When I was between 5 and 10 years old, in the late 1940’s, I used to visit my grandparents in Villisca, Iowa. I would spend time with my grandfather’s two sisters, who were in their 60’s, and who were unlike any other women (housewives) that I knew. My recent interest in genealogy has proven how unique they were.
Gertrude Winifred Tyler was born in 1882 in Villisca, Iowa. She graduated from Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa in 1909 followed by a Master’s Degree in Education from Columbia University in New York.
In 1913 she opened Stevens Memorial Suining Girls Boarding School in Suining, Sichuan, China, for the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church. She ran the school for around 30 years.
During this time she made numerous trips back to the US and I found her name listed as one of 19 US Citizens on the passenger manifest of the Nippon Maru, which arrived in San Francisco from Yokohama, Japan on July 16, 1919.
Gertrude had a large collection of Chinese wall hangings and artifacts. I have some of the hangings, but most of her collection is now in the Villisca Public Library.
Aunt Bertha, taught school in Orient, Iowa, graduated from Simpson College in 1912 and received her Master’s in Education and Psychology from the State University of Iowa in Ames, Iowa. She was then a school principal in Orient, Iowa and the Superintendent of Schools in Orient, Iowa for 16 years.
From 1934-1938 Aunt Bertha lived in Little Rock, Arkansas where she was the Dean of Women and Professor of Education for Philander Smith College, a college established in 1877 for freed African-American Slaves and still in existence and thriving today. The school was supported by the Methodist Church.
I wrote to Philander Smith College and they sent me an electronic copy of the 1935-36 College Catalog, which lists Bertha as the Dean of Women and Professor of Education. It also shows that tuition was $27 per semester, room and board was $15 per month and laundry was $4 per year. Tuition is now $12,564 and board and room is $8,250.
In 1938, Frank P. Tyler, Gertrude and Bertha’s father was in ill health. Gertrude and Bertha, abandoned their fascinating careers and came back to Villisca to run The Tyler Ice And Coal Company and the family slaughter house, which fascinated a 9-year-old boy on summer vacation.
The ice plant consisted of a huge room with a saline solution where they froze water into 100 pound blocks of ice, which were then split into smaller blocks and delivered throughout Villisca, as everyone still had ice boxes after WW II. Another part of the ice plant consisted of lockers where people stored their frozen food until they were ready to use it. The predecessor to the ice plant was a pond where they cut ice in the winter, stored it in warehouses insulated with saw dust and sold the ice in the summer.
The slaughter-house was a few blocks a way and only a small building where a couple of cows and pigs were slaughtered each week. The animals were shot with a .22 rifle and hoisted up on a winch to bleed out before being cut up. Gertrude and Bertha made blood pudding out of the blood and used every part of the animals.
My genealogy research so far has been on the internet; but, the next step is to track Gertrude and Bertha on the ground; visiting actual sites in Villisca, Iowa, Indianola, Iowa, Orient, Iowa, Columbia University, Ames, Iowa and maybe even Sichuan, China. It will be my own Genealogy Road Show, but will be on-site.
Last summer, my wife and I tracked her paternal and maternal ancestors through upstate New York and had great luck with local libraries, historical societies and genealogical societies, not to mention court houses and cemeteries.
This was originally published in the Albuquerque Genealogical Society Quarterly (July 2018)
Watching the Genealogy Road Show on Public Television got me to thinking. The show has genealogists researching people’s pasts looking for interesting stories; illustrated with census reports, photos and newspaper clippings. In each segment they try to discover something specific about a person’s ancestors. They are looking for a story. Last night it dealt with orphan trains. You can read the book: Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline; or watch the PBS American Experience show about the trains.
I have had enough of most museums and natural wonders. I don’t like to drive on the freeways and I am interested in small towns. Like many old people I am interested in what my ancestors were up to. I am looking for stories. No one has ever wanted to hear about the museums I have been to or the tours I have taken.
I belong to the local genealogy society and have discovered a whole new world with amazing resources.
My wife and I have decided to take two trips to trace some of our respective ancestors. We already have stories we want to track down and, as an entre , we have donated family “treasures” to local historical societies.
We will make two trips; first, to several small hamlets in upstate New York; then, to small towns in Kansas and Nebraska.
Prior to leaving we will chart our last 150 years so we know the names and relationships of those we are seeking out.
We will contact and visit local Historical and Genealogy Societies. We will check with libraries – remember inter-library loans. We will practice our hand-eye coordination spending more time on our laptops than even our grandchildren.
We will get maps showing roads before the interstates and research census and newspaper records.
Our guide will be a chart with names, dates and places. Our goal is to add stories to the chart. We hope to discover 100 stories about our ancestors along with pictures of their homes, businesses, families, and of course scandals.
Some of the stories we know about now, but which need to be documented and fleshed out, are:
The sheriff who, as a boy, stole a train at lunchtime in upstate New York.
The Nebraska doctor and the first Woman, Indian Doctor who covered for each other.
The white, great-aunt from Iowa who taught at a “Negro” college in Arkansas in the 1920’s.
The great-aunt from small-town Iowa who established a Methodist girls boarding school in Szechuan, China in about 1912 and who ran it until 1938, when she returned to Iowa to take over the family slaughter-house and ice plant.
The grandmother who patented a children’s car seat in 1922.
The grandmother who arrived in Iowa with her single mom in a horse-drawn wagon.
If this trip works, and is as much fun as we expect, the next stop is Ellis Island and an international trip.
Old people, like children, love stories. If they are true and if you can document them, so much the better. That is what we are up to. And, it beats watching TV, except for the Genealogy Road Show, and talking about who has what illness.
Watch this space.
We will keep you informed.