Little Bible Once Was Lost But Now Is Found

 

Dad-old house in bg2Many new and valuable family history resources are added to the Internet every day. That’s why I occasionally do an online search of the street addresses profiled on wikiHomePages, a website where family members, historians and others can create house histories of homes using old photos taken in and around the address.  What I’m looking for is any fresh information I can use to update my “HomePages.”  Most of the time there’s nothing new.  Most of the time.

A few years ago, I received a check for $284.40 from the state of California after entering my 1974 apartment address on their unclaimed property website.  The found money came from a long forgotten insurance policy.

It took 36 long years to reunite me and my money, but I’m not complaining.  I was happy to have it, even though I knew I had probably used up my share of amazing-discoveries-made-while-checking-old-addresses-online.  But then another “lost and found” incident occurred recently that proved to be more rewarding and valuable than found money.

A woman named Patty in Delaware posted an inquiry on the Ancestry.com message board seeking information about her 19th century Irish immigrant ancestors.  Their surname was Kennedy and they first settled in Newfoundland, Canada.  After living there a number of years, one of the families immigrated to South Amboy, New Jersey in the early 1890s.  Patty posted her request in April of 2012.

Posting on a genealogy message board is the digital equivalent of putting a message in a bottle and tossing it in the sea, fingers crossed.  Some posts date to the 1990s and are still waiting for a response.  But Patty got lucky.  And so did I.  I just didn’t know it at the time.

In October 2013, a year and a half after posting her inquiry, someone reached into that sea of digital messages, grabbed Patty’s bottle and opened it.  Here is the reply from Rose in Virginia.

Good Morning,
Not sure if you are still active on this site but I have recently come into possession of a New Testament short bible Army and Navy edition. Inside the front cover is information hand written about the person who may have owned this bible. The address is listed as 157 Augusta St, South Amboy NJ. The last name is Kennedy. I can’t make out what comes before the last name – could be a rank or some type of initials. It also says – St. Mary’s Catholic School. The date is Oct 3, 1919. I am wondering if this might be a relative of yours. You can email me if you like and I will send you a picture of the inside cover. 
I’m thinking if it was my family I would like to have this.
Sincerely,
Rose D. 
Va.

Kennedy Bible 3Kennedy Bible 2

If that was the end of the story, it would still be a good example of the helpful connections that can be made on a genealogy message board.  But the story didn’t end there.  Far from it.  It still had thousands of miles to go.

Last month, as part of my periodic check of the wikiHomePages addresses, I did an online search of my father’s childhood address, “157 Augusta Street, South Amboy, NJ.” Something new popped up: Rose’s response to Patty’s message board request.

I quickly posted a note on the board saying my father’s last name was Kennedy and that he and his family lived at that address in 1919.  I was certain it was my father’s bible.  And while excited about the prospect of recovering a long lost family heirloom, I was also aware of the possibility Patty and Rose may never re-visit the board and see my post.

As the days passed, I thought about alternate ways to contact them.  I could try calling them on the phone.  Afterall, how many women named Rose could there be in Virginia? How many Pattys in Delaware?  No.  I could see that Plan B was not a viable option.  But then on the seventh day my anxiety rested, after an intervention of biblical proportions you might say.

That was the day I received an email from Rose.  She had seen my post and offered to send the bible to me in California.  How very gracious of her.  Rose wouldn’t even let me reimburse her for the cost of shipping.  She was just so very happy to play a role in returning the bible to my family.  The world would be a much brighter place with more people like Rose.

1919 to 2014 is a long, long time.  If only the little bible could talk and tell us where it’s been all these years.  Rose received it as a gift from her friend Sheila, who was given it 20 years ago by a superior officer while she was in the Army.  Beyond that I have no idea of its travels.  But I did discover the name of its first owner.  And it’s not my father.

I received the bible last week and it’s in great condition; I should look so good at 94 years of age.  All the handwriting is clear and easy to read, except for the first name or initials on the inscription.  The first three letters look like “Mgt.”  My father’s given name was Arthur.  No way I can twist Mgt into Arthur.  However, he did have a sister Margaret.

Kennedy Bible 1Mgt could be an abbreviation for Margaret.  But there is something else between Mgt and Kennedy. Two separate lines at the top join at the bottom to form a “V.”

Margaret is buried near my father in New Jersey.  A photo I took years ago of her tombstone shows a “V” as her middle initial.  But what clinches it for me is the date of the inscription, October 3, 1919.  Margaret was born on October 2, 1906.  The little holy book was likely a present for her 13th birthday.  Makes sense to me.  MgtV Kennedy is Margaret V. Kennedy.  And just as Rose wanted to return the bible to its rightful owner, so do I.

My aunt Margaret married Frederick Meserole in 1934 and lived in Brooklyn.  They had one child, Claire, born in 1937.  Her married name was Claire Brown.  I haven’t seen Claire in over 40 years and need your help locating her.

MargaretMeserole-tombstone2aMargaretMeserole-tombstone2b

If you know Claire Brown, maiden name Meserole, please contact me at whpcl@earthlink.net. The story of my aunt’s lost bible won’t have a complete and proper ending until it is returned to her daughter Claire.  In the meantime, I’ll take good care of the little book, just as Rose and Sheila and names unknown have looked after it for over 94 years.

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Detroit’s Plan to Fight the Blight

Detroit-Feb 18, 2013I’ve never been to Detroit.  The image I have of the city comes from what I see or read about it.  And lately that hasn’t been good.  While the auto industry has made a remarkable comeback, the Motor City’s struggling real estate market has so far failed to hitch a ride on the road to prosperity.

Thousands of vacant houses in once vibrant neighborhoods are either facing demolition or selling at prices as low as $1.  For a house.

Zillow-Garland St, Detroit

Detroit-Jan 28, 2013

The soundtrack of life in communities scared by these derelict structures is less the bouncy beat of Motown and more Bessie Smith’s blues standard from the 1920s, “No One Knows You When You’re Down And Out.”  When $1 is the serious price for a house and there are no takers, you know the city’s got problems.

Urban decay moves in quickly when good people are forced to abandon their homes in tough economic times.  Boarded-up, empty houses that nobody obviously cares about are breeding grounds for crime, vandalism, drugs and arson.  Something has to be done.  And it is.

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing recently announced the formation of the Detroit Blight Authority (DBA), a non-profit partnership of concerned businesses, civic leaders and volunteers.  Its stated goal is to tear down thousands of vacant buildings.  Property owners will retain their rights to the land, but just how these open spaces will be used in the future has yet to be decided.  The priority right now is to remove hopelessly beyond repair structures from neighborhoods in the most cost-effective way.  The DBA recently took a big bite out of blight when its first project cleared a ten-block area of uninhabited eyesores.

DBA photos-Before and After

The authority will also target what they refer to as “ones” and “twos,” abandoned and neglected houses on streets where most of the other homes are occupied.  It’s a scene many Detroit residents reluctantly live with.  Forsaken, dilapidated houses can be found on the same streets as well-maintained homes that display a pride of ownership.  For example, these nice looking homes below on the left are just down the block from the yours-for-a-buck house on the right.      

                St. Clair Street, DetroitSt. Clair Street, Detroit

After having a closeup look at the doomed ghost houses of Detroit on websites such as Google and Zillow, I can’t help but wonder what happened, how things got to this lower than low point.  Every house–the cared for and the abandoned alike–all share a similar beginning.  One day years ago, the last nail was driven into the frame by a carpenter or the final brick set in place by the builder of a brand new home.  A key to the front door was handed to the proud new owner.  Beds, dressers, and boxes filled with all the things that make a house a home were carried over the threshold, maybe even a bride.

For decades, these homes sheltered Detroit families and provided them a refuge from the outside world.  Lives were lived under those now sagging, burnt or splintered roofs. Fathers read the evening newspaper in the living room.  Sons listened to the Tigers game on the radio out on the front porch.  Upstairs, a mother braided her young daughter’s hair in a bedroom she shared with an older sister.  Down the hall, children splashed in the tub before being tucked away in their beds for the night, safe and secure.  These were homes where people shared and celebrated the good times, and consoled each other when the phone in the parlor rang with the sad news that a beloved member of the family had passed away.  They are real life scenes hard to envision ever happening in the forgotten homes of Detroit.  Yet they surely did.

I’m hoping that when I read about Detroit in the future I will have a new, upbeat image of the city and its residents.  They’re off to a good start in their fight against blight, but have a huge job ahead of them.  I wish them the best.

If you would like to learn more about the non-profit DBA or make a donation, here’s a link to the Detroit Blight Authority website.  The Detroit Free Press also has a good article on the DBA’s plan to revitalize and reshape the city’s landscape.

And If you or your family lived in Detroit during better times, consider sharing some old photos taken in and around your home.  Contact me at whpcl@earthlink.net and I will post your pictures and stories on this blog .

1924 Portland Maine Goes Digital

In 1924, every taxable property in the city of Portland, Maine, was reassessed, photographed and documented. The records were then bound into 131 books containing approximately 30,000 pages and stored at City Hall.  And there they sat until recently when this remarkable, 88-year-old, newly digitized collection was made available to anyone with access to the Internet.

The photos take families with roots in Portland on a fascinating trip back in time to see the city their ancestors lived and worked in.  And for current residents simply curious to know what their Portland home looked like in 1924, a high-resolution digital photo attached to the record provides a clear and detailed picture of the building.

If the Portland collection consisted solely of photos, it would still be great, if not unique.  New York City also shares old tax photos with the public, as does Seattle.  But Portland’s inclusion of the reassessment documents online puts the city in a class of its own.

Each record contains the name of the property owner, the number of rooms and types of materials used to build the structure, its estimated age and general condition, and if a residence, how many families lived there.  There’s also a hand drawn sketch of each building’s footprint and dimensions.  The entire record is literally at your finger tips, easily searched by address, neighborhood, owner’s name and other categories and key words.

I’ve never been to Maine and have no ancestors from the area, yet I found plenty to do and explore on this website.  Trying to match the photo of a 1924 building to its 2012 address using Google’s Street View can be fun, and challenging.  Many of the old buildings no longer exist, and those that do often have added a room, enclosed a porch or have huge leafy trees blocking the street view, making it difficult to know if you have the right house or not.  But most of the time you will be rewarded with “Then and Now” pictures that show how the house and neighborhood have held up over the years.

As I was browsing the collection, one photo in particular caught my eye.  It showed five kids of varying ages playing in front of 41 Arcadia Street.  The tax form revealed that the home belonged to Carmela Cipriano.  Cross-referencing her name with the 1920 U.S. Census showed that she and her husband, Antonio Cipriano, a laborer on the railroad, lived on Arcadia Street in 1920.  The Ciprianos were Italian immigrants and had seven children by 1920, four girls and three boys.  I presume five of them are the kids we see in the 1924 photo.

I also looked up Carmela in the 1930 census and learned that she was living in the same house and now had twelve children, five boys and seven daughters.  It was a decade defined by the Great Depression that brought fear and uncertainty into households across the land.  It was an especially tragic time for the family living at 41 Arcadia Street.

According to the 1930 census, Carmela Cipriano was now a widow, with her youngest child just a year old.  One can only imagine the hardships she endured raising twelve children alone without Antonio.  But she and her family survived.  The 1940 census has Carmela and five of her children still living at 41 Arcadia Street.  Two sons worked at a canning factory and Carmela rented a room to a young married couple for $8 a month.  It’s the story of a family’s perseverance through hard times told here thanks to records now available online.

Visitors to the website may discover much more than they expected.  I found other photos among the collection that contain shots of people a relative might recognize.  Here’s a picture of a young boy taken outside 29 Arcadia Street, just down the street from the Ciprianos.  The tax record lists Ferdinando Fasulo as the owner.  The boy in the photo could be one of Ferdinando’s eight sons.  Hopefully, descendants of the Ciprianos and Fasulos will hear about the records of their old family homes and share them with their relatives.

Providing Internet access to the 1924 Tax Records is a group effort of the City of Portland, The Maine Historical Society, The Portland Public Library and The Maine Memory Network. But only about half of the books containing the tax records have been digitized and placed online.  More funds are needed to insure that the remaining books are added to the database.  If you want to help, please contact the project partners through their links above.

To access the 1924 Tax Records, click here.

Company Towns

My father’s New Jersey home was bought by the railroad in the mid-1930s and torn down to make way for a new road running parallel to the tracks.  The family got a good price for the old house and moved to a much nicer part of town.  Still, it must have been strange for my father driving over that road, his vanished living room, kitchen, and bedroom hanging like ghosts above the pavement.

It’s not unusual among family histories to find an old home bulldozed into oblivion to make way for a parking lot, highway or a new, more contemporary home.  While historians and preservationists may see it objectively as another assault on our cultural heritage, the families that used to live in the home experience a different, very personal and isolated sense of loss.  Their lives are changed forever, while down the street, across town, and a few blocks over, life goes on as usual.  But what if all the homes in the neighborhood were leveled?  What if the entire town became a tear-down?

In 1984, I was part of a television news crew documenting the last days of a small Oregon company town high up in the Coast Range.  Valsetz, Oregon, was founded in 1919 to harvest and mill the towering stands of Douglas fir that flourished in the cool, wet climate of the surrounding forests.

At its height of productivity during the 1940s, over a thousand people called Valsetz home.  The workers and their families lived in company houses, bought their food and supplies at the company store, and sent their children to the company schools.  But by the early 1980s the country was deep in a recession, with the timber industry particularly hard hit.  Owner Boise Cascade decided to shut down the sawmill and turn the entire area into a tree farm.  The mill was dismantled and hauled away, along with anything the company could salvage.  The homes of the workers, however, never got a chance at a new life someplace else.

All the old buildings were torn down and turned to rubble.  Valsetz, home to generations of hard-working timber families, ceased to exist.  All that remains today of this once thriving community is the tree farm, an annual town reunion and a website that keeps the memory of Valsetz alive.

But not all company towns that outlive their economic usefulness meet a similar fate.  The 100-year-old sawmill in Bonner, Montana, closed down in 2008, but the old company homes were never destroyed.  New owners recently bought the property and plan to renovate the old houses and rent them out as part of their overall economic development project.  Click here and here to read about how two local men with a plan for the future are breathing new life into this old company town.

Unclaimed Property

Researching and preserving my family’s history is very rewarding, in a personal sort of way.  What I didn’t count on, but was delighted to discover, was that my reward would also come in the form of dollars and cents.

1974 was a very busy time for my wife and me.  We began the year living in an apartment near Western Ave. and Beverly Blvd. in Los Angeles.  By April, we had moved into our first house, a two-bedroom, one-bath, stucco home in the San Fernando Valley.

The house had an addition on the back, hardwood floors, plus a big yard and a pool, which made it one of the more expensive homes on the block.  The price: $27, 500. Seriously.

Finding the house, searching for a lender, scraping together the down payment, meeting with realtors, signing papers and shopping for new furniture, all combined to make the spring of 1974 one big, blurry whirlwind.

Fast forward to 2010.  That’s when I began work on wikiHomePages.com, a website where people upload and post photos and stories of houses and apartments they or their family once called home.  As part of my research, I sorted through photos I had taken in and around my former homes and any papers I had saved pertaining to those addresses.

Seeing those street names and numbers again after so many years got me thinking.  I had heard stories about unclaimed property—money left behind in bank accounts and other abandoned financial assets—that sometimes get lost when people move.  I felt it was a long shot, but I decided to check it out.

My first stop was MissingMoney.com, a website that handles free unclaimed property searches for a number of states. I scrolled through a long list of people with my same name, but none of my old street addresses showed up.

California maintains its own website for lost property searches and claims.  I entered my name again and began scrolling through a list of L.A. addresses, convinced I was wasting my time.

Finding money is the kind of thing that happens to other people, not me.  And even if I did have cash due me, it would probably amount to one or two cents gathering dust in a long dormant checking account. So, imagine my surprise when up pops my old apartment address on Harvard Blvd.  An even bigger surprise was the amount due me: $284.40.

My “found money” was from an insurance policy that I cancelled early in 1974 while living at the apartment.  I recall being told by the insurance company that the policy had some cash value, but I didn’t expect it to amount to much.

Somehow the check was never forwarded when we moved to our new house.  There was so much else going on that year, that I simply forgot about it.

The next step to get the money took some time.  I had to fill out a lot of paperwork to prove my identity to the state of California and waited over 3 months for the check to arrive.  It took 36 years to bring me and my money together, but I’m not complaining.  Better late than never.

The total value of unclaimed property held by the states is estimated at over $32 billion.  If you’ve moved often, it’s well worth your time and effort to do an online search to find out if any of that money belongs to you.  And here’s something else to think about.  Unclaimed property is held forever.  As in Until The End of Time.  If you discover property belonging to a deceased relative—even one who died many years ago—and can prove you’re a rightful heir, you too could have a check headed your way.  Just remember to provide the state with your correct mailing address.  Especially if you’re in the process of moving and don’t want to wait decades for the check to catch up with you.