A couple of years ago, while undertaking a heavy revision of Hagridden, I used the funds from my Oregon Literary Fellowship to take a research trip to the Louisiana bayou. While I was there, I also spent some time with my family down there, and my uncle Brad, who had recently been clearing out his storage, gave me a large stack of papers and photos and odds-and-ends he’d inherited from my grandmother, who’d inherited it from her mother, and so on. My uncle wasn’t even sure exactly what all was in the stack or if I’d want any of it. But I’m a family-history packrat and love poring through anything related to my forebears, so I eagerly wrapped the whole bundle in a cloth and packed it in my suitcase.
When I got home, I had so much Hagridden-related material to get through that I stashed the bundle on a bookshelf next to a shoebox of my grandmother’s old letters and carried on with my routine. But yesterday, looking for some research material on the book I’m currently writing, I found that bundle again and, glad for the distraction from work, sat down to sift through the papers.
Folks, call me a nerd, but this stack is an absolute trove!
Among the documents in the stack, I found a tiny old Christmas card; a funeral notice from Quanah, Texas, from 1930, a pocket-sized Gospel of St. John from 1917; a pair of marriage certificates and a sheaf of obituaries; two fascinating letters, including one addressed to my great-great grandmother from her sister who lived here in Portland (!); and an entire lineage of family land deeds stretching clear back to 1909, including a Homesteaders claim filed in 1911.
This all sounds like fairly boring fare, and on the surface, it is. Most of it is just bureaucratic paperwork or long-ago family ephemera. But I love details, because for me, story lives in the gaps between seemingly dull details like this, and this stack of pages is chock full of story!
Let’s start with the Homesteader land deed, just becauseI geeked out when I saw the signer authorizing the claim: William H. Taft, President of the United States! I know, he’s not our most glamorous president, but a family friend gave me a Presidents trivia book when I was a kid, and the items in that book I found most fascinating (after the stories of Abe Lincoln) were the stories about Taft. And here I have his signature on a Federal document connected to my family. Wild!
Digging through those deeds, I started putting together a picture of my great-great grandparents, who, it turns out, were quite modern for 100 years ago! In fact, the very first land title I have in this stack, from 1909, was signed over to my great-great grandmother, who, though married eleven years at the time, still bought a parcel of land in her own right — her name is on the title. She bought 40 acres for $800, the land abutting a lot her husband bought that same year, but these 40 acres were in her name. A couple of years later, my great-great grandparents took out a mortgage on a different plot of land (presumably to finance some other investment), and they are both named on the mortgage, husband and wife alike. (They paid off that mortgage in two years, so apparently the investment worked out.)
None of this was written down in narrative form, by the way. This is something I’m putting together from a series of deeds and financial documents, with a marriage certificate tossed in for context. This is the way I piece together stories.
Also cool (for purely personal reasons): that great-great grandfather is named Samuel, the only other one in my recent(ish) family history (though I wasn’t named for him), and he was a dentist. That means that though there are only two Samuels in my family, we’re both “Dr. Sam”!
Speaking of Dr. Sam: I also found this 1906 letter, addressed to my mother’s grandfather and typed by Dr. Sam’s brother-in-law, and the language in it is fascinating.
I love the idiosyncrasies of the spellings and neologisms (“Nethiew,” “congradualtions,” “circumstancuated”) as an indication of character, and for the same reason, I love some of these lengthy, word-packed sentences — that whole first paragraph is, amazingly, a single sentence! There’s also a wonderful blending of familiarity and formality in the tone (“I trust that my small offering will appear acceptible to you. I subcribe myself, with lots of love, Your Uncle”) that seems so much a part of this time and place. For a writer of historical fiction, letters like this contain a lot of clues to the actual human beings who lived back then, to the ways they wrote and possibly spoke.
And then there’s my favorite document, a budget book from my mother’s great-aunt Beth, from a year spanning 1919 to early 1920. This, too, is one of the least interesting things you’d ever want to read unless you’re a writer or a historian or some related profession, but for this writer, it’s invaluable.
Take, for instance, the pages and pages of what are effectively shopping lists with prices:
Thanks to just this page in the budget book, I know — not in a cold, abstract way but from a human perspective — that in Oklahoma, in March 1919:
- Crayola crayons cost five cents (the original eight-color box had been around for only 16 years at this time, and apparently, the price hadn’t changed since its introduction)
- a cup of grease (probably lard?) ran twenty cents
- candy was a quarter (which was probably a LOT of candy, but the women in my mother’s family have always been known for their sweet-teeth)
- six gallons of gas would run you $1.35 (that’s 22.5 cents a gallon)
I also know that some folks didn’t buy radishes — they bought radish seeds (ten cents) and planted the radishes themselves. I also know that a person — or this person, anyway — was likely to buy all these things in a single shopping trip.
There are also bills paid, the occasional lumped shopping trips (Mar. 11, “Groceries,” $1.60), and the rate at which someone might top up the gas tank (eleven days, Mar 4. to Mar. 15).
But the budget book also includes some other treats for the keen eye:
I was reading this page aloud to my wife and she stopped me to ask, “What are Post Toasties?”
Answer: they’re one of the first ever breakfast cereals, created in the early 1900s by CW Post to compete with the original, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. And here in my great-great aunt’s budget book, in January 1920, she didn’t simply write down “cereal” or even “breakfast cereal” — she used the brand name. That’s a telling detail!
And note immediately below that: “Rub No More.” I knew the Post Toasties name on sight, but I had to look up Rub No More. Turns out it’s a soap or “washing powder,” and again, my great-great aunt didn’t simply write “soap” — she used the brand name.
This isn’t always consistent — sometimes she simply lists products by type, like hand lotion or engine oil — but the budget book is full of old brand names: Silkatum, Laxalets, Pepsodent, Grape Nuts, Tuffie Tube, Krumbles.
None of this, alas, is in the right time period for my current novel, and I really need to stop digging through it. But I keep thinking how valuable all this is, who are the people who lived these lives, and I’ve realized something: Hagridden is set in the last years of the Civil War in Louisiana, where I have family. My current novel is set during Reconstruction in Texas, where I have family, with several key chapters set in Arkansas, where I also have family, and the opening scene takes place in 1900. So why not eventually write a novel set in the ‘teens and ‘twenties in Oklahoma, where I was born and where I had family? No idea what the story would be, and I can’t stop to figure it out yet because I need to finish my current book first (though, truth be told, I have a couple of ideas). So I’ll have to set aside all these tantalizing tidbits for now and stay focused on my current work.
But folks, this is the stuff I live for: looking into old lives through the least likely but most intimate of lenses, these old, forgotten papers and miscellanea, and crafting stories about them in my head.