Monday, January 7, 2013

Eureka Moments and One Hundred Years Ago Today

What do research scientists, historians, archeologists, miners, detectives and genealogists have in common?  Deep down they all live for the electric thrill and heady rush caused by a sudden discovery.  Sometimes the sensation is achieved by the serendipitous uncovering of a delightful little nugget and other times (much more rare) it is achieved by uncovering a vein of ore so rich it leaves one awestruck.  For the scientist, the rich vein of ore could be a Nobel-worthy discovery that changes the direction of scientific thought.  For the detective, the rich vein could be finding the one clue that unlocks the answer to a horrific crime.  For the genealogist, a rich vein of discovery is breaking through a brick wall to finally unravel the true identity and relationship of an individual or family in the mosaic that is one's family tree. 

This post is NOT about a rich vein discovery.  It is about the delight of having made the serendipitous discovery of a gleaming little nugget of family history.

Arnold G. Tew at Phillips Andover circa 1913.
My paternal grandfather, Arnold G. Tew, attended Phillips Academy, Andover from 1910 – 1914.  During 1913 and 1914 he had what was called “A Line A Day” diary.  It is a small (4 ¾ in. by 5 ¾ in.), leather-bound volume with gilt-edged pages.  The diary was able to accommodate five years of entries with four ruled lines per day.  I came into possession of the diary going on three years ago.  I have transcribed all of his diary entries for the years 1913 and 1914 -- except for those that were erased or presumably torn out by my grandmother decades later due to either her sensibilities or desire to protect the image of a nearly seventeen-year-old boy she never really knew.  The diary is a wonderful trip into the language, teen slang, objects and interests of the period as well as one boy’s experience of prep school life at Phillips Andover at the beginning of the last century.

My grandfather was a regular, but not a perfect daily diarist; after all, he was only 16 - 17 years old.   The diary shows he was very tuned in to the weather, sports, letter correspondence, some academics and, most especially, girls.  From a genealogy point of view, the diary also has references to his family, but they are sadly few and far between over the two years of entries.  This probably is reflective of the priorities of most seventeen-year-old young men – even those of a century ago.

Since the diary starts on New Years Day 1913, it is appropriate to illustrate an example of the diary entries with the entry from January 7, 1913 – exactly 100 years ago today!

To continue the story about the discovery of a little nugget of family history, I need to explain that about a year before I obtained my grandfather’s diary I visited a cousin up in Wallingford, CT.  My cousin is the grandson of my grandfather’s older sister Edna (Tew) Tarr.  Edna was eleven years older than my grandfather and they were the only two children of the five children of John Andrew Tew and his wife, Margaret “Maggie” (Conner) Tew, to survive beyond two years old.  

Edna Lillian Tew
Edna was 18 years old when her father died tragically and her brother, my grandfather, was only 7 years old.  One result of the difference in ages between these siblings was that Edna became something more than just an older sister to Arnold – she was almost like a second mother.  Another result was that Edna, thankfully, was the keeper of many items of the Tew family history that her much younger brother could not yet appreciate.  Edna’s grandson is now the keeper of many items of the family’s past and this led to my April 2009 visit to Wallingford to spend a weekend reviewing and scanning documents and photographs that my cousin was only too happy to make available to me for scanning.   I set up shop at his kitchen table with my laptop and scanner for two days. [THANK YOU yet again cousin!]

That weekend in April 2009 I scanned many documents and photos, including wedding certificates, birth certificates, photos of the children who did not survive, early photos of my grandfather and my Grand Aunt Edna, etc.  There were photographs that were obviously done by studio photographers (and were so designated), but there were also candid photos of family members engaged in everyday activities – including on Prudence Island in the Narragansett Bay where Edna and her husband had a cottage.  

The cottages built by E. Clifford Tarr on Prudence Island
It was impossible to know who took the “candid camera” photos, but they are in many ways so much more interesting and real than the posed studio portraits.   Among the photos were shots of Edna with her daughter Mildred, photos of my father and his brother and sister during their youth, photos of my grandfather from his youth, and photos of my great grandparents (John and Maggie Tew), that I had never seen before.

In August 2010, after obtaining my grandfather’s diary, I began a transcription of the handwritten entries (that were thankfully easy to decipher).  I finally finished in October.   The transcription was a learning process enhanced by my near constant diversions into Google searches of places and things mentioned in the diary pages.  I decided to annotate the diary with explanatory footnotes and photos where I could.  As a result, the transcription grew to 53 pages in length and took up 58 MBs of disk space unzipped.

When I reached the diary entry for July 30, 1913, I transcribed that my grandfather was on Prudence Island at his sister and brother-in-law’s cottage for the first time in two years.  He was recovering from some knee surgery and he had what he called his “Vest Pocket Kodak” with which he took what he referred to as “snaps.”  

A 1913 Kodak "Vest Pocket" camera.
On August 6th the diary stated, “I took a few snaps of Mildred [his two year old niece -- Edna’s daughter] on the beach with my Vest Pocket Kodak.  And then . . . the first glint of a possible eureka moment serendipitously arose.  The Saturday, August 30, 1913 diary entry said:

“Edna and I caught only one tautog between us today.  She caught it!  I took a roll of film in my vest pocket Kodak of Mildred today down on the shore and in a row boat.”

I paused and re-read the entry once, then twice.  “In a row boat!”

I immediately jumped to my iPhoto application and went to the collection of photos I scanned while up at my cousin’s house in 2009.   I looked carefully through the photos and suddenly there they were – two candid camera shots by a previously unknown photographer -- two-year-old Mildred in a rowboat!!   

Mildred Tarr on August 30, 1913,  The hand 
written note on the top snapshot was a 
later guess and is in error as the diary demonstrates.
I almost yelled “Eureka!” out loud.  And then there was an instantaneous, almost eerie feeling as I realized I was looking at a moment in time 97 years ago almost literally through the eyes of my sixteen year old grandfather (who died in 1958).  Here were the very photos he wrote about in his diary on August 30, 1913.  I was looking at exactly what he saw as he lined up the candid “snap” of his toddler niece.  THIS is the kind of nugget of discovery that so thrills those of us hooked on genealogy!   
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

John Andrew Tew (August 27, 1853 – January 27, 1903)
Margaret “Maggie" Conner (March 6, 1860 – December 8, 1935)

            1.  Edna Lillian Tew  (August 19, 1885 – December 28, 1969)
                      Edward Clifford Tarr (February 10, 1884 – March 6, 1948)

                                    (1)  Mildred L. Tarr (March 19, 1911 – June 9, 2004)

            2.  Charlie E. Tew (August 25, 1886 – June 15, 1888)
            3.  Henry E. Tew (June 18, 1888 – April 9, 1889)

            4.  Arnold G. Tew (October 15, 1896 – February 28, 1958)  My grandparents.
                        Huldah A. Hasselbaum (July 16, 1898 - January 3, 1983)

            5.  John H. Tew (April 23, 1901 – December 2, 1903) 

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Copyright 2013,  John D. Tew
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ 


  1. A very cool connection! I can relate to your excitement. I am also jealous of these family treasures you have!

  2. Thank you Heather! I'm glad you enjoyed it. It was a nice little eureka moment for me and my cousin really liked the story when I discovered and reported who took the photos of his mother in the rowboat at two years old -- and when exactly the photos had been taken. I consider myself very lucky to have these items of family history and they fascinate me. More and more though, I believe most families have them out there, they just need to be discovered and collected -- and preserved. I might have a long post later this year to tell the story about how, going on three years ago now, I discovered and met a fourth cousin while on a quest to find a Carpenter family Bible that my grandfather and his mother had in 1929 and gave back into another branch of the family. When I discovered and enlisted the help of my new-found cousin, we actually found the Bible the summer of 2010 eighty-one years after it had last been seen! If our story about the search is not accepted for publication elsewhere I plan to post it here.

    1. John, I included this post on my Friday's Favorites:

      Thanks for the post!

  3. Heather: Thank you so much for pointing to my post! I went to your blog to check out some of the other of your favorites. I am fascinated by old photographs and the moments in time that they capture. I am especially reminded of how photos capture living flashes in time whenever I see a very old photograph of people doing ordinary activities in their lives and realize that all those shown have long ago passed on, but the moments are frozen in time. I will be visiting your blog more frequently.


    P.S. I think from your description of my post, you actually meant to link to the post from January 7th, "Eureka Moments and One Hundred Years Ago Today" rather than the "One Hundred Years Ago Today" post of January 8th.

  4. Funny how identifying someone in a photograph or piecing together a bit of information can bring us such joy. That is why we keep on with it. How wonderful that you have your grandfather's diary!

  5. Great Blog. This is Aybey , I am Bruce''s grandaughter's husband from Istanbul, Turkey.