Do It Now! – Before the Termites Get At It!

Following is another thought-provoking article by my friend, Tom Fiske:

A couple years ago I met with a friend, Carolyn, who had an old diary from the 1860’s. It was a handwritten account by her ancestor, Seth B. Reid, Trunk of Treasureswho rode his horse from Austin, Texas to New Orleans, Louisiana. He was leaving the Confederate States of America and heading for the closest outpost of the United States of America. Along the way he met various people who later became famous and some who became infamous. Carolyn and I wrote an article for one of Leland Meitzler’s magazines, which some readers may recall.

Carolyn Beaucamp was heir to an old trunk, too. It was full of Reid family memorabilia. It had been her mother’s and Carolyn had not opened it. This year she had a look inside and she found . . . subterranean termites! They had invaded the trunk and eaten much of its contents.

Carolyn was able to salvage a few old bibles, some watches, a package of letters, a doll, a few items of 1860 clothing and a handful of photos, starting with what seems to be the Daguerreotype method. But that was about all. The rest had been eaten away. She invited me over to survey the salvaged items.

She had already written an inventory. What to do next? I had to stop drooling, for one thing. It looked foolish. I suggested that Carolyn scan into her computer copies of whatever she could, and bring out or enhance the full images through various computer program methods. Old faded photos, for example, could be made seeable again.

Then I suggested a thorough genealogy of the people involved. There were only a handful of folks, starting with about 1840. Some of the photos were of folks Reid met on his trip from Austin, so Carolyn would not be able to identify everybody. But Reid’s son, his wife, and daughter-in-law and her family were all Carolyn’s ancestors and cousins. There was good reason to get to know these people: they were her family.

She could consult letters from people mentioning other people that could help. Bible pages contained family information. Including these facts with a genealogy and timeline would be of really great help in determining whose images were whose and who once owned the personal items, such as eye glasses and perhaps clothing. There are style books she could consult to get dates for some of the strange articles.

All was not lost. But a lot was gone forever.

Who knew that termites were eating up her family history? The important lesson people can draw from this experience is that time is not on your side.
Time and termites wait for no man.

Besides, deep in the hearts of some of Carolyn’s five children there may lurk the image of the dreaded dumpster, waiting to carry off her ancestry to a swamp somewhere. She probably should make the entire collection look worthwhile so that they will honor it and display it in their homes, where it belongs.

1 thought on “Do It Now! – Before the Termites Get At It!”

  1. As the former chair of the Lost Treasures Committee for the San Diego Genealogical Society who placed bibles, photos and other family documents with descendants and archives, I am delighted that you shared this post. Too many family heirlooms end up in dumpsters or estate sales.

    Our family treasure is a photo album from the civil war. I digitized it as well as family letters that my grandfather, Thomas Riddell sent to relatives to inquire about his ancestors. I sent a CD of these to the Wisconsin Historical Society and as many of my living relatives who wanted them. It is also advisable to put a copy in a safe deposit box as part of a disaster plan.

    I attended Lisa Louise Cook’s seminar at Jamboree 2010 about protecting your heirlooms and she recommended a gift deed to an archive. Unfortunately, there is nothing you can do to prevent the archive from getting rid of your heirlooms once you gift it to them but Lisa pointed out that you could specify a period of time which could be possibly renewed by descendants. Historical Societies, Genealogical Libraries and Genealogical Societies may be a better bet.

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