Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Tale of the Traveling Trunk

This week we return to the Mohawk Valley in Upstate New York to re-connect with Grandma Minnie’s side of the family.
This is the tale of the traveling trunk, and how it was lost and found again.
The mysterious trunk
On a sunny summer day when the blueberries were ripening in the hillside garden behind the house, a trunk arrived on the porch of the family home. It was an old worn traveling trunk barely a yard long, and less than two feet high. It was made of wood, covered in black oilcloth, with rusted brass hinges and hasps. Its leather straps were stiff with age. Opening it with difficulty, Aunt Doris found a faded lining of pink rose wallpaper. There was a set of initials and a name etched inside: FKF and MLWetterau, Ft. Plain. 
Trunk interior
The trunk was over 80 years old. Doris and Glen were able to piece together its tale from their own childhood memories, along with the help of the family who had returned it to its home in Fort Plain.

It was the era of flappers and 23-skidoo when Great-Uncle Frederic Fineour went off to Hamilton College in 1923. His was the first set of initials etched into the frame of the trunk.
My great-grandparents must have been very proud of Frederic, the first in the family to attend college. Hamilton College in Clinton, New York (just south of Utica) is a small liberal arts college, the third oldest college in New York State, having been chartered by the Board of Regents in 1812. I imagine that in the trunk my Great-grandma Nan packed an assortment of woolen knickers, neat white shirts, and pullovers such as Frederic is seen wearing in old photos in the family album. 
Frederic 1926
I remember Uncle Frederic as a robust man with a booming baritone voice and a hearty manner, wreathed in fragrant pipe smoke. Photos from the mid-1920’s show him as a dapper young man, already with the ubiquitous pipe. During what must have been his senior year in college, he acquired his first car, a huge heavy Ford. When Uncle Frederic graduated from college in 1927 and took his first teaching job in a small town in central New York, he returned the trunk to the family home in the Mohawk Valley.

The traveling trunk sat forlorn and empty in the woodshed behind the house for four years, until the next family member was ready to go off to college. In the meantime the Roaring ‘20’s had ended and the Great Depression had begun. My father was eleven years old, and helping to support the family with the earnings from his newspaper route, when his eldest sister Margaret (Frederic’s niece) graduated from high school and went to Albany to attend what was then the New York State College for Teachers. We now know this institution as “UAlbany,” the State University of New York at Albany.
The second set of initials was Marg’s: Margaret Louise Wetterau. Again the trunk was packed with woolens and tweeds, and perhaps a dressy dress or two like the one Aunt Marg wore for her high school graduation in June of 1931.
Marg:  high school graduation 1931

When Marg came to Albany, the Alfred E. Smith State Office Building on Washington Avenue was brand new, and it was the tallest building between New York City and Chicago. Marg studied English on the newly expanded college campus on Western Avenue, and probably did her student teaching in the Milne School adjacent to the college. Hopefully she and her classmates were oblivious to an event that took place during the fall semester of her freshman year: the shooting death of gangster Legs Diamond, only a few blocks southeast of the campus.

Aunt Marg graduated from the State College for Teachers in 1935 and sent the trunk back home when she got a job teaching English in Schenectady. But the trunk did not stay home for long this time. That same year, Marg’s younger sister Glenadore finished high school, packed the trunk and went off to Albany to study at Mildred Elley Secretarial School. Her flawless complexion and bright smile earned her the nickname “Peachy.” 
Glenadore 1935
At Mildred Elley, Glen studied shorthand and business, and learned to type on an Underwood manual typewriter, which would seem to us today an impossibly clunky and cumbersome machine. Her diploma from Mildred Elley earned her a secretarial position at Niagara Mohawk Power Company upon graduation, where she rose to a supervisory position before retiring in 1980. When she began her job, she moved into the apartment in Schenectady that her sister Marg had already rented, and sent the trunk back home to Fort Plain.
Great-Uncle Frederic moved several times during his long career, and used the trunk again each time he moved. His teaching career took him first to Collins Center, then to Springville in the Southern Tier of New York State, where he became the principal of an elementary school. I remember visiting his family there when I was a young child. It was the era of the “Dick and Jane” primers, and Uncle Frederic gave my sister and me a couple of extra books from his school. And that was how I learned to read: by poring over the stories about Dick, Jane, and their friendly little dog Spot.
Frederic’s children may have used the trunk to store toys, or perhaps they also used it when they went to college. But after Uncle Frederic passed away in 1979, the now dilapidated trunk was either given away or sold at a yard sale, and the rest of the family forgot about it.

So how did the trunk arrive back at its original home in the Mohawk Valley? In the fall of 2004, the Mayor of Fort Plain received a letter with an intriguing story: a resident of Hilton, NY had found the mayor’s address on the Internet. She wrote: “Years ago we bought a trunk from a garage sale while living between Buffalo and Niagara Falls. Over the years it was used to store things like our sons’ sports equipment. It was shifted from house to house, garage to shed…” Now interested in genealogy, Mrs. G. wondered whether the family who had owned the trunk was still around; if so, she and her husband would be glad to give it back to its original owners to keep in their family.
The owner of the trunk and my aunts corresponded back and forth several times before arranging a mutually convenient time for a friend of theirs to deliver it. And so that’s how it arrived back home in Fort Plain after crisscrossing New York State several times. It is now at the home of my sister Margriet (Aunt Marg’s namesake), who plans to restore it.
The traveling trunk will soon have shiny new brass hinges and hasps, new leather straps and a new layer of oilcloth. But I doubt it will be off on another trip anytime soon. This time we plan to allow the trunk a well-deserved rest.

                                           *   *   *
The blueberries are ripening once again in the hillside garden. Maybe they will be used in Doris’s recipe for Blueberry Tea Cake:

Tea Cake Recipe

I tried the recipe out this afternoon, modernizing it somewhat. For the most part, I used the same ingredients on Doris's list, substituting margarine for the shortening and reducing the sugar by half; 1/2 cup sugar seemed sufficient. I followed these steps:

- Pre-heat oven to 350 F. degrees (175 Celsius), or 325 F.  (160 Celsius) if using a glass pan. 
- Grease and flour an 8" x 8" pan. 
- Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside.
- Cream shortening or margarine with sugar. 
- Add egg and mix well.
- Add flour mixture and milk alternately while mixing on low; do not overbeat.
- Fold in blueberries.
- Pour batter into pan and bake until toothpick comes out clean (approximately 40 minutes). 

- Serve with tea:

Teacake with teapot

The cake is not very different from blueberry muffins, but you can make it more festive for a tea party with a dab of whipped cream.

Teacake - ready to eat!

An earlier version of this essay was published in The Altamont Enterprise on September 14, 2006. Reprinted with permission.

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