The Things We Find

Story by Roger Moore

All one needs for a history lesson is to sell an old building, then to clean out that building or space – especially if that building was built almost 100 years ago and contains all sorts of nooks and crannies and more dust than anything else. However, evidence of a different time exists under that dust, within old storage chests, and on pieces of paper slipped into the pages of old books. Five simple items cannot tell you the complete history of the twentieth century, but they can provide a small window.

In the mid-1850s a German chemist, Robert Bunsen, was part of a small group that invented the Bunsen burner. The year 1856 saw the first commercialized gas stove/furnace produced by an English company, Pettit and Smith. Although not a part of modern home-building most who are of the 50-year-old set will remember those cold mornings standing in front of the small gas “heater.” I, in fact, have a scar to remind me of that time I stood a bit too close to our small house’s main heat source as a groggy adolescent. How many times did you singe eyebrows or get the shock of that initial lighting? The twenty-first century has seen, for various reasons, moves to eliminate a nineteenth-century innovation.

Pre-dating the gas furnace by about perhaps a thousand years is the common storage trunk. Is it possible it was used to carry items across the Atlantic Ocean in the nineteenth century? The entrails are now all-but-empty, but remnants of 1940s newspapers, a few old books, and some 1930s-smelling articles of clothing. Digging around you also find a handwritten list of “cards sent to the following.” One might assume Christmas cards, but, upon further investigation, it is a list of attendees at a funeral. Familiar Stillwater names including Denman, Horton, Hoke, Webb, and King’s Grocery, formerly of South Main, are listed.

Our old trunk also includes many books with a wide assortment of topics. A 1939 College Algebra book is still as confusing as it is today. Old equations written on faded paper look correct … someone other than me can verify that, however. Another book, The Junior Girl Scout Handbook, is in pristine condition. Published in 1963, the book has page 157 within the chapter “Games,” dog-eared. The game, “Run, Skip, Jump,” seems simple enough. Was this particular handbook used with a particular girl scout troop who played this particular game on a summer or fall day in the 1960s? Somebody, perhaps someone’s mother, grandmother, aunt, sister, or friend, dog-eared the book for a reason.

Speaking of summer or fall days how often do you see your fellow citizens walking around with ear-buds listening to music provided by a small device? A century ago the gramophone – known as a record player since the 1940s – filled many a household with music. Our particular find appears to be from some ancient civilization where the process of playing music included a record, a plug-in, and no headphones. What records played on this old dusty console? Elvis Presley? Glen Miller? Hank Williams? Maybe there was a time, in the 1960s, when someone brought over a Bob Dylan record. Perhaps it did not make it to its conclusion, or maybe it led to a heated conversation so prominent in that decade.

Our final item, a 1940s-era bicycle, needs no introduction. While many of the above-mentioned items made individual journeys to get to Stillwater, perhaps the bicycle made plenty of appearances throughout town. Was it ridden to school? To work? Maybe to King’s Grocery to pick up a carton of milk and some bread? From the looks of the seat, our rider had comfort in mind. Stored away deep inside our building, one wonders when was the last time it was ridden and for what purpose? Did it have one owner or did it move from one household to another? Maybe the bicycle was ridden to King’s Grocery to get matches to light the gas furnace. Maybe it was used to ride to Chenoweth Music to buy a new record that would eventually be stored in the old trunk right next to the girl scout handbook.

It is impossible to know the full extent of each of our items’ meaning and place within the old building–at least at first glance. As the twenty-first century progresses all families and communities are trying to figure out what to do with all the “old stuff” that has been stored away for half a century. If anything, it leads to good conversation and, for the historically-inclined, hours of digging and searching through dusty and fading memories.