The Future’s Past

Electric Vehicles of the Early 20th Century and the H. H. Skinner Papers

 

With all of the attention that electric vehicles have received in recent years, it may seem at times that they’re a new invention, a product of the same 21st-century march of progress that has brought us smartphones, 3D printing, and virtual reality. But in fact, battery-powered vehicles have been around since the 1800s. According to the Department of Energy’s website, electric vehicles accounted for about a third of all vehicles traveling the nation’s roads and streets in 1900, and sales remained strong into the 1910s. This first heyday of the electric vehicle is documented in the H. H. Skinner Papers (Ms1988-061), a small but fascinating collection in Special Collections & University Archives.

A native of New York state, Herbert Harold Skinner (1886-1971) had worked for several electric companies before becoming an engineer/salesman with the Narragansett Electric Lighting Company of Providence, Rhode Island, around 1909.  Three years later, the company became interested in electric vehicles, attracted by their potential as a source for additional sales of electricity, and Skinner’s papers suggest that the young engineer oversaw the company’s foray into electric vehicles. Included in the collection is an in-house report describing how the company would directly benefit from its own use of electrics and how it might realize as much as $188,000 ($5.5 million in today’s dollars) in additional sales per year through the use of such vehicles by its customers. In arguing for electrics, the report delves into their history, technology, and economy.

The Baker Electrics coupe (top) and Buffalo Electric Company roadster (bottom) were marketed to upscale residential customers.
While emphasizing luxury or sportiness when marketing electrics to residential customers, manufacturers focused on utility when promoting the battery-powered vehicles to business and industry. This electric truck (which looks like something from a post-apocalyptic movie) was manufactured by Boston’s Eldridge Manufacturing Company and  was owned by the Metropolitan Coal Company.

Although the gasoline-powered vehicle’s eventual and complete dominance of the automotive market may appear to have been inevitable in hindsight, such an outcome couldn’t be foreseen at the advent of the 20th century. The horse, as it had for millennia, continued to serve as the primary choice for personal transportation and short-distance haulage. (Steam-powered cars, relying on a long-familiar technology, also maintained a small place in the market during this era.) Early gas-powered vehicles were difficult to start and operate, and they emitted fumes, smoke, and noise. Battery-powered electrics, in contrast, were simple, clean and quiet–advantages that offset their higher price tags. The electric vehicle was particularly well suited for urban, short-distance driving, and many of the ad campaigns for electrics targeted women; others promoted the technology’s use for commercial delivery or for public services.

In marketing electric vehicles to Providence residents and businesses, Skinner and the Narragansett Electric Lighting Company performed a number of cost-analysis studies, several of which are contained within the collection. In late June, the H. M. Phelps Company conducted a five-day demonstration to determine the cost-effectiveness of an electric delivery truck for the Shepard Company’s local parcel delivery service. The report includes complete details for the demonstration routes and the power used  during the five-day period, determining that delivery by electric vehicle would cost the company between $.059 and $.061 per mile and between $.014 and $.019 per delivery. (Supplementing the figures are images of several electric truck and wagon options.) In concluding the report, Skinner extols the virtues of the electric vehicle and its battery, claiming that a full night’s charge would provide sufficient power for a 60-mile route in Providence under ordinary circumstances. Interestingly, one of the benefits listed by Skinner relates to labor. Knowing the desire by businesses to keep all costs low, Skinner asserts: “The electric does not require a chauffeur. When a man has learned to operate the car, he has learned nothing that will justify him in asking for a higher salary. “

A fleet of Baker electrics employed as parcel delivery trucks by Halle Bros. of Cleveland, Ohio. According to the promotional blurb on the back of the photo, use of the electrics had halved the company’s annual delivery expenses.

Skinner’s customer files contain many smaller studies and reports on electric vehicle performance and cost. In some cases, the reports provide head-to-head cost comparisons with other modes of transportation. A 1913 letter to the Outlet Company, for example, compares the costs of a 1-ton electric delivery truck to those of a horse and accompanying equipment, concluding that the truck would be 51% cheaper to operate. Elsewhere, in a study comparing costs of an electric 4-ton Baker truck with a 4-ton gasoline-powered Packard, the figures show that while the $4500 price tag of the Baker was $1000 higher than that of the Packard, the Baker would cost $1500 less to operate per year. The collection is full of such data and would lead anybody reading it to conclude that electric vehicles were fated to be the mainstay of personal transportation and short-distance haulage for years to come.

An electric armored vehicle used by a trust company of Newark, New Jersey. A note on the back of the photo claims that the vehicle was “absolutely burglar proof.”

As it happened, the Narragansett Lighting Company’s venture into the electric vehicle market was ill-timed, as the confluence of several developments would soon cause the collapse of the electric vehicle industry. Ford’s introduction of the Model T in 1908 further reduced the initial cost of a gasoline-powered vehicle, while the development of the electric starter simplified the starting process. Moreover, as rural road conditions improved, long distance personal transportation became more feasible and demanded a cheap, easily accessible fuel source. Few rural areas had electricity at the time, and gasoline had become a cheap, readily available and inexpensive. Internal combustion technology also continued to advance, somewhat reducing complaints about noise and exhaust.

Its use limited to haulage over very short distances, this lift, manufactured by the Automatic Transportation Company of Buffalo and owned by Atlantic Mills of Providence, illustrates the somewhat unglamorous service to which electric vehicle power would be relegated for several decades.

Of course, none of this happened overnight, and electrics continued to be a significant part of the automotive market for several more years. Soon, however, the battery-powered vehicle virtually disappeared from the nation’s roads and streets. While electricity continued to power such niche vehicles as forklifts, it would be decades before concerns over the environment and the availability of fossil fuels would again spur serious interest in electric and hybrid vehicles as a viable mode of transportation. None of that was obvious to H. H. Skinner and the Narragansett Lighting Company in 1912, however, and in this small collection we can see an optimistic outlook for a then-flourishing industry.

More on H. H. Skinner and his papers may be found in the collection’s finding aid.

“The Words of Children” April 16th Remembrance Exhibit

Displayed on Newman Library’s 2nd floor now through April 22 during the library’s open hours, “The Words of Children” exhibit highlights items that Virginia Tech received following the tragic events of April 16, 2007. It features children’s letters, drawings, condolence books, and objects from elementary, middle, and high school students from around the world. The more than 150 items are filled with messages of love, hope, and peace, many of which have not been displayed for exhibition before.
 
A complimentary digital exhibit includes the letters and drawings on display as well as memories of those affected by April 16th collected in the April 16, 2007, Oral History Collection and from VT Stories. The digital exhibit is available at https://tinyurl.com/April162022Exhibit.
 
The exhibit is one of many events honoring the 23 Hokies we lost 15 years ago. Visit the Remembrance website at https://www.weremember.vt.edu/ for more information.
 

We continue to remember the 32 victims:

Ross A. Alameddine
Christopher James Bishop
Brian R. Bluhm
Ryan Christopher Clark
Austin Michelle Cloyd
Jocelyne Couture-Nowak
Daniel Alejandro Perez Cueva
Kevin P. Granata
Matthew Gregory Gwaltney
Caitlin Millar Hammaren
Jeremy Michael Herbstritt
Rachael Elizabeth Hill
Emily Jane Hilscher
Jarrett Lee Lane
Matthew Joseph La Porte
Henry J. Lee

Liviu Librescu
G.V. Loganathan
Partahi Mamora Halomoan Lumbantoruan
Lauren Ashley McCain Daniel
Patrick O’Neil
Juan Ramon Ortiz-Ortiz
Minal Hiralal Panchal
Erin Nicole Peterson
Michael Steven Pohle, Jr.
Julia Kathleen Pryde
Mary Karen Read
Reema Joseph Samaha
Waleed Mohamed Shaalan
Leslie Geraldine Sherman
Maxine Shelly Turner
Nicole Regina White

Addressing difficult topics can be stressful and cause anxiety, difficulty concentrating, sleep loss, and even concerns about safety. If you or a loved one needs help, visit https://www.weremember.vt.edu/ for available resources.

The Unrealized Vision of Architect Merle Easton’s “School Street Concept:” A Window Into Public Education Reform in 1970s West Philadelphia

The Merle Easton Collection is fully processed and the finding aid is available here.

Born in 1940, Merle Easton grew up in Sitka, Alaska, a port town on Baranof Island, southwest of Juneau, just to the west of British Columbia. She attended several schools in the Pacific Northwest before ultimately earning her Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Washington in Seattle in 1966. Interested in patterns of urban development and accounting for community needs in design, she developed a plan for a Community Center in central Seattle for her thesis project.

Following graduation, Easton found steady work in the Mid-Atlantic states. She worked independently, but also with agencies focused on concerns around urban renewal, affordable housing, and community displacement. As an independent architect, Easton developed the “street school” concept that was an outgrowth of the Mantua-Powelton Mini-School (MPMS) in West Philadelphia. Her conceptual design was intended to become a template for decentralized, modular schools, using inexpensive prefabricated units, integrated into their local neighborhoods. While the mini-school itself wasn’t a product of Easton’s design, it was her direct inspiration. An urban renewal project focused on refurbishing an abandoned factory building to house a small, integrated, and community-controlled school, the Mini-school sought to implement a radically different curriculum in a “found” space. The school served roughly 120-150 students (nearly all Black) in the two years it was open, all drawn from the surrounding area, and was meant to be a bridge between the middle class Powelton neighborhood and the predominantly Black and underserved Mantua neighborhood.

Riffing on the underlying philosophy of the Mini-school, Easton collaborated with neighborhood activist and MPMS principal Forrest Adams to develop a design geared toward scaling the existing school into a “mini-school system.” This prototype would offer affordable and sustainable growth that would expand the school without disrupting community life – it would rehabilitate and reuse space and resources, minimize waste and impingement, and weave community life and experiential learning into the fabric of elementary education. Easton developed drawings, scale models, and a film to promote the concept and get critical buy-in from the Mantua and Powelton communities and various funding agencies.

The project was written about in two issues of Progressive Architecture, Design and Planning: The New Schools by James Morisseau, and in Women in American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective, edited by Susana Torre. In Torre’s book, Easton’s vision is described as “designed to cut time and expense in school construction, to revitalize high density inner city neighborhoods and to provide a more complete and relevant education including the entire community in the process. The school utilizes ‘found’ spaces, such as streets and empty lots. Prefabricated classrooms and toilets, multimedia domed meeting rooms and retractable barrel vaults plug into a community and draw upon people, existing businesses, and institutions as educational resources” (Torre 164). Adams and Easton both advocated for the idea of a “street school” as more cost effective than the traditional alternatives, arguing it would cost $7-10 per square foot compared to $21-30 per square foot of conventional school construction (Progressive Architecture 34). And yet the idea failed to garner enough critical traction to be fully realized.

The Mantua-Powelton Mini-School foundered for a few reasons, some rooted in a lack of critical oversight, others located in the novelty of its power structure. In Seven Schools, a 1972 publication from The Young Great Society Building Foundation, the authors cite the fact that the school had too little time to fully develop multiple radical approaches to education. This, coupled with not making good on its promise of engaging the community, lack of continued funding, and disagreements among its teachers regarding both curriculum and discipline, made for chaotic implementation and practically doomed the school from the start (Goldfarb et al. 33-35). On top of these problems there was the additional stressor of the refurbished factory being poorly adapted as an educational environment.

The mission of the school and, later, the “school street concept” was and continued to be community empowerment, but as Mark R. Shedd, superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia from 1967 to 1972, admitted in a private interview: “In the early days I thought community control was the thing. Now I think shared power is more realistic. I don’t think the central administration or the board or the superintendent can abdicate. I don’t think that’s proper or realistic. The mini-school represented, in part, an abdication of our responsibilities. We didn’t insist from the outset on the proper kind of management controls… We should have insisted upon a much closer audit and monitoring function. But we didn’t” (Shedd as qtd. on 35). Here there are multiple interlocking structures at play: the educational system itself, local power structures, community participation incentives (needed to generate buy-in), zoning (and redlining), resource allocation, and so on. While the mini-school and Easton’s “school street concept” were distinct from each other, I think it’s an interesting exercise to map the lessons of the mini-school onto the larger vision of the “street school.” That’s not to say that the school street or mini-school system would necessarily have failed in its implementation, but the exercise aims to understand how fraught it can be to navigate multiple entrenched systems while trying to generate innovative design solutions.

After her work on the mini-school Easton went on to work as a draftsperson, job captain, and staff architect at several firms and on a variety of projects, including hospitals, churches, and schools. As job captain at Victor H. Wilburn & Associates, she produced a report, included in her collection, analyzing the programs of the Wilmington Housing Authority and proposing measures and policy adjustments to make their programs more effective. In the introduction to the WHA report she summarizes the problem with Wilmington planning: “policy sprawl.” Quoting an interviewee: “‘Policy sprawl’ – that ungraceful, bits-and-pieces spread of plans and projects without any overall vision to offer the public” (representative of Gauge Corporation quoted in WHA Report). A consistent thread running through Easton’s materials is her commitment to “big picture” thinking about long-term development and planning and I’m so glad her collection is now fully accessible to researchers.

References

  • Epstein, Ed. Race, Real Estate, and Education: The University of Pennsylvania’s Interventions in West Philadelphia, 1960-1980. Diss. University of Pennsylvania, 2020.
  • Goldfarb, Lawrence, Peter Brown, and Thomas P. Gallagher. Seven Schools: A Story of Community Action for Better Education. The Young Great Society Building Foundation: Philadelphia, 1972.
  • Materials relating to the Mantua-Powelton Mini-School and “school street concept,” Folders 9-13, Box 2, Merle Easton Architectural Collection, Ms2021-028, Special Collections and University Archives, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Va.
  • “School in the Streets” in Progressive Architecture. New York: Reinhold, October 1970. Print.
  • Torre, Susana (ed.). Women in American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective : A Publication and Exhibition Organized by the Architectural League of New York through its Archive of Women in Architecture. Whitney Library of Design, New York, 1977.
  • Victor H. Wilburn and Associates, Progress Report to Wilmington Housing Authority, Folder 7, Box 2, Merle Easton Architectural Collection, Ms2021-028, Special Collections and University Archives, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Va.

 

 

An Incident of Reconstruction

Very often when reading old letters, it’s easy to lose a large part of the writer’s meaning, even when the penmanship is perfect and the grammar impeccable. Being far removed from the writer’s time and place, we lose a great deal of the context, of the experiences and culture shared by the correspondents, and may, in our ignorance, overlook accounts of significant events. The C. L. Porcher Letter (Ms1988-072) relates an event in Black history–albeit from the perspective of a white woman–but that aspect of the letter could easily be missed without a careful reading of its contents.

A native of Charleston, South Carolina, Clelia Lightwood Porcher was living and working as a teacher in that city when she sat down to write a letter on September 12, 1876. After briefly discussing a family matter, Porcher remarks that “Isaac was summoned and was out until after one, but Sunday + Monday night the rain was so steady that no disturbance was even looked for …” (“Isaac” was probably Isaac Mazyak, or Mazyck, who appears in the 1880 census as a 24-year-old clerk, boarding in the Porcher home.) Later, Porcher adds that “[t]he Mayor’s and Governor’s proclamation has only had the effect of making them more determined than they were before.” She continues by noting that the city is well protected and the danger likely over, then describes a large meeting of women at the Confederate Home, held for the purpose of organizing refreshments for men serving guard duty throughout the city. (She’s not optimistic about the women’s organization, however: “We were there three blessed hours and came away as wise as I went about what was to be done.”) Porcher also expresses her feelings about the mood in the city: “I have never been so excited in my life before + every body can think and talk of nothing else … We hear the slightest unusual sound during the night, so as you may imagine our sleep is not very profound.” But the following day, Porcher reports that the unrest has been quelled: “[I]t is thought that everything now will be quiet, the only thing is, our men cannot relax their vigilance.”

     

All of this hints at some civil disturbance experienced in Charleston, but what was it? Who were the “them” to whom Porcher refers? Why were they “more determined” after hearing the mayor’s and governor’s proclamations? A few online searches reveal that Porcher’s letter relates to politics and race relations in Charleston near the end of Reconstruction.

Early in September 1876, Charleston saw two Democratic Party meetings in which several local Black residents spoke about their reasons for abandoning the Republican Party. In a Black Democratic Party club meeting held on King Street on September 6, two Black speakers spoke against the Republican Party. Afterward white Democrats escorted the speakers through a crowd of Republicans that had gathered outside the Democratic meeting. Violence between the two groups ensued, and the intervention of federal troops and an integrated local police force was of little consequence. (Not on hand that first night were the city’s many “rifle clubs”–essentially local militia–which were the clubs to which Porcher refers.) Windows were smashed, stores were looted, a number of people were assaulted, and one white man was accidentally killed.

That Porcher’s letter was written six days after the incident suggests that the unrest continued for some time. In response to the violence, Republican South Carolina Governor Daniel Henry Chamberlain issued a proclamation promising to “secure to every man, of whatever political party, the right to speak, act and vote freely and safely …” Neglecting to state what actions he would take to restore order, Chamberlain called on all citizens to do their utmost in preserving the peace: “The spirit of poiltical intolerance, in all its forms,” he wrote, “is the direst curse which now oppresses our State, and peace and prosperity will never come until that foul spirit is finally exorcised.” Despite his lofty ideals, Chamberlain was seen as ineffective in suppressing the violence. A lack of voter confidence in his ability to quell the violence, coupled with suppression of Black voters and the defection of others to the Republican Party, led to Chamberlain’s defeat in November.

The feelings aroused that fall in Charleston and elsewhere would play out in the national election. Losses by Republicans in November, together with the Compromise of 1877, which led to the withdrawal of the remaining federal troops from the South, ended the promises of Reconstruction. A close reading of the Porcher Letter provides a look at this incident of Reconstruction.

 

Physics and The Man: Cold War Science and Dr. Robert Marshak

Robert Eugene Marshak was born October 11, 1916 in the Bronx in New York City to Jewish immigrant parents Harry and Rose Marshak. He excelled at school, attending City College of New York for a brief time before finishing his undergraduate degree at Columbia University. He then went on to receive his PhD in Physics from Cornell in 1939. He and his thesis advisor, Hans Bethe, researched the role of fusion in star formation. This work landed him a spot on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos a few years later, where he assisted in the development of atomic weapons technology. Of particular note were his contributions to our understanding of how shock waves behave during high energy events such as nuclear explosions, which led to such waves being known as “Marshak waves”. 

After the war, Marshak returned to New York to take up a position in the Physics Department at Rochester University in Rochester. In 1947, as a participant in the Shelter Island Conference, Marshak presented a hypothesis theorizing the existence of a new class of subatomic particle, which was shortly to be confirmed. After becoming head of the University of Rochester Physics Department in 1950, Marshak established the Rochester Conference, now known as the International Conference on High Energy Physics, which still meets to this day. His work on weak interactions was instrumental to establishing the electroweak theory, which won Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann a Nobel Prize.

It is unclear what Marshak’s beliefs were before World War II, but, following his work on the Manhattan Project, he became a staunch supporter of open science and an end to the militarization of science and technology. He worked tirelessly to enhance scientific communication, protest nationalist scientific policies, and promote peace. While people who knew him frequently described him as being prickly, arrogant, and difficult to work with, he nevertheless used his position and renown within his field to support and advocate for scientists who found themselves persecuted by their own governments. He maintained an active correspondence with physicists and scientists all over the world and attended conferences, symposia, meetings, and workshops to learn and share his own knowledge. 

 

A letter to Marshak from Albert Einstein.

 

In 1970, he was offered the position of President at City College of New York, which he had once attended. He accepted, and ran the school for 9 years. As time wore on, he found he missed physics and teaching, so in 1979 he took up the position of University Distinguished Professor of Physics at Virginia Tech, where he stayed until his retirement in 1991. In 1983, while at Virginia Tech, he also served a year-long term as President of the American Physical Society, which is the largest organization of American physicists. 

One incident in particular highlights Marshak’s commitment to scientific freedom and openness.  Andrei Sakharov was a nuclear physicist from the Soviet Union. His life had a similar trajectory to Marshak’s. He too worked on nuclear technology for his country, and he too came to believe that weaponizing science was a sure path to war and destruction. However, his life turned out much differently than Marshak’s. In the 1950’s and 60’s, Sakharov began to advocate for peace and an end to nuclear testing. He became a well-known dissident within his own country, work which would eventually lead to his arrest, exile, and a Nobel Peace Prize. It is during this period where his story intersects with Marshak’s. In Marshak’s papers, one can trace the American’s growing concern with the danger and persecution facing his Soviet colleague, as well as his efforts to bring the situation to the attention of the global community and prevent harm from coming to Sakharov, who by now was known much more for his political actions than for his work as a physicist. Marshak did not face such overt threats, but his support of and communication with Soviet scientists throughout the Cold War period brought him under scrutiny at a time when the specter of communism made any connection to the USSR a dangerous one. He was forced to undergo several investigations by the House Un-American Activities Committee as a result of his work. Despite this, Marshak never stopped being an advocate for the peaceful sharing of science and technology. 

This only skims the surface of Marshak’s papers. The finding aid for his collections can be found here.  

 

This project was supported by a grant from the American Institute of Physics.

Deadly Obsession

Homer Davis and His Unusual Legacy

With the Halloween season upon us, our thoughts naturally turn to the eerie and macabre, and so I thought I’d tell you today about the morbid souvenirs collected by a creature who once haunted American cemeteries from coast to coast.

Okay, Homer Davis was no ghoul. But if I’d opened by saying that this would be a post about somebody who enjoyed visiting cemeteries as a pleasant past-time (as many people do) and took photos of the noteworthy graves that he found within them, you’d have been less inclined to take a moment to read about a nice  little collection here in Special Collections and University Archives that deserves some attention.

The Homer E. Davis Papers (Ms2001-051) contain materials collected by a Civil War enthusiast and amateur historian, including Civil War maps, memorabilia, and publications—the types of things found in any number of other such collections. Born in 1922 and a veteran of World War II, Homer Davis was working as a stockbroker when health problems forced him into early retirement in 1971. It was this forced retirement that led to an unusual component of his collection.  In his newfound leisure time, Davis began visiting and photographing the gravesites of Civil War generals. Because that’s a relatively short list of people, Davis’s interest soon expanded to the resting places of other Civil War veterans, and eventually he began documenting the graves of other noteworthy individuals, including  politicians, entertainers, authors, and others. And so the Homer Davis Papers include photographs documenting approximately 12,000 gravesites in all 50 states.

Davis was hardly alone in his interest in graveyards. Cemeteries have long been frequented by those seeking a tranquil retreat or a link with our shared past. The hobby of visiting cemeteries with a view toward preservation of gravesites through photography is a relatively recent one, however. Today, millions of gravesites are photographically preserved on findagrave and other websites through the efforts of “gravers,” but during Davis’s active years, 1971-1982, few people were making a systematic effort at photographic preservation, and it’s a good bet that some of the gravesites visited by Davis have since fallen into ruin or have even disappeared, with his photographs being their only surviving record.

 

 

A few random gravesite images from among the thousands photographed by Davis: poet-author Carl Sandburg, abolitionist-statesman Frederick Douglass, and actress-singer Lillian Russell.

Though without attention to craft, seemingly composed in haste, and sometimes lacking in sharpness, Davis’s photographs preserve the setting and appearance of the subject matter. He often took multiple photos of a single gravesite, attempting not only to document the entire monument, but the inscriptions thereon. Like a good hobbyist of any kind, Davis was a stickler for details, and the verso of each photograph contains the name of the interred, the location of the grave, the date of the photograph, and a brief description of the deceased’s claim to fame. Complementing the photo collection are Davis’s cemetery research folders (one for each state and the District of Columbia), including research notes, correspondence, local maps, and—most significantly—information on individual cemeteries.

Among the lesser-knowns memorialized by Davis is Timothy Dexter (1748-1806) of Newburyport, Massachusetts, identified by Davis on the verso as an “[e]ccentric merchant and author of a humorous autobiography. The town clown.”

The back of the photograph documenting the grave of Philip John Schuyler contains a mini-biography of Philip John Schuyler, Revolutionary War major general and congressman.

Tragically, Homer Davis’s life was cut short as a result of injuries received in an automobile accident during a Michigan graving excursion in 1982. When Peggy Davis, his wife and graving companion, died in 2000, Davis’s papers (and a sizable Civil War book collection), were donated to Special Collections and University Archives. (A selection of Davis’s gravesite photos from southwestern Virginia were scanned soon after the donation and may be found in our Imagebase.)

Because the Davis papers were the first that I processed at Virginia Tech, I have a bit of a soft spot for them, and I hope they’ll see more use in the future. Certainly, they’d be of interest to anybody researching general burial practices and specific burial places, or possibly the nature of celebrity, or somebody exploring graving as a hobby or even the compulsive world of hobbyists. In fact, Special Collections and University Archives and our researchers have been the ultimate beneficiary of the disparate passions of a number of hobbyists, from the collections of amateur ornithologists Eugene Law and Harold Bailey, to the railroad memorabilia collected by Wythe County’s Wayne Perkins, and from the research notes of several family and local historians to the scrapbooks of many Virginia Tech students. But none are quite as unusual as the legacy of Homer Davis.

A Collection of Distinction: The William S. Newton Papers, 1862-1879

A few days ago, a colleague asked me to distribute a job announcement from a nearby university. This is a pretty common practice and there are a lot of job searches underway. But this one caught my attention because the position description referred to building “distinctive collections.” I found the phrasing as an attempt to be clever, but more importantly it highlighted an archival challenge—to decide which archival and manuscript collections are the most or least important. Assigning the value of “distinctive” to collections is problematic since all collections are unique in some way and thus distinctive. Perhaps “distinctive” is another way of saying that the origins or provenance of the collection are significant (e.g., an unpublished manuscript that unearthed in J.D. Salinger’s backyard), that the collection is the “crown jewel” for the institution, or perhaps that it was just very expensive. 

To me, a distinctive collection is one that has the potential to attract great research interest and can be used by researchers for multiple purposes. It is easy to pursue a collection, either through purchase or as a donation, that you believe has great research value, but it is always unknown whether others, such as colleagues and researchers, will have the same opinion. I spend a large amount of time considering which archival and manuscript collections would be a good fit for Special Collections and University Archives at Virginia Tech. Most days, I spend some amount of time talking or corresponding with potential donors, reviewing dealer catalogs, seeking opinions from others on potential acquisitions, or searching through online auction listings. My goal is to identify collections that support research and the major collecting areas that we highlight in the blog. Working closely with collections once they arrive is not my normal routine, but sometimes I remain involved in organizing and creating access to the material that I helped bring in the doors.

As a recent example, I have spent many hours working with the William S. Newton Papers, 1862-1879, which is one of my favorite acquisitions in the past five years. The story begins in early 2017 when I saw a listing for the collection in an auction catalog. Newton’s story fit well with the department’s collecting areas and researcher groups. The collection includes about 170 letters Newton wrote to his wife and children during the Civil War. The letters document the Civil War experiences of an Ohio surgeon serving in Virginia and West Virginia from 1862-1865. The collection also includes a postwar letter describing his experiences at the Battle of Cloyd’s Mountain, which occurred in Pulaski County, approximately twenty miles from Blacksburg. Newton was assistant surgeon of the 91st Ohio Volunteer Infantry and near the end of the war served as surgeon of the 193rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry.

William S. Newton spent most of his Civil War service in Virginia and West Virginia. The following map includes many of the locations mentioned in Newton’s letters. John Formby, The American Civil War: A Concise History of Its Causes, History, and Results, Maps (New York: Scribners, 1910), map 10.

As for some background, William Smith Newton was born on February 6, 1823, near the small town of Harmer, in Washington County, Ohio. The town, now part of Marietta, was located where the Muskingum River flows into the Ohio River, with Virginia (now West Virginia) located on the other side to the south. He was the son of Oren and Elizabeth Fuller Newton. His father, Oren, was an important figure in the community and was involved in farming and the grindstone industry. Like other members of his family, Newton attended Marietta College. He completed his freshman year, 1842-1843, but he did not continue with courses or graduate from Marietta College. Instead, he took an interest in medicine and enrolled as a medical student in fall 1843 at the Medical College of Ohio in Cincinnati. Newton graduated in 1845 from the Medical College of Ohio and returned to Harmar.

In 1845, he married Frances Ann Hayward of Gallipolis and they relocated to Ironton, Ohio several years later. They had seven children during their marriage. Three of their children, Oren Hayward (1846–1858), Lewis Garland (May–October 1848), and Fanny Lillian (1857–1858), died before reaching adulthood. In 1862, when William enlisted in the Union Army, they had three children, Edward (Ned) Seymore (born 1850), Valentine Mott (born 1852), and Kate May (born 1860). Another child, John Beverly (born November 9, 1863), arrived during Newton’s military service.

In the fall of 1862, Newton was appointed assistant surgeon of the 91st Ohio Volunteer Infantry which has just been organized into five companies at Ironton. For the next three years, Newton wrote a steady stream of letters to his wife and children. Those incoming letters were kept together and most likely stayed with the Newton family after the war. At some point, the letters ended up in private hands, most recently with a well-known collector of antique firearms. Sometime in the 1970s, the owner of the collection at that time allowed most of the collection to be microfilmed for use at the Ohio Historical Society in Columbus. Thus, only a handful of researchers who either knew how to contact the owner or were willing to suffer through using microfilm made use of the collection. My search yielded one master’s thesis and a few books on Civil War military history that referred to the William S. Newton Papers. Clearly, access to the collection was limited and it deserved to be in an archival repository. I shared these details with colleagues on campus and in the department and all agreed that the Newton Papers would be a wonderful addition.

On Tuesday, February 21, 2017, I waited on the phone as a live bidder for the Newton Papers to be auctioned. After several bids, we were the successful bidder and a few weeks later the Newton Papers arrived Blacksburg. In the weeks and months that followed, the collection was given a catalog record and put in the backlog for later processing. In the meantime, I shared the news with many potential researchers and invited them to come look at the collection even though it was still unprocessed. In the months that followed I continued to suggest the Newton Papers to graduate students and other Civil War researchers. Surprisingly, I received a very small response and the collection was hardly used.

Despite limited interest from researchers, I was still convinced that Newton deserved more attention. In 2019, I decided to make the Newton Papers a priority. I began working through the included transcripts (which were rife with errors) and in just a few weeks I had become very familiar with the collection. A surprise offer of weekly hours from a graduate student from the history department to help with the transcription work kept the project active. As a potential output for all this work, I had a random conversation with a colleague at the University of Tennessee Press about the collection and they suggested that it would be a great fit for the Voices of the Civil War series. After a lot of consideration and some hesitation, I decided that a book of Newton’s edited letters (not an interpretative work) would be a great way to promote the collection and draw researchers to Civil War collections at Virginia Tech.

I was astonished with the depth of the letters and the range of topics discussed. Newton’s letters focus on many significant topics of the Civil War era—military maneuvers, race relations, politics, medical practices, and life among officers in camp. Newton reported on his work as a surgeon. He managed several hospitals (both in seized buildings and in the field), tended to patients, ordered supplies, arranged for the wounded to return home, and informed families of the loss of a loved one. Newton’s letters mention taking care of soldiers who he knew personally from his medical practice. Although a non-combatant, Newton experienced frequent skirmishes with Confederate raiders and was part of several significant military campaigns. His letters describe significant battles in West Virginia and Virginia, most notably the Second Battle of Kernstown, the Battle of Opequan (Third Battle of Winchester), and the Battle of Cedar Creek. Of note, Newton’s October 8, 1867 letter to Ohio adjutant general Benjamin R. Cowen documents his most harrowing moments during the Civil War—Newton’s capture by Confederates following the Battle of Cloyd’s Mountain in May 1864, his role in operating on wounded Confederate General Albert Gallatin Jenkins, and his brief imprisonment and release from Libby Prison later that month. Other letters describe his working relationships with officers in the 91st Ohio Volunteer Infantry.

After the Battle of Cloyd’s Mountain in May 1864, William S. Newton and other medical staff were captured by Confederates and sent to Libby Prison (pictured above) in Richmond. Newton stayed at Libby Prison only three days, but later attributed his poor health to the deplorable conditions he experienced there. Library of Congress, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.41823

Newton’s letters reveal the close connections between friend and enemy. For example, in October 1863, Newton was given charge of a Union hospital located in Charleston, West Virginia. In an October 10 letter, he explained “Our Hospital is in one of the finest houses of the town, and I am quartered in the parlor with a nice bed, cane bottom chairs & sofas, all belonging to some rebel, but I will take good care of them, and see they are not abused.” Two days later, Newton wrote “Last evening on examining the portraits hanging around the parlor, I discovered one that looked like John Ruby. On going to the book case, I found two or three with John C. Ruby written in full. I then enquired and found that not only his, but that of wife sister-in-law, Mother-in­law, & Father-in-law, all in very large gilt frames, was this not a discovery.” Ruby was born in Gallia County, Ohio, which may explain why Newton knew him and his family. Newton concluded the letter saying “John Ruby is Quartermaster in 22nd Va. Reb Reg., and I am here living in his house & using his furniture. So the world moves, and such is war.”

The limited status of emancipated slaves in society was another element in Newton’s correspondence. In August 1863, Newton’s letters first mentioned Mary Ann McDonald, a former slave who was emancipated by the Union army following the raid of Wytheville. It is likely that Mary was sent to the hospital for examination and Newton claimed responsibility for her wellbeing. He decided to send Mary to Ironton to assist his wife and family. As part of the plan, Ned and Mott met her in Charleston, West Virginia, and took her back to Ironton. He was concerned that “negro traders” in Charleston might “steal her away from the boys before they get a boat,” but she safely made it to Ironton. Newton explained to his wife that Mary “belongs to you, that your interests are hers.” He suggested that “the boys teach her to read” and possibly write, but Newton made clear that Mary did not have any level of independence. In an August 23 letter he told his wife “You can make, or mold her into anything you desire.” The addition of Mary to the Newton household was not an easy adjustment. The letters were unclear on the details, but rumors about Mary’s trustworthiness circulated through Ironton and found their way back to Newton. The breaking point was the accusation that Mary had stolen personal items from the family. Some of the lost articles were later discovered and had simply been misplaced instead of stolen. Newton’s inquiries confirmed that all accusations against Mary were unfounded. Nonetheless, by October Newton’s wife had lost all trust in Mary and discharged her from service. She was no longer mentioned in their correspondence and there are no existing records to trace what happened to Mary Ann McDonald in the decades that followed. These and other letters make clear the overt racism throughout white society during this period.

In August 1863, William S. Newton sent Mary Ann McDonald, a former slave who was emancipated by the Union Army following the raid of Wytheville, to Ironton to work for his wife. In this August 23, 1864 letter Newton explained that Mary could learn how to ready and write, but he outlined few other freedoms. A few weeks later, Mary was wrongfully accused of stealing personal items and the arrangement ended.

Newton’s letters expressed a deep interest in family affairs. His letters advised on family matters such as buying and selling property back in Ohio, naming his newborn child, advising his teenage son Ned to live an upstanding life, prescribing medicines to remedy illnesses in the family, and preparing a new farm for when he could return home. His letters conveyed a deep sense of loneliness, especially for his wife.

As a possible cure for Newton’s homesickness, two of his children, Ned and Mott, visited him in camp. During the day, while he attended to the sick and wounded, his children would fish in nearby rivers and streams for their evening meal. On July 5, 1863 Newton explained:

Ned hardly has time to accompany me. He is very busy fishing, spends the day catching the little ones for bait, then at night puts out his trot, with 30 or 40 hooks. He wants me to tell you that he caught one on Friday morning weighing ten lbs. The soldiers had a good laugh, for he used one of the boat oars as a club, with which to pound the fish over the head, because it did not hold still. The only wonder is, that he did not knock it loose from the hook. He was alone at the time, and captured five in all.

In a July 5, 1863 letter to his wife Newton described the fishing exploits of his teenage son Ned.

My favorite letters were those written directly to Ned. In a February 24, 1864 letter, Newton scolded Ned for a variety of offenses. He wrote:

What would be your feelings, if a man, should you see another man, a stranger, impose upon your mother; would you not risk your life in resenting the imposition, or insult! If not, you are not of my blood or kindred. Then how much more despicable is he, that would abuse, or offer an insult to his own mother! . . . You certainly are not demented, or crazy, yet how could I suppose a boy almost 14 years of age, could commit such indiscretion. I truly hope no one knows of it.

In addition to disrespecting his mother, Ned was also playing with firearms. In the same letter Newton wrote:

Did you think it would afford me any happiness, to know that you were taking the gun out, contrary to my express command, and have you reflected that if, some accident should take place, how much misery you might cause to your parents & others.

Like any parent would, Newton outlined a remedy to get Ned back on the proper path—penmanship. Newton explained:

Character is said to be exhibited in the penmanship. If yours is the true exhibit of character, how uneven & unbalanced it must be. I fear your energy & resolutions are short lived, and to little purpose. Can you not do better! Will you not try! And before I see you, let me see some specimens of improvement, both in penmanship & character. Your happiness as well as mine depends upon it.

In a February 24, 1864 letter William S. Newton advised his son Ned that penmanship built character and contributed to a successful life.

Newton’s later letters, especially those written in 1865, focused on his dreams for the postwar. He purchased a farm in West Union, Ohio from Benjamin F. Coates (colonel in the 91st Ohio Volunteer Infantry) and advised his boys to begin preparing it for the family. There was a clear sense that Newton believed that farming represented an idyllic lifestyle and way to teach his children the value of hard work and patience. He wrote more letters to Ned during this period, and it appears that the teenager was again having behavior problems but took an interest in joining the church. Newton wanted both of his boys to be men of business instead of “town loafers.” Newton’s instructions for growing crops, cleaning fencerows, and tending to a new home were aimed at teaching Ned important life lessons in a more wholesome setting with fewer temptations.

After the war, Newton and family settled in Gallipolis and not in West Union. Newton resumed his medical practice, served as postmaster in Gallipolis, and participated in reunion activities with his former regiment. Included with the collection is a copy of Newton’s pension application. He suffered from several maladies which he attributed to his brief imprisonment at Libby Prison in 1864. Newton died on Saturday, November 18, 1882, just a few months shy of his sixtieth birthday. 

Newton’s letters are as much about daily life and society of the 1860s as they are about the military or medical details of the Civil War. The more I followed clues in Newton’s letters the larger the puzzle of people, places, and topics became. I connected with descendants of the Newton family in Ohio and Florida, who were excited to learn more about their ancestors. In the months that followed, which included working remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I continued to work on the project. During the summer of 2021, I finalized the processing and posted the finding aid to the Virginia Heritage database. The book of edited letters was accepted as part of the University of Tennessee Press’s Voices of the Civil War series and is scheduled to be published sometime in the spring of 2022. My involvement with this collection was significant, but the good news is that there is much more for researchers to discover by reading Newton’s letters.

I suppose the Newton Papers count as a distinctive collection for Virginia Tech because they were expensive, expansive in content, and touch on multiple research areas. But, the more I thought about the concept of a “distinctive collection” the more I wanted to avoid the term which sounds like certain collections should be prioritized from the larger whole and treated differently. Instead, the Newton Papers are an excellent addition to the already strong collecting areas of the Civil War in Virginia and Appalachian history at Virginia Tech. In other words, on its own merits the collection is wonderful, but it is even more significant when placed alongside other similar primary sources. As usual, I will be on the lookout for more collections that have such attributes. In the meantime, please come to the first floor of Newman Library and spend some time with the William S. Newton Papers, which are significant, unique, and far more than just distinctive.

Recently Processed Collections

After a year and a half without student workers onsite due to the pandemic, SCUA finally has a number of students in the department working on a variety of projects! I’m fortunate right now to supervise a couple of them on a number of processing projects in our different collecting areas, including the University Archives, Local/Regional History and Appalachian South, and the American Civil War, among others.

The Records of the Virginia Tech Dean of Students, Henry J. Holtzclaw, RG 8/2a, pertain to the work of Holtzclaw, who was the first person to serve as Dean of Students (also called Dean of Men) at VPI from 1923 to 1924. The collection is predominantly of correspondence between Holtzclaw and others at the university, such as President Julian Burruss, the Athletics Director C.P. Miles, and many other well known names from this time period.

The collection shows the intricacy and detail to which the Dean was involved in the everyday operations of the university. Holtzclaw helped develop the timetable and schedule of classes as well as the annual catalog. He oversaw the students’ attendance, handling requests for resigning from the university and their discipline in relation to hazing, poor grades, and rules violations. Dean Holtzclaw was also involved with the student organizations. One item of particular interest relates an incident when the Corps of Cadets was called to help put out a fire in town.

The Records of the Lee Literary Society, RG 31/14/11, and the Records of the Maury Literary Society, RG 31/14/12, contain the records and ephemera of the societies from 1873 to 1929. The two student organizations split from the first student group at VAMC, the Virginia Literary Society, and they co-published the Gray Jacket, one of the first student publications.

The Theodore Winthrop Papers, Ms2021-004, contains items by and about Winthrop, who has the distinction of being the first Union officer killed in the American Civil War. Winthrop served on the staff of General Benjamin Butler, when he was killed at the Battle of Big Bethel in Virginia on June 10, 1861.

Signature of Theodore Winthrop from the Theodore Winthrop Papers, Ms2021-004
Signature of Theodore Winthrop from the Theodore Winthrop Papers, Ms2021-004

While only one item, the Virginia Tax Receipt, Ms2021-009, is a unique document from 1859 as it identifies a freedman’s tax payments for Peter Logan of Chesterfield, Virginia. Looking through the records on Ancestry.com, Peter Logan (ca. 1810-1880) is a Black shoemaker from Chesterfield County, Virginia.

Virginia Tax Receipt for Peter Logan, 1859, Ms2021-009
Virginia Tax Receipt for Peter Logan, 1859, Ms2021-009

The Southwest Virginia Photograph Album, Ms2021-014, document a local family’s life in Virginia, including a visit to VPI, and the Danville Photograph Album, Ms2021-015, depict nurses and doctors at a hospital in Danville, Virginia.

The Blacksburg Lions Club Records, Ms2021-022, document the work of the local Lions Club, primarily their charitable work with eye and ear diseases. We also received a number of music books, mostly men’s choral music and a couple Lions Club books, which will be added to the Rare Book Collection.

Some other collections recently processed:

The Birds and the Bees: or, Murder most fowl

Millard L. Foley was a bird salesman in Salem, Virginia active during the 1950s and 1960s. The M. L. Foley Collection (Ms2012-031) is a collection of correspondence related to his business. It was purchased by Special Collections and University Archives in 2012 for inclusion in our Local and Regional History and the Appalachian South collections and, despite my interest in birds, I had never had occasion to look at it before this summer. When I did look through it, I discovered some interesting correspondence between Foley and clients.

Most of the correspondence is pretty basic and rather what one would expect of correspondence from a small business offering mail-order sales. There are many inquiries from readers of Allen Publishing Company’s Game Bird Breeders, Pheasant Fanciers and Aviculture’s Gazette (also known as Bird Breeder’s Gazette or simply the Gazette). These are typically followed by a customized form-letter response. There are, however, a few series of correspondence that stand out from the rest. And there’s one in particular that caught my attention and seemed like a fun highlight for the blog.

The series of letters begins simply. Henry Safranek of Lebanon, Connecticut sends a simple inquiry to M. L. Foley asking about Elliot’s pheasant hens and Cheer pheasants. It’s short and basically the same as the other correspondence in the collection, but it begins a back-and-forth that is pretty neat to read.

Letter from Henry Safranek to M.L. Foley dated October 17, 1959

Lebanon Conn.
Oct 17 1959.

Mr. M.L. Foley

Dear Sir:

I am interested in buying 1 or 2 Elliot hen phesants, also pair or trio of cheers. Please let me know what you are asking for them.

Thank you
Henry Safranek
Lebanon
Conn.

Foley sent his typical response. In a letter that is all business and responds directly to Safranek’s questions, Foley let him know that he was out of Elliot’s for the year and that he had some Cheers available. Very simple, businesslike correspondence. Nothing remarkable.

Letter from M.L. Foley to Henry Safranek dated October 19, 1959

October 19, 1959

Mr. Henry Safranek
Lebanon, Conn.

Dear Sir:

Thank you very much for your inquiry on ornamental pheasants. I am very sorry that I do not have any more Elliots. I sold the last pair only yesterday. I have one trio of Cheers, breeders, left. The two hens laid 43 egges this season. But I will tell you that the Cheer cock is afraid of these two hens and will breed only occasionally. Another cock will have to be placed with these hens. I am offering them at twenty dollars ($20.00) for the two hens and with or without the cock.

We would appreciate your order and give it our most prompt attention.

Yours very truly,
M. L. Foley

Things start to get interesting with Safranek’s next letter. Within a couple of days, Safranek’s second letter arrives with further inquiries. He also provides some description of his prior experiences as a bird breeder and an explanation of why he is looking for an Elliot’s hen.

Page 1 of letter from Henry Safranek to M.L. Foley dated October 23, 1959

Lebanon Conn.
Qct 23 1959

Mr. M.L. Foley

Dear Sir:
Thank you for your reply to my letter and am sorry that you have no Elliots hen left. I only bought my pair last spring and lost my hen from eating rat nip. We have been troubled with pack rats this summer and one must have carried a piece of bread into their pen as I lost her the next day.

I don’t know much about rare phesants as this is my first year with them, and although your offer on the cheers is O.K. I don’t know where I could get another cock bird from. So think my best bet is trying to buy a young pair to start with.

My Elliot hen laid about 20 eggs half of which were deformed and which I did not set. Out

Page 2 of letter from Henry Safranek to M.L. Foley dated October 23, 1959

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of the 10 which I did set 5 were good but I lost them after they hatched. I had them with 6 bantam chicks under a bantam hen. I guess that they were much to flighty for her and she killed them on me the second day.

I use to raise 4 to 5 hundred ring neck under bantams each year but no longer have time to take care of that many birds, so as a past time I thought I would try a few pairs of rare phesants.

The only person that I have met that raises rare phesants around here is Mr. Steve Rebello of Sumerset Mass. who has some of the most beautiful phesants I have ever seen. I bought a young pair of Lady Amhersts from him and raised 8 young ones. I was both suprised and happy that they bred the first year.

I see by your ad. in the Gazette that you also have Erckel’s francolins. What are

Page 3 of letter from Henry Safranek to M.L. Foley dated October 23, 1959

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you asking for a young pair as I would like to try raising some.

I would also appreciate it if you could send me the name of any reliable place here on the east coast where I could buy an Elliot hen, as the express charges are so high when you have birds shiped from out west.

Thank you
Henry Safranek
Lebanon
Conn.

Hens dead from apparently eating rat poison? Deformed eggs? A bantam chicken hen murdering all the young pheasants!? The drama in this one letter is amazing. But, the series continues. Foley doesn’t take the bait of the ornithological drama in Safranek’s letter. His response is very businesslike and indicative of his usual style of customer service. He provides the information asked for, the appropriate prices, and an offer of service, but doesn’t delve into the tales of troubles with the birds.

Letter from M.L. Foley to Henry Safranek dated October 31, 1959

October 31, 1959

Mr. Henry Safranek
Lebanon, Conn.

Dear Sir:

Ralph Meachum of Rockingham, N. C. or Walter Oakie of Winston Salem, N. C. will probably have an Elliot hen for sale. I visited them a short time ago and they had some at that time. I would say that the express charges would be about seven dollars.

Ihave one pair of proven breeders in Erckels and one pair of this years hatch left. Am offering the breeders at $25.00 and the young at $10.00. You should be able to get a Cheer cock from Meachum or Oakie or Rebello for about $8.00. If you should like to have any of these birds, I would be glad to ship them , upon reply from you.

Yours very truly,
M. L. Foley

Then, we suddenly have a letter from Safranek for an order of some Erckel’s Francolins. What’s odd is that this letter is in cursive and the handwriting seems very different from the printed text in the other letters. I thought at first that this might have been a letter from Henry Safranek and that the others were possibly from his son. In researching that, I discovered that the author of these letters was likely Henry Safranek, Junior (born September 1, 1927; died September 17, 1991). So, I was correct that the letters were written by Henry junior but he was 32 years old at the time and, as far as I could find, didn’t have children of his own, so they weren’t written by a child with this one by a parent. I did, however, find that he had a sister and, from a later letter, I know he lived near or with his mother. So, maybe one of them wrote this letter for him? Anyway, other than that, everything seems to be in order. Maybe we’re done talking about dead birds? Is this the end of our dramatic correspondence?

Page 1 of letter from Henry Safranek to M.L. Foley dated November 11, 1959

Lebanon Conn.
Nov. 7, 1959

Mr. Foley,
Dear Sir,

Thank you for the nice letter you sent me and the information I asked for about the Eliott Hen.

Enclosed you will find a check for $10.00 for which I want you to send me a pair of the young Erckels you wrote about in your letter

So kindly send by express to my nearest station which is.

Henry Safranek
Willimantic,
Conn.

over.

Page 2 of letter from Henry Safranek to M.L. Foley dated November 11, 1959

I thank you again
yours,


Henry Safranek.
Kick Hill Rd.
Lebanon.
Conn.

I wasn’t able to find a response to the order letter from Foley. Presumably, he sent the Erckel’s Francolins with a note and the note wasn’t copied into the collection. Our next entry in the series is from Safranek again. This letter is much longer and we have yet another dead bird! This time, the weather seems to be to blame. Safranek asks about housing conditions for the young birds, debeaking the birds to combat possible cannibalism, and recommendations for breeders to purchase another hen from.

Page 1 of letter from Henry Safranek to M.L. Foley dated November 19, 1959

Lebanon Conn.
Nov. 19 1959

Mr. M.L. Foley

Dear Sir:

I received my birds Tuesday afternoon, and they arrived in very good shape. They were O.K. but today Friday when I came home from work I found the hen dead. we have had a week of very cold weather It hasn’t been above 32° since they came and has been down to 14°. I will now have to locate another hen. Do you leave your francolins out all winter? I have a small coop in their pen which they have been using. and they have plenty of cover. They are a rather pretty bird. and I sure hope to be able to raise them. would you know where I might buy another hen. I see that you have debeacked them, do they

Page 2 of letter from Henry Safranek to M.L. Foley dated November 19, 1959

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have a tendency to be cannibalistic?

I really don’t have any idea as to how to produce higher fertility in phesants, as never was faced with that problem when raising ring necks. I always keep extra cocks and in the spring used those that were most aggressive and showed the most development. Also having the breeding pens together where the cocks could see each other seemed to help, by making them jealus I would say.

I have only one pair each of phesants so I am afraid that I will have to just rely on luck and will try your feeding program on them, for now. I believe that to much interbreeding has been one of the reason that rare phesants have this draw back.

I sent to Paul R Hartzog of Niles Michigan for my Elliot hen and also bought a pair of black or dark throated goldens from him. They are the best birds that I have bought so far. My first Elliots came from North Carolina and although they were feathered beautifully they had crooked.

Page 3 of letter from Henry Safranek to M.L. Foley dated November 19, 1959

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toes and that has been enough to stop me from buying any more from him. When you pay 35 to 40 dollars a pair for birds plus express I think that you should get the best or at least should be told before hand, about such things. I also bought a pair of young Blue Manchurians from him that are extremely nice and hope to raise some this comming spring.

I would appreciate any information that you found helpful in raising your Elliots as my chicks were so active that is what must have prompted the hen to kill them as I wrote you in my last letter.

I always used eggs and hand pressed cottage cheese on my young phesants beside keeping good phesant starter in front of them.

Also in regards to higher fertility in phesants I read where one breeder put his cocks under lights for about 4 to 6 weeks before putting them in with his hens. This proved to be very helpful in making game phesants and don’t know how it would work with ornamentals.

Page 4 of letter from Henry Safranek to M.L. Foley dated November 19, 1959

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If you have extra birds that you could try it with it might prove to be beneficial.

As I have only started last spring with rare phesants, will have to rely on the trial and erro system for now. I sure appreciate any information anyone gives me that they find helpful and might be helpful to me.

Thank you
+
Regards.
Henry Safranek

Next, we get a letter from Foley expressing condolences for the dead bird and providing advice on raising the birds and on who to buy a new hen from. Still avoiding that drama. Things are still businesslike but a bit of Foley’s personality begins to show through. It’s a bit more personal than any of the other letters so far.

Letter from M.L. Foley to Henry Safranek dated November 29, 1959

November 29, 1959

Dear Sir:

Was very sorry to here that the hen died. I am quite sure that it died of shock. Although we had not had any freezing weather until a few days after I shipped them. Shock is usually what kills birds in shipment also. I have seen healthy birds die just from catching them in the pen and releasing them again in a few minutes. Either from shock or a heart attack. In very hot weather I never disturb my birds at all. When they start to flying or beating against the wire they may die from shock or over exertion or a heart attack. I am by no means an expert on birds or claim to be. I am just relating to you my own personal experiences. Francolins will pick feathers as much as any of the other birds. I set my eggs under bantams but put them in an incubator the last two days for hatching. From sad experience I have found it is better to raise the young in brooders rather than under hens. Especially the rarer birds. As for putting the cocks under lights I would think that the hen would start laying too soon and you would lose some eggs from freezing unless you checked very closely many times a day. I lost some last year and am not nearly as far north as you. I intend to to go to North Carolina soon and will try to locate another hen for you. If you can get one I will ship it and will give you a pair of Nice Goldens. The freight want be any more.

Where did you get the Manchurians?


Sincerely,
M. L. Foley

The next letter from Safranek is another lengthy discussion of his bird raising experiences. The discussions are becoming more of a back and forth at this point and less of a customer spilling their troubles out to a vendor. At this point, it’s apparent there is a bit of familiarity developing between the two.

Page 1 of letter from Henry Safranek to M.L. Foley dated December 14, 1959

Lebanon Conn.
Dec. 14 1959.


Mr. M. L. Foley

Dear Sir:

I received the birds today Monday and they are all O.K.. I want to thank you for your trouble in getting me the Erckel’s hen and also for the pair of goldens, which you sent. If I have any luck with my birds next year, will send you either a pr. of Dark Throated goldens, or a pair of Amhersts, if you would like them.

I have been away on vacation all last week so did not read your letters until this Saturday. I called the Express office at once but they did not have the birds in. They came tonight at 5:30 Dec. 14th.

Since I wrote to you the last time I ordered a pair each of Swinhoe’s and versicolors, from Paul Hartzog. Which I have received.

I am afraid that I am buying more birds then I will be able

Page 2 of letter from Henry Safranek to M.L. Foley dated December 14, 1959

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to handle and have called it quits for this year.

I now have 10 pr. of phesants counting your goldens plus the Erckel’s a 2 year old pr. of Black Shouldered Peacocks and a 2 year old trio of Blue’s all of which I bought last fall I have all my phesants together in one large 18’x24′ pen, with the exception of the Blue Manchurian which have a 12’x18′ pen of there own. I bought my manchurians from “OAKIE”. They have gave me no trouble so far in keeping them all together and hope to be able to leave them that way until about the first of March when I will seperate them.

I bought a pair each of cheers, Bel’s and w.c. Kalij from Mitchell’s game farm in Anchorville Mich, and would have sent them back if I knew for sure that I would have gotten my money all back. They were the most bed ridden birds that I have ever seen. I have had them about a month now and still cannot get my crested Kalj hen looking like anything. She was almost dead when I got her, so I wrote to them about it but never did get an answer. They were like rails and had the dullest looking feathers, no shine and even

Page 3 of letter from Henry Safranek to M.L. Foley dated December 14, 1959

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the coloring around their eyer was a very dull almost purple color. I have been feeding them graded raw carrots + grapefruit skins, which they seem to like very well especaly the cheers. Plus cooked potatoes and pears. Beside keeping a mixture of 50% scratch feed and 50% Turkey fatting pellets in front of them at all times.

They have all begun to look like something now, but I have little hope for the w. c. Kalj hen.

The Erckel’s male has become a real pet and hope that before long will have him eating out of my hand.

I only want one more pair of phesants and they are Impeyans which I hope to afford next fall.

In regards to using lights on phesants, you only use them on your cocks. For about 4 to 5 weeks before putting them in with your hens. I wish that I could remember where I had read that article and could send it to you. I do know that Beacon Feeds made reference to it in there pamphlet on raising phesants and will try ang get you one of there booklets the next time that I am near one of there feed stores.

Page 4 of letter from Henry Safranek to M.L. Foley dated December 14, 1959

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Enclosed you will find a check for $5.00. I want to thank you again for your troubles and the goldends and hope to repay you some day.

Regards.
Henry Safranek
Kick Hill Rd.
Lebanon
Conn

The next letter comes after the new year from Foley to Safranek, though it is addressed “Dear Sir” and there is no indication in the letter just to who the letter is directed. I was able to determine that this is a letter to Safranek based on the letter that follows it. That letter from Safranek to Foley in mid-January is sadly the last in this series. In these two letters we learn more about these men than in any others in the series. Foley is a hobbyist beekeeper in addition to raising and selling birds. Foley also apparently co-owned a construction firm as his main job. We learn so much in this letter about him. Then, in the following one, we learn about Safranek. We learn that he lives within proximity to his mother (possibly with her, but that’s unclear) and that he used to be in the Army.

Letter from M.L. Foley dated January 10, 1960

January 10, 1960

Dear Sir:

We really enjoyed the maple syrup on buckwheat cakes yesterday. Thank you very much. Hope you liked the honey. I have ten stands of bees that I try to take care of plus the birds. The bees are a lot of work at certain times but I enjoy doing it. This year I had 210 pounds from eight of the stands which is a reasonable average for this area. The other two were or are new swarms. They wern’t in too good condition when I bought them and it took most of last year to build them up. I have a really fancy set up for a hobby bee keeper. I like everything about abeet keeping bees except the bottling of the honey, and that is really a job. I live only a few blocks from downtown Salem and four miles from the heart of Roanoke. The city limits ajoin. So there isn’t to much bloon for the bees. If you have any spare time you might try them as another hobby.

I am half owner of this company and we do from small to medium commercial work. We just completed a $116,000.00 sewer line construction in Mt. Hope, W. Va. We have about a $60,00.00 job to start soon in Morgantown, West Va. We work all over W. Va. and most of eastern Virginia. I have to depend a lot on my wife to take care of my birds, but so far I have been able to work close to home during the egg laying and hatching season. I don’t think it is going to work that way this year.

I have 12 pens 15×10 ft, 3 pens 14×15, 3 pens 15×17 and 1 pen 12x 30ft. All are 7′ high. Hve just finished a 12x36x12 ft high duck pen. Am waiting on my Federal permit to get a pair of wood ducks. The duck pen has a spring in it and I buried an old bath tub in the spring to make a duck pond. Therefore have plenty of clean water and no trouble. Hope to get a pair of Mandarin ducks soon. Also have seven 4×8 pens with wire floors. You must absolutely raise your Cheers on wire until they are nearly fully grown.

I have as breeders the following, 1 pr Blue Manchurian 1 trio Cheer 1pr Silvers 1 trio Golden 2 trio Reeves 1pr Erckels 2 pr Elliots 1 pr & 1 trio Swinho 1 trio Amherst 1 pr W G Kalij and also had Blacknecks Ringnecks Mutants and Bobwhite quail but am not going to raise any more of the last four.

This is too much letter, so long,

M. L. Foley

Page 1 of letter from Henry Safranek to M.L. Foley dated January 14, 1960

Lebanon Conn.
Jan. 14, 1960

Dear Sir: Mr. Foley

I received your very nice letter today and am glad that you enjoyed the maple syrup. I wanted to get it to you for Christmas but, the store where I usually buy it was all out and they had to order more. You know how long it takes to get things around christmas. I also want to thank you for the honey, which we have been using to glaze sweet potatoes an to base chickens with, when we roast them..

At one time there were a lot of bees kept around this area but since about the early 40s most of the small farms which had them have been turned over to raising chickens and everything that one thinks of as a quaint little farm has just about dissapeared, from around this area.

Although we live out in the country about 7 miles from Willimantic and 35 miles east of Hartford, I own less then an acre of land and have to depend on using my neighbors land for raising any thing.

I have just finished cutting enough cedar poles to build a 30 x 125 foot pen this spring and hope to start some small pens to raise my young ones in this weekend. I have always raised my young ones in small pens 2x4x2 with a 1×2 ft. coop at one end. This worked out very well for me and will take care of a hen and about 12 chicks for 2 to 3 weeks. Moving them every day to new grownd is the only problem. I am glad that you told me about the cheers so will have to make other arangements for them. I did try a small battery brooder once and had leg trouble with my birds so have never tried it since.

That sure was a very nice deer that you got this fall and you should be proud of it. I don’t do any hunting myself, We do spend alot of time at the shore though. I have a small runabout with a 35 horse motor on it and spend almost every Saturday and Sunday water skying claming, Crabbing or just riding around on Lond Island Sound with it.

I’m afraid that I am also guilty of havnig to have someone take care of my birds. I have to be at work at 7 am so my mother feedsand waters them in the morning and when I get home I do what is left to be done. Mother is always giving me hell for having stuff around and having to take care of it but she really enjoys it as much as I do.

An old army buddy of mine came from Roanoke and always wanted me to come home with him but I never did. I was stationed in the Honor Guard at Washington D.C. for 2 years and had plenty of opportunity to make a trip down with him, but I’m not fond of really hot weather and D.C. was enough for me. He had and old motorcycle which he pushed back and forth on. I think I could have taken it. I did make several trips to Luray and up into Cumbland Maryland. Infact we took a trip to Luray this fall up though Penn. into New York it is very nicecountry down through there and my Mother and Aunt really did enjoy it. I wanted to take the
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Page 2 of letter from Henry Safranek to M.L. Foley dated January 14, 1960

entire sky Line drive into Winston Salem and back through Norfolk Va. along the coast home. We met some very nice people at Luray caverns who said that Spring is the best time to go South when all of the Roderdendrums are in blossom so we decided to make that trip another time. We enjoy travling very much. So from now until spring I will have to really get busy and get all my pens made. Because when the summer comes we are off. We are planing on making a trip through Canada and around the Great Lakes this year if all goes well.

Regards
Henry Safranek
Lebanon.
Conn.

These last two letters are very personal and there seems to be a genuine connection. Sadly, I do not know whether the two ever met in person or whether their correspondence continued. Foley continued writing letters over the next few years but there are no more in the collection to or from Safranek. Foley’s main correspondent from this point on is a man in Barranquilla, Colombia named Jose Raimundo Sojo who helped Foley source ducks for his bird business. I have yet to fully read that correspondence but if I find any more bird murders, I’ll be sure to blog about those letters, too. Of course, you can stop by Special Collections and University Archives and look through all the letters yourself! Just ask for the M. L. Foley Collection (Ms2012-031).