Posts Tagged ‘Espy Family Archive’

“…a two-and-a-half-pound wisp”

Sunday, September 5th, 2021

Mona’s Handprint at Three Months

Of her fourth child’s birth on December 10, 1904, my grandmother Helen Richardson Espy) wrote many years later: Mona was born the night Albert was taken ill – a two-and-a-half-pound wisp – had 75 convulsions in 5 days when 5 weeks old.

According to family lore, she was nestled in cotton and placed in a cigar box on the back of the kitchen woodstove where she could be kept warm. When her grandfather, old R.H. Espy, stumped down the street to see her, he took one look and grumbled, “Not worth keeping!  Not worth keeping!”

I can’t begin to imagine how difficult this time was for the family. Five-year-old Albert died of stomach cancer on January 24, 1905 when Mona was just six weeks old.  Nevertheless, under the tender ministrations of her mother Mona endured: Up she came, frail, unstable, completely dominated by Suzita’s force and vividness. Twice during her fourth year she had pneumonia, and had to learn to walk all over again.  It was about this period, that she used to sleep with her hands over her ears “to keep the dreams out.” Always a pathetic hungry little creature unable to assimilate her surroundings. At four she used to sit by the hour perched on the fence accosting every passerby with “Hello what you going to do tomollow?”

Mona at 7 or 8 — 1911

Mona’s full name was Ruth Muriel.  I’m not sure where the “Mona” came from but I never heard anyone who knew her call her anything else.  She was the only aunt I ever knew and, of all my mother’s siblings, I probably knew her best.  That she was “different” from the others was certainly true — not so much in looks, but certainly in personality.  My grandmother said that she, of all seven children, was “the most Espy” and we all understood that to mean that she was not quite as refined or cultured as the Richardsons.  I’m not sure why that had a negative connotation since my grandmother was crazy about my grandfather for all their fifty-five years together — he could do no wrong in her eyes or in the eyes of his children or grandchildren.

Mona, too, adored her father and credited him with all the positive things she had learned and done throughout her life.  Even so, she considered herself the “ugly duckling” of the family – not because of her appearance, but because in a family that valued learning and education above all else, school was always a struggle for her. Nevertheless, she was extremely proud of both her precocious younger brothers and, if it bothered her that they easily surpassed her in school, she never talked about it.

Mona circa 1946

She became a Practical Nurse, eventually married — three times, I think, though the first is a bit cloudy —  and was politically active, especially during Eisenhower’s campaign. Years after her death in 1970,  Democratic State Senator Robert C. “Bob” Bailey told me that he had enjoyed working with her on various projects and that “she was one of the most sensible Republicans he’d ever known.”

My memories of Mona are a mix of fondness and regret.  She taught me many things — to drink my coffee black, the benefits of a rocking chair (which she gave me) to a new mother, how to sew French seams (on a sewing machine she later left me in her will), and shared with me the family gossip that my mother thought I needn’t know.  My regrets came too late, as they often do — would that I could have pointed out to her how valued she was — to all of us.  Or would she, could she have been convinced?

A Recurring Theme In This Sheltering Time

Tuesday, February 16th, 2021

Barb Getting Us Ready for Our Grand Affair, 2019

As I’ve visited with people during these months of sheltering — by phone or zoom or text or email — the conversation often turns to frustrated comments like, “I can’t seem to get anything done”  or “I’m just not motivated” or “I think I’m suffering from ennui.”

I try to put my finger on why that’s such a common theme.  I guess it’s the not knowing.  The not being able to make definite plans.  The feeling that we are wasting precious time but don’t know how to remedy the situation.  But, when I think about it, that’s what the story eventually becomes for all of us if we live long enough.  By the time we get to our mid-eighties (if we are so fortunate) all of those uncertainties are what life is all about.  And to compound matters, we often have health issues that put a whole new level of difficulty into the mix.

Summer for Barbara is all about Sailing

And yet… there are things that I, for one, would like to “accomplish” before they’re beyond my abilities.  Like clean up my files — all the file cabinets full of research materials and all the online files that are redundant, incomplete, waiting to be trashed or put someplace for posterity.  So it was, when Nyel asked me what I want for my birthday, my immediate response was, “A personal assistant.  For about three weeks.”  Knowing that such a possibility is slim to none.

Barb and John’s Dog

“You need Barbara!” was his immediate response.  And he was right on the money.  Barbara Canney was hired by Willard in 1979 to catalogue the Espy Family papers.  It was to be her thesis project for her degree at The Evergreen State College. But it extended way beyond that.  She lived here on the Peninsula for three years (or was it five?), she became my closest friend, and we ended up turning over 70 bankers boxes of files to the Washington State Historical Society.  Barbara knows more about the Espy Family and their history than almost anyone else, including the family members, themselves.  YES!  She would be perfect!!!

Unfortunately, Barbara now lives in Massachusetts with her husband and aged dog, is sheltering like the rest of us, and is yet too young to qualify for early vaccinations.  Nyel contacted her anyway.  This morning she called me and we talked possibilities — maybe in the Fall after sailing season is over and she puts her boat up and, also it depends on the dog…  Meanwhile, I’m excited about the possibility and even a bit motivated to start the  project myself.   A bit.

Ephemera! It belies its definition.

Thursday, January 28th, 2021

Senator H.A. Espy’s Souvenir Bookmark

When Curator Ed Nolan first introduced me to the archives at the Washington State History Research Center back in the mid-’80s, he spent most of our time showing me ephemera.  The term was new to me then… but never mind.  I loved it all –WPA  and World War II and silent movie posters; ball game and trolley tickets; sample ballots for the 19th century… drawer after drawer and file after file of the most wonderfully nostaligic items you could imagine.

According to Merriam-Webster ephemera is:
1: something of no lasting significance usually used in plural
2 ephemera plural : paper items (such as posters, broadsides, and tickets) that were originally meant to be discarded after use but have since become collectibles

In my mind, ephemera is all those bits and pieces that we may have put into a scrapbook once upon a time or something that might show up tucked between the pages of an old book.  Sometimes their discovery triggers questions about who and why of long ago and, most times, they tap right into the Nostalgia Gene.  Plus, of course, they give us all sorts of information about the past.  Hardly “of no lasting significance” — at least to me.

Medora’s keepsake from the Ford Assembly Line Exhibit, The Panama–Pacific International Exposition, 1915

Ed told me, for instance, that the Research Center now has “the definitive collection” of advertisements and information about early 19th century cream separators.  Apparently, among the thousands of Espy documents that Willard and I turned over to them — mostly 70-some bankers boxes containing four generations of family correspondence —  were scores (perhaps hundreds) of ads and articles and junk mail that my grandfather had saved concerning cream separators.  Papa was a dairy farmer, after all.  (Years later, Ed reported that he was able to help out a curator in another state who was looking for something specific in the cream separator line.  Who knew???)

So… save those throw-aways.  A century or more from now they may be more important than you can imagine!

Storm Damage

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2020

Olympia Friends: Elizabeth Ayer, Marie Strock, Medora Espy – 1912

On September 3, 1913, my fourteen-year-old aunt Medora wrote to a friend in Olympia:
We are having a regular winter storm.  Do you know what a storm is?  Not an Oysterville one.  You see we get it from both the ocean and the bay.  The wind has already knocked the remainder of our cherry tree down; the cupboard of dishes in Sue’s playhouse toppled over and consequently she will have to abandon her house till next summer; a great piece of the trimmings of our house blew off; apples and pears litter the ground.  It is a real storm.  The bay is covered with white caps, the water has covered our lower meadow, and you could almost go down the lane leading from our house to the bay in a dinghy.  To cap it all, it has rained night and day since Monday morning in regular torrents.  It is not an unusual storm.  The natives merely remark, “Sort of wet today.”

This year, 107 years later, we’ve only had one “winter storm” that has approached Medora’s long-ago description and that was day before yesterday.  Even so, the only storm damage here at our house was a swallows’ nest blown from its perch above the window on the south porch.

Last Summer’s Barn Swallows’ Nest

I blame the swallows for that more than the wind.  They had trouble with that nest from the get-go last summer and had to start over at least twice.  I don’t think their mud was sticky enough.  Or maybe it was their first nest-building experience.  They chose a place that has been used year-after-year and in the past nests have only come down through human interference.

In any event, Medora’s long-ago commentary on the weather makes me wonder if it can be counted as one more little piece of “evidence” about climate change.  I’m sure a scientist wouldn’t think so, but it’s a wonderful bit of storm damage  documentation in any case.  So far this winter we certainly have nothing comparable to report.


“… a heap of news…”

Monday, August 31st, 2020

Sydney with Second Grade Student, Southgate School 1962

As the start of school gets closer, my thoughts turn increasingly to my own school days, to the years I taught, and to the school experiences of my own children.  This morning I took a few minutes to look back even further — to 1908 and an exchange of letters between my mother’s oldest sibling and my grandmother.

Medora was eight and was at home in Oysterville with Papa and with her two younger sisters while Mama was in Portland waiting for the birth of their next child (who would turn out to be Edwin.)  Although Mrs. Matthews of Ocean Park was staying at the house to oversee things, it was Medora who get Mama informed of the day-to-day doings in the Espy family.  Often, her closing remark was: That’s a heap of news, isn’t it?

Medora, c. 1906

Thursday, Nov 12th 1908
My dear Mama:
          The teacher has made it a rule that if two children are out of their seats at once, there name will go on the board and we will have to stay in.  It doesn’t matter if we go to our class, then she doesn’t put our name on the board then, but if we go up and ask her something when she is busy with a class, then our name is put on the board.  I was trying not to have my name on the board but sure as I live it was there.          I’m going to send a little poem that I have to learn, don’t you think its pretty.

Harvest Song
Summer is gone, autumn is here
This is the harvest for all the year.
Corn in the crib, oats in the bin,
Wheat is all threshed, barley drawn in.
Carrots in cellars, beets by there side.
Full is the hayloft, what fun to hide!
Apples are barreled, nuts laid to dry,
Frost on the garden, winter is nigh.

Father in Heaven, thank Thee for all,
Winter and springtime, summer and fall.
All Thine own gifts to Thee we bring
Help us to praise Thee, our Heavenly King.

With love from all,
Medora Espy

A few days later Medora wrote that her name had not been on the board “since Tuesday” and sent a copy of her grades:

Compare both months’ work.  You saw last months but I ask you to compare them for me please
                                                   Last Month      This Month
Deportment                                           80                 80
Arithmetic                                             82                 80
Reading                                                 92                 92
Geography                                            88                90
Spelling                                                  94                 95
Writing                                                  92                 94
Lang                                                        92                94
Scholarship                                           89+               90
Days Attendance                                  20                 14
Days Absent                                          0                  0
Times Tardy                                         0                  1

Mama soon wrote back:

Helen Richardson Espy, c. 1908

Dear Medora:
          I was glad to get the standing of your report card the other day, and hope you will continue to raise in scholarship each month.  Then too I was happy to know your name is staying off the board.  We can not always understand our lessons, and it takes hard work to get them perfectly, but there is one thing every little girl can do and that is behave like a lady and not add to the trials of her teacher.  Mama wants her little daughter to lead as the best example in behaviour like she stands for the highest in her lessons.

I can’t help but wonder if the students, parents, and teachers of today, in our strange and constrained circumstances, will have anything close to the relationships disclosed in these precisous old letters.  I fervently hope so.

One Month (and 18 years) Too Late

Tuesday, September 4th, 2018

“1912 Middy Blouse”

Yesterday I had the great urge to clean out my closet and to inventory my sartorial needs for the coming of fall.  I made a good start on filling the Goodwill bag with clothing that has been (literally) gathering dust for uncounted years.  You know – the blue jeans that were perfect when you were a few inches slimmer around the middle.  Or the bolero jacket that doesn’t quite go with anything but, surely, just the right skirt or blouse will come along soon.

I was ruthless. And, I felt “very much accomplished” as my Aunt Medora used to say.  But the bottom line is that I left myself exceedingly limited in clothing choices beyond my usual at-home-uniform – jeans and a sweatshirt.  I had the sudden urge to go “back-to-school shopping.”  Never mind that it is seventeen years since I stopped teaching and, even then, any additions to my wardrobe were usually acquired at the last minute – probably in August before the school year got under way.

As I thought about the situation, I remembered something my grandmother had written to Medora (the one and same, just mentioned) regarding her wardrobe.  The letter, which hints at my grandmother’s struggle with the transition from homemade to store-bought clothing, was dated September 4, 1912:

Elizabeth Ayer, Marie Strock, Medora Espy – 1912

The express has come at last and I am greatly pleased with the things.  All of the dresses were substitutes, as what we ordered were out but anyway the choice is fine.  There is one bad thing tho, your dress is too long and I do not see how it can be shortened.  I would not wear it if I were you unless there is some very special occasion.  Then when I come up we can take it to a dressmaker and see how it can be shortened.  It may not look too long with low shoes in the evening but with high shoes will reach the tops…

The white skirt to your middy was too short and I sent it back for a longer one…  Go into Harris and see if you can get a separate white skirt to wear with your middy – something plain and suitable for school…  I should not think it would or should cost more than two dollars for your whole middy suit only cost $2.25…At the same time get yourself three union suits part wool – you know the ribbed kind.  Do not pay more than $1.75 or $2.00 a suit.

I decided to use my own judgement about your coat and dress so as to save time, so ordered them delivered direct to you and I surely hope you will be pleased.  The coat was the best shown – cost $14.00 – a black silk plush lined with tan satin.  The hat a black beaver turned up in front.  Then a brown corduroy soft hat to go with your storm coat.  Your dress is a good quality brown corduroy trimmed with brown messaline and a large, lace collar. Do these sound all right?  I sent for best of everything in your clothes.

Bon-Ton Catalog, June 1913

The girls’ dresses look very nicely on them.  Sue’s is much coarser than Mona’s but very effective and at a distance does not show the difference in quality.  Mrs. Parant has Sue’s dress to work on.  I have ordered satine for new bloomers for you and goods to match the girls’ school dresses for bloomers.

Well, at least I don’t need to worry about putting union suits or bloomers on my shopping list.  But I do think that shopping by catalog (or, in today’s world, online) is the way to go from Oysterville.  Some things don’t change.

Appreciating Willard Some More!

Wednesday, August 8th, 2018

Willard’s “Bound” Copies

I may not have thought so at the time, but one of the enduring gifts that my uncle Willard Espy gave me was a sense of stewardship of “the family papers.”  That’s what we all called those boxes and boxes (about 100 of them eventually) of documents, letters, junk mail etc. that were stored in the “woodshed” as Willard called it.  He had been working with those papers since the 1930s.  They were the basis for his family genealogical work and ultimately for his 1977 book Oysterville, Roads to Grandpa’s Village.

Truth to tell, by the late 1970s, those papers were stored in the woodshed, as well as in the attic, the barn across the street and in the house just south of town that had served as home to my grandfather’s ranch foreman.  When my folks retired to the H.A. Espy home in Oysterville (where my mother and Willard and the rest of their siblings had grown up), they gathered all of those papers into one place for “safekeeping.”

One of Willard’s Labels

Shortly after I moved here full-time in 1978, Willard hired a student from Evergreen College to sort and catalogue them.  He asked me if I would help her out and for a year and a half Barbara Hedges (now Canney) and I forged a forever-friendship and learned more than we could ever have imagined about the Espy family, the pioneer days in Oysterville and the Peninsula, the trek across the Oregon Trail, the Civil War, the voyage around Cape Horn and on and on.

When we were “finished” the material was contained in twelve four-drawer, ‘fireproof,’ file cabinets in the storage area between our house and garage.  Willard still called it the “woodshed” as it was in the general area that had, indeed, been the woodshed of his childhood.  My folks called that area “the workroom” because my dad continued working there for a few years after they moved here, manufacturing plastic gift items.   Nyel and I now call it the “back forty” and it serves as a catch-all place for everything we have no room for elsewhere – the picnic items, card tables, chairs, Christmas ornaments – you name it.

A few years before he died, Willard made arrangements to gift all of those family papers to the Washington State Historical Society.  They would be transferred up to Tacoma to the Washington State Historical Research facility “at my discretion.”  That happened in the early 2000s, although we continue to find and deliver bits and pieces.

A New Project Begins

Meanwhile… I still have at my fingertips the typewritten (on a manual typewriter, no less!) copies of hundreds of letters that Willard transcribed back in the 1930s.  He felt the originals should stay here, undisturbed, but he wanted them in New York where he was living for reference.  So, each time he was here in Oysterville, he made copies – a laborious task in those days before copy machines and electric typewriters and the computers, printers and scanners we take for granted now.

And, once again, Willard has me involved!  I am transferring all those letters – from my great-grandparents and beyond – into archival sleeves and accessible binders.  The old spring-closed albums they have been in are beginning to deteriorate and… thanks again, Willard, for another “project” but, mostly, thanks for the hours and hours and hours you spent transcribing for posterity!  I hope I gave you enough hugs when you were still with us!

My Uncle Ed

Thursday, March 8th, 2018

Dr. R.H. Edwin Espy, c. 1975

Among the many people in my life whom I never fully appreciated was my mother’s older brother, Ed.  For one thing, we lived on opposite sides of the country, so we didn’t see him very often.  For another, he had the rather imposing name, Robert Hamilton Edwin Espy and after receiving his doctorate from Columbia University was known to those beyond the family as Dr. R.H. Edwin Espy.  I was always impressed by that.  Not that we ever called him anything but “Ed”… but even so…

For another thing, from 1963 to 1973 he was the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches and, as such, was known as the “Protestant Pope.”  That was the culminating job in a lifetime devoted to the ecumenical movement – a lifetime spent traveling the world meeting with religious leaders of every denomination and working with youth groups everywhere.  That was not just impressive to me, but somewhat overwhelming to consider.

From the time I was born in 1936 until his retirement in 1973, he brought me a souvenir doll and a souvenir spoon from each country he visited. Most of the spoons, alas! were stolen in a house break-in years ago. I still have the dolls – most with heads and hands made of bisque and with cloth bodies and hand-made clothing.  (Does it go without saying that they were pre-plastic?)  Because he had no children and I was his oldest niece, I always felt that I received special treatment – which I loved, but it was a bit intimidating.  Even as a little tyke, I was not comfortable crawling up into his lap like I might with my Uncle Willard.

Willard, Edwin, Dale in 1916

My mother, Willard, and Edwin were the youngest of seven children and, because they were within three years of each other, were referred to as “the babies.”  Throughout their lives, they shared a closeness that I was always a tad bit envious of – particularly (probably) because I had no brothers and sisters, myself, and realized from an early age that such a bond would forever be foreign to me.

But, it is in the area of history and memories that I feel I most missed out with Edwin.  I just ran across these notes that he wrote for a never completed book of Willard’s: 

Ed Espy Horse Seining on the Columbia, 1924

 …In the spring months I had to get up at 3:00 or 4:00 A.M. to dig razor clams at the ocean beach on the early morning tides – the best time for this in the twenty-four hours.  This was not a picnic.  It would be in March or April or May, when it always was cold and usually raining.  The combination of salt water, cold, gritty sand and sometimes a miscue with the special clam shovel was not designed for people finicky with their manicures.  When I got home from clamming later in the morning – barely in time for a change of clothes, a quick second breakfast and a dash to catch the school bus – after my mother had done her best to treat my hands – there was not much capacity for study on the ride to school.  But it was a good opportunity to catch a nap!

Just that single paragraph evokes so many questions!!  And thoughts about our changing times…

“For Want of a Nail

Saturday, April 23rd, 2016
King Richard at Bosforth Field

King Richard at Bosworth Field

Horseshoe nails are not something most of us think about on a regular basis.  In fact, when I ran across my great-uncle King Wilson’s description of their manufacture, I was momentarily surprised.  But then I reflected a bit about the letter I was reading, written by him to my Great Aunt Dora in 1902.  It was a time when horses and their shoes were still a crucial part of everyday life.  It put me in mind of the old nursery rhyme:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

            The poem is meant as a proverb, of course, pointing out that each of our actions, no matter how small, will have a consequence.  The proverb first showed up in relation to King Richard III’s death during the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 – later memorialized in Shakespeare’s history play, “Richard III.”

Capewell Horse Nails Shipping Box

Capewell Horse Nails Shipping Box

Uncle King was on a part-business-part-pleasure trip in June 1902 when he visited the Capewell Horse Nail Company in Hartford, Connecticut.  In a letter home to Dora in Lake Oswego, Oregon, he wrote:

They say they sell more nails than all their competitors.  I shook hands with Mr. Capewell.  He patented the machine that does the work.  The iron is purchased as wire after it is tempered and made of uniform size it goes in this machine and comes out nails.  There are 100 of these machines, and a compete machine shop to keep them in repair. To make the nails bright they are put in an iron barrel with sawdust, and the barrel is rolled over and over.  They are then inspected, each nail separately by girls, then they are weighed in boxes of 5 pounds each.  These boxes are pasteboard.  5 of these boxes are put in a wooden box for shipment.  Two hundred fifty men work for the company and about that many girls.

Alexander King Wilson - "Uncle King"

Alexander King Wilson – “Uncle King”

Such an interesting ‘dated’ paragraph!  Not only the subject, itself, but the manufacturing methods described, the use of the term ‘pasteboard,’ and the reference to ‘girls’ in the workforce.  Thank goodness someone had the foresight to save (and bind into a book!) these letters.  They provide a fascinating peek into our past.

And thank goodness for Uncle King’s interest in describing everyday sorts of things in everyday language!  So much more enlightening than the dry explanations in history texts or old encyclopedias.  The letters actually seem to illustrate the horse shoe nail proverb.  Certainly King Wilson could never have dreamed that his detailed description in a letter to his wife would be read and pondered over by his great niece by marriage more than a century later!


Picture Perfect in Oysterville

Sunday, April 3rd, 2016
Our Pear Tree

Our Pear Tree

Our old Bosc pear tree is in full bloom right now – a sight to behold, for sure.  I think it is close to sixty feet high and I know for a fact that it is over 100 years old.  One of the favorite condiments of my mother’s generation was my grandmother’s pickled pears.  Nyel has made them from her recipe but I can’t say we are crazy about them, though pickled is one of the few ways those pears are edible.  They are still rock hard when they ripen and fall from the tree.  Even the birds shy away from them. One peck is usually all they try and I strongly suspect the result is a bent beak.

I usually don’t give that pear tree much thought.  I am grateful to it, to be sure, but mostly because it serves as a ‘trellis’ for the honeysuckle that will bloom in June and always fills our entire garden with the sweet smell of summer.  But, truth to tell, if I consider that old tree at all, it’s to marvel at its age and to wonder how many more years it will survive.

Fruit Trees at Left?  c. 1920

Fruit Trees at Left? c. 1920

This year, though, there is talk at our Community Historians class of a “Heritage Fruit Tree” project.  There are thoughts of locating some of the surviving fruit trees planted by Pacific County pioneers, taking scions from them, and grafting them to younger trees – or something like that.  I understand the concept but not how you do it.  Anyway… our pear tree has come into my focus a bit more fully in recent weeks.

Medora in the Garden c. 1913

Medora in the Garden c. 1913

I began to wonder if we have any early photographs of the tree that would help pinpoint its age.  I know that my grandmother had a camera as early as 1915. Medora, her oldest daughter (then sixteen) gave it to her for her 34th birthday on May 28th of that year.  Although the camera was an Ansco (we still have the manual) the family always referred to it as “the Kodak” and it was responsible for most of the early snapshots taken around our house.  I’m not sure how we came by any earlier views, though we have a few.

My mother remembered that there were “quite a many” fruit trees in the southeast part of the yard and said that the pear tree was the last of them.  The only photos I found of that area do, indeed, show trees but I am not knowledgeable enough to identify their age or type.  Maybe someone else will know.  Meanwhile… perhaps the Community Historian Heritage Fruit Tree will involve our pear tree.  My forebears would have enjoyed that – probably more than they enjoyed the pears!