Circling Back

My first storytelling passion came from genealogy.

I have often laughed that I began storytelling as a subversive activity.

I wanted a way to tell our family stories so that they would want to listen. And then - as so often happens - the glitter and sparkle of storytelling itself lured me away from genealogy.

But I am back.

I never really left - my stories all have some family information in them
but - I have not done any genealogy research in quite some time.
I am determined to bring the two together
I will continue both.
From now on
at least once a week
I will be posting something about the family
quilting the stories.

To start I have reached back to several posts I wrote a couple of years ago.
This is what you can do with a letter.


Letter from the Past - Part 1

I love old letters, whether I know the people of not. The handwriting brings you close to the person who wrote it and often there is a story hidden in an old letter. I have several storytelling programs built around old letters.

A few weeks ago an old letter fell out of some files I was moving. I recognized my grandmother's strong cursive handwriting before I picked it up. The paper is yellowed, the creases where its folded threaten to tear. The envelope is addressed to her mother, Mrs. J. W. Cobb, at 703 South Church Street in Charlotte and the postmark -

the letter bears a purple three cent stamp and is postmarked April 30, 1918. Mailed from Madison Square Station in New York City. It is written on hotel stationery - Hotel McAlpin, Broadway and 34th Street, New York City.

On a first read the letter doesn't say much but as I thought about it I wondered if there was a story in it. I often tell people to use old documents to make a story. So, what about trying it.

First I will share the letter with you - then I will add bits and pieces as I discover them to flesh out th story.


Tuesday, April 29th
Dear Mama,
This won't be much of a letter because I am pretty tired, But I just want to tell you that think I am going to have "some trip." We arrived OK this morning, and I hadn't slept much on the train. I went to bed after a hot bath and slept until about one thirty. Sam spent the day at the office, so I crossed over to Macy's and spent quite a while looking

around and shopping. Had dinner with Sam and then Uncle Fred and Florence came over to the hotel and took us out. We went to Vaudenville and then to a little place - a favorite of Uncle Fred's and had some beer and sandwiches. Believe me, it certainly tasted good. Florence is such a sweet girl. She has Friday evening off and she is coming to take me over to her house.

Cousin Nell called me this afternoon. She will be here about nine tomorrow morning and we will spend the day together.

Hope your finger is getting better and that the boys are not too much trouble. Won't write any more now as it is late. Everything here stirred up over Liberty Bonds. Hope to see the returned heroes from France before I leave.

Tell Grandma not to worry about Uncle Fred. He looks grand and says he never felt better in his life.

Kiss the boys and tell them to be good. Much love to you all. Will save some news until I see you.


First - Lets' consider the cast of characters:

Louise Cobb Diggle - the letter writer- my father's mother. At this time Louise was 32 years old, they had been married nine years and in that time she had given birth to six children and was now two months pregnant with her seventh child, who would be a daughter, Loretto. No doubt she needed a break.

Sam Diggle - her husband, father of all her children, was 31 years old.

Mrs. J. W. Cobb - Louise's mother, sister of Uncle Fred, was 59 years old. Her son Walter, Jr., 31, was in the Army and overseas in France along with his younger brother, Fritz, 23. Fritz was who was named for her brother, Fred - the Uncle Fred in Louise's letter

Uncle Fred Grose - Mrs. Cobb's younger brother who was 55 and had lived in New York City for some time.

Florence - his daughter

Cousin Nell - not sure who she is.

"the boys" - Lewis Diggle, age 7, Jack Diggle, Age 6 and Robert Diggle, age 4 - Robert is my father. The other children left behind in Charlotte were Mary Cobb, Catherine and year old Betty.

Grandma- Mrs. Samuel Grose - Louise's 83 year old grandmother and Mrs. Cobb's widowed mother.

One afternoon when I was about thirteen I was visiting Nanny at 826 Central Avenue, the house she and Sam build to house this large family. She reminisced about a wonderful trip they had made to New York. I listened vaguely, as a kid 13 would, but I do recall her saying that she had a new hat, a new Easter hat, with a wide brim.


If you are just joining us for this story-catching exercise here's the deal. A few weeks ago I found a 90 year old letter my grandmother wrote to her mother when she was on a trip to New York City.

The text of the chatty letter to her mother in Charlotte is in the previous post - Letter from the Past - Part 1 along with a list of the characters. In this post I will explore the scene at the time she wrote the letter to develop the atmosphere and search out possible directions for a story. You know - I am just playing around.

To do that I am pulling information from family history, using my genealogy research - and turning to "'google" and the internet to take me back to this day and time and to enrich the content.

I want to bring Nanny's trip to life - primarily for our family. These stories are my subversive tactics in this world of the scattered family to water our roots and keep the family oak from shriveling to a sapling. Perhaps the exercise will give you ideas for catching a story of your own.

In the "olden times" when families lived close-by, folks told these stories at the dinner table or on a porch or maybe sitting around a tablecloth spread on the ground at a picnic. Children grew up knowing they were part of a large tribe and the stories of those "gone" lived on. We have to work harder today to keep our stories alive..

Exploring the scene of the story - New York City, April 30, 1918

Woodrow Wilson was President of the United States. John F. Hylan was Mayor of New York City ( http://www.nyc.gov/html/nyc100/html/classroom/hist_info/mayors.html). America was at war. More than 8 million people lived in New Youk City, and about 650,000 lived in Charlotte, NC. My grandpartents, Louise and Sam Diggle, rode all night on the train, leaving their six children at home with relatives for a business-vacation in the BIG city.

Hotel McAlpin
Louise and Sam were staying at one of the finest hotels in New York. Hotel McAlpin, a large hotel with 1500 rooms, was built in 1912. It was known for its innovations, decorative brick work, decorations and fine Marine Bar.

From an article in the New York Times, February 20,2008
Early 20th-century hotel construction was an exercise in quick obsolescence - with a new generation of buildings completely eclipsing the old one every three or four years. Telephone, telegraph, plumbing, elevator and other mechanical services rapidly advanced, but each new hotel also sought singular decorative schemes.

The Astor Hotel had an American Indian Grill and a Pompeiian billiard room, the Plaza had the Germanic-style Oak Room and the airy Palm Court, and the Vanderbilt Hotel had an unusual Grill Room with tiled, vaulted ceilings.

The 1,500-room McAlpin Hotel, opened in late 1912, was considered the largest hotel in the world and it also attempted to outdo its predecessors. There were floors restricted to women, men and even night workers - where silence was enforced during the day. There was a tapestry gallery, a banquet room with a vaulted ceiling, a giant marble lobby, a Louis XVI-style dining room and Russian and Turkish baths.

In 1913, the Real Estate Record and Guide noted another unusual feature of the McAlpin. Unlike other giant hotels, the McAlpin rented out its valuable store space all along the street frontages, moving its main rooms up or, in one case, down a floor. The basement room, at first called the Rathskeller and within a few months the Marine Grill, remains one of the most unusual in New York City.

The Marine Grill is a forest of tile-clad piers that curve up and form great curved vaults, all in a glazed riot of ornament and color - brown, green, cream, silver and scarlet. Giant semicircles along the walls carry faience panels depicting the maritime history of New York.

1918 - America was at war - the Armistice was not signed until November 1918.

In her letter Louise mentions the stir over the new campaign for Liberty Bonds. Around the first of April in 1918 they launched the the third Liberty Bond campaign - selling the Bonds to finance the American effort in France. This would have been of particular importance to Louise because her two younger brothers Walter, age 31, and Fritz, age 23, were in the Army serving in France.

She writes that she hopes to see some of the returning heroes before she returns to Charlotte. I imagine that she meant one of the parades down Fifth Avenue.

She says they went to Vaudeville - we can imagine the music - popular George M. Cohan songs like "Over There" and Give My Regards to Braodway" must have been on the bill and heard around town in restaurants.

Macy's: A History

In 1918 Macy's was located at Herald Square - on Bradway and 34th Street - very near the Hotel McAlpin - convenient for Louise to "look around and do some shopping" while Sam was at the office.

Macy's has an interesting history - growing from a small fancy dry goods store which opened in 1858 to it a world-known retailer.The website history calls Macy's an innovator. Macy's was the first to introduce the tea-bag, Idaho baked potatoes, and colored bath towels. Macy's moved to the Herald Square location in 1902. By 1918, when Louise "looked around and shopped there", Macy's was generating 36 million dollars in sales and was a world-wide tourist attraction for visitors to New York - like Louise.

I thought this was an intersting bit of Macy's history.
To help celebrate their new American heritage, Macy's immigrant employees organized the first Christmas Parade in 1924. The procession featured floats, bands, animals from the zoo and 10,000 onlookers, beginning a time-honored tradition now known as the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

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