The first time blogger dilemma…the initial posting…ah, we do suffer. For at least two days I have been fairly frozen in front of my laptop. Surrounded with my copious notes, electronic files and years of research filled with great stories and characters, I struggled with what would be the first post…the first biography. You see, I have spent so many years with each of these individuals that I love them all and want each to have your undivided attention. But who should be first?
The answer was right in front of me. My mother. The keeper of family memories and treasures…the story teller who wore Tabu, made pomander balls and sequined candles for Christmas and in her seventies retired from her job at Auburn City Hall with a key to the city. She shaped my life. Grace L. Ferguson Airline and Storm Door Company.
And before you think I have gone “off topic” or had a mini stroke, that was the affectionate name my siblings and I gave to my mother. My family…including her grandchildren …called her “Mom or Gram” on occasion, but most often and in the interest of brevity, Ferg or Grace L. As is a family tradition of sorts…we all have character nicknames for one another. I was dubbed Hobster. My mother’s moniker came from the 1950’s Bob Newhart classic stand up routine and was immediately embraced by us all.
There are so many memories I have of my mother, but my favorite ones usually revolve around the times when she would favor me with the tales of her Ithaca childhood in the early 1900’s. And so for clarity…and the joy of using those endearments once again, I will refer to her on occasion as Grace L. or Ferg in my blog. She would like that. Me, too.
The Actress With Egg And Olive Sandwiches
My mother was born Deborah Jane Purdy in Ithaca, New York – the daughter of Burt Samuel and Florence Leora Curtis Purdy. Burt and Florence would have six daughters, Elizabeth, Kathryn, Mary, Deborah, Esther, Ruth and in their forties… their only son Curtis. My grandfather, Burt, lived in a world of women. His twice widowed mother, Elizabeth A. Williams Purdy Smith, resided just steps away and throughout Burt’s life was a dominating force. She pretentiously and properly referred to herself in the third person as Mrs. E. A. Smith. She superseded Burt’s marriage vows to Florence and was his first consideration in most matters. My grandmother was a meek woman and accepted her secondary role in Burt’s life. In fact, first born child, Elizabeth, lived her entire childhood with her grandmother much to her mother’s unending distress.
The Purdy household full of female love and competition existed in the midst of the dynamic Cornell University community and in the excitement of the early film industry.
From 1913 to1920, Ithaca, NY, was known as “The Hollywood of the East” . Silent picture filmmakers came to Ithaca to make serial thrillers, slapstick comedies, mysteries and patriotic films. The Wharton Studios were established in an old trolley amusement park (Renwick, now Stewart Park) by brothers Theodore and Leopold Wharton. Wharton directors were particularly fond of sending old trolley cars over the rims of Ithaca’s famous gorges while actors often did their own stunts and were thrown over waterfalls or dunked in the icy waters of the lake. Pearl White, Lionel Barrymore, Francis X. Bushman, and other early silent stars were familiar sights on the streets.
On July 11th 1916, the famous dancer Irene Castle arrived at the Lehigh Valley train station and took up residence in the Cayuga Heights area just off the Cornell campus and just a few blocks from my great grandmother’s home. Irene had been signed for a twenty-week shoot on the Wharton thriller film, “Patria”. Her arrival with her entourage of servants, animals including monkeys, horses and dogs, a mountain of trunks and two open-top vehicles had an immediate impact on the little city at the head of Cayuga Lake. She was young, beautiful and spirited with a passion for animals and small children. It was her practice to pack one of her vehicles with her dogs and hampers of sumptuous provisions (no doubt including a “bracer” –Southern Comfort) and drive to the studios every day.
On one of Irene’s drives to the nearby studio she spotted my five-year-old mother as she played with her older sister, Mary, outside of their grandmother’s Cayuga Heights home. She was struck by my mother’s golden curls and in a blithe moment the pretty actress hopped to the sidewalk and asked Grandma Smith’s permission to take Grace and Mary to the studios. Seated by the old trolley tracks with her sister Mary, the little girls would lunch upon the hamper of egg and olive sandwiches and fresh oranges while they could observe the filming and activities but wouldn’t spoil the shots. As long as I could remember, my mother favored egg and olive sandwiches and the only fruit she ever ate were oranges.
At one point in the summer of 1916 Miss Castle asked Grandma Smith’s permission to have an oil portrait of my mother made. My mother would be picked up at Grandma Smith’s and taken to Miss Castle’s home where she would sit for the artist surrounded with the sounds of the monkeys chattering in an adjoining room. According to my mother, the oil painting hung in the actress’ home, Greystone. In my research I found that Irene Castle had indeed commissioned various pieces with her favorite local artist and Cornell professor, William Charles Baker. Does an oil painting still exist?
And where do I begin to find that treasure? My researcher mind and daughter’s heart has another intriguing place to investigate. So fortified with a freshly made egg and olive sandwich accompanied by an orange, I might find providence and come upon the portrait and gaze upon the golden haired child that was my mother.
Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher
(c) Copyright. September 6, 2010