The find of a lifetime…twice in a weekend

The find of a lifetime…twice in a weekend

(Note: I began this post Monday, so it’s a bit dated now that it’s going up, but it’s accurate. The owner of the disposed of photo album has since been identified.)

I can barely process what’s transpired over the past 72 hours. I’m both excited, panicking more than I would have thought I would, and starting to understand/worry that my family history journey just changed radically (at best), or is largely over (at worst).

First, a bit of background. My father’s mother Catherine (Morse) Leonard came from an amazing line of ancestors. Her great-grandparents were some of the earliest European settlers in Wisconsin, arriving among the first 20-30 people in the territory in 1835. Her

My grandmother, her mother, and her grandmother, c. 1910

relatives were Mayflower descendants, DAR, Civil War heroes, and people who wrote the Wisconsin State Constitution. Her father was a 3-term Congressman from upstate Wisconsin, and he participated in the Republican Progressive movement as a close friend and ally of “Fighting” Bob LaFollette. He worked tirelessly with LaFollette to bring down the most powerful man in American politics in the 1910’s, Republican Speaker of the House Joe Cannon, at the cost of his own political career.

Catherine passed away in 1990, and her oldest son John collected boxes of family history from her home, and put those boxes in his basement. Nothing had seen the light of day in decades by the time he passed in 2014, and his surviving daughters decided that since I was now the family historian, his papers (which included his mother’s boxes) should come to me. In 2015, hours before the closing of the sale of my Uncle John’s house, I was able to drive up and save invaluable artifacts. There was over 600 “Magic Lantern” 3″ x 5″ glass slides that Congressman Morse and his wife Myra used to make presentations to Opera Houses throughout the Upper Midwest through the 1920’s. There were dozens of photos, wedding invitations/programs, funeral programs, obituaries, etc. There was even a 16mm home move of my late father’s 6th birthday party with footage of him, his two older brothers, various cousins, and of my grandmother and her mother. That day in 2015 that I retrieved the collection, my cousin Diane let me know that she’d been at the house and saw the collection, and we worried it wasn’t going to get picked up, so she took a few boxes of things and that we could get together soon and she’d turn them over to me. It took almost 2 years, but I received the 3 boxes this weekend…and it’s the treasure trove you always dream of, but you know you’ll never get lucky enough to find.

The additional boxes are larger than I expected, and they are stuffed full of material. There are college yearbooks, over 500 family photos (at least!) going back 150 years, land records, telegrams, scrapbooks, etc. The most amazing pieces, however, are the personal correspondence of Congressman Morse and his wife, as well as at least 100 handwritten notes of speeches given throughout the years while he was in office, as well as after. There’s also dozens of letters to my grandmother, including one from one of her best friends from college imploring her not to marry my grandfather!

I’m completely overwhelmed by the volume and importance of what I’ve inherited. I have found at least a dozen letters, invitations, and table placards from the Roosevelt and Taft White Houses on official stationary. It’s almost frightening when you hold these artifacts in your hands, in your dining room. I feel like I’m in National Treasure and I’ve stolen something that belongs in the National Archives! I can’t stop thinking about how we were one broken sump pump away from never knowing what was lost for the last 20 years. And mostly, I am panicking about the amount of work that lies in front of me now that I have this collection.

Dinner Placards
From a 1911 dinner at the Taft White House

And that’s the really impact of getting something like this. I have a clear responsibility to catalog, image, record, cite, and archive these documents. This is likely the most important contribution I’ll make to my family history for the coming generations, and yet this isn’t necessarily where I wanted to spend my limited time. I have more DNA analysis than I could finish in this lifetime, I’d like to work on publishing more of what I’ve found, I’ve started discovering the power of executing formal a “Analysis and Research Plan”, I’m starting to blog seriously, I have a long list of on-the-ground research in Mississippi and Arkansas we need to complete to break through several walls on my wife’s side, I need to get off of Family Tree Maker to a platform that will be supported long-term, and I need to flesh out my Morse line more formally to fill a large gap in the Wisconsin Morse’s for the Morse Society. But I also only have limited time to pursue these goals, and it’s dawning on me that instead of that work, I’m going to have to focus on how to properly archive this collection, and start the years of work necessary to inventory it, scan it, transcribe it, identify the photos as much as possible, and establish both archiving procedures and a storage method that will keep them as safe as possible for generations to come. That will likely be my focus for years to come, at the expense of the other work, and I’m not yet comfortable with that notion…but it’s been 72 hours.

In the middle of this once-in-a-lifetime find, I stumbled across another, and I’m literally having low-grade panic attacks each time I think about it.

As a part of the new collection I just obtained, I grabbed a book that was on top to read in the hotel Saturday night (since all I really wanted to do was go through each and every item right then…and since I couldn’t, one book would have to do), and it was a personal family history of Gwendolen (Morse) Mitchell, my second cousin 2x removed. It was a fascinating history of the children of the brother of my 2x GGF Addison Morse, and it explain quite a bit of the family movement that I’d discovered, but didn’t understand. The book details her husband’s family a bit, and her children, all of which was new information to me.

My 2x great uncle, from a distant relatives collection, found in the garbage, and now on Facebook

Going off of some of what I learned from this book, and as I was just kicking around while my scanner worked capturing some of the new photos I have, I came across an entry on that said Addison’s brother James Morse could be contained in a photo album that was found discarded, and clicked a link to a Facebook group that describes how the Salem, OR Statesman Journal was trying to find the owners of FIVE albums (Help find a home for these photo albums found in Oregon). In that link I saw page after page of my relatives. And all of these photos are of relatives that directly link to Gwendolen (Morse) Mitchell, whose book I first found last night! I have her in my tree, but I knew nothing about them until I read that book. Which had been in my Uncle’s basement since it was published in 1997. The article details the last names of Morse (check), Mitchell (check), Higgins (Gwendolen’s son-in-law’s last name), and Sykes (another of Gwendolen’s son-in-laws), and I can identify the events in many of the pictures as well as the participants.

We all likely see these “lost album” posts all the time. I get them on my Twitter feed, in Facebook, etc. on the regular basis. I never thought I’d see one I recognized even a single photo, and yet here I am posting to FB and to author of the article that I know exactly what those albums are and very likely exactly from whom they came! And, if they don’t find another owner who comes forward, I’m probably the person those albums should go to. I archive everything properly, share with the family openly, have a clear family connection, and I’ll be at the Morse reunion in Oregon this summer where I might be able to find an even better home.

My mind is reeling right now. Two finds that literally are “once-in-a-lifetime” just struck me over the course of a long weekend. I need a bourbon, a little distance from my research, and a good night’s sleep. Funny how getting what you’ve always wanted is always more complicated than you thought it would be!

Click to keep reading about this collection: Coming up with a plan to manage my new, huge family history collection

4 thoughts on “The find of a lifetime…twice in a weekend

  1. I envy all that family treasure you are holding. I know it is a lot of work but if not you than who? You may even have a book coming out of this. Best of luck.

    1. I will say that I’ve calmed down quite a bit since I wrote this. I got a good night’s sleep, had a few bourbons, and came up with a plan of attack. I’ll be posting about it this weekend, but you’re right, and I’m happy I can get back to the perspective of appreciating the treasure I’ve received.

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