Tag Archives: Object Lessons

‘If only you wouldn’t explain’

“I might understand if only you wouldn’t explain.”[1]

The contours of this year’s two hundredth anniversary of Maine’s statehood have been undeniably unexpected. Most anniversary celebrations here were cancelled or postponed, leaving most Mainers “celebrating” from the comfort of their homes. I began to think about the convergence of ancestral factors in my family history, Spanish Flu and Covid-19 aside.

My cousin Asa Williams, the builder of Our Old House, came to Maine about the same time and from a nearby Massachusetts town as my great-great-great-great-grandfather George Read, with their wives (who were third cousins and stepsisters), settling at the Fort Western Settlement, the area’s trading post, bank, and social venue, the center of the tiny community’s daily life. Continue reading ‘If only you wouldn’t explain’

Mother Orange

Courtesy of Chico News and Review

The skies are orange here today. Words like “contained” and “perimeter,” along with phrases like “mandatory evacuation” and “defensible space,” float through the smoke-laden air. The smoke curls indolently outward, towards the Golden Gate, and flies up against the back of Yosemite’s Half Dome. It accumulates against every horizon, much like the ash that is, well, everywhere, and leaving its not-so-subtle reminder of the destruction. No pictures of that destruction are needed here to tell the fires’ tales… Continue reading Mother Orange

Rooted in history

A detail of the Clapp pear tree

As a genealogist, when I hear the word “tree” I typically think of family trees, not the outdoor variety used for shade on a sunny day. However, I came across an interesting newspaper article about a gentleman named James Raymond Simmons who gave a lecture on trees at the New England Historic Genealogical Society one hundred years ago. Simmons, who served as secretary-forester of the New York State Forestry Association and assistant state forester of Massachusetts, described trees as “the oldest living witness of our past history.”[1] He compiled a list of Massachusetts trees and their connection to people and historic events, which he included in his book The Historic Trees of Massachusetts.[2] Although a few of his examples have tenuous connections, I appreciate the message Simmons attempted to convey to his audience. Continue reading Rooted in history

Making plans

Plan of Boston surveyed by Osgood Carleton, dated 1795. Courtesy of digitalcommonwealth.org

Whenever I find myself doing Massachusetts research that predates 1800, I return to a collection of early town plans, 1794-1795, that are as much a documentary source as they are an aesthetic pleasure. Housed at the Massachusetts State Archives, a division of the Secretary of State, the original collection consists of sixteen volumes which were digitized in June 2017.[1]

In the post-Revolution years, it fell to the individual states to produce accurate maps to facilitate governmental administration, develop transportation networks, and encourage settlement. Continue reading Making plans

In the neighborhood

The Fensgate, today’s Charlesview Condominium. All images courtesy of backbayhouses.org

Real estate transactions might not seem very romantic, or as offering much in the way of narrative, but sometimes proximity and dates can signal ongoing relationships. One in my own family comes to mind: in 1899, my Ayer great-great-grandparents[1] moved from Lowell to Boston, initially renting a house on Beacon Street while they planned to build a new home on Commonwealth Avenue.

At the same time, my great-great-grandfather’s sister-in-law, the former Mary Hascall Wheaton,[2] was living in a house on Beacon Street while planning her own new house, just two doors down. Of all these houses, only Aunt Minnie Kittredge’s former home has been torn down, to make way for The Fensgate at the corner of Beacon Street and Charlesgate East. And while the street addresses don’t hint at it, the Kittredge and Ayer houses were just two blocks apart. Continue reading In the neighborhood

Belmont High School, 1942

I recently discovered an online app. that allows me to scan my photographs. As I like to be able to refer to a record of my collection (still somewhat maddening if I forget the subject’s name), this has been a revelation. One of the vernacular photos I bought some time ago shows a cheerful group of four young men standing in front of a large building, perhaps a school. On the reverse, the four have signed their names. So who are they?

The clearest signature belongs to Henry Angiola, and a check of Ancestry.com’s databases yields Henry Angiola, a student at Belmont High School in Los Angeles. The cryptic S ’42 next to Sinn Lew’s signature is seen on Henry’s yearbook page, and all four may be found in the Campanile, Belmont High’s class of 1942 yearbook. Continue reading Belmont High School, 1942

New conditions

Another trove in my grandfather’s box of family papers is a stack of canceled passports. Most of them are for my grandfather, ranging from the 1950s into the 1980s, but one – a handsome little book, containing a parchment that folds out to four times the stored size – belonged to his father, Campbell Steward,[1] reflecting the changed conditions for travel that followed the Great War.

Ancestry.com has Campbell’s passport application from 1924, with an affidavit from a neighbor testifying to his American citizenship, and a more elaborate one – a separate sheet attached to the application – from an old family friend, Henry G. Wisner,[2] concerning Campbell’s birth in New York City in 1852: Continue reading New conditions

ICYMI: Provincetown and the Boston Post canes

[Editor’s note: The following blog post appeared in Vita Brevis on 6 December 2019.]

Having been occupied with a project these last few months, not only have I been away from Vita Brevis for far too long, but I’ve allowed issues of the Weekly Genealogist to pile up in my in box. In truth, I do open them each week to add my vote to the survey, but until the other day I had not had the opportunity to read them start to finish. While each issue is always brimming with interesting things, I particularly enjoy the Stories of Interest. And so, as I binged on my backlog of six weeks, a story from October 2 about the town of Ashland, Massachusetts recovering its long lost Boston Post cane caught my eye. Continue reading ICYMI: Provincetown and the Boston Post canes

Family friends

It would appear that I am not finished with my self-imposed task of sorting through my grandfather’s box of family papers. As I was preparing to put the box away, I found that I had by no means exhausted its treasures, from old passports and (miniature) Bibles to a copy of my paternal grandparents’ wedding certificate and the marriage service itself.[1]

Such wedding ephemera is easy to misplace, lovely and important though it is. Several insights emerge from looking at my grandparents’ service and the accompanying certificate. One is that, while my grandfather[2] is addressed throughout the service as Gilbert, my grandmother is Anne Beekman – I think the last person who thought of her in that way was her sister, my great-aunt Theo,[3] who died in 1996. Once married, it seems my grandmother dropped the slightly cumbersome double name. Continue reading Family friends

Long perspective

As we focus on the urgency of daily deadlines and details, it’s easy to forget the many moments that have brought us to where we are today. The 175th anniversary of NEHGS has afforded me an opportunity to step back and gain perspective – not only on the expansive history of our organization, but also on my own history as part of it. As I took a break from my normal tasks to reflect on my time at American Ancestors and NEHGS, primarily as creative director for American Ancestors magazine, I was surprised to realize that I am currently working on my eighty-third issue of the magazine! Continue reading Long perspective