Research: It Runs in the Family

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I taught my mother some of my internet research tricks last night.  She’s trying to figure out the life stories of the people who lived in her house in Maine.  The house was build in the 1880s, and it looks out on The Gut, a river-sized inlet of ocean between Rutherford Island and the rest of South Bristol.  Plenty of people have lived there.  The lawn of the house slopes down to either a flat of mud or lapping waves, depending on the tide.  Bright lobster boats speed past.  The other side of the shore looks like a Charles Wysocki painting; the way the colorful houses perch on the green hillside.  The community is one of ship builders and lobstermen.  Even today, you can see the men in their forest green galoshes and overalls traipsing together down the road speckled with Victorian houses, case of beer clutched in one’s hand.  Unless you want to pay $12.00 a pound for potato salad at the little blue summer store, the nearest grocery is thirty minutes away.  Home Depot is almost an hour and a half. 

There are many books on South Bristol, and my mother has been through them all.  Between that and the stories of her neighbor and driveway-sharer, Ronnie, we have a decent picture of the prior inhabitants. 

The house was built by Harvey Oliver.  The old portion of the house is tiny.  One bedroom was turned into a bathroom, tucked under the eaves.  The other barely fits a twin bed, but the view from the wide, tall windows in both rooms is filled with sea and sky.   Mr. Oliver was quite the carpenter.  There are closets.  In a house of this age, that is a minor miracle.  A corner shelf, fluted top, stands in the living room.  Tucked under the stairs is a meticulous job of small drawers.  Harvey Oliver died less than a year after the last board was laid.  His family sold the house. 

The Kelsey’s moved in.  The record seems to show that Horace came from a long line of prolific ship builders.  His wife, Myra Clifford, and their son Alton also moved in.  Along the way, they also picked up a boy named Maxwell House.  Whatever happened to his parents, Max couldn’t live with them.  The Kelsey’s gave him a home and he became a second son.  Maxwell had the room under the eaves.  Alton had the little bedroom.  Tragedy touched them.  Alton died young.  We don’t know of what, or when, but he is in the census at 16 years of age, and appears deceased in the next.  When Horace died, he and Myra left their estate to Max. 

In the 1970’s, Max sold the house to Stevie Plummer.  Stevie got married, and together in the 1980s they put in a modern kitchen and master bedroom.  Those two rooms alone almost double the size of the house.  The stove backs up to an old chimney.  The kitchen counters are Formica with a metal rim.  Oak paneling adorns all.  Before the renovations were finished, Stevie got a divorce.  The renovation was never finished.  He set his bed on the plywood subfloor upstairs.  The windows were never framed out.  He died young of a heart attack.  He was in his 50s. 

Stevie’s daughter moved in with her two children for a while, but the house was in terrible shape by this time.  Stevie saved fuel by shutting up the old side of the house, only using the kitchen and half-finished bedroom.  Plaster was peeling off the walls.  The floors were painted a rainbow of browns.  Leaded white came off the hallway doors in flakes.  The upstairs bathroom had nothing but holes in the floors.  The pipes downstairs were rusting.  Creosote collected in the ceiling.   The daughter sold the house to my mother and stepdad.  They have been in constant construction since, and cousin Jeff loaned a little of his own carpentry skill to add to Harvey Oliver’s work. 

We know a lot, but there are so many holes; the death of Alton, Max’s parentage, the lives and professions of Horace and Myra, the reason Harvey Oliver built the house in the first place at so advanced an age.  I have research skills now.  Maybe we won’t find anything, but maybe we will.  I showed my mother some of my favorite sites and we found fun information about South Bristol, if not about the inhabitants of the house. 

We started on World Cat (www.worldcat.org), a database of all books that have ever been printed ever.  They seriously have everything, and you can sort by oldest to newest and get primary source info pretty quickly.  At the bottom of the page, it lists all the libraries you can get the book from, and it also has all the information you would need to get it from Interlibrary Loan.  My favorite thing!

We moved to searchable PDFs next.  Many colleges put their archives up on http://www.archive.org, so we searched and found an out of print book on South Bristol.  Typing Ctrl F brings up a box and you can get right to the subject matter you need.  We put in Kelsey, and found a prolific ship builder much older than Harvey.  Maybe his father? 

My last trick was the Library of Congress Digital Archives.  Those are tons of fun.  They don’t have everything, but they have a lot.  We found many pictures of ancient South Bristol.  Then we searched Bob’s last name and found that his uncle had done an interview with them about the air force in WWII, tapes available in Washington DC only. 

It was a great night.  My mother could barely tear herself away from the computer to say goodbye.  I think she’s definitely as hooked on this stuff as I am.  Next up might be a book on the subject.  You know, once my novel is finished.

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