History is made by families

I had written in a previous post that I’d lost a valuable interview I’d done with my great grandparents, who were born at the dawn of the 20th Century (both born in 1897). They came of age during the Great Depression, they witnessed two devastating World Wars, and lived ~100 years each. With their lives spanning almost exactly across the 20th century–the bloodiest and most eventful chapter in human history–they lived through an incredible amount of change.

Thanks to my writing that post, I’m happy to say the interview has been found!!

In 1994, when I was eight, my father faxed a series of questions from our home in Australia to Texas, which was where my great-grandparents lived. As a kid I wanted to see what their lives were like when they were my age – which would have been in 1905. My grandparents sat down with my great-grandparents, Mimi and Otis, interviewed them and transcribed their answers. This was then faxed the back to Australia!

This was a complicated process, but I’m so thankful my family made it possible!

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This is part of the faxed response – I’ll share some of the most interesting answers below…

Selected highlights… What was it like to be 8 in 1905 Texas!

Where did they live in Texas?

Mimi: Denton, Ennis, then Ft. Worth, where she would meet Otis.

Otis: “I was born in Ft. Worth. My father was in the hotel business and they were building in places where the railroads were going so we moved to Baird (about 100 miles west of Ft. Worth) where we built a hotel at a division point. When I was four we moved back to Ft. Worth.”

What about school?

Otis went to school for the first time at 7, which was normal at the time.

When kids misbehaved, Mimi said that she was sent out of the room. Otis said he was only sent out of the room, but “In those days they could whip you, but I was never whipped.”

What were the first cars they saw?

Otis: I can remember seeing cars when I was six or seven and we knew all the cars in Ft. Worth and their numbers (which weren’t license plates exactly) and we knew all the kinds of cars.” He especially remembered one touring car that was air cooled without a radiator…he thinks it might have been a Stanley Steamer.

Mimi: “I remember always seeing cars but there were more horses and buggies than cars. We had a surrey and a buggy with horses for each.”

Was there electricity or gas?

Otis: “I was born just as the primitive age was ending. My sister Gertie was born just as Edison invented the electric light; our house had gas lights (gas made from coal) in 1881 when she was born, but by the time I came along in 1897 they had very primitive bar-like electric lights.” He added “John D. Rockefeller made his money from kerosene, and the gasoline was a by-product that they threw away.”

What sports did they play?

Otis: baseball. Mimi: “When I was older I played basketball. I wore black bloomers when I played. Earlier I rode horses and played outside.”

How did they listen to music?

Otis: “Most music was live (no radio station) but some people had victrolas.” He remembered the 1904 popular song “Bedelia” and could still sing the lyrics 90 years later.

Mimi: “We all sang and played instruments, and we had a victrola (wind-up) too.”

Did they have a television?

Otis laughed and said “No. We entertained ourselves. We went outside, played games and ball, roamed freely, fished, etc.” He always carried a pocket knife as did all of his friends. Mimi: “I played with my sisters–paper dolls, house…we had so much fun.”

How did they cook?

Mimi: We had a big iron range fueled by coal. My father’s friend would bring us quail–his name was Mr. Derby and he was quite a hunter–and they were always cooked in a big black pan.”

Otis: “My mother didn’t like coal so she would buy wood for the cooking stove and my brother Warren and I would saw i
t up into suitable pieces with a two-handed saw.” The two of them did
this as his father was dead and his middle brother had died a year earlier from lockjaw, aka tetanus.

Some of my great grandparents’ extraordinary memories:

Otis: “I remember the first airplane I ever saw. This was a barnstorming pilot who came and showed off at a race track in Ft. Worth. It cost a quarter to get in and I sneaked in since I didn’t have a quarter. This must have been in about 1904 or 1905.”

Mimi: “I remember seeing Charles Lindbergh after he made his first solo flight across the Atlantic when he was touring the US. I went with my mother and sisters to see him.”

Both Mimi and Otis said their fathers went to the World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1904. Otis said his father brought back souvenir salt and pepper shakers from it.

At the end of the interview, they sent the message: “Dear Alex, we’re glad to answer your questions. Thank you for asking us–we had fun remembering these things! Love, Mimi and Granddaddy”

To discover your family stories, start asking questions!

I had so much fun looking over this document, and am extremely grateful that my parents organized and grandparents made this happen, prompting me to ask these questions. I was lucky enough to know my great grandparents, but as a child it wouldn’t have occurred to me they could have lived in such a dramatically different world. I know my parents and grandparents also learned several things during the process.

Now that I’m older I’ve really appreciated doing these interviews with my parents and grandparents. No matter how well you know someone, no matter how many meals and conversations you’ve had, it’s incredible what you can find out when you ask them about the times you didn’t share together.

Nowadays the fax machine is (thankfully) no longer necessary! Whether you live near or far to a loved one you can record them their with your phone, or over Skype, and save their memories for the benefit of future generations. It also happens–as it was for Otis and Mimi–to be a fun opportunity to reflect on one’s early or important memories, things that often don’t come up in everyday conversation.

We encourage you to take the time to talk to the people you care about. All it takes is some simple questions: Where did you live? How were you rewarded or punished at school? What did you do for fun as a child? What music did you listen to? Where did you travel? You will be surprised at what you learned, and you will be forever grateful you asked them to tell history.

It's time to ask your loved ones about their lives.

The stories you collect will teach and inspire others.

Share a story!