Monday, June 26, 2017

Abraham Elters and the Statue of Liberty

Fireworks celebrating the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty. Engraving based on a sketch by Charles Graham. Originally published in the Illustrated London News. Republished in The New York Times on the 125th anniversary of the event.

On September 11, 1886, the S.S. Polynesia sailed into New York harbor after a sixteen day voyage from Hamburg, Germany. On board were roughly 200 passengers, including my great-grandfather, Abraham Elters.  Just eighteen years old, he had traveled over four thousand miles by himself from his home town of Krakow in Austria. (Today Krakow is part of Poland.) Although he had traveled by alone, he wasn't completely on his own in New York. He found a home with his step-mother's brother, Louis Rippe, who had arrived in the city twenty years earlier. Abraham Elters soon found a job, and started saving money. By 1890, the rest of his family was able to join him in New York.

Although I've spent a lot of time learning about Abraham Elters' life in New York, I had never
stopped to consider the details of his actual arrival in the city. Like millions of other immigrants, he arrived in New York by ship. The harbor was undoubtedly crowded and busy with lots of ships and smaller boats plying the waters around the city. He probably marveled at the Statue of Liberty and the skyline of the city that would be his new home. New York was, of course, much smaller than it is today, but with a population of roughly 1.5 million it was the largest city in the United States and one of the largest cities in the world.
My great grandfather, Abraham Elters,
age 26. Eight years after his arrival in
the United States

Recently, however, I found myself reading about the history of the Statue of Liberty, and this led me to think more carefully about what exactly Abraham Elters would have seen sailing into New York harbor. In particular, I noticed that the dedication ceremony for the Statue was held on October 28, 1886, almost seven weeks after my great grandfather arrived in New York. So he would have been among the first immigrants to see Lady Liberty on her pedestal atop Liberty Island, or Bedloe's Island as it was known at the time.

This led me to wondering whether the statue was complete at the time Abraham Elters arrived in New York, or if he would have seen it under construction. I haven't been able to find a precise timeline for the building of the statue, but I did find a The New York Times article describing a sailing race in the harbor a few days earlier, on September 7, which mentions "the headless statue of Liberty." (The race in question was the first match of the 1886 America's Cup.)

In searching (unsuccessfully) for pictures of the statue under construction in New York, I also learned that the statue has not always been green. The Statue of Liberty is made of copper, and it took many years for it to slowly acquire the verdigris that provides its iconic color. So what Abraham Elters saw on his arrival in New York was not the famous image that graces millions of contemporary pictures of New York, but rather a headless statue with a metallic brown sheen.

1908 postcard of the Statue of Liberty. Note
the uncorroded copper color. Source:
Nevertheless, it must have been an impressive sight. The statue's shoulders are roughly 250 feet above the ground of Liberty Island. The height of the torch, when it was completed, is 305 feet, about twenty feet higher than the spire on Trinity Church, then the tallest building in New York. Abraham Elters had certainly never seen a statue of such proportions, and probably had never seen a man-made structure so tall. Hamburg, where he sailed from, had several churches that were taller, but it's impossible to know whether he saw them when he passed through Hamburg en route to New York.

This line of investigation leaves me with a pair of unanswered questions.  First, I wonder how famous the Statue of Liberty was in 1886.  Eventually, of course, it became known around the world, and immigrants arriving in New York would look for it and cheer, knowing that it meant they had arrived in America. But I wonder if Abraham Elters boarded the Polynesia knowing there was a colossal statue being built in New York harbor, or if he only discovered it when he saw it on his arrival.

Second, while it is interesting to speculate about what Abraham Elters saw or thought about the Statue of Liberty, I wonder if he actually saw any of it. Did the Polynesia arrive during daylight hours?  Or did it arrive in the middle of the night?  For all I know, Abraham Elters may have been sound asleep on his arrival in New York harbor and seen none of this.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

My centenarian great-grandfather—Sidney Brown Smith (1861–1962)

In honor of Father's Day, here's a post about one of my paternal ancestors. Sidney Brown Smith was my great-grandfather, my father's father's father.  He was born and lived most of his life in the village of Hanover Center in New York. That's in Chautauqua County, the westernmost part of New York, farther west than Buffalo.

Sidney Brown Smith was born on February 22, 1861, in Hanover Center. He was the sixth of seven children born to Daniel and Cordelia Cushman Smith. He attended the local schools until at least 1883, when a local newspaper records him passing the Regents Exams. These were end-of-course exams given to assess mastery of the high school curriculum. New York State still administers the Regents, but I assume they have changed a bit since Sydney took them.

As a young man, Sidney Smith worked as a teacher in several nearby villages including Brant, Smith's Mill, Log Village, and Balltown.

On September 1, 1887,  at the age of 26, Sidney Smith married Elizabeth ("Lizzie") Curran, the daughter of Daniel and Catherine Curran. The Currans lived about a half mile down the road from the Smith family's farm. A newspaper account of the wedding reports that, "After the wedding the happy couple started on their wedding trip amid a shower of old shoes." Apparently throwing shoes at the departing newlyweds is an old tradition. This seems especially appropriate since Lizzie's father was a shoemaker.

Sidney Smith, Lizzie Smith, Hazel Smith and Harry Smith
Sidney and Lizzie's first child, my grandfather, Harry Lee Smith, was born on March 31, 1890. Perhaps parenthood prompted Sidney to turn from teaching to a livelihood that would better support his new family. On April 4, 1891, when Harry was a year old, Sidney Smith purchased a 78 acre farm outside the nearby village of Smith's Mill.  Soon after, Sidney's family grew again with the birth of his daughter, Hazel Roena Smith, born September 28, 1892.

In 1903, Sidney bought a new property adjacent to the farm where he had grown up. Sidney farmed this land, sometimes known as Greenridge Farm, for many years. He and Lizzie were active members of the Hanover Center community, participating in the local Farmers' Club, the Hanover Grange, the Hanover Literary Club, and other organizations.

Sidney's son, Harry, grew up and helped to run the farm. Harry married late, in 1927 at age 37. At this point, Sidney was 66 years old, and ready to retire from actively running the farm. So he and Lizzie rented a home in the nearby town of Silver Creek, leaving Harry to run the farm and raise his family there. In 1930 or 1931, the Smiths had bought a new home in Silver Creek, at 9 Jackson Street. This is where one of my favorite family portraits was taken during the summer of 1931.

Through his 70s, Sidney continued to help out at the farm. He would walk roughly four miles round-trip to get there, cutting across fields to take a direct route.

Harry Smith died in February of 1941. The family sold Greenridge Farm, and at age 80, Sidney finally retired from farming.  A few years later, in 1945, Lizzie also passed away (at age 84). Sidney continued living in Silver Creek until the mid-1950s, when he moved to Buffalo for a year or two, likely to be near his daughter, Hazel, who was a teacher in the public schools there. In 1958, at age 97, Sidney returned to Silver Creek and moved into the Silver Creek Nursing Home.

On February 22, 1961, Sidney celebrated his 100th birthday. Still sharp-minded, Sidney entertained his many visitors that day with stories from his long life in and around Silver Creek.

Sidney died on November 4, 1962, a few months shy of his 102nd birthday.

With long-lived relatives, like Sidney Smith, I always find it amazing to consider the changes and events that happened during his life.  Sidney was born during the presidency of Abraham Lincoln and died during Kennedy's presidency. During those years the United States grew from 34 to 50 states. Sidney Smith was born during the Civil War and when he died the US was starting to send troops to Vietnam, He lived through the Spanish-American War, both World Wars, and the Korean conflict. His life saw the invention of antibiotics, cars, airplanes, radio, and television, as well as the electrification of America.

Sadly, I never met Sidney. I have many friends who knew their great-grandparents. But the ancestors on my Smith line had children late in life. Despite living 101 years, Sidney died several years before I was born.

Notes and Sources

Many of the details here are drawn from my father's memories and from a long article from the Lake Shore News and Times on the occasion of Sidney's 100th birthday, and a similar article written for his death.
 "Village's Eldest Resident Observes 100th Birthday," Lake Shore News, Vol. 55, No. 8 (Silver Creek, N. Y., February 23, 1961), p. 1.
"Village's Oldest Resident Dies at Age of 101," Lake Shore News, Vol. 56, No. 45 (Silver Creek, N. Y., November 8, 1962), p. 1. 
The wedding of Sidney Smith and Lizzie Curran including the "shower of old shoes" is also described in a local newspaper article.
"Log City," Silver Creek Local (Silver Creek, N. Y.), October 10, 1887.  
The name of the Sidney Smith farm, Greenridge Farm, is a convenient moniker. But it is not clear how much it was used. My father, who lived on that property for the first ten years of his life, has no recollection of it, and I have only seen it mentioned in one newspaper article. That article describes the golden wedding anniversary of Mr. and Mrs. Harvey J. Gidley and lists among the attendees, "Mr. and Mrs. Sidney B. Smith of Greenridge Farm, Hanover Center."
"Golden Wedding Pleasant Affair," Dunkirk Evening Observer (Dunkirk, N. Y.), February 5, 1923, p. 5. 
The deed for the property Sidney purchased in 1891 is available from FamilySearch.
"New York Land Records, 1630–1975," images, FamilySearch ( : 18 June 2017), Chautauqua > Deeds 1889-1892 vol 238-239 > image 413 of 668; county courthouses, New York.
The deed for Greenridge farm is not included in that collection, although there is an entry for the purchase in the Grantee index, which is also available at FamilySearch.
"New York Land Records, 1630-1975," images, FamilySearch ( : 22 May 2014), Chautauqua > Grantees 1902-1910 vol A-Z > image 679 of 811; county courthouses, New York.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Over 250 years of Yalies

1906 watercolor of Yale University and the New Haven Green, by Richard Rummell.
Image provided by Wikimedia Commons.
Two weeks ago my wife and I attended our 30th college reunion at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.  It was the first reunion we attended since our 10th.  We had a good time, and enjoyed seeing old friends and acquaintance. It was also interesting to see how the campus has grown and changed over the years. The event also left me feeling a bit out of place. In my mind's eye, Yale is still the place of my memories, a place where my peers are 18–21 years old and where faculty and staff seem much older. At reunion, however, I found that all my peers had turned into 50-somethings. And some of them actually were faculty and staff at the University.

I don't come from a long line of Yalies. But it turns out that I have a good number of relatives (mostly distant cousins) who attended Yale.  In honor of my reunion, here is a short list of my Eli relatives:
  • Jonathan Arnold (1701 – ????), 1st cousin, 7 times removed. Jonathan studied theology, graduating in 1723. He was ordained pastor of the West Haven Congregational Church. In 1734 he "declared for the Episcopacy" (i.e., converted to the Church of England) and was dismissed from his church. He traveled to England to take orders and received an honorary M.A. from Oxford Univesity while he was there. On returning to the colonies he was an Episcopal missionary in Connecticut, and later lived in Staten Island and New Jersey.
  • Samuel Arnold (1704 – 1771), 1st cousin, 7 times removed. Samuel studied theology and graduated in 1724. He preached for a while after graduation. But he made his career as a farmer and was never ordained.
  • Conrad Gustavus Bacon (1844 – 1936), 6th cousin, twice removed. He graduated from the Yale law school in 1871 and practiced law for many years in Middletown, Connecticut. He served a term in the Connecticut General Assembly, 1912–13.
  • Franke Stuart Havens (1871 – 1942), 4th cousin, twice removed. Franke received his B.S. in 1896 and his Ph.D. in chemistry in 1899. He worked as a research chemist for a paint company and later established his own chemical and paint manufacturing company.
  • Alfred Southmayd Hamlin (1871 – 1954), 7th cousin, once removed. Alfred graduated from Yale's Sheffield Scientific School in 1898
  • Frederic Stanley Bacon (1877 – 1961), 6th cousin, 3 times removed. Frederic graduated from Yale Law School in 1902. After graduation, he entered practice with his father (Conrad Gustavus Bacon, above). Sometime before 1920 he changed careers and became a civil engineer for the highway department of the state of Connecticut. 
  • George Southmayd Macdonald (1880 – 1968), 7th cousin, once removed. George graduated from Yale's Sheffield Scientific School in 1902. He worked for several years as a lawyer in New York City, then moved to Los Angeles to work in the new film industry. He was a director during the silent era, using Sherwood Macdonald as his screen name.
  • Rossleene Merle Arnold (1895 – 1950). My great-aunt Ross received a Ph.D. in chemistry from Yale in 1926. She married a fellow Ph.D. student, Donald McKinley Hetler. They taught briefly at the University of Illinois and then settled in Missoula, Montana, where they both taught at Montana State University.
  • Elizabeth Dalzell Whiting (1904 – 1992), 5th cousin. Elizabeth's engagement announcement in Brooklyn Life said that she, "is now taking a course at Yale School of Music." I have found no further information about whether she was in a degree program or just taking a music class at her local college.
  • Dalzell Whiting (1911 – 1933), 5th cousin. Dalzell was in the class of 1934. He died in the fall of his senior year after a two week illness. He was the younger brother of Elizabeth Dalzell Whitting, above.
  • Keith Arnold Smith (1965 – ). That's me, Class of 1987.
This list makes it look like I am the most recent of a long line of Yalies—the ultimate legacy student. But this is not a line at all. None of them are direct ancestors. They are all among the many hundreds of descendants of my 8th great-grandfather, John Arnold of Hartford, Connecticut. With the exception of my great-aunt, Ross(leene) and myself, everyone on this list lived in central Connecticut. And they all lived at times when it was typical for college students to attend school not far from home.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

A Family Portrait

My father's side of the family. The adults, from the left, are Emily (Sessions) Arnold, Fannie (Arnold) Smith, Herbert Elmer Arnold, Lizzie (Curran) Smith, Harry Lee Smith, Sidney Brown Smith. In the front is my aunt, Jane Elizabeth Smith.
When I was much younger, probably in my twenties, my father gave me a copy of this old family photograph. In the picture are my Dad's older sister (age two here), Dad's parents, and his four grandparents. Each of his parents stands between their own parents. My Dad isn't in the picture, but he was there in utero; his mother was about six months pregnant at the time of the picture.

I don't remember when I first saw this picture. I was at least a teenager and maybe out of college. I do remember being immediately captivated by it. Other than my Aunt Jane (the child) I never met any of the people in this picture. I hadn't even seen pictures of most of them.  So this single picture was an "Aha" moment for me—discovering what Dad's entire family looked like.  And for some reason the deliberate organization of the entire family in one neat picture made it all the more interesting.

At the time, I didn't know much about most of these people, just a few tid-bits that came up in my Dad's recollections of his youth.  His mother (second from left) studied voice at Oberlin Conservatory. Her father (3rd from left) owned and operated a laundry company in the town of Oberlin. Dad's father (2nd from right) was a farmer, who died when Dad was a boy, and Dad's grandfather Smith (on the right) lived to be over one hundred years old.  Since then, I've managed to learn more about my family, partly by asking Dad about them, but also by digging through old newspapers and other records.

Returning to the picture, from left to right, the adults in the picture (and their relation to me) are:
  • Emily Jane (Sessions) Arnold (1866 – 1941): Great-grandmother
  • Fannie Diem (Arnold) Smith (1893 – 1976): Grandmother
  • Herbert Elmer Arnold (1863 – 1933): Great-grandfather
  • Elizabeth "Lizzie" (Curran) Smith (1860 – 1945): Great-grandmother
  • Harry Lee Smith (1890 – 1941): Grandfather
  • Sidney Brown Smith (1861 – 1962): Great-grandfather
The girl is Jane Elizabeth (Smith) Rumbold (1929 – 2011), my aunt. 

The picture was taken outside Sidney Smith's house at 9 Jackson Street in Silver Creek, New York.  He had been a farmer for much of his life.  When he retired, Harry, his son, took over the farm, and Sidney bought this house "in town" in Silver Creek. The Arnolds lived in Oberlin, Ohio, so they must have been visiting.

My dad had guessed that the picture was taken the summer before he was born. There are a bunch of clues about this. There are leaves on the trees and the people look like they're wearing light-weight clothes. In particular, Herbert Arnold's suit looks like a summer print, and Fannie (Arnold) Smith is wearing a sleeveless dress. From this, Dad inferred that the picture was taken sometime between late Spring and early Fall. Dad's sister, my Aunt Jane, was born on November 6, 1929. In the summer before Dad was born (1931), she would have been a few months shy of her second birthday, and that looks like the age of the girl in the picture. Possibly, the picture could have been taken the following summer, in 1932, after Dad was born, but then where is he in this picture? It seems unlikely that in a portrait that clearly includes all the family he would have been left out.

A couple years ago, after I got started in genealogy, I was doing some research about Dad's family in Silver Creek. I was reading some of the area newspapers, searching for references to Dad's father—a somewhat arduous task since "Harry Smith" is a rather common name.  In the Dunkirk Evening Observer from August 1, 1931, I found the following in the news from Hanover Center:
Mrs Harry Smith has been entertaining her father and mother from Oberlin, Ohio.
Hanover Center was the cross-roads village near Harry Smith's farm, a couple miles outside of Silver Creek.  Dunkirk is the nearest large town. In 1930 it's population was over 17,000 (compared to about 3,000 in Silver Creek).

Putting it all together, that must have been the visit when the picture was taken.

One thing I still wonder about the picture is who took it? The one person who isn't in the picture is my great-aunt Hazel Smith (Harry's younger sister). She was a schoolteacher in Buffalo (about 35 miles from Silver Creek). Since it was summer, school would have been out. According to Dad she liked to take pictures and often had a camera with her. So it seems like a reasonable guess that she was the photographer.

If you're like me, it's probably easier to keep track of who's who with a chart or pedigree showing how everyone connects to each other. So here's a snippet of my pedigree showing the people in this photo.

Friday, June 2, 2017

A bit of family background

On this blog I'll be talking a bunch about my ancestors and their descendants. So who are these people?

When asked where my family comes from, I often reply that "I'm a typical American mutt." My ancestors come from a variety of places, arriving in the new world over a span of 270 years. To illustrate, here is an abbreviated pedigree showing the surnames of a few generations of my family.

I have a number of lines that go back to colonial New England (and to Old England before that), including a few Mayflower ancestors on my Cushman and Bundy lines. I also have ancestors who came over from Germany during the Revolution, Irish ancestors who arrived around the time of the Potato Famine, Jewish ancestors from Krakow, which was in Austria when they left, but is now part of Poland, and French ancestors who immigrated in the late 1800s from Quebec. Of course, this is just a small (and entirely European) slice of the broader American experience, but it provides enough variety to keep me hunting for new relatives and for more information about their lives. And there is even more to explore on my wife's side.

In future weeks and months (and years?),  I plan to discuss many of these ancestors.  I'll also talk about a number of their descendants (i.e., my distant aunts, uncles, and cousins).  I enjoy descendancy research. When I discover a sibling or child of an ancestor, my curiosity inevitable leads me down their branch of tree to see what I find. My files include information about dozens of Smith, Elters, Rippe, and Bundy cousins and hundreds of cousins from my Arnold line. Many of those people will make appearances here.