A Note To My Readers: Family historians have a penchant for heirlooms and many of us are fortunate to be the keepers of family treasure. Some of us haunt antique stores searching for a talisman of the past. Perhaps great grandpa was a cobbler and and a vintage shoe last calls out to you from a shelf and you take it home to remind you of him. Perhaps a Saratoga trunk with a stranger’s name. Deborah Chase.
I always marvel at those folks who have seemingly endless family heirlooms still in their possession. I have been reading old wills from the 1800’s which spell out the usual estate holdings followed by the distribution of goods and money. In those formal documents the trail of an heirloom exists. After all, these vintage things that we possess today were inherited down a line and have a history. Practical, personal and human.
The heirloom centerpiece of what I have belonged to my great grandmother, Elizabeth A. Williams Purdy Smith. Her marriage bible…the family bible…from 1867 and its companion pieces tucked away in its pages. Tintypes and cabinet cards, yellowing obituaries, handwritten birth, marriage and death notations.
And her rosewood parlor chair…delicate and small with a horsehair filling. It crunches when the seat is touched. I have recovered it a couple of times. It’s original ivory white silk cover was deteriorated and worn when I received it from my late Aunt Elizabeth’s belongings. I wished I had kept a scrap of the silk, but I was young when I reupholstered it the first time and what did I know about such things. I kept the horsehair fill though…it…spoke to me, I guess.
My mother told me of a stack of letters “from a loved one” that my great grandmother kept bundled in a blue silk ribbon and a marble topped table that sat in her parlor with the Brussels carpet. Her grandmother would carefully untie the silk ribbon and read aloud the contents of the letters while my mother sipped tea. Ceremoniously the letters would be tucked back in the envelopes….the ribbon neatly tied and Grandma Smith would finally pour her own cup of tea. My mother knew that parlor and could recall every detail of it right down to the marble top table and the lovely patterned carpet. It was because of the recall of my mother that the words from the 1887 will of my great great grandmother’s sister, Deborah Van Dorn Chase, leaped out at me when I read them.
“I give and bequeath to my grand neice (sic) Libbie Johnson the sum of four hundred dollars and the following named goods one Piano one parlor bedstead with high top one common bedstead one cane bottom rocking chair three can bottom chairs one marble top table eighteen yards brussells carpet and one Syrtoga (sic) trunk said property to be paid to her at the age of twenty-one years to have and to hold during her lifetime and in case she should die without child or children then the aforesaid money & goods or what shall be left of them shall go to my sister’s daughter, Elizabeth Purdy or her heirs.”
Deborah had been been married twice, but had no children of her own. In her last will and testament she bequeathed money and goods to her sister, Mary Williams (my great great grandmother) and her daughter, Elizabeth Purdy (my great grandmother). Deborah also left money and goods to her grand niece Libbie Johnson . Libbie’s mother, Mary Lorinda Williams Johnson, would die one year after Deborah leaving the young girl without a mother. Her father, Captain Albert Johnson, was a highly educated man, a Civil War Veteran and a career internal revenue man with the Federal government. Albert left the little village of Enfield behind after his wife’s death, remarried and his career took him to New York City and Chicago. Libbie found maternal love and support in her Williams and Van Dorn families and at age 20 married her second cousin, William Van Dorn who was almost twenty years her senior. And she had a child. Julia Burton Van Dorn. Her heir. Libbie and William eventually had separate households. While William remained in Ithaca , Libbie and her daughter lived in Rochester where Libbie ran a boarding house and Julia worked at Kodak. As a young woman Julia played the piano and spent many afternoons in my great grandmother’s Ithaca parlor serving tea. A parlor with a marble top table and Brussels carpet.
It might be a leap to think my great grandmother’s table and carpet might be the ones mentioned in Deborah’s will…especially because they were willed to Libbie Johnson, but I do wonder. And then there is the trunk. My mother never mentioned a trunk and she had a memory for those details so it leaves me to think that Libbie passed the trunk on to her daughter, Julia. Julia Burton Van Dorn became the wife of John Fulmer Davis in 1925 in Trumansburg, a small town near Ithaca, New York. Her father, William had died in 1922 and it is reasonable to think that she and her mother returned to settle William’s estate. Libbie and the newly weds moved to Binghamton, NY where Libbie’s father, Albert Johnson, had earlier retired and left a small estate upon his death in 1920. Julia and John Davis had no children. When Julia died in 1993, there was nowhere for the “Syratoga” trunk to go. The close family connection was long gone. My mother was the last of the Van Dorn Williams Purdy line to live in Ithaca and we had moved away in 1953. Mom never mentioned Julia and if there had been a relationship, she most definitely would include her in our afternoon trips down memory lane.
Perhaps the trunk ended up in an antique store in Binghamton. Perhaps a stranger treasures Deborah’s trunk. I hope so.
Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher
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