Thursday, April 20, 2023

This old house: old owners come back

Old house owners
Do you ever get mail for people who used to live at your address? We do. It's usually junk. Until now, we have always marked it "return to sender."

But a piece of mail from a state retirement system a few weeks ago looked too important to send back. Through a neighbor, we contacted the previous owners of the house, who lived in it from 1991 to 2005, and asked if we could forward the mail to their new address. They said that they were going to be in the area the following day, and we could give it to them in person.

Why not? We had some questions about the house, and knew that they probably wanted to see what it looked like as they had done a lot to improve the property and had raised a family there.

So we invited them over. And it was a lot of fun! We were surprised to learn that they were only the third owners of the house, which was built in 1916. They purchased it from an elderly lady who was related to the original owners.

When they got it, the house had good bones. But it needed a lot of TLC, including a new roof, better drainage, work on the gardens, and work on the interior. We learned about the plants they had planted, the construction they had completed, and the little things that seemed strange to us when we moved in in 2007 but made perfect sense once they explained the situation that faced them in the 1990s.

We laughed about the house's quirks, such as the roof's tendency to attract nesting birds. Or, carrying the window air conditioners up from the cellar every June, and taking them down in October. One year, when Steve was mounting the air conditioner, he pushed too hard and the air conditioner went right out the window to the garden below!

We also talked about some of the same activities that our families had done, such as waiting for the bus when the kids were little, or going down to the river nearby to canoe. The house has mysteries like the outdoor hatch (anyone remember the history mystery from last year?) and the check stubs an electrician found in the attic crawlspace.

If you have a chance to talk with the previous owners of your house, do it! It's an opportunity to learn about the history of your house ... and pass down stories to the next family.

Friday, March 17, 2023

The Amish come for furniture, and how to age a dovetail joint

Last summer, I went to northern New York, to work on a construction project on a family property and blog about genealogy and family history when I could. Here is an anecdote that relates to antique furniture and a visit from an Amish family.

We are demolishing an old structure. There are lots of items to give away, as well as a smaller number of special things we want to keep for the new cabin that will be built on the site.

We have already given a wood-burning stove made of iron and several beds to a local Amish family, whose two middle sons, aged 18 and 19, loaded it up on the biggest horse-drawn wagon I have ever seen:

Amish taking furniture
I was about to give away a chest of drawers to them. It's a piece of so-called "brown furniture" that is well made but not very popular nowadays.  

“Don’t give it away," my parents said. "It’s a nice piece of walnut furniture with dovetail joints.”

That interested me. Dovetail joints are an old-fashioned method of manufacture. It went out of style 150 years ago, but furniture made this way is renowned for quality construction.

I looked on the outside of the chest and couldn’t see any dovetail joints.

My father took out one of the drawers and showed me. I couldn't believe how small and fragile they looked, but they had held together this chest of drawers since sometime in the 1800s!

dovetail joint antique furniture
“The smaller the dovetail, the older the piece,” my father said. They are indeed tiny, a testament to the skill of the artisan who made it.

We are keeping the chest. But I also took a lesson to heart: Important details are easily missed. Sometimes, you need to look twice. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

A brick wall breakthrough for Granny Wallace

granny wallace

The lady in the photo above is my great-great grandmother, or "Granny Wallace," as my great aunt used to call her.

We didn't know much about Granny Wallace. She was born in the 1830s or 1840s. She moved around, living in 3 or 4 countries over the course of her life. She married twice.

I recently made an unusual major brick wall breakthrough, thanks to FamilySearch's database of free genealogy records. I typed in my great-great grandmother's maiden name in the basic records search. There were only three results, but one of them was pure genealogy gold!

It was Granny Wallace's 1891 marriage record from what is now Niagara Falls in Ontario. It showed her second marriage, and confirmed a story that my great aunt had told me decades ago - that after Granny Wallace's first husband died, she married the brother. Indeed, the marriage record showed that she married the younger brother. She was 50 at the time, and her new groom, himself a widower, was 41.

Crucially, the record confirms the birthplaces of the newlyweds. It also contains the names of both sets of parents, which I had not known. It further lists their religions - she was Baptist, he Presbyterian. It's enough information for me to dig further back in time on both lines over the winter.

It was an unusual find because I have searched FamilySearch hundreds of times for my great-great grandmother. She never turned up under her maiden name. But one of the wonderful aspects of FamilySearch is the regular addition of new records from all over the world. The 1891 Canadian marriage record must have been added in the last year or two.

The lesson for family historians: For genealogy brick walls, the passage of time can loosen the mortar. Re-check online databases and family trees to see if any new information has turned up since the last time you looked!

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Favorite holiday traditions, and revisiting Ebenezer Scrooge

Japanese Santa Claus illustration, 1914
Nearly everyone has a favorite holiday tradition. Small children gravitate toward opening presents. Some people love shopping for presents, or wrapping them in a very creative way. For our daughter, it is decorating the tree. Our son still likes to leave out cookies for Santa, even though he is a teenager!

For several Jewish families on our street, it's lighting the menorah. For some Catholic neighbors, it's attending midnight Mass.

Music is popular, from religious songs to modern seasonal hits. Performances of The Nutcracker are frequently sold out in Boston. One of Nicole's colleagues has attended the Boston Pops annual holiday concert every year since 1987!

One of my favorite traditions is watching a film version of A Christmas Carol. There are more than a dozen movies dating back to the early 1900s, ranging from by-the-book renditions to musicals to modern adaptations. I prefer the 1951 black and white film starring Alastair Sim

This week, I read Dickens' original novella, A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. I expected it to be dated in language and plot, but that was not the case. Indeed, it was a gripping story that brings together horror, drama, and even a touch of humor - I couldn't stop reading! You can read it online here. Take a look at the vivid description of Ebenezer Scrooge on the opening page:

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

Then we come to Scrooge and Marley, Ebenezer's place of business and the single-minded focus of his life - making as much money as possible, no matter the cost to the people around him:

The door of Scrooge’s counting-house was open that he might keep his eye upon his clerk, who in a dismal little cell beyond, a sort of tank, was copying letters. Scrooge had a very small fire, but the clerk’s fire was so very much smaller that it looked like one coal. But he couldn’t replenish it, for Scrooge kept the coal-box in his own room; and so surely as the clerk came in with the shovel, the master predicted that it would be necessary for them to part. Wherefore the clerk put on his white comforter, and tried to warm himself at the candle; in which effort, not being a man of a strong imagination, he failed.

No wonder "Scrooge" is now a noun for miserly tightwad! I won't spoil the ending, but A Christmas Carol is a story of redemption and finding humanity even in the most unlikely of characters.

Dickens' story was a hit the moment it was released in England in December 1843, nearly 180 years ago. It would have been a story treasured by generations of our English-speaking forebears, first in book form, then on the stage, and later in film.

Whatever holiday tradition you observe, enjoy the time to celebrate traditions and connect with family and friends.

Saturday, November 12, 2022

We remember

Continuing the I Lamont family history series, this time prompted by Veteran's Day. More than a century ago, my great uncle Adrian stepped off a troop transport in France and into the maw of the greatest war Europe had ever experienced. 

It would in fact be known as the "Great War" for several decades, but we now call it World War I. By April 1917, the European powers had been pounding away at each other for 3 years. Millions had died. The fields of northern France and Belgium were pockmarked by craters and crossed by trenches and fortifications. It was a stalemate.

The American "doughboys" were there to break it. My great uncle, along with most of his all-male college classmates, enlisted as soon as exams were over in the spring of 1917.

He was sent to officer’s training camp in Plattsburgh, New York, and by the end of the summer was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the field artillery, assigned to the 18th Calvary. He was commissioned 1st Lieutenant that fall, and sent to San Antonio that winter. The photo below is from the training period. He's on the right:


American doughboys WW1 photo 1917
The following May, in the spring of 1918, they were thrown into the war. I can only imagine the feeling of foreboding as his unit traveled inland to eastern France, passing blown-out buildings, blasted trees, military camps, and wounded and dead being brought back from the front. There would be the sounds of conflict. Artillery. Machine guns. Gas sirens. Airplanes.

This was different than their training experience back in the U.S. Now it was for real. A few miles away, German forces were firing guns and dropping bombs, in an effort to maim or kill them and stop the reinvigorated Allied forces from advancing. And the doughboys were trying to do the same with their weapons. This map shows the approximate location of the front from 1916 to 1918:

WW1 western front map U.S. Army
Much later, his sister penned a family history. She said he participated in the Battle of St. Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne offensive that ended the war. Another source, a 1922 reunion note for his college class, described a recognition he received:
“For distinguished conduct in action, for exceptional devotion to duty, energy and courage. On the day of November 7, 1918, while at a forward observation post adjusting fire in preparation for firing accurate barrages, was subjected to heavy enemy shell fire but displayed great courage by remaining at his post until the work had been accomplished. This is in the vicinity of Jaulny, France."

November 7, 1918, was the 6th week of the Meuse-Argonne offensive and a mere four days before the Armistice. He almost didn't make it. We still have one of his medals, from the earlier battle at the St. Mihiel salient:

St Mihiel salient medal WW1
But we have an even more important reminder of the bravery of this young man more than 100 years ago. We named our son after him.