All about Food

I was reading the article in the NYTimes today, On Lenten Fridays in New Orleans, the Catfish Are Making the Sacrifices and it made me think of the fish fries in Alabama I’ve been to and how food can symbolize a place and a time and often a tradition that runs deep in your family.

The first time I visited my father’s family in Talladega, Alabama in 1982, the trip ended with a big fish fry at my uncle’s gas station/store. The whole family was there–and when I say that about this family, I easily mean 50 people or more. The deep fryers were outside and catfish that various uncles and cousins caught were being fried alongside hush puppies. Inside were platters  of cole slaw, potato salad and big styrofoam cups of icey sweet tea. One of the rooms in the back of the store had been set-up with amps, a drum kit, microphones; folks showed up with guitars, ready to sing. The music was decidedly gospel and it was the first time I heard my grandmother sing “I’ll Fly Away”  in her distinctive alto voice. I grew up just outside Boston, I’d never experienced anything like this. Once back home, fried catfish, hushpuppies and even a can of Dr. Pepper brought a little bit of Alabama.

Frying catfish at a gospel singing in Clay County.

In subsequent trips, I’ve been to different fish fries. We drove out on a hot day, to a church in rural Clay County to hear my aunts and cousin at a Gospel Singing. Off behind the speakers, men were frying mud cat that the preacher had caught that week in a big old iron pot over an open flame.  It tasted more earthy than any catfish I’d ever had. It came with the requisite hush puppies, slaw and sweet tea which we ate, listening to gospel and trying to stay out of the really hot sun.

There have been other fish fries at my grandmother’s church and there’s always music. There have also been backyard meals filled with mac & cheese, butter beans, mustard and collard greens, fried and regular corn bread, bbq chicken, fried green tomatoes, okra, biscuits, black eyed peas, and red velvet, 7-up, and coca cola cakes. And huge styrofoam or plastic cups of ice for soda or sweet tea.

I suppose this is similar to what I was talking about in the post The History You Can Touch. Once in Alabama, I sat with my dad and his cousin while they ate fried and boiled chitlins, they reminisced over a time when your house would be filled with the horrible smell of chitlins being cleaned and cooked. A time when you ate chitlins because you wouldn’t waste one bit of the pig; so history pops up around the supper table just like it does in the cemetery or in the library.

Food connects me to my family, their culture, traditions and history–at rural Alabama fish fries, but also at Armenian Church dinners in East Watertown, MA and the Pennsylvania German farmer’s markets in York, PA. Which means I’ll be writing soon enough about lamejun, kufte, metch and then hog maw, german bologna and big tins of Utz potato chips and pretzels!

1940!

Everyone is talking about the 1940 census, so I thought I would talk a bit about it. This census was released by the National Archives on April 2, 2012. It was the first online release of a census by the Archives ever.  Currently it’s browsable by enumeration district, but not searchable by name—however there is an indexing process happening which I’m happily volunteering for.

This census is exciting to me for two reasons. One is that most people can think of the name of someone alive in 1940. When I help people with their genealogy starting with 1930, they sometimes struggle. 1940 will make it that much easier. Second is the data. In 1940 new questions were asked that had not shown up on a census before:

  • Residence five years prior.
  • Annual salary, hours worked per week and weeks worked per year.
  • Highest grade attained in school.
  • There’s also a whole host of supplemental questions that they asked 5% of the population.

The first family member I found was my maternal grandfather at age 18, in York, Pennsylvania with his parents and siblings. While they didn’t own their house, they did rent it for quite a while so were in the same place they were in 1930; finding their enumeration district was easy. My great-grandfather was 42, had made it to 7th grade and was a trolley car driver making $1200 annually. Their house cost $20 a month where he lived with his wife and the 8 children left at home. The eldest two were already married and living elsewhere in York.

My great-grandfather’s mother was living nearby with her youngest son–he was supporting her as a bookkeeper for a “utility” making $1040 annually. He was 20 years younger than my great-grandfather and I don’t know much about him, except that in 1966 he was listed in the Gettysburg newspaper for having worked for Metropolitan Edison Company for 29 years. This must be the utility he was working for in 1940. I already knew that my great-great grandfather worked for Edison, as an electrician so this makes sense. It’s fun to piece this all together.

I’ve just scratched the surface of the 1940 census. I’ve been finding my Massachusetts family and some of my Alabama family, too. Comparing the salaries, education, and cost of housing is fascinating. Once I’ve found all of my grandparents, I’ll post about that.

 

A cousin out of the blue

Several years ago at work my phone rang and a cousin I’d never heard of was on the other line. His last name, Drais, was my great-grandmother’s maiden name and he lived in the same town my grandfather grew up in. I had visited this town many times, but never knew any family aside from my grandfather’s 11 siblings.

I had been keeping a blog back then and had mentioned our mutual third  great-grandfather, a Civil War veteran, Felix Drais. Randy had been looking for info on Felix and found me.

I was pretty stunned, but the really fascinating stuff came much later. It’s one of those things that I can’t imagine happening without the internet–I’m not sure how he ever would have found me.

We exchanged notes on Felix and he sent me the genealogy on our family that he found. He also invited us to visit Gettysburg with him to see Felix’s house.  This third great-grandfather was born in Ohio, but had been wounded at Gettysburg and was cared for by a field nurse from the area. When he was discharged he married her and took her home to Ohio. Once his father passed away, they bought a farm in Gettysburg on land that was once a battlefield. Randy was in touch with the last of our family to have lived in the house.

"Silo filling supper" from www.americasarts.com.

My aunt, mother and I drove to York, Pennsylvania for the first time in many years. We visited with family and then we met up with Randy. First, he took us to see some art. You see, the last of our family to live in that farmhouse was a photographer and his widow was still alive.  His photography captured a time in Adams County that wasn’t often seen on film and there had been a recent showing of his work.

We spent some time looking at Jim Lott’s photographs, like the one on the right, of his life on the farm. They were really amazing to see.

Eventually we took off to see the farmhouse with our own eyes. On our way there, Randy told us that when Felix had gotten too old to farm, he built a “city house” inside the city limits of Gettysburg and we were about to go by it.

As luck would have it, it was for sale and Mrs. Lott knew the realtor. She called and asked if we could see inside.  This was more than I could have ever imagined seeing–I felt like I had just walked into a  history book.

Felix's city house, built in 1896.

I couldn’t believe I was walking around inside the house that my 3rd great-grandfather had once lived in. There were traces of him still there–he had the cross from his Union Army regiment carved into the woodwork around the doors.

The realtor had a copy of the original deed, which included a photo of the family on the front lawn. Felix is standing, with his hat in his hand with a long white beard that is halfway down his chest. He was probably around 50 years old, but he looked much older.

If this has been all that I saw on the trip, it would’ve been enough, however  we were off to the farmhouse.  We were not able to go inside, but instead walked around the grounds, including the barn and the old ice house. We were seeing some of the same sights Jim Lott had photographed; I was so happy that much of it looked the same.

I know from archives of the Gettysburg newspaper,  that Felix came to the farm in 1883 with “two young Clydesdale horses, Short-horn and Devon cattle, and Poland china hogs.” He was 35 at the time and had eight children ranging in age from 1 to 16 years old. Their last child was born in Gettysburg, two years after they arrived.

Being able to see and hear so much family history was amazing. While it was the internet that helped Randy find me, it was the fact that we’re both so interested in our family history that made this happen and that Randy had the nerve to call a stranger and ask if I was his cousin. He also writes about history online–he’s a Civil War buff and maintains a very thorough Civil War website. So much of genealogy is visiting graveyards, libraries and archives, but there’s still a human component–even if you’re researching distant ancestors. Stories get passed down, cousins may have stayed connected or the current owners of your ancestor’s old house may have a dusty old photo of your family that came with the deed. None of it is anything I expected, but it was really excellent to have it happen.

the ice house on the farm

 

The photo that came with the deed

The Genealogy of a House

When we decided to buy a 100-ish year old house, I knew I needed to try to find out more about it’s history. The documents we signed for the purchase said it was built in 1915, which I soon found out was wrong.

My first stop was the permit database for my city. I’m lucky, the city of Boston’s permit database is online.  I was hoping to find the original permit to build, but I could not. The first document I found was a note from 1923 when the owners were fined for not getting a license to keep a car in the garage:

Keeping of automobile, with gasoline in tank, in bldg. in rear or premises without a license.

The bldg was formerly used as a play house, built in 1910, Another bldg formerly used for hens, built in 1907 has been attached to it, making it large enough to put an automobile in. Recently a large door was put in. I have been informed that no permit was granted by the Building Department for the alterations.

So, 1915 clearly wasn’t the year it was built. This also explains our little garage. The house inspector had called it a “Buick bump-out”; small additions were often added to garages so that modern cars could fit in them.

I also noticed that the street used to have another name—that of a street it used to connect to, before houses were built in-between, making our street a dead-end at that end and therefore requiring a new name.

I searched the permit database for the original address and found that the land was first surveyed in 1887 and most of the  land was owned by a Mrs. R.M. Otis of Jamaica Plain. I also found notes that contained names of some of the original owners, so I turned to census records to find out more.

Using Ancestry.com‘s census records, I found a family living in our house in 1910, from Austria. The neighborhood was filled with people from Germany, Canada, Ireland, England, Russia, and Italy as well as other parts of Europe. There were masons, seamstresses, tailors, carpenters, bakers, grocery wagon drivers, workers at the local brewery and the man living in our house was a printer. There was a livery stable around the corner, as well.

The permit database tells me a few random things:

  • In 1923, the owners tried to make the house a two-family, but were denied.

It appears they didn’t abide by the denial. Our attic has a sink in it and a capped off gas line, that the sellers told us used to have a small gas stove attached to it. When they bought the house,  they were told that people lived in our uninsulated attic during World War II.

  • In 1947,  the owners received a permit to repair the “rear porch, new foundation, replace flooring, joists etc.”

In an archived city directory, I learn in 1947 the owner was an architect named Joseph. This explains the tiny handprints in the cement wall of the underneath of our back porch with the words “Joe Jr 1948”. It’s fun to tie all of this together.

There’s also drama in the permit database.  Joseph and his wife are upset with the people next door, who have lived there since at least the early 1920s. They park their work trucks behind the house and the exhaust and noise is upsetting. The owners of our house wrote a letter to inspectional services that started:

In July 1942, when we moved here, these trucks were being parked on my property so close to the house that the lower row of shingles was nicked and scraped. These trucks were parked in this manner even though I protested, until we built a small fence and erected it on our own property line, which is three feet away from our house.

This explains the short little fence that runs along one side of our house! It did seem a bit random, but now I get it. The funny thing is, our neighbors are still the same family, and they still run a contracting business. However, in the intervening time, they’ve bought a garage somewhere nearby where the trucks are kept.

Our house was sold to it’s third owners in 1959, a Boston Police officer and his family who lived here for 52 years, when they sold to us.

As much as I like placing my family in history, doing the same for the house I live in is fun. I’d still like to find out who “Mrs. R. M Otis of Jamaica Plain” was, the original owner of all of this land. Perhaps the Jamaica Plain Historical Society  can be of help.

 

Family History in the Context of US History

Ancestry.com recently sent out an email newsletter focused on “Where History and Family History Meet” and it reminded me of the first time I started to think about how my family experienced the history I already knew about. In a turn of events that I’ll no doubt write about here, I found myself with a family genealogy that a distant cousin had put together in the 50s and submitted to the Library of Congress. Aside: no that doesn’t mean we were a famous family–anyone can submit their genealogy to the Library of Congress. 

This genealogy talked of my 4th great grandfather campaigning for William Henry Harrison on horseback in 1839. It was like a lightbulb went off in my head–oh right,these people aren’t just names I plug into a database. It seems obvious, but until that point I just hadn’t thought about how they fit into their own present day America much.

I know that my 4th great-grandfather, Jerome Drais, was born in Virginia. Someone in his family, I’m not sure if it was his father, fought in the War of 1812 and received a land grant in Ohio for his service.  As a young boy, Jerome was moved to Ohio and  married a woman whose family had followed a very similar route: Germany –> Virgina –> Ohio. Her father had been a Captain in the Ohio Militia during the War of 1812.

Now that I’ve read about William Henry Harrison, I know that he, too, was born in Virginia and lived in Ohio. He was also the commander of the Army for some time during the War of 1812 and resigned. For a number of years before he ran for President, Harrison held various political offices in Ohio.

Tippecanoe and Tyler Too

Harrison campaigned as a Whig for the 1840 presidential election, with John Tyler as his vice-presidential running mate. They were cast ast the everyman candidates vs. Van Buren, the wealthy elitist. Meanwhile I think they were all pretty wealthy.  The famous song Tippecanoe and Tyler, too was their campaign song, referencing Harrison leading the Battle at Tippecanoe successfully.

So did Jerome get swept up in the times? Harrison was the first person to ever really campaign hard for president. He also campaigned as a war hero who lived in a log cabin during a huge economic depression and folks related to him. They blamed people like Van Buren. Whatever it was, he rode around Fayette County in Ohio and campaigned.

Alas, Harrison had the shortest presidency ever. He gave the longest inauguration speech ever (2 hours!), without a coat or hat on a cold, wet day. He soon got sick. Within a month he had died and John Tyler became President. Jerome lived through another ten presidents and a Civil War in which five of his sons fought–two were prisoners of war and one (my 3rd great grandfather) was wounded at Gettysburg. It’s amazing to think of the things he lived through.

*Random fascinating fact: two of John  Tyler’s grandsons are still alive!

image-source 

The history you can touch

Tangible history is always interesting to check out when doing genealogical research. By “tangible history”, I mean the street your great-grandparent’s lived on, the house your 3rd great-grandfather built, the land they worked, or even just going to the town ancestors lived in to see the same mountain tops in the distance that they saw every day.

The access to this kind of history is vastly different depending on which side of my family I’m researching. My father’s family has been in Alabama since the early 1800s, for the most part in the same county. They moved around a lot, so there’s no family homestead to go back and see. When I go to Alabama to visit family, I’ve never been able to drive around with my notes to different roads and towns to check out where my family used to live.

One exception was when I drove  to an old cemetery in Sylacauga with my dad, his brother and his uncle. It was off of a main road and up a small windy hill.  On the way up, we drove near where my grandmother had lived when she was young–a much more rural or country-looking place than I had seen before.  The cemetery was a small hanging-moss-covered cemetery. We had to push branches out of our way as we walked to my great-great grandparent’s grave (to the right).  My uncle remembered that my great-great grandfather used to smoke Prince Albert Tobacco from a tin and that he had lost an arm in the cotton mill. I had never heard these stories, but being there prompted them.

It was definitely a rare moment for my father’s side of the family.

My experience on my mother’s side is nearly the opposite.  Right now, my parents live close enough to walk to the cemetery where my great-grandmother is buried.  I’ve visited at least once a year for my entire life.  The first house my Armenian great-grandparents lived in when they came to Watertown from Syria (via New Hampshire) is still standing and I’ve been by it many times. I’ve walked on the streets they walked on. I know the view they had from their front porch. I didn’t have to conduct research to hear stories about this side of the family–they were all round me. Seeing these pieces of history, always prompted stories, like they did in Alabama. The difference here is that it happened often, so I have more stories and anecdotes to fill in for the 10 years between each census record I transcribe.

It’s always worth it to make the trip to the places where your ancestors lived; at least it has been for me.