FamHist Blog

Family History Research Hints and Tips

The Tale of the Tail

I continue to receive requests for more ‘Elwood Drew’ stories.  Apparently, tales from his life are as funny to others as they have always been to me.

Born prematurely in the early 1900’s, the midwife didn’t think he would live, so she put him in a shoebox wrapped in a blanket and stuck him on the open oven door of the wood stove in the kitchen.  After caring for his mother, she was surprised to find him still alive when she went back into the kitchen.

When a horse stepped on his foot as a youngster, the horse shoe perfectly cut off his little toe.  He picked it up and took it to his mother who proceeded to clean both the toe and his foot and then sewed the toe back on with her needle and black thread.  I know this happened because he used to show the scars to me when I’d complain about getting immunization shots at school.

I remember watching him use his pocket knife to carve out several teeth that were bothering him when we didn’t have the money to go to the dentist.  Home remedies and home doctor’n were not strangers in our family.

The older generations were tougher than us I suppose.

whiskey_bottle_smPrior to World War II, my parents lived in Park City, Utah, where my father worked in the mines.  One of my mothers brothers lived with them while he too worked as a miner.

For various reasons, boils and carbuncles were more common place back then.  If you’ve ever had one or more of them, you understand how painful they are.

Late one evening, Dad and my uncle decided to use some ‘medicinal’ whiskey to try and fix a couple of extremely painful boils that were on the posterior of my uncles anatomy.

After testing the whiskey for poisons, they found that they’d used all of the contents. Dad turned and put the empty bottle on the coal stove in the kitchen to warm it up with the intent of using it to draw out the core of the boils as it cooled down.

Dropping his drawers, Earl presented the awful swellings to my father for remediation.

Dad put the mouth of the hot whiskey bottle over the worst offender and then they waited for it to cool and create the intended suction to pull the core free.

coal_stoveWhen telling me the story, he said that everything didn’t go quite as planned.  The boil wasn’t quite ‘ripe’ and the core wouldn’t come out.  The rapidly cooling bottle began to suck Earl’s posterior inside the narrow neck of the bottle.

Dad said that when a little over an inch of boil and surrounding flesh had been drawn into the bottle, Earl’s aplomb vanished and he began to dance around the kitchen exclaiming all kinds of things.

Apparently, his thought process increased significantly, because he rallied long enough to run to the side of the cast iron stove where he could literally, “twist and shout” and strike the bottle against the metal.

There must be a certain skill set required to break a whiskey bottle attached to your tush by swinging it against a stove, because it took a number of swings to do the trick.  After each swing, Earl’s exclamations became louder and the suction seemed to consume even more of his tender flesh.  Finally, the bottle broke and released its embrace on his rear assets.

Of course, by that time, all of the family had been awakened and had run downstairs to see who was being killed in the kitchen.

There was less psychological damage to the minds of my older siblings who witnessed the naked tush of our uncle than you might suppose.  None of them ever exhibited any lasting effects from the vision, but from time to time, I have witnessed tears run from their eyes when they’ve been together and revisited the ‘Tale of the tail’.

Family stories are a treasure.  I hope you are recording your own stories.

31 July 2009 Posted by | Diaries, Family History | , , , | Leave a comment

Christmas in April

Christmas came to our house on Apr 30th this year.  Years ago, I saw the diary of my great grandfather, David Lewis Drew, in Copperopolis, California.  One of my older distant cousins had it in his possession.  He allowed me to take one photo of it and then sent me on my way.  When I developed the film, none of the photos on it were any good.  The film stock was bad from the factory.

David Lewis Drew's Diary When my cousin died, his attorney called and asked if I had anything coming to me.  I mentioned that my cousin said I could have the diary, but that was the end of the conversation.  I never heard from him again.

Last week, a second cousin in California found my website and sent me a note.  She’d had the diary in her possession since the death and had recently looked at it with renewed interest.  Searching the web, she found my family history website and sent me a note

Long story short.  The journal is sitting in front of me as I write this note.  I can’t keep it but I’m touching it and will scan the pages.  They contain all my great grandfathers recorded thoughts during his first year in California during the tail end of the gold rush.  He left Plymouth, Massachusetts, sailed down around the Cape in a very long voyage and joined the rest of multitudes who were looking for their fortunes. 

Long ago, I transcribed the diary text from an old historical newsletter found in the Calaveras County Historical Society vaults.  It can be seen here

David Lewis Drew Two contiguous entries state that he finished the Bible and started reading it again the next night.  I love those two entries.

Over the years, several folks from around the country have contacted me about the diary.  Their ancestors are mentioned in its pages.  One of them is a professional genealogy speaker and uses my site and the entry about her great granduncle in her speeches.   I just talked to her and am going to send her a copy of the image for that page, etc.   She is as excited about it (her soon to be “held” treasure) as I am about my good fortune.

Looking at the names of great grandpa’s mining partner and other associates, I decided to find out who they were in life.  Two of the three men he partnered or worked with in the gold fields were his distant cousins!  In fact, his primary partner, Len Covington, was a distant cousin seven times over.  That happens when families live in the same area like Plymouth, Massachusetts for three hundred years before the descendants start to scatter around the world.  The other part-time partner was ‘only’ a cousin four times. 

Did these fellows decide to leave Plymouth for the wild and woolly gold fields in California together?  I’m trying to trace down any ship passenger records to see if they traveled together.  It was a very long trip across land and many of not most of the folks from Massachusetts who participated in the gold rush traveled went by ship.  Apparently, some of the intrepid young men opted to sail First Entry - David Lewis Drew Diarythrough the Gulf of Mexico and hike across Panama where they took passage on another ship to Sacramento. 

The remainder took the long journey south around the Cape of South America and then back up the west coast of the Americas to Sacramento.  No matter which path these folks took to find their fortunes, the trip was long and arduous. 

Now for the rest of the story…  Also in the package were a dozen photographs of David Drew’s family in California.  Working from the smallest photo to the largest, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  I think I have a photo of my brick wall ancestor, Thomas Farrar!  I’ve looked for him for over 50 years.  I can’t prove it yet, but will spend considerable time trying to find out the truth behind the photo.

Next were photos of all of David’s children except my grandfather (he ran away to Utah at age 16 and apparently was disinherited from the family).  

I was finally down to the last photo.   It is in the largest old mounting cover.   Opening the flaps, I found a photo of my father and aunt when they were youngsters.  It was obviously taken during at the same photo setting as a photo we have but none of the living descendants of my Utah Drew grandparents have ever seen this pose before.  It is in mint condition…  Wonderful…  AND I like the pose better…

I know a few of you have had similar experiences like this during your own ancestral quest and can appreciate my excitement. 

Christmas presents?  They are nothing.   It was Christmas at our home on April 30th.  The photos and diary are valued beyond price in my opinion.




2 May 2009 Posted by | Diaries, Journals, Photos | , , , , , | Leave a comment

If Wishes Were…..


We all have certain presents we’d like to receive for Christmas but know that they’ll probably never actually appear.

In 1986 I made slight detour coming home from business meetings in northern California and stopped in Angel’s Camp, California to meet a long lost cousin.   When I arrived, I found him teaching tennis to some youth on a tennis court, sweaty, a little winded and extremely busy.

The Diary

My cousin, Gerald Turner, had inherited two precious possessions from our common great grandfather.  I asked to see David Lewis Drew’s diary.  He pointed toward his office and said go ahead look at them.  The diary was small, about 4″ x 6″ and an inch thick.  It was filled with entries from David’s first year in California during the Gold Rush in Calaveras County.   I took two photos of the pages with the little disposable camera I had purchased after my camera died two days earlier, hoping they would turn out and I’d at least have a sample of grandpa’s writing.  Neither of the photos were readable after the film was developed but the photo of the old secretary was ok.

I thanked Gerald for allowing me to see and handle them.  During our closing remarks, I mentioned that I’d love have them if he ever decided to dispose of them and emphasized that the diary was especially precious in my opinion.   He said that he’d like to see them stay in the family, shook hands and turned to greet the next tennis class that had just arrived.

Gerald died not too long afterward and I was called by his estate attorney asking if I wanted anything from his estate.   I replied that I wanted the journal and would love to have the secretary.   The phone was silent for a few moments and then he said that he was sorry, but that neither item was in the estate.

Where had they gone?  He promised to look into it but was never able to find what happened to them.  I had touched and briefly read pages in the diary.   How I wish it would show up under the tree this Christmas.  It is priceless to me but probably just junk to almost everyone else.

The Box of Records

While reading letters Gerald’s sister, Hattie, had written to my mother, she mentioned that her mother had all of the genealogical records and documents that our great aunt, Julia Drew Tower had collected during her life including items given her by our Tirrill aunts in Stewartstown, New Hampshire.

They were stored in an old box in Hattie’s mothers home.   When she died the box disappeared.   Hattie’s letter listed the items in the box and I wished I could see and copy them.   I’m sick that they were probably thrown away.   Again, they were probably just trash to others, but would be like diamonds to me.    I’d be ecstatic if the box and contents showed up under the tree this year.  How I wish they would…

The Miracles

Walking down the hall to my office today, I stopped to look at all the large old photos of my ancestors hanging on the walls.  I still can’t believe that I have them.

When I was about seven, my mother took me with her to my grandfathers house.   Her siblings were cleaning ‘stuff’ out of the old home and tearing down the old barn.   The old trash wood from the barn and much of the ‘stuff’ from inside the home were tossed into a fire so it didn’t have to be hauled off to a garbage dump.

Old magazines, clothing, stacks of family papers and other items were quickly dispatched before we arrived.  My mother was disturbed that they had been destroyed before she had a chance to look through them for ancestral records and mementos from her youth.  We wished we’d arrived earlier to intervene.

When were getting ready to leave, she suddenly had an idea.  Maybe something was still left in the attic behind the trap door.  Crawling up on the sink in the bathroom, I tipped the attic door open and crawled up into the dusty and dank attic space.   I didn’t have a flashlight, so I used my hands to feel around to find anything left there.

Mom’s intuition was right.  There were dusty old framed photos leaning against a rafter brace behind the door that you wouldn’t see unless looking for them specifically.   The photos were of my great grandparents and second great grandparents.  Wow!  I found treasure.

When lowering them down though the opening, I saw tears came to mom’s eyes.   She was delighted that they hadn’t been burned.   Eventually, she gave them to me, knowing how much I’d treasure them.

Ten years ago, my wife received a call from her great aunt saying that if she would come up to her home over the weekend she would give her some genealogy items that she would enjoy.  Once again, good fortune came to our family.  She received the same type of large old photos of her ancestors that I’d received years ago too.

Christmas came early when we received our respective ancestral photos.   We couldn’t imagine gifts of such magnificence.  Treasure!

This holiday season, verbalize your own ancestral gift wishes.   Some times, if wishes were …. they actually come true.

Start your list today.   Dear Santa…….  I want …..

5 December 2008 Posted by | Diaries, Research Tips | , | Leave a comment

Keeping a Diary and Other Records

Since you are interested in family history, you need to be sure to keep your own living history on a regular, hopefully daily, basis.

The sad news we see today of bank failures, stock market plunges and countries falling into bankruptcy bring back memories of a very bad time in the world in the late 1920’s – early 1930’s.   great_depression

The Great Depression destroyed many fortunes and seriously impacted the lives of millions of people worldwide.

My siblings were alive at that time, but but being considerably younger I only know about its impact through family stories.  Or so I thought.

Recently, I reviewed the genealogical information my mother gave me and found an old account book that my parents and grandparents kept.  The entries tell the story.

My parents had to move back on the farm when my father lost his job as a miner.  The only lodging available to them was an old run down log cabin in Fort Canyon.  Mom said that they spent days filling the gaps between the logs with mud mixed with straw to block out the wind.

They covered the walls of the children’s bedroom with comic pages from old newspapers because they couldn’t afford anything else.

Dad worked for his cousin Dewey Bennett to earn some hard cash.  The account book entries tell the story for April, 1930.

Ten entries for cultivating for 8 hours a day.

One entry for hauling manure to the fields for 8 hours.

Seven entries for plowing the fields for 8 hours.

For all of this work, he was paid $42.50 of which $20.15 was returned to Dewey for rent and farm produce to eat.  Another $14.30 was paid to the doctor and $7.00 for clothing.  That left mom and dad with $6.85 cash to spend to support their three children for the month.

When the sheriff and posse came asking for dad’s help in finding the deer poacher, he readily agreed.  After a very long day, they returned home empty handed.  The poacher had eluded capture.   Little did the sheriff know that while my father was leading the group as far away from the cabin as possible, my mother was busy bottling the meat from the deer so her family would have something to eat.

I sincerely hope we don’t see conditions like that again.  Few people have farms today that can offer lodging and food in a failed economy.

Can I support my own family in similar conditions?   I don’t know.  I hope I don’t have to find out, but know that it is possible, thanks to my fathers handwritten entries in the old account book.

Do you have similar stories, old diaries, account books, family bibles, etc., in your possession?   If so, protect them like they are gold, but don’t forget to mine the family history ‘gold’ from them at the same time.

9 October 2008 Posted by | Diaries, Journals, Research Tips | , , | Leave a comment

Essence of New Mown Hay

Often, old journal or diary entries don’t make much sense to us. The idioms that were so common when they were written are now lost in time. I’ve found that to be true today as well.

Not long ago at work one of my young co-workers came into the office in ‘thongs’. Surprised that she was wearing them when it was so cold outside, I asked, “why do you have thongs on today”. Imagine my surprise when voices went silent, keyboards stopped clacking and heads turned.

“Thongs?” “I don’t have a thong on” she said with a disconcerted glare at me. Bewildered, I looked at her feet and brilliantly said, “well, what do you call them?” More heads turned our direction, the silence was deeper than ever. Who knew that they called “thongs” “flip flops” now?

Apparently, intent on digging myself in even deeper, I exclaimed, “Well, I used to wear them when I was younger”.

From this now entertaining exchange, I observed that my native language has changed in my life time. Why they call underwear “thongs” is still beyond me, but then, why did they call flip-flops “thongs’ when I was a kid? A name is just a reference point that people agree on.

Before my wife and I were married, we visited her great grandmother. She kindly gave us an old book by the title of “Austin’s Indispensable Handbook and General Educator”. It was apparently written sometime in the 1870’s. I often open it to see if I can find the meaning of some term used by folks in that day so I can understand the words in old letters and diaries.

Page 383 of the book has always been my favorite. It contains a recipes for homemade colognes and toiletries with titles ranging from Pond Lily Extract to Esterhazy Bouquet to New Mown Hay Extract.

I grew up loving the smell of “new mown hay”. Did my ancestors like it enough to make a cologne that smelled like it too? Hey!, they had very discerning taste! It sounds much better than some of the flowery scents they try to push on men today.

Do you want to impress your spouse and the folks at work with this agrarian scent too? Here are the two recipes from page 383.

NEW MOWN HAY EXTRACT — Take of Tonka tincture, 2 ounces; tincture of musk, tincture of benzoin, extract of moss-rose and deodorized alcohol, each, 4 drachms; ottos of rose geranium and bergamot, each, 20 drops.

NEW MOWN HAY EXTRACT, ANOTHER — Take of extract of Tonka, 6 1/2 ounces; extract of orris, 2 ounces; extract of musk, 1 1/2 ounces; extract of vanilla and styrax, each, 2 drachms; ottos of bergamot and sandal, each, 15 drops; otto of neroli, 4 drops; ottos of rose, English lavender and patchouly, each, 2 1/2 drops; otto of clove, 1 1/2 drops; benzoic acid, 23 grains; deodorized alcohol, enough to make one pint.

Apparently, the names of some weights and measures have changed since then.

Now do you understand why you have to get into the ‘heads’ of your ancestors when you are researching their lives? It’s all about reference points and the idioms of the day. If you take the time to understand them, your quest will be much easier.

Oh, by the way, if you decide to make a batch of Essence of New Mown Hay, let me know how turns out

21 January 2008 Posted by | Diaries, Journals | , , | Leave a comment