Where Interest Meets Obsession

I am a novice researcher. I make no secret of that. In writing my historical fiction book, I have chased entire flocks of wild geese, wasted shocking amounts of time, and developed a strange affinity for all those hamsters spinning furiously away on their little wheels, going nowhere. Still, when I look back over what I’ve accomplished, I am humbly amazed. I never thought I’d get as far as I have.

At what point does casual interest turn into obsession? When does clicking through Wikipedia suddenly morph into ordering microfiche of 100-year-old newspapers from historical societies? When do you move from yawning over Google to booking airline tickets and cold-calling local experts?

The moment I realized that the fading black-and-white photographs were concealing things from me was a revelation.

My grandma, Elsie Davidson Carr, on the far right.

I was looking through a book about Sheridan, Missouri when it happened. The centennial year of 1987 was a big deal for the local residents of the small town where my grandma spent many of her childhood years. I know it was a big deal because I was there. But I try not to remember, because in 1987 I was a snotty highschool senior who couldn’t believe she had to spend part of her summer vacation in a tiny little town in the midwest.  I could not have been less interested in the place where some twenty-three years later I would locate the main character of my book. Thankfully, the Sheridan Centennial Book Committee put together a bound copy of the town’s history. And it was while I was poking through it that I discovered photographs have secrets.

When I look at the pictures of my grandmother as a young lady, I am always struck by two things: how beautiful she was and how serious she looked. Since my grandma was one of the happiest, funniest, most sharply witted people I know, it was hard to connect her with the serious, dark-eyed girl in the photographs. I always figured that times were tough back then, that people were not as happy as we are today. A memory from my childhood floats back to me.

     “Grandma,” I recall asking, “Why didn’t your family ever smile in photographs?”

     “Oh well, you know,” Grandma replied. “We always thought we’d get tired of looking at a goofy grin on our faces. It seemed more natural-looking not to smile.”

For me, smiling was much more natural. The idea that a sense of humor was a modern invention sprung up so quietly that I never even noticed it. This notion was challenged early on in my research.

In the Sheridan Centennial book, I read about a bank robbery that occurred in town in 1898.

The advance agents of prosperity opened a bank at Sheridan, this county, Monday night, but unfortunately they opened it with dynamite and a crowbar.

What? Were they being funny? Their bank was robbed, and they were making a joke of it? Turns out, the bank robbers got away with well over $2,000. Back in the 1890’s, I’m sure that represented the life savings of the bank robber’s victims. But here they were, reporting the calamitous event with a wry sense of humor. And something else, too–grace. I immediately ordered several years worth of the Sheridan Advance newspaper via inter-library loan. I discovered a couple of things: microfiche technology has not changed a bit since I last used it to research a science project in middle school, and while the photographs taken in the early 1900s show a serious crowd, their newspaper articles reflect a different sort of attitude entirely.

On Sunday, April 2, 1916, Mr. Surplus hosted 51 relatives in his home in West Sheridan. The Sheridan Advance reported on the festivities, saying that John Surplus, Delbert Glass and Frank Simmons

…ate so much that we decided to give them a little joy ride to relieve the gas pains. We loaded them in Harley Dowis’ Maytag and he started with them for a spin. Now it takes some car to pull three men loaded to their capacity and the Maytag, ordinarily a good puller, could not stand the strain and died with a snort two miles from town. It took three Fords to get them back home.

I began to realize that my grandma’s sense of humor did not suddenly materialize in the 70’s. Reading on, I saw that the people of Sheridan had a flair for humor even with a simple request for volunteers.

A Civic Improvement Club

Since the ladies of Sheridan are going to meet at the Diamond Theater Tuesday night to discuss plans for raising money to build a band stand, we would like to see them perfect an organization called a Ladies Civic Improvement Club at this time. An organization of this sort can accomplish things that the men couldn’t if they would, and wouldn’t if they could. For angels walk where mere man fears to crawl.

And one more:

Stack Your Bottles

When you get through killing that quart or quarts as the case might be, pile them up in a nice little pile where the small boy can find them. It’s quiet (sic) a chore to run all over town hunting bottles to get the price of a movie ticket. And above all, don’t break them in weeds any more than in the street. They puncture heels as well as tires.

So where does interest meet obsession? In the personality of the people. As always, thank you for reading.

The inspiration for my protagonist and so much more, Elsie Davidson Carr.

What Can a Woman Do?

Over the last two years I have spent many hours picking through my tattered collection of newspapers and magazines of the early 1900s searching for insight into the lives, the habits, the thinking of the people of those times. As I flip through those old magazines, characters of the era seem to rise out of the pages and speak to me. Apparently, they all want to be in my book. Sadly, like big-eyed puppies at the pound, I must turn most of them away or else completely redo the plot and premise of my book. I think any writer doing research for a work of historical fiction must, every now and then, fall prey to these ‘imagination flares’ as I call them. The trick is knowing when to include them and when to regretfully, sorrowfully turn them away.

 Miss Florence Morton (b. 1881) is one of those intriguing characters. I discovered her lurking in a June, 1914 issue of The Farmer’s Wife, purchased on Ebay (of course). For weeks after reading John Scott Mills’s article about Miss Morton, I tried to think of some way to include her in my book, but alas, her character was simply too strong to take a supporting role. You see, Miss Morton is a leading lady. And lest the feminists of today (myself included) begin to think that we own the movement, let me just tell you what a single lady in 1914 accomplished before she turned 33 years old.

Florence grew up on a farm in Oregon. At the tender age of eight years old, she was sent away to school. Upon turning 16, she became a teacher. Apparently, two years of teaching obstreperous youngsters was enough for her, and she left that profession and trained to become a nurse. She then spent several years working in Portland, and in her free time she frequented local race tracks. She eventually bought a Yakima-bred filly, hired a trainer, and began racing. The article doesn’t say how Miss Morton came to the decision to dive into the racing industry. It seems to me like a long step in a dark room for a single nurse from Portland to decide to become a racehorse owner, but Florence jumped right in. Her little mare eventually earned her $3,000.00. In 1910, Florence’s father passed away and left her 120 acres of land. Florence used her track winnings to purchase an additional 100 acres, and just like that, she was a farm owner–all by herself.

At the time she purchased her land, only 25 acres were cleared. By 1914, she had 40 acres cultivated for a commercial apple orchard and oats and barley to feed her stock and poultry. She also grew three tons of corn, plus a vegetable garden and fruit. She produced and sold apple cider and jellies and preserves from strawberries, cherries, currants, gooseberries and blackberries. She began selling eggs – each one date stamped with the day it was gathered to ensure freshness for her customers. Florence also ran the dairy, milking the cows, running the separator, and churning butter three times weekly. She then delivered the butter to her customers. Miss Morton also began breeding and showing prize hogs and Jersey cattle. This got her name in the papers and benefitted her farm by increasing traffic to her business.

Wearing short “khaki bloomers and a shirt of the same material,” with “high laced shoes over black stockings,” Miss Morton did most of the farm work herself. In a day where the only short dresses were seen on little girls, and women’s hemlines were at the ankle, one wonders what sort of feedback Miss Morton had to endure.

There is a certain quality that I admire in people. You might call it gumption, I don’t know. That ability to reach for what you desire, to cut through the red tape that life surrounds us with and simply go for it has always entranced me. I sense that Miss Morton had this attribute in spades. As she says herself,

Any woman who has ability and the faculty of management can run a farm. She must not be lazy or too fond of her bed. She must like her work and look after it.

They are simple words, but oh so meaningful.

Florence Morton and her prize hogs.

Martha! Martha! Martha!

The year is 2108. Can you imagine what it will look like? It doesn’t seem that far away-only 96 years. And yet, what will change? The possibilities are endless. One thing is certain. The people of 2108 will probably be just as interested in the foolishness and wisdom of the past as we are today.

Imagine the researcher of tomorrow sitting in a library paging through old magazines, marveling at the quaint clothing, the sleek hairstyles, and the carefully applied make-up worn by the women of 2012. Maybe she’s pulled up an old issue of Martha Stewart Living. Her eyebrows will raise in delight as she ponders this printed proof of the social norms of her sisters who lived 96 years before her. She will pour over details of how to bake perfect lemon cakes, organize bathrooms, and plant herb gardens. And after reading Martha Stewart cover to cover, the researcher will walk away thinking she has a pretty good idea of how people lived in 2012. Oh dear.

This is what terrifies me about my own research into the year 1915, the year in which my book, Missouri Girl, takes place. Over the last couple of years I have gleefully mined the depths of eBay for books, magazines, even old Department of Agriculture Farmers’ Bulletins in an attempt to understand the world my protagonist inhabited. But I have to remember that what was printed doesn’t necessarily reflect the real people of the time any more than Martha Stewart’s idealized philosophy of living represents me.

Still, I’ve found some real gems, many of them too good not to share. And I’m pretty sure I’ve located 1916’s Martha Stewart equivalent. Her name was Mae Savell Croy, and she is the author of Putnam’s Household Handbook. My copy of Putnam’s is lovingly inscribed, “To Lizette, from Jack, Xmas. 1917.” I only hope for Jack’s sake that he presented this book of homemaker advice to Lizette alongside a beautiful necklace. But perhaps I am layering my 2012 feminism on to 1917 ideals. I’m probably not being fair. One thing is clear: I can open any page in this book and instantly be reminded of how easy my life is by comparison. In the chapter on clothing and laundry I read,

A cleaning fluid much used by professionals is composed of one gallon of gasoline, one half ounce each of alcohol and ammonia, and one ounce each of chloroform, ether, and borax. The articles to be cleaned should be soaked for a short time, then rubbed with the hands, applying to the spots the undissolved borax as though it were soap. The odor evaporates quickly.

Well, I should hope so! I return to my own laundry room filled with misty-eyed appreciation for my orange jug of Tide.

More eye-openers present in the chapter dealing with the care of children. Mrs. Croy writes,

A great comfort for baby when riding in an automobile is a small hammock swung suspended from the top of the machine so that it swings just above the seat tops and near mother’s lap.

My husband assures me that automobiles did not travel very fast in 1916. And I do realize that. Still, brakes have to be applied at some point. It was reading this paragraph, more than any other, that made me wonder if Mrs. Croy really was the Martha Stewart of her day, whipping up cheerful domestic solutions and improvements for any imaginable situation.

Reading through Putnum’s, I found some questionable and downright laughable advice, but I also found advice which proves the adage, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Returning to the chapter on childcare, we read,

Confidence between a thoughtful parent and a child is the greatest safeguard a child can have. A child who has been taught from babyhood to confide in father and mother, not in a complaining or petulant sense, but with the thought of telling mother or father about it, is not going to withhold his confidence in later years.

Thank you for reading my first blog post. If, like me, you find yourself fascinated by the lives of people who lived not so very long ago, then check back every now and then. Too many of the things I’ve found in my research will never make it into my book. And yet, they deserve to be shared.