140 Characters Saturday, Mar 22 2014 

We tend to think of tweets as a new idea; they are in some ways, but messages of great brevity aren’t new:

‘Item. Ranch house and contents burned last night. All safe. Don’t worry. Helen’

That, of course, was a telegram message.  Actually a fairly long one, sent from Vorden, Sacramento County, California to New York on November 18th, 1909.

The sender was Helen Adelaide Ellsworth van Loben Sels to her parents Helen and William Webster Ellsworth.  It was chased by both a postcard and a much longer letter of several pages.  The house in question was ‘the White Home’ the main house on their ranch.

She writes in her letter, “Dear Family don’t worry about me. I wanted thrills of course. It is hard luck but I never can say I’m not getting them. How those flames did lick things in, Glory! Nell was sleeping on the porch (outside) under me. If she hadn’t been there there might have been no more us. She was awakened by the crackling in the office, had time enough to run up to call me, and that’s all, and if the office door had been open there wouldn’t have been time for that. “life, Genevieve, is a dream, Genevieve” with some nightmare mixed in for good measure.

I’m considering whether to telegraph or not, and I’m going to, just so that you will be sure that I will always let you know when things happen. It is a satisfaction that goes both ways. Excuse its going C.O.D. but silver nor gold have I none, at present writing!”


(for the confusion of most of my readers, Helen A.E. van Loben Sels and her husband Maurits had a major ranch operation in the Sacramento valley, known as Amistad, the western counterpart to Esperanza and on a much bigger, more successful scale.  The ranch is still in operation as far as I know)


Historical Excerpts Sunday, Nov 10 2013 

From a set of notes written by Fannie Morris Smith, circa 1915, talking about her Grandmother (Charlotte nee Calkins, m1 Palmer, m2 Norton), the mother of Julie Palmer Smith, born 1804 and died 1874.


“Grandmother, like my mother, was a born nurse. In the frontier community where she lived people in an emergency came from far and near to ask her help. She enjoyed it as a spree, would put on her black silk dress and gold watch, and ride off to preside over life or death as the case might be.

Her life with John Palmer did not last long. His business in Brockport (furniture) went on the rocks and soon after he died. (I have a candle stand with exquisitely turned stem – the top one beautiful maple board – which he made to please his young wife.) Not long after his death she married Henry Pitkin Norton, a young lawyer. They had hard work to make a living at first, and grandmother raised canary birds, which, as she improved their song by whistling and singing to them, so that they had many beautiful notes, found ready sale. Every scrap of kitchen fat was saved and tried out, and in the spring the winter’s store of wood ashes was tried out and the lye boiled down to make a soft soap, which found ready sale, so did her vinegar, made of the odd spoonful of juice left from the preserves on the supper table.

Grandmother’s two leisure arts were quilting counterpanes – she drew her own patterns (one of her quilts is in the Conn. Historical Society collection) – and transferring embroidery on new linen to make fine collars and handkerchiefs exquisitely done. She used to knit red and white woolen stockings for her grandchildren, and make jars of preserves and pickles to send us. Nelley aged eight emerging from a stolen visit to the cellar, and exclaiming, “pickles, I love you!” comes back among my memories.”

*Charlotte married John Palmer at age 14, she had her only child: Julie Palmer Smith at age 15.  I think she married Henry when she was perhaps 19 or so.

Genealogical Vignettes Monday, Sep 16 2013 

Dug from the files…

A description of Normand Smith, a Smith cousin by Carlotta Smith (circa 1870): “He introduced me to Darwin’s study of natural selection and Schumann’s piano compositions on the same evening. He married a German girl of a good family, and wrote home, “I am bringing my wife, you will like her as she can play the most difficult music at sight.” Their family was brought up on this basis.”

That is one way to pick a bride!

Botanical Art Thursday, Sep 12 2013 

Again from the guestbook, this time by a cousin.  I use the term loosely, I have yet to understand how all the Smiths relate to the Palmers relate to the Websters relate to the Ellsworths relate to the…  Is Julia a closer cousin to Morris Smith than to William Webster Ellsworth? Possibly, possibly not.  In any event the genealogy is not my forte; I do know that there were any number of cousins living in NYC.  It is somewhat interesting to note; until recent times* Esperanza has been solidly Hartford/NYC/Hudson River/Adirondacks in orientation.  The 1870’s-1930’s group has not the slightest interest in points further south on the coast nor on points further north.  They are quite happy to jump to New Orleans, California, Europe, North Africa….but Boston and Washington D.C.? Different planets.

Anyway, botanical art:


*recent = last three generations.

Morris Smith Thursday, Aug 8 2013 

There is a tendency, because of who wrote what, to concentrate on the women in the history of Esperanza.  Julie, seen as the driving force behind the house’s creation, tends to overshadow her husband Morris.  This is unfortunate, since it is clear from her letters that they were definitely partners.  Furthermore, Morris was a consummate businessman and active in the business politics of New Orleans from the 1850’s through the 1890’s.  The New Orleans chapter of the family’s history is largely opaque, and we know very little about it or about Morris’ various businesses.

Here is part of a description of him written by his daughter Fanny Morris Smith:

“My father was an important member of the number (the Boston Club, which was the New Orleans club through which many northern businessmen maintained contacts). His opinions on business matters were sought far and wide. I am proud to write that when the Mafia undertook to seize and loot the city by terror of assassination he was one of the men who decided to hang the proved murders. Always M.W. Smith & Co., Cyrus Yale & Co., Seymore & Stevens, stood for absolute rectitude in their business dealings.*

My father and mother were both readers. Their tastes were so similar that he often brought back from New Orleans the book she had purchased in New Hartford…He was very sensitive; absolutely without a sense of humour; fond of his family; my mother’s lover till she died; a man whose inner life never was told except to my mother.”

*The Yales and Seymours were close friends and business partners with Morris.  It was the Yale family that first introduced Julie and Morris to the Esperanza area; as they owned the neighbouring house.

On education and reading Friday, Jul 12 2013 

From Fanny Morris Smith’s recollection of her grandmother Charlotte Calkins (Julie’s mother), born 1804-died 1874 in the mid 1860’s.
“There was no regular schooling on the frontier, but grandmother educated herself. She used to amuse herself learning poetry by heart as she lay waiting to die. I heard her repeat Pope’s poem on death to herself. Her beautiful voice and grandfather’s flute were a source of constant pleasure to the two throughout their long married life. One by one every good novel as it appeared in the golden Victorian Age, was bought and read aloud in the evening, by the light of an oil lamp, at first; then as the years went on a very expensive liquid known as ‘fluid’ and finally kerosene.”

Somehow, I just don’t see many people memorizing Pope’s poetry while ill. Charlotte died after a long illness, probably a series of strokes. She spent most of her life in upstate New York.

On Spinning Wheels Thursday, Jun 27 2013 

A delightful excerpt from some recollections by Fanny (Frances) Smith, one of Julie Smith’s daughters, written around 1900-1910. Here she is talking about her paternal grandmother (mother of Morris Smith), Lucy Morris in the mid 1800’s, Hartford.

“I remember her very well, after dinner she used to come out of her bedroom in her grey silk dress and lace cap with purple ribbons, and bring out the dainty knitting she loved. There is a chair with a red knitted seat in the Esperanza keeping room I saw her work on. When she died there were linen sheets among her things which she had spun and woven. She said her mother was never satisfied unless there were three spinning wheels going in the house at once.”

I can’t think of what chair that might have been, unfortunately. And I don’t think the spinning wheel has any direct connection. Still a lovely picture.

From the guestbook Thursday, Jun 13 2013 

“An Acrostic To a Young Lady on the day her wedding to Maurits C.C. van Loben Sels:
Helen Ellsworth – lovely name!
Echo of thy strength and sweetness
Love, that’s made of flowers and flame,
Envies thee thy rare completeness.
Name like music on our life
Earnest, mellow, gentle, singing
Let us, ere its long eclipse,
Linger on its bell-like ringing
Seven names though thou shalt wear,
Worthy, noble and complete,
On them thinking now I swear
(Rose by any name so sweet)
Thou, when memory fails, shalt be
Helen Ellsworth still to me.”

by Robert Underwood Johnson, May 31, 1905
Not a bad acrostic. Line 3-4 rises above the rest, quite the turn of phrase there.
I ought to add: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Underwood_Johnson for information on the author!

Summer Activities Tuesday, May 21 2013 

An excerpt from the very beginning of the yacht Mavourneen’s log by Lucy Morris Creevey, daughter of Helen Yale Ellsworth and William Webster Ellsworth. Lucy was married to George Creevey. Helen and WWE, like Julie and Morris, had known New York City well, but weren’t really ‘New York’ people (if that makes sense). George, however, was a New Yorker, despite his life-long love of the Adirondacks and camping. He worked in New York as a doctor, first as a surgeon and then in anesthesiology; his brothers, William and John, were also New Yorkers, involved in law and politics.
So it isn’t surprising that that most New York of activities interested him. Yachts. The Mavourneen was a motor yacht built in 1907, the family had it only till the outbreak of World War I when it has handed over to the coastal defense effort.
Lucy kept a detailed account of several of the trips they took along the east coast waterways and the St Lawrence/Champlain canal systems. George took excellent photographs as well.
“Thursday, Aug. 8 (1907)
Entire morning spent in puttering, until twelve o’clock, then Captain G. raised his flags and the M. was in commission! We had luncheon, said goodbye to all the Cramptons, and at eight minutes of three we broke out the anchor and off we went. The little Cramptons set off giant fire crackers and everybody waved and we were very happy at starting. She moved deliciously thro the water, the day was fine, and it seemed too good to be true that we were actually moving away from Morris Cove. Note: Do Not try to buy anything in the line of provisions at Cousin Eli’s grocery store, he hasn’t anything one wants and what one buys is sour.
We pulled in behind Duck Island Breakwater to lie there for the night. It was so warm that we thought we would get in for a swim. I came up in ballet costume to find the temperature lower by about forty degrees, a squall blowing and Captain G. busy finding another anchorage not quite so near the stern of a great black schooner that seemed to be dragging back upon us. We did get in a chiefly refreshing swim, then a sunset and dinner, soon to bed, and our first day was too joyous!
Saw porpoises. L.M.C.”

*the Cramptons were the family who built the boat down at Morris Cove, Ct.

Deciphering old letters Wednesday, May 15 2013 

Reading difficult handwriting is an interesting example of how the mind works. We have a wonderful ability to fill in gaps and decipher unreadable pieces, as long as there is some context. It has some similarity with certain word games, combining Scrabble and Fill-in-the-blank. One rapidly becomes aware of whether or not one has mastered a hand, however, when confronted with a proper name. Context and familiarity can help: if the place name or last name is an expected one, chances are better that it will be deciphered. On the other hand, if it is a place name or last name (those are especially bad) which is entirely unfamiliar, one’s actual ability is quickly revealed. Sometimes, a last name is doomed to obscurity. I have a passage here: ‘we moved Mrs. P????’s piano’ from a letter I am working on. Well, Mrs. P. doesn’t show up again in the letter, and the involved letters ‘i,e,l,b,r’ are blurred. An educated guess can be made: ‘Pollbiers’ but, frankly that doesn’t ‘feel’ right. So, a question mark is left, and one moves on. Maybe, at some point it will be made clear, either by increased familiarity or by a better example. Still it is likely that she will remain as ‘Mrs. P.’ Personally, I have a sneaking suspicion that the difficulty in deciphering odd last names is part of the explanation behind the old style of saying, ‘Mrs. B.’ or ‘Mr. M.’ along, of course, with space and labour saving.

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