History Rolled Up Tightly

My mom’s Uncle Henry was one of the constants of our trips to the farm at Lamberton. A few years younger than my grandfather, Henry was divorced during an era when not a lot of folks in small town Minnesota were even unmarried. And he had no children. So instead of spending holidays – Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas – alone, Henry came over to Grandpa’s for holiday dinners. We saw Henry at other times, too, of course. I recall the neat flower gardens that took up much of his yard during summer visits to his place, and I remember Henry from numerous family reunions during the 1960s and early 1970s, joining Mom’s other uncles and her dad around a picnic table, all of them sharing memories as well as complaints about modern life. Of all of my grandparents’ siblings – and both Grandpa and Grandma came from large families – Henry was among those we saw most frequently during our visits to Lamberton.

Over the years, Henry got to know – and, I think, became fond of – my father. When the time came to organize his property, Henry asked Dad to be the executor of his estate. (My father also served in that function over the years for my grandfather and my mom’s elder sister, who never married.) So after Henry passed on in 1986, Dad spent maybe a year sorting out Henry’s property, his bank accounts, and all the other stuff that Henry left behind. And when he was done with that work, he bundled all of the records – Henry’s account books and monthly statements from the bank; letters from Medicare and Social Security; ledgers of money spent each year on gardening supplies and automobile repairs; and all the correspondence between Dad and Henry’s attorney – in a  box.

When Mom sold the house on Kilian Boulevard, that box ended up in the storage unit. A few weeks ago, Mom and I brought the box to her apartment, and we spent about an hour yesterday going through it. Most of the contents were as I described them above: financial papers, correspondence between Dad and Henry’s attorneys, bags and envelopes stuffed with bank statements and paid bills. And most of it is stuff that we’ll throw away.

But there were a couple of things we decided to keep.

After Henry passed on, Dad and Henry’s attorney organized an estate sale, and we found a list of the items sold and the prices paid for them. We set that aside, as we did a similar list of items sold during an auction Henry had in 1971 (perhaps when he sold his farm). There was a photocopy of a U.S Census report from 1920, when Henry and a younger brother were still living and farming with their father, my great-grandfather.

And there were four certificates, rolled so tightly into cylinders that we had to be extraordinarily careful as we looked to see what they were. Here’s what the smallest – and most pliable – looks like.

The others are similar and date from 1906 and 1908. I’m likely going to contact the Redwood County Historical Society and see if the folks there have any interest in having the certificates. If not, there’s a shop downtown that deals in similar old papers; I’ll see if Henry’s certificates are of interest there. If there’s no interest in either place, I’m not sure what I’ll do with them.

It’s hard to see Henry as a school boy; he was already in his sixties when I became aware of him and how he fit into our family. Those four certificates remind me, however, that everyone I meet – everyone in the world, for that matter – has a lifetime of experiences, accomplishments, beginnings and endings, whole histories that have shaped them and continue to do so. Mom’s Uncle Henry was just one of them.

On a whim, I looked in Joel Whitburn’s A Century of Pop Music to see what the best-selling record was in 1907, the year Uncle Henry got the certificate shown above. It turns out to have been a record by Byron Harlan that was No. 1 in that distant year for eleven weeks. And I don’t know that I could have found a more apt song if I’d combed through every record from 1907. Here’s “School Days (When We Were A Couple Of Kids)” by Byron Harlan.

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2 Responses to “History Rolled Up Tightly”

  1. Paco Malo says:

    Simply wonderful — great research Whiteray!

    As a side note, I couldn’t help but notice that, exactly 50 years after Byron Harland’s “School Days” was a number 1 hit, in 1907, Chess Records released a single with the exact same title, School Days (1957) by Chuck Berry. But man o’ man do the themes of the two vary drastically. A lot changed in the music world over that half century.

    In schools, however, some things changed (no more “[teachin’] to the tune of a hick’ry stick”) while others remained the same (“readin’ and ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic”).

  2. Yah Shure says:

    This is why Mr. whiteray is my favorite history teacher.

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