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