Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Smiles and Kansas twisters

I've already said, while posting this photo to a Facebook gallery yesterday, that it's one of my favorite vintage images because the two subjects seem to be enjoying themselves --- and that's rare in a photo taken ca. 1900 when this one was. My great-great-uncle, Alvin Erastus Clair, is at right and his friend, Arch (Archadell) Selby, on the left.

The difficulty with professional photography at that time was that although the images were of exceptional quality (this is a tiny image that I've enlarged substantially), the exposure time needed to produce them was lengthy. So subjects were told they had to remain very still. And it's hard to hold onto a smile. So most of our ancestors, focused on not moving, appear kind of grim in photographs although of course they were neither happier nor sadder than we are.

Alvin, born 23 November 1871 in Pleasant Township, Lucas County, was the ninth of 12 children of James Wayne and Elizabeth Rachel (Rhea) Clair. My great-grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Clair, who was the second of the 12 children, married Joseph Cyrus Miller and remained in Lucas County. The rest of the family moved in 1878 to Rooks County in north central Kansas where they settled near Codell.

Alvin, who never married and never quite managed to settle down, worked at whatever it took to make a living all his life --- farmhand, cowhand, store clerk, laborer. In 1900, he returned to Iowa to visit the Millers, found work as a hand for the Brownlee family and stuck around for a while.

This is how he looked "at his best" in a photo that may have been taken in Chariton at the same time the photo with Arch was taken.

Arch, three years younger than Alvin, also was unattached in 1900, working as a hand for his parents, Ephraim and Adaline Selby.

Not long after this photo was taken, Alvin returned to Kansas where he spent most of the remainder of his life, helping to care for his mother as her health declined after World War I, then living on his own or with kinfolk. He died 16 August 1942 in Alton, Osborne County, and was buried with his parents and other relatives in Shiloh Cemetery, near Codell and the original Clair homestead.

Arch, who married Stella Burns, lived until September of 1937 and both he and his wife are buried with her people in the Columbia Cemetery, just over the line in Marion County north of Lucas.

This is Alvin's tombstone in Shiloh Cemetery, which serves as a reminder if you're working on family history always to check the "Find a Grave" Web site where to date somewhere around 53 million tombstone inscriptions have been entered, many accompanied by photographs. All tombstones at Shiloh have been photographed and posted.

But if you're paying attention, you'll note an oddity here. An "e" has been added to the "Clair" surname to make it "Claire." The same is true for an identical stone marking the grave of Alvin's mother (his father has an older, larger stone). There are several other identical Clair tombstones at Shiloh, obviously commissioned and erected at the same time, and the name is inscribed "Clair" on all of them. So I'm not quite sure what was going on.

Kansas twisters have given Codell a unique place in the footnotes of U.S. history. Devastating tornadoes struck Codell and the area around it on May 20 in three consecutive years --- 1916, 1917 and 1918. The 1918 tornado, which killed 10, was by far the most serious and Codell, although it still exists as an unincorporated community, never recovered from it.

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