family history

if I could ask daddy…

by jani on October 10, 2012

Daddy was born in Kentucky in 1896, but spent his boyhood in St Louis, Missouri. He often spoke of watching the Wright Brothers piloting their “flying machine” while attending the St Louis World Fair. It was fun listening to his stories. But now in my later years, I am filled with so many unanswered questions. As I read the history about the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (or simply referred to as the St Louis World Fair). Does anyone remember Judy Garland’s, “Meet Me At The Fair”?

If I could, I would ask Dad if his lifelong love of puffed wheat came because it was introduced at that fair. “Is that the first time you ever tasted it, Daddy?” Maybe I wouldn’t have disliked that cereal so much… maybe there would be so much more to that story…. Or ice cream cones… Daddy loved ice cream cones.

According to Wikepedia: “A number of foods are claimed to have been invented at the fair. The most popular claim is that the waffle-style ice cream cone was invented and first sold during the fair. However, it is widely believed that it was not invented at the Fair, but instead, it was popularized at the Fair. Other claims are more dubious, including the hamburger and hot dog (both traditional American foods), peanut butter, iced tea, and cotton candy. It is more likely, however, that these food items were first introduced to mass audiences and popularized by the fair. Dr. Pepper and Puffed Wheat cereal were first introduced to a national audience at the fair.”

Daddy never really liked cotton candy… I did. But did he stand in awe watching it being made for the first time, almost afraid to try it?

Ever try puffed wheat? Growing up it was a staple in our kitchen cupboards. I didn’t like it!

But, this fair had a darker side. The following story, to me,  is horrifying. Did Daddy go and see these people? Did he feel ashamed? Did he point and laugh like in the movie “Phantom of the Opera” or “Elephant Man”? I don’t know, because I never asked. I want to believe that even though my dad was only eight years old, he had the character to know this was a travesty!

From Wikepedia:

“Following the Spanish-American War, the United States acquired new territories such as Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico. Some natives from these areas were brought to be on ‘display’ at the fair. Such displays included the Apache of the American Southwest and the Igorot of the Philippines, both of which peoples were dubbed as “primitive”.

In contrast, the Japan pavilion advanced the idea of a modern yet exotic culture unfamiliar to the turn-of-the-century Western world, much as it had during the earlier Chicago World’s Fair.

Ota Benga, a Congolese Pygmy, was featured at the fair. Later he was given the run of the grounds at the Bronx Zoo in New York, then featured in an exhibit on evolution alongside an orangutan in 1906, but public protest ended that.”

As I read the story of Ota Benga, I couldn’t stop myself from crying… this young man was only 18 when first “displayed” at the fair in 1904. He then was taken, “displayed” and eventually released from the monkey house in 1906. But with the outbreak of WWI, with no hope of returning to his native Congo, he committed suicide at the age of 32.

Ota Benga in 1904

My tears kept falling as I read about Ota Benga. I wanted to learn more about this man… I knew there had to be more. After researching, I found the book I was looking for. Ota Benga Under My Mother’s Roof  is a compilation of poetry by the wonderful author, Carrie Allen McCray. Perhaps you’ve read Freedom’s Child? It’s yet another poignant book by this author. Ota’s story, beautifully captured through poetry, is a must-read. McCray captures the extraordinary and tragic life of this brave man in a very personal way, as Ota Benga had lived with McCray’s family. She paints images of what horrors can be inflicted upon our brothers and sisters in the name of industry, science and progress. It’s a sad reminder of where we were in the history of our country just over a century ago – and where we must never return!

Daddy died in 1978. He had a life filled with opportunity and promise. How did he feel about Ota… how did he feel about slavery? He was, after all, from a family of slave owners. That sentence is difficult to write. My grandmother… a slave owner? That’s right. I can’t change the past, but I can try to change the future. I can change me… I can try to influence how my children and grandchildren view the world and their fellow men and women. I can share with them the feelings I had as I marched during the summer of civil rights marches happening across the U.S. – and how it felt to sing, “We Shall Overcome”… I’ve sung it to them. There’s still so much more to be done!

Have you read any of Carrie Allen McCray’s books? Have you read, “Ota Benga Under My Mother’s Roof”? If not – I hope you will! 


shear delight at thanksgiving point

by jani on May 21, 2012

What a wonderful experience, sharing at this years annual Lamb Festival at Thanksgiving Point. Thanksgiving Point in Lehi, Utah,  is a gift to the community from Dr. Allen Ashton (one of the founders of Word Perfect) and his wife, Karen. It’s an amazing facility with hand-on discovery for all ages. The venue for the Lamb Festival was at Farm Country. This is a wonderful activity for the entire family – young and old!

Every year at Thanksgiving Point there’s a celebration of the shearing of the sheep. There are several weavers, spinners, local venders and of course sheep shearing demonstrations and lots of baby lambs!

weaving machine 1

sheep shearer 10

3 week old baby lamb 1

I was there by invitation, displaying my grandma, Mattie’s woven, wool blanket.

Many of the visitors that day were weavers. They stopped to examine this blanket, often commenting on the brilliance of this piece of work. I found out that it is most likely an overshot weave coverlet Linsey-woolsey (which is a linen warp and a woolen  weft).

weaver studying blanket 1

This blanket has a fascinating history! My grandma, Mathilda Theora Crawford Willett, was born on July 14, 1861. That right, my grandma was born at the onset of the Civil War in a confederate state. This is my history and it’s a horrible part that many of us share. My grandma, her parents and her forebear generations owned slaves. As one who marched in the civil rights marches of the sixties, I’ve had a hard time wrapping my head around the dark history of my family roots. But as awful as it is to comprehend, it is a part of our past.

close-up of blanket 1

This blanket was made during my grandma’s ninth year in the summer of 1870. My grandma spent the summer on her grandparent’s sheep farm watching the former or “emancipated” slaves shear the sheep, clean and card the wool, spin it and dye it and finally weave it into this exquisite blanket. My great, great grandparents gifted this blanket to her at the end of that summer. My grandma gave it to her son, my dad, and now I have inherited it. The only way I can honor the hard work that went into this blanket, is to share this story… sometimes bringing me to tears. I can’t change history, I wish I could, but I can help educate. This is the main reason I always bring a photo of Jake, a former slave and an unsung hero, whenever I display Grandma Mattie’s blanket.

A photo of Jake and a picked cotton ball.

My dad told me the story of Jake. He worked in the cotton fields all his life and due to that arduous work, he constantly walked all hunched over. But with all this man had to endure, he would proudly lift his worn-out body to a straight and dignified standing position anytime a photo was taken. The people, I understand, laughed and made fun of this brave man. But nothing, not even the pain he must have suffered, ever stopped him from standing for his picture to be taken. In displaying this blanket, I honor Jake and all of those who suffered during this horrible part of our country’s history.

Please take a moment and think about this; may it never happen again!