Family stories tell us where we came from, but they can also explain why we have become who we are. Below are family photos and stories from the IHA board and staff. Left-click on any photo for an enlargement.
I grew up in a household with a father who loved local history and a mother who loved antiques. Every vacation we would retrace some relative’s journey across the country. Mom used to tell us she would give us a nickel for every antique shop we found, and Dad would tell us he would give us a dime to keep our mouths shut. On one trip to North Carolina, Dad was doing some research about one of our past cousins, who was labeled “deranged” in most sources. Dad asked a very old relative about him, but she replied, “We don’t talk about our great uncle John.” Dad wanted to know if this was due to mental or legal reasons, and she said with a stern voice, “We don’t talk about Uncle John!” I think that’s why I majored in psychology in college.
This is my grandmother, Anna Joens (1891-1982). She lived her whole life in Blue Island, Illinois. This photo looks like it was taken when she was around the age of four. This is a winter pose and if it seems a bit fuzzy it is because the photographer simulated snow in the photo. My grandmother came from a little bit of money and this photo shows this. However, she didn’t marry money, and during the Depression she was pretty poor. Her husband, my grandfather, died young and she never did have a lot of money as an adult.
To me, my grandmother is a pivotal figure in family history. Her grandparents are the relatives who immigrated to Illinois and she would have known them well. She also would have known my grandfather’s immigrant parents. And, she knew all six of her grandchildren, including me. So what I learned from her are, I hope, the lessons that were passed on from all of my relatives who lived in America, both before and after her.
On my mother’s side of the family, my siblings and I are the first generation born in the United States. My English grandfather, Gilbert Edward Miller, immigrated to Canada when he was but seventeen years old. I have found his name on a page from a 1905 passenger list of the ship Bavarian.
Gilbert was part of the
“Home Children ” movement- in which orphaned and poor children from four to seventeen years old were placed in Canadian homes. The oldest son in a family of ten children, Gilbert found opportunity not available in England. Within six years, the rest of the Miller family came and settled in Montreal. Gilbert moved to Chicago, where he met and married my grandmother, Henriette, a Frenchcitizen. My mother was born in Montreal when her parents traveled there to be close to family.
Florin “Buck” Aldridge, my father, was one of eight children who grew up in a two-room shack in rural Missouri with no indoor bathroom or running water. His father was blind and disabled. His mother canned vegetables and there were chickens to catch and wild game to shoot in the woods nearby for food. Buck worked odd jobs and “tinkered” with watches. With only an eighth-grade education and no formal training in watch repair, he went into that trade after serving in the U.S. Army. My parents moved twenty-eight times before settling in Illinois. Dad got a job repairing watches in a jewelry store ($50 a week), later acquiring the business. My father was honest, generous, and kind, an outstanding watchmaker, a devoted and loving husband and father, and a Christian. The day he died was the worst day in my life, but the visitation line that stretched a full city block was testimony to the kind of outstanding man that that Missouri hillbilly grew up to be.
Museums, historical or cultural organizations, preservation, and the sharing of artifacts and information resources—a lifelong passion for me—dovetailed wonderfully with my professional work as a librarian.
When I was quite young, my grandmother showed me family keepsakes: a Civil War letter, an envelope picturing Lincoln and Johnson in 1864 campaign pose, and a paper fragment sewn with strands of finely braided hair (carried by the soldier?). She wrote down her grandfather’s stories of the war. She wrote names on all her photos. She preserved a scrap of linen cloth, hand woven of Illinois-grown flax by another grandmother. She held out her hand to mine, touching each finger, naming in reverse order our maternal generations, so far as she knew them. I have photographed the tombstone of the ancestor farthest back in history among those she named. I credit this grandmother with my first appreciation of “heritage.”
Credit must be shared, however, with our next-door “adopted grandmother,” called “Fa.” Married to the village blacksmith, she had come to Illinois as a toddler in a covered wagon (really), after her parents’ failed homesteading in Nebraska, where she was born. She captivated us with her experiences. She accompanied our family treks through the West. She took us to cemeteries, carrying jars of cut garden flowers to mark graves of her loved ones on Decoration Day. I value old cemeteries thanks to Fa.
The work of sustaining the cultural or historical wealth of communities and state is ongoing. Each generation adds its substance and meaning. Technologies have enhanced our abilities and reach, but they do not replace the intimacy afforded by a personal interaction with our heritage.
While doing genealogy I sometimes wonder, could I have inherited cultural or personal traits from ancestors—many generations removed?
My great-great-great-grandfather, Zachariah Lawrence IV, served in the War of 1812. Once, while patrolling the Penobscot River in Maine, Zachariah and his six crew mates came upon a British sloop, the Venture. When its officers went ashore to get supplies, Zachariah and his crew slipped silently on board, fastened down the hatches, trapping the crew—busy playing cards in the hold—hoisted anchor, and took the sloop to the military authorities as a war prize. Even though the vessel and cargo sold for over twenty thousand dollars, Zachariah and his crew received no compensation or reward.
In 1816, Zachariah removed to Ohio, where he took up farming. In 1850 he applied for bounty land, based upon his first lieutenant’s commission. In 1855 Zachariah moved to his Iowa land grant, at age sixty-six.
This history I knew.
I just recently learned that Zachariah petitioned the U.S. Congress’s Committee on Claims for compensation in the capture of the Venture. Somehow it had come to his attention decades after the sale that he might be entitled to part of the proceeds. It required locating thirty-year-old records from Maine courts and the military, getting witness affidavits, and making two trips to Washington,D.C.
Zachariah first petitioned Congress in 1844. Congress considered his claim. In 1846. In 1848. In 1850. And in 1853. His congressman interceded. Finally in 1855 they awarded Zachariah and his crew their portion of the war prize money.
I admire Zachariah’s persistence in spending eleven years seeking justice. And I wonder if perhaps I inherited my tenacity from him.
I have stories for many of the items that furnish my home, whether it is the antique rocking chair I bought with college graduation money from my Grandma Frick, the small wooden table my Grandpa Rhea made, or the bronze Indian incense smoker I still remember burning in my Grandma Rhea’s house. That is what I love about history––a series of stories about people.
Like many people, I need to write down these memories in hopes that my children and grandchildren will keep them alive. I am ashamed to admit that I have not yet done this. Maybe that is the problem with being an historian; I have dissected and analyzed the Deere family’s history and artifacts but not my own.
I treasure several pieces of jewelry that once belonged to my great-grandmother Arminda Rhea. Every time I put on her bookchain necklace, I think of her. This necklace, made up of flat, rectangular links reminiscent of tiny books, appears here with a photograph of Arminda with her grandson, my Grandpa Rhea. Family history says she taught school before she was married. With some of her earnings she bought herself jewelry. What a smart woman! Once she married my great-grandfather, she settled into the life of a farmer’s wife in northernIndiana.
Both of my daughters don’t seem to be interested in wearing jewelry. Where did I go wrong, and what would Arminda say? I think she would say, treasure the stories and hold on to them for your grandchildren. I will add to the history she began, relating her story to my children and grandchildren and telling them how Arminda’s daughter-in-law and granddaughter-in-law handed the jewelry down to my mother and then me. The family history and many memories will continue to grow as the keepsakes take on the rich patina of age.
–Gretchen Frick Small
Family Stories from IHA Staff
My ancestors came to America from Ireland and Scotland. My great-grandfather, William John McIntosh, brought his family from Scotland and settled in Iowa on a farmstead. But he found employment for himself and two sons on the Santa Fe Railroad, traveling about on a train and working with a crew that built and repaired bridges. He had a custom of doing a handstand on top of a bridge whenever they completed work on one. Someone once caught this celebration in a photo.
–Patricia L. Miller