By: Carolyn L. Barkley
A basic element of any beginning genealogy course is the admonition to begin with what you know, particularly information contained in documents and photos that are part of your family archives, and information from interviews with older family members. I suspect that many of us, despite our best intentions, leave this task until it’s too late.
Last December, after moving my mother into assisted living, my son and I cleaned out her house. While the main floor was fairly straightforward (my mother not being a collector of things), the attic was another matter. December in Massachusetts means that this unfinished upper floor was cold and often dimly lit. When we encountered what looked like family material, we simply boxed it and brought it to my home here in Virginia. As an illustration of my ability to procrastinate, the boxes sat stacked in my garage for several months, and I am only now actually unpacking them.
As I sort through their contents, I regret that in many instances, I no longer remember the stories behind some of the items. I know my mother would occasionally go through them with me, but the details are hazy and she is now no longer able to remember what she once could recall so easily. I’m on my own to rediscover and piece together what I can of the stories that are waiting in these boxes. This realization has taught me several important lessons:
- Even if you and a family member have, in the past, talked about pictures and other documents pertaining to the family, do it again, if possible, and write down all of the information as you do – or better yet, record the conversation. Identify people and places; ask questions. If you don’t do it now, it will be too late before you know it.
- If items are not identified and there is no one to supply any answers, acknowledge your responsibility to do so. Provide as much information about the item as you can based on other materials in the family archives or in resources located elsewhere.
- Share all the information and documentation with younger members of your family, both in person and in writing. If you have had difficulty identifying people and places and do not include your research and documentation, future generations will have even less ability to recapture their family history.
I’d like to discuss a few types of materials found in Mom’s two boxes and how they have re-informed my understanding of my family and their experiences, and when possible, how finding these materials may lead to further research about the individual or event.
I discovered a wonderful group of photographs documenting several generations of my family. The oldest is an 1862 picture of Lois (Lanfare) Dodd, my third great-grandmother (born 28 March 1818 in Branford, Connecticut; died 24 September 1907 in Wallingford, Connecticut). Other pictures from that era include one of my great-grandmother’s sister, Alice Louise Dodd (born 8 April 1860; died 22 October 1879 in Springfield, Massachusetts). This latter picture, taken in 1863, is particularly important as she died when only 19 years old. (I’m pleased, however, not to have inherited her ears!) Another interesting photograph is of my great-grandmother, Grace Lillian (Dodd) Smith, taken when she was only six months old, therefore dating the picture circa December 1865.
Other family photos include a three-generation group showing my grandfather, his mother, and his paternal grandmother; a picture of my great-grandmother and great-grandfather that may have been taken around the time of their engagement or wedding, as well as a picture of their best man; a picture of my great-great-grandmother, Kate Duncan, holding one of her grandsons; a picture of my grandfather, probably taken in his twenties, looking quite dapper in a fedora; pictures of my grandmother, Mildred Carolyn (Abbe) Smith, as a young girl; a picture of my grandfather as a young boy with Lord Fauntleroy-style curls; and an undated picture of John Frederick Smith (don’t we all need a John Smith relying research!), the brother of my second great-grandfather, Edward Sylvester Smith (born 29 June 1836 in South Hadley, Massachusetts; died 15 October 1898 in Springfield, Massachusetts). Currently, John is my Civil War research problem. I have another picture taken of him in a Union uniform, but with indecipherable insignia. Despite several research attempts, I have not yet located his service record. I know little about him except that he was born in Belchertown, Massachusetts, in 1862 and that he died in 1890, and so this picture prompts further research in the census, Massachusetts Vital Records and Civil War Union military records.
A final photograph is of a young man, placed inside a lovely brooch. Unfortunately I have no idea who he was and there is no notation on the back of the photo, which appears to have been cut from a tintype. My hope is that I will find another picture of the same individual – identified this time.
The first group of postcards that I found provides an enhanced picture of my great-grandmother’s (Grace Lillian (Dodd) Smith) life in the early years of the twentieth century. I’ve never thought of her as having traveled very much except between Springfield, Massachusetts, and other members of her family still living in New Haven, Connecticut. On the contrary, however, she was definitely a traveler in the summer time, with postcards sent to her in Albany, New York (1904), Revere Beach, Massachusetts (1911); and the New Chase Hotel in Portland, Maine (1916). Several postcards from Grace to her husband, Edward Albert Smith, and to others, written from Norwich in Huntington, Massachusetts, and dated 1907, raised my interest. I have mentioned in other posts that I spent my childhood summers at my grandfather’s home in Huntington (specifically Norwich Hill), Massachusetts. He bought the one-time farm in about 1932, but I never thought to ask anyone why he chose that location. The pictures and text in the 1907 postcards imply that my grandmother was staying in a home on the very same road where my grandfather bought his home thirty or so years later, making me wonder if the site was chosen because of my great-grandmother’s previous visit(s) — and, yes, I also don’t know why she was visiting that location. I plan to search further into the Norwich Hill area at the turn of the century and into the Avery family with whom Grace stayed, as well as land and vital records for the town, both then and in the 1930s. Additional postcards illustrate other important sites in that family’s history including the Highland Baptist Church in Springfield, that was destroyed by fire on 3 January 1906; the old City Hall in Springfield, burned in January 1905; and the “proposed” Municipal Building complex in Springfield, where my grandfather would later work as Assistant City Clerk and then City Clerk until his retirement in the 1950s; and a picture of Wesson Maternity Hospital where my mother was born.
World War II
The second box contains souvenirs of my father’s World War II service in the Army Air Corps. Although his dog tags and collar insignia, Army Exchange Ration Card, Enlisted Man’s Identification Card, etc. are there, sadly, what is missing are the letters that my father wrote to my mother during the war. I know they existed as late as 2009, but I believe she may have destroyed them which is a shame, but perhaps understandable if she felt they were private. Luckily she did not destroy several small notebook pages detailing my father’s train trip from Miami Beach, Florida, where he had been in training, to what was initially an undisclosed location that turned out to be Oklahoma. The diary begins on Friday, 16 April 1943 and covers several days of the trip as far as Texas; the rest are missing. Nevertheless, the insight into the atmosphere of a troop train is wonderful: “…Still speeding along north. One of the fellows has a clarinet; another has a sax. They’re playing popular songs. Very pleasant. Sun getting low. Chow was the proverbial frankfurters. But we were hungry enough to eat anything….All the fellows are speculating where they might be and where they are going. It is amazing to hear the number of rumors circulating about. As it stands now, we are going to half a dozen places all at the same time…” By October, he had shipped out and a brief slip documents an event during his voyage.
For the majority of the war, my father was stationed in England. As an English major in college, he had a deep interest in that nation, particularly in its literature and history. Postcards and souvenir booklets document tours and cycling trip to Cambridge, Oxford, London, the Lake District, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, and Glasgow. Receipts from Red Cross hotels help document his travels. He was stationed at Warton, in Lancashire, at Base Air Depot [BAD] #2 with the 370th Air Service Group. He spoke often of visits to Blackpool and a brochure about the city, written for members of the US Armed Forces in the UK, provides information about restaurants, banks, post offices, telephones, entertainment, etc. and notes that the American Red Cross Club ” ‘donut Dugout’ is in Central Drive, near the railway station, and open from 2 p.m. until 11 p.m.” In addition, that brochure cautions that “…hotel accommodation is limited, and American Forces arriving late at night can apply at the Red Shield Club Hostel, Talbot Square…which has 84 beds…”
A hand-written notation on a newspaper article indicates that he was at Warton from 27 October 1943 to 24 August 1945. As I always heard about his travels, but little about his day-to-day work life, I turned to Google™ to see what I could learn about BAD #2. My first discovery was the fifteen-page USAAF Airfields Guide and Map produced by East of England Tourism, which although it did not cover the right geographical area, did provide links to the Eighth Air Force Historical Society and the Mighty 8th Cross-Reference. Another entry, however, led me to information about the Warton Aerodrome and Base Air Depot #2. In particular, it highlighted a book by Harry Holmes entitled The World’s Greatest Air Depot: the US 8th Air Force at Warton 1942-1945. The brief blurb stated that in 1942 the US Army Air Corps sought to establish three bases at which to assemble and repair aircraft coming into Europe from the States. One of these three sites became BAD #2 at Warton.1 I immediately went to Amazon to see if I could purchase a copy. Unfortunately, the cost of a hard copy was $470; the paperback was about $93.00! Luckily, another link sent me to amazon.uk where I could purchase a “like new” used copy for £20. I look forward to receiving this copy in the next few weeks and to reading about my father’s surroundings during the war.
I certainly still have more boxes to empty and hope to find other pieces of my family history in them. The pieces I found in the first two boxes have expanded my knowledge, matched faces with the names of several ancestors, piqued my interest in further research, and have led to the purchase of pertinent background material. I hope my experiences will prompt you to talk to your family members and to identify and record as much information about individuals, places and events and to write down and document their stories.
1 “Aviation: Warton Aerodrome 1942 to 1945 – Base Air Depot 2 (BAD2),” Made in Preston (http://www.madeinpreston.co.uk/Aviation/warton.html : accessed 26 September 2012).