Found:   a Family in a Shoebox

Wayside Park at Bay Bridge, Pensacola, Florida -- Dear Ivie, We are having a wonderful vacation even in very warm weather.  Gertrude & Harley

What I've heard most about how one gets hooked on the genealogy hobby is the simple act of an older family member dumping a pile of papers, clippings, letters, etc., into the lap of the least resisting packrat in sight. Often, it is done without warning.

"Here, I can't do this anymore, and I don't want all this work to be thrown out like ________ (fill in the blank with the name of a neat-freak relative) would do as soon as I turned my back!"

Others are spurred by the stories of their grandparents, seek birth parents or medical information, or hold a lifelong interest in history.

My story is very different. Mine starts with a family to which I'm not even related. I found them in a shoe box.

In the winter of 1993, I was visiting my snowbird parents in Florida. They like to go to yard sales, and I don't mind paying for someone else's junk occasionally. We followed a well-planned route, special items highlighted with a coloured marker. I don't recall anything in particular about the sale located in shed on a back lane, but then I wasn't trusted with the list.

University of Maryland, College Park, The Library and Administration Building -- Washington, D.C., postmarked June 24, 1932; 836 Madison St. N.W., Friday, Dear Ivie, Wish you were down here going to school.  I like it fine.  My cousin and I drive back and forth to school from Washington each day -- about 8 miles.  We saw a pageant 'The Great American' last night on the monument grounds.  I'll write you later, Sincerely, Bee Weber

We'd both lightly flipped through a box of postcards, trying hard not to look too interested. The man thought for a moment when Mom offered him about half his asking price, then he countered with an offer to split the difference. We accepted and carried them away. I knew immediately that the box would yield so much more than just a bunch of postcards.

That night, I sat up until about 4 AM, reading the many messages. The cards were nearly all addressed to the same woman, at first single and living in West Virginia with her mother, then later married, living in the same house after her mother's death. Later still, they moved to Florida, less than 100 miles from where we bought the postcards.

United States Treasury, Washington D.C. -- May 23, 1936.  Having a fine time.  The boys are all in the loby [sic] and I am trying to find somthing [sic] to put on some postcards.  Billy Lloyd

The postcards covered about 60 years, and held news from family and friends in tiny script -- a letter cost two cents to mail, while a postcard was mailed for only one cent. That night, I worked out a rough family tree based on the card notes. While I was quite wrong in some deductions, I did get the majority of the main family sorted out.

It took nearly a year to get the approximately 700 cards catalogued. Everything of and on the cards went into a database, after much fiddling with the format of the data. Now I can search the collection by any single factor or combination thereof. The cards were numbered as they were catalogued and stored in that order in archival photo albums, so that both sides are visible through the transparent sleeves.

During the process of cataloging the cards, we bought a new computer with all the bells and whistles. After poking about the on-line world for a while, I became anxious to try out the fax and e-mail. With these tools, I fired off letters to newspapers in West Virginia and Florida, requesting help from anyone who might have known the postcard collector, Ivie and her family.

New Government Buildings on Constitution and Pennsylvania Avenues Triangle, Washington D.C. -- I sure didn't put off much time getting here, did I?  I Left last Sat. and came on here on Sunday.  Arnett was up home on Thursday and Friday and I came back with him on Saturday.  I haven't heard from my grades yet.  Are you in School?  Bee

It didn't take long to get a reply from a woman who had known Ivie and her husband, and was friends with a relative. Her letter was so enthusiastic, that I was quite disappointed to receive a curt rejection of any of my queries from the relative.

Admittedly, it must be quite disconcerting to find someone unrelated to you quizzing you about your family. I did my best to dispel her qualms, but to no avail. It did make me more curious about why the relative would not want to tell the story of this obviously loved and respected teacher.

Oddly enough, the same day the relative's letter arrived, I received another. This time, the writer was only barely acquainted with Ivie, but knew an elderly man who had lived in the house during the 30's and early 40's, until his death. I had mentioned the man's name because he was the addressee on many of the cards.

Bridge Terminal and Approach to San Francisco Bay Bridge, San Francisco, Calif. -- 9.  Postmarked July 7, 1943.  Sent free as the writer was in the USNR; -- Wed.  Dear Uncle Lee:  Here I am in Frisco on my way to Hawaii.  I'll stay here indefinitely waiting a ship.  After I get there I'll write you a long letter.  Murray.

This letter began a correspondence that has continued ever since. My research buddy has done lookups for me in the local library and courthouse, and I am helping him with his own family tree, by research on-line (he is internet-impaired). It even turned out that he wrote four of the cards in the collection, and was quite thrilled to receive the colour copies I had made of them! He did remark that he didn't recall writing them over fifty years ago, but did hope he had followed up on the letters he'd promised in the notes.

Postmarked Fort Leavenworth, Kans., June 26, 1943; Dear Folks, Arrived here [illegible] now have some time to write you.  Dan't write me here I likely won't get it until I get moved someplace.  It is hot here I have sweat more to day just standing around.  Will have test and some <U>shots</U> later.  Love to all, Albert

The database was a valuable tool in the detective work involved in sorting out the correspondents and the people named in the notes, but who didn't necessarily write any cards themselves. Being largely communication between close friends and family, the only surnames on most cards were in the addresses. I had to develop skills in handwriting analysis, by studying the penmanship and writing styles, grammar, spelling, and sentence structure; peculiar habits like writing perpendicular to the length of the card helped to sort out cards lacking signatures or signed with cryptic initials.

Some of the bare facts of the family were found on-line, in such sources as the Social Security Death Index. Others were located in newspaper obituaries, city directories, land registry records. I subscribed to surname lists that provided a forum for questions and answers, theories and suppositions with others researching the same family names. On-line newsletters, chock full of hints and sources -- on-line and otherwise -- brought a great deal of insight and assistance.

Wright's Trading Post, Albuquerque, New Mexico -- We will leave hear Monday a.m.  We sure are wondering about the roads from Pine Ridge to Chi'  May have to change our Rt.

The Mormons have put a large amount of information into digital format, some of it capable of being downloaded, but the website remains extremely busy. Many other sites offer information for sale, by download after you send your credit card number or on CD-ROM sent by courier. I didn't bite, but I did benefit by the generosity of those who possessed such information and were willing to share. I've thanked many who helped by snail-mailing a local postcard, which seemed only fitting considering how the project got started. This simple act hardly matched the efforts made on my behalf.

The whole family were great travellers, and for a large part of the collection, they were on the move with various members in boot camps and military bases all over the United States. Sometimes the postmark was the only date clue; all the more frustrating when it was illegible.

A year after I had initially placed the appeals for help in the editorial columns of the newspapers, I received a letter from a teacher, also slightly acquainted with Ivie, but good friends with two other teachers who knew Ivie well. One had authored about three dozen of the postcards, but was long dead.

Graystone Motel, Highway 80 West -- in city limits, Selma, Alabama -- Hi!  We stopped west of Selma about 4 o'clock here, 5 there.  Drove 400 miles with pleasure.  Car worked just about right and the weather perfect.  We plan to start early tomorrow and do a few more miles 500 or better so our last day out will not be so bad.  Both traveled well not so tired either.  Hope all of the trip will go so well.  No lovebugs or gnats just had a good clean bath.  Albert and Nellie

Through the efforts of my new contact, I received an informative letter from Ivie's old friend and fellow teacher, now quite elderly. She was able to clear up some misconceptions I had, reiterated the talent of the accomplished teacher, giving some idea of the kind of person she was.

This is what I was looking for, with only a secondary interest in sorting out the immediate family and those in the correspondence. This gave Ivie flesh and bone.

Ivie's card to her grandmother

It was the text of the letters that made me want to know more about Ivie. There is nothing of her own writing but four postcards she wrote as a young girl to her grandmother. In her child's sloping, unpunctuated handwriting, she wrote on a card postmarked July 2, 1913, 7 PM:

"Hello grandma how are you all well we are looking for you all at the Fourth July i'm going to kill an old hen and fix a big dinner for you all goodbye from Ivy"

The four cards that Ivie wrote were sent to her in 1969, by a cousin who was helping clear out their aunt's belongings after her death. Amongst the postcards were some blank greeting cards, some tiny, fancy printed cards that may have been place cards or attached to funeral flowers.

There was also a letter of congratulations for her winning an award for developing an environmental study programme long before the environment became the issue it is today. The letter contained a newspaper clipping announcing the award.

Since I started my on-line search for Ivie's family, I have had further correspondence from others descended from siblings of Ivie's grandfather. Now I have more of the family tree than I ever wanted, in spite of the misgivings and wishes of my first family contact. While it was not my intention to upset anyone, I'm sure that this has occurred, and it has changed my plans to write about the family history aspect. While I still would like to know Ivie better, I must be satisfied with the dry facts of the family tree, and the sense of connection to her in reading her postcards. My contacts have exhausted their leads.

214 -- Pigtail Bridge near Wind Cave National Park, Black Hills, So. Dak.  Postmarked July 28, 1942;  Rapid City, S.D., Dear Folks, Does this picture make you homesick?  We came up here on business but are enjoying our trip touring the hills.  It is a beautiful day to travel and naturally we thought a lot about how you all would enjoy the hills.  We are at the museum now and will be ready to go home about 3:30 or 1 hr from now.  They sure have built a large airport up here now.  Love to all, Albert & Nellie

The most wonderful aspect of this project has been the incredible course of events set in motion by that yard sale in Florida years ago. A box of postcards belonging to a lady from West Virginia and Florida led to a family reunion on the Canadian prairies. The two events and two family groups are so impossibly unconnected. Yet, my family's reunion could never have happened without the interest sparked by Ivie's family correspondence. That interest blossomed into a facination with genealogy, which coupled with the power of the internet, bridged a 72 year separation in a highly emotional and joyful gathering. We owe Ivie a deep debt of gratitude.

Aid to Insignia Recognition --  Sunday 6 PM, Dear Folks, Arrived here 4:40.  This town (City - St. Louis - beg pardon) is plenty O.K.)  However this tired WAAC would much rather be in Carlsbad right now.  Getting around in this station is like being in a winding tunnel.  Am missing the tomatoes.  Love, Esther.

The first book that I bought with my own hard-earned money was a history book. There were facets of history that fascinated me in high school, but it seemed that most teachers could wring the enjoyment out of even these few bits. I've always had an interest in history I could touch -- to put my hand on the block of a fort or the muzzle of a cannon; to sense the part that very ordinary people had in events, the future importance of which they could never fathom.

This is what I think is so compelling about this project. In my hands are the words of people who were not extraordinary in the sense that we think of historical characters -- be they heroes or villains. The connections between the past, present, and future are the people who live in those times. Lacking even one of them, would the chain of events have unfolded the same? I have my doubts.

Salt Museum, Onondaga Lake Parkway, Syracuse, N.Y.  Postmarked Aug. 8, 1966.  Hi, I'm having a grand time with my son + family.  I am not lonesome anymore.  Sorry the little boy drowned.  Irene Stevens

Now, I am hot on the trail of my own ancestors, as well as those of my husband's family. In searching for Ivie's family, I have been practising looking for mine. When I started, except for one case, there was at least a partial family tree in place. Now even that "brick wall" has come tumbling down. Each existing tree has been initiated by a family member, with one going back as many as thirteen generations. There are gaps, there are doubts, and there are tenuous connections yet to be proven. So the work goes on. Someday, I hope to dump an organized pile of papers, clippings, letters, etc., into the lap of the least resisting packrat in sight.

To read the note on the card, slide your mouse over the postcard without clicking.

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    Other genealogy and family pages (unrelated to my projects) that I liked and thought deserved to be shared:
  • Letters from Grampa Ferguson's Desk Family finds old letters, postcards, business correspondence and announcement cards in Grampa's desk. A lovely website!
  • Emma "Pauline" Johnston's Autograph Book, 1882-1893
      Transcribed, with details on the signees gleaned from census records (mostly New Brunswick, Canada). Imaginative! Did your ancestor inscribe this book, belonging to the famous writer?

    Last Update: 2009 Sep 12
    since Oct 27, 2004
    Text copyrighted 1998-2014 and page designed by Linda MacKinnon. Postcards remain in the copyright of their original publishers.