A couple’s wedding day is quite possibly the most wonderful day of their lives. It is that moment when all their hopes and dreams begin to come to life. The wedding day is quickly behind them and they begin their journey out into the future to build the life of their dreams…but not always. Theirs was a love, young and hopeful. Her family, my great great grandparents, Allen and Lydia Spencer, loved the young man their daughter, Matilda had fallen in love with. They nicknamed him W Biller, although his name was William Beller…it was their way of showing him that they liked him, and they were happy to welcome him into their family. Although their daughter, Matilda was young by today’s standards, at just over 17 years of age, she was of an acceptable age for marriage in 1879, and so she married the man of her dreams, but theirs was not to be the fairytale ending of happily ever after, because in just three short days, Matilda’s life would be over.
The death records would show Brain Fever as the cause of death, and these days few of us would even know what that is. It is a term, not commonly used today, that described one of three illnesses that most of us do understand today…Meningitis, the inflammation of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord; Encephalitis, an acute inflammation of the brain, commonly caused by a viral infection; or Cerebritis, inflammation of the cerebrum. I can’t say which of these diseases caused my great grand aunt’s death, but I can imagine the devastation her husband of only three days felt as his precious bride was taken from his life, leaving him to wonder what had happened, and how he could possibly go on. A young man of just 19 years of age should not have to experience marriage and widowhood within three days of each other…truly, no one should.
As I read the account of the short marriage of my great grand aunt and uncle, I felt the pain he must have felt. Without the knowledge we have today, my guess is that he had no idea that something was terribly wrong. He and his young bride traveled from her home in Webster City, Iowa to their home in Boone, Iowa, just 32 miles away, but when the time came, I’m sure that distance felt like thousands of miles. Getting her parents to her before she passed probably didn’t happen, and he must have felt like he failed her in every way possible…failed them. I’m sure he felt like he should have been able to take better care of their daughter than that, and yet he didn’t know what he could have done, because he had no real idea what had happened. His life had gone from married bliss to lost dreams practically overnight.
It would take him three years to finally move forward with his life, when he would marry Nellie Vanderbilt. Their lives would take a different path, and they would have six children. I’m sure he loved her very much, but I have to think that as he was having his second set of wedding pictures taken…in the exact same pose as his first set of wedding pictures, that his mind wandered back, just for a moment…to the bride of his youth, that seemed so far away now. His face looked a little distant…sad even. At 23 years of age, my guess is that he felt old…much older than his age would have you believe, but widowhood at such a young age would do that to a person. I’m happy for him that he had a good life in the end, and yet still sad that he had to live with the lost dreams of his youth hiding there in the back of his mind.
My Uncle Bill has been a self proclaimed “gun nut” for years. He collected them, sold them, traded them, and went to gun shows for many years to deal his guns. He knows more about guns than most people know about themselves. I don’t remember a time that he didn’t deal guns. He knew about guns of all kinds, and could talk to you for hours about any gun you wanted to discuss, but by far his favorite, was the Spencer Rifle. He was always into the family history, and the inventor of the Spencer Rifle was an ancestor of ours, so that held particular interest for my Uncle Bill. What has always alluded my uncle, however, was exactly how we are related to Christopher Miner Spencer. Knowing how long and hard he has searched for that relationship, and that dementia has now stopped that search for him, made me sad. I decided to expand my own records in search of the elusive relationship…doing so for me, but more importantly for my Uncle Bill. I only wish he would be able to remember it once we tell it to him. As I searched, first backward from Christopher to someone I recognized, and then forward in my own tree to Christopher, my thoughts centered on my uncle and how excited he would be. I intend to write him a letter and include my story, and I only wish I could be there to see his face light up. My search finally paid off, and I know that Christopher Miner Spencer is my 5th cousin 5 times removed. I believe that would make him my uncle’s 5th cousin 4 times removed. Now that I have the relationship straight, I feel like I can proceed with the story about this amazing man.
Christopher Spencer was trained as a machinist beginning at the tender age of 14 years, while working as an apprentice in a silk manufacturing company and then went to work at the Samuel Colt factory in Hartford, Connecticut, where he learned arms making. The colt factory made pistols and other side arms, but Christopher was convinced that he could design a breech-loaded repeating rifle that would be easily and rapidly reloaded. Once he had his rifle…the Spencer rifle finished, it was put through rigorous testing, including burying it in the sand and immersing it in salt water overnight. The rifle fired successfully over 250 times, with only one misfire. The gun was shown to army and navy commanders, including General Ulysses S Grant, who called it “the best breech loading arms available”. The next step was to take it to the White House.
On August 17, 1863, Christopher Spencer arrived at the White House with the rifle in hand. Imagine that happening today…you couldn’t do it. Abraham Lincoln, welcomed Christopher into the White House, and after a brief introduction, the two men went over the rifle top to bottom and inside out. The President then invited Christopher back to the White House for a demonstration to take place on The Mall…another amazing thought in this day and age. The demonstration took place the next day, and the rifle headed to the Civil War. In fact, the rifle was to the Civil War what the Atomic Bomb was to World War II. Uncle Bill was always proud that a Spencer ancestor had made such a remarkable and valuable contribution to the victory in the Civil War.
During World War II, while my dad was serving in the Army Air Force at Great Ashfield, Suffolk, England, my Uncle Bill, who was passed over for military service due to his flat feet, worked at the Globe Shipbuilding Co in Superior, Wisconsin. My family was made up of patriots from way back. My aunts, Laura and Ruth worked in the shipyards as well, as riveters on the ships. Times were tough, and the war was expensive, but necessary. They all worked hard, sometimes seven days a week, twelve hours a day, and they were glad to do it. They were doing their part, it was something they were all very proud of…as were many people in those days. It was a time, when people put others first and themselves last. They saw what needed to be done and they did it. They didn’t sit back and expect others to take care of them. The got out there and they worked hard.
Still, as with any occupation, especially one that is grueling physical labor, you have to have some down time is order to rejuvenate yourself for the future tasks that you will encounter. With the gas rationing that was normal for that time in history, they couldn’t travel very far for their rest and relaxation, so the members of my dad’s family who were “holding down the fort” at home, took to the local parks and recreation areas for a little bit of picnic fun.
Places like Pattison Park and a friend’s cabin at Lake Minnesuing became places of refuge. They provided the war weary workers a place to get away from all the worry and fear for those in harm’s way…a little bit of a distraction from all that was going on in a world that had gone crazy. Gas rationing limited the plaes they could go, so they had to stay close to home, and they had to limit the outings. We don’t understand gas rationig in this day and age. We know about rising gas prices, but not rationing, where you only get so much a week or a month…where you learn to walk places or ride a bicycle places, but they did. It was a way of life during World War II. Sacrifices had to be made to ensure that evil did not take over this world, and the people of that time, military and civilian did what they had to do to see to it that evil did not take over. They were real patriots, the kind who would never gave up until the war was won. There are still a few of those people today, but I have to wonder if they are a dying breed.
In 1910 – 1911, my Grandpa Spencer and my grandma’s brother, my Uncle Albert Schumacher, spent the winter months trapping and working in the logging camps in northern Minnesota. This was before my grandparents were married. The men took several pictures before embarking on the journey from the Schumacher farm in Elliot, North Dakota in September 1910 for their “winter in the woods”. My grandpa took his 1895 Winchester 30-03, the gun that was his pride and joy, and Uncle Albert had a 1899 Savage and they headed off on their adventure. It would be a winter to remember. It was freezing cold, often getting down to 30° below zero.
They built what they called a flat boat to carry their supplies, two rifles, two handguns, plenty of ammunition, and plenty of dried and canned food. The boat could also be loaded onto a wagon when they needed to travel across country, although, I’m not sure where they got the wagon after traveling by water. Still since I have seen the picture with the boat on the wagon, I know that they got that part covered as well. In the end, the cold winter sort of won out. They trapped during October and November and then worked in the logging camps until spring.
While the cold winter, and the freezing conditions did change their plans for the winter, you could still say that they had a successful winter of trapping anyway. Now, I don’t know how I would feel about trapping skunk, because at some point you have to go and deal with that carcass, and to me that would be horrible. We have all driven by a spot where a skunk was killed, and…whew, what a smell!! Nevertheless, my grandpa and my uncle took that in stride and came away with a good amount of skunk and muskrat pelts for their efforts. My Uncle Bill, who I must credit for the information in this story, figured that in all, they probably made about $100.00 for that cold winter’s trapping venture, plus the money earned while working in the logging camps. It may not sound like much money for all that work and the freezing conditions, but in 1910 and 1911, it was a pretty decent wage.
In years gone by, most farmer’s children worked on the farms of their parents. Many still do, but the way they worked has change quite a bit. Back in the old west and beyond, the fields were plowed on foot using team of horses or oxen to assist in pulling the plow through the hard ground. It has hard work, and usually resulted in the blistering of hands that were not used to it. In those days, the women didn’t usually work the farms, unless there simply was no other choice, and women with calloused hands were looked down upon and thought to be…well, not really a true lady…at least, not by Eastern standards. They just didn’t understand what it took to build the West. Many times, people moved out West with the promise of a homestead, and 5 years to prove the land. Money was scarce, and you did what you had to do…including setting your children to the task of helping out on the farm.
It is my opinion that the way things were done in the old West better trained the children for adulthood. I have watched so many kids go through life without having to shoulder any responsibility, and then continue on in life in the same way. Some becoming “professional students” so that they won’t have to get a job, while their parents pay their way. It’s a sad, sad situation, and one the parents find themselves having trouble getting out of.
The kids in the old West understood that their help was needed or the family was not going to make it. School became a luxury and one that often ended after the eighth grade, if not before. Their time was needed elsewhere. Things have changed dramatically since then. Farm equipment has made the work on the farm much easier, and the children aren’t needed to the degree that they used to be. That is a good thing in that more kids finish school.They also have time to just be kids these days. I’m still not sure which is better…or maybe there is no better…just different.
I have been intently watching the flooding this past week in Colorado, and especially Boulder, which is very near where my cousin Tim and his family live. Rain has poured into the state, and the flooding rivals the July 31, 1976 Big Thompson flood in many areas. In that flood, 12 to 14 inches of rain fell in 4 hours, flooding the canyon…144 people lost their lives, and 150 were injured. So far in this flood, only 4 people have died, thankfully, and hopefully that will be all, but only time will tell. Roads have been washed out, and I-25 is under water in some areas, causing it’s closure along with the closure of many other roads. Neighbors have stepped up to help save the homes of other people, some of whom they don’t even know, and often working for hours without even being asked. It has been a real show of the human spirit and its ability to care for those in need. Outside help is probably scarce, because no one can get there, leaving them somewhat isolated, except for helicopters that have been able to come in from other areas. Schools are closed, and many people have been told not to attempt to go to work. Two people were stranded in the mountains in whiteout conditions, because rescue resources were limited. They were rescued after 48 hours in the storm. Tim told me that the barrel they have in their back yard, to measure the rain, shows 10 inches over 3 days, with most of it coming over a 12 hour period. The huge snow storm in the mountains could cause continuing problems if it begins to melt.
This flood also reminded me of an old photograph in my grandmother’s album. I’m not sure where this taken, but it does appear that they had quite a bit of water. Sadly, in those days, homes weren’t sealed as well, and so I’m sure there was extensive damage. Add to that, the fact that they didn’t have some of the clean up tools and chemicals to prevent mold, and you have a recipe for a big mess. They also didn’t have warning systems to tell them of the possiblity of a flash flood, and there were may people who lost their lives in those situations. The things that have not changed over the years are the incredible human spirit and peoples’ will to survive. Neighbors will continue to help their neighbors, and people will fight to survive and rebuild their lives after each new disaster hits them. Floods are one of the most dangerous situations people can be in, and I am thankful that we have resources today to help more and more of them survive that danger. I will continue to pray for all those people who’s lives have been touched by the 2013 Colorado floods.
When I picked my grandson, Josh up from Kelly Walsh High School the other day, we drove past the area where they are tearing up the old teacher’s parking lot for the school renovation project that is going on in several schools around town. Josh said, “When I look at that, it makes me sad?” He hated seeing the school he had known change. I found that a little surprising, in that this is Josh’s first year at Kelly Walsh, but when I thought about the fact that Josh’s older brother Chris has gone there for 3 years, it made sense that he would think of this school as a place he knew well. We continued down 12th Street, and past the swimming pool and he mentioned the building that was the entrance to the pool, and it really hit me.
Kelly Walsh High School has been a part of my life since I was a kid. It first opened in 1965, when I was just 9 years old. It wasn’t long after that that my sisters and I began going to Kelly Walsh High School to go swimming, almost every weekday in the summer. We walked past Pineview School to 8th Street, turned on Sally Lane, crossed the foot bridge to Forest Drive, went up to 12th Street and up to Kelly Walsh pool. It was so much fun to go swimming there every summer, and now the building is gone and the pool will follow. All those years of that pool being such a huge part of my summer…and now it will be gone.
So many changes are about to occur to the school where I spent my high school years. When the work is done, I don’t know if I will even recognize it. After my graduation, my sisters attended there, and then my older sister’s older children, and then when my girls started high school it was at Kelly Walsh, and once again I spent time there. Now, two of my grandsons are there and I am spending time there again. Kelly Walsh High School will always be a part of my life it seems, but it will not always be the school it was. I know it will be a better school when they are done, and I know it is a necessary change, but it still makes me sad too.
Twelve years ago today, our world was changed forever. In my remembrance and that of all living Americans, there has never been never been such an attack…here, on American soil…until September 11, 2001. That day will live in the memories of all the American people who were old enough to remember it, and any who have been told very much about it since. I have to wonder about the people born since that time. Will they understand what that day is all about? Or will they simply see it in the way most of us see things like the Civil War or the American Revolutionary War? Both were events that took place here in America so very long ago, fought on American soil, and yet, they seem more like a storybook event than a real event that is such a big part of our history. I don’t know how that could have been changed in the years following those wars, but with our technology, we should be able to keep the memory of the terrorist attacks in the front of our children’s thoughts, so that as they grow, we don’t lose sight of what the evil in this world can bring about.
I did not know anyone who lost their life on 9-11, but I did know someone who could have been in the middle of that whole thing. My daughter’s friend, Carina, who has been like a third daughter to me since they were in Kindergarten, was a flight attendant during that time with Continental Airlines, based out of New Jersey. She was sick that day, and so was not flying. That did not alleviate her parents’ concerns, because they didn’t know that she was not flying and they couldn’t get a hold of her, because she had turned her phone off. When we knew that she was safe, we all gave a sigh of relief. It is a feeling of relief that we will never forget.
Now twelve years later we are again remembering a horrible terrorist attack against our nation, this time in Benghazi. Our government became too complacent about our safety both here and abroad, and again…people died…on a day when we should have been watchful!!! It is an atrocity!! When will we learn that we cannot forget. There is so much evil in this world and we must remain watchful, or we will be attacked again. Today, I pay tribute to those lost in all of these attacks, and to those who gave their lives trying to help others. Rest in peace.
As we start football season, I recalled a picture that I had seen among my mom’s old family pictures. It was a football practice session most likely at a local school. That reminded me of something I had read a while back about the changes in football gear over the years. As we all know, football can be a dangerous game. Sometimes, the players are hurt slightly and sometimes, quite badly. Unfortunately, it was those injuries that have founded the need for better protection, and therefore, better gear. When American football appeared on college campuses in the 1870’s little was known about the brain damage that could occur from some of the impacts that are a natural part of the game.
In those early years, head protection was rarely worn. As far back as the 1900’s, they had the “head harness” which was a soft leather version of today’s helmet, but it was mainly to protect the ears. I suppose it did, but it also made it difficult to hear, so not many players wore them. Newer versions of the helmet appeared as the years went by, featuring holes for the ears, so they could hear the plays and movement around them. They were made out of plastic, and featured a suspension system to keep the helmet from sitting directly on the player’s head. This also provided a little bit of cushion for their head. Of course, we now know that those older versions did not provide enough protection from concussion, and the newer versions probably don’t do enough either, but they are much better than their predecessors.
In the early years, players were subjected to ridicule for putting padding in all the necessary areas that we now know need protection. It was treated as…well, wimpy back then. Now plastic is a part of shoulder pads and pants. It isn’t a perfect solution, but the key here is to keep the players in the game, if possible, because we all know that one of the best things about fall is football…to some people anyway.
My Grandma Spencer’s photo album contains a number of pictures from the days when the family lived in International Falls, Minnesota, and worked in the lumber business, and I assume, the paper mill there in town. If the family didn’t work there, then I would assume that she was simply interested in all the changes that were taking place in the area. At that time, the big man around town was a man named Edward Backus, who owned a vast empire of lumber and paper mills. Oddly, he originally got into that business as a young college student in need of money to finish his university program. He took time off from college to earn that money, took a job in the lumber business, and bought into the business, before finally buying out his partners to become the sole owner. He later brought in a partner, William Brooks, and together they incorporated, and their company Backus-Brooks Co. bacame the parent company for for numerous subsidiaries that came into being with developments at International Falls, Fort Frances, Kenora and elsewhere. The little sawmill in Minneapolis that started it all, was sold in 1906 because by then, the owners were devoting much of their efforts into the developing industry in the north, which is where my grandparents’ families came into the picture, and my interest was founded. As a side note, as far as I can tell, Mr Backus never went back to finish his university program, but then I suppose there wasn’t time for that with everything else that was going on in his life.
As I said, my grandmother had numerous pictures of a paper mill, in several stages of its construction. This got me started wondering if that paper mill still existed. I began my search looking for paper mills in International Falls, and came up with a current paper mill owned by Boise Cascade…a name most of us know quite well, which came back into the news just recently when they announced the layoff of 265 workers on May 2, 2013. They plan to stay open, but will focus on the successful lines of their production, and close out two unsuccessful lines. I wondered if this paper mill could have started with the one my grandmother’s pictures to me so much about.
In my research, I found not only the information on Mr Backus, but a picture of his paper mill…Falls Paper Mill…and it was indeed the one in my grandmother’s album. So, not only does the paper mill still exist, it is still in use today. So many buildings that were built in the early 1900’s are crumbling or have been demolished, but this building is still there, still standing, and still useful, although it appears that there have been some improvements and buildings added to it and around it. I guess that goes to show that good workmanship will stand the test of time.