The cobbler’s children may not have shoes, but the architectural historian’s house will have a history. It’s just that it’s taken almost 3 years to get it together. But my leisurely hunting and pecking through censuses and newspapers has certainly reminded me why I became interested not only in architectural history, but in history research in general.
To sum it up in two words: Imaginary friends.
The people I run into while researching, though typically long-dead, quickly become my transient besties. They live, get married, move around, go visiting, get jobs, retire, and ultimately die right before my eyes, in super-condensed time. An entire life lived in the course of one afternoon of good sources. And I don’t want to come off as misanthropic, but it’s a difficult standard they set for actual, current people to attain. They just take so long with their real-time living.
Among my current crop of long-dead friends are Dr. C. B. Schreiner, much-loved Mt. Lebanon doctor whose property was eventually subdivided, a piece of it becoming the lot on which my house stands; his Widow, Myrtilla; and Mary T. Wallace. Whomever she may be.
Dr. Schreiner was apparently a very good dude. He was educated at Washington and Jefferson College, in Washington, Pa, and studied medicine at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia and Bellevue Hospital in NYC before returning to the south hills of Pittsburgh to become everyone’s favorite country doctor. He built a lovely (huge) farm house for his bride, Myrtilla, at the corner of Washington and Bower Hill Roads. They had an orchard. And ten children.
And then one day, the newspaper abruptly informed me, he became ill. “Congestion of the brain.” “Nervous collapse.” He shared with his son fears about his ability to keep his practice.
And then he slit his throat. He was 47.
The past is full of this sort of thing. You go looking for a property owner only to discover some sort of Shakespearian drama ended or confounded their life. Papers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries spare no drama in reporting the daily suffering of the citizenry. It’s everywhere–people getting hit by trolleys and trains, murdered by loved ones or in the course of committing a crime. But every time it happens to one of my people it’s like a small punch to the gut. You’ve reached the end of the book. Your imaginary friend from the past is officially dead, and there will be no sequel or Melissandre to return them.
When one friend dies, you can only ever move on to the next. Which is convenient, actually, if a bit harsh. Find out what became of the people left behind. After the good doctor’s demise, I glommed on to Myrtilla Schreiner.
Myrtilla did normal things. Normal things for a doctor’s widow around the turn of the century, anyway. She was active in society. She hosted teas and family weddings. Attended meetings and the like. Most references to her doings include descriptions of head tables and floral adornments. I think of her always in conjunction with the word “festooned.”
In 1926, Myrtilla, a widow, did something for which I am grateful: she sold one of many lots subdivided as part of the Orchard Hill #1 development to Mary T. Wallace, also a widow.
And then , not quite ten years later, Myrtilla died.
By the time she shuffled off this mortal coil, Myrtilla had seen Mt. Lebanon develop out of Scott Township and turn from rural, farming community into a bustling first ring suburb
with the opening of the Liberty Tubes in 1924. The neighborhood she left was quite different from the one she knew as a country doctor’s wife. Her obituary described her many survivors, including one Mrs. Guy D. Wallace, who does not appear to be her daughter, though I have not yet directed the full force of my research superpowers in her direction.
Perhaps a sister? Niece? For a relative, the selling price of the lot was pretty steep: $3562.50. Myrtilla may have been a bit of a shark; don’t forget that $.50, Mary. F
or Mary T. / Mrs. Guy D. my house was built. Thanks much, Mary. It’s lovely. Really. And it stayed in the Wallace family long enough for the Wallace family to become the McKees. About 46 years of that family’s life were lived in and around the room I’m sitting in, but beyond subsequent title transfer, I don’t know much about the woman herself, or the children who eventually inherited the rood over my head.
I fear the discovery, in a way. I’ve just lost two good friends and I know I’m going to lose this third one. So I’ve only danced around the edges, reading about Mary’s travels, regionally, often to spend time with her daughter. I’ve started looking into censuses, but I always find something else that needs to be done at that precise moment. Eventually, I’m going to have to consent to finding Mary, just so she can be wrested from me.
Possibly tomorrow, though, because I just remembered this thing I have to do . . .