Digging Up My Ancestors

Cole Family Burial Mound, Aberdeen, MD, 2010. The mound was left after gravel stripping operations in the 1940s, and has now been replaced by an office building. The tire tracks had been created by ATVs.

Yes, literally. After the application of  trowels, sticks, and small brushes, out of the ground came the fragments of people with whom I share DNA. It’s a long story, so I’ll offer snippets of the story over a few non-consecutive posts.

January 2010 began with a phone call from a very distant cousin, a Mr. S, who is a genealogist living in Harford County, Maryland.

“You should be receiving something from a lawyer.”

Who wants to receive something from a lawyer? The letter arrived: my great-great-great-great grandparents’ burial site had been found on one of the last undeveloped sites in Aberdeen, Maryland.

Two years later, the site is now home to an office building sandwiched between Target and a 1950s suburban development that includes the 1860s house of my great-great grandparents. It had been part of a family farm owned from 1757 to the 1940s, when it was sold for a gravel pit. Mr. S had been working with the genealogist hired to locate any descendants, and I was one. Fortunately for us, a Daughters of the American Revolution cemetery preservation project in the 1960s documented the tombstones at my GGGG grandparents’ burials. In the intervening fifty years, the tombstones disappeared.

A Martenet Map from 1878 that shows several Cole family members living near the intersection of Bush Forest Chapel Road and Paradise Road in Aberdeen, MD.

Harford County sits at the top of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, where the 464-mile-long Susquehanna River releases into the bay waters. Havre de Grace is the town that sits there today, renamed after the Marquis de Lafayette compared the town to Le Havre in France. Its claims to fame include its burning by the British during the War of 1812, tomato and shoepeg corn packing houses, duck hunting, W.C. Fields watching horse races at The Graw, and the Italian mob running liquor during Prohibition. Aberdeen, somewhat of a poorer cousin to the south, was a farming and packing house town. The creation of Aberdeen Proving Ground in 1918 led to the scrappy sort of boom you see in military towns and many residents, including my family, were employed by the base since its inception. My mother’s family has lived in the area for nearly 400 years.

An archaeologist bumper sticker.

The developer’s plan was to disinter the bodies using a local funeral home and move them to a graveyard in Darlington, Maryland. It was rather unfortunate for the developer that the direct descendant is a museum professional with an interest in family history. Land transactions involving dead people in the way can run emotionally hot. The developers have deadlines to meet, and I obviously wanted to get my family disinterred by archaeologists, rather than by shovel. Relocation of the remains included an unexpected trip to the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution which told us more than archival documents ever could. I’ll share the odyssey of reclaiming, identifying, and reburying my GGGG grandparents over a few posts. More to come.

If you want to read subsequent installments of this post, click here, here, and here.

Wanderlust Wednesday: Philadelphia

Philadelphia – it’s not all founding fathers and liberty bells.

City Hall, from the Ben Franklin Parkway.

I went to Philly as an adult for the first time in 2008. Gilded Age progress hangs in the air, the 19th century railroad baron, the masonry curlicue. I find it funny that the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Philadelphia is not the American Revolution. It’s sexy. If New York ever spits me out, Philadelphia! Here I come. The town is rich in texture, colonial push heightened by Victorian boom, all with a healthy dose of intellectual trimmings. Heady romance finds a happy home here, garnished lavishly with strong cocktails and throwback ice cream (check out Village Whiskey and Franklin Fountain). Get away from Independence Park, lurk on side streets, and conjure what has passed under your feet.

 

Fairmount Waterworks, below the Philadelphia Museum of Art

 

The Fairmount Water Works on the Schuylkill River was a technological masterpiece that brought clean water to the city for almost 90 years. The site was a popular attraction since its construction in the 1820s – I like the fact that Americans liked scientific and technological tourism even then.


Eastern State Penitentiary, March 2010

The radial plan, indoor plumbing, and solitary quarters of Eastern State Penitentiary was part of a radical idea to rehabilitate prisoners when it opened in 1829. At their website, information about the first prisoner is listed in the Timeline:

1829 October 23

Eastern State Penitentiary opens. Its first inmate: “…Charles Williams, Prisoner Number One. Burglar. Light Black Skin. Five feet seven inches tall. Foot: eleven inches. Scar on nose. Scar on Thigh. Broad Mouth. Black eyes. Farmer by trade. Can read. Theft included one twenty-dollar watch, one three-dollar gold seal, one, a gold key. Sentenced to two years confinement with labor. Received by Samuel R. Wood, first Warden, Eastern State Penitentiary….”

The last prisoners left Eastern State in 1971. Even if the advertising for this museum is a bit dramatic (mmm, read “hokey”), tours of the prison ruins are fantastic. The guide for the one hour tour I took in March of 2010 focused on history of prison reform and social history of rehabilitation. It’s a short walk from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in a residential neighborhood with a few good restaurants.

And then there is lots of camera candy, around every corner…

Front Street.

Fairmount Maid, 2008.

Transit Tuesday: NYC Vintage Subway Ride

Take the A Train. Vintage Ride, NYC Subway, December 201

 

On Sundays in December, with a little luck and timing, you can catch classic New York City Subway R1/9 cars from the 1930s. It’s quite a party on the train, with railfans, musicians, and gawkers all piling on to remember transit’s roots. So climb aboard, and take a rattan covered bench, watch the heavy doors slide closed and the ceiling fans spin ’round. You can also roam the train as it rolls between stations: it’s great people watching.

Vintage Ride, NYC Subway, December 2011.

 

Air conditioning was not to be found in the NYC Subway until 1967, so you slide open the windows and let the tunnel breezes cool you (or not).  With the windows open, the tracks and walls are that much closer, and the sound of the train thundering through the tunnel is deafening. The grease is thick on the air, and the mechanics of the car sound different, heavier.

Music on the Vintage Ride, December 2011

 

R1/9 cars remained in service until the late 1970s. Check in late November for the Vintage Ride, which runs regular service from Queens Plaza to the Lower East Side on the M line. Let the music play!

An issue of The Subway Sun – a much more fun way to share NYC Subway courtesy and advertising messages than those used today.

Museums 101: A Few Thoughts

The American Museum of Natural History. Photo credit: Daniel Mennerich via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-ND

The American Museum of Natural History. Photo credit: Daniel Mennerich via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Interesting? Boring? A memory from a long ago childhood field trip?  If I ask a person on the street to visualize a museum, they might conjure a place with columns. Some people shrug, some mention, “yeah, I should go there, but I try not to go into the city.” They might suggest a film set in a museum, such as Night at the Museum or The Thomas Crown Affair (which was filmed in a library, not a museum). It seems as if museums, over 17,500 in the US, rest  somewhere between myth and fantasy in many people’s minds.

Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Photo credit: massmatt via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Photo credit: massmatt via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA

I’ve worked in museums since I was 13. Local museums, internationally known museums, art museums, history museums. Museums run by huge professional staffs, museums run by the Parks Department, museums run by a 2.5 staff and an army of volunteers. Each place has meaning to its constituents, whether that’s a 16 year old student who loves to draw, a local genealogist, a Revolutionary War reenactor, or the volunteer who finds this a fun way to hang out with friends, and give back a little.

Graduates of Museum Studies programs all learn – no, memorize – this phrase the federal government uses to define museums in the Museum and Library Services Act (as quoted at the American Association for Museums website)

“A public or private nonprofit agency or institution organized on a permanent basis for essentially educational or aesthetic purposes, which, utilizing a professional staff, owns or utilizes tangible objects, cares for them, and exhibits them to the public on a regular basis.”

Plimouth Plantation. Photo credit: yurilong via Visual hunt / CC BY.

Plimouth Plantation. Photo credit: yurilong via Visual hunt / CC BY.

That’s as basic as it gets. A permanent organization that does something using stuff it takes care of and shows it to others. From the above description, museums sprout in all directions. A quick list of museum types might include:

 

 

 

 

  • Art museums, like the National Gallery of Art, Wadsworth Athenaeum, etc.
  • Natural history museums – centers of scientific research (and where the dinosaurs reside)
  • History museums (a favorite is the Lower East Side Tenement Museum)
  • Living history museums and farms, like Old Sturbridge Village
  • Historic houses, many of which tell the lives of prominent individuals
  • Historic sites, like Fort McHenry, Independence Hall, battlefields, etc. 
  • Historical societies and libraries that preserve the stories of the community
  • Science and technology museums, National Air and Space Museum, the Intel Museum
  • And if you want to get frisky, zoos and botanical gardens

I can’t imagine not working for a museum. Part of it is my commitment to  a non-profit lifestyle; I want the outcome of my place of employ to be culture, sense of place, and education. A lot of museum visitors are children on field trips, but museums educate all who enter their doors. If you haven’t been to a museum recently, let me know. I can find some suggestions for you. Or check out the American Association of Museums accredited museums list here or the more expansive list at museums.usa.org.

In Praise of the Pickle

Pickles know no boundaries. Photo credit: avrene via Visual hunt / CC BY

Pickles know no boundaries. Photo credit: avrene via Visual hunt / CC BY

Few foods send my palate soaring like pickles. The only definitive parts of a pickle include vinegar, salt and/or sugar, with the goal of preservation. Beyond that, let the fun begin. Any additional flavors are added for pure pleasure. Pucker follows the first bite, then a moment of the pickled object’s flavor, serenaded by garlic, cloves, dill, cinnamon, mustard seed, red pepper, bay leaves, cardamom, ginger, and so on.

 

 

 

 

 

Photo credit: It'sGreg via VisualHunt / CC BY-ND

Photo credit: It’sGreg via VisualHunt / CC BY-ND

 

A need for food preservation prior to refrigeration led many cultures to the pickle; they make for a great international tour. Some of my favorites include Japanese pickles, such as the long thing carrots you might find in chirashi sushi plates, or the pickled pumpkin found in sushi, kanpyo. And what about the Moroccan preserved lemons? And so forth.

 

Then there are the pickles I claim as relatives, as old friends, as heritage. They are the pickles that extend the waning garden, or use the pieces of fruit you can’t otherwise eat. Green tomato pickles when the weather will no longer warm the plants enough to turn the fruits ripe and red. Watermelon rind pickles preserve the parts you would otherwise throw away, transformed into a sweet tangy delight, tinged pink.

Time for a cornichon.

The British Housewife by Martha Bradley, London, c. 1760, p. 6.

Road Trip: The Lincoln Highway

A preserved section of the Lincoln Highway near Rochelle, Illinois, 2005. RL Fifield photo.

In May of 2005, my friend Mrs G. (back then, Miss C.) and I struck out on a road trip: seven days, seven states, and 2100 miles. Our goal was to do as much of the Lincoln Highway in the seven days we had. Our fixed plans were few. We drove west from New Jersey on I-80 and I-90 for a day and a half, at which point we turned around and worked our way back east on the Lincoln Highway. At a time when  traveling in the United States meant “by train,” the Lincoln Highway became the first motor route across the United States in 1913.  New York City’s Time Square to San Francisco’s Gold Gate Park were linked by miles of main streets and country roads. The project was led by Carl G. Fisher and other automobile industry magnates, to generate more motor traffic and more need for the products their companies manufactured.

The Lincoln Highway near Van Wert, Ohio, 2005. RL Fifield photo.

Mrs. G, a Brit whose mother served as a plotter for the RAF, served as our plotter, while I drove all 2100 miles in my 2003 Toyota Matrix. While the Lincoln Highway Association offers lots of resources for following the route today, Mrs. G. and I had to be more creative. Using a 1924 Lincoln Highway map and a modern street atlas, we worked to follow the original route as closely as possible.  Our Lincoln Highway trip began at Dixon, Illinois, home to the Dixon Arch and birthplace of Ronald Reagan and now home to a large chunk of the Berlin wall.

It took five days to work our way back to New York City, skipping the Philadelphia to NYC section due to other commitments. Except for some short trips to finish the route in New Jersey and a visit to the route’s terminus in San Francisco, I still have all approximately 2/3 of the route to finish. Until then, here’s some photos capturing the road itself.

Lincoln Highway East of Canton, OH, 2005. RL Fifield photo.

Who Are All These People?

Bowman Family, near Webster, Maryland, c. 1926.

I’ve been addicted to Ancestry.com for the past 4 years. This means I took out a fairly pricey monthly online subscription to maintain about 3,500 names, histories, and links to digital documents that make up my family history. Perhaps genealogy is seen as the domain of the retiree, but I’m fascinated by this collection of folks within which I have nothing in common but DNA. Back when I worked at a small local history organization with a genealogical library, we had a term for its users: Genies. And now I’ve become one of them. While I toyed with genealogy before, a request from a cousin spurred me to get serious. He and I don’t have too much in common. I was National Honor Society and graduated college in three years; he fell in with the wrong crowd, struggled to graduate high school, and has been having trouble finding his way.  He asked about our family history and I thought, I have those skills, maybe this is something over which we can connect. And so it began.

WT Lee. The case is inscribed with the date, October 13, 1868.

I hear hardcore library hound pre-Ancestry Genies scoffing. It’s true, Ancestry is only as good as the people inputting info. There’s a lot of incorrect information, duplicate people, and misspelled names. Historical documents have to back up the whole process. But the program itself is addictive. The moment you add a person (like one of your great-grandmothers) and the Ancestry search engine finds related records, a little shaking leaf will sprout on the screen. Hours later, you’ve clicked through hundreds of leaves, accumulating birth dates, copies of census records, and a pile of names, which without the program you have no hope of remembering. It’s a brilliant scheme by those folks in Utah, for all sorts of reasons I’ll discuss some other time.

Screenshot from my Ancestry.com page, March 2012. Note the insidious little leaves…

I’m lucky to be able to research my family history, where so many people cannot hope to begin. Some families came to the U.S. recently, others were disrupted by war, communism, poverty, and immigration, while other families are not from Europe and have yet to be included. Large chunks of my family have lived in the American colonies since the early 1600s and therefore are easily searched through their program.

Daniel Ralph Danforth, Augusta, Maine,c. 1893.

I don’t intend for my genie posts to be “guess who I found today! My great great great great….. great great great grandfather!” There are already several blogs out there celebrating those discoveries. Instead, I’ll offer a few interesting stories, ones that illustrate poverty, real family life in the good old days, women’s history, and the like. More to follow.

Apple of My Eye: Red Apple Rest

Red Apple Rest, Southfields, NY, 2007. RL Fifield photo.

 

A photo moment for the wayside respite that was the Red Apple Rest, on Route 17 in Southfields, New York. I stopped there in October of 2007, on my way to an outing at Storm King. It was one of those deep Fall days where the light is yellow and syrupy.

Red Apple Rest, 2007. RL Fifield photo.

 

 

 

 

 

Reading memoirs of old places gone by leaves me a bit morose. The unique and perhaps worn was abandoned in favor of the sparkly and standardized. One of the many old road refuges driven out of business by limited access highways, the iconic apple shape today is not much more than a flaking faded red orb, sitting above a condemned roof.

Shooting into Red Apple Rest, 2007. RL Fifield photo

I live without a car, so Red Apple Rest doesn’t deteriorate in my mind – I haven’t been past it in over four years. I hope to Google it someday to find it revived, the lights lit, thriving.1950s postcard of Red Apple Rest.

Wanderlust Wednesday: It All Began in Rome

Morning Walk near the Statzione Termini, Rome, 2007.

International travel was not a priority when I was a child. There were visits to battlefields in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, trips to see family in Maine, and a bunch of back and forth drives when we moved to Wisconsin. The most exciting place I had been was Arizona, to visit my cattle rancher great uncle Mr. B when I was 10. We slipped ever so briefly into Nogales, Mexico, staying only long enough to buy strings of dried peppers and a cheap turquoise chip bracelet for me. At 32, I joined a motley bunch of alumnae, trustees, and students from my college on group trip to Rome, Pompeii, Sorrento, and Sicily.

Revelations from this trip were:

  • Do figure out where you are going to eat before you go (at least a few spots). I had been working like a dog, and I thought I would just surrender myself to this trip. That’s the wrong move in Rome – it is full of tourist restaurants with terrible food. When it comes to food, if you care what you eat, do some research. My only good food memories are from Sicily. I now do my homework.
  • Walk, look, and photograph. Also, know when an experience can’t be photographed or caught on video, and just stand there and enjoy it. It was on my trip to Rome that I started to photograph for the sake of the practice, not just to document that I had been to the Spanish steps. In fact, I don’t think I even took a picture of the Spanish Steps.
  • Group travel is not for me.
  • Eat gelato for breakfast – a Sicilian lesson, where they place a scoop inside brioche-like pastry.

    Flower Seller, Rome, 2007. RL Fifield photo.

I travel a fair amount for work to interesting places.  Since that trip to Rome, I have a hit list for every city I visit:

  • Visit the train station (s).  It’s partly an architecture thing, partly a transit thing. They are a civic symbols of adventure.
  • Visit the markets. If there is no old city market or street markets, go to the grocery store – they say a lot about the area. The first Italian grocery store I entered was in Sorrento off-season. Beautiful meats, cheeses, and produce, with a very, very small pre-packaged/processed section. The Dutch have wonderful grocery stores. Can we say stroopwafels?
  • Learn the transit system. Nothing makes me feel like a local than learning to take the subway or tram. Of course, the Rotterdam tram system was unfathomable. Strip tickets, validations….glad I didn’t get arrested. Not sure why that one was so difficult.
  • And of course, my profession compels me to visit a slew of museums – that’s unavoidable.

Rome, 2007. RL Fifield photo.

I’m ready to go back to Rome under my own steam.

Transit Tuesday: Good news in Washington DC. Streetcars are back, Baby

I prefer rehabbed PCCs, but at least it's a streetcar! Photo credit: mariordo59 via Visual hunt / CC BY-SA

I prefer rehabbed PCCs, but at least it’s a streetcar! Photo credit: mariordo59 via Visual hunt / CC BY-SA

Streetcar service ended in Washington DC on January 28, 1962. But the nation’s capital is bringing them back, starting with two lines serving H Street/Benning Road and Anacostia in 2013, and extending to 8 lines in all. Go here to check out the plans.

I attended The George Washington University for grad school in the late 1990s and got to be old acquaintances with the DC Metro. However, the Metro’s purpose is clear: opened in 1976 after the era of urban flight, the DC Metro was meant to move commuters from the suburbs into the city for work, and back. Move ‘em in, move ‘em out. If you wanted to move neighborhood to neighborhood, you were left to the bus, where improvements lagged.

Streetcar service trumps buses when it comes to community investment. Buses can disappear any time. Streetcars require rails and overhead wires, which lends permanence to the service, and encourages further real estate and commercial development than bus lines. Noise? I’d rather listen to the gliss, squeal, and clang of a streetcar going by than a bus engine any day.

A vintage Washington DC streetcar serving on the Historic Streetcar line in San Francisco. Photo credit: fdenardo1 via Visual hunt / CC BY

A vintage Washington DC streetcar serving on the Historic Streetcar line in San Francisco. Photo credit: fdenardo1 via Visual hunt / CC BY

Streetcars didn’t fail – they were pushed out of business by the auto industry. The National City Lines/General Motors scheme began in 1936 by buying and stripping away 45 cities’ streetcar systems by 1950, and replacing them with buses as a way to boost the auto industry business. Read this Washington Post article by Ashley Halsey III marking the 50th anniversary since the end of service, and the return of streetcar service.

Congratulations DC – ready to ride in 2013!