18    Aug 20102 comments

Family treasures: What’s in your attic?

Aren't attics - and cellars - magical places to explore?

As a young girl visiting my grandmother in upstate New York during the summers, we would often go to see her friend Fanny who lived not far away.

I remember the old country farm house set in large surrounding fields. While Grandma and Fanny were talking downstairs, I was given permission to go up to the attic and scrounge around.

Fanny and her family had bought the place from people who had long been living there, and the attic was full of what people generally hide away. I found ancient letters, old newspapers covering historical events, all sorts of documents, books, photographs, as well as odd pieces of furniture, art work and old-fashioned clothing. At that young age, I didn't recognize the importance of these finds.

Now that I am so involved in family history and artifacts, I often wish I had an opportunity to revisit that treasure trove. Unfortunately, the house is long gone, and a housing development fills those fields.

My grandparents' home in Brooklyn, New York, had a cellar filled with more personal treasures. While rooting around in the boxes long ago I discovered my grandparents' ketubah (Jewish marriage certificate). I remember wanting to bring it upstairs and ask her about it, but felt it was almost an invasion of privacy to have been looking around, so I put it back in the box.

And, as readers will guess, it has never been seen again.

If you have the opportunity to explore an elderly relative's attic or cellar, take the time to do so. Family treasures may be lurking there, long forgotten.

You might find diaries, letters, photos, and documents for birth, marriage or death. In old boxes or in drawers of old furniture might be hidden family bibles, yearbooks, postcards, maps, old newspapers, military memorabilia and more.

In 2007, a family in Austin, Texas found a boxful of their history some 80 years after the death of their immigrant ancestor - one of the earliest Chinese immigrants to settle there. According to the Statesman.com story:

It begins sometime in the late 1800s, when Joe Sing left his family and his homeland in search of the proverbial better life in the United States.

Sing found it in Austin, where he soon bridged Anglo, Asian and Mexican American worlds. One of the city's first Chinese residents, Sing married Francisca, an American of Mexican descent who cooked for Gov. Ma Ferguson and who, like her husband, did not lack for resolve. Together they opened the Hong Lee Laundry, which flourished by catering to bankers, legislators and white-collar workers on Congress Avenue. The couple had four children and apparently enjoyed a loving marriage. Sing never became a U.S. citizen, however — the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 forbade it — and under another law, Moreno, without realizing it, forfeited her citizenship simply by marrying Sing.

But, perhaps because the Sing-Moreno story was not passed down in the detail it might have deserved, their descendants never really made too much of their family heritage, their ancestors' pioneering spirit or their own melting-pot mix of heritages. American. Chinese. Mexican.

What they found in their attic is called "a magic box," by the couple's great-granddaughter. The large cardboard box, discovered in the home of Joe and Francisca's deceased daughter held their century-old personal effects.

Helping Joe's descendants has been Esther Chung, who collects Asian American history at the Austin History Center. She's worked with documents, correspondence and census records to find more information about Joe.

According to the US census, he was in Galveston (Texas) in 1880. He also lived in Boston and worked in Shreveport and New Orleans (both Louisiana). He held a certificate of residence, required for a Chinese nation to work in the US. Chung also discovered he used three different names - Joe Hall, Hong Lee, and his real name of Jo Feng Sheng - but not why.

Read the complete, very detailed and fascinating story at the link above.

What's in your attic?

Have you found family history in an attic or cellar? Share your discoveries with other readers.

Search for your ancestors:

Comments (2) Trackbacks (1)
  1. I wish I could find such a treasure.
  2. What a great and helpful post and treirfic blog too! I have cleaned out SO much stuff and there is more to go so I will heed this advice!I am glad I found you! I amadding you tomy blog roll and please do the same if you feel so inclined.

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