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

Bringing Historic Structures To Life: The Richart Carriage Shop

Open-air museums such as Greenfield Village are windows to the past,  and the first-time visitor can be awe-struck and overwhelmed at the size and amount of history gathered and relocated here.  And,  what they may notice as they move about the acreage containing structures from another time and another place is that the greater majority of the past being presented is not from famous people,  but from those who are virtually unknown to the country at large.  But as Henry Ford famously said nearly a hundred years ago,  "...history which excluded harrows and all the rest of daily life is bunk, and I think so yet."
Yes,  we need to learn of war,  of politics,  and of the great men and women who are noted for doing extraordinary things,  but we must not forget the populace of their time who continued to live on in relative anonymity,  for it's these folks,  which time has passed by,  who did as much in creating America as those whose faces we see often in old paintings and photographs.

~   ~   ~

19th century wheelwright
(No, this is not the Richart Carrige Shop,
but it certainly looks like it could be)
As we should all know,  the majority of citizens in the 19th century were farmers,  and were pretty much self-sufficient.  I say  "pretty much"  because they were not totally on their own.  For instance,  what would the farmer do should his hay wagon wheel break?  He doesn't always have the time or even the necessary knowledge or tools to repair it,  so he may need to take the wheel to town to either have it repaired or have a new one made.
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!
And whereas we now have a gas station or car repair shop on every corner,  'twas not the case back in the 19th century,  and to have someone who could repair what needed fixing,  especially in a small town,  was of high importance.
The Richarts were such men.
Known where it original stood in Macon,  Michigan as the  Richart Wagon,  Farm Implement,  and Repair Shop,  the team of Robert Richart  (born 1792),  a wheelwright,  built his first wood-framed wagon and repair shop building in 1847,  along with his two sons,  William  (born 1832)  and Israel  (birthdate unknown),  and it was located just about 10 miles southeast of where the Eagle Tavern originally stood.
Now,  how cool is that to think of the very strong probability that the Richarts may have actually visited the Eagle Tavern?  Or,  at the very least,  had known about it.
And here they now both sit together inside historic Greenfield Village!
Now,  although handcrafted wagons and buggies were one of the products of this carriage shop,  the men also did repairs,  produced farm implements,  such as plows,  hay rakes,  and cradles  (used to cut grain),  as well as furniture,  and even bobsleds for the populace of Macon.
The Richart Carriage Shop beautifully restored.
There is a photograph of the shop as it looked shortly before being brought to
Greenfield Village
,  though in a much dilapidated condition 
(as you shall see momentarily)
As William's  daughter Alva noted,  
"Everything needed about the farm and home that's made of wood was made in this shop such as picture frames,  baby cradles,  kitchen and dining tables,  and occasionally a coffin.  In fact,  too many things to mention."
But we can add that they also built a dough trough,  a dresser, and bee hives. They also repaired chairs,  sawmills,  hung the blackboard in the local schoolhouse,  and worked at butchering.  They even built a dog house  (oh!  the wonderful things one can find while looking at old ledgers).
Their carpentry skills made the Richarts sort of community handymen.
Times were good for the Richarts and,  in 1850,  the original structure made way for a larger shop on a nearby lot.  This newer two story building was built with an outdoor ramp that lead to/from the second floor,  where painting of the carriages and carts took place and allowed easy access to the ground level 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.
Oh!  How I wish I could see such things as the paint smears!
Early on,  while they were still growing as a repair shop,  father and sons would hire out to do odd jobs when business was slow and would do chores,  including farm work such as threshing,  for the low price of fifty cents a day,  as we can see from their account books:
To one day thrashing  .50
To one day butchering  .75
To William 1/2 day thrashing  .31
The activity was non-stop inside the shop
In 1855,  Israel moved and opened his own business in the thriving town of nearby Tucumseh,  while Robert and William continued on in Macon.
After the Civil War,  business inside the shop began to pick up and eventually  "a third work bench was needed in the shop"  for the hired help.
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.  For instance,  according to Alva,  "In this wagon shop the aim was for perfect work.  No green wood was used - every piece must be perfectly seasoned;  no wood with flaws was used,  it must be without blemish,  where one piece of wood joined another,  the seam must be as air tight and weather proof as accurate measurements and paint could make it.
From the seasoned piles of lumber,  the necessary pieces were taken into the shop,  sawed,  planed,  and smoothed or polished by hand,  bent into shape by steam,  and worked up into wagons,  buggies,  wheelbarrows,  bob sleighs,  cutters,  etc.,  etc.,  as ordered.
Repairs of all kinds were made for farm implements and household needs,  and no matter how old or worn out the article that needed repair was,  no shoddy work was allowed."
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 buckwheat,  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.
Robert 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,  as well as the aforementioned furniture making.
Someone has to do the book work.
William's daughter Alva mentioned that,  "The children of the Village and of the surrounding farms loved to visit this shop and watch the activities.  They were always welcomed.  The boys liked to hear the sound of the hammer and saw,  and the girls loved to doll up with the curls of the shavings,  which fell to the floor from the long plane."
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 in October of 1941,  said that her father worked to within a year or so of his death in 1906.

The Carriage Shop as Henry Ford saw it around 1941 before bringing it
to Greenfield Village.
Henry Ford was a true visionary:  he saw these old dilapidated buildings as they once
were and as they could be again,  for there are many buildings now beautifully
restored inside the Village that would have certainly met the wrecker's ball
due to their horrible condition.
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.
The large workbench seen here, which is still inside the shop, is 
almost certainly one that belonged to Robert and William.
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.  And it is another part of  often-overlooked Americana where most people wouldn't give a second thought.  But here we have this gem at Greenfield Village.  Unfortunately,  I see too many people saunter on past as they cross the railroad tracks without stopping in.  Next time you are at the Village,  please make sure to stop in and say hi to the Richarts.  They'll be glad to see you!

I certainly do enjoy diving into the musty old papers and ledgers of times past to learn of the lives lived by our ancestors,  for now,  upon entering the historic building of Greenfield Village,  I see them with new eyes  (old eyes?);  they come to life for me in a different way than,  I suppose,  most people who just see  "old things."
Just imagine the local children,  hanging out in this building as the men pound and saw away,  the young girls picking up the shaved-wood curls...just imagine...

Until next time,  see you in time.

Ackley Covered Bridge 1832
At one time, covered bridges were commonplace. Not so much anymore. But Greenfield Village has one from 1832.

Daggett House  (part one)
Learn about the 18th century house and the family who lived there.

Daggett House  (part two)
This concentrates more on the everyday life of the 18th century Daggett family,  including ledger entries.

Doc Howard's Office - The World of a 19th century Doctor
It's 1850 and you're sick.  Who are you going to call on?  Why,  good ol'  Doc Howard,  of course!

Did you know Michigan had a stage coach stop?  Many of them,  in fact - they weren't just out west!  Here is where you can learn about one in particular~

~Edison Posts:
Tales of Everyday Life in Menlo Park (or Francis Jehl: A Young Boy's Experience Working at Menlo Park)
Menlo Park is brought to life by one who was there. First-hand accounts.

Follow the route that Thomas Edison took as he rode and worked on the rails in the early 1860s,  including the Smiths Creek Depot.
The oldest windmill on Cape Cod is not on cape Cod - - it's in Michigan!
Lots of interesting things about this wonderful piece of Americana from 1633.

Firestone Farm at Greenfield Village
Learn about the boyhood home of Harvey Firestone, the tire magnate.

The Giddings House
Revolutionary War and possible George Washington ties are within the hallowed walls of this beautiful stately colonial home.

Recreating this store to its 1880s appearance was extremely important as the overall goal,  and so accurately reproduced items were needed to accomplish the end result,  for many original objects were rare or too fragile,  with some being in too poor condition.  

Research has shown that,  as a young attorney,  Abraham Lincoln once practiced law in this walnut clapboard building.  I think this post will make you realize just how close to history you actually are when you step inside.

Built in the late 18th century,  with some slight modifications from its original style,  this is one of the oldest original American log cabins still in existence.  

These buildings were once a part of everyday life in American villages and towns and cities - including the Gunsolly Carding Mill,  the Loranger Gristmill,  Farris Windmill,  Hanks Silk Mill,  Cider Mill,  and the Spofford and the Tripps Saw Mills,  all in one post!

Noah Webster House
A quick overview of the life of this fascinating but forgotten Founding Father whose home, which was nearly razed for a parking lot, is now located in Greenfield Village.

The Plympton House
This house,  with its long history  (including American Indians)  has close ties to Paul Revere himself!

Preserving History
Henry Ford did more for preserving everyday life of the 18th and 19th centuries than anyone else! Here's proof.

And for some haunted fun, 
Ghosts of Greenfield Village
Yep - real hauntings take place in this historic Village.

Yes,  some of the structures that now sit inside Greenfield Village have connections to America's fight for Independence.

Virtually each structure inside Greenfield Village has come from another location,  I took on a project to seek out the original locations of many of the more localized buildings and visited where they first were built and walked that hallowed ground.

Homes that played a role in our country's fight for Independence.

This post is part history and part family history:  a blending of the two.  And one way to show how you can place your ancestors in their time.

Saving Americana - that's what Henry Ford did - and in doing so he showed everyone the importance of  everyday life history.  This is how it all began.   

Nothing is placed randomly inside the structures at Greenfield Village.  The curators carefully consider each and every object before allowing it to become part of the site. 
And the Clothing Studio at The Henry Ford covers over 250 years of fashion  (from 1760 onward)  and is the  premier museum costume shop in the country.

~   ~   ~

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.