Monday, May 25, 2009
Matters Familia - The Fabric of Time
As I mentioned in my previous post, I've been going through the house my great grandfather built in 1900 on the bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. He was a purser on the Anchor Steamship Line. When he settled in Natchez, he wanted a house from which he could watch the river he loved so dearly. His great niece and my cousin, Annabelle Rupert, found the following items about him:
Name: William Howard Pritchartt. Newspaper article from St. Louis Newspaper about 1885 "SURPRISE - Among the many gallant and courteous gentlemen who do service in the offices of the various steamboats coming to this city, and particularly those of the Anchor Line, there are none perhaps more courteous, polite and efficient than Mr. W.H. Pritchartt, of the steamer Arkansas City. As a proof of his popularity, and the esteem in which he is held, especially by the ladies who are fortunate enough to secure passage on this boat, Mr. Pritchartt was presented, on the last trip to Natchez, with a beautiful stool or ottoman cover, exquisitely finished, and wrought in various colors. To say that the fortunate gentleman was surprised would be putting it mildly. The fair donors of the handsome present were Mr. Capt. C.B. Ziegler, Mrs. Oscar Moore, and Miss Anne Mounger, all of St. Louis. These ladies are making the round trip on the elegant steamer. Mr. Pritchartt is proud of his treasure, but cannot realize how the ladies managed to resurrect Joseph's many colored coat of ancient fame, with which the dainty piece of work is finished."
Excerpt from his obit in 1934 - Natchez Democrat: ". . . For a time he was connected with the Anchor Line steamboats on the Mississippi river. When he came to Natchez in Sept, 1889, he went into business with the late Captain S.E. Rundle. In 1905, with W.R. Wade, he organized the firm of W.H. Pritchartt & Company and was connected with it until 1916. ............" William Howard Pritchartt was born in St. Louis in 1856 and died in Natchez MS 1934. He married the lady Annie Munger that made him the stool.
His daughter, my great aunt, Annet, lived there her whole life. She was a spinster lady who died when she was about 97 years old, way back around 1992.
Our family is cursed with sentimentality, sometimes to the point of -- well, let's just say -- eccentricity? Even though my brother has lived there for the past ten years or so, none of Annet's things had been touched.
"Oh, I hate to get rid of them," he'd say. "They remind me of coming over here when I was little."
The clothes were still in the closet in her bedroom; her shoes tucked neatly away beneath a table by the door; her hairbrushes, jewelry, medications, powders and creams still sitting on the dressing table. And over all was a thick coating of dust and spider webs. It reminded me of Miss Haversham's house in Charles Dickens's Great Expectations.
So I finally decided to take matters into my own hands, and I've been cleaning out her things. It has been a journey both of adventure and discovery, but one that leaves me sad at going through the things that tell of the life of one I loved so dearly, disposing of what no one would want, and saving all the flotsam that would tell stories of our family's past.
Annet was a woman before her time -- keenly intelligent and independent in an age where neither was particularly encouraged. She went to Stanton College for Ladies here in Natchez, and then on to Barnard and Columbia University in New York where she majored in history. After school, she took a trip to Europe, alone, sending home postcards and letters that had all been lovingly saved and preserved.
Although history was her major, she had a knack for mathematics, which she taught at Braden School in Natchez for 40 years. I've been told that through her tutoring efforts many a boy was able to enter West Point with grades so high, they weren't required to take math. I remember she once told me that the lowest grade she'd ever made was in calculus, and that was an A-minus. Alas, I didn't share her talent with numbers. I still count on my fingers, can't do simple subtraction and division is a soul-sucking impossiblity.
But I loved her dearly. I remember many a time going over to her house and entering to the smell of homemade applesauce on homemade melba toast. I found the grinder she used to grind the apples with, scraping it off the sides into a big pot she'd set on the stove with spices. She made pull taffy and fudge and always came for Thanksgiving with a batch of uncooked cranberry relish with orange rind.
Animals seemed to sense that her house would be a refuge, and even two of my own pets moved to her house, just because. One day she went out onto the back porch to find a fully grown rooster crowing on the top step. As it turns out, the neighbor behind her, Mr. Logan, had owned that chicken and planned to make dinner of him. He escaped with his head intact, however, and went straight to Annet's house. We brought him to our house and he lived the happy life as head of his own little harem for many years to come. We named him Mr. Logan.
Yesterday, I went into a trunk in the hallway and found scores of little Victorian dresses -- dresses that Annet had worn as a child, a Mardi Gras outfit dating back probably to abou 1904, and even the dress she wore at graduation. That's Annet in the dress on the front porch of the house. I'm terrified to disturb the items, and am trying to determine what should be done with them.
I suspect one of the small girl's dresses is the one she's seen wearing in a book of photographs that was published by Dr. Thomas Gandy called "Norman's Natchez." She's about two years old in the photograph and is a beautiful, angelic-looking child in a white dress. As soon as I have access to a scanner, I'll scan it for you, Readers, to see.
A woman in Natchez whose name I can't recall made a doll that looked just like the photo. It's nearly life-sized, and I'm thinking it would be really nice to dress the doll in the original dress and donate it to the Natchez Historic Foundation or the Mississippi Historic Archives.
In the meantime, I'll dig further and let you know what treasures I find.
*Thanks to Annabelle Rupert for sending the photos of Annet.