Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Lives In A Baseket

The best tings about being known as a local history nerd is that people bring me old stuff.

One day in the winter 2003 I got a call from the secretary at my office. She was confused and concerned. Someone I’d never met had presented themselves at the front desk and left a soot-covered bushel basket, asking that she give it to me, saying they thought I’d enjoy it.

I love getting calls like that.

The contents of that filthy basket were found in the attic of a home being renovated on South 10th Street. It was crammed with letters, programs, invitations, and wallpaper samples. They provided a glimpse into the life of the Alexander family of Noblesville, brothers Harry and Fred, and their mother, Lou, between 1888 and 1900.

Fred Alexander wrote the earliest letters home from California. In those days young men dreamed of testing themselves in the untamed West, to “grow up with the land,” as they called it. Fred wrote home to the local paper describing his 1888 train trip across the plains and through the mountains. He then often wrote home from Pasadena where he struggled to make something of himself, working in a shoe store.

Throughout that winter I read those letters in the evening after work. I’d spread a towel across my lap and open a few of the filthy, blackened envelopes and carefully read. I’m sentimental enough to get a pang of heartache to think that the careful thoughts and feelings of an entire family, a record of 15 years of their lives could be left strewn in an attic and forgotten, covered with the dry-rot of old wood shingles and filtered debris from a reroofing job.

Time and again I thought, “I’m going to stop with this and give it all to a proper historian like Dave Heighway.” But then, greedily, each night, I’d open a few more letters and read. It was like reading someone’s diary - a guilty pleasure.

Summers in the early 1890s, Fred’s brother Harry wrote to his girlfriend, a young schoolteacher named Clara. During the school year she rented a room in the Alexanders’ 10th Street house, but spent each summer with her family in Clinton, Indiana. Harry’s letters to Clara give tiny glimpses into life in Noblesville in the 1890s. He describes the flowers planted in the yard, vegetables tended in the garden, the town’s gossip, the newfangled concrete paving of a sidewalk in front of his law office downtown, and the political goings-on in the Methodist Church choir. The letters mention once significant figures in Noblesville – Meade Vestal, leader of the town’s brass band, and Thomas Boyd, then Noblesville’s big man on campus, a state senator who would stand trial in a scandalous paternity suit in 1893.

In these letters Harry Alexander can been seen carefully cultivating a relationship with Clara. Delicate hints of affection – but not too much affection, suggest Harry was uncertain if his interest was returned. In each letter, he calls the Alexanders’ home, “The Rest Cottage.”

In 1892 Fred Alexander returned from California to the little house on 10th Street, called Anderson Street in those days. He falls in love with a girl from Frankton, named Gertrude. Letters over the next year tell a tragic story.

In spring of1893 Fred finds work in Chicago during the opening of the World’s Fair, writing faithfully to Gertrude, expressing his undying love. He finds an apartment for them and describes the people and the places in Chicago that he dreams will make up their world after they marry. He writes home before the wedding giving instructions to his brother Harry to, “rent a horse and carriage,” and “buy me a new shirt.” In autumn he comes home to ride in that carriage, wear that new shirt, and get married. But Gertrude is sick from a disease the letters never define. After the wedding they stay with her family in Frankton.

Then, in early 1894, Harry, who had gone to Frankton to help Fred through the impending tragedy, writes to Clara, boarding again at the Alexanders’ house in Noblesville, opening his letter with the stark phrase, “Gertrude is gone.” Just months after the wedding, Fred’s wife had died. Amid the jumbled debris in the bushel basket I found a stack of printed flyers, announcing Gertrude’s death. In his misery, Fred returned to California, then wandered to Florida.

But there were many happy things in that bushel basket – hand made invitations to the club parties that filled peoples lives before radio and television, like Shakespeare Club meetings in which members took turns reading the works of the bard. There were colorful, intricately printed invitations to recitals where local children would sing, play piano, or recite famous speeches. There was a program from the dedication of the First Presbyterian Church, a ribbon from “Bromo-Seltzer Day” at the World’s Fair in 1893, a program from a play at famed English’s Opera House in Indianapolis, graduation announcements, and calling cards left at New Year’s Day receptions.

As my winter wore on I followed Harry’s Alexander’s summer letters to Clara. By 1896 his affections were out in the open, and I followed letter by letter their wedding plans and his work to make the “Rest Cottage” just right for her. That summer he traveled regularly by train between Noblesville and Clinton, staying with her family there, missing her terribly when back home.

The last letters come from Fred, fighting in the Spanish-American war, still trying to make something of himself – this time in the military. From a small island near the Philippines, he tells of deprivations, military ineptitude, and personal disappointments.

I don’t know what became of the Alexander family. Don’t know how many children Harry and Clara had, whether Fred ever married again, or when they all said their last goodbye to the “Rest Cottage.” But I think of them every time I pass that little house on 10th Street.

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