Sunday, August 31, 2014

A History Lover's Dream Come True, Part 1

As most of you know--or will quickly learn by having a look around this blog--historical fantasy is my favorite genre. I love the magic that occurs when a reader becomes fully immersed in a distant time and place, only to find that a twist of something supernatural has altered life in that long-ago world. At their best, these stories teach us to view ourselves or the world in a new light. I always come away from historical fantasies feeling somehow richer, filled with a new appreciation for my surroundings.

Perhaps my love of these stories fuels my interest in antiquing, and shows like American Pickers on the History Channel. There's a thrill in discovering items that, while of course not magical in the strictest sense, have a certain otherworldly charm for having endured decades or centuries of careless human hands, dank cellars, and rotting tool sheds.

Yet for all my love of the past, I never imagined my own family legacy waiting to be dusted off and pieced back together. I didn't fully understand how much could be lost over just a few generations. But like the Victorian tea set in my dining room, restored from a blackened mess to brightest silver, stories of the past always endure. They're in your grandmother's attic or your own basement, patiently waiting for someone to brush away the cobwebs and shine a light in the dark.

 An image of The Glenn House, my grandfather's ancestral home, taken in 1906. The home itself was completed in 1883.

My maternal grandparents, affectionately known as Nana and Papa, are getting on in years. I was their first grandchild, and I've watched them work so hard for quite a long time. Now that they're (mostly) retired, they've been going through their closets and attic to organize a lifetime of accumulated belongings. Old cookbooks, stacks of records, silver-plated serving dishes--a lot of moderately interesting vintage treasures.

But the best and most important surprise was waiting in their tool shed, a pale blue building behind their house that was, quite literally, dripping with water damage.

There we found a decaying book that had belonged to my great-grandmother and namesake, Sarah Emmeline Glenn. Part family history book, scrapbook, and journal, it contained everything from Sarah's original poems to photos dating back to the late 1800's, and even a set of daguerreotypes from the later years of the Civil War. There was a Victorian tea set and other silverware belonging to my great-great grandparents as well.

The book in question, sitting on my grandparents' kitchen table.
Three daguerreotypes from the shed, one dating to 1864, the others to 1865. The woman in the middle is my great (4x) grandmother Deane.
Sarah Emmeline Glenn, around age 18. She went by "Sally." I don't know why this came out so yellow when I scanned it in, but it doesn't look like this in person!

When I heard about the amazing things my family had unearthed from my grandparents' shed, I made the hour drive to my home town to spend a day going through the old book with my sister. The pages reek of decay, but it was well worth the allergy attack for the opportunity to gently turn the pages of that book. We found a newspaper announcing the end of World War II, food ration stamps from the same war, and pictures of my Papa as a baby. Best of all, I got to know my great-grandmother and namesake through her poetry, some of which is actually quite clever (I guess being a writer is in my blood!).

Some quotes Sally wrote in her old scrapbook. I especially like the one on the left.
Sometimes she typed her poems, like the one shown here. I really like how this one shows so much about her character! She was a fun and creative person.

This one makes me wonder how she spent her days.
Again, I love her sense of humor! This is a fake 'license' from the 1920s for a Backseat Driver!
A photo of my papa during his time at the University of Virginia, from Sally's scrapbook.

This book and all the memories it held naturally triggered a lot of long-buried memories of my papa's early life. But it was only when my sister found The Glenn House--the home of Sally parents, my great-great grandparents--through a simple Google search that the story of my papa's ancestors began to emerge. The Glenn House, originally built by my great-great-great grandparents for their daughter Lula, as a wedding present, is now a museum. In fact, the Historical Society of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, where the house is located, was formed to restore the house and preserve the legacy of my great-great grandfather, David Glenn.

My papa had no idea the house was even still standing.

Beyond excited, I emailed the staff at The Glenn House right away, and within a few hours I received an enthusiastic response. They didn't know the Glenns had any living descendants, and they were just as thrilled to learn about my family as we were about the house's existence!

Sarah "Sally" Glenn was the Glenn family's youngest daughter, and she grew up in the beautiful house in Cape Girardeau along with her older brother, Garrett, and sister, Ruth.

The Glenn House as it stands today.

I continued to exchange emails, pictures, and information with the wonderful people who run tours of The Glenn House, and they shared a wealth of photos and documents with me in return. Memories continued to surface for my papa, and as he shared them with me, I passed them along to the Glenn House staff, who gather information to try to present to visitors a complete picture of the life of the Glenn family back in the 1800s.

David Glenn, his wife Lula Deane Glenn, and their oldest child, Garrett. Circa 1890. This picture was in my grandparents' shed, and we shared it with the staff of The Glenn House.

My family and I sorted through old tax papers, censuses in Cape Girardeau, and other documents generously provided to us by the Glenn House staff, trying to get a sense for the life of my great-great grandparents back in the late Victorian era.

And as we gathered more information, what emerged was the sort of story a writer loves to read: one of true love, kindness, triumph, and of course, tragedy.

In October, we'll be heading to Cape Girardeau, MO, to see The Glenn House in person. I'll write another post about the Glenns and their life story then, as well as my experience of reconnecting with my ancestral home and the wonderful historical society members who have worked so hard to restore the house to its former glory!