The Thélèsphore Thibodeaux house, St. Martin Parish, Louisiana

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Thelesphore's house, taken 1980s

1988

Thelesphore Thibodeaux’s house was probably built around the time of his 1st marriage, 1890, but may not have been built until after 1894.  It was then that the controversial succession of his father, Onezime, a white sugarcane farmer, brought to light the deathbed marriage to his mother Isabelle, an ex-slave, that was hotly contested but eventually upheld by the courts, making Thelesphore and his 7 siblings legitimate children, heirs to their father’s estate, and owners of land they were now free to build on.

Thelesphore’s house was vacated in the mid-1970s after the recently-widowed Caffery, Thelesphore’s oldest son, went to live out his last years in a nursing home.  And as Caffery was the only child of Thelesphore’s 12 to stay on his land, and he and Anna’s children had both died in infancy, the house’s abandonment was cemented in 1980 when Caffery followed his Anna to the grave.   In the late 1980s, during my research into my grandmother’s family’s land adjacent to the north, I took this one photo of the fascinating ‘ghost-house’ that I knew nothing about but often walked past to get to my land.  For that story, go to Breaux Bridge: A 19th cent. Cajun sugar cane farm

I did not know, then, of the 1894 succession, of Thelesphore, the 2nd of Onezime and Isabelle’s 8 children, or of his role as family hero.  I didn’t know of his dawn ride into town to get a marriage license and the priest who performed the bedside marriage ceremony sometime before noon, or of the legacy this created for the black creole family as homeowners and landed planters in a world awash with indentured African-American sharecroppers.  To read the succession, go to Succession No.2859, Oct.24, 1894, Breaux Bridge, La.

I didn’t know that the neighbor who let me use his driveway to access my family’s land was the grandson of Thelesphore’s younger brother Hypolite, 4th of Onezime and Isabelle’s 8 children.  Or that 30 years later, in 2014, I would meet, and become friends and research partners with, a trio of spry 70-something Thibodeaux siblings who turned out to have grown up next to this neighbor, the grandchildren of Thelesphore and Hypolite’s baby sister Louise, 7th of Onezime and Isabelle’s 8 children.

I certainly didn’t know that their great-grandfather Onezime Thibodeaux, the white man they had inherited this land from, would turn out to be the brother of my 3x-great-grandmother, Marie-Phelonise Thibodeaux, making my newfound friends and me 3rd cousins twice removed, or that Onezime and Marie-Phelonise were grandchildren and great-grandchildren, respectively, of two Thibodeaux cousins, Armand and Paul, who came to the newly-Spanish colony of Louisiana in 1763 as Acadian refugees just released from Halifax prison in Nova Scotia.  Soon after arrival, the cousins attained two adjoining land grants along the wilderness of Bayou Teche from the new Spanish government, a piece of which I would inherit 240 years later.

I did not know that Armand and Paul’s grandfather, Pierre Thibodeaux, was a Frenchman born in 1631 from the Poitou region of western France who had voyaged across the ocean at the age of 20 to become not only one of the original colonists of Port Royal in France’s new colony of Acadie, but also the predominate ancestor of the Acadian/Cajun Thibodeauxs of Louisiana.

And I had not even remotely dreamed, taking a picture of this abandoned house on the Teche that I knew nothing about, that I would go to Nova Scotia 12 years later and find a 1900s house, itself abandoned and collapsing, whose cellar contained at its base boulders that had originally been part of Pierre Thibodeau’s cellar 350 years before  . . . whose land a few kilometers upstream from Port Royal had a lone hilltop in the middle of the otherwise flat river valley on which he built his home, a home whose cellar would be found by his 8x-great-granddaughter from New Orleans in 2000, the same person who had found and taken a photograph of his 6x-great grandson Thelesphore’s home, though she hadn’t known it at the time.  For the story of the Nova Scotia roadtrip, go to  Goodbye K-Man

  •                                                                                                                      –                            –                      –                    –               me
  •            /Claude              Paul            Elizee                                          /
  • Pierre                                                    |                 \                          /                                   /Caffery
  •            \Charles                                    m.                  \ M.Phelonise                                    /  Mack
  •                              \ Armand                 |                    / Onezime          _  /  Thelesphore   _ \  Leonard            Cousin E
  •                                             \ Isaac       |                 /                                 \  P.Hypolite              –                     Cousin R
  •                                                          \ M.Amelie                                        \ Louise                    –                    Cousins S, J & D (“the trio”)
  •                                                                                                                                                                                                                        .
  • 1631          1700                1750                    1800                                      1850                        1900              1940

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Thelesphore's house, 2014

This and all subsequent photos, 2014/15

Thelesphore Thibodeaux house, ca.1895

Front verandah

I had never looked inside the house on the Teche until I met my trio of Thibodeaux cousins in the summer of 2014.

Thelesphore’s house had a large front parlor with a bay window that led to a large bedroom behind it and a large dining room behind that . . . these last two connected by a double-sided fireplace, and at the rear, a small kitchen.  Perpendicularly off the side of the front parlor ran an open verandah, its front steps long gone, behind which was a small connecting foyer with doors at all four sides, and beyond that, a second bedroom that completed the foot of the house’s “L” shape.

inside corner of the "L", with cistern

Cistern and site of porch now gone

The rusted shell of a cistern teetered lop-sided behind the second bedroom, and I had been told that a rear gallery with a long set of steps had run from the foyer door between the cistern and the south side of the house, all the way back to the kitchen.  Its only remnants, though, were the rotted tips of a few floor joists that still protruded, half-suspended, from the side of the house, and an ornamental half-column at the far back kitchen corner.

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Kitchen door, back porch column

Where the porch would have been, facing the rear.

Floor and ceiling joists for porch

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There had been no electricity when my trio of Thibodeaux cousins had been children, kerosene lamps being the source of light.  And there was still no indoor bathroom or running water, an outhouse, now long gone, instead being situated about 20 feet back from the house, and the cistern that collected rainwater from gutters along the roof supplying the house’s water.   Twelve foot ceilings, as well as the brick piers that raised the house 2 ½ feet above ground, represented south Louisiana’s historic answer to the oppressive heat and humidity of the region, but the Victorian bay window, with its two crowning Eastlake-style brackets, together with the absence of bousillage fill in the walls (a mash of bayou clay and moss), pointed to the isolated region’s increasing exposure via the expanding railroad system to national “outside-world” influences, and subsequent transition away from the traditional Acadian structure that Thelesphore’s father had undoubtedly been raised in on the east side of the bayou.

Victorian millwork at bay window

Eastlake millwork

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kitchen, rear wall, no bousillage

Little is known about the house Thelesphore himself grew up in, the house Onezime built somewhere on the west bank across the Teche from his parents some time between 1850 and 60, when he was a single man in his 30s.  It was during this decade, though, that he began a relationship with Thelesphore’s mother, a slave girl 20 years his junior on his family’s sugarcane farm, Isabelle Azor, a descendant of his grandfather’s slave Azor from Congo and possibly of mixed race herself.  After the first three of his children with her were born, shortly after 1870, he moved Isabelle and his growing family into his house, and from the age of 7 or so, Thelesphore lived here with his siblings and was raised by both Onezime and Isabelle as a family together.

What this house looked like, though, or even where it was, is anyone’s guess.  Onezime’s little nephew by his older sister who died young (my grandmother’s great-grandmother), was raised in his grandparents’ old family home across the bayou.  And when he married and took over his mother’s share of his grandparents’ estate on the west bank, directly to the north of Onezime’s share, he built a plain square structure for himself as though it were simply an outbuilding of the main family home he’d grown up in.  Onezime’s younger sister’s son, however, on the part of the estate directly north of that, built a house that, though built almost at the same time as Thelesphore built his Victorian house, was so much the archetypal Acadian structure that in the 1980s, when his descendants no longer wanted the headache of the crumbling old structure, a couple from a neighboring community who loved Cajun history and architecture bought the old place, then lovingly dismantled, moved, and restored it on their land.  The family today, grandchildren collectively of Thelesphore, younger brother Hypolite and baby sister Louisa, have no idea what their grandparents’ childhood home looked like, or indeed exactly where it was, and it is likely a mystery that will never be solved.

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Dining room, later the kitchen

dining room with mantle and chimney

Absent any stairs into the house, I set up a step stool below the open doorway of the kitchen at the very back.  My first glimpse, though, into the magical suspension of time that was the interior had me reaching for the camera before I ever left the ground.

kitchen

kitchen

The small kitchen had a corner pantry in which still remained a few mason jars of shucked corn, signs of the home canning done by the women of the family who kept extensive vegetable gardens.  There was also a jug of molasses, home made from the farm’s cane, and lard, from the pigs in the yard which also provided such Cajun standards as boudin sausage and cracklins.  Pieces of old enamel coffee pots were also present, as well as somebody’s nest.

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There had been, the family had told me, a wood-burning stove against the wall, at left in the photo, and a table under the window by the corner pantry for the white porcelain wash bowl where dishes were cleaned and perhaps for a quick stand-up bath.  Full baths in the wash tub, kept hung up on the outside porch wall, were taken either in the kitchen, or in either of the middle rooms by the fire if it were cold, and were taken only once a week, often everyone using the same bathwater in turns.

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excavated from the chicken coop and shed

excavated from the chicken coop and shed

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kitchen floor

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Now, there was only a plain wooden chair, which may have been the one the family remembers Anna keeping by the door to the side porch, a broom worn down to the nub, and segments of a linoleum floor with a 1940s geometric pattern all but invisible beneath a decades-old crust of hardened dust.

 

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segment of hearthstone

The dining room contained more signs of use as a kitchen than it did a dining room, with its 1960s stove and wringer washer, an old cutting board on the floor, and a gallon can of salad oil, its contents long congealed solid, on the floor next to a rectangular hole in the floor where the hearthstone had fallen through to the ground.

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wooden cutting board

wooden cutting board…

But no one in the family remembered it being used as a kitchen, instead remembering a long dining room table against the wall where the modern stove now was, a garde manger cupboard in that corner, and an ice box against the porch wall by the kitchen door, which I found remnants of out back in the shed.

kit, 2 of 3

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ice box in the shed

ice box in the shed

ice box door

ice box door

ice box latch

ice box latch

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There were 2 chairs from a 1950s vinyl and chrome dinette set beside the chimney, perhaps belonging to the red-and-white porcelain table in the front parlour, but nothing like a large family-sized dining room table.

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top layer wallpaper

din flooring

dining room flooring, 30s-40s?

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dining room, 3rd and oldest layer of wallpaper

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broken dishware thrown out the back window

The only thing that really hinted at dining room decor came from the 3rd layer of wallpaper, the oldest, having an elegant mille-fleur pattern with tiny oriental pagodas, hardly typical of a kitchen but often seen in turn-of-the-century parlours.  Outside the kitchen window, though, buried a foot below ground, were shards of dishes, china teacups and ornamental cut glass that would have been kept in the dining room’s garde manger cabinet.

Excavations from this kitchen midden, as well as the shed that served as chicken coop and plow tack room out back, and the trash pile to the side of the shed, were all turning up things related to kitchen activities.  Also, Thelesphore’s brother Hypolite, whose home across the street has since been torn down, had a barn and several old cypress sheds which still stand and have produced several things of interest.

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Aluminum salt shaker and coffee pot lid, white demitasse coffee cup, metal forks, glass Mason jar lid liners, enamel coffee pot strainer, and a metal cheese grater.

Aluminum salt shaker and coffee pot lid, white demitasse coffee cup, metal forks, glass Mason jar lid liners, enamel coffee pot strainer, and a metal cheese grater.

ceramic casserole lid, iron stew pot, ice tongs

ceramic casserole lid, iron stew pot, ice tongs

blades of an ice cream maker

blades of an ice cream maker

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3-footed iron cauldron

wooden pea pod sheller

wooden pea pod sheller

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Mouli julienne slicer, 1950s

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It was routine for me to collect samples of wallpapers and I did a quick run-through of the rest of the house to peruse the walls.  And once, when my dropped water bottle left a puddle that softened the decades-old encrustation of dirt, leaves and mold, colors began to bleed through that revealed tattered linoleum hidden beneath the muck.

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top layer linoleum

top layer linoleum

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The front parlor with the bay window lay at one side of the front verandah, jammed with weather-drenched, mid-century furniture from the last years of Caffery, Thelesphore’s oldest son, and his wife Anna that no one remembered, apparently gotten after they’d all grown and gone off to school.  There was an iron head and foot board, and a couple of mattresses upended against the wall, though, which fit the family’s memory.  They had all, at one point or another from 1936 on, spent the night here in the parlour which often served as a third bedroom.  But the sofa and side chairs they remembered, Thelesphore’s antiques with fine upholstery and dark Victorian wicker were gone, as well as the antique gramophone they remembered by the door to the verandah.

top layer

top layer

older layer underneath

older layer underneath

lower layer linoleum

lower layer linoleum

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There seemed to be only one wallpaper, of small roses, but there were remnants of another similar rose pattern beneath.  Two layers of linoleum, however, had patterns that were quite different.  And the older one underneath the other, the family remembered.

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The side bedroom which, together with its little connecting foyer, ran the length of the verandah, was not only the most deteriorated room in the house but also the most feared.  “Oh, that was Mack’s room.  No one went in there.”   I had noted with curiosity in the censuses that Mack, the 4th of Thelesphore’s 12 children, was listed as the only one in the family who didn’t read or write, living with his parents into his 30s, and knew that sometime before 1940, he had been sent to Pineville, the state hospital for the insane.

But I also knew that my Thibodeaux trio, who all claimed the heeby-jeebies around that room, had nevertheless never known him . . . weren’t born until he had already gone to Pineville.  The oldest didn’t grow up knowing that room as empty or haunted, either.  In 1936, the year she was born, across the road and back a ways down the lane from Thelesphore’s, his son Leonard and his wife had the first of their 5 children to be born in that house and fill the children’s bedroom with energy and laughter again.  Family folklore and ghost stories surrounding that room must have been taking shape even then, though.  And when Leonard moved his family out of the house in the mid-40s, the children’s bedroom was again deserted, never to be occupied again, and it was this house that the other two of the trio, the 4th and 6th siblings of their 8, grew up knowing.

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boy’s socks, canvas shoe and jumper shoulder strap

The last child to be born in the house was Leonard’s only son, Robert Leonard, Jr., and I found signs of his presence in a derelict old dresser, half rotted, whose upper drawers, at first look, seemed to contain only the nests of critters.  On second look, though, woven in with all the other twigs and grasses and tidbits of paper, were a pair of infant boy’s socks and a red canvas shoe, as well as the shoulder strap of a tiny plaid jumper.

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“There is a tie that binds us to our home”

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“registered 1877”

There was another sign of children’s fun and games mashed up into the nesting that piqued my own childhood memories, a wadded-up ball of paper that took a good deal of careful soaking to reveal, a playing card.  Remember Squeezer and Trip?

two toothbrushes, half a comb, a lid of a Royal Crown hair dressing tin

two toothbrushes, half a comb, a lid of a Royal Crown hair dressing tin, together with two modern fuses

A reminder of what an anomaly it was that a house with no running water could still exist and be lived in as recently as 1970,  2 toothbrushes, a comb and a Royal Crown hair dressing tin lid were in one of the dresser drawers under a nest, in a bedroom dresser drawer, not in the bathroom on the sink in front of a mirror because there was no mirror or sink or bathroom.  Reality check.

corn cobs

corn cobs

One curiosity – At the foot of the dresser, pushed into the corner, were a bunch of corn cobs, which the family said were Caffery’s.  Caffery, the oldest, when he married Anna, moved into a crude 2-room hut behind the main house, closer to the bayou, a “mud house” as the family calls it (meaning bousillage, probably uncovered inside and out) with a fireplace, built on posts set straight into the ground.  It’s tempting to me to wonder if it were built by Thelesphore when he first married in 1890, before he knew he’d one day hold title to the land.  But the way it has been described to me, the house didn’t seem like it would have held up for the 40 years leading up to Caffery and Anna’s occupancy.  Perhaps the older boys built it as a garconniere when they started getting older.

In any case, after Thelesphore and Corinne died, and Leonard subsequently moved his family elsewhere, Caffery and Anna moved in.  They had two children, but both died at or near birth.  So apparently, eventually, Caffery used the children’s bedroom for dry storage, like a barn, for his corn after harvest.

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Amidst the interesting bits of wallpaper, or rather beneath them, was what had apparently been the first covering of the wood plank walls . . . newspaper.  Pages dated June 1, 1934 were found in two different parts of the room, and I’m gonna take a guess that this represents a redo that happened when Mack left and Leonard was preparing to bring his new bride, Indiana, into the home with the now 70-yr-old Thelesphore and his wife Corinne, who would then be joined by 4 little granddaughters and a grandson, Leonard’s only boy, before both of their deaths in 1942.

June 1, 1934

June 1, 1934

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June 1, 1934 – Sale at Heymann’s

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Outside the bedroom, in the foyer, were other exposed pieces of newspaper that spoke of 1930s life, . . .

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June 9, 1939 – Grocery store sale

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Creole Belle Coffee, 15¢

. . . for the woman of the house . . .

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Son of Frankenstein and Huckleberry Finn (no date, but released 1939)

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. . . for the child of the house . . .

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Prince Albert Tobacco

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. . . and the man of the house.

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There were things all over . . . in the house, under the house, outside the kitchen window, in the shed, in the trash pile beside the shed . . . that I knew had passed the doors of the children’s bedroom at one  point or another.  Cartoons in the newspapers, marbles, checkers, poker chips, a doll’s shoe, a toy car, a fish hook and float . . .

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bedroom, east wall

bedroom, east wall

The real history lesson was in the next room, though, my favorite room, the main bedroom in the center of the house.  It had a fireplace that shared the chimney I’d seen in the dining room and a mantle with hand painted faux-marble(?) accents at the center and each side.  A couple of the front verandah columns, whose moorings must have given way, had been lain along the wall beneath the window.

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west wall, bedroom

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There was a nice wallpaper and some surprising linoleums that I never would have seen had I not already learned to squirt water on the floor and rub my toe through it.

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bedroom mantle

verandah columns in the bedroom

verandah columns in the bedroom

older, bottom layer

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top layer linoleum

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But then something caught my attention and I started reading the walls.   Cuz they read like a WWII history book.

“June 5, 1939” . . . “NAZI MINISTER WELCOMED BY HUNGARY GOV’T” . . . . . “MAYOR AGAINST NOMINATION OF JOHN N. GARNER”  (for when FDR stepped down from his 2nd term which, as it turned out, he never did)

“BRITISH STILL SEEKING AID TO HALT HITLER” . . . . . . “[Ambassador] WILSON NOT TO GO BACK TO BERLIN” –   (No date, but events happened in Dec.1938)

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June 9, 1939 - GERMANS PLAN MASS ARRESTS OVER SLAYING (of German officer in occupied Czechoslovakia)

“June 9, 1939” . . . . “GERMANS PLAN MASS ARRESTS OVER SLAYING”  (of German officer in occupied Czechoslovakia)

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FDR

FDR

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This made me wonder at the history of the room, though, since it seemed it was redone, the walls anyway, in 1939, which seemed an unnecessary upheaval to the bedroom of the 70-something Thelesphore and Corinne, especially in light of the fact that they would both be gone just 3 years later.

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In any case, I’d found a few things to help me flesh out my imagination of the room, and the three couples to spend their married lives in it.

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iron bed

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Anna’s rocker

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A clear-toed with rhinestones up the heels, medicine bottle, Dr. Tichenor’s bottle, iodine bottle, small drawer and mirror trim from vanity, skeleton key, bureau key

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headboard accents

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two bud vases

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eye glasses, shoehorns, mother-of-pearl French cuff link, buttons and buckles from Iron Rod overalls, Ford key, navy buttons, navy medal

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kerosene lamp

kerosene lamp

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2 rosary crucifixes and a foil applique disk

2 rosary crucifixes and a foil applique disk

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My favorite find, though, where several of the things I’ve already shown you came from, came from underneath the chickens’ nesting boxes in the back shed.  I picture it being put there after the woman who owned it died and relatives helped her elderly husband clear some of her things in preparation for his going to live with them.  And I knew who owned it because the family recognized its contents.

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Anna’s sewing box

Anna’s sewing box, a round metal cookie tin, was on the ground, wedged underneath a row of nesting boxes.   When the fragile disk of rusted metal that was its lid was removed, a tangled wad of stuff, when soaked, turned out to be 55 buttons, including a military button with an anchor, a coin-like French metal disk that isn’t a coin, 7 buckles and clasps, a French cuff link, 2 shoehorns, 2 keys, a porcelain furniture wheel, a fork whose tines were broken off, a fish hook, a crucifix, a glass lid from a Presto mason jar, a cheese grater, and two small bottles, one an iodine bottle with the glass rod broken but still in the bottle.

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Now let’s go around the property, around the periphery of the house, the shed and trashpile, Hypolite’s sheds across the street.     (link to be added soon)

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Thank you so much for taking the time to visit my little world for a while. As with all of my photos and text, all rights to the material in this post are reserved. © postkatrinastella.com

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