On Court Avenue

The cabinet card is not quite as sturdy as one would expect from an established photographer like Benjamin E. Goldsberry, and his studio logo was stamped in haste across the bottom, leaving the green-inked words crookedly confirming the man’s location–Court Avenue in Bedford, the county seat of Taylor County, Iowa. Ben Goldsberry operated cameras like an artist and had a strong reputation in the region, training other aspiring photographers like Matthew G. Maxwell.

page 13 blogThe young couple wear clothes that are simple and traditional, probably made of worsted wool.  The woman’s bodice is plain with no inlays, embroidery or ruffles, and the buttons appear to be made of bone.  She dresses the outfit up with a starched undercollar and a beautiful oval broach at the throat.  Her hair is divided in three pieces; the bottom strands are pulled to the back and twisted into a bun, which is then wound with the two upper pieces for an 1880s finishing touch.  The man wears a jacket and vest made of matching plaid fabric, and a long flowing beard with trimmed sideburns and mustache–a style considered old-fashioned back east.  Mr. Goldsberry operated his Bedford studio from 1880-1890, and these internal clues suggest that the couple posed on Court Avenue between 1884-1889.

I have uncovered six Minor family members living in Iowa’s southcentral counties during the latter decades of the 19th century so far, and only one would fit the description above.

140627-164834John Pierson and Minnie B. Norton Keenan

John P. Keenan was born on a farm near Carmichaels, Pennsylvania, son of Hugh and Isabella Minor Keenan. An adventurous person, John left Greene County in 1875, and as an eighteen year old made his way to Taylor County, Iowa, where he herded other people’s cattle for a living.  He was an enterprising man known as a progressive farmer.  By 1881 John was acting as the legal agent for his Uncle Marion Minor, collecting “judgements” from other Greene County residents who had borrowed money to establish their Iowa roots.  During this same time period, John had made enough money to purchase his own farm in the neighboring Ringgold County. There he met, courted and married Minnie Norton in 1884.

By 1887 John and Minnie had the opportunity to purchase 300 acres of fine farming land south of Mormontown (Blockton), Jefferson Township, Taylor County.  Their lives were turned topsy-turvy when son Hugh was born the summer of 1887.  Unfortunately the following year was filled with grief, as they lost first Minnie’s father, Martin, and then their little boy.

Perhaps later that fall the young farmers headed to town, purchasing winter supplies, tying up financial matters, posting letters before the winter storms set in,  and stopping by Court Avenue to document their resilience for posterity.

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A letter from Mormontown, Iowa, 1882: Amanuensis Monday

A hearty thank you to John Newmark at Transylvanian Dutch, creator of Amanuensis Monday, for the gentle nudge to keep transcribing those family documents.

Every once in awhile, I come across an envelope and feel a thrill of anticipation. Letters, even business letters, can yield personal details, hints of who the author and the intended reader really were and what was going on in our country at the moment pen met paper.  The bundle of documents I am currently curating from the Minor Satchel has included a lengthy correspondence between a John P. Keenan of Iowa and my great-great-grandfather, Francis Marion Minor, of Whiteley, Greene County, Pennsylvania.

Mr. Keenan was apparently a debt collector for Francis Minor in Mormontown, Iowa in 1881-1883; each letter describes an attempt to collect money, pay taxes or settle a dispute about one of these issues.  Without a fuller review of ALL the Minor documents I remain mystified by the insinuations introduced in the notes.  Even so there are sentences, sometimes whole paragraphs, that begin to tell a personal tale, particularly if I use good punctuation!

Mr. F. M. Minor

Sir, I receive yours of the fifth. Now in regard to Evans I saw him to day. I told him you had to have that money.  He said he didn’t want to, he said, but (he) would have to sell his farm.  Now I tell you, I believe it can be bought worth the money he offered it to me for 25 dollars per acre but I believe it can be bought for less money.  It is a nice little farm and when times gets a little better it will fetch a good price.  Times are dull here and nobody wants to buy any thing.  We ain’t have a half of a corn crop and the oats won’t make over half crop.  We thought we had a big oats crop till we went to corting, but they ain’t half filled and when we lose crops it makes dull times.  This country is full of cattle and are going to be sold low.  There was cattle held over from last winter on the account of corn that will be sold this fall and the thing is worse now than last fall and I tell you I believe if you feel like investing any money in the west there ain’t been a better time for five years.  I know you are no western man but I tell you what, do come and see the country and I believe you can make expenses any way now .

I tell you about Evans when he finds you will close.  He is going to sell it worth the money. I would hate to sue him but would like to make a few dollars out on him.

Yours as ever, J. P. Keenan.  Please answer.

“Times are dull here.”  Times are dull, full of gambles and hopes. Unpredictable weather and volatile markets know no boundaries of time, as Hurricane Irene and a plunging stock market reminded me last week.

Just a couple of days ago, I handed a local farmer change for the apples and I asked how she had fared during Irene.  The days-long power outage was the least of her concerns; newly planted apple trees had had to be propped up and trees, shaped-trained for years, were just chopped down  –  too bent over to be recovered.  She said, “It reminds me of my father, who was asked if he was going to the newly developed race track at the Pocono Downs (1960s).  He said, “Absolutely not.  Why gamble there?  I gamble every day I farm.”

That is my take away from this letter  –  no matter the era, we humans take chances, tell stories, pursue dreams; we gamble that tomorrow can be better than today.  Sometimes we lose the farm.