Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Miss Birks


I don’t think about junior high without thinking of Miss Birks.  The big old school building, pictured above, was referred to in postcards as the “new high school” but by the time I worked my way up the educational ladder, a newer “new high school” had been built, and the large, historic old building had been turned over to the junior high crowd.  Even back then, I loved the old architecture of the building, although the sheer size of it scared me half to death, as did Miss Birks.

I passed Miss Birks in the hallways many more times than I could count.  She always seemed to have a stern look about her, but then, after years of dealing with youngsters of that age and hormonal status, you’d better be tough.  At one particular point in time, I recall going through a bit of a crisis, and although I don’t recollect exactly what the problem was, it was serious enough that I considered talking to Miss Birks, who was by then the guidance counselor.  However, about that time I’d pass her in the hall again, and her aura of authoritarianism quickly changed my mind.

imageOver the years, when I’d see old photos of that beautiful school building, I’d think briefly of Miss Birks, but I hadn’t given her much in depth consideration until tonight, while browsing through an old 1926 Huron High School Tiger yearbook, and, much to my surprise, there she was in the graduating class!  Next to her photo, the question was asked, “Will her voice resound thru the ages as it has the halls of H. H. S.?”   What?  Miss Birks was noisy in the halls?  Really!?  I wish I’d known that 40 years ago!  And what a prophetic question!  Yes, as it turned out, her voice would resound through those halls for a very long time to come.

Miss Marie Birks, 1926


I was hoping to find a quick obituary online for Miss Birks to fill in the years.  Well, I didn’t find one.  I did, however, find that her name was mentioned in the local newspaper more times than I could count – and like the young girl who was involved in so many high school activities, as a grown woman her level of community involvement was high.  She had spent the bulk of her life living in the family home on Montana street, from before she was 10 months old until at least 1992, the last year for which I have a city directory.  Her mother passed away sometime between 1940 and 1953, which was the year her father died.  After that Miss Birks continued on in the home alone.

She was first-generation American born – her father came from England in 1883, and her mother a few years later, from Denmark.  Her father was most noted for his work as Beadle County Treasurer as well as a long-time real estate agent. 

She retired from the Huron Public School district with 39 years to her credit, according to the local newspaper.

Miss Birks was 96 years old when she passed away at the Huron Nursing Home in May of 2005.  As the children were closing another year of school, she closed the book of her life.

And yes, I eventually did get desperate enough to talk to her about my catastrophic situation, whatever it was.  She was one of the nicest, most empathetic and caring teachers I’ve known.  She helped me resolve my situation, encouraged me, and afterward remembered me with a smile every time we passed in the hall.  While Miss Birks is gone, as is the old school building, I won’t forget either one of them.

A few sources -

Social Security Death Index
1926 HHS Tiger Yearbook
1910, 1920, 1930 Federal Census
Numerous Huron City Directories
Numerous old Huron Daily Plainsman, Dakota Huronite, and other local newspaper articles

© Karen Seeman, 2011

Graphics courtesy of JOD

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Driving Me Crazy

One fun by-product of taking a genealogy “road trip” is all of the interesting, out-of-the-ordinary things you see. Lately, it’s been cars.

We saw this beauty recently in Waverly, Iowa. Wow. My brother used to have an old green Chevy from the 1950s, but it sure didn’t look like this!

Is this a monster truck? Or a monster van? Also seen in Waverly.

Hadn’t seen an El Camino in years! I wonder how many young ‘uns today would have any idea what an El Camino is? We saw this fine example in Mason City, Iowa.

Definitely one of my favorites – a pristine General Lee. Wow. It’s hard not to love this car! Spotted in Rochester, Minnesota.

On our way home from our last road trip, we got behind this little gem in traffic in Rochester. It’s not every day you see a Lamborghini, especially around here! I wonder how that thing would do in the snow?

And last, but not least - 

My all-time favorite. It’s hard to beat this for a “noteworthy ride.” I believe I snapped this photo in Missouri, heading for Illinois.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

White Bronze Beauties

While on a recent cemetery outing in Harlington Cemetery (Waverly, Iowa) I noticed several stones that were in remarkably good shape for their age.  Actually, they were in remarkably good shape for any age!  My husband, upon touching one of them, realized this was a metal “stone,” with a soft matte finish that mimicked the real thing.  In the short time we were in the cemetery, we found three examples, all stamped inconspicuously with “Western White Bronze Company” of Des Moines, Iowa.

A family historian could only hope to find a 120 year old stone in such wonderful, clearly readable condition.  The stone at right, belonging to members of the Jenkins and Calkins family, marks burials from 1887-1890.

According to an article written by Mark Culver, these “White Bronze” tombstones are not bronze at all, but zinc, which is resistant to rust.  The process of producing these “stones”, Culver says, was perfected in 1873.  The metal pieces were produced and then fused together with hot zinc.  The Monumental Bronze Company produced these stones until 1914, and during World War I, the government commandeered the plant for munitions.  The production of grave markers stopped in 1939.

The Western White Bronze Company of Des Moines was a subsidiary of the Monumental Bronze Company, where finishing work was done after casting in Bridgeport, Connecticut.  This plant closed in 1909.

Culver states that the prices of these grave markers ranged from under $10 to upwards of $5,000.WhiteBronze_Kretschmar2
None of the stones we saw showed signs of damage, despite their age.  The price seems right.  The looks is crisp and clean.  They don’t rust.  They apparently don't age.  Vandals cannot break pieces from them.  So why did demand for the White Bronze stones cease?

The problem, says Culver, is that people never really warmed up to metal markers, and some cemeteries went so far as to ban them.  Many people probably did not believe the claims of the salesmen, which, decades down the road, have proven true after all.  Would they fare well in today’s market?  I’ll bet they would.


Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Interesting Stones in Harlington Cemetery

I took a recent jaunt through Harlington Cemetery in Waverly, Iowa, and while the cemetery was too large to cover all of it, I did note a few unique stones that I just had to capture.

To the left is the monument of Capt. Orrin F. Avery, Company I  34 Regiment 10 Volunteers.  I was struck by the unusual ornate carvings on the front of the stone.  Two crossed spears, draperies, and a five-pointed star are situated above what could be a shield.  The area on the shield, below Capt. Avery’s inscription, reads, “Our Darling Baby Boy, Born and died Sept. 30, 1869.”

On the side of the stone, engraved on another of the “shields”, it reads, “My Beloved Husband, Orrin E. Avery”.  He was born in 1831 and died on May 24, 1870 – just 8 months after this dear woman lost her baby boy.  This ornate stone still exudes the sadness and loss of 110 years past.


The Clarke monument, pictured below, featured two very large stone vaults. I am assuming the caskets were placed inside. I had never seen anything like this before.Clarke1


Above, a simple variation on the “log” theme.  Below, more ornate…


The plant carvings were very ornate, and the way the logs are laid out is unlike anything I’ve seen.  Three individual stones are modeled after stumps.


This small house was sitting on a hill at the entrance to the cemetery.  There did not appear to be any burials nearby.  I’m not sure why it’s there, or if it’s supposed to represent anything in particular, but it was an unusual and unexpected sight.


And lastly, we ran across this stone near the gate as we were leaving the cemetery.  I wondered if it had been strategically placed by the owners, as a way of bringing a smile to the faces of visitors…