Thursday, July 25, 2013

Look beyond a photo's image for clues about your family

We are usually trying to interpret the content of the photos of our ancestors. We try to determine the time period from clothes and hair styles Costumes may tell us something about fraternal groups or other organizations they belonged to.

But sometimes just the existence of photos can tell us a story, too.

Hazel Lee Pierce (1905-1985, standing) and Ina Mae Pierce (1903-1977), daughters of N.B. "Bonie" Pierce and Julia L. Moody, pose in their finest dresses for this studio photo .

The photo was taken at the Novelty Studio (Boyles Branch), 205 Dauphin St., Mobile, Alabama.

Bonie and Julia seem to have regularly traveled the 25 miles from their farm in Wilmer to downtown Mobile to have their children professionally photographed. They left studio photos of all of their children.

This practice would seem to show that the rural couple had the money and the desire to spend it on little luxuries such as a trip into town and a session in a photo studio.

Do the types of photos your ancestors left behind tell you anything about them and their lives?

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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Wild Boar Story

When researching your family's history, don't overlook interviewing your ancestors' neighbors. Sometimes they can tell you great stories. The one below comes from a Pierce family neighbor, Mallory Brannan, who was a child at the time of the event.

N.B. "Bonie" Pierce marketed his Wilmer, Alabama, farm's produce in Mobile, a trip of about 25 miles over some roads that were unpaved at the time. He could sell his goods to the many grocers along Dauphin Street or hawk them himself, as he sometimes did at the City Market beneath the old City Hall on Royal Street.

Wild game from around Wilmer also proved popular with Mobile grocery merchants. Bonie shot rabbits at night, gutted them and then sold them to the stores on Dauphin Street. The stores would hang the rabbits from lines for customers to select.

Bonie Pierce
Bonie also caught gopher turtles and put them in cages. When he was ready to take a load of turtles to Mobile, he tied the cages to the running board of his green Model-T Ford. Occasionally, the Pierce family ate one of the turtles, which Julia, Bonie's wife, cooked up with dumplings, making a dish similar to chicken and dumplings.

But one of Bonie’s efforts to profit from the game around Wilmer went awry. Wild boars lived in a swampy area near Wilmer and were getting into Bonie’s cornfields.

So Bonie got some men from Cuss Fork, about 1.5 miles north of Wilmer, with hunting dogs to come and hunt the boar. After the men killed the boar, Bonie pulled the 400- to 500-pound carcass out of the swamp with a mule and ground sled.

He determined to sell the boar meat in Mobile but he didn’t have a container—like that used to boil the hair off hogs at slaughter time—large enough to hold the boar. Pouring boiling water over the carcass proved successful.

Once the carcass had been prepared, Bonie took it into Mobile to sell. "But it had such a strong scent, nobody would buy it," Mallory Brannan recalled many years later. "Old boars have a strong smell."

Bonie was forced to bring the boar back home, but Julia also refused to cook it. "After going to all that trouble Bonie had to leave the carcass to rot," Brannan said.

Have you had success interviewing your ancestors' neighbors?

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Did you have an ancestor who was a postmaster or postmistress?

Image courtesy of the Erik Overbey Collection,
University of South Alabama Archives

This 1905 street scene shows the Wilmer, Ala., post office building on the far right and an unidentified building on the far left. 

Free home mail delivery began in cities in 1863, but the U.S. Post Office didn’t begin Rural Free Delivery (RFD) directly to farm families until 1896. Before then, farmers had to pick up their mail at sometimes distant post offices or pay private express companies to deliver it.

But a trip to the Wilmer post office no doubt gave Napoleon B. and Julia M. Pierce and their neighbors and friends in the Mobile County farming community a chance to share pleasantries, news and gossip of the community.

Many rural communities built their identities around their post offices. Today, those post offices are closing, victims of inefficiency and the same communications revolution that is leading to the elimination of newspapers, magazines and phone booths.

Did you have an ancestor who was a postmaster or postmistress? Did he or she leave stories about people who came into the post office and the life of the community?

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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

How did your famer ancestor power his operations? It matters.

The child standing by the wagon is believed to be Raymond Lamont Pierce (1923-1981). The adults on the wagon have not been identified. The children and their families were part of the farming community of Wilmer, Alabama, in the 1930s.

The small wheels on the front of the wagon allowed it to turn in a smaller circle than if it had large wheels to match those in the back.

A farmer faced a critical decision in the choice of horses or mules to power his farm operations and do such things as pull a wagon. The choice involved more than simple taste for one animal over the other or even price, although costs were always important.

Horses worked well for some types of crops and ways of farming, while mules worked well for others. Farmers found that the mule’s narrower stance and smaller hooves made it a better choice than a horse for closely spaced row crops such as cotton, tobacco, sugar cane, and others. A mule could plow a straight furrow after being pointed in the right direction, whereas a horse needed constant attention to be kept on a straight course.

If agricultural records show that your farmer ancestor shifted to using more mules than horses, then it may mean that he switched to growing more closely spaced row crops, especially cotton or tobacco.

Do you know if your farmer ancestor used horses or mules? Why did he make that choice? Do you have evidence that he changed from one animal to other at some point? How is that reflected in the corps he grew?

Photo Source: Lucille Pierce Hogancamp