butterflies? It's not speed you need but a big, big net. Then a big jar to hold them. Shake all together now and then and look through the glass. Never let any of them get away. That's what I do anyway. It's only the left side of my brain with ADD, I reckon.
Cheers, Joy

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Subject: RE: Folklore: The KEMP Family Minstrels from Maine
From: Leadfingers
Date: 02 Dec 08 - 05:51 PM

Fascinating story ! Hope you CAN find a bit more info !!

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Subject: RE: Folklore: The KEMP Family Minstrels from Maine
From: Joybell
Date: 03 Dec 08 - 03:50 AM

Alice is on the trail. Come on in Alice.

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Subject: RE: The KEMP Family Minstrels
From: GUEST,Uncle Jaque
Date: 03 Dec 08 - 07:01 AM

By all means; bring Alice on! {;^{D~

While you're at it, send the Mad Hatter and the March Hare along too; I could use all the help I can get!

Just leave that nasty Queen (of hearts?) at home, won't you?

I think that I worked for her at least once.   {8^{Q~

That was enough!

Even "Domestic Management" who has endured me for lo these past 36 years or so hasn't lopped my head off...



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Subject: RE: Folklore: The KEMP Family Minstrels from Maine
From: GUEST,davlaudee
Date: 21 Jun 10 - 03:58 PM

My sister is married to a decendent of George Washington Kemp. She is trying to do the geneology now.

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Subject: RE: Folklore: The KEMP Family Minstrels from Maine
From: GUEST,julia L
Date: 21 Jun 10 - 04:32 PM

Great work, Jacque! Do let us know how you are coming with this- have you checked the Maine Folklife Center in Orono? They might have something in their extensive archives

cheers- Julia

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Subject: RE: Folklore: The KEMP Family Minstrels from Maine
From: GUEST,Azizi
Date: 18 Jul 11 - 10:54 PM

As a result of some online research, I found two posts about George Washington Kemp in Maine which I will re-post here in their entirety (as far as references to George Washington Kemp goes). I do so to help ensure that those posts will be preserved.

Note: the Southern Heritage website from which these excerpts are taken is very supportive of the (US civil war confederacy.
Northern Racism and Abolitionist Legends

From: _Bernha-@att.net_ (

"General Otis O. Howard was a Leeds, Maine abolitionist who ended the war as the head of the infamous Freedmen's Bureau. His mother, who remarried a man named Gilmore, did not hold the same antislavery convictions as her son. Like many Northern officers during the war, Howard had black contraband servants, one named Washington Kemp, and the story below reminds one of the "devout Puritans" trying to make the poor Africans on the Amistad into properly dressed and fed New Englanders while awaiting the verdict of the trial. While the Puritans were not looking, the Africans shed the strange clothing to appear more like they wished. Howard tried to fit Kemp into a mold of New England farming which he was not suited for, and must have forgotten the New England (and his mother's) brand of racism that could sustain the profitable old slave trade, but not want black residents living among them.

The second quote shows the lack of respect for ex-slaves displayed by Northern soldiers, and that Howard was mindful of his postwar antislavery credentials as were Northern abolitionists who preened themselves for higher office by exaggerating their role in the legendary "underground railroad." As author Larry Gara (The Liberty Line, 1961, page 18) points out, "the great bulk of material on the underground railroad appeared after the war. In reminiscences and histories, elderly abolitionists told of the institution and their part in it. They tended to enlarge its scope and exaggerate its importance, and thus contributed much to one of America's best known but least examined legends."

Howard was no different in his Autobiography."

[same link as given above]

Bernhard Thuersam, Executive Director
Cape Fear Historical Institute
Post Office Box 328
Wilmington, NC 28402
_www.CFHI.net_ (

Northern Racism and Abolitionist Legends:

"The Howard brothers' mother was once again a widow. Alone she had moved back to their father's old farm and was trying to manage it with the help of hired hands. Otis, whose career had carried him so far away from her that they had little to say and seldom wrote to each other, sent (Washington) Kemp to Leeds in the spring of 1865. He was to learn how to manage the farm, and Mrs. Gilmore would in time move from Leeds to be with one of her sons. (Otis' brother) Charles arranged for the mortgage on the farm to be amended so that the farm could be rented to "Wash"....(and) would begin buying it over a long period of time. If all worked out, a freedman would own the Howard homestead.

But Eliza Gilmore neither shared Otis' desire to see Kemp become a freeholder nor understood the symbolic worth of his succeeding in the opportunity Howard had given him. She did not treat Wash as a prospective equal of an Otis or a Howard....She complained of his incompetence and rudeness and wanted him to leave. She deprived Howard of the chance to point to his own family and Washington Kemp as a New England example to follow. The Kemps...left the Howard farm and bought a much simpler farm (possibly with the General's help) and kept a cow, a horse and some chickens. He became a subsistence farmer, but it was as a minstrel...that Washington Kemp and his daughters toured county fairs in Maine as "The Kemp Family from the Old Sunny South."

"Otis" mentioned in this post is General Oliver Otis Howard.

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Subject: RE: Folklore: The KEMP Family Minstrels from Maine
From: GUEST,Azizi
Date: 18 Jul 11 - 11:04 PM

The Kemp Family Singers are also mentioned in this article:

…"Maine was first prominently mentioned in blues lyrics in 1928 when Mississippian Jimmie Rodgers recorded "The Brakeman's Blues," which contained the stanza "Portland, Maine, is just the same as sunny Tennessee; Any place I hang my hat is home, sweet, home to me." Blues probably reached Maine via traveling minstrel and vaudeville shows in the early decades of the twentieth century. African American minstrel troupes first visited after the Civil War, and Maine had its own Kemp Family Minstrel Show, founded in Leeds by George Washington Kemp, a former slave from Virginia. Because of Maine's remote location and small black population, however, few blues performers toured here until the music began to gain a solid foothold in the 1970s among white supporters, on the heels of the 1960s blues revival"…


The exact same comment as given in the above excerpt is also found at


I really hope that GUEST,davlaudee who posted on 21 Jun 10 - 03:58 PM has followed up on her stated intention to do some genealogical research on this family. However, I've not found any genealogical research online of George Washington Kemp, African American (born in Virginia, lived in Maine).

There are, however, a number of genealogical pages and other websites about other men named George Washington Kemp. From the information given, those men were White.

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Subject: RE: Folklore: The KEMP Family Minstrels from Maine
From: GUEST,Azizi
Date: 18 Jul 11 - 11:24 PM

Sorry. I think that the two posts from Southern Heritage I mentioned is actually only one post with a comment as preface.

That article goes on to mention another incident with General Howard and other Black people.

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Subject: RE: Folklore: The KEMP Family Minstrels from Maine
From: Charley Noble
Date: 19 Jul 11 - 05:23 PM


Nice work!

Charley Noble

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Subject: RE: Folklore: The KEMP Family Minstrels from Maine
From: GUEST,Azizi
Date: 19 Jul 11 - 06:09 PM

You're welcome Charlie.

For the record, I found this online book which might be the source for the excerpt from the Southern Heritage website. The excerpt is the exact workding of that passage posted on Southern Heritage, with some additional sentences.

"Yankee stepfather: General O. O. Howard and the freedmen By William S. McFeely
p. 213

"Meanwhile the Commissioner ordered the Bureau to locate Kemp's wife and daughters; this was successfully accomplished only after months of search. Mrs Kemp and the girls joined Wash in Leeds, and while they lived there with Mrs Gilmore, the Kemps' third child was born. But Eliza Gilmore neither shared Otis' desire to see Kemp become a freeholder…She deprived Howard of the chance to point to his family… She also deprived Charles of a chance to help a man of whom he was genuinely fond. "I was in hopes to keep Wash with us always and help him to own a piece of land and a home of his own one day."
The Kemps, who to some extent refute the thesis that freedmen lived in matriarchal families, left the Howard home, but did not leave Leeds; they remained there as its only Negro family. Kemp bought a much simpler farm (possibly with the General's help) … He became a subsistence farmer, but it was as a minstrel, not a farmer that Washington Kemp made his name. For years, Kemp and his daughters toured country fairs in Maine as "The Kemp Family from the Old Sunny South".

The adoption of Washington Kemp by Leeds did not work out as Howard had planned it-at least, not in Wash's own generation. But his descendants have a claim on Leeds that the Howard's have lost, and Washington Kemp made Leeds his home in a way that even the General cannot share. He lies buried there.

(Google Books citation)


In addition to knowing about their repertoire, it would be interesting to find out if the Kemp Family had to blacken their faces with burnt cork when they performed. But given that the family's minstrel archives were discarded, we may never know that information.


For those who may be interested, here's a link to a passage about African American minstrels:

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Subject: RE: Folklore: The KEMP Family Minstrels from Maine
From: Charley Noble
Date: 20 Jul 11 - 07:49 AM


Maybe we can turn up some more scraps of information about the Kemps at the State of Maine Museum. There are some amazing things gathering dust in their archives, including some classic minstrel banjos.

I'm not sure if Uncle Jacque is still monitoring Mudcat. He used to be active with Civil War re-enactors.

Charley Noble

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Subject: RE: Folklore: The KEMP Family Minstrels from Maine
From: GUEST,julia L
Date: 20 Jul 11 - 10:49 PM

Hey Charlie- I wonder if he ever looked at the Folklife Center? Are you in touch with him at all? This is a story worth ivestigating

cheers- Julia

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Subject: RE: Folklore: The KEMP Family Minstrels from Maine
From: Charley Noble
Date: 21 Jul 11 - 09:32 AM


If we want the job done, we best do it ourselves.

I'll do a search of the Maine State Museum.

Charley Noble

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Subject: RE: Folklore: The KEMP Family Minstrels from Maine
Date: 27 Jul 11 - 11:18 PM

Hey I have been trying to locate my family past my Last name is Kemp my dad and my grandfather name is George H Kemp but his dad died when he was young....If you can help please contact

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Subject: RE: Folklore: The KEMP Family Minstrels from Maine
From: GUEST,scott kemp
Date: 10 Jan 12 - 11:23 PM

my name is scott kemp my farther was richard his was henry his was john and his was george washington kemp i live in monmouth and there are still more of the kemp family in the area my farther had a brother charles and sisters mary and alberta all had several children i have 2 brothers and a sister we all live in monmouth. the info in this sight is about my family . i have 2 daughters and a son one of the girls found this posting and told me about it . i dont know what if anything   will happen by responding to this posting but it may be interesting.

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