Tag Archives: genealogy

Other People’s Ancestors – How House Histories Bring the Unrelated Together

When I started researching my family tree in 1988, the hobby was quite solitary.  I spent hours in the local history room of the Pollard Memorial Library in Lowell, Massachusetts, threading microfilm reels of the local papers through the microfilm readers and leafing through dusty, yellowed City Directories.  I remember the excitement of the first time I found my great-grandparents listed as young parents in the 1910 US Census, then the most recent census available, and constructing my first family tree from there.  I traced them back through the earlier censuses and found their parents.  I located birth, marriage, and death records; before long, I had traced almost all of my branches back to my gateway, or immigrant ancestors.  You’ll notice that there is a lot of first-person narration here.  In those days, genealogy was about as social as reading a book.  At most, you might have found family members who shared various levels of interest in your discoveries.  Or, you might have come across a distant relation willing to share information or your interest through snailmail correspondence.

By Free Public Library Commission of Massachusetts [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Pollard Memorial Library - 1899, via Wikipedia Commons

Six years ago, my wife and I, both avid readers of publications like Old House Journal and This Old Housebought a century-old home ‘for the charm’ and, at least in my case, to capture a piece of the past.  We certainly accomplished this – and many fascinating, non-genealogy-related accounts narrating the joys and trials of owning older homes already abound in the blogosphere.  One day, while trying to escape one of our old home tasks – it may have been repointing the fieldstone foundation or insulating the crawl space under our enclosed porch; the fond memory escapes me – I got the idea that I would research the house’s history.  Within our closing documentation, I knew we had some death certificates of previous owners.  And, more importantly, the deed of the previous owners referenced, within its last lines, the prior deed that had conveyed ownership of the home to them some thirty-five years before.

Armed with these documents, I took a day off from work, and traveled down to the Registry of Deeds, and set to find the Book and Page referenced in the Deed.  And I did, and within the last lines of that deed, I found the book and page number of an earlier deed.  I spent a couple of hours, in the basement of the Courthouse, tracing one deed to the next, solitarily leafing through increasingly older deed books.  As the dates on the deeds grew earlier, typed text gave way to the elaborate handwriting of an earlier time.

And among the earlier owners of the house, I found a series of families who had lived in the house for a few years each.  And then, I came across a woman, Grace Petrie, who owned the house for thirty years, preceded by her parents who had owned the house for the previous twenty.  I diligently noted their names and the dates they lived in the house, and set to employ my genealogical sleuthing skills in combing through census records and newspaper archives.

Front Page Headline from The Lowell Sun, Feb. 23, 1944

Luckily, by the time we had bought the house, these records were online and I quickly found obituaries and marriage notices and other interesting facts about the previous owners of the house.  I learned that Grace had lost a twenty-five-year-old son, Chandler, in World War II when his plane crashed during a night combat training mission in Pueblo, Colorado.

And, while digging near the flagpole in the yard, a few years later, I came across “CHAN” and “1944″ etched into the concrete at its base.  A search of earlier newspaper records revealed that Grace’s father, Harry Chandler, had been the station agent of the now-defunct South Lowell station.  Being quite comfortable with trains, Harry had one day alighted from the train, before it had completely stopped, and was struck by another oncoming train.  All of this happened in the woods, directly behind the house.

From The Lowell Sun, January 26, 1915, Pg. 4

While doing all of this research, I heavily relied on the newspaper records of newspaperarchive.com and on the census records and city directories scanned into the vast online resources of Ancestry.com.  I also created an online family tree for Grace, in an effort to find surviving family members, who might have had old photographs of the house or property that could provide insight into how the property appeared in earlier decades (which is something us old home enthusiasts salivate about).  I found no living relatives (or old home photos), but Ancestry’s “shaking leaves” soon revealed Grace’s passport applications from the 1920′s.  She had travelled annually to Cuba in the 1920′s to see her husband who had been working there as an expatriate accountant.  And with those records were photographs of Grace, and her children.

Grace Chandler with her Children, 1920, from her US Passport Application

Up to now, however, all of this research was still quite solitary . . . and solitary it stayed.  After all, while the art and science of genealogy and even house histories is frequently discussed – even quite animatedly – in groups, the fruits of those labors are often only interesting to those directly related or connected to the subjects.  One day, however, several years later, I was contacted through Ancestry by one of Grace’s distant relatives, the grandnephew of her second husband, Earle Petrie, who had lived in the house, first as a boarder, and then as her husband until his death around 1950.  Petrie’s grandnephew had found me through a “shaking leaf” in his tree.  I shared with him what I had on Earle, who had left New Brunswick as a young man, settled in Massachusetts, and had lost contact with his Canadian family.

On something of a lark, I searched old newspapers for further news of old Earle, who had worked as a car dealer in the area.  I found a few advertisements for the car dealership where he worked, as well as an article of two that listed him as a salesman there.  I forwarded these to his grandnephew, who was grateful to have them.

And then, I found the real gem of the research – Earle’s Uncle David, who frequently visited the home.  Uncle David, a police officer in nearby Lowell, Massachusetts, was something of a celebrity in the local papers, and this quickly came up when I ran his name through the search engines at newspaperarchive.com.  In 1913, Officer Petrie had stopped a pair of wild horses charging through one of the Lowell’s busiest squares.

Front Page Headline, Lowell Sun, Jan. 22, 1913

Picture this:  On a Wednesday afternoon in late January 1913, two runaway horses came charging onto Merrimack Street, the main thoroughfare of Lowell, Massachusetts, then a city of 110,000 people.  The spooked horses pulled a heavy truck loaded with several tons of waste bales from the nearby Boott Mills.  The driver of the truck, Francis Kennedy, had been thrown from the vehicle on one of its wild turns, but still held onto the reins, loudly warning pedestrians, motorists, and other cart riders of the runaway cart while he was being half-dragged across the uneven cobblestones of Merrimack Street.  Officer Petrie turned at the commotion and took off on a run after the truck, while the horses plunged it and the flailing Mr. Kennedy toward a slower-moving electric car.  With a failing grip on the reins, Kennedy managed to steer the truck past the electric car, but lost half of the heavy bales onto the road.   Just beyond Merrimack’s intersection with Central Street, Officer Petrie waited and watched as the horses thundered closer, and into the path of Milo Hale, who sat in an automobile, unable to move from their path.  Amidst the cautions shouted from the crowd of onlookers, Petrie waited for his moment, and as they crossed Central Street, he jumped at one of the horses’ heads, grabbing onto it, and, with Kennedy’s assistance, was able to sway the horses to the left, missing Hale’s car by inches.  Kennedy and Petrie finally stopped the horses some 25 yards further down the road, avoiding any injury to pedestrians and other motorists and were considered to have saved many of them from certain tragedy.

Via Library of Congress - Merrimack Street Looking East from the Palmer Street Intersection, 1908

David Petrie, Front Page Photo, Lowell Sun, Jan. 22, 1913

Soon after I found the article, I sent it to the great-grandnephew of Officer Petrie, in Montreal.  He excitedly thanked me for my help with his family tree research and said he would share the story with his family. Although he had heard the stories of Uncle David, he and his family had not seen the newspaper articles from the Lowell Sun.  And, although I had no real connection to David Petrie (other than the fact that I live in his nephew’s former home), I felt an interest in this man, who long ago saved lives, my own ancestors’ likely among them, on Merrimack Street in crowded Downtown Lowell.  And, I realized that, with the advent of the internet and sites like ancestry.com, genealogy has expanded so far past those solitary days back in the 80′s when I strained my eyes under flickering fluorescent lights in the basement of the Pollard Memorial Library, on the same Merrimack Street where David Petrie performed his heroic act some 75 years earlier.

Readers, do you have any research stories to share?  Has your genealogy or house history research into the past made you any connections in the present (or resulted in any interesting tales)?  


The Value of Living Memories, Lowell, MA: Circa 1865

For those of us born into Generation X, the earliest living memory of a family member we’ve likely been exposed to might stretch as far back as Prohibition, or the Great War, or maybe, for the older members of our generation, childhood memories of the Spanish-American War.  I write a local history column for the Billerica Minuteman.  In my research, I came across some living memory cassette tape recordings at the Billerica Public Library that date from the 1970′s.  But even these memories, from Billerica’s oldest residents of the 1970′s, date to the late 1890′s at the earliest.

Seven-year-old newspaper boy in 1914

What is harder to uncover is the living memory of generations that we haven’t met.  When you uncover photographs of your grandfather as a child, what sorts of stories would he have heard from the oldest members of his family?  As a family historian, I’ve come across lots of stories and artifacts passed down various branches of my family tree.  I often examine and ponder the Victorian-style trunk that carried my great-grandmother’s belongings to Boston when she was a young woman arriving from the Azores in 1907.  And, I’m fascinated to flip through the pages of a yellowed diary that my 2nd-great-grandfather purchased in Manchester, England, before boarding a ship that took him to the United States in 1869.  Inside, the most prominent yellowed page records, in his eloquent 19th-century handwriting, the date of his arrival in Boston:  July 25, 1869.

In genealogy, the holy grail is anything that helps us lay flesh upon the bones of the names, dates, and dry, yellowed records of the ancestors we are researching.  Sometimes, this takes the form of a treasured possession, or a diary, or a set of letters.  But, when these haven’t survived, the next best thing is the living memories of our ancestor’s contemporaries.  The trick is to find an author who has a lot in common with your ancestor – one who lived in the same area or performed the same occupation.

The history of my family has deep roots in Lowell, Massachusetts.  Five consecutive generations of my family have been born there.  So, naturally, I voraciously seek out any living memories of Lowell that have been preserved and that offer a window into the world my ancestors saw, felt, and experienced as they walked the streets of that long-ago Lowell.  The other day, I came across a fascinating article in an 1893 edition of the Lowell Sun, recounting the memories of a coal yard employee who spoke with the reporter about his memories of the city in the pre-Civil War era.

The article celebrates Belvidere resident Michael Moran’s 50 years of service in the coal yards of William Kittredge.  Like my ancestors, Moran was a laborer who had come to Lowell from Ireland, in 1846.  For nearly half a century, Moran worked for Kittredge, supporting his coal and wood businesses. Moran’s memories did not pre-date the construction of the Boston & Lowell railroad, but he did recall working with men who told him stories of the first coal being brought up the Middlesex Canal.  Moran recalled the days in Lowell before residents understood coal’s ability to heat their homes.  After Kittredge proved its worth to one Central Street merchant in an exhibition in his office, the merchant bought it on trial, put it in his grate at his Central Street office, and watch, frustrated, as the fire went out.  Enraged, the merchant threw the coals onto his lawn, and then watched, dismayed, as his lawn caught fire and burnt out.

Central Street; Lowell, Massachusetts - ca. 1875

Moran went on to recall the Lowell of the his younger years, including a Central Street with no sidewalks and lacking the Mansur and Canal blocks.  In his earlier days, shanties stood on Central Street in their place, which housed a few “traders”.  He recalled a Palmer Street before the Central Fire Station was built, and a pond that once occupied its site.  He had, in fact, cut across the site on his way home from buying a suit one night and fell into that pond.  Moran remembered a Lowell whose biggest restaurant was owned by Captain Marston and located in the Wentworth Block at the corner of Merrimack & Shattuck Streets.  Marston’s restaurant was a draw for Lowell’s theatrical crowd, where the most fashionable actors and actresses of the age could be seen before and after they took the stage.  Moran’s memories also included a youthful General Benjamin Butler, who to men of his generation, was viewed as a good friend to Lowell’s Irishmen. He also recalled the construction of the Carpet, Prescott, and Massachusetts Mills.

Benjamin Franklin Butler

The ability to access living memories of those whose lives are long past allows us a glimpse into the lifetimes of our own ancestors.  Reading accounts such as Michael Moran’s helps us visualize the Lowell of the mid-19th century, a time long lost from the living memory of society.  From a historian’s perspective, it’s interesting and helps provide some context as to how contemporary citizens viewed the city and its development toward the end of the 19th century.  For genealogists, these accounts help enliven our own family history records and put some context to our view of our ancestors’ lives.  What did they see as they walked the streets of their cities?  How did they view historical figures such as Benjamin Butler?  For us Gen X’ers, living memories captured in old books and newspaper articles are a form, a fascinating one, of time travel.