Wednesday, August 31, 2011

And Still I Write

The very first post went up on Mnemosyne’s Mirror one year ago today.

And still I write.  But why? Why bother with all this in the first place?

Let me clear the air.  I don’t write because I want something to do; my life is already filled with enough activities. I don’t write because I’m looking for recognition; I’m well past that, and I have had recognition enough. I don’t write to be read, even though it’s nice when readers stop by from time to time.

I write because I have to.

Mostly, it’s either about the stories that need to be told or about the ideas that need an airing.  Sometimes, the writing itself is a mental exercise in organization and clarification about my own ideas or points of view.   Sometimes, it’s about a new research discovery. Occasionally, it’s about something inconsequential that just struck me as funny, interesting or worth writing about.

I write because I have to.

Researchers who “do” family history collect bits of bare-naked data – lots of it – often like Imelda Marcos collected shoes. These days, because many family history types tend to be “early adopters” when it comes to new technologies, the internet is filled with data – some of it good, and some of it, well… let’s just say that it’s “lacking.”

Plus, now there are programs to record all this bare-naked data, organize the data, store the data, access the data from remote locations and share the data with other data-hounds. Then there are the social networks and the social networking tools that enable folks interested in family history to talk about and share stuff with other like-minded people. 

In fact, sometimes I think that some folks are more interested in talking about doing their genealogy with all the new tekkie tools than in actually DOING their genealogy.

Of course, most of this glitzy high-tech stuff wasn’t around when I started doing serious family history and genealogy, including hands-on archives research,  back in the early 60s. And back before the advent of social networks, family historians quickly learned that only a handful of people that they knew had any interest in hearing about those latest discoveries relating to some obscure early 19th century ancestor that nobody remembered, anyway.

So, with all this great new stuff, including the tekkie toys, the instant-access to digitized records, the social networking and a web-ful of enough vital information about dead people to choke all the African war elephants that Hannibal marched over the Pyrenees to attack Rome, what’s missing?

In my view, it’s the stories.  There just aren’t enough of them.

I know, I know.  It’s fun to look stuff up.  Still, it’s probably much more important to write stuff down.  Not just the properly cited and thoroughly vetted bare-naked data, but the hundreds of stories behind those thousands of data points.

For example, it’s a fact that my own great-great grandfather James Redmond, a private in the NY 43rd Infantry during the Civil War, was one of the soldiers captured in Virginia during the Battle of the Wilderness.  It’s a fact that he was sent to the notorious Andersonville prison. It’s a fact that he died there about Oct 6 or 7, 1864 and what was left of him after starvation and dysentery had taken its toll was buried there. Those are the facts.  That’s the bare-naked data that we collect and document.

But it’s not “the story”.

James Redmond’s actual “story” would not be found in his military record.  Rather, it would tell of his life as a laborer before the war and how his 32-year old wife died in mid-October in 1860, leaving him alone with three children under 10. And how he left those three children with his wife’s brother and his family while he went off to war on the 3rd of December 1861. And how the two youngest children were placed in an orphanage after word of their father’s death reached their uncle less than three years later.

Why did he enlist? Was it the money? Was it the adventure? Was it an escape from something?

I doubt that I will ever know. Frankly, I doubt it was “to preserve the union” or “eliminate slavery.” 

There’s not much surviving evidence that Irish Catholic immigrant laborers who lived on the edge of poverty thought much about those things. Plus, the New York City draft riots strongly suggest that those same Irish laborers who rioted lived in fear that, should the war be successful for the North,  the newly-freed slave population would leave the South for the industrial Northeast,  thereby taking their jobs and further depressing wages.

No, I strongly doubt that my great-great grandfather was any kind of abolitionist or deep political thinker at all.

James Redmond’s story is largely a blur and a mystery. No one else in my family ever heard of him. He left no papers or letters; chances are, he could not read or write. His own children barely knew him – my great-grandfather, his oldest child, was only 10 when his father left for war.  His enlistment records – more bare-naked facts – tell me that he was not very tall -  about five feet, nine inches -  and had grey eyes, black hair and a “fair” complexion.  Still, that’s enough to help form a mental image of the man. But that’s all it is…a mental image.  No photographs, if they ever existed, have survived. 

And I doubt that my grandmother (who was his granddaughter and actually had his grey eyes and black hair and fair complexion) even knew his name. She was only 12 when her own father died, and likely not much interested in family history.

And yet, still I write about James Redmond and others like him… because even their sketchy stories still need telling. 

Family history is more than bare-naked data.  It is frozen memory that needs capturing before it melts into oblivion. It is that dried rose preserved in a family Bible that is meant to awaken a long-ago memory of a lover long gone. It is a tale passed from mother to daughter, from grandfather to grandson.  It is the rebuilding of our own ancestors’ lives from those tiny shards of evidence that we find while sifting through all that data.

So, why do I write?

I write because I have to.  I am compelled, and I seem to have no choice in the matter.

I guess it’s simple, really:  I write to raise the dead.

Monday, August 29, 2011

“I spik six langooge – Hinglish da best!” : Culture, Language and Legislation

"Maudit Tabernac'..."

Somewhere, stuffed in a box, I have all of those term papers from my university days at McGill.   Several of those papers contain marginal notes and comments from one of my favorite professors - Hugh MacLennan.  MacLennan was one of the greatest of the English Canadian novelists, an artist and wizard with language who taught one of the Honours English courses in literature that I was fortunate to enjoy.

Hugh MacLennan doesn’t get a lot of play in the States these days.  If any of my readers have ever heard his name or read even one of his novels, I’d be greatly surprised.

Still, McLennan was a first rate teacher and a stickler for correct English usage.  It was axiomatic that anyone signing up for any of the very few courses taught by MacLennan needed to be careful about whatever written word got turned in for evaluation. 

MacLennan spared no one. According to MacLennan, language had to be both subtle and precise and was intended to convey almost imperceptible shades of meaning. Failure to understand that meant… well, failure.

One of MacLennan’s novels, titled “Two Solitudes”, was based on a line from the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke – “…the love that consists of two solitudes that protect, border and greet each other.”  For MacLennan, the concept of “two solitudes” described the unique relationship between English and French Canada.  These two cultures were two “solitudes”, entities that protected, greeted and defined each other, but could never join together in spite of their highly symbiotic relationship.

Language – that special vehicle of culture and tradition – kept the two solitudes apart.

I lived in Montreal during the days of the Front de Libération du Québec – the FLQ – the nice folks who thought it was a good idea to put bombs in those bright red Royal Mail post boxes, especially the ones in English-speaking neighborhoods.  All in the hope of making Québec an independent nation.  After all, they figured, a little bit of domestic terrorism might go a long way toward freeing La Belle Province from English domination. 

French president Charles de Gaulle didn't help matters much when he visited Expo 67 (the 1967 World's Fair) and included the phrase "Vive le Québec libre !" ("Long live free Quebec!") in his speech from the balcony of Montreal's City Hall.

All of this was back in the day when the national flag was the old Canadian Red Ensign, not the Maple Leaf that we know today as the symbol of Canada.  Canada was, after all, “British North America” in those days. Québec and its francophone culture was, in a way, an anomaly, just as McGill, an English-style university where some professors lectured wearing long academic gowns, was an anomaly as the bastion of Anglophone education in a sea of “Joual” – the French dialect of Moliére and working-class Montréal.

In those days, I often arrived in Montreal by train.  One evening, I hailed a taxi and was driven to my apartment by a recently arrived eastern European driver – a new Canadian.  He proudly told me, “I spik six langooge – Hinglish da best!

The passage of time, however brings change.  One of the changes that came to Québec was the passage of “Bill 101” by the Québec Parliament in 1977. Bill 101 was officially called “La charte de la langue française” (The Charter of the French Language) and its principal provision made French the official language of the province.  Bill 101 provided fundamental language “rights” to the citizens of Québec and those rights included the “right” and requirement to conduct all business in French.   

This also meant that all education through the end of secondary school was to be conducted in French as well.  If Johnny – now Jean – wanted to learn English, it would be as a second language.

One of the principal effects of Bill 101 was to dramatically increase the population of provinces to the west of Québec, as English-speaking Quebeckers headed out, with their families and businesses.

For English-speaking Canadians with children, there was an escape clause. If either parent had received an elementary or secondary education in English in Canada, his or her child could be educated in English as well. (Originally, the bill said that the parent’s English education had to be in the province of  Québec, but this was expanded to “Canada” in  1982)

English-speaking immigrants, however, had no choice.  If they chose to live and work and procreate in Québec, their children were to be educated in French.

Business names and signs were to be in French. Workers had the right to be spoken to in French, even if they were the only French-speaking employee in a business. Despite the fact that Canada itself was a bilingual nation, Québec had decided that it was to be a unilingual province. Rejecting the “cultural mosaic” image that Canada used to distinguish itself from its “melting pot” cousin to the south, Québec chose another route altogether. Nous parlons la langue française, et vous, aussi.

Why?  Simply because language is inseparable from culture. In fact, language conveys culture from generation to generation. 

To make sure all this “cultural transmission” came to pass and in its continuing effort to undo the effect of Wolfe’s defeat of Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham outside the walls of Québec City, the province created “Office québécois de la langue française”, generally known to English-speaking Quebeckers as “the language police.” 

These were the folks who insured that the signage on businesses was correct, that company names had a “francophone-positive” look and that tourists who did not speak French (even if they came from Manitoba) had the proper degree of bewilderment.

And so it was with great amusement that I read the Yahoo Canada news article today titled “Quebec language agency to go after companies with English names.” 

All to insure the companies like the coffee chain “Second Cup, Ltd.” get with the program[me] and change their name (in Québec) to Les cafés Second Cup, so as not to offend the language police. 

Actually, this is not a “tempest in a coffee cup” issue.  Three Second Cup locations in Montreal were firebombed in 2001 by an FLQ activist offended by their “anglo” company name.  The new increased enforcement activity will be specifically aimed at multinational “big-box” stores that the agency feels threaten the language purity of the province.

In their defense, the Québec language agency points to the explosion of “English Only” laws being passed throughout the United States. (Surprisingly, even here in Upstate, a local town government recently passed a law stating that theirs was an “English only” town.  I guess that means that a lot of the councilfolk will have to go back to school to learn how to speak and write it correctly…)

Still, we need to consider the “two solitudes” concept more carefully.  Cultures – and languages – can exist side by side, accommodating each other, protecting each other and even loving each other. The idea that we all need to blend together into an amorphous linguistic singularity – a Borg nation – is highly unattractive.

Or, as we say in the best Joual of  La Belle Province when confronted with an abhorrent idea – “Moezie Tabernac’ et Sayn Sacramen du Hostie!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Hurricane! Well, Tropical Storm, Anyway. Spending the Day With Nasty Irene

One of the few nice things about terribly nasty weather is that you get to use terms like “hunker down” and “battening down the hatches”, even though few of us over a “certain age”can hunker comfortably and even fewer still have any hatches left to batten.

So, after battening and securing those things that could become projectiles in the heavy wind, we hunkered down and waited for the worst.   

We had several Thermoses of hot, hot water, in case we needed to make some tea and last night we filled up some empty plastic food storage containers and stuck ‘em in the freezer, all in anticipation of the power going out and that little light in the fridge going dark.

So far, so good.  It’s nearly 8 P.M. Things are wet and wild, but the power’s still with us, even as darkness descends on Upstate.

Today was spent (a.) cleaning off the top of the desk; (b.) making piles of ”desk - paper” to be filed; and (c.) lamenting that I had not yet transcribed all those documents I collected on my last trip to the Virginia State Library.  Nor those images of documents from my trip to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City last year.  

And then there are all the things needing transcription that I picked up on my visit to …oh, never mind...%$#@!!!

Since – so far -  the electric power has stayed on (mirabile dictu!) in spite of the torrential rains and nasty winds, I took the opportunity to look over my “Digital Ahnenforscher” talk.  I’ll be presenting this talk on Thursday evening, September 1st at the German Genealogy Group’s September meeting in Hicksville, NY.  

For those of you in the Long Island area – the talk is free (can’t beat the price) and it will take place at the Hicksville VFW Hall – Post 3211, 320 South Broadway (Route 107), Hicksville, NY 11801.  Here’s the link to the GGG website with all the specifics.

Doors open seven-ish, and Jonathan Sheppard Books will be there with a large selection of in-print genealogical reference books.

The full title of the talk is:
Searching For Those German Ancestors Online…Without Knowing Much German!  Tips on Becoming a “Digital Ahnenforscher”. 

You can read the description by following the link above.

As any speaker worth his or her salt knows, it’s imperative to check the slides before each and every lecture, especially if the slides reference websites that are subject to the whimsical change of web designers. 

Good thing I did, since I needed to completely redo more than a dozen slides because the referenced websites had changed completely.

I won’t make any predictions about what’s coming upon on the blog in the next week or two since the storm’s not over yet, and there’s still a lot of prep work to do for Thursday night’s talk. Then, after Thursday, it’ll be time to prep for the NARA- Pittsfield all – day event in Williamstown, MA on September 17th and the Maine Genealogical Society’s annual conference in Bangor at the end of September, on the 24th.  There will be more specific detail about both of those events soon.

Nonetheless, stay tuned.  There are all kinds of things in the hopper, including a long-ish post on memory and forgetting and the Civil War, all rolled up kinda neatly together.  And possibly something on sculpture as a point of focus for selective family history.  And whatever else flashes across Mnemosyne’s mirror in the meantime.

This blog will be a year old by the end of the week – and I haven’t run out of stuff to say!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Votin’ Time Is Just Around The Corner! But I’m Okay – Cuz I’m White, Male, Old, Literate and I Own Real Estate!

Very soon the Political Silly Season will be in ultra high gear and people will be once again running loudly for public office.  They’ll be after our votes, and will tell us whatever it is they think we want to hear and will, in the process, paint a gorgeous , glorious picture of a country that never was.   

If we will just give them our vote, they promise to “Take Our Country Back”, which I suspect may well be a trademarked phrase by now. 

Back to the time when Everything Was Wonderful.

Just how far back?

Perhaps back to the days of “The Founding Fathers Who Were Always Right -  In a Country That Was Always Right -  Until THEY (insert target group here) Messed It All Up.”

So, who gets to vote on this stuff?   

Surely, in the “Greatest Nation On Earth That Ever Was – Bar None”, all of us acting collectively have always been asked to make the choice of who should lead us. Right?.

Well, not really…

In the dim recesses of our collective memories, we know that voting rights for women and blacks were things that People Fought About A Long Time Ago, and sometimes for a long time.  Still, the “Founding Fathers Were Perfect and Omniscient” crowd has a singularly curious one-note view of history. 

The Past was always Better Than Now. We need to go Back to Better.

Back to Better...

If you can follow their logic, back in those early days of the Republic, everything was rosy and peachy-keen. People lived without lots of gub’mint interference in their lives, and everything worked fine – just like God intended. 

After all, our nation was designed to be all about Private Enterprise and  We, The People – no King for us! Give us leaders with real business experience in meeting payrolls – like, say, plantation owners George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.  Oh, wait…Washington and Jefferson didn't actually PAY their workers...

We, The People?

So, let’s take a look at this “We, The People” thing.  In fact, let’s look specifically at voting – at who could and who couldn’t vote.  One of our esteemed Founding Fathers – John Adams of Massachusetts – had some very definite views about who should (or should not) be able to vote.  He wrote, in a letter to James Sullivan on May 26, 1776:

“Depend upon it, Sir, it is dangerous to open so fruitful a source of controversy and altercation as would be opened by attempting to alter the qualifications of voters; there will be no end to it. New claims will arise; women will demand the vote; lads from 12 to 21 will think their rights not enough attended to; and every man who has not a farthing, will demand an equal voice with any other, in all acts of state. It tends to confound and destroy all distinctions, and prostrate all ranks to one common level.”

Imagine the societal dangers if “all ranks” were prostrated “… to one common level.”  Sheesh, the next thing you know, they’ll want to use our bathrooms…!

But when it comes to voting, that’s not all!

Sure, we all know there were some minor age and residency qualifications on the books back in olden times: in some places, you had to be 21 to vote, in others, 24.  In some places, residency could mean two years in the same place.  Plus, for starters, you had to be white. And male. Still, no big deal. Besides, that's all gone now.

Otherwise, things were pretty much as they are now, as some folks would have you think. 

So let’s take a closer look on how easy it actually was to vote in early America, in the days of the Founding Fathers. If, of course, you were free, white, male, and a long-term resident over 21...

Secret Ballot?  - Hardly!

During the colonial period and into the early Federal period, elections were public events. Both voters and candidates gathered at the appointed time, usually at the local courthouse, and the voters publicly indicated their choice of candidate. My own experience with Virginia records shows that for early 19th century Presidential elections, lists showing the candidates’ names and the names of those who voted for them, can sometimes – but not universally – be found in the county clerk’s record books.

A Religious Test – Really?

During colonial days – and prior to the adoption and widespread acceptance of the first amendment to the Constitution – if you happened to be a Roman Catholic or a Jew, you were pretty much out of luck when it came to voting in many parts of North America.  Even if you weren’t specifically banned from voting (as you were in early 18th century New York), you couldn’t in good conscience take the required oath to the monarch as both head of state and head of the established (official) church.  And while it didn’t affect voting itself, many states adopted a provision in their constitutions that prohibited all but those who believed in a Supreme Being from holding elected office.  No agnostics or atheists need apply. Some states still have this clause in their constitutions.

Give Me Land, Lots of Land … Otherwise, No Vote

When it came to voting, our Founding Fathers were very concerned about riff-raff (see John Adams above).  Heaven forbid the landless and unemployed have a say in running things. That’s why they wrote into law basic minimum property requirements for voting.   

For example, at one time in Virginia, you needed to actually own (not rent) 25 acres of land in order to vote.  This “landowner” provision was very effective in disenfranchising lots of the folks who lived on the western frontier (i.e., present-day West Virginia) from messing things up by voting, since a great many of them simply squatted or leased their “back-of-beyond” land. In colonial New York, it wasn’t so much about acreage as it was about land value. If what you owned wasn’t worth at least forty pounds (big, big bucks in those days), fuhgeddaboutit.  New Hampshire was the first state to abolish the “minimum property” voting requirement in 1792.

Readin’ and Writin’ and … (Well, Readin’ Anyway…)

We all know about the "Jim Crow" literacy tests that were put in place to make sure that former slaves (who were prohibited from learning to read by many “slave-state” statutes prior to Emancipation), could not vote.  However, not as well known is the fact that many Northern abolitionist states enacted literacy provisions to ensure that the unlettered Irish Catholics flooding the shores of the United States to escape conditions in mid-19th century Ireland couldn’t spoil things by voting.  Connecticut adopted a literacy test in 1855; kind of a “No Irish Need Vote” provision.  After the Civil War, a number of states discovered that there were adult white Protestant males who were (wait for it…) illiterate, so many laws got modified to “grandfather” in those who could legally vote before the poll tax provisions were put in  place.

Poll Taxes – Goodness me, what’s that all about?

As the 19th century progressed, and Congress by fiat declared that former slaves (all of whom happened to be black, or nearly so) were actually Real People and Citizens of these United States, lots of local governments suddenly decided that education was a Good Thing.  So, they enacted a tax to support it and made paying it a requirement of voting (i.e., a Poll Tax).

Don’t have enough cash to pay the poll tax this year, Mr. Son of Former Slave?  Not to worry…Mr. Rich White Guy here will do your voting for you.  Don’t worry though; he’ll be looking out for your interests, and that will save you all the hassle of voting. 

Turning Back The Clock of History?

I could go on and on about this, but I think you get my point.  Nearly universal suffrage – almost all of us being able to vote for our leaders -  is a Good Thing – in spite of what most of the Founding Fathers believed

Our ancestors – the ones we spend so much of our time researching – gave both blood and treasure so that we could do this.

So, when I hear folks like a Texas Governor suggest that the 17th Amendment (direct election of US senators by popular vote) wasn’t such a good idea, I get a little bit uneasy.  Yeah, right. I’m sure the folks in the wildly popular and efficient New York State Legislature would pick just the right US Senators for me and thus save me the trouble of thinking about it…

And then, what can I say to those who advocate the return to the days of the all-wise and all-knowing Founding Fathers, when only a tiny, tiny fraction of the population could vote because the rest were … well, riff-raff…

As we say around here – fuhgeddaboutit!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

1913: Ira Carpenter, Edna The Telephone Girl, and The Katahdin Farmers Phone Bill

"Hello, Central...?"

For years, when I’ve lectured on research techniques for genealogists, I’ve suggested that many of our “brick walls” are caused by our own failure to (1.) think broadly enough and (2.) pay attention to the tiny details we discover and pursue them wherever they lead. 

Our failure to do either of these often causes us to look at our ancestors mostly as names and dates on a chart, not as real people with real lives in real communities. 

Our ancestors, much like us, worried about money and the weather and their kids.  They paid bills, spent their days working at boring and sometimes dangerous jobs, and for the most part, gave little thought - if any at all -  to either their remote ancestors or their future descendants.

Much of our research time is given over to searching out the documents that can help us add more “begats” to our ancestral lines when, in fact, we might be better served pursuing the minutiae of our ancestors lives that we uncover in those seemingly unimportant documents that we find in our research adventures. The more we know about our ancestors as people, the easier it is to figure out what made them tick.

Perhaps the devil is truly in the details if we look close enough.

Here’s an example of that.

As I was processing a small collection of Maine-related ephemera that I plan to have for sale at the Maine Genealogical Society’s annual conference on September 24th, I came across several pieces of paper that most folks would consider “unimportant” because they’re not “genealogical” enough.  

But bear with me a bit and consider whether this “unimportant” label is really correct. Here’s the first item for consideration. 

It’s a telephone bill (dated June 2, 1913) for a man named Ira Carpenter who lived in Penobscot County, Maine in 1913.  Mr. Carpenter’s phone number was 14 – 2 and he owed the phone company $8.25 – most of it for his toll calls.

His phone company thoughtfully documented each one of those toll calls (there were ten altogether) in a separate statement so that he could see how the $6.75 charge came to be. Here’s what they sent him:

Now, generally, we would not think of these scraps of ephemera as being particularly significant.  Still, perhaps they could be our entrée into a better understanding of life in rural Maine nearly a century ago. Let’s consider some of the things they might suggest to us – especially if and when we can “record-link” what we find therein to other bits and pieces of information that can be found elsewhere.

First of all, we learn from the second document that Mr. Carpenter’s telephone is in the Patten exchange. The population of Patten, Maine today is about 1200 people, and a check of a few online references suggests that it hasn’t grown much since 1913.  So, we can correctly ascertain that Mr. Carpenter lived a somewhat small-town, rural lifestyle, remote from the distractions of Portland and big-city life.

The next thing we learn is that Mr. Carpenter’s toll calls cost him $6.75.

So, how much was that in current dollars?  For a realistic estimate, we can plug that number into an online calculator on the “Measuring Worth” website.  I chose the “purchasing power of money” calculator and learned that $6.75 in 1913 would buy $153.00 worth of “stuff” in 2010.

Obviously, Mr. Carpenter was an “early adopter” when it came to new technologies and was willing to spend the money to be “in the game”, so to speak.  Telephones in rural areas were uncommon and expensive.  So, why bother with a telephone at all in 1913 rural Maine?

Turns out that a check of a few more references (censuses, guidebooks and directories) strongly suggests that Mr. Carpenter was something of an entrepreneur.  Here’s his ad from a 1906 Maine guidebook:

After selling the hotel sometime before 1912, Carpenter invested in real estate and a number of other ventures, including lumbering, all of which can be documented using the census and printed sources. 

No doubt this new-fangled telephone thing proved useful in his business life.

Now take a look at the statement of toll calls above and note that things were especially busy on April 22, 1913.  Mr. Carpenter made four long-distance calls: two to “Mr. Golden” in Bangor and two to “F.W. Hunt Co.” in nearby (but still, out of the exchange) Island Falls.  The identity of “Mr. Golden” is somewhat of a mystery since there are more than five possibilities in Bangor, but it’s easier to find out about the “F.W. Hunt Co.” from one of their 1913 ads:

We don’t know why these calls were made, but they might suggest some further avenues for research.

I found it of special interest that Mr. Carpenter received a statement with so much minute handwritten detail from the Katahdin Farmers Telephone Company.  That must have been the handiwork of one of his neighbors, Miss Edna Rowe, who signed his June 1913 bill.  

This is confirmed by the following - Edna’s name appears in the”Patten” section of the  1913 Maine Register, State Year-Book and Legislative Manual as the person “in charge” of the telephone company:

Note that Carpenter’s name is also listed above, showing that he is in the real estate business.  The US Census for 1910 shows that Edna Rowe – single, 31, and living with her married sister’s family was, by occupation, the town’s “telephone girl.”

I wonder if Ira and Edna ever chatted on the phone or if they met at Francis Peavey’s restaurant?  Edna certainly knew David Armstrong, the taxidermist, since his was the next household in the 1910 Patten census.

Chances are, if there were any deep, dark secrets to be known in Patten, Edna likely knew them. At very least, she knew to whom people talked, and who paid their bills on time. As Patten’s key “telephone girl”, Edna Rowe was a force to be reckoned with. 

Did Edna actually own the Katahdin Farmers Telephone Company?  No, she was a trusted employee of one of the many small “exchanges” that provided service throughout rural Maine.

The Katahdin Farmers Telephone Company was just one of a host of independent telephone companies that grew up around the new technology.  This is not at all unusual – remember the plethora of dial-up internet providers in the early days?  This particular company, headquartered in Island Falls, was started in 1904 by Carl E. Milliken, an entrepreneur who later went on to become the two-term Governor of Maine.

Here are just a few of some of the other small telephone companies in Maine in 1916, taken from the annual report of the state Public Utilities Commission:

But, back to the phone bills.

At first glance, these phone bills are nothing special, and not nearly as exciting as a will or a marriage certificate.  Nonetheless, like all historical documents, they contain unique information that can provide us with a better understanding of our ancestors’ lives and the times in which they lived, if only we look closely enough.

Details, details.  

Good research is all about the details and the little things - things easily forgotten and often thoughtlessly discarded.