Did you know that Labor Day got its start in 1894? It was a “workingman’s holiday,” back when a typical job meant 12-hour days, 7 days a week. Ugh. Just think of that.
But jobs or occupations can make a great entry point for a memoir!
So, what did your ancestors do for a living? Many times, you’ll know the answer to that right off the top; it’s the kind of detail that’s often handed down in the family. But if you don’t know, census data can often help fill in that important blank.
In this fascinating example above from the 1880 Census in Virginia City, for example, we see an accountant, a butcher, a bartender, a watchman, a mill worker, and even a “tailoress”!
Women’s occupational opportunities were often pretty limited a century ago, but might include teaching, sewing, milliner (hat-maker), and occasionally medicine. And many women, of course, were considered to have no formal profession. Instead, they were said to be simply “keeping house.”
But what did that mean? Chances are, they weren’t languishing in the parlor doing needlepoint all day. There was laundry and house-keeping; cooking and baking; tending gardens and mending clothes; and of course all the hard work of raising children. Some women also brought in extra money for the household by raising chickens and selling eggs, or taking in laundry.
My own great-grandmother a talented seamstress. That meant following the latest fashions and sewing beautiful clothes – often without a pattern.
My grandfather was a carpenter in the early 1900s. His skills were put to use not just building houses; he also hammered together wooden crates for a tomato-packing shed in early Florida.
So, how about the folks you’re writing about in your memoir? A little bit of research can give you a fresh perspective on what their daily lives were like!
Here’s a fun memoir exercise, just for Labor Day:
* Do a bit of research about your ancestor’s occupation. A simple Google search like “what was a farmer’s life like in the 1800s” can pull up a wealth of information. (Did you know that winter was often just as busy a time for farmers as the summer growing season? Or that many farmers also did work for friends and relatives?)
* See if you can locate family photos, old magazine illustrations, or other images that help show that profession. What tools might your family member have used, like the old-fashioned sewing machine or carpenter’s plane, above?
* Imagine what the “fruits of their labor” meant, in terms of the time your ancestors spent. How long would it have taken to sew a new dress? How many months did it take to build a house? What hours would an average work-day have spanned for a dairy farmer?
These real-life work details can be so fascinating, I really hope you’ll share what you find out!
And if you’d like to learn a little more about the origins of this great holiday honoring workers, here’s a bit of history just about Labor Day: https://tinyurl.com/yxgqc4g6
Everyone in Carson Valley knew “Bad Man” Sam Brown back in 1861. He was, after all, a pretty hard guy to miss.
Heavy-set and quarrelsome, Sam walked with a swagger. Besides his handy pistol, he kept a nasty-looking Bowie knife strapped to his belt. Sam didn’t hesitate to use that knife, either. He reportedly “carved a man to pieces” with it in 1860. Before another year passed, Sam had killed half-a-dozen men. No one – including local peace officers – was terribly eager to try to stop him.
Unfortunately for the sake of local peace and quiet, Sam was prone to drinking. And when he drank he’d get meaner than ever. Sam’s ugly ways weren’t confined to folks his own size or gender, either. His wife back in California, one Clementine Parsons, reportedly won a divorce on grounds of extreme cruelty.
But July 6, 1861 was Sam’s birthday. And luckily for Carson Valley, that birthday would be Sam’s last.
You’ve probably already heard the story how Sam showed up at Henry Van Sickle’s station for a drink, pulled a gun, and started shooting. Tired of the chaos, Van Sickle grabbed his own gun, ran out the back, and chased after Brown on horseback.
A galloping gun battle ensued. When the pair reached the settlement we now know as Mottsville, Sam was in the lead. He leaped off his horse and forced his way in the home of Israel and Eliza Mott. From just inside the doorway, he squeezed off a few more shots at his pursuer.
By now dusk was beginning to fall, and Van Sickle was fresh out of ammunition. He gave up for the moment, heading back to Genoa for bullets and reinforcements.
Israel Mott wasn’t home when Sam Brown barged in the door. But his sister, Louisa Mott Keyser, was, and some of his children. According to Louisa’s later recollections, the family had just finished eating their supper when Sam put in his unwelcome appearance, and Louisa was clearing away the supper dishes. Even though she recognized Sam, Louisa stood her ground.
Luckily, Sam realized Van Sickle would soon return, so he’d better skeedaddle while the skeedaddling was good. He was about to mount his horse and ride off when he spied a man’s hat hanging on the wall. Sam had lost his own hat during the galloping pursuit, so he reached out to grab this handy replacement.
But Louisa wasn’t putting up with any funny business. That was her husband’s best hat, she protested! Sam tried to strike a bargain, offering a gold pocket watch in exchange. But Louisa was adamant. She wasn’t about to make a deal with this devil. Finally, Sam finally pulled a gold ring off his finger and threw that on the table as payment before making off with the hat.
Louisa may not have saved her husband’s hat. But she’d stood up to the bad man. Even more important, she’d delayed him a few minutes. And those few minutes just might have tilted the odds against Sam.
You already know how Sam’s birthday ended, right? Van Sickle had figured out where Sam Brown would go next, and managed to arrive there before him. When he heard Sam’s spurs a-jingling, Van Sickle stepped out from behind the barn door near Lute Olds’ hotel. “I’ve got you this time,” Van Sickle declared.
Both barrels of his double-barreled shotgun went off. And that was the end of Sam Brown’s last and most unlucky birthday.
Two days later, a coroner’s jury refused to call the shooting murder. Brown’s death, they concluded, was “a just dispensation of an all-wise Providence.” Henry Van Sickle was required to pay for Brown’s burial, including a new suit of clothes for the body and a marker for his grave at the early cemetery at the top of Nixon Street. Although we have no eye-witness reports about Brown’s funeral, it can safely be said that he was buried without a great deal of mourning.
Over the next thirty-odd years, many of the burials in that original old cemetery were exhumed and moved to the newer cemetery north of Genoa. But not Sam Brown’s. At least two old-timers reported that his body was deliberately left behind to languish in obscurity. And the grave marker that Van Sickle had to pay for — which by my guess would’ve been the cheapest wooden plank Van Sickle could find — has long since turned to dust.
As for the second feisty female in Sam Brown’s life, his ex-wife Clementine: she was so happy to hear of Sam’s demise that she tried to buy the shotgun that’d been used to dispatch him. Van Sickle, gentleman that he was, insisted on making a gift of it to her instead.
And Clementine, they say, kept that gun hanging prominently in her home for years to come.
* * * Many thanks to local historian Cindy Southerland for the suggestion to write this fun story! And thanks also to the W.D. Keyser family for preserving Louisa Mott Keyser’s amazing family history and recollections. This story has been passed down in the Keyser family for over 100 years. Based on near-contemporary sources, it seems clear that Sam Brown did indeed barge into the home of Israel and Eliza Mott during his flight. Other sources suggest, however, that the feisty woman who confronted Sam might actually have been Eliza Mott, Israel’s wife and Louisa’s sister-in-law.
They weren’t trucking cattle up to summer pasture when Wally Adams was a kid.
Nah. For over 30 years, Wally helped drive cattle the hard way, saddling up at 2 a.m. to get the herd to the top of Old Kingsbury Grade before nightfall. That meant long, dusty days on horseback. But it’s what you did to help a neighbor out.
The roots of Wally’s life are tangled deep with traditions from a century and more ago. And the Adams family’s roots, too, run deep here in northwestern Nevada. John Quincy Adams (Wally’s great-grandfather) and his brother Rufus settled in Carson Valley in 1853, a full decade before Nevada became a state. They bought 640 acres of land in September that year a mile north of Mormon Station (today’s Genoa), a handwritten deed that’s now part of Nevada’s “First Records.”
Their land was the subject of one of the earliest property disputes, with none other than Judge Orson Hyde claiming title to the same land in 1855. Luckily the newly-created county court upheld the bulk of the Adams brothers’ claim.
Trained as brick-makers in their home state of Illinois, the Adams brothers built a brick kiln on their new ranch. Adams brick quickly became a popular building material, finding its way into some of the earliest structures in Carson Valley including the Genoa courthouse, and the U.S. Mint and Glen Eagles restaurant in Carson City.
The family home, too, was constructed of brick. An astonishing 6,000 square feet in size, it featured 21 rooms, including a ballroom on the second floor. The dusty Emigrant Trail passed right by the front steps, and the Adamses opened their house to travelers, selling rooms, meals and liquor as well as hay and barley to passing emigrants through about 1860. John Quincy Adams once called those the “happiest days of his life.”
A fourth-generation Adams, Wally still spots bits and pieces of his family’s history sprinkled throughout Carson Valley, from old brick buildings to family artifacts donated to the local museum. But despite his family’s deep local roots, the Adams story has rarely been shared.
“We’re a quiet family,” explains Wally. “We stuck to ourselves and never got involved in politics or stuck our noses in anybody’s business. My dad was just busy trying to make a living and run the ranch.”
There’s no pretense, either, as Wally shares what it was like to grow up as part of such a historic clan, with one foot still firmly planted in century-and-a-half-old ways. Take the house where he grew up, for instance, built of homemade brick fired right there on the Adams ranch. “We had one heater in the house when I was a boy, and that was the kitchen stove,” he smiles. “That was one of my chores, to chop and bring in the firewood. The rest of the house didn’t have heat, so we lived mostly in the kitchen in wintertime.”
Remnants from the emigrant days were still in the house a century later, when Wally was a boy – and remain in family hands today. The home’s twin parlors (one for gents, one for ladies) still contained their original formal, horsehair-stuffed sofas. Also left over from the home’s first days: a 30-foot long wooden table with matching wooden chairs, where travelers once sat down to supper. Until about 1950 the house lacked both electricity and indoor plumbing.
Even today, drinking water for the old house is gravity-fed from a spring two miles up the mountain, ferried through two-inch riveted steel pipe salvaged from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. “They didn’t have much money,” Wally explains, “so they did what they could do. They went over with a horse and wagon and brought it back in 20-foot sections. I’ve still got some of that old pipe for when I have to make repairs.”
By the time Wally came along, the Adams family’s original 640-acre ranch had roughly doubled in size.
The best part of his inheritance: old ways and old-fashioned know-how. “By the time I was five, I was driving a tractor. I would cut wood, cut hay in summer. I helped Dad irrigate, wean calves,” he says. Hay had to be hand-pitched into the barn for storage, from bales stacked six high. “That top layer – it’s not so hard to throw. But when you got down to the bottom layer – well. That’s why I gotta have a total shoulder replacement now,” Wally chuckles.
There was plenty of old-fashioned penny-pinching. “One time my grandfather had a belt on a drill press that was slipping. He told me to go ask Grandma for some syrup or honey. He pours that on the belt — makes it sticky. He couldn’t afford belt dressing,” Wally remembers with a smile.
An all-around ranch mom, Wally’s mother, Elsie, served as “caregiver, nanny, referee, seamstress, knitter, crocheter, needle-pointer, excellent ranch hand and family cook, canner, avid gardener, tractor driver, hay hauler, and whatever it took to make it happen,” as her obituary put it when she passed in 2008. Even with all those duties, Elsie took on the job as postmistress at Genoa for about a decade, and volunteered to help with the Candy Dance and PTA.
Wally’s dad, Rufus William Adams, too, served the community as a school trustee, a founding member of the Genoa Cemetery Association, and fire chief for the local volunteer fire department. During World War II, Rufus would forward messages received on his ham radio to local families from sons stationed overseas. He imparted not only his love of ranching but also his ham radio skills to Wally.
By the time he was 14, Wally was driving a school bus. At 16, he became volunteer fire chief in Genoa – a post he would hold for the next 20 years. “They didn’t have all the fancy rules and regulations then,” he acknowledges. “If someone’s house was on fire, we responded and tried to put it out.”
To make a little extra money, Wally began working as brand inspector for Douglas County NV in August, 1974. “They started me out at $3.10 an hour and 13 cents a mile. I put 80,000 miles on my pickup in the first two years,” he remembers.
Now with 38 years under his belt inspecting brands, Wally’s earned his share of stories. “It could be scary sometimes when you’re out in the middle of nowhere, out of radio range,” he says. “I always carried my ‘girlfriend’ – that’s a sawed-off .12 gauge. And I had a sidearm.” But inspecting also had its fun side: Wally got to meet actor Red Skelton once – “nicest guy you can imagine.” And he was introduced to a sheik from Saudi Arabia, who’d just flown into Reno in a brand-new 747 to pick up a horse. Big money was involved. “Can I talk you out of $5 for my brand inspection?” was all Wally wanted to know.
There were new-to-the-country folk, calling to demand that Wally come get the wild mustangs out of their yards. (His polite response: “If you don’t want ’em in your yard, fence ’em out.”) And one pure-bred city slicker burned up his phone, irate about a cow delivering a calf within viewing distance of her four-year-old daughter.
“I told her that’s part of Mother Nature, and she hung up on me. Twenty minutes later she called me back: ‘That cow is being abusive to the calf. She’s licking it off and now the calf fell over. I think it’s got a brain concussion!’” Wally chuckles. “Then she asked if she could go get the calf. I said, ‘Well, it’s probably on private property. And by the way, how fast can you run?’ The lady didn’t get it. ‘What do you mean?’ she asked me. I had to explain, well, if you go get the calf, that momma cow’s going to be coming after you!”
Then there was a memorable encounter with a judge. A man had pled guilty to stealing a calf, and the judge was imposing just a fine. Wally had to speak up. “I told him he should’ve put the man in jail. ‘It’s only a $400 calf,’ the judge responded. ‘I can’t make him a hard-core criminal over that.’ Well, that ain’t the point, I told the judge. That’s the rancher’s livelihood.”
Wally finally quit inspecting for Nevada in 2012. “I found myself living out in romantic downtown Gerlach or Tonopah or Coyote Camp and those places, and was gone from home most of the time. It’s not 9 to 5; you’re on-call eight days a week, 48 hours a day. I wanted some time to myself,” he sighs. Even so, he just couldn’t quit entirely. Wally continues to inspect brands for California – including 3,000 head for Centennial Livestock every year.
Like so many historic ranches, the Adams Ranch has shrunk in size over the years, as economic forces and family needs required that portions be sold off. Even so, Wally hopes that his family’s traditional way of life will continue – and will inspire future generations to appreciate Nevada’s ranching heritage.
“As a kid, I had the freedom other kids don’t have,” Wally reminisces. “I’d take my .22 with me everywhere and I’d go hunting when I wanted to. Ranching life is a good life. It’s a hard life. But if everyone had a chance to do it, it would change their attitudes about where food comes from. Today, they go to the grocery store and see a carton of milk or a package of meat, and don’t realize the work that went into it.”
*A longer version of this story first appeared in Range Magazine (Fall 2020 issue).
Some American soldiers in Vietnam never came home. Some came home, but were never the same.
Rich Duffy joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1964 at the age of 18, and was sent to the front as a Forward Observer – one of the most traumatizing and dangerous posts imaginable. Then while deep in the jungles, he received a “Dear John” letter from the young wife he’d left behind.
“The brother I knew, the one who left, didn’t return,” says Rich’s younger brother, Dan. “In a way, Rich’s first disappearance happened sometime during his one-year tour of duty. Then in 1969, after Rich came home, he disappeared a second time, this time out of my life completely. His girlfriend mailed my mother a cryptic postcard saying, ‘Rich and I went to the Rio Grande, took LSD, and when I awoke he was gone.’ We never heard from him again.”
It’s been fifty years, now, since Rich disappeared.
A Quick Introduction: Brother, Brother is Dan’s memoir about his family and his quest to find out what happened to his missing older brother. With an intriguing blend of fact and fiction, Dan tells the story as if his brother is sitting right beside him as they recreate Rich’s fateful journey to the Rio Grande in a candy apple red ’66 GTO convertible.
Dan kindly shared his successful memoir writing journey with us, plus some helpful tips for how he took his book from inspiration to reality.
Q&A With Dan Duffy: Q: What made you decide to write this book? And how long did it take, from start to finish? A: Every December since my older brother Rich’s mysterious disappearance in 1970, I’ve been haunted by images of his disappearance beside the Rio Grande River. Could he still be living somewhere in the cash economy, leaving no paper trail for me to follow? Or did he drown without a trace in the Rio Grande there in Corrales, New Mexico?
Over the years I’ve tried every avenue I could think of to try to solve the mystery. In the mid-’70s, I drafted a letter describing Rich and the circumstances of his disappearance. This was the pre-internet age, so I contacted a mailing list company and sent letters to over 100 men who shared his name. No luck. I used his social security number and military service number to inquire about any recent activity. No luck. I had the Veteran’s Administration forward a letter to his last known address. No luck. I conducted driver’s license searches of his name in four Western states. No luck.
Finally, after I retired from my administrative career in higher education, I decided to put pencil to paper in the hopes of articulating and understanding Rich’s experience in Vietnam, his conversion to a “Jesus freak,” and his decision to move to the Southwest, where he disappeared under such mysterious circumstances. This book was the result.
All told, it took me three-and-a-half years to complete the book. I started in February, 2013, when I joined the “Open Mic” program at the Gloucester (Massachusetts) Writers Center, and began sharing some memories I’d written about growing up with my brother. I received good feedback, and set myself a goal of presenting new writing each month. Concurrently, I joined a writers’ group of six other writers. We met twice a month to read, review and critique each other’s writing. Their honest feedback was extremely helpful. It was also an excellent method to keep me and my fellow writers focused on our writing and editing. I finally published the book independently on Amazon on May 1, 2016 — my brother’s 69th birthday.
Q: What was the hardest thing for you about writing this book? And how did you overcome that hurdle? A: In 1959, my mother left my father, and moved Rich, me, and our three other siblings to the New Jersey Shore. As a single parent, she struggled to provide for us by waitressing, which often required her to work evenings and weekends.
For me, the hardest aspect of writing about that was recognizing that we kids had lived in such an atmosphere of silence: nobody dared to ask; nobody dared to tell. At the time, I didn’t know any other kids who lived in a broken home. So we never talked about things like our estranged dad, our absentee mom, kids having to supervise kids, teenagers hanging out at the house each night, or Mom dating a man we called Bill.
It was somewhat scary, in a way, to discover how I’d really felt about being adrift, in the absence of adult supervision. But writing about my early family circumstances also made me realize that I had broken free of any real or imagined “cycle of poverty” that my mother’s divorce may have fostered. I’ve been the only one from my family who ever attended and graduated from college. I’ve been fortunate to have continued my education, obtaining A.A., B.A., M.Ed, and Ed.D. degrees. For me, education was a pathway to my future success, both personally and professionally.
As Barack Obama has said, “Every man is trying to live up to his father’s expectations or make up for their father’s mistakes.” Obviously, I fell into the latter category.
Q: What (and maybe who) helped keep you going? Did you feel like your brother was there speaking in your ear, encouraging you to tell his story? A: I am grateful to many individuals who engaged me along my writing journey. Some urged me on from ahead, and others exhorted me from behind, but most – my fellow writers — accompanied me by my side. That’s a metaphor, but even in the physical world it’s often “journeying together” that provides the encouragement people need to explore new horizons and traverse unfamiliar territory in the first place.
My wife, Helene, and six members of my writers’ group read my early drafts, provided constructive feedback and advice, and encouraged me to continue writing.
I also truly believe that my brother Rich was beside me while I typed my final draft, guiding my hands and providing encouragement. I might have even “channeled” him from time to time as I thought about several of his nightmarish Vietnam War experiences that left him with PTSD.
Q: You’ve used a fascinating blend of both fact and fiction, weaving in your own recollections with a fictionalized account of your brother’s journey. Did the process of writing help you come to peace with your brother’s disappearance, imagining what he went through and experienced? A: Although my brother was the focus of my story, it’s really about the impact of his life on mine. So my memoir includes fragments of distant memories of my older brother’s life and our shared eighteen years.
I yearned to better understand Rich’s war experiences, which left him with a “nervous condition.” Today, it’s diagnosed as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.) So, I’ve included my own mental images of his Vietnam and post-Vietnam experiences. I’ve also used my imagination in reconstructing his 1970 cross-country trip to New Mexico. The “journey” with my brother in the book is equal parts myth and reality, as my first wife and I took our own cross-country drive in the Summer of ’72.
I smile when I reread some segments of the book describing Rich and me playing together. Those memories continue to bring me joy. But there are other portions of the story I’ve written that I’m unable to read aloud at book readings. The memories still seem so fresh and painful to remember.
Writing my story did bring me closer to Rich. Describing our shared cross-country trip – fictional though it was — added to the sense that he was alive and still with me. But after I published the book, I’ve learned even more about my brother’s last year of life, before he disappeared. So my own search is continuing. I still have several avenues of investigation I want to pursue to try to discover what happened to him.
The closest I could say I’ve come to “closure” was when I visited Corrales, New Mexico several autumns ago, and walked along the area of the river known as North Beach, the location where he had disappeared. As I stood in the wilderness beside the mighty Rio Grande River, I was overcome with a feeling of serenity and thought, “This would be a magnificent place to die.” Maybe Rich was trying to convey something to me from beyond the known.
Q: How did you go about publishing your book? For many authors, this is the hardest part. A: I’m the kind of learner who loves to examine resources. I read books about writing, and also visited several indie publishing websites to learn from others who had preceded me on my writing and publishing journey. I’ve included a list of publishing resources I’ve found helpful, below.
My learning style also emphasizes “learning by doing,” so Amazon’s KDP Self-Publishing Platform (www.amazonkdp.com) was a good fit for me, and that’s what I used to get my book in print. For indie writers, the best part about Amazon KDP is that it’s free. Aside from maybe the cost of a cover design, there’s no cost to publish your book (they also have a free cover-creation tool). The KDP platform also offers an Indie Publishing Community where you can ask questions and receive advice from others who have already published their books.
For the writing process itself, I used the Scrivener software. This allowed me to do things like reorder chapters by “dragging and dropping” them, a function that Word doesn’t offer.
Q: What advice would you give to other memoir writers, based on what you’ve learned along the way? A: I’d say, simply begin writing. Don’t necessarily think about beginning to write a 300-page memoir. Focus on memorable “scenes of your life” and write about what happened, and most importantly, articulate how you felt about the experience. Author Anne Lamott’s advice is to give yourself permission to write a “shitty first draft.” By that, she means, get your thoughts and experiences down on paper without worrying about correct spelling or grammar at first. You’ll have plenty of time to edit your writing after you have something written.
I’d also advise beginning writers to create a time and place for your writing. Bestselling author Andres DuBus III suggests getting up an hour earlier than you normally would or staying up an hour later to concentrate on your writing. “Your book doesn’t care how tired you are,” he said at the Newbury Writer’s Festival.
Join other writers in a writing group, even if it’s just two of you who meet every other week to read each other’s writing, give each other honest critiques, and hold each other accountable for meeting your next meeting’s deadline for new material.
Dan Duffy kindly shared these resources he’s found helpful:
The Craft of Writing:
Learn from a master story teller, Stephen King by reading his book, On Writing. (Amazon Associates link).
Oral history is a rich source of family and local information. But it’s an incredibly fragile source. Memories fade. Old-timers move on to whatever the next life brings.
Does your local museum or historical society already have an oral history program capturing those elusive memories? If not, consider launching one!
In just the last few years, my own community has lost more than a dozen local elders. And with each death, an encyclopedia’s-worth of memories and how-to knowledge has vanished.
We’ve actually been lucky – the memories of at least a few of those elders were written down before they departed. But not every community has a formal or informal oral history program in place.
Like to start an oral history program in your community? Here are a few tips and suggestions to help you get started!
How To Start Your Own Oral History Program: (1) Decide just how wide you’re willing to cast your net. Are you only interested in preserving memories about your area? Or are you willing to capture the stories of folks with a fascinating past, even if they’re describing another town or country?
(2) Invite a group of potential volunteers to kick around the mechanics. Do you plan to just digitally record a series of interviews? Is someone a great videographer? Are there transcription services you can utilize to create a searchable print version?
(3) Identify a small handful of local elders (say 4 or 5) whose oral histories you’d most like to preserve. Then appoint an outreach person to contact each elder to see if they might be willing to share their recollections for your project.
(4) Brainstorm a list of questions ahead of time, so you won’t forget to ask anything that’s really important. But don’t let a fixed written list dominate your interview. Conversations naturally tend to ramble – be willing to let that happen. Some of the most fascinating tidbits of information can pop up when you just let the conversation flow.
Most of all, don’t wait! Reach out now, while you can. You’ll be so glad you preserved the precious memories that you did.
Like more tips for collecting oral history? Check out our book for more helpful ideas and suggestions!
I’ve been fascinated lately by the concept of ‘resilience.’
Our ancestors had it. Somehow they made it through wars and food shortages; terrible pandemics; losing a spouse or a child to disease or accidents.
And medical care? Well . . . some of the very best medical treatments back then would be cringe-worthy today. Sure, they had opium, laudanum, and whiskey to dull the pain. But just imagine trying to recover from a leg amputation during the Civil War, or an appendectomy in 1900.
Having a baby wasn’t just a happy event, one hundred years ago. It was a life-threatening one. Some parents watched child after child die before reaching adulthood, from accidents or illness. Families moved across the ocean or across the country in search of excitement and fresh opportunity. But that often meant they never got to see their loved ones or hometowns again.
And yet somehow, despite all their trials and sadness, people kept going. They found ways to bounce back and find joy in life again.
So, how did they do it?
Let’s start with the obvious: People generations ago didn’t expect life to be easy. That’s number one, I think, in the resilience game: understanding that life’s joys and challenges come as a package deal. People back then knew they had to accept the “bitter with the better,” as the old saying goes. Somehow we’re not so geared for that, today.
Part two of our ancestors’ formula: Community really was a ‘thing’ back then. People shared the good and the bad with each other. Weddings were festive community-wide celebrations. Funerals were a time for communal grieving. There may have been petty rivalries, bickering, and disputes in those communities, too. But when pain and loss came along, you knew you weren’t facing the hard times alone.
And perhaps the biggest resilience-secret from days gone by: The connectedness of life meant important reasons to keep going. No matter what, the cows still had to be milked every evening. Family and friends still depended on you to put food on the table or get the hay in the barn. Today, too, simple daily routines reminding us how much we’re still needed can be an incredible steadying force when life throws us a curve ball.
Hope you’ll be thinking about the wonderful stories of resilience in your own family — they’re more great material for your memoir!
Here are a few writing prompts about ‘resilience’ to help you get started:
* What ancestor or friend was a great resilience model for you? What challenges did they face, and how did they get through them?
* What group or community came together to support you when you really needed it, or were there to share a special happiness? How did that happen, and what did it feel like?
* What strategies have helped you recover from your own challenges or losses? What lessons have you learned about resilience that you’d like to “pay forward” and share with future generations?
GUEST BLOG: Q&A With New Memoir Author Jane Sweeney
Jane Sweeney’s book has been umpteen years in the making. This year she finally did it — her memoir is published and out!
I asked her to share her how-did-you-do-it story with our readers. Hope you’ll find inspiration in Jane’s story, and encouragement to keep pursuing your own writing and publishing dreams!
* * * * * * *
A Quick Introduction:
Jane Sweeney grew up in the Sixties in a suburb of L.A. That meant quirky opportunities like getting to ride Zorro’s horse, and being hired to be an “Indian Maiden” at Disneyland. Plus a great college education for just $54 per semester.
Then, when Jane was just 34, her mother died. That opened a whole new world, eventually leading her to a career as a hospice director during the AIDS pandemic of the Eighties. And as only Jane could do, she’s got the funniest stories about that!
Really?! Hospice and humor?! You bet. Jane’s learned to leaven everything with humor, she says, because people will listen if what you’re saying is funny.
And funny she is. (I keep telling her she should try stand-up comedy.) Her acknowedgments page includes all the usual suspects . . . and coffee. Her early favorite song: “My Country Tisathee.” And you gotta love the image of motorhome trips spent reading to the kids, while husband Tom yelled, “Look out the window for God’s sake, it’s the Grand Canyon!”
Jane has wanted to tell her stories for years. They’re filled with the love of all the things Jane herself loves: family, animals, and navigating life’s hurdles with hope and humor.
More than ten years in the making, Jane’s book is now out. And here’s Jane to tell how she did it!
Q&A With Jane Sweeney: Q: What made you MOST want to write your book? Is it just for your own family, or who else do you hope will read it?
A: Two things made me want to write my book. The first was to tell my stories. I wanted people to hear what I had to say! The second thing was to tell about my experience with Hospice. I wanted to tell people how it started, and what it can provide.
Q: What was the biggest hurdle for you in writing your book? And how did you overcome it?
A: I’ve been writing this book off and on for about ten years or more. Something funny or unusual would happen, and I would say, “That’s going in the book!” Because I though a record should be kept. Then as I got older I began to think people might be able to learn something from my experiences. I love to tell my stories, and sometimes people laughed, which just encouraged me. As you will see in the book, I think all of us just want to be heard.
My biggest hurdle was just inertia. There are always so many other things that need doing. I had to make the book a priority.
Q: What kept you going with this project when the “going” got tough?
A: I like to think that when I say I’m going to do something, I do it. I had notebooks with “My Story” and “Memoir” on them for YEARS. I got tired of looking at them. Once I passed the age my mother was, when she died, I felt even more pressure. What if I didn’t live any longer? The stories would all be lost. And part of what kept me going was your book, From Stuck to Finished, and your wonderful words of encouragement: “Don’t give up, you’re almost there.”
Q: What’s the biggest take-away that you hope readers will get from your memoir?
A: The biggest take-away I hope readers get is that life is full of amazing moments. Share them. Also I want people to know they are good enough. After all, I thought I was good enough to write my story!
Q: Do you have any advice for other people working on their memoir?
A: My advice is, don’t give up! We all want to be heard, and your story may help or inspire someone. If you don’t write it down, it will be gone when you are gone.
Q: Where can readers buy your book, Living Out Loud?
A: It’s available on Amazon.com (AmazonAssociates link) and Bookshop.org. They can also get a signed copy from me for $15.00 postage paid. Email me at email@example.com. Right now the Kindle version is available for $3.99. Amazon is supposed to have the paperback available, too, but I don’t know when.
Thank you, Jane, for sharing your story with our newsletter folks and with the world!
Find Jane’s book here at Amazon.com! (AmazonAssociates link)
It’s been well over a century since the last mining car filled with ore from the Comstock rolled out of Sutro Tunnel. By the time the Tunnel was completed in 1878, the Big Bonanza was winding down, and the best guess is that the last batch of Comstock ore came through about 1880. But just three years ago, workers began converging at the old Sutro site once more.
The Sutro Tunnel entrance before restoration. (Photo courtesy of Dan Webster).
No, they’re not miners. In 2017, a determined group of volunteers began working to preserve and restore the old buildings and artifacts that still remain here from the Sutro’s hey-day. It’s now privately owned. But thanks to restoration volunteer Dan Webster, we were fortunate enough to be invited to visit the site!
The tunnel mouth remains the most prominent feature of the site. Volunteers have re-plastered the brick entry wings and repainted the markings, restoring it to the way it looked when the tunnel was new. Water still flows out of the tunnel, thanks to its gently sloping design.
Back in Sutro’s day, the tunnel stretched 3-1/2 miles underground to connect first with the Savage Mine at Virginia City. From there, additional tunnels branched out to connect with other Comstock mines.
The original theodolite base is still visible, where surveyors set up their transit equipment to ensure the tunnel ran straight to its intended destination. Survey markers are still in place on the hillside above (see first photo, above).
Sutro himself once had a mansion on the hillside to the right of the tunnel entrance. Completed and occupied in late 1872, the house was a mansion indeed, featuring gas lighting and indoor plumbing. Sutro’s wife and children lived here until – well, as the story goes, until Sutro was caught with another woman, after which the wife departed for San Francisco. Sutro, too, eventually moved to San Francisco as his tunnel prospects faded. Sadly, the mansion was destroyed in a fire in 1941, thought to be arson committed by a disgruntled former employee.
To the right side of the tunnel entrance stands the brick candle house. One side has been caved in by falling rocks from the hillside, but its original bricks have been saved to allow it to be rebuilt eventually.
Next door, the old machine shop has been cleaned and its floors oiled. Photographs and artifacts are being assembled inside, and it’s hoped this will one day become a museum, helping to acquaint visitors with the history of the site. Still visible in the floor are tracks that once allowed mining equipment to be rolled into the building for repair.
Outside, a cluster of iron ore cars that once rattled along the tracks of the tunnel still stand a silent vigil. Markings on some of the wheels show they were cast at the V&T foundry in Carson City. (Fun fact: the V&T foundry provided not only machinery for the railroad, but also for mines and mills all over Nevada.) The car bodies themselves were built on site here at the machine shop. Each ore car could haul 2-1/2 tons of material.
Next door is the mule barn, where mules for the tunnel work were stabled. And there’s even tack still hanging inside (see photos, below).
This is thought to be a second mule barn, built in the early 1900s; the first was said to have burned in a fire. The roof of this mule barn had begun to sag sadly before renovations began in 2017. It was stabilized and additional roof support added by volunteers just last year (2019).
To the left of the tunnel mouth, a large warehouse (below) once held supplies during Sutro’s day. In the 1960s and ‘70s, hippies turned the former warehouse into a bar and dance hall.
A small red house off to one side has its own fascinating history. Not original to the site, it was moved here from Carson City in the 1960s from the area that’s now the Nugget parking lot. According to local lore, this humble cabin used to be the home of famous prostitute Rosa May!
A two-story Victorian home is also on site – and it, too, was moved. This once was the home of John and Helen Schulz in Carson City. Here at the Sutro site it was occupied by tenants until very recently, but now is vacant.
Just over the hill below the tunnel mouth, a ten-stamp cyanide-process mill was erected in 1900 by Mr. Leonard, then president of the Sutro Tunnel Company, and is thought to have run sporadically through the early 1940s. It was originally water-powered, using pelton wheels. That power source was replaced by two diesel engines, probably in the 1930s. Ore from various Comstock mines was initially trucked to the mill. Later, a tailings pile west of the mill was worked, using a steam shovel to load dump trucks, and the tailings material was then gravity-fed to the stamps.
The old wooden mill building itself burned in 1967. But much of the large metal mill equipment can still be seen, some pieces still showing signs of distortion from the fire.
Below the mill once sat the Town of Sutro, a neatly-laid-out company town where workers and their families once lived. Crops were grown there using water from the mine for irrigation. Sutro himself brought in German Cottonwood trees, and had them planted in nice, straight rows to line the streets.
Volunteers are continuing to work hard to restore the buildings and preserve the extensive artifacts at the Sutro Tunnel site. Eventually, they hope public tours may help raise money to assist with restoration efforts — and share the amazing story of Sutro himself and his famous tunnel!
Story copyright Karen Dustman 2020. Unlawful to use without prior written permission.
This memoir how-to post is all about you. Your memoir goals. Your writing journey. Those chasms-without-a-bridge and 600-pound-gorillas standing in your way.
It’s a quick and simple quiz, designed to give you added insight into where you want to go, and a few ideas about what might help you get there.
I’d love to hear about your insights, your progress – and your hurdles! I hope you’ll share your experience, thoughts, and questions on our “just for memoir writers” Facebook page (@WriteYourMemoir), and connect up with other memoir folks going through the same things!
1. What made you want to write a memoir?
2. Are there one or two stories you most want to tell, or a lifetime of stories?
3. How much have you written on your memoir so far?
4. What’s been your biggest writing hurdle? Where have you gotten stuck?
5. If your fairy godmother tapped you on the shoulder and gave you three wishes, what things would you wish for that would help you write your memoir?
6. What do you do right now to encourage yourself to write?
7. Would the accountability and regular feedback of a writer’s group be helpful to you? If so, have you checked for an online class or a group near you?
8. Have you read any how-to-write-a-memoir books for help or encouragement? If so, what tips or ideas did you take away that were most helpful?
9. What is your end-result hope for your memoir? Who do you want to read it, and what do you hope it will mean to your family or the world?
10. If you had to name one thing that would help you the most to finish your memoir, what would it be?
That’s your memoir post for this month! Love to hear your feedback.
Physician. Surgeon. Obstetrician. First responder. Ambulance driver. Back in the day, Dr. Ernest Hand did it all.
Baby arriving? He’d come to your home for the delivery. Had a hunting accident out in the wilderness? He’d fight his way through the roughest territory to get to your side and render aid. Need an ambulance? He’d tote you piggyback out to his own Lincoln automobile, and then race for the hospital at Carson or Reno – with no regard for posted speed limits. “Not to worry,” he’d say. “I used to be a race car driver.”
Dr. Hand and his wife, Eleanor, arrived in Gardnerville in December, 1934, the year they were married. And for the next 23 years Dr. Hand would render expert, compassionate care to everyone in town, regardless of race, creed, color, or ability to pay.
Born in Pennsylvania June 8, 1886, Dr. Hand put himself through Baltimore Medical College by working as a linotype operator for the Baltimore Sun newspaper. He began his medical career in New York in 1909, alternating private practice with a stint as an in-house physician for a company with 75,000 employees. He honed his medical skills in both urology and dermatology. Perhaps more important for his future career, he also delivered some 5,000 babies – experience that would later prove invaluable when he arrived in Carson Valley.
The good doctor not only loved medicine, he loved carpentry too. An excellent cabinet-maker, he helped build his own house on Douglas Avenue and crafted cabinets for his medical office. He also loved animals and gardening. In his off-hours (few as those were) he lovingly tended a garden and fruit trees by his home. He’d can and preserve the fruits and vegetable he grew, too.
And oh, his work ethic! From 7 to 8 a.m. every morning Dr. Hand’s waiting room would be jammed with drop-in patients – no appointments needed. His office was right on Main Street, just north of the Overland, where “Restyle” stands today. He’d treat everything from sniffles to gunshot wounds right there in his office. He made the drive nearly every day to Carson City and Reno to check on his patients in the hospital. And he also served as county health officer for both Douglas and Alpine Counties.
Many Carson Valley residents still remember Dr. Hand fondly. “He was a happy ol’ guy — he looked like Santa Claus,” remembers one long-time local boy. “He had a belly, and white hair and glasses. He was very kind. And he would talk to you. One time as a kid I had pains every morning and my mom thought I just didn’t want to go to school. But there really was something wrong, and he figured it out.”
“He was kinda like a miracle worker; it was like he had 48 hours in the day, not 24,” recalls another former patient. “Even after normal office hours, he’d go out and make house calls. And he’d still have just as much interest in you. It didn’t matter how late he’d been up the night before.”
Medical care would often be simple but effective. “I fell once as a boy and broke my arm,” one local still remembers. “Dr. Hand came up to the house and he just pulled on it to set it. You didn’t get pain shots for every little thing back then.”
Newspaper reports provide a snapshot of the wide variety of ailments Dr. Hand was called upon to attend. He cared for the victim of a logging accident with major spinal injuries. He trekked six miles into the hills outside Markleeville to render aid to a teenager whose leg bone was shattered in a hunting accident. He administered polio shots to local school children, and treated a road worker with severe burns after his oil-stained clothes had caught on fire. And when floods closed local roads and prevented a pregnant military wife from reaching the base hospital in Hawthorne, Dr. Hand came to her home for the delivery – despite getting the call just hours before the baby arrived.
Those who knew the good doctor still shrug and smile about his lead-footed driving. “I rode with him once for a trip to the hospital – he said he’d used to be a race car driver, but he was still a race car driver!” grins one former patient. “He would blow the wheels off that car!” confirms another.
As luck would have it, it was the doctor’s own speedy driving that once led to a special kind of cure. A young child had gotten a small whistle stuck in his throat and Dr. Hand was, as usual, putting pedal to the metal to get the boy to the hospital for an operation. Suddenly another car cut in front of them. Dr. Hand slammed on his brakes and threw out his arm protectively to keep the young boy from falling forward. Lo and behold, that sudden jolt was just what the doctor ordered. The whistle was dislodged – and no operation was required!
In 1950, Dr. Hand was lauded for his years of work by a grateful community. Donations totaling $1,000 had been taken up – enough to pay for a new incubator and a hospital room at Carson-Tahoe Hospital in honor of Dr. Hand. The doctor’s wife, too, received special thanks from the community for her “untiring assistance” to her husband – and no doubt her patience with years of middle-of-the-night emergency phone calls. The community’s tribute came as a complete surprise to Dr. Hand. He was, as he put it, “too full for words.”
Dr. Hand passed away on December 27, 1957 of a sudden heart attack, at the age of 71. He’d tended patients here in Carson Valley for 23 years. More than 800 mourners turned out to pay their respects at his funeral at Carson City’s civic auditorium. He was laid to rest at first in Lone Mountain Cemetery – but it wasn’t for long. In the summer of 1960, Dr. Hand’s family had his body moved and reburied at the Garden Cemetery in Gardnerville, the town he had lived in and served for so many years.
If you visit, you can read his epitaph:
“Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”