Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Wonderful Way To Bring Your Ancestors "To Life"

"Geddington As It Was - The Social History of a Rural Community" by Monica Rayne, "A History of Great Oakley in Northamptonshire" by Peter Hill, "Blue Water Reflections: A Pictorial History of Port Huron and the St. Clair River District" by Mary C. Burnell & Amy Marcaccio, and "East Gwillimbury in the 19th Century" by Gladys M. Rolling.
These are just a few of the 'local' history books of my ancestral towns and villages that I have collected over the years. Yes, I "do" genealogy, that is, I research my family history.
And why are you not surprised at this?
In my, ahem, humble opinion, researching the names and the dates of our ancestors is only half the fun. The other half is discovering and learning about the cities, towns, and villages from whence they came.
And the way they lived.
I'd like to give you an example, if I may: my 2nd great grandmother, Linnie Raby (her maiden name), was born in the Village of Geddington, Northamptonshire, England in 1858. Her father was born in an even smaller hamlet known as Great Oakley on New Years Day in 1822.
There are many history books available giving the generalities of the way folks, both rural and city, lived in England in the mid-19th century. Much of it seems to be 'based' on the works of Charles Dickens, although a few, such as "Victorian People" by Gillian Avery, are exceptional in the giving of details of everyday life, including manners of speech and accents in the different regions of England. However, books such as this are the exception rather than the rule.
So what does one do to try to put flesh and blood on the bones of those long-gone ancestors?
I phoned (yes, phoned - ten minutes to England only cost a couple bucks) the Records Office of Northamptonshire (yes, it helps to at least know the county in which your ancestors were born) to ask if they had any local historical information about their region, hoping they would have, at best, a regional history that could help me in my endeavors.
"We can do better than that!" said Rachel, the young British women. "We have local history books by village. Which were you interested in?"
I told her Geddington, hence, the "Geddington As It Was..." book.
Unfortunately, I couldn't purchase it from her, but she did hook me up with a retailer that could sell me a copy. I phoned them, they had it, and I bought it over the phone (at a rather steep price, I must say. They really get you on the shipping!). It was delivered to my door a scant three weeks later.
What a wealth of social history this book was! It vividly describe the town and many of its inhabitants. For instance: (Ch. 6 - Village Services) The original Post Office was situated in Bridge Street and the postmastership was in the same family's hands for nearly 50 years. Before its opening around 1862 when Humphery Panter was appointed sub-postmaster, letters had been sent out from Kettering to an official letter receiver. In 1849 this was Charlotte Smith, and in 1861 Isaac Smith.
Three sentences. But, in these three sentences I now know how my great great great grandparents and their family received their mail. And, names were mentioned that I'm sure they associated with!
How about this: It is the Forge by the Cross, however, that is remembered by many villagers as a focal point in Geddington. Children paused on their way to and from school, horses patiently awaited their turn, and the smell of the fire and the singeing hoof pervaded the centre of the village, while the sound of the hammer on the anvil could be heard all around.
Doesn't this add colorization to the mental picture of their lives?
And, to top it off, there is even a map of the roads/streets at the time of my ancestors' existence there! So now I could see where great great grandmother lived, walked, went to school...and, yes, she had to walk right past the Forge!!
How cool is that?
And this is just but one of my 'ancestral town' history books. I have sought out and purchased as many as I could find. Some are little more than photographs, which is still ok - now I can visualize what my ancestors saw. Others give names and occupations as well as important events that occurred in the village.
Honestly, I cannot stress enough just how important these books are to your heritage. If you are the family historian then you owe it to yourself, to your family, and to your ancestors to make the past - your ancestral past - come to life. If, for nothing else, than to honor your ancestors.


Monday, October 18, 2010

The World of a 19th Century Repair Shop (or Zap! You are Now Living in 1860 - What Now?)

Here in the 21st century, to purchase a new car, one goes to a car lot. And when that new car eventually breaks down and needs some form of repair, we either take it back to the car lot where we originally purchased it, or maybe to another independent auto repair shop.
Things were not too different for those who were living in the 19th century. Okay, so they didn't have automobiles back then, but many folks did have horse-drawn carriages, wagons, or carts. And, just like the modern cars of today, those modes of transportation did break down, especially considering that most roads 150 years ago were unpaved, and those that were paved might as well not have been!

Richart Carriage Shop
Known where it original stood in Macon, Michigan as the Richart Wagon, Farm Implement, and Repair Shop, the father and sons team built a wood-framed building in 1847, and it was located just about 10 miles southeast of where the Eagle Tavern originally stood.
Although handcrafted wagons and buggies were the chief product of his carriage shop, Robert Richart (born 1792), along with his two sons, William (born 1832) and Israel (birthdate unknown), produced, as stated in its original title, farm implements, and even furniture. Bobsleds were also a major product made and sold here.
In 1850, the original building made way for a larger shop on a nearby lot. This newer two story building was built with an outdoor ramp that lead to the second floor, where painting of the product took place and allowed easy access to the ground level for the carriages once they were completed. An interesting note here are the paint smears and "1865" upon the walls on the second floor, indicating where someone may have tested colors. It is supposed that painting was done on the 2nd floor to help avoid dust and dirt from mixing into the paint.
It's this 1850 structure, by the way, that is now standing near the entrance inside of Greenfield Village.
Early on, while they were still growing as a repair shop, father and son would hire themselves out when business was slow and would do chores such as thrashing - for the low price of fifty cents a day.
After the Civil War, this trend reversed slowly so that eventually "a third work bench was needed in the shop" for the hired help.
In 1855, Israel moved and opened his own business in the thriving town of nearby Tucumseh, while Robert and William continued on in Macon.
The activity was non-stop inside the shop
Because the Richarts kept detailed ledgers of their everyday activities in this shop, a very unique "window-into-the-past" description of 19th century living comes to life in small-town Macon.
The seasonal nature of life in Macon is one of the most interesting finds while combing the ledgers. Summer typically busied the Richarts with wagon repairs, their own farming interests, and improvements to their respective homes.
As the leaves changed, so did the daily routine in the wagon shop. Summer wagon building and repair slowed down greatly in the fall months while winter construction and repair of sleds and cutters took precedence. William and Robert would also spend many autumn hours with a file in their hands sharpening saws, as their neighbors needed to cut and store wood for the winter. Barrels of apple cider appear frequently in the books as purchases as well as payments in October and November. In fact, in the years before the Civil War broke out in 1861, most of Macon's 1500 residents rarely dealt in cash. Besides, cider, payment transactions included buck wheat, lumber, beef, and other currencies.

What? No Firestone tires?
In the spring, farmers preparing for the summer brought the Richarts their broken wagons, carts, hoes, cradles, and other farm tools.
There's was a seasonal business - they kept busy all four seasons of the year.
Their carpentry skills made the Richarts sort of community handymen. They built picture frames, a dough trough, a dresser, a breakfast table, and bee hives. They also repaired chairs, sawmills, and even a dog house (oh! the wonderful things one can find while looking at old ledgers!)!
Robert hung the blackboard in the local schoolhouse and also worked at butchering. He also, as a hobby, tended bees (hence, the bee hives) and sold the honey to neighbors. William worked on a stoneboat clearing the fields (a stoneboat transported heavy objects such I didn't know that - now I do!), as well as furniture making.
Someone has to do the book work.
.During the last quarter of the century, mass Production, rather than hurt their business as it did to so many other craftsmen, actually helped the Richarts. Now, instead of hand-forming wheel spokes, shafts, rims, and hubs like they did previously, they could order the items from supply houses, which William did more frequently; purchases of "500 spokes" can be found numerously in their ledgers as well. Interestingly, there are only one or two references to carriages' covered in the account books over the five decades they were kept. It seems that William and Robert both considered themselves 'wagon makers,' and wagon construction and repair formed the backbone of their business.
I would like to purchase a two horse farm wagon...
Robert died in 1875 and William carried on. William's daughter, Alva, who was still alive when the structure was moved to Greenfield Village, said that her father worked to within a year or so of his death in 1906.
Authenticity abounds as many of the tools and furnishings now inside the restored shop can be matched to the original photographs from a hundred years ago as belonging to the Richarts.
This building and way of life of 150 years ago can be likened to today's auto repair shop; it was an integral part of the community from which it came.


Thursday, October 14, 2010


Sorry about not posting for a while. I haven't been quite sure what I want to write about. There is so much insanity going on in our country right now, and I have a lot to say about it all. I must have written three or four postings concerning all the craziness but haven't published them. You see, the PC police are out there, and problems can and will arise if I post my true feelings, for we no longer can speak our opinions without serious ramifications if it goes against the grain.
I have also learned just how mean so-called 'open-minded' people can be when they don't agree with you. Definitely meaner on the internet than face to face.
Let's just say that I am a Christian, a traditionalist, a living historian, and a social historian (or so I have been told) who believes in looking at all sides of the story, for it drives me nuts when revisionist "historians" place the morals and values from the 21st century on those from times past. Also, I do not believe that anyone should rewrite the past just to please someone in the present.
You can take it from there...
More history soon...I promise!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Cemetery Walk

“Welcome! What a drearily wonderful day to spend in a cemetery, wouldn’t you say?”
And that’s how I began the presentation for the cemetery walk my daughter, Rosalia, and I participated in at the Clinton Grove Cemetery located in Clinton Township, Michigan. One of five stops along the tour, we portrayed father and daughter Adolph and Mildred Gutschow and, because I have never seen a child portray a deceased child at a cemetery walk before, we were quite the hit! People were very touched to watch and listen to Rosalia as Mildred stand by 'her' tombstone and speak in 1st person as the young girl who died in 1910 at the age of 11 of a stomach ailment. I then would let each group know just how tough it was for a parent to lose a child, but not before stating that I hoped that no one in my presence had ever had to bare such a loss. One older woman, after one of our 17 (!) presentations had ended, came up to me, grabbed my hand, and said, "I just wanted to tell you that I have lost a child and you are so right that it's the hardest thing for a parent to go through. You and your daughter did a wonderful job showing that. Thank you." It nearly brought me to tears.
But, it wasn't all sad...we tried to have a little lightness as well, like when 'Mildred' spoke of her annoying brothers, or when one time early on she forgot one of her lines. After a brief moment in thought, Rosalia - as Mildred - told the group, “Hey! I’ve been lying in this cemetery for a long time! I'm allowed to forget!” The people roared!
As Adolph, I was a clothing store owner, and I made sure to make a comment to the women in the audience by stating that they needed to come to my business to get a proper dress instead of wearing their husband's britches!"
Again, lots of laughs.
One of the neatest things happened when a few of the descendants of the Gutschows were in one of the tour groups and they told us how good a job we did and thanked us for allowing them to "see" their ancestors.
It's also kind of interesting in the way people come up to you and speak to you as if you are/were the person buried come to life.

I have been doing cemetery walks now for eight years at a couple different cemeteries in the area. In fact, I will be doing another toward the end of this month. It really is a great way to help people understand their local history as well as showing honor to those that have been long deceased, and in some cases may have been forgotten.