Monday, July 20, 2009

Julia Brumfield Diaries

The second major family history project I'm working on is the Julia Brumfield Diaries.

For most of her later years, Julia Craddock Brumfield kept a diary every day -- we're pretty sure that she started in 1915, and know that she continued into the 1930s. After she died, her daughter-in-law distributed the diaries to Henry and Julia's grandchildren. These have since been distributed to their children, and reside in filing cabinets and on bookshelves across the country.

In 1992, my father typed and printed her 1918 diary, which he had inherited. This turned out to be quite a success. The book circulated far outside the few printings he'd made through a sort of samizdat network of photocopies. I remember meeting one man who told me he'd found out through the diary that the date on his grandmother's tombstone was wrong, since Julia mentioned hearing of her death on one date, and her tombstone was dated later. Another quite frail woman told me about the comfort she took from reading what a 72-year-old woman was able to do in a day.

Since then he's been given or been loaned a few other diaries (1918, 1919, 1921, 1927, 1928, and 1932). I got interested in the project, and have developed software that allows us to transcribe, annotate, and share the diaries via the web. A few other relatives have joined the project, and we've completed most of the 1919 and 1921 diaries, as well as locating and scanning the 1920 and 1922 diaries. The next step is enhancing the software to allow printed and bound copies of the diaries to be made, a feature I hope to complete before the end of the year.

The most difficult part of this project is locating other diaries. If you possess or know of diaries of Julia Craddock Brumfield, please contact me via email, or comment on this post.

Bright Leaf

Some cousins and I are producing a new edition of Bright Leaf: An Account of a Virginia Farm. If you're not familiar with the book, it's a portrait of Henry Anderson Brumfield and Julia Craddock and their life in the Brumfield home place at Renan. It includes some material that's strictly genealogical, like information about Henry and Julia's ancestors, and a chart of their children and descendants. Mainly, however it describes their life: the rooms and furniture in the Brumfield house, the work and joy of farm life, and how they raised their children. It was written in 1971 by Mary Brumfield Garnett, daughter of Dr. Will Brumfield (William Andrew Brumfield, Sr.) and grand-daughter of Henry and Julia.

We've contacted Mary Brumfield Garnett's daughter (Ellen Wyttenbach of Kansas) and gotten permission to issue a new edition of the book. We hope to reproduce the original text exactly, but to update the chart of Henry and Julia's descendants in the back, and add some appendices with related information.

To gather information for this new edition, we are trying to contact
members of the families of:
  • Denia Brumfield Blair and George Blair
  • Molly Brumfield Reynolds and Johnson Reynolds
  • Lizzie Brumfield Bennett and Tim Bennett
  • Kate Brumfield Harvey and Walter Harvey
  • John Brumfield and Christine Mease Brumfield
  • Charles Brumfield and Margaret Kelly Brumfield
  • Henry Lee Brumfield and Lillian Grace Booker Brumfield
  • William Andrew Brumfield and Effie Thornton Brumfield
  • James Anderson "Jim" Brumfield and Laura Ellen Walker Brumfield
  • Carrie Brumfield Smith and Marvin Smith
  • Sarah Brumfield Emerson and John Emerson
  • Henry Anderson Brumfield (b 1878)
The original Bright Leaf included a chart of Henry and Julia's children, grand children, great-grand-children, and their spouses. It may have contained some inaccuracies, and certainly is out of date. We currently only have been able to get updates from two branches of the family, and are trying to make contact with the remaining twelve.

We'd also like to add appendices with short writings related to Bright Leaf's contents. So far what we have in mind includes:
  • A brief memoir written Ben Brumfield about his life.
  • An updated genealogy of Henry and Julia's ancestors.
  • An account of Thomas Keeling Brumfield and Sarah Crider Towler's marriage told from the Towler side (extracted from Juby Toler's From the Fruit of the Garden.
  • A story about Henry Anderson Brumfield's experience with shoe-making in the Civil War.
  • A bibliography of other writings on the family.
  • A photo gallery of the Brumfield children and their families.
  • A gallery of the furniture from their house (though this requires tracking this furniture down.)
If you have material to contribute, corrections to make, or would like to participate in any other way, please contact me by leaving a comment on this post, or via email.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Ben's Guide for a Flooded House

On September 12, 2008, my parents' home in Bridge City, Texas was flooded by the storm surge driven ashore by Hurricane Ike. On September 16 and through the rest of the week, I accompanied my parents as they re-entered their home, attempted to salvage their belongings, and began to remediate the damage to their house. This the advice I can give to those in similar circumstances, based on that experience. I am not a lawyer, an accountant, a tax professional, or an insurance professional, so please take this as one guy's observations.

Emotional Preparation

We were extremely fortunate to have spent the night prior to the return home with friends who had had six feet of water in their house a decade before. Their advice was invaluable, as it set our expectations and prepared us emotionally for what we would encounter.
  1. Your house will be covered in mud. The water is not clean. Any surface that came in contact with floodwaters will also be dirty. Your white carpets will be black. Your countertops and walls may also be coated with nasty dirt.
  2. Your house will stink. Again, the water is not clean. The floodwaters are full of organic substances of one kind or another. These may range from algae sea grass, to dead shrimp and fish, to goat carcasses. Immediately after the flood, this stuff starts to smell, and the smell only gets worse. Two weeks after the flood, even fabric soaked in floodwaters were nausea-inducing.
  3. Your possessions will be scattered. The floodwaters will float things through your house at random. Items on the kitchen floor will be in your bedroom, the kitty litter box will be in the office, while the spare hard-drive enclosure will be in the guest bath. If the floodwaters reached a couple of feet, furniture will have overturned, including appliances like refrigerators. Any plastic containers (Rubbermaid drawers, Sterilite wrapping-paper trays) will be heaped in the corners of rooms where they landed.
  4. Some things will be untouched. Our friends told the story of a candy dish that had floated from their china cabinet up near the ceiling, then came to rest on a windowsill. The mints were perfectly dry. Expect similar bizarre survivals.
  5. Some things are recoverable. It's hard to express how reassuring it is to have placed your hand on a table that you know was submerged in floodwaters. Even though your possessions are a jumbled, stinking mess, some of them will be as good as they were before if you try to save them.

Conflicting Priorities

A lot of the immediate stress of returning to a flooded house is due to the impossibility of balancing three equally-important priorities:
  1. Save everything you can, as quickly as possible! Many of your possessions may not have been ruined by the flood, but they'll be ruined in days if you don't act immediately. Every surface inside a flooded house feels like the outside of a glass of iced tea on a Houston afternoon. Mold fibers grow noticeably over the course of hours. Any paper, paintings, or clothes that escaped direct contact with the water must be removed immediately, not least because flood insurance does not cover them.
  2. Remove the damp material, as quickly as possible! Anything that contains water must be removed from the house to halt its deterioration. All carpet must be ripped out. Any upholstered furniture must go. Drywall, paneling, insulation, built-in cabinets, and tub surrounds must be removed. Failure to halt the damage will encourage mold and probably have negative effects on your insurance settlement.
  3. Record everything! You need someone with a camera and a notepad recording everything that comes out of your house. This is the record that you'll need for insurance, for FEMA, and for casualty losses on your income taxes. Even if you don't have flood insurance, failing to write down your losses will prevent you from deducting them on your tax return.
As should be obvious, each of these priorities conflicts directly with each of the others. You will be under terrible pressure, and you will make mistakes. Be prepared to come up with a new plan every day in light of the previous day's work.

Salvage Priorities

You'll be able to salvage most things untouched by floodwaters (and you'll need to, since insurance won't pay for them). You'll also be able to salvage dishes, non-aluminum cookware, and solid wood furniture. However, there are a few tricks that I wish we'd understood beforehand. Here are the steps I'd recommend to salvage, in light of hindsight:
  1. Pull the lower drawers from wood furniture. The contents of submerged drawers will swell, ruining the dressers and desks they're in. It's time-critical to remove any drawers that haven't swollen shut yet and dump their contents out. If you do, you may be able to save the piece.
  2. Remove important papers from submerged filing cabinets. Before the swelling happens, you can separate sheets of paper and lay them in the sun to dry. After the swelling, it's a smelly mass of fiber you can do nothing with.
  3. Remove un-soaked paper. This includes books, diplomas, paintings and pictures. The condensation is like nothing you've ever seen, so every day matters here.
  4. Remove solid-wood furniture in contact with wet carpet. Do NOT set it in the sun. Solid wood furniture can be reclaimed, but not if it's in contact with flooded carpets. We had a heirloom bed frame disassembled under a bed which we tried to reclaim this way. Unfortunately we set it in the sun to dry and planks started to warp and twist. If you have a dry place indoors to set them or can rent a climate-controlled storage unit, they should dry out within 4-6 weeks. Some recommend washing off the grime immediately, but we didn't think we had the time for that.
  5. Remove un-soaked clothes. The easiest way to do this is to remove entire drawers from cabinets and take down clothes from the closets. We found that this stuff needed minimal cleaning.
  6. Remove, wash, and triage soaked clothes. Flood waters have chemicals in them, including chlorine from your neighbors' pools. In addition, the waters cause fabric dyes to run into each other. That said, some of your soaked clothes can be saved by washing them soon after the floods.


Floods are real catastrophes -- I had never experienced the like, and hope I never will again. I hope my advice won't steer anyone in the wrong direction, and that maybe it helps someone out. There are some great resources online -- search for "reenter flooded home" for a lot of good links.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Using the New York Times for Family History

When I was 12, I did a sixth-grade research paper on genealogy. It really was an incredible experience, as it was both the first time I wrote anything longer than a couple of pages, and the first time I found myself completely overwhelmed with information. In a genealogical sense, I'm blessed in that my ancestors are very well documented — great-great aunts have done the legwork already and written books about my family. One of those home-published books I read for my sixth-grade research paper was From the Fruit of the Garden, by Jubal Early Toler. Apparently my adolescent self stumbled across the story "Juby" tells and was shocked enough to remember it:
To round out the Keatts family history with the full impact of the emotional details involved, a second look at the diphtheria epidemic of 1882 is necessary. In that year a peculiar weather phenomena occurred. The summer season was progressing as usual with the tree leaves growing worn and pale for an early fall. The earth in general had that usual summer scorched-out look and there was no indication of the impending change.

Then an unusual, if not strange, thing happened during a prolonged late summer rainy spell. The vegetation seemed to take on a second growth. It turned to a deep abnormal green, as though it was suddenly spring again. Vegetables and crops sprang to new life and the rains kept coming like spring showers. People noticed the change was not alarmed. In fact, it may have been regarded as a blessing to late gardens and crops.

Suddenly, throughout the communities, children everywhere began coming down with sore throats. A child would be playing apparently healthy in the morning and by night time be running high fevers and at the point of death. The few doctors were helpless, but carried on, often night and day without sleep. One doctor claimed that all the sleep he got for weeks was in his buggy going from one patient's home to another. Children died while parents stood by in utter desperation. Often, as was the case on the Keatts family, the family members had to bury their own dead. Those who had escaped the illness were afraid to go into the homes where it was.

In the home of Dick Keatts on Monday, August 28, 1882 Martha Keatts, age 11, died. While she was being buried Tuesday August 29th Richard Keatts, age 7 died. Then the second day after she was buried James Keatts, age 16 died about sunrise. He always looked after his young sister, Henerita[sic] Keatts, age 5, and she was devoted to him. When he died that morning, Henerita came to her father at the fireplace and told him she was going to die too so she could be with James and she asked him to bury her with James. At that time she was apparently untouched by the illness. She went and got in James' bed by him and was dead before night. They were buried in the same grave and a double tombstone was erected as a marker.

Sometime during that day the doctor came by the Keatts home and made them take all the dead childrens clothes and bed clothes and burn them. It was said that old man "Dick" Keatts never spoke a dozen words during the entire week. For a long time afterwards he would sit by the fireplace with his Bible in his lap and read or sleep, or just stare into space. An examination of his worn bible revealed that the book of psalms, the proverbs, the gospel according to St. Mark and Revelations showed the most frayed leaves. Each of those books were worn to the degree that the leaves were deteriorating. His wife was sad to the point of quiet despair, and she never got over the loss although she did give birth to one more child, "Virter". She died July 16, 1890, fifteen minutes before 12:00 midnight.
I've remembered this gruesome story since I read it, even though the Keatts family were only collateral ancestors, so my 12-year-old self skimmed through their section of the book. Upon the discovery that national history provides a backdrop for one's family history, I've been looking for the diphtheria epidemic of 1882. I hadn't found any mention online or in popular historical epidemiology, until the New York Times opened the doors on its archives. I did a search for "Pittsylvania", the name of the county in Virginia my family is from, and was rewarded with this article from September 9, 1882:

Lynchburg, Va, Sept. 8. -- The diphtheria is raging to an alarming extent in several of the border counties of this State and North Carolina. In a territory in Pittsylvania and adjoining counties, embracing 50 or 60 miles, over 100 cases have been reported and about 50 deaths. In one week 28 fatal cases have occurred in the radius indicated. There were five deaths from this cause in one family. The malady is also reported in Lunenburg, in this state, and in Alamance, Orange, and in other counties in North Carolina. It is asserted that the physicians have been unable to successfully cope with the disease. About this time last year the same fatal type of diphtheria made its appearance in the same section of North Carolina, but did not extend to this portion of Virginia.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Why I'm glad my teenage self was too lazy to keep a diary

Ian Samson's review of John Fowles' Journals should be required reading for every morose high-schooler:
[T]his is John Fowles, 1949-65: 250,000 words of adolescent whining, groaning, anomie, enthusing about Antonioni films and wishing he were somewhere else, with more glamorous people, doing more glamorous things. A marathon of self-obsession, self-pity, misery, filth, shame, loneliness, isolation, and a lot of embarrassing stuff about sex. It's difficult to pick out the funniest bit in a book that is entirely lacking in humour, but 'apart from language, I am French' is pretty hard to beat. Or there's this, written in 1963, when Fowles was in his late thirties: 'Their minds don't work like mine, they aren't "free" or "authentic" in the senses I use those words.' How true. Particularly since Fowles's freedom and authenticity leads him to hang around the house all day watching women through a telescope[.]