Thursday, May 31, 2012

Those Places Thursday: Ballston, Oregon: Serious Watermelon Eating


This is a postcard send to my great-grandmother in July of 1916 from Ballston, Oregon.  Apparently there was quite a watermelon feast going on!  Some of the faces in this crowd are priceless, particularly the little imps under the watermelon table. I'm also not sure whether the chicken was invited to pose or not . . . .
The back of the postcard reads:

Hello Alta - 
How are you and what are doing to fill the time?  I finally located a print of the  picture I promised to send you and here it is.  Not a very good one but it will give you an idea of the crew and what we had for a treat.  Was over as far as Grandpa's today but couldn't get as far as your place as I would have liked to have done.  Oh!  Pardon me I forgot about that ring I happened to see.  Wishing you good luck and best wishes, I am yours, L. F.
My great-grandmother was newly engaged at the time (explaining the ring reference), but I'm not sure who the writer of the postcard is.  Alta had labeled one person as 'Alta'  (the left person in this picture) though that person isn't the right age to be herself, and another as 'Viola' (the right person in this picture).  I will let you know if I find additional information about this time period and what was clearly quite the picnic.

Ballston was founded in 1878 as a train stop and grain elevator point.   In 1915, a year before this postcard picture was taken, it had 104 residents.  But by the 1950s the railroad had moved on and the town was basically abandoned.  Today it is considered a ghost-town, most well-known for its school building, built in 1855 and thought to be the oldest surviving school in Oregon.  This picture is from 1964, before it was restored and moved to a park.  Today, there is a Ballston community organization which apparently still puts together some rousing  dinners, though watermelon isn't mentioned . . .
(Those Places Thursday is a Geneabloggers event)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Memorial Day: Remembering Without Memories

When there is pain, there are no words.
Toni Morrison

This picture shows my grandmother, her brother Emmett, and his wife Fontelle, before Emmett was killed in pilot training for WWII.

Emmett was clearly adored.  I have many pictures and documents that his mother saved.  I have his baby pictures, his report cards, his high school yearbooks.  But no memories, and no one alive who would remember him directly. 

War has done and is still doing this to so many young people - stopping potential-laden lives before they've had the chance to start.

So what do I know about him?  He was an average student, a little on the heavy side according to whatever chart they were using at the time.   His weight and height were recorded on every report card.  This is a little health card I am amused/amazed by.  It was about 1930, and I can only find one of them, so I don't know if he had to do this every year.  I like that frequent baths and playing outside were priorities equal to eating vegetables besides potatoes!  And I like him - I like his pictures, his report cards, the quirky gentleness I get from his artifacts and the second-hand stories my mom tells.

Lauran Peters at the University of Oregon just sent me a copy of the obituary they published for him.  He was killed in a plane crash near Coeur d'Alene, Idaho on April 2, 1943.


But here's the striking thing in this box of papers and photos that is all I have of Emmett:  no mention of his death is found anywhere in my great-grandmother's papers.  She wrote moving poems in memory of her uncles, her minister, a singer she liked, and others.  She wrote sweet notes to 'gold star mothers' with whom she must have sympathized.  She poured her heart into poems and songs about these losses and memories.

But either she didn't write anything or my grandmother didn't keep anything related to Emmett's death.  And that gap is a powerful memorial in itself.  It is a raw darkness, that void, pouring from a wound so deep it couldn't be discussed as openly and easily as more superficial heartaches.

So this week, when you head out to pay your respects, maybe bring an extra bouquet and leave it at a grave that looks like it's been forgotten.  It could be the grave of someone who doesn't have a family to remember them; the grave of someone whose descendants have moved too far away; or the grave of someone who was so deeply loved that the rememberers themselves can't bear to visit.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Quilts, cont. Maybe it's hereditary?

One of my mom's whole-cloth quilts.
My mother is a quilter, and our house is warmer, more colorful, and cozier thanks to her talent. So when some kind person put this little story up on Ancestry.com, I couldn't resist it:
In the Abraham Tharp cabin, Abe and the two Yocom brothers, Thomas J. and Hathaway, were telling the family about their trip to the California goldfields.  Margaret and the daughters sat at the quilting frame.  She was angry; Abe had not brought quilting needles with the cloth for these quilts.  Elizabeth was using the only quilting needle.  She screamed; the needle had split at the eye, and the steel had pierced her finger.
Exasperated, (Margaret?) Mary raised her voice, "You're as worthless as they come."
"What's the ruckus about?" Thomas J. asked.
"I'd give anything for a package of quilting needles," Mary answered.
Thomas J. had in his pocket a packet of steel quilting needles he had bought in California to give to Elizabeth on her birthday.
"What will you give me for a package of quilting needles?" he asked.
"Anything you want, but you don't have any needles."
"If Elizabeth is so worthless, I will take her and give you these needles."  He threw the package on the quilt.  The men and boys crowded around.  "Before these witnesses I give you these needles for Elizabeth."
On January 16, 1851, Thomas Jefferson Yocom, 22 years old, and Elizabeth Tharp, 15 years old, were married in Polk County, Oregon Territory.

Margaret and Abraham are my mom's 3rd great-grandparents.  They started along the Oregon Trail in 1845, and got a land claim in Polk County on September 28, 1846.  The Yocums came across in 1847.  But in 1849 the call of the California gold rush was irresistible.  Abraham, along with the Yocum brothers and many other Oregon pioneers, took off for the gold rush, leaving the women behind for many months.  Margaret had 6 children, the youngest were 2 and 3.  No wonder her temper was a little frayed. 

In order to get their own 640 acre land donation claims, the Yocum brothers had to be married, so there was a lot to motivate them and not a lot of options in a sparsely populated county.

This is a picture, also from Ancestry, of Elizabeth.  She and Thomas had 10 children.  Hathaway, Thomas' brother, traded a surly white ox to Abraham for Elizabeth's sister Mary.  Hathaway and Mary married in 1852, and Abraham supposedly felt it was a good trade, since they both "ended up with things they couldn't tame."  They had 7 children.

The little tidbits like this make the Ancestry thing more human and less mechanical - it is a way of finding the stories that someone else has handed down, and adding a little sense of heredity to the hobbies and habits of the people you know and love.


Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Mother's Day: The Murder Quilt


The Murder Quilt, 1915
 Oregon Historical Society
One of my favorite short stories is  Susan Glaspell's A Jury of Her Peers, published in 1927.  In it, a woman has been arrested for murdering her husband.  But a conviction requires motive, and the sheriff's men head to her home to look for one.  Two of their wives come along to gather clothes for the woman in jail.  As the wives look at the woman's kitchen, quilt blocks, and dead pet, it is suddenly and painfully obvious why the woman killed her husband.  They feel guilty for not being better friends, and deep sympathy as well.

"I might 'a' known she needed help! I tell you, it's queer, Mrs. Peters. We live close together, and we live far apart. We all go through the same things--it's all just a different kind of the same thing! If it weren't--why do you and I understand? Why do we know--what we know this minute?"

It is a story about the importance of women's deep understanding of each other - an understanding which is sometimes enunciated too late.  It gets lost in gossip, competition, jealousy, and the sheer exhaustion of daily wifehood and motherhood.  In Glaspell's story, it takes a murder to finally turn that understanding into sympathetic action.

This is a similar story, but it is a true one . . .

On October 8, 1915 William Booth was shot and killed in Willamina, Oregon.   Witnesses saw a man in a dark shirt and hat near the river where William was found.  They saw Anna Booth walking to visit her sick mother, and William Branson walking down the same road a little later.  Witnesses also suspected Anna Booth of having an affair with William Branson, her long-time neighbor and a cousin of the Bransons in earlier blogs. 

The Medford Mail Tribune, Oct. 19, 1915:
It seems that in the peaceful village of Willamina, William Booth, a farmer, was slain. The arrest on suspicion followed of William Branson, an employee, and of Mrs. Booth, wife of the murdered man, whom village scandal stood ready to accuse of undue intimacy. They were arrested because the authorities did not know who else to arrest.

The first trial of William and Anna began in late November 1915.  From the start, the women of Willamina attended the trial and quilted the crazy quilt shown above.  They quilted in squares, which were later sewn together.  For 15 cents, community members could have their names embroidered into the quilt.  Many of the names embroidered were also prosecution witnesses.  The quilt itself was a raffle prize, and the proceeds from the raffle went to William and Anna's defense fund.

So it seems that somewhere between the gossip and the accusation of murder, women in the town determined to act on their allegiance to Anna.  Today, the "Murder Quilt" is an Oregon Historical Society artifact, and the subject of a PhD thesis.  The accusations of adultery are thought to have originated in William Booth's mind, not in fact.  So the quilt may have been a product of the village's collective guilt.  Women couldn't sit on juries in Oregon until 1921.  Once they realized the mistake that was being made, the women had to turn to the skills and options they had available, and the quilt was the result.

That first trial resulted in a mistrial, as the jury couldn't reach consensus.  But they were convicted in a second set of trials in March of 1916.  Both received life sentences.  Anna's mother died 10 days after her conviction was handed down.

These convictions were overturned by the Oregon Supreme Court, but William was convicted at a 3rd trial.  Anna, desperate to get back to her children, agreed to a manslaughter charge with a 1-15 year sentence.

Photo from Why Some Men Murder
In May of 1917, another man, William Riggin, confessed to the crime, and went to great lengths to show that he had done it, where he had hidden the gun, etc.  He was already in jail for stealing a gun, and made the confession without being asked about the case.  He said he had fought with Booth because Booth had accused Riggin of being a 'con' and was jealous of Riggin's attention to his wife.  Despite a variety of statements that supported Riggin's claim, the District Attorney refused to reopen the case.  In 1919,"Why Some Men Murder" included a full investigation of Riggin's statements and a plea to reopen the case.

But both William Branson and Anna Booth were still in the State Penitentiary in the 1920 Census.  Anna's daughter Laura was living with her sister Laura Jones, and her son Ermel was living with her brother Walter.  Late in 1920, we know that William Branson was finally pardoned, and he went on to marry and have children of his own.  It isn't clear what happened to Anna, I can't find her in the data after that 1920 census.  The quilt remains, but the woman herself has disappeared.  I am continuing to search . . .


So it is Mother's Day, and these are the stories I have in mind: stories of women who helped each other in the end.  

 Margaret Atwood said "Forgiving men is so much easier than forgiving women" and it's true.  We are too likely to tend away from forgiving, supporting, and reaching out to each other.  And who knows what the consequences might be, for ourselves, our sisters, or our neighbors.  Poor Anna, living with a jealous and angry man, whose life was ruined because people saw her talking to a farm hand she'd grown up with and came to the wrong conclusion. No wonder so much work went into that quilt.

May we find ways to connect with the women around us this Mother's Day, whether they are mothers or not, whether we approve of their habits or their children's habits or not.  We may have nothing in common but the strong sheer wonder of womanhood, but that should be enough.