Saturday, December 16, 2017

Off the Shelf:
Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins

To be precise, this book isn't exactly off my shelf; in his absence, I made an arbitrary decision to borrow the book off my husband's bookshelf. Since he's lately been my only reader in Saudi Arabia—until this morning, when he joined my readership from Germany—I figured he wouldn't mind if I lifted a title from his reading stack back here at home.

If you know me, you know I have a strong affinity for the use of story. For whatever reason, for the last several days, every time I pass that to-read stack of books, the one with the term "story" stands out; it's almost as if it is shouting at me. And since I haven't mentioned much around here about reading since last September, I figured it was about time to pull up a comfy chair and open another book.

So this month, it will be Annette Simmons' Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins. I have the updated second edition, published in 2015.

There's no doubt story has a power to draw people's attention. We are naturally wired to wonder, "and then what?" We want to know whodunit, and why.

The drawback is that we associate stories with fiction—something to pull out in our spare time, for entertainment or to decompress from real world struggles. We forget that it is we who represent stories with our own lives, as well—we just haven't discovered the means for uncovering those stories, for harvesting their message.

For those of us in genealogy, we are aware of the stories resident in the family history facts we uncover. Those birth, marriage, and death dots connect us with the life stories of our ancestors. It is when we glean those details and let that family history narrative include the stories that we gain an audience with our fellow family members who otherwise might not be even slightly interested in knowing about their ancestors. The story becomes the hook.

As I step into the role of heading up our local genealogical society, I see the potential in the aggregate of all the stories represented by each of our members. Some of those stories belong in the locales where our families once lived, far from our current west coast location, but some stories happened right here in our own jurisdiction—stories so fascinating that they will draw in others and convert them into believers who want to know the rest of the stories of our county.

Those stories represent micro-histories woven into the larger fabric of our communities' heritage, of course, but while we may shy away from the "boring history" we remember from our school days, to know about the dramas that unfolded in the lives of the friends and neighbors of our grandparents contains an entirely different motivating factor.

To represent our genealogical societies is to represent the stories of our members and the stories of the people in our communities—present and past. To tell the story, then, becomes a means for encouraging others to join us, to weave their own family histories into our joint community story. Annette Simmons' book, as a workbook and inspiration for employing this storytelling modality, offers a blueprint to help us as a society to share those compelling elements of our research. Our audience—potential members and future supporters of our society's work—will find it is the stories that will resonate with them. We need to find the best way to bring those stories to life so they can work their magic.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Deciphering the Details

It's inevitable, when researching information on family history from past centuries, that we'll encounter terms and descriptions that seem so foreign that they are of no help at all in allowing us to better understand the world in which our ancestors lived. Face it, the world back in 1880 or even 1908 was a vastly different place than the one in which we now live. Activities of daily life became a collection of terms and tasks far different than ones we use today. Sometimes, the difference is so huge, we end up walking away without having the slightest idea about things that, to our ancestors, were so commonplace.

In researching my family's history, that's when I start asking questions.

Reading the reports on the untimely death of John Blain in Paola, Kansas, in 1908 had that same effect on me. Take, for instance, the court description of the main train track curving "round that cobhouse to the eastward." Cobhouse? I had to look that one up. (Apparently, the term either refers to a "flimsy unstable structure" or a small building "constructed of mud, clay, and straw."

Granted, I could have inferred a similar meaning from the context of the article, but I just wanted to know specifically what the term might have meant at the time it was used.

But it was another phrase that really pushed me to look it up instead of settling for an educated guess. Remember the part which mentioned that John Blain, in turning to see who was calling to him, was then "struck by the pilot beam of the engine."

What's a pilot beam?

I realize there are those who are so taken with the history of railroads that their enthusiasm for the subject has led them to either spend thousands of dollars on collectibles or spend countless hours consuming every last detail about the topic. I am not one of those people, so please forgive my ignorance. I had to go look up what a pilot beam might have been.

Going in search of this information was not an easy process, given my complete lack of understanding about locomotives. The handy-dandy drawing of the "Commonwealth Locomotive Pilot Beam with Flexible Buffing Gear" in the 1922 Locomotive Cyclopedia of American Practice, for instance, told me nothing. There was no scale to the drawing, nor any diagram with a red arrow and the directions, "insert pilot beam here."

I need that kind of guidance when attempting to understand my ancestors' world.

Nor did the entry I was directed to in the 1906 Locomotive Dictionary, despite its being billed as "An Illustrated Vocabulary of Terms which Designate American Railroad Locomotives." When I googled the term "pilot beam," I was directed to the page fourteen definition for "bumper beam." As a subheading to that term, the dictionary described pilot beams as "the term applied to the same part [bumper beam] when the locomotive is fitted with a pilot."


Eventually, on page fifty nine, I found an explanation which made a bit more sense—but only after wading through more verbiage. Here's how the book defined "pilot":
An inclined pointed structure of wood or iron bars fastened to the front bumper of a locomotive to remove obstructions from the track.

Oh. And then the dictionary provided the part that translated to our era:
Formerly called cow catcher.

Formerly called cow catcher? I've never heard of a pilot on a locomotive, but at least I've heard of a cow catcher. So the pilot beam must be something which affixed to the cow catcher. Great. So now I can disabuse myself of any visuals of the man being gored to death by a literal beam somehow protruding from the front of a locomotive like a gladiator's spear.

Taking the time to ascertain the exactness of terms we're not currently familiar with can help paint a clearer picture of the specific episodes in our ancestors' lives. While a 1908 term like pilot beam might not be that outdated, the terms of centuries past sometimes yield us curves which we're not sure how to field. Learning how to talk the lingo of our ancestors' contemporaries can sometimes open our eyes to the impact of those everyday realities in the lives of the people we are researching.

Above: Undated photograph of the Missouri Pacific Railway locomotive engine number 152; image number RG005_77_27_0714 courtesy the Missouri State Archives via Wikipedia; in the public domain—with a mighty fine specimen of a pilot included, if I say so myself.


Thursday, December 14, 2017

How it Happened: Version Two

In trying to piece together a cogent history of the life of the man whose picture I rescued from a local antique store, it turns out that, once again, we find that life stories seem always to include the unexpected. When we started, all we knew was that the subject's name was John Blain, and that he sat for his likeness at a photography studio in the small town of Walnut, Kansas, sometime during the 1880s.

More to the point, once we discovered the tragedy that had befallen this man in the prime of his life, we've been presented with two versions of just what happened to lead to his demise. You already know my bias against trusting, wholesale, contemporary newspaper reports. In John Blain's case, due to the nature of what befell him in 1908, we have the opportunity to examine two different versions of what actually happened.

From a summary of the appeals process, published in volume 184 of The Southwestern Reporter, we learn that John Blain's widow, serving as administratrix of his estate, had filed suit for $10,000 against the Missouri Pacific Railway Company for the death of her husband. While the summary, on page 1142 through 1143, mentioned that the suit was brought according to provisions under Kansas state statutes, the case was actually heard in the state of Missouri. No reason was given for this, though it appeared that, based on Missouri law, the outcome was not to be what the widow might have hoped.

Through the summary, we once again see details we've already learned through the newspaper report we discussed yesterday: that John Blain was a man of forty four years of age, that he was engaged in the lumber and furniture business in Centerville, Kansas, and that he received his fatal injuries in the city of Paola, Kansas.

That's pretty much where the similarities stop. The court cases, presumably extracting their evidence from witnesses on the stand, provided more detail about the incident—but also details that may or may not have lined up exactly with what we've learned from the Wichita newspaper account.

The summary in The Southwestern Reporter first included some background information, setting the scene:
Peoria street, in Paola, runs east and west across the tracks of three railroad systems all parallel and lying within a strip of about 200 feet. About 24 passenger trains on those roads cross that street within that many hours, and many more freights. As those tracks are approached from the east the first is a switch of the defendant [Missouri Pacific] running to an elevator standing just west of Peoria street and just east of the switch. Next comes the main track of defendant. Between it and said switch on the north side of the street is a cobhouse used in connection with the elevator. The main track spoken of above curves round that cobhouse to the eastward. About four blocks north of Peoria street is the defendant's station. The regular passenger train was due there at 11:40 a.m.

Now that the description has set the stage, the narrative went on to introduce the main player, our unfortunate John Blain.
Just at noon Blain was proceeding west on the sidewalk on the south side of that street. When he had crossed the switch track and got within 8 or 10 feet of defendant's main track, had he looked westward, he could have seen a train on that main track a distance of 400 or 500 feet. The regular passenger train south bound left the station just at noon, gave two long and two short whistles when about 400 feet from Peoria street, and continued ringing the engine bell from that point until it crossed the street....

This is where the description seemed incredible, making me wonder why it happened the way it did.
Blain proceeded straight ahead without looking for the approach of any train. He was in about two feet of the defendant's main track when someone called to him. He looked back, and, while doing so, was struck by the pilot beam of the engine and knocked about twenty feet.

Right there, at that point in the narrative, I find so many issues that prompt questions. Why, for instance, did he not look before crossing the tracks? Was he not responsive to all the din around him? Was it precisely for such a reason that his ears became deaf to the very signal that was supposed to warn him away? And why was someone calling to him at such a precarious point? Was it, ironically, to warn him to "Look out"?

As a sad postscript to the blow-by-blow, the case summary added,
For about two years there had been an electric bell at that crossing, but for a great portion of the time it had been out of repair, and was out of repair and not working on the day in question.

Although an oversight such as that, on the part of a defendant, would surely now have played a significant role in determining the outcome of the case, that was not so for Mrs. Blain's appeal. The $10,000 she was seeking—depending on which inflation calculator used, representing in today's economy anywhere from $239,000 to $261,000—was not to be awarded to her. The prime determining factor:
When a person, capable of seeing and hearing, in broad daylight, attempts to cross a railroad track in front of a rapidly moving train, without looking or listening for such train, and is struck by it and injured, his own negligence is the proximate cause of his injury....

Despite conceding, in the court's report, that "it was negligence in the defendant to allow the electric bell to be out of repair," that was not enough of a contributing factor to sway the court's decision. Apparently, the indiscretion of the victim of the injury trumped any negligence on the part of the corporation, according to the laws at that time in the state of Missouri, and the widow's appeal was unsuccessful.

That result, of course, put the mother of four young children in a precarious position of her own.   

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

How it Happened: Version One

Determining just what occurred to cause the tragic death of John Blain seems a straightforward process, if you rely on only one version of the story. There were, however, at least two different accounts of what happened, back in 1908 in Paola, Kansas. While it is possible that the truth is closer to an amalgamation of the two versions, let's take a look at each one separately.

First, we'll look at the document which was published closest to the time of John's death. It's an article from The Wichita Beacon, appearing on page seven of the Tuesday edition on June 23, 1908. If you are a subscriber, you can view a digitized version of the original here.

We've already reviewed the report's opening paragraph yesterday. Under a headline blaring, "Lived Three Days," the article explained, beginning with the second paragraph, that
At Paola, Mr. Blain was compelled to change cars. After he left the train, he was struck by the engine of an outgoing train and received fatal injuries on his head, back and chest. He was immediately removed to the office of a physician where his injuries were given proper attention. As soon as Mr. Blain was able to be moved he was taken to his home. Upon his removal to his home he steadily grew worse, suffering both from external and internal injuries. Word was received in the city yesterday by his sister that after suffering intensely from his injuries for three days that he had died.

That was the complete report on the actual episode, according to The Wichita Beacon. The article continued with a note about his survivors—his wife and four young daughters, as well as the "sister" in Wichita and her daughter. It concluded with a note that "the body will be taken to Walnut, Kans., for interment."

After learning that the man spent the last few days of his life in such agony, you will not be surprised to learn that John Blain's widow found reason to bring suit against the railroad company operating the locomotive which had struck her husband. Perhaps her legal counsel was convinced there was a basis for a wrongful death case.

That case against the Missouri Pacific Railway Company wound its way through an appeals process up to the Missouri Supreme Court and was not resolved until nearly eight years after the June day in 1908 when John Blain was struck down by one of the company's locomotives.

Above: From the 1903 edition of Poor's Manual of the Railroads of the United States, showing the lines of the Missouri Pacific Railway Company. Among the tangled lines, the one dropping southwest from Kansas City heads first to Paola. The city name is written sideways, making it harder to locate on the map. Image courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Did the Newspaper get it Wrong?

While returning to his home in Centerville, Kans., after visiting relatives in this city, John Blain was struck by a locomotive. He received injuries which resulted in his death. Mr. Blain spent the last few weeks the guest of his sister, Mrs. G. W. McFeeters of South Dodge avenue, and left the latter part of last week for his home.

That was, in part, how the newspaper reported the tragedy that befell John Blain in 1908. "This city" referred to Wichita, Kansas, home of the McFeeters family, where The Wichita Beacon carried the report on Tuesday, June 23 of that year.

But was that the way it all really happened? If you have been following A Family Tapestry for any amount of time, you already know my unceasing doubt of journalism's reporting prowess. More than harboring an unforgiving stance on errors in print, though, I find that the discovery of one error in a report causes me to doubt the veracity of the rest of the article.

I'll show you what I mean. See that reference to John Blain's sister, Mrs. G. W. McFeeters? As I muddled through the genealogical process to determine just who this man was whose photo I had discovered in a local antique store, I set up a family tree to assist me in this pursuit.

One thing I learned in the process of building that tree was that while John Blain had many sisters, none of them had married anyone with the surname McFeeters. It turned out, however, that his wife had a sister who did.

John Blain had married Harriet Isabel Beeman, that nearly thirty year old woman with whom he tied the knot in the neighboring state of Missouri in the fall of 1897. While Harriet may have reported that she was living in Missouri at the time, she was part of a large family whose residence had ranged, over the years, from Indiana to Nebraska before their arrival in the Show-Me state. Even after that point, Harriet's parents, Green Yarnel and Martha Johnson Beeman, appeared in records in Wichita, Kansas, before her father's passing in 1902.

Harriet's next-oldest sister, Sarah Ellen Beeman, who like Harriet was born in Nebraska, eventually also settled down in Kansas. She was the one who married George W. McFeeters on October 20, 1885. (Interestingly, though both reported they were residents of Kansas, they traveled to Vernon County, Missouri, for their wedding, as Sarah's sister Harriet did for her own marriage over ten years later, making me wonder whether Vernon County served as a sort of "Gretna Green" city for the region, though I've found no mention of such a custom for the area.)

It was this Sarah Ellen and George McFeeters who were the ones John Blain had been visiting in Wichita, before returning home to Centerville by way of Paola, Kansas, on the day in which he was struck by the Missouri Pacific locomotive. While it may be a small detail for a reporter to confuse a sister for a sister-in-law, just that one mistake makes me wonder how many other details in the article might also have been inaccurate. When time comes to review the version reported in the court proceedings regarding the suit brought by John's widow, the different account rendered there only augments my doubts. 

Monday, December 11, 2017

"In the Prime of Life"

It never ceases to amaze me how much can be learned about an "average" life, just by picking up a photograph of a stranger and researching his life's story. We've already seen that when I found an entire photo album in an local antique shop—discovering enough information to send the photo collection home to family in County Cork, Ireland—and we will certainly have the same type of experience while exploring the details in another found photo, this time of a man with a moustache from Walnut, Kansas, known as John Blain.

By the time the man with the moustache was forty four—what some would consider the prime of his life—he and his family had moved from Walnut, Kansas, to a smaller town to the north, known as Centerville. John was in the lumber and furniture business, which had apparently brought him to Centerville in the first place. He had been there since a year or two after the 1900 census. At the point of the 1905 state census, he and his wife Harriet were living in a Centerville home with their two daughters, Emma and Rozella. Within a year, the family was joined by twin daughters Vera and Vida.

By June of 1908, whether for business reasons or for visits to family in other parts of the state, John Blain would pass through the little town of Paola, a stop where he needed to change trains on his way to or from Centerville, about once a month.

On one particular day, arriving at Paola about noontime, John stepped off his train and headed down the sidewalk to cross the tracks to make his train change. When he was barely two feet from the tracks, for whatever reason, someone hollered to him, and he turned to see who it was. Just at that moment, a passing train on the parallel line for the Missouri Pacific Railway struck him and knocked him twenty feet.

Such a trajectory from the sudden blow caused injuries to John's head, back and chest, all of which were treated by a local physician in the doctor's own office.

When he was deemed able to be moved—and one can only imagine in what shape that might have been—John was transported home to Centerville to recuperate from his injuries. His recovery period, however, was cut short: within three days, and after considerable agony, John Blain succumbed to both internal and external injuries sustained from the incident in Paola. Following his unfortunate death on June 20, 1908, his body was returned to his childhood home in Walnut, where he was buried in the same cemetery where his mother had been laid to rest only four years before.

Left with four daughters under the age of ten, John's widow, undoubtedly with the encouragement of legal counsel, filed suit against the Missouri Pacific Railway Company, a process which did not finally get resolved for another eight years.  

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Taking Stock of Possibilities

It was mission accomplished this past Tuesday, up in the foothills of northern California. Following some prodding by my daughter and guidance from a helpful friend of hers, I made a day of it and drove up toward the region of the state best known for its role in the California gold rush well over a century ago. There to keep me company on the drive—and to make sure I didn't miss out on any fabulous bargains or potential blog-post-worthy photography finds—was my good friend and mentor Sheri Fenley of The Educated Genealogist.

Of course, we had a blast. Anyone traveling with Sheri can't help but have fun. On the way up, we enjoyed the beautiful vistas, the sunshine and blue skies, and the changing scenery from our flat valley hometown to the modest altitude of about twelve hundred feet as we made our way northeastward.

Our strategy was to start near the intersection of the aptly-named state Highway 49 and Highway 88. Then, we'd work our way southward for as many towns—and their antique stores—as necessary until we obtained our goal of rescuing enough old photographs with names out of which to tease a few stories.

First stop was a favorite among antiquing enthusiasts: a "city" of a mere twenty five hundred called Sutter Creek. It will come as no surprise to you to learn that the place was named after John Sutter, whose logging operations in the area occurred as early as 1846. While the tiny town comes with a rich history—and an enthusiastic following of weekend bargain hunters—on a Tuesday in early December, there was not much to be found in the one antique shop which happened to be open when we got there.

Undaunted, we continued on our itinerary to our next stop, which was a short drive south on Highway 49. This brought us to the Main Street of Jackson, county seat of Amador County and a city of at least two thousand more people than Sutter Creek. Despite being home to several antique shops—and regardless of the hours they were reported to be open that day—once again, we found only one true antique shop open for business.

Nevertheless, it only takes one to achieve the goal, and this one—predictably called "Antiques on Main"—made it possible for us to come home with our goal amply in hand.

What I was hoping for were old photos containing both a full name and a location. For anyone who enjoys following "Far Side of Fifty" on her blog, Forgotten Old Photos, you know how hard it can be to accomplish such a goal. What was wonderful at this shop, though, was that there were several boxes full of photographs. Most lacked any identification, of course, but there were several which either featured a full name, or at least seemed to indicate a connection to other photographs containing more hints. Most were in English and were of American subjects, but it was tantalizing to find photos from other countries, including one dated 1873 with German writing on the back.

It was great having a friend come along on this journey, not just for the company of course, but also for Sheri's assistance in searching through the large number of photographs, and for her professional genealogist's eye in finding the candidates most likely to succeed in my project. The only down side was that our must-have pile started getting much larger than my budget for the project. It was a shining moment when the shopkeeper stopped by to see how we were doing, and mentioned she could offer a discount if we decided to buy a good number of photographs.

I always like that word, discount.

Needless to say, we came away from our excellent adventure with enough photographic cousin bait to keep me busy for many posts to come.

Above: Photograph of Sutter Creek, California, as it appeared in 1853; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...