Sunday, January 8, 2017

Happy Old Years

A new year has arrived, but I've been taking some time to look back -- way back.

While at my mother's house after Christmas, my sister, brother and I spent some time rummaging through the basement. I do this every once in a while to look at old photos and other mementos. This time, my sister found a shoe box with a treasure trove of old stuff that belonged to our grandfather, who died long before any of the three of us were born.

There are documents related to his time as a Mason in Vermont:

There are also documents related to the international travel he undertook as a salesman for the Jones & Lamson Machine Co., which made automatic lathes (the company, founded in 1869, lives on as J&L Metrology in Springfield, VT). My grandfather, George Hazen Brigham, Sr., was traveling on business in Russia when the revolution began in 1917.

"During my second trip to Moscow we began to hear of riots in Petrograd; and as the situation grew worse, exaggerated reports of the number killed were circulated," he wrote in an article titled, "A Jones & Lamson Man in Russia During the Revolution," in an industrial machinery publication. "It was only after the second or third day of the revolution in Petrograd that we saw anything of it in Moscow. First the electric cars stopped, then the cabs, and then all public and private conveyances disappeared....About noon on the second day of the revolution the red flag appeared in Moscow, and then all but the active manifestants disappeared as if by magic and were not seen again until it had become evident that there would be no resistance."

After traveling across Russia for 10 days on the Trans-Siberian Railway, he went to Japan, which he found much more pleasant compared to the chaotic Russia.

"Japan was a wonderful contrast to Russia, the officers were...courteous and the baggage was soon examined," he wrote in the article. "Everywhere we saw evidence of organization (and) energy, and could readily understand the reason for the outcome of the Russo-Japanese war." My grandfather was an engineer, so he took special notice of the transportation infrastructure in Japan. "Their train service is excellent, their roadbeds are rock-ballasted and dustless, most of the locomotives are American, and their express trains compare favorably with ours."

Here is a document that allowed him into (and, perhaps more importantly, out of) Japan. I had to split the scan into two photos:

As amazing as these documents are, I've gotten just as much enjoyment out of reading his yearly diaries.

Picking one at random (1926), I learned from one of the 365 very short entries that my grandfather took my grandmother, Josephine (he called her "Jo"), to a Broadway production of "Naughty Cinderella." A farce starring Irene Bordoni, the show ran for 121 performances between November 1925 and February 1926, according to the Internet Broadway Database.

In the 1925 diary, I learned of the silent film, "Charley's Aunt." A farce that was first performed on a London stage in 1892, "Charley's Aunt" was revived many times in numerous countries in the ensuing decades, the last being in 1970.

The Internet being the awesome tool that it is, I was able to find a 10-minute clip of the 1925 film:

Pretty cool to be able to watch the same movie that my grandfather watched more than 90 years ago!

As I said, my grandfather died long before my siblings and I were born. He passed away from lung cancer in 1953 at age 64. I gathered from talking to my father over the years, that his dad was somewhat strict and distant with his three sons. After traveling the world in the 1910's, he settled down in the U.S., where he continued to travel on a more local basis (from his diary: "Thursday, October 22, 1925: "In Newark, Bloomfield, NYC and Brooklyn today."). By 1929, the year my father (the second son) was born, he had a real estate business with a partner, but lost everything when his partner took off with the money.

I'm so happy that years ago my brother spearheaded a project to record my parents' respective biographies. I tapped my mother for information about the subject of my father's father, and she forwarded me some great passages from the biography.

"My Dad (was) originally an engineering salesman for Jones and Lamson Co. which was a tool machine company in Springfield, Vermont," my father told us. "At some point they moved to Philadelphia, where my brother George was born. At some point he left Jones and Lamson because he didn't get along with the sales manager and so they were living in Philly. Eventually they moved to New Jersey and my Dad went into the real estate business (with another person). I don't know how he met him or anything about him. I don't know how long they were in business, but eventually his partner turned out to be a crook and wiped out all of the company money and left town."


"My father never talked about it," my dad continued in the biography. "Dad went into bankruptcy I guess. I don't know if that happened before or after the crash - October 1929 - but eventually they lost the house (they owned it) and lost the car and moved to Orange, NJ in a flat in a 3 or 4 family house."

Man, that is a serious blow. The last bit my mom forwarded says a lot: "Then my Dad was working for the Golden Key Coffee Co. where he drove a small pickup truck and I don't know how long he did that."

My grandfather must have felt like a real dude, traveling to Europe and Japan in his finest clothes, making sales of large equipment, writing diaries in French. Oh, did I not mention that some of his diaries are written in the "langue de Moliere"?

He did alright for himself, considering he was an orphan at age 3. I'd forgotten until I went back to my account that my grandfather's father died when he was 3; his mother when he was 1. He and his siblings -- two brothers, John and Alfred, and a sister, Eunice -- were raised by relatives. My grandfather was raised by an older cousin about whom my father knew little. This guardian sent my grandfather to private school in Montpelier and the University of Vermont, from which he graduated with an engineering degree, I think (his education was a sore spot with his brother John, who went by Wes, according to my father. None of the other siblings went to college.) He married my grandmother in 1920, I believe, and did fairly well career-wise as far as I can tell.

While I'm finding it difficult in reading the diaries to get a real picture of my grandfather, some everyday details come through. In 1925 he bought a Nash, although he doesn't say what model or whether it was new or used. My dad used to talk about Nashes, and I believe he owned at least one in his life.

My grandfather spent A LOT of time traveling around New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania for work, but I'm not sure what company he was selling equipment for at this point. He mentions working on his car with some frequency, and also going for pleasure drives."Went for a nice long drive this eve" was a regular notation. I can relate to that.

As befits a father in the early decades of the 20th century, he didn't spend a lot of time with his kids, at least so far as I can tell in the diaries. His first son, my uncle George, was born in 1924. My grandfather rarely mentions his oldest son in the diaries, other than to indicate when my grandmother took the boy to the doctor.

He mentions needing a "Palm Beach suit" in one diary entry, which seems like a pretty fancy outfit. From the Ask Andy About Clothes blog, I learned that such a suit was "made from Palm Beach cloth, a warm weather blend of mohair and cotton" that was popular many years ago.

Another cool little thing of note: my grandfather, probably like most people of the time, referred to the morning as "forenoon."

He also makes note of the weather on just about every day of the year, and mentions with regularity having dinner with friends. "Sunday, August 9, 1925: Mr & Mrs (illegible) were in for dinner & the eve. Went for a ride. Rained very hard just after we got back."

So imagine going from this life -- maybe he was a bit sentimental about his bachelor days traveling the world and keeping diaries in a foreign language, but things seemed pretty good stateside with a wife, a son (George Jr.), a nice car, close friends and a decent job -- to losing everything you had and working as a coffee salesman and moving, during the Depression, from one relative's house to another in Vermont and New Hampshire. A man who never really knew his parents, and who was separated from his siblings, finds success, only to end up broken and seeking shelter in the homes of others again.

My dad always said that his father didn't talk much about his past life, and it's no wonder why. I'm thankful that I have many of my grandfather's papers and old photo albums, so I can gain some sort of connection. I've been told I look a little bit like George Hazen Brigham, Sr., which feels good to hear.

Maybe someday I'll hire somebody to translate his French diaries. Perhaps that's where all the secrets are....