The Evolution of Communications and the Forbidden Fragrance of TABU

I continue to figure out this “media thang”…at 64 and counting…it is a far cry from the old telephone my parents had.   At first when we lived in Ithaca, New York, my parents called the operator and she rang a number…and vice versa to receive a call.  AND kids…the phone was NEVER ours to use. I remember the iconic, Bakelite black phone with its own throne in the hallway of our Ithaca, New York home on 710 South Plain Street.  One of my earliest toddler memories is enveloping myself in my mother’s voluptuous skirts…baby fingers tenderly clutching her silken slip, breathing in her TABU perfume and listening to her answer the phone.  Funny how I recall her voice…not HELLO…but

“MARTIN RESIDENCE, Mrs. A. E. Martin speaking”.

I think she took her cue from her paternal grandmother who referred to herself as “Mrs. E. A. Smith”. Grand…simple and in the etiquette of the day.

The phone was hard wired into the wall…and the “cord” was thick and covered with a woven textile and it WEIGHED around 2 POUNDS vs. today’s 2 plus OUNCES. And it SMELLED.  I don’t know how to characterize it…other than it was “electric”.  My brother, Dave,  still has the maple, gate-legged table…the THRONE…in his possession.

We…the Martin children….weren’t even allowed to ANSWER the telephone…not “phone”!  I was never even aware of it without the context of my mother.  And it only “rang” when the caller had something critical to communicate.  Long distance calls were major events…saved for holidays…birthdays and emergencies…usually fraught with intense worry or joy. And everyone shouted into the phone as if the long distance required it.  Long distance was never like today’s time and geography leap of  SKYPE’s easy and free “howdy doo”.

When I was just shy of five years old, we moved to Auburn, New York and then we had a party line of three people…the cheapest option.   Our first phone number in Auburn, New York was five digits with an exchange…8579 were the last digits as I recall.  The BELL telephone operators were on Court Street and eventually on South Street.  I remember seeing the women at the “boards” connecting callers through the warm light of the big windows.  My mother knew so many of them.   Funny how it was acceptable to walk down the street or ride the city bus and peer into windows without the hint of impropriety or threat.  Friendly. Home.

If someone in the party line was using the telephone…you picked up the telephone and could listen in though the sensitive person would gently put the “receiver” back in the cradle.   It was acceptable to interrupt and ask them to “give you” the line.  And they usually did.  People cooperated in a neighborly way.  AND if you were persnickety…or your party line neighbors were…or you were an adolescent like my sister, Mary, intent on occupying the line for hours….your parents had a “private” line.  You PAID for that…but incoming and outgoing was YOURS and your neighbors were not inconvenienced.  Very important in those days to be polite.

After my father’s death and our severely reduced income, it was a dear expense in our household to have a private line.  But then…my mother was intent on propriety and we shared our party line with our neighbor, the diminutive widow,  Tillie Irish.  Widows were especially held in high regard by my mother who was a member of that terrible sorority and she was not about to “create a scene”.   Mary was a teenager by the mid 1960′s and the phone was becoming the purview of America’s youth.  The phone had left its throne…still the maple, gate-legged table… and following the now longer cord…to the coat closet,  the young teen was ensconced with her homework, her girlfriends…a flashlight and the hallowed family telephone.  I was just five years older than my sister…and it might as well have been a Jurassic difference…my friends and I still walked to  each other’s homes and communicated with one another in school.  I barely touched the still black…still heavy…telephone.  It was a harbinger of emergency use only for me and, indeed, when my father had suffered a fatal heart attack in 1958, I ran to my mother…not the telephone.  I was 10 years old and it was not for children to dial the operator.  It was a long time for me to regard the telephone…let alone what was to come…as mine to use at will.

I think my mother’s phone number remained the same for the decades she lived in Auburn…with some “exchange” and area code additions.

Where am I going with this?   I can be online on my laptop…on my iPhone (and if I can swing it this year…on an iPad) with what I appreciate as dizzying speed and multilevel communication.  I am an old geek…multi-tasking anywhere I am,  if you will.  And the “anywhere” could be in Philadelphia, London, Tokyo, Florence, Italy or in the familiar surrounds of my hometown of Auburn or where I was born and toddled on Plain Street in Ithaca, New York.

Am I more efficient…happier…smarter?  I don’t honestly know.  In my lifetime…I have gone from blissfully walking down the street of my hometown..riding the city bus to school or work…daydreaming and alone without feeling lonely…to commuting with only the AM/FM radio in my car to keep me company and eventually to the current day manic constant availability.  Today…alone and feeling lonely more than I would like to admit.  I LOVE my iPhone…my laptop is my constant companion….and if I get an iPad…I am as lost as the first primitive that went from the lone spirit drawing with resins on cave walls in the flickering light of ancient fires to rhythmic and syncopated drumming on logs…to sending signals by smoke and fire to a neighboring clan.  I do admit to the tin can and string thing when I was a kid.

Perhaps if today’s technology felt like silk and smelled “electric” with the forbidden fragrance of TABU.

Excuse me..I mean XME.   I have an incoming message on FB and three emails…and a VM on my iPhone…gotta go.  LOL.

Channel Changer

A Note to My Readers: Last night I accessed Comcast’s XFinity and watched a History Channel program on my laptop….while I had another live broadcast of the pop juggernaut, American Idol, on my flat screen TV…I was flipping around my iPhone reading FaceBook and checking my email.  In a startling moment of recall,  the image of the first television set in my childhood home of the early 1950′s flashed in my mind and memory of the reverent and rapt attention to that single wonder in our home.

Single Tasking

On our trips to downtown Auburn, NY in the early 1950′s…there were no malls…we would stand mesmerized on the sidewalk in front of the appliance store and watch the flickering black and white images.  It wasn’t uncommon for a crowd to gather when there was an important broadcast…store owners and clerks stood shoulder to shoulder with shoppers…hushed and polite as if they were guests in a neighbor’s living room.
My father surprised us one day when not one but THREE television sets arrived at our home.  He hadn’t paid for anything.  This was the 1950′s and honor was a given.  And so we had THREE sets in our living room on consideration before purchase.

The furniture was rearranged and the sets were placed side by side on the makeshift “entertainment” center. Our dining table’s function had been re-purposed.  After the obligatory rabbit ear fiddling…up, down…north, south…left…right.  There!  There!  Oop…no..Wait…OK, the images settled down with the occasional and accepted roll or flip.

I was almost five years old and everything in life was new so this was on the same thrill level as the introduction of Frosted Flakes to our breakfast table after years of Nabisco Shredded Wheat and Quaker Oatmeal.  A bank of televisions in my living room was fascinating, but in my short experience…it was a thing for adults.  My parents and brothers sat in the dark…not speaking…the television was on!  The televisionS were on.  Multiple images of a nice man my dad said was Mr. Jack Benny danced like gray ghosts.

The Channel Changer

Admiral TV advertisement 1952

Eventually my father arrived at a decision as to which of the three wonders would take front and center in the Martin household.  It seemed to me that the discussion was not about its aesthetic appearance, but on reception.  Though I pride myself on my photographic “Wayback Machine” memory, I shudder when I think I am accurate about our first television.  It was an Admiral brand table model with a Bakelite cabinet.  By today’s standards…an unlovely squat box…but it was a thing of magic in my childhood and its “technical” operation was solely under my father’s management.

On. Off. Volume. Vertical.  Horizontal. The Channel Changer.  The CONTROL knobs.

” There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. If we wish to make it louder, we will bring up the volume. If we wish to make it softer, we will tune it to a whisper. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. We can roll the image, make it flutter. We can change the focus to a soft blur or sharpen it to crystal clarity. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear. We repeat: there is nothing wrong with your television set. You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to — The Outer Limits.
— Opening narration, The Control Voice, 1960

Like our weekly menu…Spanish Rice on Sundays with a green salad…oil and vinegar dressing and a slice of bread…and my mother’s lemon meringue pie for dessert…or Wednesday’s spaghetti with one meatball….more green salad with oil and vinegar and a slice of bread…desserts were for Sundays…the television viewing choices were unchanging.  Dave Garroway and Jack Lescoulie, of the new NBC “Today” show were breakfast guests.

Dave Garroway on the NBC Today Show set

Grabbing his car keys and with a flick of the knob, my father would be out of the door and the squat box sat mute and still on its throne until he came home.  My mother dusted it careful not to meddle with the position of the rabbit ears lest the evening’s entertainment would be delayed with unnecessary tuning.  But tuning happened anyway.  No matter what my father did, the mysterious air waves wandered and the evening ritual continued unchanged.

The humorous offerings of Mr. Benny’s variety show along with Milton Berle’s “The Texaco Hour”,  “I Love Lucy” and My Little Margy” balanced the evening’s entertainment with Edgar R. Murrow’s “See It Now” and Ralph Edwards’ “This is Your Life”.  Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town” variety “shew” was a Sunday night staple.  I remember my father’s uncharacteristic outbursts of laughter at the frantic performances of Johnny Puleo and the Harmonica Gang.  Johnny ran between the performers, grabbing the microphone…playing a few bars…each one fighting for a spot and still creating a perfect tune.  It sometimes ended with Johnny getting a swift kick in the pants.  Mr. Sullivan and his live audience loved it…laughing and applauding.  I didn’t get it…grown up stuff.   I liked it more than the lady with a big bosom who sang with her mouth open so far that I could see the back of her throat.  But I was a kid and opera was never going to win over a bunch of guys running around switching harmonicas.  Besides the harmonica guys made my serious dad laugh.

With just three channels and a broadcast day from 7 A.M. to 11 P.M. the selection of programming was mostly a melange of news, variety shows, sitcoms, teleplays from Fireside Theater and a smattering of kid’s shows.  My earliest memory of what I would call “my” show was Kukla, Fran and Ollie…a Sesame Street ancestor.  Historians of the show have stated that more adults than children watched the show and that makes perfect sense from my childhood experience.  The clever skits were satirical on multiple levels and were sponsored by adult marketplace entities like RCA, Life magazine and Ford Motor Company.  Commercials were performed by the Kuklapolitan players.  As a kid, the irony was lost on me, but Ollie’s snaggle-toothed endearing repartee with pretty Fran Allison was gentle and fun.  Who wouldn’t love a dragon with a name like Ollie?

Which brings me to changing the channel.

It was a knob…that clicked…3, 5 and 9…Syracuse channels…and if you wanted to waste precious time and tune in to a Utica channel…the rabbit ears would get a nasty workout.  After a few “Oh, Al”s from my mother, Dad would quit his need to find a clear reception from faraway Utica and settle down to a Syracuse offering.   Changing the channel was another thing.  Up from your favorite chair and across the room…the wise man knew that you didn’t sit closely to the television.  “It will ruin your eyesight.” Click, click up and down the knob to the desired channel and that meant more rabbit ear tweaking…more swearing….and more “Oh, Al”s.  On occasion an open handed smack on the Bakelite drove away the snow or steadied the flipping images.   And no guarantees that you could get the picture back clearly if you strayed to another channel.  Television viewing could very well have been the first aerobic sport in America if you didn’t just choose a channel and stick with it.

Today I have three television sets in my home with REMOTE controls.  I watch television programming and videos on my iPhone and laptop…work, write and communicate….while munching  on a BLT sandwich and sipping a Pelligrino and talking on the phone.  I guess it’s a bit like Johnny Puleo and the Harmonica Gang…running between the multiple harmonica players, executing a bit of slapstick while trying to keep a tune.  I am waiting for the kick in the pants.

Authors Note: If you have a moment, please visit the Kuklapolitan Website for more wonderful history of Burr Tillstrom’s legacy and check out the DVD’s available.  Thanks to the Burr Tillstrom Copyright Trust!

The Blizzard of 1958

Tomorrow…February 8th…my father will have been dead 54 years..longer than he was alive.  I was 10 years old then and I am now almost 65.  Crazy to remember those events so clearly.  The blizzard of 1958 was fast upon the northeast and especially in my hometown of Auburn, New York.  As if a blizzard wasn’t bad enough,  it was exacerbated by lake effect snows and punishing gales.  We were being buried under 4 feet of snow and the gusting winds drifted it to cover our second story windows by the end of the record storm.

School was a normal dismissal that day.  We lived in Auburn, New York and were accustomed to snow storms…not panic.  My mother had finished the dishes and left my sister and I in the kitchen to fashion our valentines for our schoolmates.  The red construction paper, glitter and paste pots were out and I was overseeing my kindergartner little sister’s efforts to cut and paste the heart shaped valentines and to offer a hand at spelling her classmate’s names.  I can still smell the drifting chemical scent of the mimeo sheet…

I could see the intensity of the storm outside the kitchen window, but like most ten year olds…it was just the promise of no school and some serious sledding fun.  And my mother’s cocoa.

It wasn’t long before my father came home.  It was going on four and Daddy was never home until 5:30.  It was a strict schedule…dinner would be on the table…and piping hot.  He looked gray and tired that day…but the bright red construction paper and my sister’s struggle with her neophyte spelling was front and center.  As usual, he popped open the old Amana refrigerator and pulled out the glass bottle of prune juice…his “refresher” that we were not allowed to share.

My back was to my father…I stood at the counter fiddling with my own valentines when he groaned, fell back and knocked me to the floor.  Stunned, I rose to my knees and was staring into his face…eyes rolled back and tongue out…gasping and groaning for breath.  Agonal breathing, I know now.  He would be dead in just minutes.

I ran to my mother in their bedroom…talking gibberish…rushing and panicking…something is wrong with Daddy.

I don’t remember much of the next minute or so…just banging on the door of our next door neighbor…Office Eddie Stapleton was a new police officer…and trained as a Medic in the National Guard…my…uh..father…my father…  Eddie had just come off a double shift and though tired…clearly understood…brushed past me and into our back door…the drifting snow was already making it hard to push open the door.

I stood at the dark bottom of the stairs of our back door…no shoes…wet feet…cold, cowering and confused for some time.  I hear noise and crying and “Al!  Al!”  Eddie’s wife came through the door…pulling me from behind…along with my little sister…out of the stairwell and into the howling storm.

Through the chaos, Mary and I were deposited at the Michelow’s apartment…just doors down.  They had a lot of kids and it was noisy and normal there…and we…played.  It was like being popped out of a roller coaster on to a quiet oasis in a heartbeat.  My father’s last heartbeat.

Al Martin and daughter Deborah spring 1957

What did I know about death?  Nothing.  Life went on…things happened…or didn’t.  I held my mother’s hand and we ate ice cream.  My father took us berry picking and told me funny stories.  An endless journey.

Men carried us over the drifts…pushing the snow away…trenches had been fashioned between the back doors and I found myself in front of my mother in our small living room.  She was seated in the tapestry chair that was hers…a smaller version of my father’s “big” chair.  “Daddy is dead,” she gravely told me.  Dead?  What is “dead”?  Something in my mother’s hazel eyes told me what “dead” was and I flung myself into her arms…wailing.

Dad died of a massive coronary at my feet that afternoon. His falling body had knocked me over onto the kitchen floor.  I had been making valentines for my classmates and dreaming of sledding.   My father’s body was carried out of our home by fire fighters, police and neighbors…hand over hand over the tops of drifted in automobiles…and loaded onto a grader tractor…nothing else could get through.  He wasn’t buried until spring when the snow had finally left and the ground gave up winter’s cold grip.  He was just 52 years old and I was an old 10 year old that February day.  I had seen death.  I held my mother and prayed with her on our knees beside my bed that night while my five year old sister slept inches away.

Authors Note:  I have never before recounted that day in my life…though these decades later, it is one of my most vivid memories.  The smell of the mimeo paper…the potted glue…the peculiar smell that is in the air during a blizzard…I understand the dancing ions make that happen.

The Spirit of Christmas Past

A Note to My Readers: Christmastime  is here.  Boxes of ornaments have been opened.  Decking the halls is in process.  I find myself mindlessly humming a Christmas tune that was a favorite of my mother’s. “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas, Lend Your Ear This Way…..”  It was a Yule song from her childhood and she made it part of mine.    She loved Christmas with a sentimental heart overflowing with a generosity and cheer that overpowered the paucity of her purse.  Mom taught me more than a song.  She taught me joy.

NOAH’S ARK

The brittle cold Decembers of my 1950′s childhood in Auburn, New York were always warmed up when my mother would alight from the 6:10 city bus and walk through our front door.  My sister, Mary and I would be curled up in front of our black and white Motorola television watching Alistair Sim as Scrooge.  A long wool coat swirled around my mother’s trim ankles.  Fur trimmed boots protected her feet from the deep central New York snow.  Her French upsweep was covered by a fashionable scarf from Hislop’s department store..a rare self indulgence.

Our front door opened directly to the porch and more often than not…the snow floated in the door with her.  It was Christmas time and the rustling, intriguing packages that accompanied her home would be stashed under her bed -away from our prying eyes.  I recall lying on my belly on the floor of my mother’s bedroom whispering urgently to my little sister…SHHH!  Six year old children are not known for stealth.  Somehow Mom had found the time to wrap the gifts and the only glimpse we had was of this year’s wrapping paper.  Still we lay there in the darkness pondering and whispering with anticipation of what wonders our mother had in store for us.

Christmas Ad in the Auburn New York Citizen Advertiser

Many of our Christmas decorations…were “orphans” from the store she worked at…”NOAH”S ARK” on Genesee Street. Long before the big box stores of Lowe’s and Home Depot…my mother worked six days a week among tires, tools, toys, dishes…and holiday decorations.  And on occasion…a NOAH’S ARK holiday decoration made it’s way to our apartment.  A box of 12 bulbs…one of its members crushed into fine shards of glittering red. Garlands snarled with tinsel.  Eleven shiny red bulbs made  a merry and welcome addition to our tree.  An evening of cocoa and carols with her daughters sitting on the floor of our living room made light work of releasing the stubborn tangles of tinsel and garlands.

I still have the nativity she rescued.  Joseph, Mary, Jesus, an angel, the wise men, shepherds and sheep and donkey all in the original box. It sat in the store…orphaned because the stable was…well…not stable. Every year, we assembled the little scene…with the wobbly nativity from Noah’s Ark.  It would not have been so special if we didn’t have to tackle the little fault in its construction and on occasion, give it an adjustment to level the wayward roof.

I don’t remember one toy…and there were plenty that she bought on layaway at NOAH’S ARK…but I do remember my mother’s sweet spirit and the joy she brought to the Christmas traditions in my childhood home.

Merry Christmas!

Santa, A Christmas Tree and Fish

A Note to my Readers:  Most of my posts concentrate on family history beyond my own generation.  Recently I contributed to a blog reminding historians and genealogists that they are part of history, too.

Make sure you don’t get so caught up with your ancestors that you forget your own photos, memorabilia and stories. Journaling is an old and time honored tradition that has given those of us fortunate enough to have one in our possession, a glimpse into personal moments of a life. It’s not about a Shakespearean piece. It’s more unique and dynamic. A few words from an old farmer’s journal gave me such an insight into the family’s life with so many mentions of his neighbors and friends… my great great grandparents. “Cold. Snowing. Not well today. Mr. Purdy stopped by with news.” Terse, ordinary…random, but poetic moments because I knew Samuel Purdy was an old man at the time of that entry and that he must have walked the winding country roads and through the snow over two miles away to visit his old friend.

Blogs are journals of a sort and so I am taking my own advice at this time of year and putting a bit of my history into the mix of pioneer stories.  Saturday mornings of Howdy Doody and  Gene Autry.  Golden curls fashioned with Spoolies and permanent waves.  Scents of my mother…Tabu and on occasion,  a smear of Vicks Vapo-Rub.  Spanish Rice and Lemon Meringue Pies.  “Painting” the bathroom with my father’s Old Spice shaving cream.  Sitting on Dad’s lap savoring the sweetness of a Necco wafer and listening to “the Big Lie”…a delightful fracturing of familiar tales that eventually would have us both chuckling.  Some of the  random and poetic moments of  Mr. Purdy’s great great granddaughter who grew up in central New York in the 1950′s and 60′s.

Christmas 1958

As each Christmas holiday approaches and the “Mad Men” begin the not-so-subtle merry marketing of that new Mercedes replete with a three foot bow, I wistfully think back to Christmas in 1958 and of a Santa Claus that smelled faintly of fish.  It was the first Christmas after my dad had died and it was a spare one when it came to money. Grief still had its grip, but the spirit of the holiday at our home was comforting and dear to us.  Delicate lacings of ice skittered across window panes and the lake-effect snows had already blanketed our central New York town of Auburn, New York.   The outdoor stage was set for Santa while every school child counted down the days until Christmas and remembered to brush their teeth and sit up straight at the dinner table and without prompting say “Please” and Thank You”.

Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” Album

Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole sang to us of “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” and a “White Christmas”.  Each Sunday at the First United Methodist Church our children’s voices rang with “O, Come All Ye Faithful” that brought sentimental tears to the eyes of the adults in the pews.  We were angels with halos made of gold tinsel and white organza wings and a telltale scent of peppermint candy cane on our breaths.

My mother had been at her first paying job in 25 years for less than a month and the Social Security checks had just started to arrive.  It had been a long and difficult nine months, but finally our newly defined family of three females had some footing.

I could finally give up being the questionable “Catholic kid” at St. Mary’s Church food bank on Wednesday afternoons picking up the big yellow block of Velveeta for my nonexistent Catholic family.  I was sure a sharp-eyed Catholic priest would yank me out of the line by my Peter Pan collar and wondered if there was a special hell for Protestant girls taking Catholic cheese.   I did leave the canned SPAM for the Catholics though that could be deemed as sinful as taking the Velveeta.  Half damned by SPAM.

Our financial problems were slowly being resolved, but Christmas meant a tree and presents for our family and what money there was, was earmarked for rent and groceries and my mother’s bus fare to her new job.  This called for some creative thinking.  I was eleven and Mary was six years old and employment of any kind was out of the question and Christmas was four weeks away. And I wasn’t about to brave St. Mary’s priests and sell black market Catholic Velveeta and DAMN SPAM.   I had risked my immortal soul enough and I figured God would forgive me this once, but I would really be asking too much hawking it for money…even for a Christmas tree.

Redeemed from sin for the moment I joined an army of youthful entrepreneurs shoveling snow from the steps of neighboring homes for a dime.  My first lesson in Economics 101 was supply and demand.  With a neighborhood full of twelve year old boys with shovels and one skinny eleven year old girl, the competitive marketplace was bleak.  After a Saturday morning of trudging through knee deep snow and clearing seven stoops, my pitiful take was $.70.   The cheese and Spam strategy was beginning to look like a necessity…hell or not.

A Grumpy Methodist Angel

I guess it must have been a bit of Divine Inspiration that came over me that December Sunday. Bedecked with a white robe, wings and halo, I marched down the aisle of the Methodist Church sanctuary with my fellow choir angels finally gathering on the steps below the minister’s pulpit.  I was sore and had a measly 70 cents tucked in my underwear drawer and was just getting to the age that dressing like an angel was for kids…like someone who was ten…not eleven going on twelve…and didn’t have enough money for a Christmas tree.  I was a Grumpy Angel, but not for long.  After performing our medley of Christmas carols and spending a fitful twenty minutes in the front pews while Reverend Giles preached to his flock, the choir of honorary angels made their way down the aisles and toward the tables full of Christmas delights made by the ladies of the church.   We passed the tree in the foyer…SIGH…and made our way to the festive gathering room with tables full of sandwiches and butter cookies heavily crusted with red and green sugars…and bottles of soda.  Bottles.  Of.  Soda.

We WOULD have a Christmas tree and I wouldn’t spend one second in Hell.

Soda was a luxury that never made its way into our old Amana refrigerator, but that was not going to come between me and a Christmas tree.  Not when there was a neighborhood “corner store” with a snow filled lot just about the right distance away from the moment of the first swig to the last delicious swallow and one surreptitious toss.

Fawn Soda

Fawn Soda

It was easy to lollygag behind my schoolmates on the way home.  After a few days, my little sister and I had collected soda bottles

Fawn Soda

(Fawn soda brewed and bottled in Elmira, New York was a guilty pleasure in 1950′s Auburn, NY) and managed to add just a little over two dollars to my 70 cent earnings in the hopes we could buy a Christmas tree and surprise our mother.  Mary and I passed the Christmas tree lot every day on the way to and from school and we had carefully scoped out the inventory.  We knew the less attractive trees were at the back and were no doubt cheaper.

A Santa that Smelled like Fish

With Christmas less than a week away I tucked the coins in my mitten and Mary and I pulled our sled down to the tree lot.  The snow was falling again and families were wending their way about the trees looking for “their” tree while Mary and I headed to the back of the lot.  Trees were not tagged with prices.  This was 1958 and a small town and Johnnie Galiso (He was the owner of Johnnie’s Seafood.) sold the trees in his parking lot in December)….Johnnie would discuss the best price when he sold his trees.

Johnnie Galiso.  Contributed by his daughter, Elaine Galiso McKee.

Johnnie Galiso. Contributed by his daughter, Elaine Galiso McKee.

I had NO idea what a Christmas tree cost…I was barely eleven and full of the confidence that over two dollars was a huge sum and would get us a tree that was large enough to touch the ceiling but small enough for two little girls to haul several blocks home.   When Johnnie finally realized that we were alone and were looking for a tree, he made his way over to us as if we were grownups with a fat wallet.   Very politely he asked us what we were looking for.  I knew from observing Johnnie’s sales process that money was the topic of discussion so I pulled my mitten off…coins spilling into the snow.  Without a beat Johnnie picked up the coins and guiding me over to a tree, pronounced it “just the right price” and we had a deal.  While one of his family members secured the tree to our sled, Johnnie went inside the store and tucked some cookies into a small sack.  As we left the lot with the cookies stashed in my sister’s snowsuit pocket, he wished us a “Merry Christmas”.

When we arrived home, our mother was astonished with our purchase…hugging us and smiling…but clearly speechless.  When we told our mother how we “purchased” our tree, she was a bit tearful but in a flash we were laughing and hauling the tree into our living room…snow and all.  Our tree was definitely on the imperfect side…crooked and sparse, but it was the most beautiful to us.  We had to tie the tree to a nail driven into the wall to keep it from toppling.  I kind of think it was like our little family…a bit off balance and spare, but beautiful nonetheless.  Out came the ingredients for hot cocoa and construction paper and glue – the makings for a festive chain to garland our Christmas tree.  The house smelled of pine tree, cocoa and drying wool mittens….and our mother was smiling again.

We remembered the cookies in Mary’s snowsuit pocket and the cocoa called for cookies.   Nestled in the bag with the Christmas bell-shaped cookies was a small envelope that held a collection of coins totaling just over two dollars.

Merry Christmas, Johnnie.

Author’s Note:  Johnnie’s Seafood no longer sits on the corner of West Genesee and Wood Street.  It’s a Pizza place now.  And Johnnie is long gone.  I stopped by there on a visit home in May.  It was warm and I wore just a t-shirt, but for a moment, I smelled fish and pine trees and had a rush of Christmas spirit.

First Hand. Second Hand. The Account of a Picker

A Note to My Readers: Recently I brought my car in to be serviced.  I have had my lease car for five years…two years beyond the contract.  It runs beautifully and due to the ability to work with my clients via the internet, I don’t have the “windshield time” that was usual for me in the past.  Thus I have racked up a measly 25, 000 miles in 5 years.  Oh, yes, going to the dealership for servicing leaves me feet away from the latest beauties…the ones with WiFi and that new car smell, but I have become curiously immune to the siren call that had me traditionally turning in a low mileage lease car just to drive the newest model.  Like clockwork.  Every three years for 20 years.  The new cars are always so amazing and there is that smell.  So what happened?  I decided to poll my friends and associates and I was amazed to find out that without communicating, we had all come to the same conclusion.  “What’s wrong with keeping THIS one?”  And then I learned that the attitude extended beyond the habit and, indeed, anticipation of a new vehicle every three years…for no good reason.

My television works…not 3D?  Who cares?  What sparkles in the showroom…”LOOK! you can see the sweat beads on the quarterback!” doesn’t make anyone pull out the card and add more debt just so that the Monday Night Football experience includes evidence that the players perspire.

McMansions that sit on less than an acre are gathering dust on the real estate market as buyers realize that they only live in one room at a time and they can watch movies in the family room without the angst and regret that they don’t have a home theater.   And think of the energy that you save!  Not to mention the fact that you will actually have to spend more quality time with your family since hiding in a 2000 square foot home is pretty hard to do.

Ah yes,  technology.  Here is where it gets tricky.  At least for me.  I am an old geek.  I love technology and how it makes my work better and keeps me so connected and current.  The faster it evolves the more I am concerned about an intervention where I walk into a hotel room to find my family and friends there.  In no time I am forced to go to some posh rehab in California where there is no cell phone reception and the utterance of WiFi will have me in therapy with Dr. Drew.  But even there, my greedy addiction has been tempered.  Products and services are being released every few months and the advance marketing and PR has my inner addict thrumming.  Still, I own an iPhone 3. The iPhone 5 is due out.  Who cares? My phone works great…does what I need.  I play with the iPAD at the Apple store and have had quality time with one or two that belong to family members.  But it would be redundant…better…but redundant technology.  I have my laptop and function on a high level and I haven’t even used some of its higher functions.  Case closed.

All of these changes in my attitude about buying new things…just to buy the latest with the whiz bang-something-or-other-life changing-until-the-next-thing-comes-out-consumer-junkie rush…came on without a conscious reality-check effort.  And I am not alone.  That is what is interesting and, I think, tells me that maybe we have hit the reset button. Back to earlier times in history when fathers handed down their tools to their sons and mothers presented their daughters with an heirloom hair comb.  And those things were used and treasured as things of practical value.  And worth.  When second hand stores were patronized by everyone because good things were still, well, good.

This brings me to my great great grandfathers.  Albert S. Martin and David Penird.

I posted a story in September of 2010 entitled Of Woodchucks and Wookies that was more about my step great grandfather’s hoarding than the practice of scrap, second hand goods of Albert and David.  Though I guess it could be a fine line.  The difference here is Albert and David were business men who were living the consumer values of the time.  Resources were precious things in the late 1800′s and early 1900′s.  And there was no middle class stigma to purchasing a “pre-owned” hat or coat,  bicycle, pram or child’s toy.  The newspaper classifieds were jammed with ads selling farm tools and even personal items.  Silver hair brushes were listed in one ad along with homemade preserves and a cow!

What is Old is New Again

Second Hand shops such as the one my grandfather, Albert, owned in Auburn, New York flourished.  They were a place to meet your neighbors as you perused the latest offerings and share the latest gossip.

There were no…GASP!…malls…no eBAY…no Craig’s list.  Grandfather’s store on 99 State Street was all of that and more.  As an agent to sell HOME sewing machines, he was trained to service this all important household tool.  In fact, there is a postcard listing his products that belonged to my grandfather that is archived in the Smithsonian Museum.   If your shoes or boots were in need of a cobbler, grandfather had begun his young adult life in Cazenovia as boot maker.  A quick donning of a leather apron and Albert would render your footwear as good as new. Next door his second eldest son, William, would remedy what ailed your bicycle.

Auburn New York Genesee Street

I like to think about my great great grandfather’s store.  I grew up in Auburn in the 1950′s and 1960′s and I remember the old “shotgun” stores and their shopkeepers as they were then.  I imagine the oak floor boards and the big brass cash register and maybe the family dog that was a companion to the old man that spent his last days among the reclaimed treasures.  In the 1960′s some of those old premises were invaded by a new generation with slick interiors and on occasion a brash, modern facade to cover the lovely old brick exteriors. I was a kid in the midst of ugly “urban renewal”.  The stately manse on South Street, The Women’s Union, was torn down for a parking garage. The Joni Mitchell lyrics come to mind…“they paved paradise and put a parking lot”.  And don’t even talk about the terrifying and squat building that once held the old W. T. Grant’s.  It sits among the handsome old buildings as a guilty reminder to a human frailty and hubris to replace the past with our own clumsy monuments.

On my last visit home in spring of this year, I parked the car and walked the very familiar Genesee Street.  The brick exteriors have mostly been restored and many owners are installing new awnings that are in the spirit of those sported by all the buildings at the turn of the last century.  I like walking the streets of my youth knowing my great great grandfather and his children did the same.  In their day,  a narrower Genesee Street went from packed mud, wooden sidewalks to a cobblestone thoroughfare punctuated with iron cast hitching posts, gas lighting and a rumbling trolley traveling its length and finally to its current genesis- a wide ribbon of concrete paving and modern halogen lights.

In the midst of the contemporary materials and technology, the new generations have embraced the idea that old is good.  And comforting.  I am a small town girl.

Recycle, Reuse and Repurpose.  Rags to Riches

My paternal great great grandfather, David Penird, came to America from London, England in the late 1840′s as a teenager.  He began his American life with his New York state born wife, Elizabeth White, who was not yet fifteen.  They had settled in Springport, Cayuga County, New York where he worked as a  laborer.  It wasn’t long before David headed to Cherry Valley, Winnebago County, Illinois with Elizabeth with their infant child, Lucy Jennie Penird.  Presumably Elizabeth died, probably from the cholera epidemic that ravaged the population in the valley in 1854.  By 1860 David is married to Martha Colwell of Summer Hill with their three children-Ida, John and George .  It appears they were married by 1855 as they had a daughter, Ida born in that year.  Lucy who is 9 is still with them at the time of the 1860 Federal Census, but on December  3rd of 1860 Winnebago County filed suit against David Penird.

Resolved.  That Geo. W. Miller to be allowed the sum of Forty Dollars, for care of Lucy Penird, and for sending said Lucy Penird to her friends in Auburn, New York, and the Clerk of this Board is hereby directed to draw an order on the Treasurer for the amount.

Lucy Jennie Penird never lived with her father again.  If she returned to “friends” in Auburn is not known.  What is known is about Lucy’s early years is found in her Steven’s Point Gazette obituary.  She was born in Auburn and was living in Wisconsin sometime after 1860 with her aunt, Mrs. Arnold.  Lucy became a child bride at 16 to Horatio Theodore Harroun of  Plover, Wisconsin.  The Harrouns had six children.  Their granddaughter, Etta Lawson McCoy, is found married and living in Syracuse, NY and visiting the Penirds.  She is named in the 1927 will of her grandmother’s half brother, George Penird.

While Lucy seemed to have been acknowledged as a Penird, there is no great sense that she was ever in the bosom of the family.

The Civil War

With the prewar economy becoming desperate and a young family to feed, David sold his Illinois farm and found his way back to the lush farmland along the eastern shore of Cayuga Lake in Summer Hill sometime between 1860 and early 1861.   In November of  1861 David was paid a bounty and enlisted in the NYS Volunteers 75th Infantry that had been organized at Auburn, NY.  Leaving New York State on December 6, 1861, the 75th  headed directly to Fort Pickens in Florida.  His youngest child, my great grandfather, William, was six months old when David marched off to fight Johnny Reb.  David and his regiment saw three years of action in the Deep South fighting major skirmishes in the Red River Campaign and at the infamous Sabine Pass.  The 75th was mustered out on August 3rd,  1864 in Savannah, Georgia. During his service, David had attained the rank of Sergeant.

Before he left, David had transferred the ownership of the Summer Hill farm in District 9 on Howell Road to Martha.  The records are conflicting, but she is named in several records as the farm’s owner.  And she is buying and selling land in Summer Hill during those years.  Martha worked the farm in Summer Hill and raised her children.  When David returned, he was almost 35 years old and had spent three years slogging through malarial swamps.  He had learned to be resourceful to survive and distinguished himself in the field of battle.

Deadwood City Dakota Territory 1879

Ten years of being a farmer in Summer Hill evidently didn’t suit 50 year old David because by the late 1870′s he was in Deadwood, Dakota Territory with my 19 year old great grandfather rebuilding Deadwood after the fire and mining along with other veterans of the 75th.

When David and William returned to Cayuga County in the early 1880′s, farming was Martha’s bailiwick while the Penird men went into the scrap and rag business.  In 1884 William married my great grandmother, Emma Case, of Summer Hill and the Penird men established their scrap business on Clark Street Road. David’s experience in the Civil War – surviving in the Deep South where supply lines were always at risk and scrounging that kept death at bay was a necessity – were dearly won skills. The rough environs of the pioneer mining community of Deadwood taught David and William the value of natural resources and the tenuousness of pioneer supply lines.

At first the humble nature of the nouns…scrap and rags…gave me a Sanford and Son image until I read about David traveling to New York to work at “the Exchange” and historic articles about the lucrative “junk business” during that time.  The business also included building materials and a retail store for new and used furniture. Auburn newspaper articles were filled with George’s distinguished career as owner of Coy and Penird and his political career as Third Ward Supervisor in Auburn. And there was the fact that George had a chauffeur.

My grandfather, William,  remained a farmer at heart…with a farm in Aurelius though he was an agent in the family’s business driving his wagon from Ithaca to Groton and Aurelius to Auburn.  In 1901 William was killed in a wagon accident on the Auburn Road..now Clark Street Road….just months before his father, David died at his home with George on Perrine Street.

George continued the successful scrap business until his death in 1927.  During that time, the storage barn was robbed many times…the scrap was as good as cash.  One newspaper account that made the point told of  a thief that was caught red-handed stealing rags.  The enterprising fellow in fact admitted to stealing the rags often and George suspected that he had bought his own purloined inventory over and over again.

My Father

Albert and David were my father’s  great grandfathers.  My dad haunted scrapyards all of my life…dragging his little girl who wore pinafores, satin ribbons and lace trimmed socks…to hunt among the rusting automobile relics for treasure.  I knew the value of an ivory window crank knob and how to remove it by the time I was six.  My father would  boost me into the tight spaces (EUREKA!  I know why I am claustrophobic!) where I would open his hankie that was tied to my wrist and remove the little tools and begin my automotive postmortem parts removal.  I was good at it and it explains so much about me and my penchant for tools and interesting bits of things. And besides, Dad always had fruit flavored LifeSavers candies to savor on the ride home.

A geneticist would probably know there was a gene for such behavior, but I don’t need proof.  I know my love of second hand things-first hand.

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

Deep in the Research-Notes from the Field

Notes to my Readers: My readers have missed me, I know.  Emails asking what I am doing…when will you post something new?  What will it be?  So I am taking pity on my faithful readers and am taking a break from what I can only call a FLOOD of research that fairly overwhelmed the past two months to let you know that YES…I am here…and YES I am researching.  As for writing, I have to keep that on the docket, but if I don’t deal with the research…the researchers…and the amazing influx of data and opportunities, I will definitely need a jacket with lots of belts and buckles.

Two recent very big breaks plunged me into following up on my Curtis-Downing-Titus family research…after being contacted by a “cousin”…another ancestral granddaughter of Lydia Titus and her first husband, Obadiah J. Downing.  Marj found my blog post about  “James Atchison Patrick, The Missing Grocer of Cayuga Lake”,  who was her great grandfather.  My intrigue with the plucky abandoned wife, Nellie Curtis Patrick, and her children led to writing their story and ultimately to connecting with my cousin, Marj.

Silver Spoon once owned by my GG Grandmother, Susannah M. Downing Curtis

Comparing notes with Marj before my research trip to central New York had me rearranging my focus…finding what I could on our ancestors and adding to our knowledge of their lives and relationships.  I was beyond thrilled to know she owned silver spoons that were once owned by my great great grandmother Susannah Downing Curtis and her father, Obadiah.  The hallmark on the spoons states “Chedell Auburn”.  John Chedell was a silversmith in Auburn using this hallmark from 1827-1850.

So adjusting my research plans, I jumped in and added to the already dizzying goals for my field work.

 Day One Monday, May 23rd

I spent several days last week researching along the shoreline of Cayuga Lake.  “Bit off more than I could chew” as my mother would say.  The first day of my trip, I picked up my brother, Gale,  (after driving four hours from my PA home to his home in Auburn, NY) and made the one hour trek to Newark, Wayne County to visit the homestead of my Huguenot ancestor, Simeon J. Frear…only to be thwarted  with a DELUGE of rain and lightning that is typical off the Great Lakes and that kept me from his grave.  Tail between my legs…I went back to Auburn  and took my brother out and fed him his favorite…anything with mashed potatoes……and finally after a hot shower  and a glass of wine…I prepared for DAY TWO.

 Day Two Tuesday, May 24rd

Day Two was a trip to my father’s grave in the small lakeside cemetery in the Village of Cayuga with my oldest brother.  Gale is approaching 80 and is the eldest child in our immediate family.  I am more than 15 years his junior with the enthusiasm and available “youngster” energy that is still mine.  Though Gale has a generation knowledge of memories beyond mine…it is apart from my early life experience.  My mother made me promise NOT to bury her in that modest cemetery in the village of Cayuga and it is more of her forebears’ resting place than it is my Dad’s.   In fact he has NO family there other than his brother…though I wonder if my mother knew that.  GENERATIONS of my mother’s Tyler grandparents are there and she was so proud of that heritage.  I suspect it has more to do with her undying love for her parents and the sisters who died so young.   I took a good number of photos and sent data to my Tyler, Curtis, Titus, Parcells, Olds “cousins” for their research.

When my mother died in 1997, my siblings and I surreptitiously dug a hole in Lakeview Cemetery in Cayuga Heights (on the east

Lakeview Cemetery in Cayuga Heights

side of Ithaca)  between her parents and her young sisters, Kate and Ruth,  and placed her ashes there.  The Lakeview Cemetery located in Cayuga Heights didn’t allow that without a huge fee and all kinds of oddball requirements.  So what the hell…my mother wanted that and we had her ashes and we were her devoted children. No time for processing…so I dug an impromptu hole…using the only available tool, an ice scraper from the trunk of  my brother Dave’s car.  Ashes properly placed…sod replaced…church bells spontaneously rang through the Cayuga Lake hills. We all held our breath and knew Mom had expressed her gratitude.   I think my mother was pleased that we had granted her wish despite the bureaucratic restrictions and let us know with the bells.   SHHHH!

A short trip to Soule Cemetery in Sennett, NY (outside of Auburn) to do some Parcells work and as they had done on a previous visit,  the maintenance guys stopped to help me find a burial plot that had eluded me.  They are reverent and respectful despite the fact that we are strangers and I was looking for Christopher and Nellie Parcells who left this earth long before their parents were born.  They are more than guys who mow the grass…and I thank them!

After a long DAY TWO…Gale and I were ready for a good meal and ended up at my favorite haunt when I was a teenager,  Green Shutters.  Car Hops. Incredible French Fries.  Hot Dogs.   And the wonderful scent of Owasco Lake wafting into the open windows.

Day THREE, Wednesday, May 25th

Cayuga County Courthouse

Day Three…MORNING…I spent one whole morning at the Records Department for Cayuga County… in a windowless, concrete block room in the old jail that squats at the rear of the magnificent Cayuga County Courthouse in Auburn, NY.  It certainly could have been a cell…without the toilet and sink and cot… though a toilet was next door with all of the visitor’s noises clearly audible.  Ignoring the ah…neighboring audio of each visitor to the loo, I did end up finding the fate of my ancestral grandmother, Lydia Titus, a Quaker who had traveled the Erie Canal when it opened in 1829 with her husband, Obadiah J. Downing, from Dutchess County, NY.  My “cousin” Charlie Baker and I have been communicating for years playing the game “Where in the World is Lydia?”  I solved it…in that 6” x 8” cell-like space in Auburn.  But as you can imagine, I solved one question and at least a dozen more popped up. Did I mention that I fed the damned ONE HOUR parking meter on Court Street three times?  So I had to time my research with my iPhone alarm…jump up…grab my quarters and feed the meter at my parking space and run back to continue the research.   It was kind of a jail break…and back to serve my time though it was research that was my offense.  Chuckle.  Have to say…the folks there were incredibly supportive and patient…and own a treasure trove of research information for Cayuga County.  We owe them at least of cup of coffee….a hug and a big “THANK YOU”.

Day Three…AFTERNOON…did I say I had over scheduled my time?  I drove to Ithaca and the library…found public parking…and dashed across the street and began the research.  The research librarians were helpful and sweet…though for a university and college town…a bit archaic for my electronic research appetite…and satisfied with microfiche technology ( I suspect this is more about a reality check with funds available for “history”  and the willingness to cope).  So…an intense afternoon on my part-handwriting pages of research  in my notebook while disciplining my scrawl to something I could read later without frustration.  I realized that this is going to mean a multiple visit investment with scheduled and generous appointments with Cornell’s library and the Ithaca History Center.  I gratefully accepted what I gleaned, packed up my backpack and traveled back to Auburn.

On my trip home I picked up Ithaca Beer…a Cascadilla Red and their Ginger Beer- DELICIOUS!

Ithaca Beer Sign

and then through Enfield  and on to  Van Dorn Road.  Enfield Township  has taken the wooded and meandering road down to the dirt base. Lurching and bouncing with my high tech suspension, I thought of the wagons and stagecoaches that had (TRULY) lurched and  bounced in the early 1800′s and their inevitable stop at my GGG grandfather’s (Peter Van Dorn) tavern for their respite. I turned west on to Bostwick Road. At the rise, I parked and looked down on Ithaca and the deep blue waters of Cayuga Lake. I was home. So were they.

 A Tribute to our Local Historians and Libraries

I am an enthusiastic internet researcher…but I wouldn’t miss these personal moments…treading in my ancestor’s footsteps.  I appreciate those dedicated folks who struggle with tightening budgets and support us by their stewardship of our human history…THANK YOU for you dedication.  You are our heroes!

It changes EVERYTHING about the way we work with the raw data.

And for my readers who are paying attention…WHAT was the second break?  I wouldn’t be much of a writer if I didn’t leave you wanting more.  Next post.  See you here!

Ithaca Days and Being Purdy

A Note to My Readers:  I write for my fellow researchers because they should revel in their family history…the process and the discovery and to remember to celebrate their own successes and to forgive their own blunders.  I write for my family because the stories of our family are all at once so inspiring, embarrassing, noble and undignified and so darn human.  Somewhere in my “Purdyness” I find the humor in the most impossible and difficult of moments and storytelling is a dominant gene that blesses and plagues me.  There is no rehab for that addiction and I am glad.

Seeking inspiration for a new post for my blog, I opened up a storage box full of black and white snapshots of my family from the 1950’s.  What I thought would take a half an hour of sorting for a quick nudge of inspiration turned into three hours of peering through the gray tones and enjoying the flashbacks of a voice, a gesture, a scent of perfume or the rustle of lovely fabric.  Scores of images and memories later, one photo rested on my lap as I was unwilling to put it back with the others.

The Purdy Gathering in 1956 Buffalo New York

One of my favorite photographs of my mother’s family was taken in the summer of 1956.  The Purdy siblings…surviving sisters Elizabeth, Mary, Deborah and Esther and their brother, Bill…. gathered with their families in the Buffalo, New York home of Mary Samantha Purdy Kroll and her husband, Harry.  It was the first time the Purdy children had been together under one roof since their Ithaca childhood in the 1920′s. 

I was eight years old and in the midst of the mélange of Purdy personalities, memories and the occasional serenade…all accompanied by spontaneous kisses and hugs…a cheek pinch from my Uncle Bill, cocktails, cigarettes and cigars and ridiculous amounts of food.  Fifty three years later I would gather in Ithaca with my cousins, brothers and my daughters with a deeper knowledge of our Purdy ancestors and a more profound love and appreciation for our parents and a wistful thought to 1956 and to the Ithaca history that is so much a part of who they were. And who we are.

Sisters, Silks and Conspiracy

Almost from her birth in 1900 eldest child Elizabeth had been raised in the home of her paternal grandmother, Elizabeth A. Williams Purdy Smith, the matriarch that even her great grandchildren who never knew her still deferentially call Grandma Smith.  Betty was doted upon by her grandmother while her sisters lived in the nearby, but more modest household of their parents.   Although she was pretentiously called “Elizabawth” by Grandma Smith and physically separated from her siblings and parents, she was their “Betty” and the sibling bond remained strong and loyal.  

The lovely dresses that hung in Betty’s wardrobe were beyond the means of parents Burt and Florence Purdy, but the mere distance of a block or two was no match for the devotion of Purdy sisterhood.  Betty’s younger sisters, Kathryn, Mary and Deborah were lively and vivacious and living in the midst of the dynamic “Roaring Twenties” period of Cornell campus life and there were fraternity parties to attend and eligible young men to dance with.  In a female conspiracy against a disapproving Grandma Smith and their unassuming parents, Betty’s party dresses were lowered from her second story bedroom to her giggling sisters waiting below.

Vibrant assortments of silks and chiffons were secreted behind the drapes of the girls’ shared bedroom until the sisters, freshly scented and hair bobbed and marseilled in the fashion of the day, were ready to greet their young beaus at the door.  With a quick kiss for Mama and Papa and their younger sisters, Esther and Ruth and and an adoring cuddle for infant brother,  Bill, the sisters Kathryn, Mary and Deborah and their dates swept out of the house in a waft of perfume and absconded finery.

Elizabeth “Betty” Curtis Purdy Crane

On June 23, 1900 Elizabeth Curtis Purdy was born to twenty-five year old haberdasher, Burt Samuel Purdy and his eighteen year old bride, Florence Curtis Purdy in Ithaca, New York.  She was named after Burt’s mother and with a nod to her teenage mother’s maiden name was given the middle name of Curtis.  Burt and Florence were still newlyweds and living at 205 Prospect Street with Florence’s parents when their daughter, Elizabeth was born. 

Elizabeth Curtis Purdy at eighteen

According to my mother, Grandma Smith took physical…not legal…custody of Elizabeth when she was just an infant and despite her mother’s sobbing and pleadings, Aunt Betty would not ever be returned to the Purdy household.   Thus Betty was raised on 322 Pleasant Street with her grandmother, her step grandfather, Charles Smith and his daughter, Vera.   After Charles died, Elizabeth purchased a home at 409 South Aurora Street.  Betty continued to live with her grandmother even past her marriage on February 7, 1928 to Robert Lupton Crane.  Their early married years were spent with Grandma Smith living with her in her home on 307 Eddy Street.  In the 1930 census 30 year old Betty is listed as 25 years old; Robert is correctly listed as 23 years old and Grandma Smith, like her granddaughter, has reported her age as five years younger than her correct age of eighty-two years old.

Eventually Bob and Betty Crane left Ithaca for his hometown of Buffalo, New York.  In the autumn of 1940, just months after the death of Grandma Smith, Betty and Bob adopted their newborn son and gave him the name Peter Van Dorn Crane.  Though Peter was named after our ancestral grandfather, Betty was fond of telling him that it was the name of her pet rooster…much to her amusement and much to Peter’s total confusion…a tale Peter and I had a grand chuckle over at our Purdy Gathering in Ithaca in the summer of 2009.

Silk Bosoms, Reno and Crimson  Busses

My earliest memory of Bob and Betty Crane was an infantile one to best describe it.  I was starting to talk…and I haven’t stopped yet.  My parents had driven from Ithaca to Buffalo to visit my mother’s sisters.  While the adults visited, I was put down for a toddler’s much needed nap on my aunt and uncle’s bed in their elegantly decorated master bedroom.  Peeking in on me, my mother and Aunt Betty noticed me rousing and came in to retrieve me.  “What beautiful skirtans!” I exclaimed to my mother and aunt which put them into fits of laughter. Both women liked to tell that story to me all during my childhood and even as a young bride on my wedding day, I heard the story again and again from the two sisters as they fondly reminisced about the little blonde toddler who admired her aunt’s choice in draperies.    

I remember Aunt Betty best in her Darlington apartment.  She was divorced and the only sister that drove a car.  And she had a “boyfriend”.  That made my aunt a woman of intrigue to me.  When we visited her, my sleeping arrangement was on her bedroom chaise lounge that had a direct view of her vanity table. The table featured an attached round mirror which reflected a riot of nail polish, perfume bottles, a silver framed photo of my cousin, Peter and an impossibly large crystal ashtray crowded with the lipstick stained remnants of her chain smoking habit.  A pull of the vanity table’s crystal knob revealed my aunt’s other treasures…usually a clot of loose diamonds rattling among out-of-favor lipsticks and a collection of match boxes from Reno.  I suspect the Reno match boxes were wistful souvenirs of her divorce from Bob.

Peter was as elegant to me as my aunt’s home.  The slightest hint of a bemused smile played about his serious young man’s face and lit up his eyes.  It was when he spoke with a clever and wry wit in his rich and rare baritone that Peter’s charm and warmth etched himself into my heart.  Fifty years later at our 2009 Purdy Gathering in Ithaca, I could have closed my eyes and picked his voice out of the hotel lobby full of gabbling people.

Aunt Betty’s living room was chic.  Silk banquette style couches surrounded a large round mirrored coffee table.  Dominating the coffee table was the obligatory oversized ashtray- the matching twin of the one that sat on her vanity- with its ever present Tarleton cigarettes.   The pristine white cylinders were neatly arranged in a monogrammed silver box while a host of their sullied brethren lay burnt and ringed with red in the deep recesses of the lovely ashtray.   Corals and turquoise tones accented with brilliant touches of faceted crystal pieces graced the small sitting room.  A vestige of Grandma Smith…a petite, carved rosewood chair with a white silk seat anchored one wall while against another wall a Philco AM/FM radio and 78 rpm record player highboy gave Betty the panache of a modern woman.

Among the iconic recollections of chic and cigarettes resides the equally important imagery of bosoms and blossoms…silk to be exact.  Betty had been the only sister to be graced with an ample bosom…a physical trait that even in her dotage, she proudly flaunted and invariably anchored with a delicate, but large silk bloom.  Her dramatic embraces usually entailed a bit of perfumed smothering accompanied by a solid buss upon a cheek  that required one to take an oxygenating breath and make a subtle swipe to remove  the tell tale crimson lip print.

I must confess that I have a tendency toward serious hugging and leaving behind a trace of my own shade of lipstick.  I just pretend I don’t see anyone swiping the affectionate method of Purdy branding from their cheek.

 Kathryn Louise Purdy

Kathryn Louise Purdy

Born three years after Elizabeth, Kathryn Louise Purdy was christened Kathryn after her maternal grandmother, Kate D.  Curtis and her grandmother’s sister, Jennie Louise.  Like her sister Betty, she was a lovely brunette but with sable brown eyes.  My mother only spoke of Kathryn on occasion.  Kathryn and my mother shared a bed in their second story bedroom on Tompkins Street and my mother said she was Kate’s shadow.  Though still tinged with the never forgotten grief of her loss, the picture my mother painted of Kathryn was of a vivacious young woman, full of life and fun.  The leader of the Purdy girls at home, she was the instigator in the “party frock conspiracy”.  Though she was courted by many Cornell “swells” who would drive up to their home in a Stutz Bearcat and sporting a raccoon coat, she had one steady beau that held her heart.  Sometime in her twentieth year, she became mysteriously ill and her desperate family and baffled physicians sent her to Florida in hopes for a “cure”.   Within a few weeks, mortally ill Kathryn…Kate like her grandmother…returned on a train to die at home on April 24th  1924 surrounded by her family and grieving beau.  

Mary Samantha Purdy Kroll

Mary Purdy Kroll

Mary Samantha Purdy was named after her two paternal great grandmothers, Mary Van Dorn Williams and Semantha Ingersoll Purdy though my Aunt Mary always told everyone her name was Mary Ann.  She was the first to marry.   In 1923 eighteen year old Mary Purdy eloped with furrier Harry Aaron Kroll and left her Ithaca family to create her own family in Buffalo, New York.  Sons Harrison (Hak) and Robert (Bobby) were born and raised in Buffalo, New York. 

Aunt Mary was the Buffalo “hostess with the mostess” and affectionately called her loved ones “Tweetsdie-Dins”.  Her 419 Voorhees Avenue Tudor bungalow was always open to friends and family.  Mary’s fashionable plum and ice blue kitchen was the heart of the home for her and cooking was definitely her joy and long suit.   In the spring of 1952 I spent a period of time with my Aunt Mary.  I was four years old and ate my first waffle with strawberries and whipped cream which was prepared by her German maid and served at the breakfast bar.   

Aunt Mary’s vanity table was a concoction of powders, perfumes and brushes and mirrors that eerily resembled that of my mother’s and my Aunt Betty’s.   A dainty perch for its mistress completed the feminine tableau where with a pat of her hand, Aunt Mary would summon me to sit beside her and observe her beauty ritual.  A lesson in choosing the right lipstick and matching nail polish to complement one’s apparel along with a quick dash to her walk in closet to peer among the furs and lovely dresses became our morning ritual.

Tallulah Bankhead, Snickers and Flash Gordon

Aunt Mary kept her cigarette holder on the telephone stand that sat at the base of the banister and was a ready prop for a kid that had a bent for entertainment.  To the amusement of my aunt and uncle, I mimicked actress Tallulah Bankhead with my aunt’s cigarette holder casually perched in my upturned hand, tossing my head and drawling “Dahling” as I sashayed down their long staircase. 

I was not the sole entertainer in the household.  In fact, my Uncle Harry, a rakish ukulele performer and lively vocalist often gathered with Hak at the piano and Bob on guitar to favor us with a bit of pre dinner revelry.  Bob was cousin crush material.  He was older and wore his clothes like James Dean.  I was homesick for my big brothers and Bobby made me his little sister that spring, lifting me to his shoulders and dashing through the house with me with his whoops and my giggles filling the air.  Harry with his neatly trimmed moustache and silk smoking jacket and Mary’s girlish and twinkling eyes, delicately perfumed wrists and her crisp organdy cocktail apron tied at a trim little waist are an enduring and endearing image in my memory.

I ate Chinese food when I didn’t know what or where China was.  I watched “Flash Gordon” on the Krolls stylish, modern RCA television with my cousin, Bob and learned to love Snickers lovingly dispensed from my Aunt Mary’s “candy drawer” at the right side of her sink.  I rode the escalator at Hengerer’s, Buffalo’s leading retail store where my uncle Harry was a furrier.  I banged tunelessly on the piano in imitation of my cousin, HAK.  I sat silently in the breakfast nook…a difficult task for the chatterbox that I was…am…while my Uncle Harry ate his soft boiled egg and toast over the Buffalo News.  I was tenderly loved by the Krolls that spring and I will never forget it.

I am 63 years old and fantasize about knocking on the door of 419 Voorhees Avenue to peek inside at the stairway where I flounced and into the living room where male voices blended in song and to test the air for the faint suggestion of waffles and strawberries emanating from my aunt’s kitchen.

Deborah Jane Purdy Martin

Deborah Jane Purdy

Another girl.  By now the Purdy household was a bastion of females and it seems it was preordained for Burt to be surrounded by females…his mother, his Aunt Mary Purdy Russell, his grandmother, Mary Van Dorn Williams and now his wife and daughters.  But this daughter was blonde with hazel eyes…more like him physically than his other daughters who favored the Curtis family. 

My mother’s recollections of Papa and Mama were not so much of a husband and wife, but more of a series of vignettes of them as individuals. There was Papa making popcorn for the children and encouraging them to do their homework.  Mama was so beautiful that men would often gawk at her even when she carried her children. Papa was a “tailor’s dummy” and always dressed nattily and sporting a bowler hat.  Mama was meek and kind and never raised her voice.  And there were the fires. 

In the early 1900’s the steep hills atop which Ithaca is perched and the large wood frame houses that were and still are the composition of dwellings along with the method of gas and wood fires for heating and light created a frightful combination that often resulted in disastrous fires.  Grandma Smith was burned out of one home and the Purdys were burned out of two.  Thankfully no lives were lost, but family treasures were victims of the flames.  Oliver S. Williams’  letters written in the mid 1800’s from California to his wife, Mary Van Dorn Williams…keepsakes that Mary kept bundled in a satin blue ribbon were claimed by fire and my mother spoke often of Grandma Smith’s melancholic and continuing distress over the demise of her father’s love letters to her mother.  Only Ruth had a dangerous brush with fire.  After wandering too close to the wood stove in the kitchen, her frock caught fire and my grandmother had to chase her as she ran screaming and bring her down to the ground while beating back the flames with her bare hands. 

There never seemed to be much money in the Purdy household and yet the girls made their own entertainment.  The front sidewalk at the base of the large steps to the house was the site of girlish games of hopscotch and jacks and dolls.  My mother taught me to make my own paper dolls…something she had mastered when she and her sisters were young.  Summer meant the weekly appearance of the ice wagon pulled by a dappled gray horse.  While the obedient creature stood at the side of the street, the ice man grappled with large chunks of ice harvested that winter from Cayuga Lake.  As he headed up the steep front stairs with the large block upon his shoulder, the girls would approach the gray beast and gently touch his soft nose and offer him a lovely dose of little girl affection.  Chips of ice at the back of the wagon would be brushed into the cradle of a skirt and after a quick dash to the welcoming shade of a tree, the sisters would sit and let the delicious cool of the ice melt in their mouths.

Excitement in Ithaca in my mother’s childhood went beyond fires, gentle horses, hopscotch and ice.  Movies were being made in Ithaca…at the Wharton Studios in what is now Stewart Park.  Stars like Pearl White and Lionel Barrymore and magician Harry Houdini walked the streets of Ithaca while filming on location amidst the breathtaking scenery at the foot of Cayuga Lake.  It was during this heyday that my mother met and was befriended by legendary dancer and actress, Irene Castle. 

By 1924 my mother was a freshman at Ithaca High School.  Sister Kathryn had died that year, but there was the comfort and distraction of three younger siblings that had been added to the Purdy family-twelve year old Esther, seven year old Ruth and five year old brother, Bill.  Elizabeth was still at Grandma Smith’s home and Mary had married the previous year so that left my fifteen year old mother as the eldest child in the household and without the company of her sister companions that had comforted her.  Florence and Burt by this time were most definitely strangers under the same roof.  Money was scarce and it wasn’t long before my mother left school, her family home and her childhood behind.  Mom found a room at a girl’s only boarding house and cleaned houses by day and took courses at night to pass her GED and then went on to secretarial school where she learned dictation, typewriting and bookkeeping.  The flighty young teen that danced with Franchot Tone at Delta Tau Delta became a serious adult before her eighteenth birthday.

Deborah and a Serious Young Man

Ferg…as my siblings and I affectionately call our mother…or Grace L ….worked as a secretary at the Morse Chain where she met my father, Albert E. Martin.  “He was a serious young man,” Mom told me many times.  Dad was a shipping clerk in those days and the serious young man worked his way up to be one of their youngest traffic managers and making enough money to finally marry my mother on July 30, 1932.

The first four years of their marriage brought my three brothers, Gale, Dave and Dick into the world and my mother’s previous life of female influence was overturned by the masculine whirlwind of three boys, dogs, train sets and constant roughhousing.  During that time my brothers and my parents moved into their first home, a little white house on York Street where my father finished the wood floors.  Dad was a volunteer fireman at that time and my mother loved to tell me about the night that he had to climb out their bedroom window to respond to his fire company’s alarm.  He had just finished the lovely, golden oak floors and they were perfect.  I understand that part of my father.  I have in my own way leaped out of a number of “windows” to preserve my masterpieces.

Before World War II Dad left Morse Chain and opened his own businesses in Ithaca…first a gas station and then a full service parking garage on State Street.  Business was good and after the war, my parents built their house on South Plain Street and welcomed their first girl…me…eleven days after the death of my maternal grandmother.   Five years later when my parents were in their mid-forties, my sister Mary was born. 

Mom was the only sister to remain in Ithaca and had more intimate and constant contact with her parents and Grandma Smith than her siblings during that time.  Burt and Florence lived separate lives sometime after 1930.  In 1937 Burt was 63 years old and living with his 89 year old mother at 307 Eddy Street and, no longer a haberdasher, is working at his older brother’s profession as a house painter.  By 1944 Burt and Florence are clearly living apart as evidenced by their individual listings in Manning’s Ithaca Directory.  Burt is in the nursing home on Geneva Street suffering from what my mother described as “milk leg” – a lay term of the day for phlebitis.  Burt blamed his condition on the incessant ladder climbing of his late in life career.   Florence is living as a housekeeper on South Meadow Street RD5 with her friend, DeForest G. “Ducky” Drake.

My parent’s South Plain Street home was within walking distance to South Meadow Street, but my grandmother suffered greatly from debilitating arthritis and almost exclusively went everywhere in her coupe…her pride and joy.  Mobility was so difficult for her at that time that she would often park the car in our driveway and visit with my mother there.  My brothers loved the gadgetry and knobs and if they boyishly fiddled with her car, Florence would gently chide, “Don’t meddle, dolly”.  

“Ducky” was a fisherman…as were my young brothers.  Ithaca with its gorges and streams is a fisherman’s paradise and many times my brothers, pole slung over their shoulders and a baloney sandwich packed for the excursion, would come upon Ducky fishing at Enfield Falls with our grandmother comfortably ensconced in her coupe under a nearby tree.

My clearest memories of my mother’s emotional connection to her sisters and brother…aside from visits to Buffalo, New York, Texas and Massachusetts…revolved around Christmas.  My mother loved Christmas and with very little money to create the delights of her favorite holiday, my mother puts Martha Stewart with her open-ended budget to shame.  My father had died in 1958 having lost his business in the early 1950’s.  We had been broke and struggling in Auburn ever since, but my mother’s Purdy style…or perhaps it was more of the determined spirit of her grandmother, Grandma Smith…manifested.  We strung popcorn and cranberries and the rich tones of a newly purchased Nat King Cole album uplifted our hearts.  

With a new spring in her step and her eyes sparkling with Christmas spirit and a precious small sum in her purse, my mother boarded the bus for downtown Auburn where she purchased red beeswax candles and gold and silver sequins and a few yards of red organdy.   Cigars were packaged in crisp, white tissue for “Brother”.  That snowy weekend mom made hot chocolate and my sister and I sat at our kitchen table and pushed pinned, glittering sequins into the beeswax while my mother meticulously sewed festive holiday cocktail aprons for her sisters.    My mother was happy again after my father’s sudden death in the blizzard of February 1958 and all it took was a bit of sequins, a waft of organdy and a bundle of cigars…and some childhood stories told to her daughters over steaming cups of cocoa. 

I mistakenly thought of my mother as a lone, brave figure during those sad years.  Thinking about my mother…really considering her and her life proved me wrong.  Oh, she was brave.  But she wasn’t lone.  Her siblings were in Buffalo and Texas and Massachusetts and in those days that might as well have been on the moon.  My mother never drove and riding the bus to downtown Auburn…was her accommodation for travel…transplanting the trolleys she rode in her Ithaca youth.   Letter writing and lovely cards with the occasional excitement of a long distance call had to suffice for the more satisfying visit over a cup of tea.  Despite the passing of decades and her sense of overwhelming geographic distances, my mother was as close to her sisters and brother…and mama and papa…as the Ithaca Days she held in her heart.

Esther Madonna Purdy

Esther Purdy Mulloy

My grandmother must have been feeling very biblical and maternal when her fifth daughter was born.  Esther’s biblical character was born in poverty, but eventually became the Queen of Persia.  Chosen for her beauty by Persian King Xerxes, Esther proved to be not only beautiful, but wise and kind and a woman of great courage.  Florence’s great hopes for her daughter’s future were certainly embodied in her choice of names.  Sentimental promise was the only dowry that Florence Purdy could provide her newborn daughter in 1912. 

In the early summer of 1953 my mother ignored her sense of security with the earthbound transportation afforded by trolleys and buses and boarded a TWA airplane with my sister and me and flew to Dallas with a stopover in Chicago.  We were going to the moon…to Texas…to visit my mother’s sister, Esther whose King was not Xerxes of Persia, but oilman L. B. Mulloy of Longview, Texas.  I distinctly remember the experience of walking to the airplane across the tarmac and holding my breath against the strong odor of aviation fuel all the while hanging onto my mother’s skirt.  “Stay with mommy,” my mother shouted above the high-pitched whine of idling engines.  

I was six years old that early summer and discernment and awareness was beginning to wire itself into my blond head.  Approaching the steps to the airplane,  I peered around my mother’s skirt and saw a flight of stairs that appeared insurmountable.  One breathtaking scoop and I was in the arms of the gray uniformed copilot and being brought up the steps like visiting royalty.  He was Prince Charming and Flash Gordon with a hint of Old Spice.   Civility and elegance was part of the flight experience in those days.  The flight crews were romantic figures…always crisply dressed and the essence of good manners and style.  Passengers dressed in their finest Sunday attire.  Ladies and Gentlemen.  Hats and Gloves.  Sweatshirts were for college jocks and never left the locker room.  Travel by air was elegant.

Our flight to Texas had one stop over…in Chicago.  The trip was a stomach dropping introduction into flight.  We hit violent thunderstorms with updrafts around the Great Lakes and by the time we landed at O’Hare, the adults were as gray as the flight crew’s uniforms.   Ashen and shaken the passengers were escorted to the terminal gate for their connection to the Dallas leg of the flight.  After a period of time, a TWA representative came to the cluster of travelers to personally inform us that all flights were grounded until the next day when the storms were expected to have cleared.  We were in Chicago…somewhere between the moon and Auburn, New York…in the days before credit cards and cell phones and when a woman carried only enough cash for a lovely sandwich and a cup of tea.  But it was 1953 and Howard Hughes owned TWA and ladies and young children weren’t left to their own devices in the cavernous O’Hare terminal overnight.  Nosirree.  

Once again…in the arms of a uniformed TWA officer, my exhausted little body was held aloft and swept along to our waiting hotel room with a heated bottle of milk and a crib for my sister and a warm meal and hot bath for my mother and me.  All courtesy of Texas resident and celebrity, Mary Martin…a stranded fellow traveler.  Miss Martin was returning to her Texas home from Chicago and was intrigued to see my sister’s name beside hers on the passenger roster…Mary Martin…and being informed of our dilemma saw to it that we were treated to a good dose of Texas style hospitality.  Texas, here we come.

The Moon

There were horses…and cows…and fences…and barns and a neat little house at the end of a dirt road with a quaint little pond with bullfrogs, but the setting could not have been more foreign to me than if we did indeed land on the moon.  The grass was not lush, soft and green and the earth was gritty and almost without color.  And the ants were not benign little critters that scurried through the blades and across the sidewalk, but biting, ferocious monsters whose stinging brought grown men to tears.  Still there was my aunt’s lemonade and her iced tea and barbecues that brought neighbors from everywhere and lasted past my bedtime.  The cows were steers and not the gentle black and white bossies of my central New York family farms. 

Cousins Wayne and Gay Andrea were young adults that summer and walked among the “big people” occasionally giving notice to their little cousin with a pat on the head.  Andrea was a blond Texas young lady coming into her own and one afternoon I sat mesmerized on the porch next to a pair of deliciously white majorette boots…smelling of fresh polish and sporting new pompoms…watching Andrea deftly twirl and toss a baton.  I drove my mother crazy that year with my adoration of Andrea and the image of the flashing and spinning baton.  That Christmas, nestled under the tree and just the right size for a six year old, a pair of white boots and a baton found its way from the Lone Star state.

My cousin, Mike and I became fast companions as we were the closest in age and definitely “middle” children.  He taught me to collect eggs and how to avoid the perturbed hens and the lord of the yard, the large rooster.  He showed me a black snake and like any good southern gentlemen, didn’t chase me with it to make me scream.  I had my first taste of watermelon in that hot Texas summer and Mike gamely showed me the ropes of biting the cold, wet pulp and spitting out the seeds.  In the summer of 2009 Mike and I eschewed the gathering of eggs and spitting watermelons seeds for gathering with our Purdy family in Ithaca and ice cold martinis…which we definitely did not spit out.

Snuggled into the first floor bedroom, I fell asleep to the sounds of my mother and her sister, Esther’s voices as they sat on the front porch surrounded by the deep Texas night.  Their voices were so alike that at first it was hard to tell them apart, but the drop of a flat A or the intrusion of a “y’all” identified each sister nestled in the darkness.

My sister learned to walk that summer and I went to school that fall with a decided Texas drawl…y’alling my way around the James Street schoolyard until time and the lack of Texas family leached it away.

Ruth Norma Purdy

Ruth Norma Purdy

The year before her birth her forty–two year old father had declared bankruptcy.  Nothing was new in the Purdy household that year except little Ruth and father Burt who had been a haberdasher since his eighteenth birthday was out of work.  Ithaca was having an economic struggle at that time and retail took the biggest hit. 

Little Ruthie, as my mother spoke of her, was her living doll.  She carried her about and mothered Ruth in a way that only an eight year old sister is capable of.  That was a hard year and it distinctly marked my mother’s in such a way that her recollections would pendulum swing from warm familial love to the hurt of a child that knows true poverty.

Ruth’s short life was framed by her family’s economic shortcomings, cataclysmic fire, older sister Kathryn’s death and her own tragic death at the age of nine.  On a warm April day, she and her childhood friend, Lillian Hull, sat on the steps outside the Ithaca neighborhood store after the rare treat of a purchase of penny candy.  The two girls instantly died…crushed under the automobile driven by a retired Cornell professor who lost control of his new vehicle…stepping on the accelerator instead of the brake.  Everyone knew the Purdys and someone was sent to fetch my grandmother.  She ran down the street, her long hair falling from its carefully placed pins, calling for her child and finally arriving at the horrifying scene, falling to her knees.   My mother told me that my grandmother’s waist length hair “turned white overnight” that year.

Brother

Curtis Wilmot Purdy

And then there was Bill…Billy…Brother.    Curtis Wilmot Purdy to be precise.  On February 4, 1919 the Purdy household finally had a boy and baby Curtis was immediately and affectionately called “Brother”.   As was a common tradition of the time, a son was given a family name, but this time, the only son was not given his father’s name or even his grandfather’s.  He was given his mother’s maiden name and his uncle’s first name.  In retrospect it is fitting that Bill was given his mother’s maiden name.  Mother and son were exquisitely and exclusively tied with love and affection for one another.

Burt had found his economic footing having spent a year or so working for the World War I effort building wooden frames for biplanes at the Thomas Morse Airplane Company.   By the time his son was born, he was back in the retail business and managing the men’s apparel establishment, the Square Deal Clothing Store on 110 South Cayuga Street.  Burt had his beloved bowler hats again and now at long last, a son to carry on the Purdy name.

Uncle Bill as the young prince of the family knew the infinite and sentimental affection of the women in his family while his father fitted and fussed over the young gents of the day and their finery.  Unlike his grandfather, Elbert, Bill did not spend his days in the aisles of his father’s mercantile, but instead wiled his early days under the influence and admiration of his sisters and mother.

Bill was always larger than life.  At the slightest provocation or with none at all, he sang Irish ballads in a clear and true tenor voice.  His cigars were monumental and if you were not fleet enough to avoid it, you were left gingerly comforting your cheek after one of his hearty pinches.  If you asked for a sandwich, he would order a steak.  No distance was too great, no weather too extreme to waylay the loyalty and love of Uncle Bill.

Orange Juice, Cigars and The Blizzard of ‘58

A brutal central New York blizzard in the February of 1958 brought about the death of my 52 year old father.  I was ten years old.   My sister was five and my brothers were grown and gone.  My father died at my feet on our kitchen floor of a massive coronary and his body was carried over the two story drifts to a waiting snow plow truck.  We were in shock and numb…our little ship adrift.   My brother, Dick, was stationed at Quonset Point, RI, near my uncle’s Massachusetts home.  Bill hung up the phone, packed his bags, kissed my Aunt Mary and two year old cousin, Chris, stuck a cigar into the corner of his mouth and headed out into the Nor’easter.

The first leg of his trip was to get to my brother in Quonset Point and Bill bullied the car through the storm, tucked Dick into the front seat and set out for New York State.  The New York State Thruway Berkshire and New England connections wouldn’t be opened until the fall of that year and that meant driving through the howling storm on the switchback roads and hairpin turns of the Berkshires and Adirondacks and through the Mohawk Valley.  Bill’s sales territory had been Elmira and Penn Yan in his post WWII days and he knew not only the location of every gas station, but he was on a first name basis with damned near every owner.  Hands clutching the wheel and crossing his now Catholic heart, he headed into the Mohawk Valley. 

In the haste and grief of the moment my brother had packed and left his base without remembering to eat, but Bill had come armed with a big brown sack of baloney sandwiches.  Unfortunately, Bill had left behind anything for the pair to drink and despite the sad circumstances, this is where the story has always put my family on the floor with laughter.

Somewhere around the city of Amsterdam, my brother couldn’t ignore his thirst.  It had become so acute due to the salty baloney sandwiches that it had become an obsessive craving for orange juice.  Undaunted and determined to get his nephew the comfort he craved, Bill pulled into the nearest Mom and Pop store he spied.  Besides this was as good time as any to gas up the car, light a cigar and “take care of business”.    Bill had been steadily driving, leaning into the windshield to stay on the road, for over twelve hours.

Standing near the front entrance of the little store was the newest acquisition of the store owner…a vending machine.  With orange juice.  Now put away the modern day experience of cold, canned or boxed juice…or if you have a penchant for crap…orange drink.  This tribute to 1950’s technology offered FRESH! SQUEEZED! ORANGE JUICE!  Unfamiliar with the vending gadget, my brother put in the proper amount of coins…and nothing happened.  Crazed for juice…exhausted…tense…grief stricken, Dick kept feeding the coins into the hungry monster waiting for something to happen that would slake his thirst.  The car freshly gassed up, extinguished cigar butt resting on a snow bank and business taken care of, Bill came to fetch Dick and get back on the road.

Upset and maddened by thirst, Dick haltingly explained that no juice was coming out despite putting in the coins.  Bill patted my brother on the shoulder and pressed the PUSH button.  My brother blushed, but was too grateful and anticipating the juice when…well, the juice hit the fan.  The first cup dispensed, an orange half dropped down, was gently squeezed and voila.  There was juice.  And the oranges kept coming.  Cups and cups and oranges and oranges endlessly dropped down, the two men barely keeping up with the process.  Dick had inadvertently dropped enough coins in the vending machine to basically clean out its inventory, but in the end, he and Bill had had a much needed laugh…and a few gallons of freshly squeezed orange juice for the rest of the trip home.

My Uncle Bill was sentimental enough to cry without shame, sing at the top of his voice in public, smoked cigars and drank Irish whiskey despite his physician’s pleas, regularly played poker…for money… on Friday nights with the parish priests and smothered his family with unabashed love and affection.  His Massachusetts home was always open to family members…whether you wanted to or not.  Bill didn’t take “No” for an answer.  You were a captive…locked in with an overwhelming abundance of love.  My Aunt Mary dealt with all of his larger-than-life drama with an occasional “Christ, Bill” and his son, Christopher worked his way through his father’s loving pride with what I can only call good Irish humor. But in the company of his sisters, he was Brother and crying and singing and smoking and drinking, poker and smothering Purdy love was legend and inevitable.

In our 2009 Purdy Gathering in Ithaca, Chris and I fell into the easy habit of Purdy reminiscing-something he and I have done over the years -in person, in letters and now emails and blogs.  Ithaca is a magnet for us and there is something physical about our “going home” to Ithaca.  It is easy to walk those streets and sense our family there.   We will be back for a stroll down Cayuga Street and a hike up into “the heights” and to listen for the sounds of the long gone trolley or the nicker of a dappled gray horse and in classic Purdy sentimentality share the rich stories of our Purdy family.

Author’s Postscript

I apologize to all those who worked their way through this lengthy post.  I had not intended it to be immense, but once a Purdy is wound up to tell a story and it is about a cast of Purdys… you…and I…are all but doomed.

So thank you for your tenacity and I hope it was good for you…it was for me.

A Man Named Gideon

Notes to My Readers:  Several years ago when I began the earnest job of researching my family history, I had a small assortment of  family memorabilia and my mother’s recollections from which to draw.  One of my most treasured possessions is the black and white 18″ x 10″ panoramic photo of the 1929 Reunion of the Tyler Kindred of America which was held at Owasco Lake just outside of Auburn, New York.  My mother had kept it rolled up like a scroll and stuffed in various boxes as long as I can remember…curators, historians and archivists will gasp here.  But like the Tylers…the photograph was tougher than its environment and survived with nary a tear, crack or crease.  When my mother passed this family treasure to me, I decided that it should leave the confines of a box and indeed should be on display.  That meant it would be unfurled for the first time in at least 50 years.   Today it is mounted in a proper frame with proper archival material surrounding it though I wonder if a mere 25 years later if freed  from this controlled environment, it might snap back to its scroll state.

Tyler Kindred of America 1929 Reunion Photo

For most of my life I have stared into the two hundred or so faces…young and old…gathered in front of the Owasco Lake Pavilion with the Tyler Kindred of America banner held aloft.  I was haunted with the tantalizing bit of my mother’s claim that somewhere in that photo are my  grandmother’s two aunts… Ida and Jennie Curry Sinsabaugh, daughters of Deborah Jane yler Curry and sister of my great grandmother, Kate Curry Curtis.

Eventually I would know Kate as the great great granddaughter of Gideon Tyler and find myself in the midst an expansive family with such a strong pride in their heritage that they called themselves the Tyler Kindred of America.  Tyler genealogy books were published.  Elections were held.  Poems and songs were written and sung including the Tyler hymn.  Great speeches and presentations of family history were made.  Elders spoke of their youthful days and the pioneers that were their parents and grandparents.  Travelling from all over America, they celebrated their legacy at the reunions and at the end of the festivities the Tyler Kindred would raise their voices in the “Tyler yell”.

Tyler Genealogists-Then and Now

1929 Tyler Kindred of America 10th annual reunion

“The Tyler genealogy: the descendants of the Branford, Connecticut line of Roger Tyler, Volume III” by Willard I. Tyler Brigham and Calvin Cedric Tyler  continues the work “The Tyler genealogy : the descendants of Job Tyler, of Andover, Massachusetts, 1619-1700, volumes 1 and 2” by family member and genealogist, Willard Irving Tyler Brigham. Willard made the family history publications his mission.  Though he was educated as a lawyer, he became an actor and toured in a Shakespearean troupe for over five years. When his physical ailments forced his return to his Michigan law practice, he organized the Tyler Kindred of America in 1896 and began the work of compiling and publishing the genealogy.  His failing health halted the work in 1901.  In fact, it was said that the disorder that finally ended his life “was contracted among the damp stone buildings in London while searching for Tyler origins.”   Willard Brigham and Cornelius Tyler, Fay Webster Tyler and Rollin U. Tyler were faithful attendees at the annual gatherings…giving speeches and gathering family information.  Descendants and researchers owe these tireless Tylers a great deal of thanks.  And a rousing Tyler yell.

In 2007 I was introduced to the rich ancestral information gathered and published by my Tyler relatives in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.   Kathy McCarthy generously offered her contact information to the Cayuga County USGenWeb site as a long time Tyler researcher.  Reaching out to her for help was one of the first and best steps I took as a genealogical researcher.   Kathy helped me find my 2nd great grandmother,  Deborah Jane Tyler Curry’s parents, Alanson (Lonson) and Betsey by simply introducing me to the published genealogy books.  In that moment I was launched on an amazing journey of discovery of my Tyler heritage.  Kathy and Bernie Corcoran who coordinates the Cayuga County site, I owe you both a Tyler yell.

Though I grew up in Auburn, New York, I never knew that I was a direct descendant of one of the pioneer settlers of the Auburn area.  Like most children my early American history lessons consisted of the Pilgrims…quaintly scheduled around Thanksgiving and usually featuring the tale of  Priscilla Alden and Miles Standish and their love story.  Then a baffling leap to the American Revolution and George Washington with a stingy, chauvinistic nod to Betsey Ross.   Of course there was Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence and the Civil War and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the bad actor, John Wilkes Booth.  Dates and Names.  Over the years, a new teacher might add their own tale of interest to the mix…maybe Custer or Wild Bill Hickok…and there was always Ben Franklin…his kite and key.  This time-honored, but incomplete manner of teaching history had the effect of separating me and my classmates from the teeming stream of human history and our sense of belonging to it.  History was not local or personal.   It was about distant and grand people doing distant and grand things.  Nothing exciting or interesting happened here.  It was just home.  It was not until I began to research my heritage that I realized how ill served I was by the well-meaning educators of my youth…some of them with the same forebears as mine.  Ironically, some of them were members of the Tyler Kindred of America…folks who were instilled with the enthusiasm to know and appreciate their pioneer heritage.

So in the tradition of past Tyler historians, Willard, Cyrus, Fay and Rollin…my kinfolk…I share this story of a Man Named Gideon.

A Man named Gideon

Gideon Tyler was born in Sharon, Litchfield, Connecticut on July 6, 1743.  He was the only child of Gideon Tyler and Deborah Fuller and is my 5th great grandfather.  When Gideon was only two years old, his father, Gideon, died leaving his wife, Deborah, a widow at the age of twenty.

Gideon Tyler (1717-1745) Monument in old Sharon CT Burying Ground

Deborah was the daughter of Benjamin and Content Fuller and the direct descendant of Mayflower Pilgrims, Samuel Fuller and his wife, Jane Lathrop.  Good pioneer stock as my mother was fond of saying.  Deborah did what any sensible young widow with a toddler and a good farm would do.  She promptly married a 31 year old widower with two small children, James Warren,  who was a respected farmer and a lieutenant in the local militia.  James became Gideon’s legal guardian and he and Deborah raised their three children together on their Sharon, Connecticut farm which was situated among the many Tyler family farms belonging to Gideon’s uncles and aunts.

It was there Gideon met and married 16 year old Phebe Elliott and began his own large family.   Over twenty years, Gideon and Phebe produced twelve children-all but three surviving to adulthood and of the remaining children all relocated to Aurelius with their parents in 1795.  In 1791 Gideon had quitclaimed his share of the Connecticut family farm to his stepbrother, Nehemiah Warren and in 1793 with his sons bought several hundred acres from land speculators in what was then the “Military Township” of Aurelius and what is now Sennett, New York.

Westward Along The Mohawk

The family made the long and difficult journey from Sharon, Connecticut to Aurelius in 1795.  As described in “History of Cayuga County”  by Elliott G. Storke, “The routes over which the early settlers came to Cayuga County, and by which their families and their household and other goods were transported, were circuitous, rude and toilsome in the extreme.”  Gideon’s family would have traversed the Hudson River to Albany and then made a difficult land trek of sixteen miles to Schenectady.  Once they arrived at Schenectady, they travelled the gentle Mohawk River via flat boat for fifty-six miles arriving at Little Falls, New York.  This was a breathtaking change from the placid Mohawk as it meant passing through a rocky gorge, carrying canoes and light boats while the heavier boats measuring about 30 feet long were drawn by oxen.

After the short, but difficult journey or portage through Little Falls, the Tylers would have moved on to German Flats were they once again struggled through the shallows.  After they made it through German Flats, the Mohawk River returned to more navigable waters and provided a serene voyage for the next fifteen miles to Utica.  Upon reaching Fort Stanwyck-now Rome, New York- the travelers would repeat the portage process in order to reach the small stream named Wood Creek which was thirty miles long and flowed into Oneida Lake.  From Oneida Lake they would continue along the Oswego and Seneca Rivers to the outlet of Cayuga Lake.  This entire journey called the summer route…from Schenectady to Cayuga Lake…took from fifteen to twenty days.  Improvements were quickly made by the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company by constructing locks at Little Falls and removing other obstructions in the Mohawk and connecting the river to Wood Creek by a canal.  This precursor to the Erie Canal system shortened the trip by half and doubled the value of the contiguous lands of New York State.

The Pioneers of The Military Tract and The Farm Called Tyler Springs

The Tylers had left behind the familiar lands of a more civilized and cultivated Connecticut, pushed through the grueling overland and waterway journey into the heartland of New York State.  Finally as they set foot on land at the northernmost end of Cayuga Lake, the land they saw stretching out before them would be the edge of Montezuma Swamp…heavily wooded, mosquito ridden and seemingly endless marsh.  Heaven knows what was in their hearts as the wagons travelled the last fifteen miles of their journey.  They were in the Finger Lakes which were formed by glacier activity over 100 million years ago…rich, alluvial soil…abundant waterways…and the promise of a rough, pioneer existence.   Crude log cabins replaced the more civilized Connecticut farms and communities.  The early Tylers and their fellow settlers would establish a thriving settlement with schools and churches.

The last child born to Gideon and Phebe was a son, Gideon who died at the age of eight in 1796.  His was the first burial in what later became the historic North Street Cemetery.

In the autumn of 1887 documents dated September, 1810 were discovered by Reverend William H. Hubbard, minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Auburn, New York, which included “a long strip of paper on which the names of the subscribers for the purchase of the North street burying ground were inscribed“.  The agreement promises to pay the trustees of the First Congregational society of the village of Auburn (Robert Dill, Moses Gilbert, Noah Olmstead, Silas Hawley and Henry Amerman) and lists  the original 70  subscribers to North Street Cemetery and their promisory sums.  “The purpose of the funds were to purchase  and fence one and half acres of land for a burying ground.”  Among the subscribers were Gideon, his sons, Amos, Warren, Elliott and Solomon (Salmon) Tyler.  Gideon and his wife,  Phebe,  and his sons Amos, Elliott, Nathaniel and William are buried in North Street Cemetery.   His son, William, is my 4th great grandfather.

Gideon Tyler Tombstone (1743-1829) (left) in North St Cemetery

It wasn’t long after their arrival before Gideon and his sons provided a critical working center for the other pioneer families in the area.   Tyler Springs,  as the family farm was called,  featured fast running springs and a rough grain mill.  His son, Nathaniel’s 1873 Auburn Weekly News obituary cites “the neighbors came from miles around, to pound their corn on a stump log dug out for the purpose, before mills or wheat were thought of.”

As evidenced by many newspaper articles and historical records, the Gideon Tyler family played a significant role in the history of the area.  Many of the Tylers ran inns along the busy Genesee Trail over the generations; one of the last was called the Sennett Inn which was owned and run by one of Gideon and Phebe’s grandsons,  Loron Tyler,  until his death in 1894.  The Sennett Township building was built on the foundation of the old inn.  Gideon’s son, Nathaniel and his son, Amos-a known character, was the proprietor of the Tyler Inn which was built on the original Sennett family farm until Amos’ death in 1897.  Gideon’s grandson, Jason Martin Doty ran the old American Hotel in Auburn, New York.

Most were farmers that served as Constables and Supervisors of the Poor and as the generations passed many became tradesmen…carpenters, railroad engineers-there was a doctor or two and one great grand uncle…with the great name of William Henry Harrison Tyler, designed and built many of the grand old wood frame houses that line East Genesee Street in Auburn.  Many of the Tyler women were teachers and principals of schools…landmark events in their time.  Among the farmers and tradesmen were Civil War veterans and an official or two….James Elliott Tyler, former warden of Auburn Prison and Republican Mayor of Auburn, New York and his father, Salmon Tyler who was a founder of the First Congregational Church, a Justice of the Peace and eventually became a trustee for the Cayuga Association of Universalists.

And, of course, they organized and attended Tyler reunions.

Gideon’s Granddaughters

Tylers from all over the country attended the reunions to rekindle family relationships and celebrate their kinsmanship.  The sons and daughters of Gideon wrote songs and poems to be performed in front of their kindred among the purple and gold flowers and decorations that were their Tyler colors.   After my years of researching my family, spending time with them vicariously through documents and despite the gap in years, I look at the old 1929 photo with a different heart.  While I still scan the faces…is Kate Curry Curtis recognizable?  Would I finally have a picture of her? ….I look more carefully at each of the faces and wonder.  Are you Gideon, the railroad engineer?  Are you Marietta, the young school teacher?  Are you George Loron Tyler, the innkeeper from Waterloo?

Deborah Jane Tyler Curry in Ithaca circa 1900 in her Eighties

Among the many Tyler kindred is my maternal 2nd great grandmother, Deborah Jane Tyler Curry who was born the year her great grandfather, Gideon died.  She was the wife of Irish immigrant and Civil War veteran, Francis J. Curry.  She died in 1918 at the age of 90.  My mother and I are her namesake and she was the bridge generation that took me to her pioneer great grandfather, Gideon Tyler,  and our Cayuga County Tyler family members and the role they played in settling my hometown of Auburn, NY including the lands along Cayuga Lake.  I am proud of each of those individuals…farmers, innkeepers, soldiers, carpenters, railroad engineers and after spending time with their history, I feel the Tyler spirit and have the urge to give them ALL a rousing Tyler yell.

Fancy Skater. Andersonville Prisoner of War. Chief of Police. One of “The Boys”

A Note to My Readers:

I am an avid reader of old newspapers.  There is so much history…personal and unsung…glorious and ignoble…in those old archival documents.  And just plain thought provoking.  This story was gleaned from Auburn area newspapers and is a retrospective of the life of my paternal great grand uncle.

Charles Wallace Jennings (1846 – 1901)

Fancy Skater.  Andersonville Prisoner of War.  Chief of Police.  One of  “The Boys”.

Charles Wallace Jennings was born in Caroline, Tompkins County, New York in 1846.  He was the second child of Daniel and Harriet James Jennings who had migrated from the Quaker dominated town of New Bedford, Massachusetts to New York State shortly before Charles’ birth.  New Bedford’s former thriving economy was waning as the whaling industry began to decline and indeed the United States in the 1840’s was suffering from its first economic depression.  So the young family made its way into central New York to establish a more secure way of life than was possible in New Bedford.

By 1852 Charles, his parents and siblings, Emily, Daniel, William Henry and Harriet Jane were living in Auburn, New York.  Harriet Jane was born in Auburn that year and the Jennings family had begun to permanently settle into life in their new hometown.  They joined the First Methodist Church and Daniel established himself as a carriage maker in the livery area located on Water and Dill Streets.  By 1858, the Jennings had added their youngest child to the family…Lillian, my great grandmother.

1853 Auburn NY Map Dill and Water Streets

The nation continued its westward expansion…and Auburn…though it had lost its preeminence to Syracuse…was still experiencing modest growth.  Political and economic conditions in the Cayuga County seat made Auburn a dynamic though small town environment.   The United States was moving toward civil war as the Northeast struggled with economic depression and the debate over Free states versus Slave states aggravated an ever widening rift between the states.  Auburn, New York, home of Harriet Tubman and the Freedom Fighters which included her contemporary, Frederick Douglass and former Presidential candidate William Henry Seward, had a special stake in the outcome of the debate. Upon reading accounts of Mr. Douglass, it was not lost on me that New Bedford, Massachusetts and Auburn, New York were pivotal stages in Frederick Douglass’ journey from slavery to the heights of the abolitionist movement and so, too, were they central to the life and times of Charles Wallace Jennings.

A description of the sentiments of Auburn speaks of its state of mind in President Lincoln’s 1861.

“Mr. Seward had been Mr. Lincoln’s most formidable competitor for the presidential nomination. While the Chicago convention was balloting for its candidate the population of Auburn was in the streets. On the first ballot Mr. Seward was in the lead with Mr. Lincoln second. On the second ballot each had gained at the expense of the other candidates, and the telegraph announced that Mr. Seward would be nominated on the next ballot. All the people of Auburn held Mr. Seward in high honor, and now they were waiting in the highest pitch of excitement, with cannon and cartridges in readiness to fire a “presidential salute” of one hundred guns. In various places in the city they had collected material for immense bonfires for a night celebration. With eager expectation they waited to hear the result of the third ballot. Soon the clicking of the telegraph announced that the ballot had been taken and the nominee was,—Abraham Lincoln, of Illinois. Without a cheer they sullenly wheeled their cannon back to the armory. That afternoon was like a Sunday in Auburn. No business was done. In their grievous disappointment men did not feel like talking. The darkness of the night was not relieved by any bonfires. Mr. Seward in the afternoon of the day of the nomination invited a number of his friends to his house, and after a light lunch spoke freely of his and their disappointment, but expressed his belief that in the condition of the country and in the probability of a conflict over the slavery question, the nomination of Mr. Lincoln was probably the best that could have been made. He proposed to do all he could to insure Mr. Lincoln’s election and to support him if elected, and he urged his friends to do the same.

In the campaign that followed Mr. Seward made some of his ablest speeches. The evening before the election he made his final and greatest speech to his own neighbors, whose enthusiasm attested their devotion to the statesman and patriot who could forget his own disappointment in his zeal to serve the best interests of his country. And now, in April, 1861, these neighbors of Mr. Seward answered the call of the President with the utmost promptness. The Sunday following the issue of the proclamation was a memorable one. The professors in the Theological Seminary assisted the pastors of the churches in the services of the day. Some of them venerable, with hoary heads, descended from New England ancestry, seemed young again in the fervor of their loyalty. The appeals of these ministers thrilled the hearts of the listeners. One of them, recognizing the duty of fighting now as well as in the times of David, the warrior king, prayed fervently for the Lieutenant General of the United States. “Thou hast given him victory in times past; grant him victory now in the cause of the Union.” In the Catholic church the priest had an enrollment paper already prepared. He appealed to the men of his congregation to sign their names before leaving the church. He reminded them of the oppression they had endured in their native land, and of the freedom they had enjoyed in this home of their adoption, telling them they were not worthy of their privileges under this free government unless they were willing to fight in maintaining it. As he pronounced the benediction, stalwart men, enough to form a company, stepped forward to the altar and were enrolled. In the Protestant Episcopal church the first lesson in the morning service was from Joel III., 9, 10,—”Proclaim ye this among the Gentiles; Prepare war, wake up the mighty men, let all the men of war draw near; let them come up. Beat your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears; let the weak say, I am strong.”

This passage from the Prophet occurring in the lesson of the day was regarded as a significant coincidence, pointing to the duty of the hour.

Public meetings were held at which liberal contributions were made for the equipment of the volunteers and for the support of families that might be left in need. During the period of uncertainty there had been varying opinions and much discussion.[i]

In 1862 the 16 year old boy, Charles, shared his love of fishing with his father and brothers, but there was one sport that Charles excelled at…figure and fancy skating as it was called…an exposition sport he and younger brother, Daniel, would  still engage in as men in their fifties.  He presented a dashing figure in the winter landscape of central New York much to the delight of the local young ladies.  It was a good time for a vibrant young man to be alive.  His father was doing well and all of the siblings were healthy.

Then on July 2nd 1862 President Lincoln issued a call for 300,000 3-year enlistments.  July 19, 1862, Gen. Jesse Segoine, as Colonel, received authority to recruit this regiment in the counties of Cayuga and Wayne; it was organized at Auburn and there mustered in the service of the United States for three years August 20, 1862.[i]

The 111th Regiment New York State Volunteers

111th Infantry Civil War Adjutant General Roster

Young Charles enlisted on July 22, 1862.  He was barely 16 years old, claiming to be 18 and wouldn’t see his home or family for over three years.  He would fight at Harper’s Ferry where the ill prepared 111th surrendered and was unjustly branded as the Harper’s Ferry Cowards.  He would suffer the deplorable conditions at Libby and Andersonville Prisons and waiting to be officially exchanged, spent a difficult winter at the infamous Camp Douglas in Chicago known as “80 Acres of Hell”.  The boys went on to fight the horrific Battle of Gettysburg determined to prove their mettle and proved themselves to be more than heroic.  Over a period of 3 years the boy Charles became a man in the fields of some of the hardest fighting of the Civil War including the decisive Battle of Appomattox.

“It seems that the call to volunteers was done at a time of chaos and confusion. The government seemed unprepared and disorganized at the time that the 111th mustered into service on August 20, 1862. For example, on August 21 they were all put onto railroad cars and sent to Washington D.C. where they were to begin basic training. They had no weapons on them at that time. Then on August 22, without any training whatsoever, they were all transferred to barges and taken down the Hudson River to New York Harbor where they were again transferred to steamships. From there they went to Amboy, New Jersey, where they were once again transferred to rail cars, and then taken to Philadelphia and then on to Baltimore.

In Baltimore they received new orders to board still another train that would take them to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia and, under Miles’ command, they were to face the Confederate General, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. During battle on September 13, 1862 the veteran (trained) Union Troops fled the scene, and then pinned the subsequent miserable loss on the new recruits of the 111th who had received no weapons, training, nor support by the time that they were left to face Jackson. They were captured, imprisoned, and then later paroled on September 16. On September 24, 1862 the 111th marched to Annapolis, Maryland to board trains to Camp Douglas near Chicago, Illinois. Their duty in Chicago was to guard Confederate prisoners. On November 19, 1862 they were sent back to Washington D.C. where they finally received training. By June 24, 1863 the Gettysburg battle began to build when the 111th and other regiments were sent.

On June 25, 1863 they were attached to the 2nd Army Corps. And on July 1, the 111th with 390 men reached the battlefield in the late evening. They camped behind the Big and Little Round Tops, and prepared to march into Gettysburg on July the 2nd. On the morning of July 2 they joined the rest of the 2nd Corps at Cemetery Ridge, and were put into the rear as reserves. Ironically, they were used as a priority force to battle the same unit of troops that had beat them so badly when they faced them in Harper’s Ferry. Only this time the 111th beat them so badly that they prevented the Confederates from dividing the Union line into separate areas. On July 3 the units were all repositioned with the 2nd Corps at “The Angle” where together they were able to repel the Confederates at “Pickett’s Charge.”

One can only imagine how the Civil War must have affected the young men who were mostly all small town boys and farmers and who most probably lived very sheltered lives.  Artillery fire, shouts and cries of the wounded must have filled the air in deafening clamor. It was not a day to be soon forgotten. And still the job was not over for the 111th. After Gettysburg they had other battles that included such action as chasing General Lee to Manassas Gap, VA, and many others. The 111th was mustered out of Service June 3, 1865.” [iii]

“The regiment bore an honorable part in 22 great battles. Its total enrollment during service was 1,780, of whom 10 officers and 210 men were killed and mortally wounded; its total of 220 killed and died of wounds is only exceeded by four other N. Y. regiments—the 69th, 40th, 48th and 121st—and is only exceeded by 24 other regiments in the Union armies. It lost 2 officers and 177 men by disease and other causes—total deaths, 404— of whom 2 officers and 74 men died in Confederate prisons.”[iv]

Charles was mustered out in 1865 when he was just 19 years old with the sights and sounds of the Civil War permanently etched within his young man’s heart.  He and his “boys” headed immediately home to Auburn.  At first, as I researched through the Civil War veteran organizations and newspaper clippings of their post war activities, I could not grasp the real meaning behind the old men referring to each other as “boys” until I started reading the personal accounts of their Civil War experiences and the boys they were…not a nickname or endearment…but the true representation of the soldiers in the field.  Boys.

The Boys Return Home

When Charles returned, the population of Auburn had grown.  His siblings had grown, too.  Emily was a pretty young woman and brother, William Henry, was a young merchant with an art shop of his own…established with his partner, John Trowbridge, who would later marry Emily.  Brother, Daniel at 14 was helping his father at the carriage making shop on Dill Street and little sisters Harriet and Lillian had left their babyhood behind.

By 1870 he had married Mary Augusta Nichols and was working as a carpenter…a trade he had learned at his carriage maker father’s side.  He and Mary were expecting their daughter, Nellie and the country was healing, the economy was better and Charles and the “boys” were members of  a militia and law and order organization formed before the Civil War, The Willard Guard.   The Guard outfitted the veterans and new members with special uniforms.   Over the next few years Charles spent a good deal of his free time associating with his fellow veterans eventually becoming an active member and officer in the 49th Regiment and the Crocker Post No. 45 and the Royal Arcanum.

As Charles matured, he left his carpenter trade behind in favor of jobs which served his community.  His father, Daniel, had been a staunch member of the Whig Party back in the days of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore.  Following the leadership of Auburnian William H. Seward and the late President Abraham Lincoln (a former Whig party member in Illinois),   Charles belonged to the Republican Party organizing events and after all of the speeches, conducting drills as the “Drill Master”.   On 3 March 1873 Congress granted burial rights in national military cemeteries to all honorably discharged veterans of the Civil War (17 Stat. 625). An act of Congress of 3 February 1879 (20 Stat. 281) extended the privilege of government-provided gravestones to soldiers buried in private cemeteries.  Charles and his “boys” personally documented all veterans buried in Auburn cemeteries to ensure that the resting places of their brave comrades were properly marked. Twice he served as a Street Superintendent in Auburn…an important job while Auburn was paving new streets and improving Genesee Street as more and more enterprises were opening up and sewers and gas lines were being run to modernize the city.  He also worked for a time as the Money Order Clerk at the Post Office.  He was elected as a delegate to the Tenth Ward.  But the most controversial moment in his public career came when he was appointed as Auburn’s Chief of Police.

Auburn Chief of Police

In 1879, his brother-in-law…John Trowbridge…by now a successful and well-connected Auburn businessman…suggested to the Auburn Commission of Charities and Police that Charles could fill the open position of Chief of Police.  The position became open when the aging Chief of Police Charles E. Cootes retired. The commission had several possibilities…all from the force, but Charles was an involved citizen, a Civil War Veteran, a member in good standing of the GAR and Willard Guard…a good Republican and the brother-in-law of a very important man.  There were two stumbling blocks.  The requirements for the position stated that the Chief of Police had to be a police officer and that no candidate could be a member of a military organization.  After some legal wrangling and warping of the rules and Charles’ resignation from his beloved veterans’ organizations, he was appointed. Politics aside, it was widely accepted that he did a good job.  And the men that served under him  enjoyed his utmost support.   He was exceedingly loyal to them and they to him.  They were his “boys”.

Lightfoot Obituary Syracuse Daily

In late April 1881 a highly inciting moment occurred when the Auburn Commission of Charities and Police decided to hire George B. Lightfoot…a “strapping negro” as the newspaper characterized him…a phrase that followed George to his obituary in 1896.   He was a man that was deemed worthy by many Auburnians. Distinguished Republican men with the names of Seward and Osborne wrote glowing letters of recommendations.  Lightfoot had been tenacious and applied numerous times for the position of patrolman.  Some citizens worried that there would be riots and bloodshed and were obviously frightened of the idea.  Republicans were sure that the fall elections would be a disaster. The other great concern was the morale of the police officers and the rumor that they would all resign if Lightfoot was hired.

Newspaper reports of possible massive resignations in the ranks were considered by the Commission and it was decided that would be dealt with when and if they occurred.  After much consideration and consulting other communities that had hired “colored” police officers to the benefit of their citizenry and police force, the Commission agreed with men like Seward and Osborne and hired Mr. Lightfoot.  Charles in the meantime had suggested several candidates and was not consulted about the hiring.  He only learned of the Commission’s decision to hire Mr. Lightfoot when the payroll was presented to him on May 3rd which included George B. Lightfoot.

After completing a full day of the city’s business, the newly elected Republican mayor, Cyrenus Wheeler, Jr., had taken to sitting on the steps of City Hall in the evenings with the aldermen of the city.

Old Auburn City Hall

In the twilight of May 3rd 1881, Jennings and Officer Henry McDonough exited the building. Charles Jennings stopped at the top step to light a cigar, and then approached the seated Wheeler.  He laid two envelopes into the mayor’s hands without a word and continued his walk home in the waning light of the evening. Puzzled, the mayor watched the figure of Jennings reappearing in a distant streetlight and broke the seal on the envelopes.  He studied the enclosed letters, folded them neatly and placed them back in their envelopes and tucked the contents into his coat pocket.  Chief of Police Charles Wallace Jennings and one of his police officers had resigned.

McDonough had been given a temporary assignment as Captain to fill a vacancy.  During the Commissions deliberations, it was learned that McDonough had boasted that he would resign if Lightfoot were hired.  He sealed his fate and was ordered back on the beat within days.  This was an obvious case of racism and clearly illustrated his false sense of security when he voiced his controversial views to his fellow officers and anyone else within earshot.

The newspaper coverage made it unclear as to just why Jennings resigned…it was inferred two ways.   At the time of his resignation, when asked by a local reporter, he had no statement to make and “didn’t care to discuss the subject”.  He made one final comment before excusing the reporter. He declared that there were other considerations other than Lightfoot’s appointment and that he was perfectly satisfied to find other employment.  One unidentified individual…characterized as a gentleman well posted in police matters… stated that Jennings was hurt at not being consulted and that it was right that he should have a say in the “kind of timber” that he was to work with. The story was recounted in a New York Times brief.

The less attractive inference was that he had a hatred for “coloreds”.  Only one reference to that possibility was made…in his Syracuse, NY obituary in 1902.  In all of his commitments and loyalties and family history…Quaker Methodist anti-slavery sympathies, his Republican political party affiliation…his public service and, most of all, his three year stint as a Union soldier makes the allegation questionable. Charles went back to work at the Post Office and regained his vigorous involvement in his GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) activities and the activities of his fellow veterans.  It was odd to think that a man who had risked his life in the fiercest battles and had suffered POW imprisonment as a Union soldier would be a racist, but it is not hard to imagine how he felt about his obligations as Police Chief to his men…his “boys”.

Soldiers develop a tight sense of commitment to one another and he carried it into his civilian life.   But the other known fact was that many Yanks did have a dislike for “coloreds” and one account of Andersonville inmates stated many of the men began to blame “coloreds” for the war…and their own suffering.  The controversy and the true nature of Charles’ motive never made the light of day.  It remained on the neatly folded paper in the dark pocket of Mayor Wheeler and in the secret heart of Charles Jennings.  He never spoke of the matter again.

Back with the Boys

It didn’t take long before Charles picked up his life in political office and was deep into veteran affairs.  In July of 1895 he was among two dozen members of the 111th to visit Gettysburg on the 30th anniversary of the battle. Below is a photograph of the “boys” gathered in 1895 around the 111th New York Volunteer Infantry monument in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

111th 30th Reunion at Gettysburg

In 1896 he was a city delegate representing the Tenth Ward and by 1897 he was once again serving in the position of Street Supervisor.  Auburn was undergoing more expansion and repairs and his previous experience made it a perfect fit.  He continued his work with fellow veterans and dove into his spiritual life in the Presbyterian Church attending functions for the Y.P.S.C. E (Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavor).  He was known to favor his fellow attendees with his prized possession- a graphophone with an hour and a half of “selections of vocal music as well as instrumental and orations”  as one newspaper reported.

By 1900, the 54 year old Jennings was living at 7 Beach Avenue in a four- square style house with his wife, Mary, along with his widowed 80 year old father, Daniel, and his son, Nathan Lewis and his wife, Eugenia.    In 1901 55 year old Charles and his brother, Daniel, performed a fancy skating exhibition to benefit the YMCA.  But Charles’ health was failing and he had to step down from his job as Superintendent.  He briefly worked as an executive for a new manufacturing company named Birdsall which made steam engines until his health finally and completely failed him .    

On November 14, 1902, Charles Wallace Jennings suffered a series of strokes and died…finally joining his “boys”.  He was buried in the historic North Street Cemetery in Auburn, New York.  Ironically the man that personally walked the cemeteries and saw to it that all graves of fellow Civil War Veterans received a marker has no marker of his own.  In the tradition for Auburn veterans the Old Wheeler Bell rang at his funeral procession…the bell manufactured by the family of the man that had accepted his resignation in 1881.

Postscript

Charles W Jennings Pension Card

Widow Mary Augusta Nichols Jennings was left with a little money…Charles’ pension and their home on 7 Beach Avenue.  Mary‘s spinster sister, Ella Lucy, moved to the Beach Avenue home shortly after Charles’ death and the children’s departure.  Soon the two women took up with a spiritualist group known as “The Kingdom” and by 1903 they had moved to the Shiloh colony in Durham, Maine.  She and her sister lived their remaining days at the Kingdom site and are buried there.

Their daughter, Nellie had married a young Englishman named William Simmons years before and had moved to Philadelphia with her husband and children, William and Mary Augusta.

Shortly after his father’s death, Nathan Lewis and his wife, Eugenia Smith Jennings would move to Golden,  Colorado where he pursued his career as a mining engineer.  In the early 1900′s, he was an engineer at the Colorado School of Mining.     Eugenia died in Colorado and Nathan remarried to Ida, a Colorado native,  who was fourteen years his junior.

Nathan Lewis Jennings Obituary Syracuse Post Standard

Nathan had ruined his health…handling chemicals and working in the mines and for his health moved to Long Beach,  California with his wife and only daughter.  In 1916 at the age of 44, Nathan accidentally killed himself handling chloroform leaving his second wife, Ida, and 16 year old daughter, Eloise.


[i] The first New York (Lincoln) cavalry from April 19, 1861, to July 7, 1865 By William Harrison Beach    [ii] New York in the War of the Rebellion, 3rd ed. Frederick Phisterer. Albany: J. B. Lyon Company, 1912

[iii] Dyer, Frederick H. 1959, A compendium of the War of Rebellion; Regimental Histories. Thomas Yoseloff, Publisher.
Scott, Robert N. 1889. The War of Rebellion of the Union and Confederate Armies, Washington Government Printing Office.
Murray, R. L. 1994. The Redemption of “Harper’s Ferry Cowards

[iv] The Union army: a history of military affairs in the loyal states, 1861-65 — records of the regiments in the Union army — cyclopedia of battles — memoirs of commanders and soldiers. Madison, WI: Federal Pub. Co., 1908. volume II.

Deborah Jane Martin-Plugh

February 27, 2010