FamHist Blog

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Saw Dust and Dark Holes

When our side-by-side refrigerator failed a while ago, we were inconvenienced to the point we had to hurriedly eat as much ice cream as we could stomach and hurriedly cook the meat and other frozen goods in the freezer lest it all go to waste.

During our marriage, other refrigerators have also failed to function, immediately throwing us into action to find a repairman or to purchase a replacement unit.

We’re a bunch of softies.  Probably about as tough as marshmallows.

Of course, here at the manor, we have addressed that issue with other means of surviving without a functioning ice box, but they are so inconvenient.   They don’t even provide ice and cold water on tap.

icesaw Looking at the locations where my ancestors lived using Google Earth, I can still make out the outlines of the pond on the old homesteaded farm.  The water in the pond was used by my great grandfather to water his stock, as a flood control tool and to supplement his income in the hot summer months.

No, folks in the 1800’s didn’t pay him to swim in the pond, but they did pay him for the water. —  Frozen water in July.

Every fall, he and his sons would clean the pond of any debris and fill it to the top of the banks.  Within a few weeks, the pond became an ice skating rink for the enjoyment of his family, at least for a little while.

When the ice was sufficiently thick, he and the boys would venture onto the pond, drill or break a hole and proceed to saw the ice into blocks.

The ice was stored in what was in essence, a tunnel (a generous description of the hole) carved into the several hundred foot tall hill to the east.  Grandpa and his brother dug it not long after they homesteaded the 400 acres of prime mountain land.

The earthen ‘refrigerator was well supplied with saw dust that had been collected from cutting wood to burn in the stoves and in clearing the oak brush from the land.

In the ice harvest, a layer of ice was laid on the floor, fitted together much like a rock wall.  The different sized blocks were meshed together on a deep bed of sawdust.  They were covered with another layer of saw dust and the process was repeated, layer after layer, harvest after harvest.

By spring, the cache was full of ice and since the entry door was well shaded by cottonwood trees along the creek and the natural ground temperature of the tunnel hovered around 60 F, the added cooling of the slowly melting ice was sufficient to prolong its frozen life into warm weather.

When late May and June rolled around, the stores in town had a need for a cooling resource that now commanded a premium price.  By July 4th, the price topped out and the last of the dwindling resource was sold off as the last frozen ‘cash crop’ asset to meet hard currency income needs until the fruit, produce and hay was ready for market.

Fort Canyon ice was always in high demand because of the purity of the water.  While growing up below the old farm, a drink from the tap in the kitchen sink still seemed like you were drinking liquid ice well in to July.  But ‘cool’ wasn’t the cold required to keep the meat lockers in the store or ice boxes in the homes cold enough to extend the life of last years beef, pork and chicken harvest.

My uncles used to stop by our house at O’Dark Thirty on Saturday mornings, just to taste that cold Alpine water.  Back in the day, to enjoy the same soothing draught, they’d have to drink directly from the mountain runoff stream above town to get their cold ‘fix’.  Back then, if you wanted a clean, clear block of ice, you’d talk to great grandpa .  Cash or barter would change hands and soon a wagon loaded with lumpy dripping sawdust would arrive at your door with your order.

The ice crop cycle continued for several generations on the farm but it seemed like ice produced more heat than cooling.

icetongs You got hot in the summer sun while burning energy cutting wood.  Hot gathering the saw dust and putting it in the hillside refrigerator.  Hot cutting ice with long saws.  Hot hauling it to the cave, and finally, hot while delivering it.  Fortunately, this time, you at least had a side benefit from your labors, because you had something cool to lay on for a minute and something cool to drip down the front of your overalls as a welcome relief from all of the heat you’d generated.

I don’t work that hard to enjoy a little cool today.  Not for our whole house air conditioning, our ice cream, cold milk or even for a cold soda in the summer months.  The hard won energy temporarily captured in ice isn’t as difficult to capture and enjoy today as it was back in the day.

Soft like a marshmallow.  I guess that the failure of our side-by-side wasn’t that big of a thing, was it?

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19 December 2009 Posted by | Histories | Leave a comment

Grandpa Liked To Sing

While working to put additional information on the fact frames associated with my ancestors, I turned the music to random play.  A male baritone voice cycled into play as I added information to my grandfathers record.  I was immediately reminded of the stories I’d heard of his life long enjoyment of singing.

Huggard Frank Looking through the words I’d added to his history over the years, the only mention of his singular public expression were the words, “Grandpa liked to sing”. 

The stitching of the word quilt that covered his life in my genealogical records didn’t contain one of the most important design elements.  This very private man had one sustainable public facet during his life.  Grandpa liked to sing.

My mother often described her two bedroom childhood home that housed ten or more family members.  They were crowded into every space, especially at night.  Even the screened back porch had cots where grandpa and some of the boys slept year round.  Privacy was just a word.

Grandma cooked from sun up to well after sun down, day after day, year after year, regardless of the temperature in the kitchen.  The old coal stove probably didn’t cool off completely for thirty years.  When it wasn’t heating or baking food, it was warming water for baths and with that many family members, even semi-daily baths taxed its ability to heat enough water.

The large family required a lot of food and the family raised and grew almost everything they consumed.  Grandpa augmented the meager earnings from their “cash crops” with his skilled blacksmith hands.

I only remember really talking to him a few times, even though he lived until after I was married.  He was a shy kind of a fellow unless you were working with him or in his presence regularly. 

Mom said that he would arise at 4:30 a.m. every morning and start the fire in the kitchen stove while the rest of the family slept.  The daily ritual always included numerous selections in his strong baritone voice. 

While the stove warmed, he would prepare a pot of coffee, gather enough wood to feed the stove until his boys got up to do their chores before school and then he’d stare out of the window above the sink trying to read the sky for the weather of the day.  And he would sing.

In the winter months, he stayed in the kitchen to drink his morning cup of Joe, but when the temperature was twenty degrees or warmer, he sat on one of the two steps on the front porch and serenaded the neighborhood. 

I’ve been told by several of those who were kids in the area during the years, that they loved waking to his songs.  He sang old-timey songs, love songs, songs of the season and songs that he made up. 

He didn’t take requests.  In fact, if anyone approached him or even glanced at him with too much interest while walking down the street, he’d immediately stop singing and go inside.  He was a shy kinda guy.

When I was five, he took me out to his blacksmith shop one afternoon while he worked to repair the rakes on a hay rake.  Even though I was a small town kid, I wasn’t a farm kid and was basically useless pumping the bellows.  At least, I was until he taught me the rhythm of the pump.  Singing a song with emphasis on the final word in each stanza, he showed me how to keep the heat in the hearth just right so he could work the metal with his hammer on the anvil for a few minutes before returning it for more heat.

It was an unusual day in my experience with him, because while my reedy five-year-old voice called out the bellows-pumping ditty, he sang harmony and circled my tune with layers and layers of beautiful music.  In fact, it was so beautiful that he had to remind me to start pumping again several times when I stood in silent amazement at music coming out of this quiet man.

Huggard Frank feeding sheep_sm He sang to his dog, to his sheep and to a cow that day too.  They liked it.  I could tell.  Their heads all popped up and they all moved to the point of their pens and pastures closest to him when he turned to face them over the bellows.  It wasn’t a new experience for them, but like me, they all stood still in rapt attention to the generator of such beautiful sounds.

Grandpa sang at funerals in town with three other fellows during most of his life.  I suppose he knew that the attendees weren’t going to ask him to sing a song just for them at those times and as one of four, most of the limelight spread away from him even though his voice was the pillar that supported the less dynamic notes sang by the others.

Some say that if he ever had a little liquor, his shyness retreated a little but even then it was contained among his circle of friends who each had a bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon in their paws. 

I wish I’d heard his morning concerts, but never did.  I asked him to sing a few songs once when I was sixteen, but he declined.

Grandpa was a shy kind of a man.



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27 June 2009 Posted by | Histories | , , | Leave a comment

The Kindness of Alexander Duff

Not all of the life of my 8th great grandmother, Jane O’Laggan, was perfect.  Born near the Glenlivet River in Laggan, Morayshire, Scotland to James O’Laggan, she married David MacWilliam of the Stewart Clan when she was eighteen.   The young couple were not rich, but David was able to make their lives comfortable with the earnings from his mill and a home at Pittyvaich, Morayshire

The land produced few crops but there was enough feed for the family to own some sheep and several cows.  Winters were especially hard but the residents of Dufftown were Pittyvaich Morayshire Scotland Mapresilient and hundreds of generations had passed down the skills to survive in the ofttimes difficult climate.

The MacWilliam’s had a growing family of young children when disaster struck.  David became ill and died, leaving Jane with little income and in debt.

After struggling for a short time, David’s cousin, Alexander Duff, turned his eye to the family.  

Cousin Alexander was a rotter, according to a rare document that I found on a shelf in the basement of the Banffshire Field Club, titled “The Gordon’s of Laggan” written by John Malcolm Bulloch.

The document covers my Gordon ancestry and associated lineages.  The ancestral research was commissioned by my 5th great granduncle, Cosmo Gordon.  The MacWilliam branch of our family notes that there were two David MacWilliam’s in succession.  Reading from the entry for David MacWilliam Sr., a sad commentary spills off the page.

“David, his son, married Jane, daughter of James O’Laggan, and died while a young man, leaving her a widow with several children.  She was prevailed upon to dispose of Pittyvaich and the mill to Alexander Duff of Braco, her husband’s cousin, in terms as little creditable to him as disreputable to herself, it being constantly reported in that part of the country that she sat down in the mill dam to stop the mill that he might take infeftment of it, the miller refusing to do it.  Be this as it may, her children were reduced to great distress, for which Braco appeared perfectly indifferent, being a man callous to humanity, as well as natural affection, if he could by any means gratify his thirst for the acquirement of lands.  The daughter (Jane O’Laggan) then married John Forbes of Keithack, son to Gordon Arthur Forbes, and left several children.”

With no thanks to Alexander Duff, the MacWilliam children survived these deep impacts on their lives.  One of the daughters, Anne MacWilliam, is my seventh great grandmother.  Anne married James Gordon of the Gordon family in about 1712.   James was born in Achlochrach, Morayshire and the couple were the grandparents the above mentioned Cosmo Gordon and my fifth great grandmother, Elizabeth Gordon.

Once again, history has recorded the bad deeds and avarice of man.  He couldn’t take any of his lands and properties with him when he passed but in their place left a sad story that will ne’r be forgotten.



4 April 2009 Posted by | Histories | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Story Pages

I’ve talked about adding color to personal histories and family stories in earlier posts. Recently, I created a Story Page on Footnote about one of my ancestors, Susanna North Martin, who was hung as a witch in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692.

The court documents related to her trial and eventual execution for the mythical crime are full of her own words. They also include both the imagined and false statements of her accusers and the unimaginable mindset of the local government at that time. Reading them gives us a unique insight into the social conditions that existed in Salem, Massachusetts over 300 years ago.

My wife and I have visited the spot where grandma, along with a number of other innocents, was hung. From our current day perspective, I was both saddened and angered as we walked around gallows hill thinking of that sad event.

However, without the accusations, subsequent trial and hanging, grandma Martin’s record would consist of little more than a name and associated dates and places in my database. Her story would have no ‘flesh’ on it… No ‘color’.

Have you been able to add ‘color’ to the life stories of your own ancestors? Start with those closest to you and then work back in time. The key to success is to ‘just do something’ or as the old Nike’ ad said, “Just Do It!

Begin at the beginning by writing your own life history. Then add photos, documents and related memorabilia associated with ‘your’ story. Next, write the stories of your parents lives. Remember to include some of those old family favorite stories that you heard while growing up. Add photos and other pieces of ‘color’ to bring your stories to life.

When we read grandma Martin’s Story Page on Footnote … complete with the transcripts associated with her arrest, trial and conviction, … it helps us understand her ‘world’ and society. The old stories become fact in our minds as we view the original pages and handwriting. ‘Color’ fills in between the rows of facts and engages our mind and imagination.

Her tale of legal woe begins with an arrest warrant. It lists her crime, accusers and officers of the court. Click here to read it.

Her story does have a semi-happy ending though. Grandma was pardoned by the legislature of the State of Massachusetts on 31 Oct 2001 …. 309 years after she was hung for being a ‘witch’.
Susanna Martin - Arrest Warrant - Accused of being a Witch - 1692 Salem, MA

18 October 2007 Posted by | Histories | Leave a comment

Leave a Legacy

When you think of your parents, grandparents and other ancestors, do you have anything that they owned or created? My wife has been a quilter all of her life and has created wonderful quilts for our family, children and grandchildren. She has made all of them quilted wall hangings that reflect their personalities, show the season of the year and even calendar special family dates.

When our daughters were youngsters, she made most of their clothing including special quilted vests that they loved to wear. The clothing wore out as it passed through the family, but our granddaughters still wear the vests that their mothers wore at the same age. Now, grandma has made each of our granddaughters quilted vests and our grandsons vests and hats to wear and pass on to their children…. All are legacies created by their grandma Drew.

Connie’s love for quilting has passed on to our daughters and daughter-in-laws. Connie and the girls make an annual ‘sisters’ quilt for each other. Each of them creates quilt squares of their own design and then forwards them to the next oldest person in the group. That person adds more original squares that complement the theme and sends the quilt on its way again.. At the end of the full rotation, each of them has a beautiful unique quilt, created with the love of their talented ‘sisters’.

Are you creating ‘Legacy’ items for your family? They will love your work and as time goes on, the value of your Legacy creations will exceed that of gold in the minds of your descendants.

Enjoy the story below about another grandmother’s quilts…

28 June 2007 Posted by | Histories | , | Leave a comment