Posts Tagged ‘dupont’

The North Honors Our Confederate Dead: Why Can’t We?

August 3rd, 2015 Sears Homes 5 comments

Hidden away on a quiet little side street in Alton, Illinois is a beautiful granite monument, honoring the Confederate Dead. If you didn’t know its precise location, you’d never find it. I suspect that many of the locals don’t even know about it.

The 57-foot-tall granite monument sits high atop a hill, and dominates the two-acre site on which its located. It was erected in 1909, and at its base are plaques with the names of 1,354 Confederate soldiers who died while imprisoned by the Union. Lost in time are the names of the dozens of civilians (Confederate sympathizers) who also died as prisoners of war.

Alton, Illinois sits on the Mississippi River, just 20 miles north of St. Louis, and during the Civil War, it was Union territory. Missouri did not secede from the Union, and yet it was categorized as a slave state. It was a conflicted state, with both Union and Confederate troops within its borders.

By all accounts, Alton was filled with Confederate sympathizers (those who fed or housed Confederates), as well as Confederate spies. Both the spies and the sympathizers ended up in the Alton prison. Many died there, due to starvation, deprivation, extreme cold, and disease.

Sometime in 1862, there was an epidemic of Smallpox at the prison and before it was over, 1,354 of the Confederates were dead. These were the “enemy” and yet Union officials made it clear that their remains were to be treated with reverence and respect.

Specific instructions were given for the burial of these soldiers: “Those who die will be decently interred, and a proper mark affixed to their place of burial.”

The Confederate dead were placed in individual coffins, and a numbered stake was used to mark each grave. A detailed ledger recorded their name and burial place.

In 1867, the federal government assumed ownership of the site, and from 1899 - 1907, efforts were made to document the placement of the war dead. Even with those meticulous records, it was decided that it was “utterly impossible to identify the graves of those buried there.”

In an effort to honor the final resting place of these 1,354 men, the monument was erected. It was to serve as a marker for the unmarked graves of the Confederate dead.

Situated on the Mississippi River, Alton is a quaint little town struggling to survive, with a riverboat casino that brings in some cash and enables the town of 30,000 people to keep the lights on and the schools open. Despite that, the grounds of the Confederate Cemetery on Rozier Avenue are beautifully maintained.

When I visited the site in July 2015, every single thing - from the manicured grounds to the CCC-built wrought-iron fence - was in pristine condition.

The historic placards placed around the cemetery and prison tell a story that honors the memory of our Confederate dead. While it’s true that the victors write the history, the story of our Confederate soldiers - the men captured by the Union Army - is told with tenderness, approbation, honesty and the utmost respect. In 1935, a Confederate veteran - a survivor of that prison - returned to the ruins and was treated as an honored guest (see photo below) and a returning son.

The monument and grave site is treated as a scared site, and is given the proper reverence and honor.

That’s how the North treats our Confederate dead. Why can’t the South be permitted to do the same?

Here in Portsmouth, Virginia, our Confederate monument is under attack, by City Council members that have publicly stated that the monument must come down. This, despite the fact that specific state legislation prohibits the removal of monuments honoring our Confederate dead.

Perhaps City Council needs to take a field trip to Alton, Illinois, so they can learn a little something about honoring our war dead.

It’s a sad commentary that we must look to the North to teach us something about Southern civility and decency and honor.


Everything within this sacred space is kept in pristine condition.

Everything within this sacred space is kept in pristine condition.


In Alton, they are allowed to have nice things.

It's a sad commentary that our Southern heritage is honored more in Illinois than in Virginia.


The Confederate cemetery is located off State Street on Rozier Avenue. For 12 years, I lived in the Riverbend area and wrote for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and yet I knew next-to-nothing about this military cemetery in Upper Alton.

The Confederate cemetery is located off State Street on Rozier Avenue, a short, quiet residential street in Upper Alton. For 12 years, I lived in the Riverbend area and wrote for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and yet I knew next-to-nothing about this "military cemetery" in Upper Alton.


The 57-foot tall obelisk honors the 1,354 Confederate soldiers who died while imprisoned in Alton, by the Union.

The 57-foot tall obelisk honors the 1,354 Confederate soldiers who died while imprisoned by the Union. The bronze plaques give the names of each of the 1,354 soldiers.


One of the many plaques at the base of the monument.

One of the many plaques at the base of the monument.


Each plague

Each plaque lists the first and last name, and their unit. Most were from Missouri, Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee, but many were from Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Mississippi and Georgia.


This 57-foot tall obelisk serves as a grave marker for the Confederate dead.

This 57-foot tall obelisk serves as a grave marker for the Confederate dead.



The North honors our war dead. Why can't we?



Sitting on an elevated site in a bucolic setting, it's beautiful, majestic and reverent.


Save the

Much like our monument in Portsmouth, Virginia (and yet ours is more detailed and elegant and historically significant). Portsmouth's monument to our Confederate dead is on the National Registry, and is considered historically significant for many reasons. For one, it's one of only three monuments in the South that feature all four branches of service. Secondly, some of Portsmouth's own sons were used as models for the four zinc statues.


About two miles south of the monument is the prison where the Confederate soldiers were incarcerated.

About two miles south of the monument you'll find the prison ruins where the Confederate soldiers were incarcerated. Located in downtown Alton, this is a popular tourism site for the city.


In 1935, surviving Confederate soldier returned to the site.

In 1935, Confederate veteran Samuel Harrison (age 93) returned to the site of the prison and chose one of the limestone blocks as a grave marker for himself. He'd spent eight months at this prison in 1864. When released, he walked 45 miles to his home in Rolla, Missouri. When he returned to Alton in 1935, he was lauded as an honored guest. Harrison (of Dent, Missouri) said that this was the first time he'd returned to Alton since the War. Mr. Harrison related that overcrowding was endemic, and bunks were stacked "nine high, with three men to a bunk."


The North is permitted to honor our Confederate dead. Why cant we?

The North is permitted to honor our Confederate dead. Why can't we?


To read more about our monument in Portsmouth, Virginia, click here.

For the next 60 days, all monies received at this site will go directly to Stonewall Camp #380 for legal fees to save Portsmouth’s Confederate Monument. Click here to donate.

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This One’s Asking For Advice on Old Cook Stoves…

March 13th, 2015 Sears Homes 1 comment

A delightful anecdote from 1921 tells us that, when the Penniman houses were shipped to Norfolk, some of the workers went into one of the houses - as it made the slow 36-mile trek across the water - and made a full breakfast, using the oil cook stove in the kitchen.

That’s the kind of story that really makes history come alive.

The article, which appeared in the Peninsula Enterprise says,

Several workmen crossed the bay on the first barge that brought the houses. They had an oil stove in one of the houses. They got hungry and cooked some bacon and eggs and heated some coffee. They enjoyed a meal cooked in one of the houses while it was being towed to Norfolk (December 24, 1921).

More than being an interesting tidbit, it also illuminates this detail: Every kitchen in every Penniman house, built by a three-party contract between DuPont, Hancock-Pettyjohn and the US Government, came with an oil-fired cook stove.

Including an appliance in each house would have substantially increased the per-unit cost. Which is probably one reason why they did this. The houses were built on a popular-WW1 program known as “The Cost Plus Plan.”

When America entered WW1, we were in such a mad rush to get these munition plants up and running that there wasn’t time to seek bids and wait for bids and open bids and investigate potential contractors, so DuPont was charged with finding a trust-worthy contractor and the government agreed to pay all expenses of construction plus 8-1/2%. The downside of the Cost-Plus Plan is that the more money the house cost, the more money the contractor pocketed. Put another way, it took away incentives for the contractor to be efficient.

But I think there was more to this than just padding the price of a house.

This was a munitions plant where there were lots of opportunities for lots of things to go boom.

And when this contract for 200 houses was signed on December 31, 1917, the realities of the danger of TNT would be very fresh in everyone’s mind.

Three weeks earlier, December 6, 1917, the SS Mont Blanc, a French freighter, had just left Halifax heading for Bordeaux, France, where it would deliver 5,000,000 pounds of war-time explosives. It was about 8:45 am when the Mont Blanc collided with a Norwegian ship, the Imo. Despite the slow speed (about 2 knots), there was a resulting fire on the Mont Blanc. Sailors tried desperately to extinguish the growing fire, but eventually abandoned ship. About 20 minutes later, the drifting vessel returned to the wharf, and moments later, there was an explosion on the Mont Blanc.

According to the book, Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why, the resulting blast shattered windows 60 miles away, and more than 1,000 people lost their sight due to flying glass. A tsunami eliminated a nearby community.

All in all, more than 1,900 people died. During WW2, scientists working on the Manhattan Project studied Halifax because the magnitude of the explosion emulated an atomic bomb in so many ways.

Not that anyone at DuPont would have needed any such reminders. The engineers and architects employed by the company would have been well aware of the grave risks of a single errant spark.

Which also explains why each house had steam radiant heat, supplied by a central heating system. No risk of sparks from an independent residential coal-fired heating system.

Which also explains why each house did not have a coal-fired or wood-burning cook stove: The risk of embers and fire would have been too great.

Which leads me to my question: It appears that - maybe - these late 1910s oil (kerosene) cook stoves didn’t require a chimney or any venting. As my friend Milton said, they appear to be similar to kerosene space heaters (which were hugely popular in the 1980s). There’s a reservoir of kerosene, fed by gravity to a burner with a large wick. The unit produces small amounts of carbon monoxide, but not enough to cause CO poisoning.

If that’s true, why did every house in Penniman have a brick chimney?

Heat was supplied by a central heating plant. And I suspect (although I’m not sure) that the oil-fired cook stoves didn’t require venting.

Was it more evidence of the inefficiencies of the “Cost-Plus Plan”? Every house gets a chimney, whether or not it needs it? Or did the oil cook-stove need venting?

Thanks for any insights.

To read more about Penniman, click here.


Perfection cook stoves were a big deal in the 1910s and 20s.

Perfection cook stoves were a big deal in the 1910s and 20s.


These blue cylinders were called Chimneys but they were

These blue cylinders were called "Chimneys" but they were the burner mechanism for the stove.



Lighting these puppies didn't look simple.



That does look pretty hot.


This looks like a lot of work. Why not electricity? Two reasons, electric stoves required tremendous amperage and re-wiring a house to receive an electric stove wouldnt have been easy. Electric stoves didnt really catch on until the late 1920s.

This looks like a lot of work. Why not electricity? Two reasons, electric stoves required tremendous amperage and re-wiring a house to receive an electric stove wouldn't have been easy. Electric stoves didn't get a foothold in the household appliance market until the 1930s.



The last line is the best. Wow.


Bacon. Its whats for breakfast. In a barge house.

Bacon. It's what's for breakfast. In a barge house. Virginia Pilot, December 1921.


A Penniman house in Norfolk, about 1960.

A Penniman house in Norfolk, about 1960. All of these homes had chimneys, accessible from an interior kitchen wall. The question is - why?


Read more about Penniman here.

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Sadie Bowers of Newberry, SC - Please Tell Me More?

June 24th, 2014 Sears Homes No comments

The truly patriotic women are willing to work in the booster plants. Do not come for the money only. The compensation is not commensurate with the hazards.

So wrote Sadie Bowers, who left her home and family in Newberry, SC in 1918 to work at the WW1-era munitions plant in Penniman, Virginia. Her detail-filled letter was published in her hometown newspaper “The Herald and News.”

It was mostly women that worked on the shell-loading lines at Penniman. The work was considered so dangerous that these plants were called “The second-line trenches.”

Penniman was the only booster plant in America, and before Penniman went online, the boosters were inserted after the shells arrived in Europe.

In England, shell-loading plants, like Penniman, were called “Filling Factories,” and the section of the plant where boosters (or “gaines”) were inserted was called, “The Danger Zone.”

Sadie’s English contemporary was a woman named Mabel Lethbridge, who worked at the Hayes-Middlesex Munitions Factory (near London). Like Sadie, Mabel worked in a section of the plant where the shells were prepared to receive the boosters. Like Sadie, Mabel came from an upper-income family but felt compelled to do her part for the War Effort.

On October 23, 1917, 17-year-old Mabel was working in The Danger Zone when an explosion ripped through her building, killing several women*.

Mabel’s family was summoned with a simple message: “Mabel has been taken to St. Mary’s Hospital in a Dying Condition.”

Mabel survived, but lost her leg at the knee.

It was Mabel’s third day at the plant.

After Armistice (November 11, 1918), Sadie Bowers returned to her home on College Street in Newberry and in the 1940s, she took a job as Postmaster and was living with her mother. Sadie died in Newberry, the town where she was born and raised, in 1976.

As you’ll see below, Sadie Bowers was a first-rate writer, and according to the 1920 Census, Sadie had a four-year degree, and her father was a professor (Andrew Bowers). This well-educated woman, born into the upper echelons of society, left home and hearth to travel to Penniman, Virginia to “stuff one for the Kaiser.”

In the late 1930s, Sadie’s young niece (Martha Jane Gray Click) lived with her for a time. Many years later, Sadie’s positive influence was noted in the preface of Martha Jane’s book, “Through The Bible.”

Several weeks after I first read Sadie’s wonderful letter, it dawned on me that perhaps this woman had written more than just a single letter. Perhaps there were articles, personal narratives, unpublished manuscripts, or subsequent interviews.

I’d love to know more about Sadie and her life at Penniman.

I’ve contacted the college (two responses, but they’ve got nothing on Sadie), and the local library (no response yet) and even the Mayor of Newberry (who has been a wonderful help), but thus far, nothing has been found.

If you’ve got an insights or suggestions on finding more on Sadie, please contact me.

Thanks so much to Mark Hardin for finding this article on Sadie!


*  Despite much effort, I’ve found precious little on the explosion at the Hayes-Middlesex Munitions Factory on October 17, 1917. According to Mabel Lethbridge’s autobiography (”Fortune Grass, 1934″), several women were killed in the explosion, but an exact number is not given.

Full text of article

Full text of article that appeared on October 11, 1918 in the Newberry "Herald and News."



This is one of the shells that the women were loading at Penniman and Hayes. The image is from "America's Munitions: 1917-1918" by Benedict Crowell. It was printed by the Government Printing Office in 1919.



Picture of Sadie E. Bowers from the 1940s (from


To learn more about Penniman, click here.

To read about Sears Homes, click here.

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Beaverboard: Long Tough Fibers of White Spruce

June 13th, 2014 Sears Homes No comments

The houses that DuPont built for their munitions workers at Penniman, Virginia featured “Beaverboard” interiors. Sounds pretty fancy, but in fact, it was an economical alternative to real plaster walls.

Bill Inge lent me his “Sweet’s Architectural Catalog” (1917) which had a two-page spread on Beaverboard. It answered all my questions (and then some).

Apparently, this wallboard product was quite the rage in the first years of the 20th Century, and was hugely popular in low-cost industrial housing.

In 1981, our family moved into a house built in 1949, and it had Beaverboard on the walls of its small attic room (complete with 2-inch strips at the seams). When we tore it out, it created a massive mess.

Apparently, Beaverboard wallboard was a product that endured for many years.

According to Wikipedia, it can also be used as an artist’s canvas. Grant Wood’s famous painting of the morose farming couple - American Gothic - was painted on a piece of Beaverboard.

What made plaster so expensive? Click here.

To learn more about industrial housing at DuPont’s villages, click here.

Interested in Virginia’s own Ghost City? Click here.


Beaver Board

I wanted to title this blog, "Beaverboard: Who Gives a Dam?" but I couldn't bring myself to do it. ;)



The houses that DuPont built at their munitions plants had beaverboard walls.



Despite the glowing reports in the Beaverboard literature, this was still an "economical" alternative to plaster.



The header says, "Foreign Branches." Quite an outfit!



"Long tough fibers of white spruce...compressed and built up into...panels..."


house beaverboard

Is the homeowner weilding a walking stick at the old worker?



Now that the worker has started putting up Beaverboard, the walking stick has been removed from sight.



Why bother to put six big beautiful windows in a house and then cover them up? Why not just put Beaverboard right over the windows? If I were queen of the world, I'd make it illegal to have a sunporch shrouded in heavy drapes.



"It permits of mural decorations in theaters..." I have my doubts about this.



Under "Club" it reads, "The club's activities never will be hindered by repairs..." Wow.



Here's a Penniman house that was moved from the munitions factory to Capitol Landing Road (Williamsburg). Was it built with interior walls of Beaverboard? Probably so.


Was that house at Penniman beaverboard

How I'd love to see the inside of this Penniman/DuPont house when built in 1918.


To learn more about industrial housing at DuPont’s villages, click here.

Interested in Virginia’s own Ghost City? Click here.

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What Exactly Did You Have in Mind, Mr. Dozier?

April 24th, 2014 Sears Homes 4 comments

It was Mr. J. M. Dozier of Lee Hall, VA that purchased Penniman after World War I ended.

Thursday, after spending many hours at the York County Courthouse, I learned that Mr. Dozier bought Penniman from DuPont in April 1926, after the U. S. Army left.

J. M. Dozier and his wife Annie paid $84,375 for the whole kit and caboodle, which included 2,600 acres, and all tenements, hereditaments and appurtenances.

DuPont even financed the sale for Mr. Dozier with no money down.

The first payment of $28,125 was due in April 1927, the second payment due one year after that, and the third (and final payment) due in April 1929.

It was a pretty sweet deal.

According to an article that appeared in the January 1926 Virginia Gazette, Mr. Dozier had big plans for Penniman.

“The development of [Penniman] will entail the expenditure of a considerable sum,” said the article in the Virginia Gazette (January 15, 1926).

And yet, it never happened.

In 1926, $84,375 was a tremendous sum of money. Surely Mr. Dozier had plans to develop this 2,600-acre tract on the York River. Did something go wrong?

Did they discover that the land was uninhabitable for some reason? Or did they find a few too many buried live shells, left over from the U. S. Army?

What happened?

After 1926, Penniman disappeared from the pages of the daily papers until 1938, when Dick Velz with the Richmond Times Dispatch did a retrospective piece on this “Ghost City,” which had been left largely undisturbed since the U. S. Army cleared out in the early 1920s.

Penniman is a fascinating piece of Virginia’s history but there are days (like today) when the mysteries pile up so high and so deep that I fear I may never figure out enough of its story to write a worthy tome.

To read more about Penniman, click here.

If you have a theory as to what happened to Mr. Dozier’s big plans, please leave a comment.


January 16, 1926

Sounds like these two "outstanding Peninsula business men" had big plans for Penniman. ("Virginia Gazette," January 16, 1926).



What happened after Mr. Dozier paid $84,375 for 2,600 acres of choice real estate on the York River? Did something go terribly wrong? Did they learn that the land was unsuitable for residential development? (This appeared in June 1938 in the "Richmond Times Dispatch.")



Amongst the piles of papers I have collected on Penniman is this treasure asking Dr. Goodwin if he's interested in buying Penniman on the York River. And look at the date. It was after Mr. Dozier had paid off his note to DuPont.



Penniman was situated between Kings Creek and Queens Creek, on the York River, and during WW1, it was home to about 15,000 people. It was probably one of York County's finest pieces of land. This map shows the village of Penniman as it looked in Spring 1918. Map is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.


To read more about Penniman, click here.

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Little Piece of DuPont History For Sale

April 10th, 2014 Sears Homes 6 comments

And it’s right on the Delaware River.

The 97-year-old beauty is located in Carney’s Point, New Jersey, home to one of DuPont’s many WW1 munitions plants. This most certainly would have been a house for the upper management at the Carney’s Point facility. It’s a huge house (three full stories and a basement), and it sits on a beautiful lot, facing out to the Delaware River.

We’re coming around to thinking that these houses were probably designed by Aladdin (a kit house company based in Bay City, Michigan), and they were probably built with materials supplied by Aladdin.

For now, that’s mostly speculation, but based on what we’ve learned heretofore, it seems very plausible.

The listing says that this house was built in 1917. That’s believable. We entered “The Great War” in April 1917, and that’s when we went crazy building munitions plants throughout the country. Interestingly, Great Britain credited DuPont and their munitions production with being largely responsible for their victory in The Great War.

To see the more modest housing provided to munitions workers, click here.

To learn more about how we got started on this topic, click here.

Pieceo of history

It's a beautiful house and appears to be in good condition. It was probably designed by Aladdin and built with materials supplied by Aladdin. Probably. We don't know for sure - yet. Photo is courtesy Patricia Siedle Shorter.



This house was also built at Old Hickory, TN (another DuPont munitions plant). This page came from a 1920 catalog featuring the houses of Old Hickory.



The floor plan is rather simple. That pantry is a real mystery.



The "half story" is the third floor, and it appears to be quite spacious.



The Bay Tree, up close and person. That gate on the side porch is a curiosity.



And here's our Bay Tree, 97 years old. Photo is courtesy Patricia Siedle Shorter.


And its also a pretty house

Do the owners know of its unique history? Photo is courtesy Patricia Siedle Shorter.


And its also a beautiful house.

I'm a sucker for sunporches. Very nice! Photo is courtesy Patricia Siedle Shorter.


house house house

This ad appeared in the September 1918 DuPont magazine. We know that DuPont had a long-term working relationship with Aladdin, and turned to Aladdin to supply worker housing at several plants, including Hopewell, Virginia, and Carney's Point, NJ. We're trying to figure out if DuPont turned to Aladdin to supply houses in Penniman, Virginia.


To learn about how we got started on this DuPont project, you have to read about Penniman, Virginia’s own “Ghost City.”

To see the original real estate listing, click here.

To contact Rose, please leave a comment below.

“Perhaps You’d Like to See Our Tombstone Catalog…”

March 27th, 2014 Sears Homes 4 comments

According to “Sears, Roebuck, USA: The Great American Catalog Store and How It Grew,” a Sears customer wrote the Chicago Mail-order giant and asked if she could return several bottles of patent medicine that she’d purchased the month before.

In her letter, she explained that the medicine had been intended for her husband and after ingesting the first bottle, he’d quickly passed on.

The clerk who received the inquiry responded quickly, with an assurance that certainly, she could return the unopened bottles, and by the way, would she like to see a copy of Sears’ Tombstone Catalog?

Funny story, but the sobering fact is, traditional, elaborate Victorian funerals were expensive. Tradition dictated that certain rituals and procedures be done, and a middle-class family might endure shame and scorn if they couldn’t afford a decent marker for their loved one. And what about the poor? Often, they had to quietly and stoically endure the humiliation of seeing their loved one placed in a pauper’s grave.

(An aside:  There’s a 1920s pauper’s grave in Williamsburg where 35+ bodies (many of whom are children) are buried. The only “markers” at the site were small granite stones - the remnants of tombstones - that were provided by the undertaker. These markers outlined the individual graves. With the passage of time, those graves were forgotten and now  there’s a condo built on top of part of that cemetery.)

After Aunt Addie’s exhumation made the headlines, several people shared “old family legends” about a time when a young child died, and the family - unable to afford a real burial and/or pay burial fees - surreptitiously stole into the city graveyard in the dark of night, and buried their little one in a make-shift coffin.

By contrast, such stories make a pauper’s grave seem like a mercy.

I have no pictures of Sears tombstones, but with all these testimonials, they shouldn’t be too hard to find. Plus, they were made from Vermont Slate, which as a distinctive color and veining.

If you look up Sears Tombstones on the internet, you’ll find there are folks claiming that Sears tombstones were hollow, zinc markers (metal) but this is one of those apocryphal stories. Not sure where it started, but it’s not true.

To learn more about Victorian burial customs, click here.

To read about early 1900s burial rituals, click here.

To learn more about Addie, click here.

Verse 1904 Thomb

The Tombstone Catalog from 1904.


people loved them

Does anyone in Plain City, Ohio want to get me a picture of the Frazell tombstone? I would love to see one of these. And there's the Chitty tombstone in Rapid City, SD. That's also a fairly unusual name.


freight costs might seem

You'd think freight costs would be prohibitive, but Sears had it all worked out.



Inscription cost six cents per letter, unless it's a verse, and then its 2-1/2 cents per letter, unless it's on the upper base and then it's 15 cents per two-inch letter.


here lies mary

Mark Hardin observed that most of these images in the 1904 catalog depict young people. In the late 1800s, one out of five children passed on before they reached adulthood. In early 1900s America, there would have been very few families whose lives hadn't been touched by the death of a child.


Mary again

When I was researching the life and death of my Aunt Addie (died in 1901), I came across one story in the 1893 Lake Mills Leader that I will never forget. It was the height of a diphtheria epidemic, and the diphtheria was present in many counties in Wisconsin. In southern Wisconsin, a family had lost seven of their eight children to that single epidemic. The paper reported that the "eighth child had also contracted the diphtheria" and was not doing well. The article said that the children apparently had "weak blood." Today, we'd call it a genetic predisposition .


another one

The epitaphs mostly depict a young child.


house tombstone

When my beloved mother died suddenly in 2002, she was cremated and her ashes were scattered. In retrospect, I now more fully understand the comfort that a marker such as this can provide to greiving families.



For a poor family desperate to have their loved one remembered, the economical "Sears option" may have been a God-send. It provided an option to an unmarked pauper's grave.



"Verse inscription ideas - at no extra cost to you, our loyal customer."



I sincerely hope that no one chose this verse.



This is not a Sears Tombstone, but I find the last line quite interesting. My daughter Crystal found this in an old graveyard near Hartwell, Georgia. Photo is copyright 2010 Crystal Thornton and may not be used or reproduced without written permission.


To read about Penniman’s poor flu victims that were buried in a forgotten grave, click here.

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Those Riverview Bungalows and a Virginia Ghost Town

February 7th, 2014 Sears Homes No comments

If you love history or if you just like looking at pictures of old houses, you won’t want to miss our talk at the next CPRV Civic League Meeting.

David Spriggs and I will give a talk Monday night, featuring more than 100 vintage photos (many of which were recently discovered) showcasing a chapter of Riverview’s history that has been all but forgotten.

The talk is at 7:00 pm at the Eggleston Garden Center at 110 Lavalette Avenue in Norfolk (February 10th, Monday).

Scroll on down for a quick preview of some of the images we’ll be featuring Monday night.

Enjoy the photos below - and hope to see you Monday night!

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The image on the left

The house on the left is on Ethel Avenue in Riverview (circa 1948). The house on the right shows the same bungalow in Penniman, Virginia (Spring 1918). The photograph on the right was taken shortly after the house was built. Penniman was located six miles east of Williamsburg, and it was a town "built by DuPont." After World War I, the houses in Penniman were placed on barges and moved to several cities, including Norfolk! Cheatham Annex is now located where Penniman once stood. Photo on right is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.


Penniman was located on the York River and covered more than 6,000 acres.

Penniman was located on the York River and covered more than 6,000 acres. At its peak, Penniman had about 15,000 residents, and had its own hospital, hotel, movie theater, bank and post office. (Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.)



If you look closely at the screened-in front porch of this Riverview house, you'll notice the original railings in place from its former life on the York River. This house is also on Ethel Avenue (1948).


Penniman was

The houses that now sit on Ethel and Lavalette were the "permanent houses" built at Penniman, and they can be seen in the background (near the water's edge). Most of the houses seen in this photo were temporary structures with tarpaper siding and roofing. Pretty primitive. (Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.)


If you look

If you look closely at these 1948 photos, you'll see extra skirting around the bottom of the houses. This is probably from "the big move" and was an effort to cover up the new foundations built for the incoming houses.


The houses were shipped from Penniman by barge.

The houses were shipped from Penniman by barge. The houses shown here ended up in the Riverfront neighborhood (Major and Glenroie Avenue). The photo is from the December 1921 Virginia Pilot. Many thanks to Robert Hitchings for finding this newspaper article!


One of our big breaks came when fellow researcher Mark Hardin discovered that our Ethels had been built at Dupont, Washington (another DuPont plant) and Ramsay, Montana.

One of our big breaks came when fellow researcher Mark Hardin discovered that our "Ethels" had been built at Dupont, Washington (site of another DuPont plant) and Ramsay, Montana. (This photo is courtesy of Mark Mckillop and may not be reproduced without written permission.)



This photo shows the original placement of the Ethel Bungalows at Penniman. (Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.)


And we discovered that this house (and a second one on Beach Street) also came from Penniman.

We discovered that this house on Ethel (and another one on Beach Street) came from Penniman.


Hope you can join us Monday night, at 7:00 pm at the Eggleston Garden Center at 110 Lavalette Avenue in Norfolk.

To see images of several “Ethel Bungalows” from 1948, click here.

To read more about Penniman, click here.

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Travel Back In Time With Me and Say Hello to The Ethels!

November 25th, 2013 Sears Homes 4 comments

Thanks to a well-organized city assessor’s office in Norfolk, I was able to see and photograph several vintage photos of our “Ethels” (in Riverview - Norfolk) from the late 1940s and early 50s.

And I must say, it was very interesting!

These were the houses that were built at Penniman, VA (DuPont’s 37th munitions site) and moved - by barge - to Riverview. You can read more about that here.

The main reason for today’s blog is that I just *LOVE* looking at vintage pictures of houses, and the only thing better than looking at them myself is sharing the images with others. These early 20th Century bungalows looked so pure and simple and sweet back in the day. Best of all, when most of these photos were taken, the siding salesman hadn’t been invented yet.

And because of the Penniman connection, I have a special fondness for our Ethels.

So stroll down Ethel Avenue with me through the 1940s, and take a peek at our Ethels!

(Photos are courtesy Norfolk City Assessor’s Office.)

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To begin, here's an Ethel in its native habitat: Penniman, VA. These homes were built in Spring 1918 by DuPont to house the munitions workers at the plant. While built based on DuPont plans, the construction of these homes was actually funded by the U. S. Government. After The Great War ended, the government sold them off as salvage in an effort to recoup some of their investment. (Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.)



Here's an "Ethel" in 1948. In the back yard, you can see the rear of another Ethel. And check out the sweet ride in the driveway. When photographed, this Ethel was a mere 30 years old, and had lived in Riverview for 25 years.


Lava Eth

Some of the photos were crisper than others, and some photos were newer than others. Wish I knew what kind of car that was (right corner). That might help "date" the photo.



This Ethel is looking so pretty and pure, but then again, it's still so young.



And this Ethel has a flower box. How sweet is that? Pretty house!


house hosue house

The Ethels looked a lot better without substitute siding.



Fine-looking house, and check out the curious housewife.


oeek a boo

I recognize that look. It's a "what-the-heck-are-they-doing-photographing-my-house" look.


house house

You can see the original railings on the other side of the screened porch.



People loved their porches in the days before air conditioning.


house hosue

And there's a curious feature I've noticed in these vintage pictures: There's additional wooden siding below the home's skirt board. I suspect that this has something to do with the house being built elsewhere and moved to this site, but exactly what it means is a mystery.


house house

Here's another close-up on the extra clapboards *below* the skirt board. I don't recall ever seeing anything like that before, and I've seen a lot of pre-1920s housing.



Another close up, and this one has cedar or cypress shakes to fill in the gaps. On most frame houses (such as our Ethels), the skirt board is the bottom-most vertical trim piece. Why did they add the extra trim?



In these Penniman photos (from 1918), there is some skirting but it's vertical planking and is used to keep the rodents and wind out of the crawl space. That extra siding below the skirt board was done at the Riverview site for reasons that elude me. (Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.)


Mr. Hubby has mixed feelings about spending his lunch hour at City Hall, helping the crazy wife organize files and study old pictures, and yet, he remains a good sport about it all.

Mr. Hubby has mixed feelings about spending his lunch hour at City Hall, helping the crazy wife organize files and study old pictures, and yet, he remains a good sport about it all.


To learn more about Penniman, click here.

Want to see how many houses you can fit on a barge? Click here.

If you have a theory as to why that extra material was added below the skirt board, please leave a comment below!

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Bucktrout Cemetery: Even Penniman’s Dead Have Been Forgotten

November 7th, 2013 Sears Homes 1 comment

Three years ago, this “Penniman Project” started when David Spriggs, Mark Hardin and I tried to figure out the origins of 17 little bungalows on Ethel Avenue in Norfolk, Virginia. In my last blog, I talked about the fact that we now have some answers.

We learned that the “Ethels” (plus another two dozen houses on Major Avenue and Glenroie Avenue) came from Penniman, DuPont’s 37th munitions plant, built on the shores of the York River, east of Williamsburg.

Finding information about Penniman in contemporary literature has been difficult. In fact, most of our information has come from two sources: The Virginia Gazette (a weekly Williamsburg paper) and the Hagley Museum and Library (in Wilmington, Delaware).

At its peak, the village of Penniman had a population of 15,000. In 1918, the War to End All Wars ended, and Penniman became  Virginia’s very own ghost town.

The newly built houses at Penniman were sold off whole (and some were shipped by barge to Norfolk) and they were also sold in pieces, as salvage. A hotel from Penniman ended up on the William and Mary campus, along with several houses.

Thanks to Terry Meyer’s wonderful article, “Silence of the Graves,” I learned about Bucktrout Cemetery in Williamsburg, populated predominantly with Penniman’s influenza victims. During the height of the influenza epidemic (Fall 1918), the deaths were so numerous that local funeral directors quickly became overwhelmed. (To read Terry’s full article from the June 1998 Virginia Gazette, click here.)

Because of the Spanish Flu, public gatherings became illegal, schools were closed to children and re-opened as hospitals, and public funerals were outlawed.

On October 8, 1918, The Daily Press reported 5,000 cases of influenza in Newport News.

“To show the terrific pressure under which a handful of doctors here are working, one physician yesterday is said to have had 500 calls,” reports The Daily Press (October 8, 1918).

On October 9, 1918, children were told to go to their school and pick up all their belongings so that the schools could be converted into hospitals. And it was also on the 9th of October that a large headline announced, “No More Public Funerals Allowed” (The Daily Press). In the same story, people were advised to wear a gauze mask over the face when they ventured outside.

The next day, another article reported that “nearly every home [in Newport News has been] affected by the disease” (The Daily Press, October 10, 1918).

It was unlike anything we can imagine today.

In the midst of this, a small graveyard was opened up on Horatio Bucktrout’s farm for the paupers of Penniman. Its location is, as Terry Meyers described, “South of present-day Newport Avenue and east of Griffin Avenue,” or about three blocks from William and Mary College.

November 6th, I drove out to Williamsburg determined to see the Bucktrout Cemetery with my own eyes. And I was successful.

Sort of.

There are no markers, and there are no remnants of markers and there are no depressions in the ground suggesting an old grave site. In fact, there is no evidence that two dozen people were laid to rest in Bucktrout Cemetery. A local resident was kind enough to show me a place in his backyard where three graves were known to exist.

In 1979, a new housing development was built on Counselor’s Way, and it’s possible that the new development was built over the unmarked and forgotten Bucktrout Cemetery. But according to Mr. Meyer’s article, no graves were discovered during the construction process.

And yet, I wonder: Would a heavy equipment operator, sitting high in the saddle, with sun glaring in his eyes and sweat dripping from his brow, really notice a small piece of an old marker, or would they assume that it was just a bit of concrete, a remnant from an old outbuilding or an abandoned cistern or septic tank? What are the odds that a backhoe operator, ripping through hundreds of pounds of topsoil, is going to notice dirt-stained, dark-brown skeletal remains? (Speaking as someone who witnessed an exhumation, I can tell you, those old bones look a lot more like small sticks than anything human.)

The funeral records from Bucktrout Funeral Home show that 25 bodies were laid to rest at Bucktrout Cemetery. In “Silence of the Graves,” Terry points out that there are another 13 Penniman influenza victims who may have landed in that cemetery, which would bring the total number of bodies to 38.

There were five babies laid to rest at Bucktrout. John Steinruck’s baby was 10 months old. The other four babies were less than five days old. “Peachy” Cooke’s son James was only nine years old.

As a historian, I understand that there are lots of unmarked and forgotten graves in our historic Commonwealth, but somehow, Bucktrout feels different to me. For one, the location may be lost, but there is a written record that 25+ bodies were placed into coffins and lowered into the ground, having been lovingly and tenderly prepared for burial by a local funeral home. With few exceptions, each burial record gives a row and grave number within the newly created cemetery plot.

Secondly, from my reading of these burial records, these were the poor people of Penniman. While most burial permits record the closest of kin, birth dates, place of birth and more, the burial records for the men and women of Bucktrout Cemetery were hauntingly sparse. One burial record shows only a first name (Roger), with an “estimated age” of 25.

Third, I’m both enchanted and captivated by the story of Penniman, and this is part of Penniman’s story, and part of Virginia’s history and a keyhole peek at an international pandemic. Just as the country was ready to breathe a collective sigh of relief because The Great War was ending, The Spanish Flu blew through, killing 60 million people (about 5% of the world’s population).

In life, the people laid to rest in Bucktrout Cemetery were forgotten, unattached, and desperately poor. They were outside of all the important circles of community and church and family and privilege and wealth. And now, in death, there is nothing to remember them by. Not even so much as a memorial plaque to mark the spot.

My focus and goal for today is to finish writing the book, and share what I’ve learned about Penniman, but I hope and pray that at some point, when the manuscript is complete, we can put our heads and hearts together and figure out a respectful, proper way to memorialize Bucktrout Cemetery, a pauper’s cemetery, and a piece of history right in the heart of prestigious Williamsburg.

To read “Silence of the Graves,” click here.

To learn more about Penniman, click here.

Many thanks to Bucktrout Funeral Home (Williamsburg) for donating the old ledgers to Swem Library (W&M), and thanks to Swem Library for making them available to researchers.

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The overwhelming majority of the Penniman flu victims breathed their last at the Penniman Hospital.

The overwhelming majority of the Penniman flu victims breathed their last at the Penniman Hospital in Penniman, Virginia. This photo was taken in Spring 1918, about six months before the Spanish Flu wiped out 60,000,000 people. (Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.)



Close-up of the Penniman Hospital. (Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.)


Death Certificate

Typical "Funeral Record" for Bucktrout interment. Very little information is shown, and there's no next of kin, no age, etc. DuPont paid a death benefit of $105, which covered the cost of the service, preparation, coffin, plot and burial. Mr. Cole was laid to rest in a varnished coffin on October 17, 1918.


As with

With few exceptions, cause of death for most Penniman flu victims was listed as pneumonia. Technically, this would have been correct. According to DHHS National Institute of Health, the majority of deaths during the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 were not caused by the influenza virus, but from the bacterial pneumonia that followed.


These bodies werent just dumped in a mass grave.

People in Penniman and Williamsburg must have been frantic, and yet the funeral directors had the presence of mind to document the precise location of each grave for future generations.


While going

Corporation-bashing is a popular sport these days, but DuPont did right by their employees, in paying all funeral expenses. At the height of the Spanish Flu epidemic, DuPont paid out more than $9,000 in one two-month period for Penniman workers. In 1918, that was a significant sum of money.



Of the DuPont employees gathered here, you have to wonder how many survived the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918/1919. This photo was taken early 1918 in Penniman. (Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.)


Today, theres no sign that a cemetery was present here.

The site of the Bucktrout Cemetery is now a suburban backyard in the heart of Williamsburg. According to the home's owner, three rectangular depressions could be seen in the center of the yard decades earlier. In "Silence of the Graves," long-time residents of the area shared remembrances about other depressions in other yards that were so deep that the children had to "clamber in and out."


In closing, here’s a list of the people buried in Bucktrout Cemetery. It’d be interesting to sketch out the plots, and figure out who’s buried where.

1) May 1918   George Worley  DuPont employee, no age, grave 3, first row

2) June 1918  Gaspare Farola  Dupont employee, no age, grave 4, first row

3) Sept 1918  James Cooke, child of Dupont employee, age 9,  no grave number given

4) October 1918 Dalton Winkles, age 19, grave 7, first row

5) October 1918, James Arthur, Dupont employee, grave 8, first row.

6) October 1918, Mrs. Sadie Stanley, grave 1, second row

7) October 1918, B. P. Humphrey,  no age, grave 2, second row

8 ) October 1918, John Steinruck’s baby, 10 months old, grave 1, third row

9) October 1918, G. W. Robbins, age unknown, grave 2, third row

10) October 1918, E. R. Commbs, age uknown, grave 3, second row

11) October 1918, W. W. Cole, age unknown, grave 5, second row

12) October 1918, John D. Saunders, age unknown, grave 3, third row

13) October 1918, N. J. West, age unknown, grave 4, second row

14) October 1918, C. M. Coffey, grave 6, first row

15) October 1918, Earl Farris, grave 6, second row

16) October 1918, W. F. Winkie, age 33, grave 9, first row

17) October 1918, George W. Hicks, age 29, grave 4, third row

18) October 1918, U. T. Thomas, age uknown, grave 7, second row

19) October 1918, Levereta Moss Bosnell, age 23, no grave number given (c)

20) Jan 1919, Louis Filler’s baby, age 3 days, grave one, first row

21) April 1919, Robert, no age, no last name, no nothing, no grave number (c)

22) July 1920, G. Thorton Carpenter, age 3 days, no grave number

23) Dec 1921, Joe Pleasant, age 78, no grave number

24) Mar 1928, John M. Williams, age 5 days, no grave number

25) July 29, 1930, Catharina Elizabeth Taylor, age one month, five days, no grave number


To contact Rose, please leave a comment below.

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