Posts Tagged ‘photos’

My father died last week. American Independence Day was his favorite holiday, so today seems like the best day to share a little about him here. He loved fireworks, and would spend the rest of the year planning out his personal fireworks display for July 4th. We would sit on our back porch, and our neighbors would sit on their back porches, and sometimes guests would be invited too. It was only when I grew up that I fully understood how much planning went into it, and how much pride he took in providing one night of delight a year to the rest of us. Where I live now, fireflies are a recent phenomenon, only coming in the past five years or so and still not seen very often. But where I grew up, fireflies are common in summertime, and the 4th of July was the height of their show. I remember, as twilight came to our neighborhood, running in the front yard with friends, holding sparklers as hundreds of fireflies flew around us while we waited for it to be dark enough for my father’s fireworks show to begin.

Below is my father with his mother and his great-aunts (both are his mother’s aunts).

my father on his mother's lap, with her aunts

Below is my father with his father.

my father as an infant, being held by his father

Below is my father with his aunts (both are his father’s sisters).

my father with his aunts

Below is my father with his little brother, Burrie.

my father with his little brother

Below is my father with his older cousin Janie. They are standing at the edge of the lake where his mother’s ashes were scattered and where his ashes will be scattered as well.

my father as a child, with a smiling Janie.

The thing that’s always gotten me the most about death is that life goes on. One life is snuffed out by natural causes or otherwise, a thousand lives in a tsunami or a battle, millions in a global epidemic or a genocide – no matter how it happens or how many die in one day or one event, the world spins on. Rain is lashing my windows as I finish this post, part of the huge Hurricane Arthur that is moving up the Atlantic Seaboard, and there are still bills to pay and a meal to cook. This is why I started my 52 Ancestors posts with my father’s little brother, Burrie, who died as a child, and why I photograph the gravestones of as many colonial children as I can. No one should be forgotten, no matter where or when they lived, no matter how recent or how long ago, no matter whether they lived for one minute or more than a century. After everyone who knew a person has died, it’s up to genealogists, historians, and archivists to carry on the mantle, to keep their existence known and preserve as much of the past as possible. I hope that after I am gone, this post will remain as a signpost to show that my father existed in this world.

Rest in peace, Dad.

my father as a child, looking out a car window.

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Winifred Burnett, known as “Win” and then “Winnie” to her family, was the last child born to Charles and Addie (Sturtevant) Burnett of Cleveland, Ohio. When Win was a child, she moved with her mother and sisters to Paris for a year, a journal about which I am slowly putting online at Addie’s Sojourn. During their time there, Win and her sister Lillie were sent to a Parisian boarding school. After Addie and the girls returned from Paris, Addie and Charles sent Win and Lillie to an American boarding school. As the youngest in her family, Win was last to finish school. Though their mother had graduated from college in the 1860’s, Win and her sisters were not sent to college by their parents; I don’t know why.

Lillian and Winifred as children

Portrait of Win and her big sister Lillie.

In 1898 Charles died. Win and Lillie were still living at home at the time. By the 1900 census the three of them had relocated from Cleveland to Salisbury, Connecticut; less than two years a widow, Addie told the enumerator how long she’d been married as if Charles were still alive, and it was duly recorded on the census. When I first found the move in my research, I figured that they had most likely chosen to move to be closer to where their married daughter/sister Jane lived, something I’ve often found in my research; many people seem to be much more easily uprooted after they lose a loved one. It turned out that was “yes and no.” In the family documents I subsequently inherited about the Burnetts, the family mentions that their home was broken into shortly after Charles died and they state that this was the biggest impetus to their moving. I found this particularly eerie as I could relate – my home was also broken into, and I never felt safe there afterwards and insisted on moving, feelings they seemed to have shared over a hundred years before the same thing happened to me.

Shortly after the Burnetts moved to Salisbury, they moved again, to West Hartford, Connecticut, and Lillie married there. By the 1910 census, Addie and Winnie were living with Jane and her husband in West Hartford. By the compilation of a 1915 city directory, the mother and daughter duo had moved across the country to burgeoning Los Angeles. Addie’s parents had been from New England, and Addie and Winnie seem to have fit very well into an old New England tradition of the last single daughter remaining at home with the widowed parent, caring for them and keeping them company. In 1916 Addie died at another child’s home in Ohio, and it is not clear from the records I’ve reviewed so far whether Winnie had initially stayed in Los Angeles on her own.

In 1918 Winnie applied to be a World War I volunteer with the United States branch of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). Winnie was part of a change in the American YMCA’s operations; they had opened their wartime volunteering positions to women for the first time in 1917, and between 1917 and 1918 many American women applied to become volunteers in World War I, before American women had won national suffrage and at a time when many criticized the YMCA for allegedly tasking women with work that was neither physically nor emotionally suitable for them. Winnie was one of the women chosen, and she headed to Europe. While no record I have so far for Winnie before 1918 lists her with any occupation at all, in 1918 she was placed as a “Directrice” of secretaries in the YMCA’s European operations. The employee who sent me a copy of Winnie’s volunteering card said they had not seen this position before. To me it suggests that Winnie had prior experience with secretarial work that did not make it onto known extant records, as I doubt she would have been appointed a director of secretaries if she had no experience in the field.

This is one of the difficulties with researching American women prior to the time period when it became relatively common and acceptable for them to work outside the home; often occupations are not listed regardless of whether they actually had one or not, and unless there are extant newspaper articles about their volunteer work, it also may be difficult or impossible to figure out whether they volunteered outside the home and if so, where and doing what. Winnie is not the only American woman for whom I have only located one record listing an occupation and it always makes me wonder how many more worked outside the home without leaving any record at all of it. I think there are many reasons for this, a few of them being that women’s paid work was often supplemental to the family’s income, and perhaps even only taken in “as needed”; that volunteering work tended to be seen as a ‘lower tier’ than paid work (an attitude many Americans still have today); and that the society at large, the woman’s family, and perhaps even the woman herself may have chosen not to disclose that the woman was working outside the home. I know from my family that Addie had a very Victorian attitude about a woman’s place, and that some of my family members believed that this attitude trickled down to her daughters. If Addie was the informant, perhaps she chose not to tell people that her daughter worked or volunteered outside the home. Or perhaps Winnie herself chose not to state so.

According to her volunteer card, Winnie’s YMCA volunteering began on 18 October 1918, and she was “Placed Overseas,” working in France and Germany. Because Winnie had attended a French-language boarding school just outside the walls of Paris for a year, she spoke French. She satisfactorily completed her work, returning to the States on 14 July 1919, and the card says that on 20 October 1919 she was sent a certificate and a pin, like all those who satisfactorily completed their YMCA World War I service. Someone else inherited most of Winnie’s personal papers, and says that Winnie wrote some letters home that discussed the plight of prisoners of war before it was well-known in the States and that Winnie’s brothers-in-law publicized those letters within the States, but to date I have not been allowed personal access to Winnie’s letters and have yet to find any letters to the editor that the inheritor says were part of the publicizing.

Postcard of Strassburg sent by Winnie while she was volunteering in WW1

This postcard of “Strassburg” was sent by Winnie to family in America on a day off while she was volunteering with the YMCA in Europe during World War I. (Original in author’s collection.)

The women who went to work for the American YMCA and the other organizations that allowed women to do European support work during World War I were mostly women who were single and who could financially afford to volunteer for several months. But they also needed the grit for working what were often long hours in frequently difficult conditions, with many of them working close to the front lines, and they also needed the wherewithal to withstand criticisms from many in their society, from some of the people in their communities, and sometimes even from members of their own families.

By the 1920 census, Winnie was living in Manhattan with her widowed sister Jane; both are enumerated with the occupation “none.” By 1930 Winnie had bounced back to Los Angeles, where for the first time she was enumerated as living with non-relatives, in what seems to have been boarding rooms for folks who had moved to Los Angeles from out of state or out of country. On Google Maps the modern address for 2701 Wiltshire Boulevard looks to me like a period apartment building, though I don’t know for sure whether the street numbers have changed in the intervening decades.

Travelling had been introduced into Winnie’s life when she was a child via temporarily moving to France. It was something that stuck with her the rest of her life. As the last single child, she travelled with her mother Addie when Addie returned to Europe, and after Addie and Jane’s husband both died, Winnie travelled with Jane to Hawaii. Eventually Winnie took an overseas trip alone, travelling to what was then known as British Guyana; on the way home in 1939 she was the only passenger who boarded the S. S. Lady Hawkins at Demerara. (Lady Hawkins, which was owned by Canadian National Steamships Ltd. of Montreal, would be torpedoed and sunk by German U-Boat U-66 just under three years later, with the majority of the crew and passengers perishing.)

By 1940 Winnie was again living with her widowed sister Jane, who was by then living in Brookline, Massachusetts, one of the towns that comprises metropolitan Boston. Jane, long the widow of a top insurance company executive, died in Brookline in 1953 with no living descendants, and left her estate to her single sister Winnie, which made the news. My grandfather was one of Winnie’s in-laws, but he appears to have helped Winnie with her finances after her blood relatives died, as I inherited some papers about Winnie’s newly larger 1953 finances and a 1957 letter sent to Winnie about her financial state amongst my grandfather’s papers, in a file with the family’s copy of Jane’s probate file and the file of payments Jane had made as “temporary administratrix and executrix” of her husband’s estate. Winnie’s papers have some notes in my grandfather’s handwriting scattered around the type.

Winnie and her sister-in-law Mary were the last living folks from their generation, and I inherited a bit of correspondence between Brookline-based Winnie and Mary (Hall) Burnett of Victoria, British Columbia, written after Jane died, that suggests they kept regularly in touch. I also inherited a photo of Winnie with someone that the label calls Winnie’s friend, and a photo of Winnie with some French soldiers; while undated, the latter photo seems likely to have been taken while she was volunteering in Europe in World War I. The historical friendships of women are unfortunately less likely to be easily documented like the friendships of men often can be, the latter through the records of and articles about such things as coworkers, societies, civic service, political activities, and pension files.

Winnie, the last surviving Burnett sibling, died in Brookline in 1961 at age 80. Her sister-in-law Mary lived on alone, dying at age 101 in Victoria. Jane and Winnie are buried with Jane’s in-laws in New Jersey.

I wish I knew more about Winnie’s adult life. For example, there must have been some reason she repeatedly chose to live in Los Angeles, but I have no idea what it was. Regardless, I hope this post about Winnie’s life brings broader awareness of the work American women did in World War I and encourages more people to research the lives of relatives who never married.



The Kautz Family YMCA Archives, held by the University of Minnesota Libraries’ Archives and Special Collections Department, include the records of the American women and men who volunteered with the YMCA in Europe during World War I. If you are researching someone who volunteered as Winnie did, you can receive a scan of their volunteering card by emailing a request to the Archives. Typically a volunteering card is all that the Archives will hold on the volunteer; it contains basic information about their volunteering as well as statistical-type information like what level of education the person had completed and what relevant languages beyond English they spoke (if any).

People in the past travelled more than one might expect, and I have found many research subjects who lived and died in a single country in passenger lists, both going within and between countries. Sometimes they travelled for pleasure, but sometimes they were travelling for the military, for work, for volunteering, to adopt an internationally-born child, to visit a family member or friend who was living in a distant location, to take care of a family matter afar, or for unclear/unknown purposes, and some people who weren’t career mariners spent part of their life working as a member of a ship’s crew, sometimes even just as a way to pay their way to living in a new location. For most of the world’s history, in many locations it was easier to get to all but the geographically nearest places by water than by land.

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My great-great-grandparents, David and Clara, started out with lives about as ordinary as possible for Vermont as it neared the middle of the 19th century. David’s parents were farmers; Clara’s parents and her uncle and aunt together ran the general store in the small town that the farms surrounded. Clara’s father was the town postmaster, as was typical for merchants in small towns then. It’s very likely that Clara and David knew each other from childhood, though I have no direct evidence to support that theory. However they met, they married at the end of 1860. I often wonder about what their lives were like then. Did they know that war was coming?

A year later they gave birth to their first child, whose birth was registered without a name by the town clerk. The Civil War was raging by then, and Vermont would go on to have what many believe was  the highest per capita casualty rate in the country. But David and Clara were busy raising a family and running a farm. If they had opinions about the war – and I find it a bit hard to believe that any Vermonter, living in the first place to outlaw slavery in what would become the US, didn’t – those were not included in the family papers that were passed down to me.

Two years later, in the middle of the war, they gave birth to their only other known child. If they had further children, these children didn’t even survive long enough for their short lives to be registered at the town hall. Such a small number of children was not typical of American families at this time. But the demographics of the country were changing. With only two children to raise, David and Clara gave their all to ensuring they had good educations. This was a wise move, as Vermont would shortly lose much of its population as young people sized up their chances in an overcrowded small state after the war ended. And so it came to be that the son of two small-town Vermonters – and my would-be great-grandfather – went to law school and moved to one of the largest cities in the United States, Cincinnati, in search of a brighter future than what was available where he had originated.

My great-grandfather as a young man

My great-grandfather in an albumen photo taken shortly after he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio.

With most people I research, all I can do for their day-to-day lives is speculate based on available outside records & reading social history. But my great-grandfather is a different story. His family saved many of his papers. He had the active social life typical of a young man then or now upon his move to the big city. One of  several saved invitations follows.

Handwritten invitation to play cards

Invitation for my great-grandfather to play cards. The writer wrote so exuberantly that she wrote off the right edge of the paper. While this is dated only ‘Saturday,’ based on the bundle of papers with it, it was very likely from late 1880’s Cincinnati.

My great-grandfather’s life would change dramatically in the span of one year, as he was appointed Clerk of a US Appellate Court and married my great-grandmother. In his journal, also passed down to me, he calls it the most important year of his life.

My great-grandfather in his office at the courthouse

My great-grandfather in his office at the courthouse, dated very shortly after he was appointed Clerk of a US Appellate Court.

Through the comparably large number of my great-grandfather’s items that the family saved, I have a much better sense than I typically would that I probably would have gotten along very well with him. Telephones were rather new to Cincinnati while he was clerking, and he used the courthouse stationery to express his displeasure at the cutting of trees, perhaps hoping that it would add extra weight to his complaint. It’s the kind of letter that I would write today. His copy of his letter has a notation indicating he received a response, but that is not among the saved items.

My great-grandfather's letter regarding the telephone company cutting trees

My great-grandfather’s 1903 letter regarding the telephone company cutting trees, written on courthouse stationery.

My great-grandfather also kept a scrapbook of items he found interesting in newspapers and other sources. Through this I discovered hints to his opinion on women’s suffrage:

A clipping on the American womens suffrage movement

Looking to have been clipped from a newspaper, this commentary on the American women’s suffrage movement seems to me to be wry. From my great-grandfather’s scrapbook.

My great-grandfather would not live to see American women win the federal right to vote, though from the above clipping I suspect this man who had devoted his adult life to studying, understanding, and writing on American law would have been pleased.

My great-grandfather committed suicide in 1915. I found out through my genealogical research, though after I discovered it I found out that this was one family secret that the family already knew – they just hadn’t told me. The family story I heard in response to my discovery is that he had had cancer for many years and the pain had gotten to be too much for him to bear. I subsequently discovered that another family story is that he had killed himself to spare his family the debt of what he believed to be an incurable disease. His death was carried in numerous newspapers around the country, openly reported as a suicide. Most of the articles said that he had had a long-term illness for many years and had only very recently become despondent over it. I don’t see any reason all three of these stories couldn’t be true.

My great-grandfather’s cemetery card is one of the few at the cemetery where “Disease” has been left blank:

A clip of my great-grandfather's internment record.

My great-grandmother was owner of the lot where he was interred, and likely provided the information on the card.

His death certificate was not so obtuse:

A clip from my great-grandfather's death certificate, showing cause of death

A clip from my great-grandfather’s Ohio death certificate, listing cause of death as:
“hemorrhage resulting from
incised wounds of wrist & throat

I mentioned this to one of his in-laws, who said that the family story had been that he had shot himself and that it had never made any sense as the family had not been known to have any guns in the house since moving to the city. As some of you already know, I am a tremendous proponent of telling relatives the truth; this is probably the only time I ever haven’t done so, as I think they find some comfort in thinking it was a fast, easy death, not the messy one it really was. (His few living blood relatives don’t read this blog.)

My great-grandfather’s entire story deserves to be told, from his birth to his painful and pain-causing death. I’m finishing and posting this draft today because it is World Mental Health Day and this year’s focus is depression. I think it’s easy for people to say “No one is ever given more than they can handle” but that has always annoyed me as if this were true, there would be no such thing as suicide. There should be no shame in telling people that one is depressed or has some other mental health problem, nor in asking for help if one is suicidal, but too often these are feelings and thoughts that people keep to themselves. To me, the best way to raise awareness is to discuss these issues openly, though of course the choice is up to each individual for themselves and each family historian for their family’s history. I doubt I ever would have discovered my great-grandfather had committed suicide if I hadn’t started researching my family’s history, and if that doesn’t speak to the stigma still held by so many regarding suicide, I don’t know what does.

I have no way to know if my great-grandfather told anyone he was despondent beforehand, nor how long he contemplated suicide before he carried out his thoughts. I can’t say whether it was the right choice for him, only that it is still affecting his family nearly a century later, for better and for worse.

“Don’t tell me how they found her
Because I don’t wanna know
Wildflowers all around her
Down in the dirt where they grow
She was all alone in the middle of spring
Don’t tell me there’s a reason for everything
‘Cause every face hides a mind
That gets tired of trying
And every mind hides a heart
That shelters thoughts of dying.”

Lisa Mednick

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Today is the anniversary of my beloved grandmother’s death. When I was a child she delighted me with many stories about the family, as many other relatives did. I have often wished that I had started actively researching our family’s history before her death, so that I could share what I have discovered in my years spent on her lines. But I also wish she were still here just so that we could make homemade doughnuts together again and then sit in the garden sipping coffee, looking through old photographs, and chatting.

My grandmother.

My grandmother in an undated photo.

As one of my friends says, “It’s hard to believe grandmothers were ever little.” I am lucky to have one photo of my grandmother as a little girl, a school photo. My grandmother’s parents were a working-class couple that placed a lot of emphasis on education for their time and place. My grandmother’s father was born shortly after his family moved to Glasgow, and when he was born his oldest sisters were attending the Glasgow school system. When he was 9 years old they left Scotland for a homestead in the Midwestern U.S., where they lived in a fully rural area and there weren’t many educational opportunities.

My grandmother in 4th grade

My grandmother in fourth grade. School photo.

When my great-grandfather first married his parents gave the newlyweds a piece of their homestead to farm, but quite shortly his parents decided to sell the land and move into the nearest large town. My grandmother’s parents moved as well, and her father went to work for one of the major employers in the area, the railway, where he would work until he retired an old man; the 1940 census reported that on the tail end of the Dust Bowl and the Depression, annihilators of the Upper Plains’ economy, my widowed elderly great-grandfather had worked all 52 of the previous year’s weeks. He was lucky to have been in one of the few nearly Depression-proof industries of the Upper Plains; as people sold their livestock as a loss or simply fled the area, they used the railways. I firmly believe that he wanted his children to have more opportunities in life than he believed he had had.

I lost my grandmother when I was 20, but as the youngest child in a large family, my grandmother lost her mother when she was 20. She inherited a photo that we think was probably her mother’s wedding portrait, and displayed it until she died 58 years later. My grandmother’s mother was born into a very migratory family, who crossed the continent in several steps via two countries, and had met and married her husband when her family briefly lived where his had settled from Scotland. When her family moved on to what was then the Western Territory of Canada, she and her husband stayed behind, and my grandmother never knew her mother’s family.

My grandmother's mother

My grandmother’s mother, c1898. We believe this was likely her wedding photo. In the original the decorative flowers are blue. It was cut to fit into a frame sometime between taking & the present.

To this day people often tell me I look the most like my great-grandmother, who died long before I was born.

As a child my grandmother and I made what were regionally called fastnachts together, in honor of what was regionally called Fastnacht Day, the day before the Christian holiday of Lent began. We did it because we loved to bake and I grew up in a heavily ethnically German area, and I was a sponge for whatever traditions were around me, as my family had been when they moved to the Midwestern U.S. in the late 1800’s, adopting the traditions of their neighbors, Scandinavian and Eastern European immigrants. It was not until a long time later that I would discover through my research that the family story that my grandmother’s ex-husband’s/my grandfather’s family was ethnically British was a lie that her ex-husband’s grandfather told his children after they moved from Canada to the States, knowing full well that it was a lie. In reality their paternal line was ethnically German, and my grandmother and I had unknowingly been making one of my grandfather’s paternal line’s traditional pre-Lent treats.

As a child I collected old cookbooks of traditional German recipes that were sold at fairs and shops in my region. Following is a traditional recipe for a treat that has many spellings and alternate names in German, but that we (and the cookbook) called fastnachts.


(Doughnuts–a Shrove Tuesday Tradition)

1 pkg. active dry yeast

1/4 cup warm water (110 F to 115 F)

1 teaspoon sugar

3 cups sifted flour

2 cups milk, scalded and cooled to lukewarm

3 eggs, well beaten

1/4 cup melted butter

1 cup sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

3 1/2 to 4 cups sifted flour

Soften yeast in warm water. Let stand 5 to 10 min. Add 1 teaspoon sugar and 3 cups sifted flour to the milk, stirring until smooth. Stir in the yeast. Cover; let rise in a warm place until doubled. Stir in eggs, butter, the remaining sugar, salt, nutmeg, and enough flour so that mixture can no longer be stirred with a spoon (a soft dough). Cover; let rise until doubled. Punch down dough and divide into two portions. On a floured surface, roll out each portion about 1/2 in. thick. Cut dough with a doughnut cutter. Cover dough and let rise in a warm place until doubled. Fry in deep fat heated to 370 F. Fry 3 to 4 min., or until lightly browned; turn doughnuts to brown evenly. Remove from fat; drain.

About 4 doz. doughnuts.

[From Pennsylvania Dutch Cookbook: Fine Old Recipes Made Famous by the Early Dutch [sic] Settlers in Pennsylvania, p. 17.]

My grandmother

My grandmother as I knew her, near the end of her life.

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