Monday, September 24, 2012

My Mother is Not a Genealogist

My mother liked her stories.  I can imagine her being the quiet one, sitting by with a book while the adults talked.  She said her ancestors came from Connecticut.  She said her cousin Edith disappeared.  She pointed out Lucius Colman's name on the bridge near her house.  Lucius and Lucien were the twins, she said, her great-uncles.  When she was twelve she visited in Holyoke.

Mom's photograph of Samuel and Nabby Colman's grave in Richfield Springs, NY was the beginning of my search for family history.  She transcribed the stone - inaccurately.

Except for the witch, she was only interested in people named Coleman.  When I told her that further research indicated we weren't descended from Susanna North Martin after all, she continued to tell people about the witch in our family tree.  She never forgave Governor Jane Swift for pardoning the accused at Salem.

I spent a lot of time searching for Edith Colman.  Sure, she showed up in the 1880 census with her parents near Cooperstown.  But anything could have happened in the 20 years until the 1900 census. Lots of women married, changed their names, moved west, died in childbirth.  Where did Edith go?  The world of searchable newspapers at finally yielded her story.  It is a tragic one after all, but that is a story for another day.  When I finally got the facts together for Mom, she didn't remember Edith.  But over the years I have enumerated Edith's descendants, and I may meet one in person next month.

Every time we drove up Rt. 91 she remarked on the Holyoke exit.  It was another world for a 12 year old from the country - apartment blocks with courtyards and laundry hanging in between.  I would prompt her, "Uncle.....?" First names, last names; were they Brodericks or Meeneghans?  I may never know. They were cousins.  Just like the cousins in East Springfield they used to visit on the farm.  I'm still looking for the right relationship to place them on the famiy tree.
Social notes in small town newspapers from the early 1900s are a gold mine for family historians.  Teas, vacations, visits from successful adult children all are revealed by the roving reporters.  I found Mom's school plays, Girl Scout camp adventures, and finally in 1936, a trip to Holyoke.  Who did she visit?  Relatives!

[From the Utica Daily Press, Friday, July 17, 1936]

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Where Were You?

People of a "certain" age now have two defining moments in our lifetimes.  For almost 40 years, the "where were you?" question referred to the assassination of President Kennedy.  In 2001 that changed with the terrorist attacks by airplane.  In the first case, I was a kindergartener, but I clearly remember disbelieving the older kids on the school bus, because how could a President be shot? 

On September 11, 2001 I had gone to shower at my mother's apartment because I was in the midst of another bathroom renovation.  The background noise from the little TV soon became the centerpiece of our morning.  Peter Jennings became our closest informant. Although there was a special horror for Massachusetts folks because of the flight that originated in Boston, my focus was on New York City, where I had a personal attachment to the skyline from my years of living in Clifton, New Jersey.  It was in many ways the same sense of disbelief I had felt at the age of five, and in other ways very different as an adult and a parent.

We all know about the range of emotions that came in the days and months after.  I am not going to try to put it into words.  The feeling of silence struck me, though, knowing there were no planes in the sky for days afterwards. Empty.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Philadelphia Remembered

Anson Colman was New York State doctor in the early 1800s who took his education very seriously.  His story is detailed in an earlier blog post here. His view of Philadelphia, expressed in a letter to his father, seems worthy of transcribing in its entirety.  I didn't adjust his spelling, and there are a few words that I couldn't discern. Note that Franklin and Charles are his brothers.

25th December 1831 

My Dear Father
When I arrived in this City early in October I had not the least idea that I should almost have entered upon a new year before I had performed the pleasing duty of writing to you. As my time has been constantly occupied with the special object of visit and stay in this city, I hope you will excuse my negligence. I arrived here in verry indifferent health, bringing with me the remains of a lingering in--- which had harrassed me more or less for seven weeks before I left home. I am now however quite recovered.

I find the medical University here quite equal to my most sanguine expectations. The School of Anatomy in particular transcends every thing of the kind on this side of the Atlantick, and perhaps if we except the Anatomical School of Paris is not surpassed even in the old world. Surgery too (as well as the other branches of) is verry ably taught. The practice of medicine not less so. The patients in the Surgical & Medical wards of the Pennsylvania Hospital and Philadelphia Alms House have exceeded three thousand in the two establishments ever since I have been here. To these institutions as well as to the Lectures and dissecting rooms the students have ample access by paying for the several tickets which are to be obtained. The other branches of the medical Professsion, if we except that of Chemistry, are not better (do not surpass) if they are as well taught here as they are in Boston.

Philadelphia has improved verry much since I was here. The extension of a large and beautiful city, laid out with the most perfect regularity presents a verry imposing appearance. We talk in Rochester of the magick influcene wrought in our village By the erection of two hundred houses in a year, many of which are indifferent enough. But here more than two thousand noble edifices have been erected within the present year, whole streets in this vast city built up with lofty four story buildings. The city contains now rising of 19,000 inhabitants. Here two there are many of those reminiscences of “the olden time” It is the city of the Penns!! The theatre on which a Franklin, a Rittenhouse a Rush have performed their import parts. Where too was assembled, at a period which tried mens souls, the uncompromising --- spirits who pledge their “lives their fortunes and their sacred honor” to the instrament of American independence. Where Washington spent the eight years in which he presided of the civil, and most of the time that he wielded the military destinies of the nation. The house in which he lived is still standing. It is a plain two story brick building with the door in the center and the gable end to the street. Often as I pass its unpretending front I strain my eyes as if it we(re) to catch a glimpse of the man “first in peace, first in war, first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

The old House of Congress, the hall in which was debated, the yards in which it was first publickly declared that “America is and of right ought to be free,” the bell which first peeled to the joyous sons of liberty a nations birth, still remain: and as you gaze upon even these relicks of that great day the mind drinks in a deeper veneration for memories of those whose feat it was.

I hope you hear often from Charles and that what you hear is to his a---. Charles is left in circumstances of some responsibility during my absence. But to the perfection of my plans in regard to my own professional interest I decided it best for me to be away this winter, not believing it to be my duty to stay at home on his account. I placed him under particular supervision of Mr. Whitehouse who will neglect no means of rendering himself useful to Charles.

We are now completely ice bound, the Delaware having been frozen over for two weeks so as to bear the heaviest ---. I hope to see it clear of ice in the --- of January as I wish to go to Washington to spend the last week in January. Should the Hudson & Delaware be open at the first of March when I hope to leave here I shall return by New York and Albany and shall of course stop to spend a day or two with you. Should the rivers be closed however I shall return across the back part of this state by way of the Big Bend of the Susquehannah and the head of Cayuga Lake which is much nearer. 

Please say to Franklin that I am shall write to him before long. I wish you to write me as soon as convenient. I hope you have been so fortunate as to preserve your health during this inclement winter. Assure my dear Mother of my continued affection for her notwithstanding the difference of our views in regard to “raising boys.” Make my affectionate respects to my brothers and their families and believe me your affectionate son 

Addressed to: Samuel Colman, Esq.
East Richfield
Otsego County, New York

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Titanic Connection

My mother, her mother, and her aunts periodically worked for the Ryerson/Salvatore family who spent their summers on Otsego Lake, just north of Cooperstown, NY. I remember going with them to open the big house called Swanswick in the Spring, letting the fresh air in and removing the sheets that covered the furniture. This was a relationship that lasted for four generations, as my great-grandmother received an invitation to the wedding of Ellen Ryerson in Chicago in 1917 and my great aunt cared for her children and grandchildren in Cooperstown, Scarsdale, and Washington DC over the years.

Ellen "Nell" Ryerson was the daughter of Arthur Ryerson and Emily Borie. While Nell and her brother Arthur jr. were in school in the Spring of 1912, their family was traveling in France. Arthur, a student at Yale, was the victim of a fatal car accident on April 8 in Bryn Mawr PA. Upon receiving the news, the Ryerson family booked passage on the next available ship - the Titanic sailing on its maiden voyage.

Arthur Ryerson, lawyer and steel baron, went down on the ship, after seeing his wife, daughters Emily and Suzette, and son John into the lifeboats with their governess and maid. The 1997 movie reportedly mentions that the fictional character of Jack Dawson (actor Leonardo DiCaprio) filched a coat belong to Arthur Ryerson.

As an aside, it was reported that Mr. Ryerson caught the attention of Juliette Gordon, future founder of the Girl Scouts at "an outing in Providence" in 1883, prior to his marriage. See this article.

(Photo from Encyclopedia Titanica)

Saturday, April 7, 2012

1940 in Northampton, MA

The census takes a snapshot of my father's family in 1940. They lived at 36 Holyoke Street in Northampton, on the corner of Hawley Street. The house was valued at $4000, and they were the only homeowners on this census page.

In the years since the preceding census in 1930, Dad had lost his mother in 1936, as well as his oldest brother, Bennie. The household was headed by my grandfather, Peter, who was a naturalized citizen. He was 58 and working as a dishwasher. Jennie was 24 and was the informant for this census taker. She had four years of high school, and stated that her father had 8 years of education. We don't know anything else about his education in Poland.

At 19, Bert was in her second year of college, a student at Smith. The oldest son, Charlie, was no longer living at home, but the younger boys were still in school. At 16, Henry was in his first year of high school with Dad, at 14. Dad's twin brother, John, was still in 7th grade. Jennie was a waitress and earned $360 in 40 weeks of work. For 50 weeks of work, Peter earned $450. Bert had also worked as a waitress for 8 weeks. During this period they were employed by the Hotel Northampton.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

1940 in Cooperstown - Mom was Sweet 16

My mother was 15-going-on-16 when the census was taken in 1940. Her sister Peggy was 14 and in eighth grade. They were living in the home that I knew twenty years later on Brooklyn Aveue in the Town of Middlefield, on the south side of the village of Cooperstown, NY. It was the home her grandfather had built for his bride, and home of her father, William, and his sister, Bess.

The house was valued at $4000, twice that of the next home. I know they had a large barn and more acreage, which may account for the difference. Her father was a foreman in a sawmill, which was a short walk away on the Susquehanna River. This was the same place his father and grandfather had worked. His salary was listed at $1416, which is slightly more than the neighbors, and he states he worked 53 hours the previous week. The neighbors who were employed all worked much more than today's 40 hour norm.

Aunt Bess had a hat shop on Main Street in Cooperstown. She doesn't list a "salary."

The education column reveals that William had 3 years of high school, while the women in the family each had 4. Bess had continued in a teaching training class and taught school for several years. My grandmother, Sara Meeneghan, also finished high school before working in child care for several private families.

Bessie's stated age or 56 would have been correct as of her birthday in May, but Sara was approaching 51 and the census form states that she is 44. William was 49 at the time of the census, but is listed as 47. Based on the "X" next to her name, it was my Grandmother, Sara, who gave the information to the census taker.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Do You Remember the 1940s?

In 1941 (if that is the annotation on the photo) my Dad was 16 years old. He is shown here in the front, with his twin brother John Szymanowicz behind him, and their older brother Henry in the rear. Wasn't he a snappy dresser?

As we look forward to the release of the 1940 census, I'm anticipating the "snapshots" of our families that will be revealed.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Beyond the Headlines

Photo by J. K Patch of Shelburne Falls

Early on the evening of April 7, 1886 the Eastern Express was traveling east toward Greenfield, MA when it came off its rails and plunged down a rocky embankment to the Deerfield River south of Bardwells Ferry. Passengers and crew were pinned in the wreckage or thrown from the cars. Fire ignited in three of the cars. Darkness soon fell, as did a spring snow.

The train consisted of the steam engine, tender, express and baggage car, postal and baggage car, a smoker, two passenger coaches and a parlor car. It was manned by the engineer, conductor, two brakemen, mail agent and postal clerk, express agent and an executive of National Express (small package carrier) as well as an individual listed as the "colored porter" Aaron Lewis. There were several traveling salesmen aboard. Other passengers may have been traveling for business or pleasure.

It was described “by far the most serious accident of the year” by the Massachusetts Board of Railroad Commissioners in their Annual Report. The news quickly spread to such places as Des Moines, IA and the papers made graphic and somewhat exaggerated reports of the tragedy:

The Cars Take Fire and a Passenger is Roasted Alive Without the Chance of Succor.

Probably a Hundred Passengers on Board, and only Three Found Uninjured—The Rails Spread.

A Dozen Dead Bodies Recovered and the Work Not Yet Finished—Many Killed While Falling.

Reporters were as plentiful as “potato bugs in June and twice as active” according as The Day of New London, CT. They reported on the 9th of April that “no less than 10,000 people have visited the spot, some walking six and 10 miles to view the wreck.” Graphic descriptions of the injuries and the demeanor of the family members waiting for news of their loved ones were carried in the news.

The Fitchburg Sentinal reported the names of the casualties the next day: 10 dead, 31 injured and 5 uninjured. Among the dead was the engineer, Herbert P. Littlejohn of North Adams. The Railroad Commissioners noted his heroism as, fatally scalded, he made his way back up the bank and west along the tracks to flag any approaching train and avert further disaster. Similarly, the fireman Charles Richardson walked east toward West Deerfield. A train was sent out from Greenfield bringing aid and carrying away the injured and dead.

Also on the train that day were the Engineer’s brother, Albert Littlejohn, and his family. In the 1880 census of North Adams, the engineer, Herbert, was listed as well as Albert, who was described as a 16-year-old railroad employee, living with their parents and siblings. The family also had six boarders who were employed by the railroad at that time. (H)Albert Littlejohn and his wife Lena, residents of Buckland in 1886, survived the train wreck. Their children Viola, age 3, died at the site of the accident, and Otis, age 1, died the next day. Despite the tragedy, working on the railroad was in the blood of the Littlejohn family. Census records show that Albert and Lena later had another son, Herbert P. Littlejohn, who grew to become a railroad brakeman.

Another passenger, Anson K. Warner, was Chairman of the Selectmen in the Town of Greenfield. He died of his injuries a few days later. On April 27, 1886 a town meeting in Greenfield approved a resolution which stated, in part:

That to the offices which he was from time to time elected, he brought an unquestioned ability, sound judgment, and an unswerving fidelity to the interests of the town.
That in bequeathing a large sum of money to charitable and educational uses and purposes for the benefit of indigent boys and girls resident of the town, he manifested his interest in the welfare of its citizens and most generously supplemented the many kind and charitable deeds of his life time.

Charles Durgin, one of the salesmen, seems to be erroneously listed on as buried in nearby Leverett. His funeral took place in South Boston (Boston Journal) and it is more likely he is buried in Mt. Hope cemetery in Cambridge, not Leverett.

Among the injured were Henry Couillard, at one time the landlord of the "hotel in the Village" of Charlemont. Chauncy Bryant was the Deputy Sheriff in Greenfield. Also from Greenfield was Freeman S. Hagar, hotel keeper, whose household included 8 servants in the 1880 census. Hager reportedly held his injured townsman, Mr. Warner, as they waited for aid.

The causes for the track failure were found to be structural, as the fill on the steep slope shifted. Another train had passed over the track about two hours before. A recent visual inspection had shown no obvious flaws. The report of the Commissioners found the causes to be:

The use as a portion of the embankment of crib-work battered against the slope of a steep ledge
The want of proper drainage at this spot.
The over-loading of the embankment at a place where a concealed defect existed.
And these causes, in combination with the state of the weather, fully account for the catastrophe