Finding a Home for Lost Records: The Viglia Papers

We just don’t know what to do with them, my neighbor said. The box of photos, letters, and ephemera was found among crisp, hand-embroidered linens and stacks of fiestaware, remnants from an estate whose owner passed away. The records were inherited by a couple, who passed on to my neighbor, who in turn brought them to me. After a little detective work, we determined that the records originally belonged to the Viglia and Bonomo families, Italian immigrants who settled in Price, Utah in the early 1900’s. The photos themselves are remarkably beautiful and tell an intriguing story of religion, music, death, and celebration. But what to do with them?

While attending my Utah History class at the University of Utah, I got my answer. Taught by Professor Paul Reeve, the class is includes a public history project where students will work in conjunction with Utah State Historical Society to update its database of state historical markers. When I learned that Price, Utah had an Immigrant Monument, I knew these records could help tell the story of immigrants in a very personal way.

The Viglia and Bonomo records include over 200 pieces such as photos, letters, postcards, receipts, greeting cards, and other ephemera. As immigrants, it is an important thing to tell your own story. By contributing the Viglia papers to the public history record, they can tell it in their own words.

 

What’s in Your Closet?

Closets are wonderful places. As a young child, I hid in them during games of hide and seek. I remember quickly pulling the folding doors closed, crouching down, catching my breath while my eyes adjusted to the dark. As I grew older, I hid things in my closet: little collections of memorabilia, my diary, and secret notes. At the end of the clothes rack were my favorite clothes I could not bear to part with. My parents had stuff in their closets, too: old tennis rackets, favorite purses, candy bars, and birthday presents.

When I think back of how I began my interest in family history, it began with a closet. A few years ago, I was at my parent’s home looking through a closet in a spare bedroom. I can’t remember what I was looking for, but something on the top shelf caught my eye. It was a red and black Nike shoebox, with “letters” written in black marker on the outside. “These are mother’s,” my mom said. “I got them after she died.” I opened the box, and we sat on the bed, opening letters. Unfolding their delicate pages, I was mesmerized by the handwriting, the words, and the photos that sometimes fell out as we opened them. These were my grandparent’s love letters. I couldn’t put them down.

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There were more things in that closet. A hand-beaded dress made by my great grandmother June Bushman Smith. My great grandmother Ella Clark’s eyeglasses. My grandfather Ellsworth’s toy drum. I didn’t know it that day, but something in my heart changed. I became determined to not only rediscover who my ancestors were, but to find a way to share these discoveries with everyone.

Over time, this determination evolved into a path that led us to found Kindex, an online archive and transcription tool that enables families to collaboratively gather, index, and share their records. It hasn’t been an easy path, but whenever I think of giving up, I think of that red and black shoebox full of letters that inspired me so many years ago. I also think of the millions of other closets that hold family treasures. How many photos, letters, journals, and heirlooms will be lost or forgotten? How many family records will be thrown away by those who inherit our closets? Our own history is at risk. Will you be the one to rescue it?

The Flexible Flyer

The Flexible Flyer

by Leon Chamberlain

One of my fondest memories was sleigh riding on my sleigh. When I was growing up in the 1940s and into the 1950s, I believe our needs and wants were much simpler than today’s. When I was a young boy if you had a bicycle, a flipper crutch and a sleigh you had most of what it would take to make you happy.  The “Cadillac” of sleighs was a Flexible Flyer. They were strong, well-built and could take a lot of beating. Most of all, you could steer them. Back in the forties they did not use salt on the roads so usually for a good two or three months the roads around my house were snow-packed and it snowed much more back then. 

We didn’t have many hills around my house so we would “belly slam”, meaning we would get running as fast as we could down the road and then slam our sleighs down and coast. If the road was icy you could coast 100 feet or more. That’s what we did in the winter. Sometimes Dad would take us to a street with a slope and we would coast down the street often going very fast.

Sometimes we would pile snow up and make our own hills. Of course there were dangers, and a bloody nose or a skinned forehead were not uncommon and did not require a trip to InstaCare. Winter did not mean you spent time indoors. I even knew of kids who put roller skate wheels on their sleds and would belly slam on dry roads. Today it is rare to see someone on a sleigh.”

The Slingshot

The Slingshot

by Leon Chamberlain

When I was growing up there were three possessions that were critical to a boy’s happiness and survival. One was a bicycle, which I have written about. The other was a Flexible Flyer Sleigh which I have also written about. The third is a sling shot, correctly called a flipper crutch. A sling shot is a device consisting of four long cords, 18 inches to 24 inches tied to the four corners of a pouch approximately 3” square. A rock or other hard item is placed in the pouch and you would hold the cords in one hand and swing it over your head. Centrifugal force would hold the rock in the pouch. After rotating the sling around over your head several times as fast as you could, you would release two of the cords allowing the rock or other hard item to be released. The rock would travel towards its target at a high rate of speed hopefully striking the target. This is the device David of the Old Testament used to slay Goliath.

Leon and a friend getting into mischief

Being accurate with a sling requires much practice and skill. A flipper crutch is a device usually cut from a tree branch that forms a “Y”. Two rubber bands are attached to the top of the “Y” and to a pouch. You use the energy created when you pull back on the pouch loaded with a projectile to propel to its target. For rubber bands we would cut strips from an old inner tube from a car or bike. Back in the 40’s and 50’s inner tubes were made from natural rubber which has good elastic properties. The pouch was made from the tongue of an old shoe. Our “ammo” was usually some hand-picked round rocks about 1⁄2” in diameter. In a pinch we would use an old marble. We were very careful to avoid windows and people. Unfortunately we would sometimes target birds that invade our fruit trees. A well-placed rock would easily kill a bird or shoo-off an unwanted dog. We called our flipper crutch our personal protection device and you did not mess with someone who was good with their flipper crutch.

I read somewhere that the army investigated using a flipper crutch to propel a small explosive device. More modern versions of the flipper crutch are called wrist rockets and they use steel balls as ammo. As you can imagine, these devices border on being deadly. As a young boy I made many flipper crutches and spent many happy hours shooting at targets of bottles and cans. It was all we needed in those days.

A Christmas Tree for Archie and Matilda

A Christmas Tree for Archie and Matilda

As recalled by Leon Chamberlain

It was probably around 1920 that the saga of the Christmas tree took place in my grandmother Chamberlain household. Mary Caroline Nordstrom Chamberlain was a widow with two young children, Matilda (8), and Archie (5). Grandmother worked at Deseret Mortuary helping prepare the bodies of the deceased for burial. As Christmas time approached it was the desire of my grandmother to have a tree for Christmas. At that time it was not uncommon to decorate the tree on Christmas Eve. There was a Christmas tree lot near the mortuary and my grandmother ordered and paid for a tree to be delivered the morning of Christmas Eve.

As Christmas Eve morning turned to Christmas Eve afternoon, and no tree had arrived, my grandmother became concerned. In the late afternoon, she took the trolley uptown to the tree lot, but when she arrived, the lot—surrounded by a high, locked fence—was closed.

At best my grandmother was around 5 feet tall and it would have been impossible for her to climb the fence. As she stood there contemplating her dilemma, a young boy walked by. She approached him and offered him a dime to jump the fence and throw a tree over to her. He agreed, and grandma now had a tree but no way to get it home. Undaunted, she drug the tree to the nearest bus stop, loaded the tree on to the bus and rode toward’s home. I can see her in my mind’s eye, dragging that tree the final distance to her home on Navajo Street. Because of the resourcefulness and tenacity of my grandmother Chamberlain, Matilda and Archie were not denied a tree for Christmas.

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Mary Caroline Nordstrom Chamberlain with children Matilda and Archie.

_______

My grandmother Chamberlain was known for her perseverance and hard work. She was widowed at a young age when her husband suddenly died while chopping wood in the yard. She raised chickens, sold eggs, planted a large garden and canned much of the produce for and her family. She told fortunes and was famous in the neighborhood as the best therapist there was. Thanks Grandma Chamberlain.

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The home on 742 Navajo Street as it was about 1918.
Mary Caroline Chamberlain stands in front with daughter Matilda.
A sign for “Fresh Eggs” hangs on the front.

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Leon Chamberlain with his Grandmother Chamberlain, about 1943.

The Bicycle

The Bicycle

Every Christmas, Leon Chamberlain tells the story of the bicycle to his children and grandchildren. He has written it here for our benefit.  -CG

By
Leon Chamberlain

I love going to bicycle shops, so when I recently accompanied my adult daughter to a bicycle shop to select a graduation gift, I lingered among the rows of sleek, new bicycles. Inevitably, I was drawn to what are now called “retro” cycles. The sight of those old-style bikes brought to mind my first bicycle and all the memories that came with it.

As I recall, I wanted a bicycle when I was just six years old. Even at that young age, my hope was tempered by the realities of the time. World War II had just ended and items like bicycles were very scarce. I was also quite young to receive such a coveted Christmas gift, so I knew the chance of getting a bicycle that year was slim. When Christmas passed without a bicycle, I held my hopes out for next year when I would be seven.

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Leon Chamberlain (left) stands with a friend outside their home on Navajo Street in the Poplar Grove neighborhood of Salt Lake City, Utah.

As the war and its scarcities grew distant, I grew more hopeful that there would be a bicycle under the Christmas tree. But when Christmas came and there was no bicycle, I struggled to hide my profound disappointment. My disappointment mixed with jealousy when I learned of my friend’s good fortune. His dad had salvaged a bicycle at a junkyard and fixed it up for Christmas. “Maybe my dad could go to the junkyard and find me a bicycle,” I thought. But the spring and summer months passed without a bicycle, and it wasn’t until the next Christmas season that my longing was once again renewed.

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Leon Chamberlain standing on the south side of his home on Navajo Street.

It was 1948, and to me it was the mother of all winters. There was over two feet of snow in our yard, and the streets in my neighborhood were coated with snow and ice. The wind blew drifts so high we could climb to our rooftop and slide down the drifts banked up against the garage. I was eight years old, and my guarded yet unflagging hope for a new bicycle never left my mind.

That Christmas Eve, I could not sleep. Through the darkness, I crawled on my belly from my bedroom to the living room to see if the bicycle had arrived. I strained my eyes through the dim light, but I couldn’t discern a bicycle. I repeated this exercise several times without any success. The anticipation was excruciating, and as the first gray light of morning entered my room I pled with my parents to be allowed into the living room.

There it sat. A 26-inch balloon-tired Yale bicycle. A Yale? Yes, a Yale. I was very familiar with the brands of bicycles by then: Schwinn, Columbia, Raleigh and Roadmaster. I had never heard of a Yale and have never seen anther one since. That did not matter. I had a bicycle and that’s all that mattered.

I did have a problem, though: I wanted to ride my bicycle and there was literally no place to ride it. Despite blankets of ice and snow, I braved the below-zero temperature and immediately set to work shoveling a path for my bicycle. Beginning at my back door, I tunneled a 25-foot square course through the snow. I could barely reach the pedals as I shakily guided my new bike though the narrow course I had cleared. As ice formed on the spokes, the bike became more difficult to ride, and after a few trips around the course my enthusiasm waned. My patience was again tested as I was compelled to wait through the long winter in anticipation of riding my new bike.

That Yale was the only bicycle I had growing up. When I got tired of the color, I painted it a different one. I would completely take the bicycle apart from one end to the other and reassemble it again. I knew that bike backwards and forwards and probably rode it several thousand miles. I had no desire to have another bike, and it wasn’t until my interests shifted to cars that I parked my Yale in the back of the garage, never to be ridden again.

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Leon Chamberlain with his ’51 Ford.
His first car, a ’41 Ford, didn’t last too long*

I have since bought several bicycles and enjoyed riding them, but as I shopped with my daughter it became clear that while I could buy any bicycle in that shop, none could bring the happiness that my Yale did. It wasn’t until many years after that Christmas that I discovered that my Yale was second-hand, and that my parents had much difficulty acquiring it.

Perhaps at some future time I will again have the chance to ride my Yale along the streets of Salt Lake City, the breeze blowing in my face, my shirt unbuttoned and my hands behind my head. It doesn’t get any better than that.

 

*My ’41 Ford had been through a lot. I remember driving to West High School, and my friends in the back were complaining they were cold. Before I knew it, my friends had built a small fire on the floor of the car to warm them up. The brakes also went out in that car. I remember carefully driving all the way home from West High to Navajo Street without having to use the brakes. Unfortunately, I did not calculate how I would eventually stop the car once in the driveway and sailed right into the garage door.