Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Thoughts on Family History

I do not care only about placing a name, or date, in my family record in order to say that I have personally accomplished something. I want to understand what brought that entry into being and how my ancestors paved the way through their hardships and milestones - trying always to better the lives of their children, and in turn, improving conditions for the generations to come.

I want to understand beliefs and fears that were passed down, and dreams and failures through which valuable lessons were learned. I want to have a glimpse of the humor and stubborness that got them through each day, guaranteeing their survival and therefore my eventual existance.

I want to see, in them, a part of me. I want to know their inborn talents, what brought them joy, what sparked their interest. What brought a warmth to their hearts and a smile to their face. I want to understand what angered them, what brought sadness to their lives. I want to recognize, in my heritage, that which is still evident as common family traits, whether they be good or bad.

I want to know of the culture that influenced their reactions, the songs, the poetry, the superstitions, the celebrations that brought meaning to their often destitute lives. I want to have a vision of how my life might have been different if my family had never left their homeland and struck out for distant shores.

I want to be reunited with family members left behind, not only through documents of paper, but through emotions and half-imagined memories. I want to feel as if I've gotten to know them, though I will never have met them. I want to interact with those most like them, and through joining with their present day countrymen, I may one day be reunited with my own living kinsmen.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Father's Favorite Flowers

My Dad's favorite wildflower must have been Phlox. I remember him showing me the plant when I was young, making sure I took a whiff of the spicy scented flowers and took notice of the color ranges in the bloom throughout the season. When he spotted them along the road as we drove by he would ask "What kind of flowers are they?" And I would reply proudly with "Phlox!"Now I know that they are specifically called Blue Phlox, Woodland Phlox, or Wild Sweet William. The scent IS wonderful. I can remember Dad always saying "I smell Phlox" as we rode in the car. Or if we were walking he would often hunt them down, by following his nose. He sometimes brought bouquets of them home with him, to be placed in a vase. Though they didn't last long after being cut, it was well worth it, since they brought so much pleasure for that short time before they wilted away.

By Memorial Day the Phlox are just coming into full bloom in Northern Pennsylvania, and each year as we made the trip to visit family cemetery plots in Blossburg Pa. it was his habit to walk across the road to see the flowering Phlox growing along the creek before we left to return to New York, where it would usually be another week before they opened their fragrant petals.
I have many times tried to transplant the wild variety in my flower gardens at home, and finally did succeed in having the perennial reappear the next year and even spread a little. I much prefer the wild variety to the garden species, but that may be just because it will forever remind me of Dad.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Grandpa Kyler's Cigarette Dispenser

This small wooden wall plaque, with a box built into it was in my parent's basement when I was a young child. It had an old coat of pink paint, and hung on a nail that just happened to be there . . . though I seem to remember it stuffed with receipts, or small paper items at one time. I had asked about it every so often and was told by my Parents that my Grandpa Kyler had made it back when he was a foreman at a remote (Pennsylvania?) logging camp and that he filled it each day with rolled cigarettes for the men to enjoy when they returned in the evening from their hard labor. When I was older, I asked my Dad if I could strip the paint off of it to it's original wood and then varnish it so we could hang it up and use it. It had many layers of tan, white and green paint underneath the pink color. When I finally got down to the last layer, I noticed that there was writing showing through in spots. I soon found that on the front of his cigarette dispenser Grandpa had written in permanent ink "Take One". It now hangs in my kitchen offering up another often desired item . . . I keep it filled with decorative packages of toothpicks.

Albert William Kyler Sr. was really my 'Step' Grandpa, since my Grandma Derr had remarried after being widowed at a young age. Since my Mother was just a baby when Grandpa Derr died, I never met my biological Grandfather. Grandpa Kyler was the only Grandpa I knew on my Mom's side. To me, he was Grandpa and I loved him. And the story of the plaque sounded just like something he would do. I remember him as a quiet, kind man who told me stories and sat outside with me and talked while we whittled. He would say "See that stick over there? Get it for me, Honey." When I handed it to him he would break it in half and give me one part, then he would reach in his pocket and bring out two pocket knives. His, and another smaller one for me to use. I don't remember ever actually carving anything, we just whittled while we relaxed and talked quietly. Sometimes we whittled the whole stick away and had to find another one to work on. Whenever we went outside to sit, I would just be waiting for him to ask me to find a stick. After it had become a ritual with us, I sometimes asked "Grandpa, you want me to hunt for a stick?" or "You wanna whittle, Grandpa?" He would laugh and say "I think I just might have our pocket knives." And it seems he always did have them when I asked. But he always put "my" knife back in his pocket when we tired of using them, because I was too young to have a knife of my own.

I still sometimes wonder what ever happened to that little knife...

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Thomas Harold Derr's Calling Card

A calling card was tucked into the poetry book that belonged to my Grandfather Thomas Harold Derr. On it his name is displayed in a flourish of cursive writing which could only be considered calligraphy. I doubt that he wrote with such elegance in his normal daily writings, or perhaps he ordered calling cards like we do business cards. But since he was known to be artistically inclined, I choose to believe that it was his hand that wrote his signature so beautifully using a nibbed dip, or fountain, pen.

I found the information listed below interesting, though I doubt that there were servants available to receive and deliver a calling card in the residences of either of my ancestors. I can imagine Harold, as he was commonly referred to, visiting Mabel and presenting his card to my future Grandmother, or her family, while he courted her prior to their marriage in 1915. I expect that they were made to follow proper etiquette since she was apparently brought up in a religious English household and he was of Pennsylvania Dutch stock. It is said that the practice continued to survive until about 1920. It seems a romantic tradition, but served a useful purpose for making connections in business and society and were carried by men and women alike. 

Mabel Olive Stanton

Calling Card Etiquette, 18-19th centuries

"Calling" was a somewhat ritualized version of the fine old custom of "visiting". There were certain fixed rules laid down by society which might apply to a resident in a small town with the same force as in a large city.

• On making a first call you must have a card for each lady of the household.

• On making a call leave your card to the servant. You will be allowed to see the hostess only after she examines your card.

• On the hall table in every house, there should be a small silver, or other card tray, a pad and a pencil.

• When the door-bell rings, the servant on duty should have the card tray ready to present, on the palm of the left hand.

• A gentleman should carry them loose in a convenient pocket; but a lady may use a card case.

• If your card receives no acknowledgment, you must conclude that for some reasons they do not wish to extend their acquaintance.

• Do not examine the cards in the card-basket. You have no right to investigate as to who calls on a lady.

• A young lady can have a card of her own after having been in society a year.

• American gentleman should never fold the corner of his card, despite of the temporary fashion. Some European gentlemen, on the contrary, fold the upper right corner to indicate that they've delivered it themselves (the servant should never hand his master's card folded).

• Fold the card in the middle if you wish to indicate that the call is on several, or all of the members of the family.

Signs on a visiting card

The initial letters you can meet on personal cards stand for the French words:

• p. f. - congratulations (pour féliciter)

• p. r. - expressing one's thanks (pour remercier) - even if one is presented with flowers

• p. c. - mourning expression (pour condoléance)

• p. f. N. A. - Happy New Year (pour feliciter Nouvel An)

• p. p. c. - meaning to take leave (pour prendre congé)

• p. p. - if you want to be introduced to anybody, send your visiting card (pour présenter)

Thomas Harold Derr

If you would like to learn more about the tradition of Calling Cards, you may want to visit
The Gentleman's Guide to the Calling Card ~ The Art of Manliness
Especially since the use of the Calling Card is now said to be making a comeback.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Great Grandpa Brooks' Metal Handled Hatchet

My Dad kept this old hatchet his whole life, it was given to him by his Grandpa Brooks when he was just a young boy. He told me the short story many times, and always reminded me "It's the metal handle hatchet in the basement with my initials marked on it." While I was in college in the 1980's I took several Geology classes. One was a summer field class where we would go rock hounding every weekend. I couldn't wait for the hiking, climbing and digging for rock specimens and fossils. One day I was showing Dad the required equipment for the class, which included a hard hat, rock hammer and testing supplies like hydrochloric acid. I had to run to the store and left my backpack leaning against the chair where I had been sitting. When I got back, there were four items with my pack. As I picked them up, he said "I thought you might be able to use those two rock hammers for your Geology stuff. The smaller one was that one I had still hanging around, just needed a new handle. And the other one is the one that came from Grandpa Hall's, remember? It was just the head - didn't have a handle on it..." He had put new wooden handles on both of them for me. I now had three different sized rock hammers for my geology digs and an old rock chisel he had included as well.
 The other item really surprised me, it was the metal handled hatchet. I asked "Isn't this your Grandpa Brooks' hatchet?" " Yep", he said, "figured you might as well have that too, since I always kept them together down there." That soon had a place on the wall, next to my Grandpa Hall's Cobbler set. But the mining tools went straight into my rock pack. and that's where they stay. And they've gotten quite a bit of use and still do every so often. Those two older style hammers were the smaller sized ones that the miners carried on their belts in the coal mines, my Grandpa Hall worked in the coal mines all his life, and my Dad also had a very short stint in the mines as a young man. Although Great Grandpa Brooks, my Dad's Maternal Grandfather, had worked as a Carpenter for most of his life.       

James George Brooks

Thomas James Hall

James G. Brooks was born in 1868, so that made him about 48 when my Dad was born in 1916. It must have been in the early 1920's when he gave his grandson the metal handled hatchet. Dad's story included the description of his Grandpa helping him stamp his initials into the metal of the head of the hatchet. It wasn't new when it was given to him, it was one that his grandfather had already had and was used. Together they punched the letter "T' for Thomas one one side, and the letter "H" on the other, for Hall.

My Dad's full name was Thomas James Hall, Thomas for his father, and his middle name of James after his Grandpa Brooks. He seemed proud of that and was sure to point out who his namesakes were.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Great, Great Grandpa Green's Poetry Book

I'm lucky enough to have possession of a book that belonged to my Grandpa Derr. It was given to him by my Great, Great Grandfather Green. I remember it being in excellent condition when I was young. It had a padded cloth cover that was was stamped with an ornate design and embossed in gold. The lighter area toward the top was once a gold colored front plate with the name Longfellow embellished across it. It also had gilded pages edged in gold. Unfortunately it was damaged by an area flood in 1972, just before it was handed down to me. Though not as beautiful and much more delicate now, it still has all it's pages and is still very readable.

James and Effie Green

James P. Green was born in 1850, and was in his forties when this book was published. His Grandson, Thomas Herald Derr was born in 1895. On the corner of the front page of the book, a price of fifty cents is marked in pencil and below that is a record of the book's passage down to me. I think the second installment in pencil must have been written by my Grandpa Derr when he was a boy. Though I never met him, I feel a connection through the few stories I've heard, a couple of photos, keepsakes... and this book that I knew he must have cherished since it was so well taken care of through his childhood and up until his untimely death at 22 years of age. I suppose that he cherished it because it was given to him by someone he cherished as well. That love, in some small way has been passed down through the generations with this book. As I read it, I know that their hands once held it, their eyes once read the words printed there and their minds contemplated the meanings of the poems. Just as I do now.   

My Great, Great Grandfather obtained a common school education, and began working as a Carpenter like his father when he was sixteen. He soon began working around the machinery at the coal mines and eventually was employed as an Engineer in the mining industry where he worked for many years. He was the eldest of his siblings and married at the age of 25, raising 5 children. He and his wife were members of the Free-Will Baptist Church, and he was a member of the P.O.S. of A. and was known politically as a Republican. 

When my Grandmother passed this book down to my Mother, I was in grade-school. I spent many hours reading the poems and thinking about my ancestors that we never knew. When a school assignment called for the reading of a poem soon after, I knew exactly what poem I wanted to read to the class. I was allowed to take the book to school with me, and I was so proud to tell them about the history of the book and how old it was. I also took a picture of my Grandpa Derr and told them what I knew of him. At that time, all I knew of his Grandfather was his name, and that his daughter Jennie was Grandpa's Mother. As I recall, my presentation was a great success and even as shy as I was, I enjoyed speaking out that day.  

If I had only known then, that those who could answer my questions about our family history would too soon be gone, I would have asked many more questions than I did. Now my hobby of genealogy is helping me to find the facts, but as for the kind of person they were, that is in great part left to my imagination...

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Display of Family Keepsakes

This antique Cobbler Set belonged to my paternal Grandfather, Thomas Anthony Hall. My Dad brought it home as a remembrance of his father, soon after his death. When I was a young child it was kept near my Dad's workbench in the basement, these smaller tools were stored in the old wooden cigar box that they were found in at Grandpa's house in Pennsylvania. The larger shoe lasts and hammers were kept, along with the cigar box, in a large cardboard box in a metal cabinet where they would be safe. My Dad would sometimes bring them out for me to use when I was working on some childhood project, and used them himself at times. But they were always returned to their special storage place after being utilized. Each time we brought them out Dad would explain how to use each tool I needed and answered the many questions I always had about my Grandparent's lives and what my Father's and his sibling's childhoods were like growing up together in that place and time.

My Grandfather was a Coal Miner, and this cobbler set was used to repair the families shoes, as money for new shoes was often hard to come by. He also fashioned many other useful items from scrap leather to replace worn straps, handles and hinges. And create change purses and small useful items for his young son.

When I was a teenager I wanted to put them on display in the basement game-room, and Dad and I worked together hanging the separate pieces on the wall and arranging the standing shoe lasts beneath them. Now that Dad has passed as well, I decided to create a more protective display for them, while still leaving the more useful tools accessible. By drilling holes in the top of an inexpensive shadow box, I now have the more worn, and smaller delicate pieces encased in glass and the tools that I often make use of are stored safely through the top edge of the wooden shadow box. The other tools are positioned underneath the shadow box and I have incorporated the old cigar box as a small shelf to hold the smaller items. In this way I can keep them all together in remembrance, to admire and use them.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Hillbilly Cabin

We ran across this old dilapidated shack along side some old dirt trail, close to a crossroads, out near the Steuben County/Schuyler County line in NY a couple a summers ago. It was just startin' to turn to dusk but we had ta stop - wantin' to get a closer look, but somethin' held us back...

Don't know if it was the possibles of a dead body bundled up and thrown against the house or the 'danger' sign on the front door, but we had the inkling that we shouldn't be stickin' around too long. Who's ta know if there was some gun totin' redneck watchin' us from behind a crack in the door or in that dark broken out window uptop?

We stood there listenin' for noises, with all the world goin' quiet at sundown, when out of nowhere came the roar of an old pick em up truck. It sped through the four corners stirrin' up dust, full of good ole' boys hootin' and hollerin' for all their worth and as that veehicle fish tailed to a stop just out of view... we done up and hightailed it outta there!

An' ya know, we been back that way time and agin and we just can't seem to lay eyes on that same old shack... 

mighty strange, I'd say...

Friday, February 18, 2011

River Cruise

This commemorative paperweight sat on my Mother's vanity throughout my early childhood. I remember her telling me that Grandma & Grandpa Derr had ridden on that ship. Years after my Mom passed away my Dad explained that my Mother's parents had gotten the item as a souvenir of a trip they had taken. I had failed to question my Mom further when I was young and upon asking my Dad, later, if he knew any of the details of their trip, he said that he thought it was a steamship that made river excursions. How romantic that seemed to me, especially since my Grandparent's story was so tragic. He died after only three years of marriage, with my Mom only 17 months old, and my Grandma expecting another child.

Thomas Harold Derr and Mabel Olive Stanton were married on July 28, 1915 in Chester, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. Both were 20 years old. He worked as a Miller, and she as a Mill Hand. I am told it was a Grain Mill, and perhaps this is where they first met. Not knowing how long they may have known each other before exchanging rings, and assuming that they had waited until after their marriage to take a trip together, the cruise must have occurred after July of 1915.

In my daydreams I saw them eloping, possibly being married aboard ship. Not knowing then that they were married in Pennsylvania. Or maybe just a short Honeymoon after a hometown wedding, before heading back to work at the Mill. They may have just saved their money after the wedding to take a longer belated trip together. Since there was no mention of my Mom on the ship it must have occurred before her birth in August of 1916. Most likely in late summer of 1915 or in the spring of 1916 before Grandma was too far along in her pregnancy, yet past the morning sickness stage.

The luxurious ferryboat SS City of Detroit III offered elegance usually found only in an ocean liner.

The City of Detroit III first set sail in the season of 1912 and was the largest steel-hulled passenger side wheeler on the Great Lakes at that time. It must have been quite an event for my Grandparents to board the ship only three years later, while it still must have been considered quite an amazing attraction. 

The elaborate interior of the ship featured candelabras, balustraded staircases and museum quality paintings.

 With twenty-one lavishly furnished parlors and four-hundred and seventy-seven well dressed staterooms, this gigantic drifting hotel was furnished with all the newest enmities and was considered the belle of the Lakes. Imagine Harold and Mabel, two young mill workers, in love and newly married. Even if only standing at the rails for a short ferry down the must have been exciting.

The dining room on the City of Detroit is set up for a cruise.

I wonder if they were able to enjoy the fancy cuisine and exceptional service offered on board, perhaps lunch during a day trip if nothing else. An afternoon spent together in comfort and style...

The ship's Gothic Room.

They say that Honeymooners often stepped aboard the vessel at Detroit or Cleveland and then traveled to Buffalo where transit was available to Niagara Falls. Quite an adventure in those days, and an actual cruise around the Great Lakes would have been amazing as well. I wish I knew the circumstances and how it made them feel. 

The steamer City of Detroit III offered elegance in its trips between Detroit and Windsor
and also offered longer luxury cruises throughout the Great Lakes.

I wish the ship was still in service, I would love to re-create what I imagine their trip might have been like and would hope to make it the most extravagant cruise they could have dreamed of.


There are still short 2-4 hour touring or dinner cruises sailing the Detroit River, but nothing in comparison to what a run on the City of Detroit III must have been like.

Information on current Detroit River Cruises can be found here.

Information on other available River Cruises can be found here.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files with captions of the Detroit News.)