Saturday, July 24, 2010

1880: When John Met Fannie

In 1997 a favorite uncle researched and wrote a short memoir of his grandmother, thirty typewritten pages not for publication, but for family. This is no ordinary memoir because this uncle, a retired English professor, constructs a narrative from letters found in the attic of the old family home, instantly transporting the reader back in time.

Here is excerpt from this narrative “made of commonplace events experienced or suffered through by ordinary people”:

Born December 18, 1856, Fannie Harlow was nearly ten years younger than her sister Auzella. At some point Fannie went out to Ohio to visit or to live with the Birds [, Ozro and Auzella]. Perhaps she went to help Auzella keep house after little Lucy was born. It is possible, though not probable, that with Ozro’s aid she obtained work at the mill in the finishing room with the other women. At the mill, perhaps, but more likely at her brother-in-law’s home, she met a young mill supervisor named John Voller, and English immigrant. The two ambitious papermakers, Ozro and John, must have been friends and, possibly, even rivals at the workplace.

What more could I learn by examining the images of census records?

In June 1880 John Voller was a boarder in the home of Sarah Bridge, who lived next door to the Birds. Not only would Ozro and John have been acquainted through work, they were neighbors. 

There is more though, and this is where a simple research tip comes into play: Turn the page.

Turning to the very next census image shows that Fannie was living in the Bird household at census time. And, Uncle, according to the 1880 census, Fannie did indeed work in the paper mill. 

Now my imagination is caught in a chicken-or-egg dilemma.

Did John and Fannie meet first in the mill, or did they meet at home? Did John first catch a glimpse of Fannie as she hung sheets on the line to dry? Were they introduced one evening during an after-dinner stroll? Those details, not captured in Fannie’s letters, are lost forever.

In the end, what is important is not exactly how or exactly when John and Fannie met, but that they met—and that my dear uncle had the foresight to save the story for his daughters and for generations to come.

“Fannie Voller: A Memoir in Letters” is a family treasure.

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