This NewsClip has nothing to do with my ancestors; it just happened to be at the top of a page that did. But the headline was an eyecatcher:
BELIEVE MICE CAUSED $3,000 WHITESTONE FIRE
[Aside: Don’t you love that old-school use of a verb with an implied subject? I used to be a copyeditor. I notice this stuff.]
Anyway: I laughed out loud. Fortunately I had already swallowed my mouthful of coffee.
“What is it?”asked Mr. Archaeologist from behind his smartphone. I read him the headline.
“Oh, they mean the mice chewed through a wire and caused an electrical fire. Happens all the time.” Mr. Archaeologist is a casualty actuary. He makes it his business to know how disasters happen, whether caused by mice or men.
But he was wrong this time!
Fire which gutted the kitchen of John W. Clancy, Twelfth avenue and 150th street, Whitestone, while Mrs. Clancy and her three children were asleep upstairs, was caused by mice igniting matches.
You don’t believe me? Check this out. (And no, it was not even April Fools’ Day.)
Whitestone mice. They’re tough.
Being a person with heavily urban ancestry, I find this kind of story is always close to my heart. Here is an Albany Times-Union article (h/t Don Rittner via Facebook) about a documentary project that is using old photos to reconstruct the neighborhood that was razed in the 1960s to make way for the massive Empire State Plaza complex. Mary Paley’s team is raising money on Kickstarter for the project. Paley has amazing raw material left by her father, Bob, a former photographer for the (Albany, N.Y.) Knickerbocker News who bore witness to the disappearance of more than 100 acres of a thriving neighborhood:
Derided by some as the city’s “Garlic Core” for its concentration of Italian immigrants and compared by others to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the area bounded roughly by Lincoln Park and State, Eagle and Swan streets was a teeming melting pot of Jews, Germans, Irish, Armenians and French-Canadians.
I’ve thought a lot about what we used to call urban renewal and what a force it was when I was growing up. It put a big hole in the business district of Plainfield, N.J., next door to my hometown. And moving around for newspaper jobs, I heard stories about lost neighborhoods from Stamford, Conn., to Miami, to Chicago. (I also liked the term art critic Robert Hughes used for those massive mid-century plazas: “The International Power Style of the Fifties.”) I actually consider “urban renewal” a bit inadequate as an umbrella term, because it doesn’t cover all the development forces steamrolling the urban world as the 20th century wore on.
For example, the birth of the interstate highway was another knife across the cityscape. In Philip Roth’s novel “The Human Stain,” a character laments the evisceration of a beautiful East Orange, N.J. neighborhood, cut into quarters by the Garden State Parkway and Interstate 280. (See also: Miami’s Overtown, the Cross-Bronx Expressway, et cetera.)
I want to be clear that I don’t think dreaming big and planning big are bad things (see: Burnham, Olmstead, etc.) But dreaming and planning arrogantly … it left a lot of heartbreak behind, for those who still remember the lost zones.
From the Albany Evening Journal, Watervliet news section, Saturday, May 3, 1902:
A meeting will be held this evening by the old members of the Oswald Hose Company. The meeting will be held for the purpose of placing in the company’s quarters the head of “Nell,” who was the first horse ever owned by the company. “Nell” for over twenty years hauled apparatus to fires and became greatly attached to every member of the company, and it was with the greatest sorrow when she was obliged to quit the service.
The members fearing that she would be sold by the commissioner, raised a sufficient sum for her purchase, and placed her upon a farm in Colonie about three years ago. She then became sick, and it was thought best to end her suffering by chloroform, which was done.
The members decided to have the head mounted in a suitable manner, and the members will meet this evening, when the head will be dedicated, after which a spread will be enjoyed.
1. The Oswald Hose Company was, of course, in Watervliet. I was looking at volunteer fire companies in West Troy/Watervliet because my great-grandfather Joseph Haigney served in Watervliet’s Gleason Hook and Ladder company.
2. I’m continually struck by how 19th-century ancestors could be so much more sentimental and, at the same time, so much less squeamish than we are today.
3. First the head, then the spread. I prefer a simple tailgate, myself.
My butt-factory mystery is solved. (“Yay!” cry the readers. “We can all relax now!”)
After posting a cri de coeur about my ancestors in the 1870 census for West Troy, N.Y., I thought some more about their mysterious occupation: “butt factory.”
This called for serious scholarship. Somebody with a solid handle on 19th-century industry in the Albany area. Somebody (hopefully) snicker-proof.
Luckily, there is a terrific organization to contact: The Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway. Since 1972, the Gateway has been dedicated to preserving and teaching about the Capital District’s industrial legacy. Anybody with working-class ancestry in the Albany-Troy area probably knows what a powerhouse it was back in the day. The first iron mill started cranking in 1807; the United States Arsenal in Watervliet was built in 1812. The Erie and Champlain canals added fuel to the engine. The textile mills, the early ironworks like Burden, the pioneering union activists like Kate Mullany – it’s all pivotal (if underappreciated) history.
Still — what might it have to do with a butt factory? There was only one way to find out. This was not how I pictured introducing myself to the Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway, but what can you do. I sent the email.
In short order came a response from the Gateway’s executive director, P. Thomas Carroll, PhD: “Sure, I think we can help you.” Just like that. Professionalism personified.
Tom explained that the term “butt” has two potential meanings in this context:
(1) a cask, i.e., barrel, with a capacity of about 120 U.S. gallons.
(2) the sort of hinge that looks like this:
Tom wrote: “It’s called [a butt hinge] because, when you mortise the two plates of the hinge into recesses in the door edge and in the door jamb, the door and the jamb can then butt right up against each other when the door is closed, which is of course what you want to properly seal up the door opening.” It’s a basic, basic hinge. You might be looking at one in your house right now.
[The blog will pause for five minutes while everyone goes to inspect the nearest butt-hinge. Reports are due next Wednesday.]
Tom believed my ancestors were working in a place that made hinges, not casks. Why? He enclosed this page from the 1863 city directory for Troy and West Troy. It includes two butt-hinge factories. One was across the river in Troy, but the other, Roy & Co., was right in West Troy:
It was quite likely that my ancestors, 16-year-old James and 10-year-old Timothy Connors, worked at Roy & Co. in 1870.
In a subsequent email, Tom sent an image from the 1899 city directory that included a Watervliet entry for “Connors, James, buttmaker, house 437 Broadway.” Guess what? 437 Broadway is where my James lived at the time of the 1900 census. Apparently the hinge business agreed with him.
Sometimes we have to move beyond the usual genealogical sources to color in the outlines of our ancestors’ lives. Fortunately, there are dedicated and knowledgeable individuals who can give us that lost background. Like Mr. Carroll, who saved my poor eyeballs another Googling for “butt factory.” You have no idea how grateful I am for that.
Note: In addition to operating the Burden Ironworks Museum, the Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway hosts terrific activities. Some past examples: tours of historic factory buildings, architectural walking tours and the “Troy’s Tiffany Treasures” tour celebrating the city’s extensive legacy of Tiffany artistry. The 2013 brochure is due next month. Watch this link for more information.
… Does anyone know what a butt factory might be? I am sure there is a very straightforward explanation. I would also be thrilled to learn about any alternative interpretations of the handwriting.
Just please don’t advise me to Google this.
I am still bleaching my eyeballs from the last attempt.
Modern census database searching is great. Many mis-indexed ancestors have been found by the ability to throw wild card variables into a tricky surname or, when all else fails, to abandon names altogether and search for characteristics like age, occupation and nativity.
But remember: Each page in a search result is just one possible piece of a family mosaic. Case in point:
I was scouring the 1870 index for the family of my great-grandmother Catherine Connors Haigney in Watervliet, Albany County, N.Y. By this point in my search I knew that Catherine’s oldest sister, Mary Ann, was likely to be married to a man named Bernard Connell in 1870. And there they were:
Excellent! (A bonus: They married in the census year, so the enumerator noted the month of their wedding, January. You can’t see it in this crop, but it’s there.)
Now it was time to check on my great-great-grandparents, Patrick and Bridget Connors. There was only one family in Watervliet in 1870 that included a head of household named Patrick, a wife Bridget and siblings whose names matched the known siblings of Catherine and Mary Ann. Up they popped:
Wonderful! There they all are, Andrew, Mary Ann, James … Wait.
Mary Ann? Seriously? But how could she be both the eldest daughter in Patrick Connor’s household and the wife of Bernard Connell? One finding had to be the wrong Mary Ann. Right?
I spent the next few minutes whimpering softly about what a rotten, horrible, deceptive world this is, where census indexes make us think we have a handle on a family, only to cruelly snatch our triumph away with the very next hit.
But soon I saw something that I should have noticed right away. See Bernard Connell and Mary Ann up there? See how they’re at the top of their page?
And see how Patrick and Bridget and their gang are at the bottom of their page?
Could these people just possibly be on adjacent pages?
You bet, Sherlock. The Connors and the Connells are, in fact, in the same dwelling, No. 727, but are enumerated as two distinct families, No. 902 and No. 903.
The Connors/Connell family group was visited by a somewhat persnickety enumerator in 1870, a year in which individual names were recorded, but relationships to head of household were not. Faced with the presence of Patrick’s married oldest daughter, the enumerator parsed the situation as precisely as he could. He listed Mary Ann first among Patrick’s children, and a second time as Bernard Connell’s wife. Then the entry happened to break across Pages 110-111.
There are not two 18-year-old Mary Anns in Dwelling 727. They are the same person whose dual identity has been carefully, if confusingly, preserved, a conclusion supported by other sources, including the obituary of one of Mary Ann’s daughters many years later. And, of course, these two Mary Anns appear as two separate census search results on separate pages, each seemingly valid, but contradictory. Only when the pages are read in sequence do they make sense.
It’s an elegant example of some basic census-research advice: Never simply zero in on one key name on a census page. Read up, read down and read adjacent pages. It’s the only way you’re sure you’re getting the whole picture.
Read this item from the Upstate New York Genealogy Blog about interesting new advances in making New York State records available online. This is especially exciting for New York State residents, who will be able to access newly digitized records free under an arrangement between Ancestry.com and the New York State Archives.
Also of note from the article: It says the New York State Birth, Death and Marriage Index will soon be accessible through Archives.com. It is not clear at this point whether this will fall under the free-access arrangement for New York residents, or whether it will be subscription-only.