Sepia Saturday – Two Fiddling Webbers

Sepia Saturday provides bloggers with an opportunity to share their history through the medium of photographs. Historical photographs of any age or kind become the launchpad for explorations of family history, local history and social history in fact or fiction, poetry or prose, words or further images. If you want to play along, sign up to the link, try to visit as many of the other participants as possible, and have fun.

The prompt photo brought to mind a photo of my great-grandfather Myron David Webber.

M. D. Webber playing fiddle

Looking at this photo, I have several thoughts and questions:
When and where was it taken?
What about those clothes, the hair, the missing mustache?
The position of the fiddle?
Did he play only for his own (and his family’s) enjoyment, or did he play publicly?
Did someone teach him to play, or did he teach himself?
How did he acquire his fiddle?
What happened to it?

M. D. Webber was born 15 October 1874 in Villisca, Iowa. Sometime before July of 1888, the Webber family moved to Lurray, Kansas. M. D. married Dorinda Strange on Christmas Day 1897, at the age of twenty-three.

Below is a wedding photo for comparison. On his wedding day, M. D. was sporting a mustache and tamed that curly hair.

Wedding of Myron David Webber (left) to Dorinda Rebecca Strange

I always remember him having a mustache and other photos I have of him show a mustache. So does the lack of one indicate that the photo was taken before 1897?

Great-grandfather Webber and me

But wait. Is that the glint of a wedding band on his left hand?

M. D. Webber playing fiddle

Maybe the mustache had not yet become a permanent fixture when this photo was taken. And has his hairline receded, or is it just the way his hair was combed in the wedding photo that makes it seem so?

I wish I knew more about men’s fashion at the time. His shirt has a stiff collar. A quick internet search has me wondering if this is a separable collar, worn to look stylish without the expense of frequent laundering, starching and pressing. These were often paired with separable cuffs, which M. D. does not have. His collar is stiff and pristine, but his shirt is soft and not stiffly pressed. “Dress casual,” but not “Sunday best?” And can someone please tell me about that wide, dark waistband/belt?

Typically, the violin or fiddle is played with the instrument tucked under the chin. M. D. is not holding his fiddle in that position. My cousin identified the photo as M. D. Webber playing fiddle, so I’ll assume he played fiddle music rather than classical. Is his positioning of the instrument more in line with fiddlers? I don’t know. Maybe one of my musical friends can help me out.

One cousin says she heard that M. D. sold his fiddle to help finance the family move from Fairfield, Iowa to Iowa City. I have written several posts about M. D. and Dorinda’s son, Fred Webber, who won a debate scholarship to the University of Iowa. The family moved in 1926 so that Fred could attend the university.

So far, my best guess as to the date is early 1900s. And place is either Luray, Kansas or Fairfield, Iowa.

Unfortunately, there are no living family who heard M. D. play the fiddle or know much about his skill or public or private playing. In his early years, he was a teacher and minister and active in the community. Did he ever play with others in church or at a club meeting? One thing seems clear: this instrument was for pleasure and when money was needed to assure his son’s university education, it’s usefulness was as a source of income.

In 2018, I wrote a Sepia Saturday post that linked the cornet band in Luray, Kansas and M. D. Webber’s uncle, James T. Webber. Although Jim Webber was not in the cornet band, he was a supporter and I found references to him playing the fiddle.

Luray Headlight, 7 Mar 1889

And other references that do not specify which Webber played the violin. I’ll assume the reference is to Jim.

Luray Headlight, 20 Oct 1887

The Luray Headlight (Luray, Ks) 18 Oct 1888

Maybe Uncle Jim taught M. D. Webber to play. And since Jim was known for his fiddle playing, one can assume that family gatherings included fiddle music and perhaps some singing too. I found other references to Uncle Jim singing in the choir and his sister Nettie playing organ (if I remember correctly).

I haven’t been able to answer all of my questions, but I do like this photo and the little peek it provides into a fuller understanding of my great-grandfather.

Since my Webber and Strange families lived on the prairies of Kansas, I went looking for a fiddle song to include. If you read the Little House books, you know that Pa played the fiddle. I have now learned that several musicians have recorded the songs that Pa played in the books. I’ll include one each from two different groups.


Little snippets in the town newspaper in the 1880s about Jim Webber portray him as quite a talker and joker. I can imagine him playing these lively tunes.

Don’t fiddle around. Dance on over to Sepia Saturday and see what musical notes others have offered today. And join in!

Sepia Saturday: In Search of U

Sepia Saturday provides bloggers with an opportunity to share their history through the medium of photographs. Historical photographs of any age or kind become the launchpad for explorations of family history, local history and social history in fact or fiction, poetry or prose, words or further images. If you want to play along, sign up to the link, try to visit as many of the other participants as possible, and have fun.

The prompt photo this week features a man repairing an umbrella. I am in short supply of photos that feature umbrellas. The only two I have, I shared in a Sepia Saturday post back in 2013: Umbrellas for Rain, Shine, and Romance

I used one of those umbrella photos again a few months later.

Me in front of Elsie Swick’s house on Brick Row, Ottumwa, Iowa

Although not a Sepia Saturday post, it has a Sepia Saturday connection. Co-founder Kat Mortensen helped me locate a book from childhood. The book includes an illustration much like my photo above. See:
A Rediscovered Book from Childhood

I learned the value of having an umbrella handy when I was a freshman in college. On one particular day, I found myself across campus from my next class without an umbrella during a downpour. I must have really needed to attend that day, because instead of heading back to the dorm, I walked as fast as I could to the class. I entered the old building with wooden floors where my German class was about to begin. I lowered my head and mustered my courage as I dripped and sloshed and squeaked, trying to slip quietly into a desk right next to a boy I had just started dating. Puddles formed at my feet as I dripped from head to toe. There was no look of recognition or sympathy from that boy! He didn’t recognize me! I took umbrage!

But I married him anyway.

According to
J.K. Rowling chose the name Dolores Umbridge to reflect her character. Her first name comes from the Latin word for “sorrow” or “pain,” dolor. Umbridge is a play on umbrage (“offense” or “annoyance”), which comes from the Latin umbra (“shade” or “shadow”). The word usually appears in the phrase to take umbrage. 

I have dressed up as Dolores Umbridge a couple of times for the Halloween party and class we have for our adult ESL students. That’s a quill in my hand.

I dressed as Dolores Umbridge for our Halloween class again this year, but since it was on zoom, I only had to be in costume from the waist up and found an image of her office that I could use as a background.

I looked at my family tree to see if there is someone I could feature who has a name that begins with U. Unknown is a fairly popular name in my tree.

U. M., Ulysses, and Uriah are essentially unknown to me as well due to their distance on the family tree.

One of my family lines is STRANGE, which means unusual. I get very frustrated when I search old newspapers for my kin. STRANGE may be an unusual surname, but it is a very popular word! Here is my 2nd great-grandfather, John Sylvester Strange

An old meaning of the word umbrage is shade or shadow, especially as cast by trees. There is a family story about one of our Stranges who met his demise in the umbrage of a beech tree. My grand aunt, Woodye Webber, was the family genealogist and wrote two family histories. She recorded the story in Ancestors – Kings? Horsetheives? Or What?

Before going on, a story written during the depression by WPA writers is one we heard many times from Mother. This is about one of Grandfather Strange’s  uncles.
The village of Strange Creek was so-named because of the young survivor who was stranded from his companions in the year 1795. No amount of searching for either the party or William was successful. Years later, on the bank of the creek William Strange was found – his bones beneath a beech tree, his rifle leaning against it with the shot pouch dangling from the ramrod. Carved in the tree was the following message:

Strange is my name and I’m on strange ground
And strange it is I can’t be found.

Since she mentioned the WPA, I went in search of the story. By googling the entire message carved into the tree, I found it referenced in a couple of modern newspaper stories about name places with unusual backstories. Besides a mention of the story in a couple of other books, I found the passage contained in The WPA Guide to West Virginia: The Mountain State. It reads as follows on page 406:

STRANGE CREEK, 21.3 m. (807 alt., 60 pop.), has its center across the Elk River at the mouth of a stream of the same name. Originally called Turkey Run, the creek was named for William Strange who wandered from a surveying party near the headwaters of the Elk in 1795; his companions searched for him in vain. Years later, on the bank of Turkey Run, 40 miles from the spot where he was last seen, his bones were found beneath a great beech tree, against which leaned his rifle, the shot pouch dangling from the ramrod. Carved in the bark was this couplet:
Strange is my name and I’m on strange ground
And strange it is I can’t be found.

Pretty much what Aunt Woodye wrote… although I believe she meant to type surveyor instead of survivor.

Another source, found on the West Virginia Explorer website, Old Legend of Strange Creek Might Never Be Confirmed, provides more details to the legend, as well as the author’s attempt to authenticate it and find the location where William is said to have met his lonely fate. This article includes the story as told by a West Virginia historian named Charles Carpenter. Carpenter states that the first printed record of the story appears in the 1876 book History of Kanawha County, written by George Atkinson, who later became governor of West Virginia. Atkinson devoted a full two and a half pages to the story of William Strange and Strange Creek. His description of William is rather unflattering: “Mr Strange was a very indifferent woodsman, and to him was assigned the duty of taking the pack-horse from one camping place to another.” Apparently William wasn’t very good at following directions and got lost.

I’m not exactly sure where this William Strange should be included in my tree. Woodye said in the quote above that William was one of her grandfather’s uncles, but the 1795 date would put him another generation back. In a later family history, Woodye writes a similar story, but names the Strange as Charles. All of the books and articles I found online reference a William. It is all so unclear! Possibly unknowable. Family lore connects him to us and Strange is not the most common surname, so l hope to figure out our real relationship some day.

The story of William Strange is very unfortunate. For some reason, I keep thinking of a song I learned as a child in Girl Scouts:  Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree. It is a much happier tale. Here are some unlikely folks singing along:

Sometimes I begin a Sepia Saturday post unsure of what to write and unaware of where my thoughts and searches may take me. Undoubtably, this is one of those posts.

Please understand that the unique pleasure of Sepia Saturday is visiting all of the participants. U can do that here: Sepia Saturday.

The 1918-1919 Influenza Epidemic: A Final Resting Place for Jesse Bryan

I am continuing a series on how the 1918 influenza epidemic affected my families. The current focus of the series is Jesse James Bryan, first cousin to my grandfather, Thomas Hoskins. I have traced Jesse from his early life in Drakesville, Iowa, to his burial in Brest, France. Jesse Bryan died November 13, 1918 of influenza.

The Des Moines Register (Des Moines, IA) 06 Dec 1918

By WW1, Americans had come to expect the return of remains of the war dead to their families, but never before had there been so great a number of casualties on foreign land. This was not the practice in Europe, where the casualties of war usually remained at or near the place of death. These differing points of view led to feelings of ill will between the Americans and the French over the repatriation of American war dead. An early misstep was letters sent by the Adjutant General to families of deceased soldiers that created the expectation that the remains of all American soldiers would ultimately be returned – said without clearing it first with the French government. American soldiers had been buried in temporary graves in cemeteries and in battlefields throughout Europe, the vast majority in France. At the end of the war when the United States wanted to begin the return of the deceased, France had other priorities – food, recovery, their own dead. There were concerns about the additional burden this would place on the transportation system, sanitation, the morale of French citizens, and making allowances for the United States not afforded to other countries. The French withheld permission.

Many in the military agreed that the best thing would be for fallen soldiers to remain where they had died – or in permanent cemeteries for American war dead. But American families had been promised the return of their family member. Lobby groups formed – both for and against the return of American soldiers. A significant shift in American sentiment occurred when former President Theodore Roosevelt expressed a desire for his son’s body to remain where it was originally buried. Thereafter, the War Department decided to poll each family to gauge their desires with respect to the final disposition of their family member. By January 1919, the Secretary of War reported that roughly thirty-one percent of all dead were requested to permanently remain in France. But the situation remained unresolved. The American Legion, General Pershing, Gold Star Mothers, and even funeral directors added their voices to the conversation. It was not until 20 March 1920 that the United States and France finally reached an agreement to permit the repatriation of deceased American troops.

Jesse’s family requested to have his remains returned to his hometown and his family. According to his Grave Registration Card, Jesse’s body arrived in Hoboken on June 29, 1920. The last of the American war dead arrived on American soil March 29, 1922. Jesse’s family did not have to wait nearly as long as many others.

Jesse’s body was disinterred on May 27, 1920. Exhumation procedures followed this general pattern: Workers closed the work area with canvas screens and posted guards to prevent illicit entry. A canvas was laid on the ground next to the exhumation site. Once the coffin was exhumed, the body was removed and placed on the canvas, where it was saturated with disinfectant and deodorant before being wrapped in a blanket. The remains were then placed in a metal casket, encased in pillows to prevent movement, covered with a white sheet, and the casket sealed before being placed in a wooden shipping case. The entire process took less than five minutes. The Grave Registration Service went to great lengths to try to ensure that no mistakes were made in identifying the dead.

Pier 4 at Hoboken, NJ was selected as the site for the return of transport ships bearing caskets. Once the remains arrived at Hoboken, the Grave Registration Service needed to coordinate the shipment of the caskets to all parts of the United States as quickly as possible. The plan called for the War Department to supply Hoboken with the name of the ship, its deceased passenger list and, if possible, the final destination of each body before the ship docked at the port. This allowed lead time to ensure adequate space at the pier and to arrange ground transportation to the remains’ final destinations.

There is a discrepancy between Jesse’s Grave Registration Card and the ship manifest that lists his name. The Grave Registration Card says that his body left Brest June 6, 1920 on the transport ship Mercury. But his name is on a passenger list for the transport ship Princess Motoika.

I confirmed the Grave Registration Card with newspaper clippings, but a late night search through all of the pages of the ship’s passenger list revealed that some named the Mercury, while others named the Motoika.

The New York Tribune (New York, NY) 29 June 1920

Around this time, the Princess Motoika was chosen to transport the U.S. Olympic team, so this may be the reason for the discrepancy. (The athletes were not at all pleased with their accommodations, by the way.)

After leaving Brest, the Mercury sailed to Antwerp, Belgium, taking on some passengers, and Danzig, Poland, where a number of Polish troops boarded. The ship carried over eight hundred deceased Americans.

New York Herald (New York, NY) 30 June 1920

Today, military caskets are always seen draped by the flag of the United States. This idea was born in the aftermath of World War I as officials planned for the movement of remains from the temporary cemeteries to a permanent cemetery in the United States or Europe. Since there were no regulations for this at the end of the war, policies were established as the repatriation of troops progressed. Questions such as the size of the flag and whether or not a flag could be buried with the body were tackled.

After arrival at Hoboken, the Grave Registration Card documents that Jesse’s remains were shipped to the Depot Officer in Chicago on July 20. He finally arrived at Drakesville, Iowa on July 23, 1920 to be received by his father, James Bryan.

When the remains departed Hoboken for their final destination, a military escort accompanied each casket. Nearby Fort Hamilton, New York, usually furnished the necessary soldiers for this detail. Escorting military remains was another practice begun as a result of WW1 that the military has continued to use. The military escort accompanying remains to a funeral might be the only personal interaction some citizens had with the Army. The idea of a military escort was also practical. When a casket was shipped by train, it required documentation, just like any other cargo. In addition, as the casket changed possession receipts were required to be obtained and forwarded to the Office of the Quartermaster General. The escorts helped train station agents and funeral directors, particularly those of small towns, navigate unfamiliar government paperwork, ensure that the casket was delivered in good order, and obtain proof of receipt by the family or appointed representative. The escorts also assisted the funeral director with moving the casket to and from the funeral home, into homes, churches, and ultimately the burial site.

The newspaper clipping below reports that the military escort accompanied Jesse’s body from France, which is different from what I read was the usual situation. The dates don’t exactly match up either.

Washington Democrat (Washington, IA) 28 July 1920

Hattie Bryan, Jesse’s youngest sister, told her granddaughter that she remembered the soldiers coming to the door of their home to report Jesse’s arrival and their attendance at the funeral. Hattie’s granddaughter has the flag that was draped on Jesse’s coffin.

I received these copies of newspaper clippings from the Davis County, IA Historical Society.

Jesse Bryan’s final resting place – Drakesville Cemetery, Drakesville, Iowa.

JULY 4, 1887
NOV. 13, 1918
Died in Brest, France

This concludes my research into the life and death of Jesse James (Joe) Bryan – unless I can eventually get military records or some letters turn up.

Jesse was drafted into the army to fight in France, trained for combat as the influenza virus reached pandemic status, was infected on the transport ship as he approached France, and died at the age of thirty-one – two days after the Armistice was signed. 

Jesse James Bryan

I recently received these two photos from the great-granddaughter of Hattie Bryan. The woman is Jesse’s youngest sister Hattie – the little girl who only remembered meeting her brother when he came home on furlough before his departure for France and who remembered the military escorts coming to her home.

Hattie Rose Bryan

And another photo of Jesse.

When I started researching Jesse’s life, I thought I’d just write two or three posts and be done. But there were puzzles to solve and the more I researched, the more interested I became in understanding the context of the pandemic and the military experience.

A few weeks ago, I found a video from the National WW 1 Museum, a lecture titled Forgetting a Catastrophe: Influenza and the War in 1919. It is forty minutes long and I had no intention of watching all of it – I was just curious to see what it was. I watched the whole thing. There is a lot of interesting information here, but Professor Nancy Bristow’s main point is that the influenza pandemic was essentially forgotten. Although more lives were lost to influenza than to the war, there are very few memorials – or even mentions in popular culture. The professor believes that we Americans like to ignore or rewrite the bad parts of our history and focus instead on progress, success, and victories. This keeps us, she says, from thinking deeply and voices of trauma are drowned out. She ended her talk (in January 2020) by saying that pandemics are a thing of the future and that admitting our tales of sorrow and loss is important – ironically unaware of how soon that future would be. Here we are.

When I asked my extended family for any stories of how the influenza pandemic affected our families, I got only two replies. Surely there could have been more.

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, I hope we will think deeply and not hurry too quickly to move on and “get back to normal”. I hope the voices of trauma will be heard and remembered. I hope we will tell our stories. I hope lessons learned will not be forgotten. I hope that we do not forget that our ideas of who or what is “essential” changed.

And given the events of this week, I have the same thoughts about January 6, 2021. We need to engage in deep thinking.

*****A source I used for a lot of the information in this post can be found here: Establishing the American way of Death: World War I and the Foundation of the United States Policy toward the Repatriation and Burial of its Battlefield Dead.

*** I have made a landing page where all of the posts related to epidemics and pandemics are collected. Epidemics and My Families

Sepia Saturday provides bloggers with an opportunity to share their history through the medium of photographs. Historical photographs of any age or kind become the launchpad for explorations of family history, local history and social history in fact or fiction, poetry or prose, words or further images. If you want to play along, sign up to the link, try to visit as many of the other participants as possible, and have fun.

Please hop on a tram, train, truck, or transport to visit others who participated in Sepia Saturday.