A Visit from the Past

Every October, archives across the United States celebrate Archives Month. This year, the State Archives of Florida is focusing on how archives change lives. Join us throughout the month as we share stories about the impact the Archives has had on staff and patrons like you!

Mary Lou Bisplingoff, 1951

Mary Lou Bisplingoff, 1951

As archivists working with the Florida Photographic Collection, we often receive phone calls and emails from patrons looking for specific images. Sometimes photos are acquired for news articles or academic publications, but other times pure curiosity fuels their inquiries. Whatever the case, we archivists become detectives for the public. The research process can be tedious and frustrating, but it can also be quite exciting and rewarding—especially when we are able to uncover surprising material for our patrons.

A few months ago, we received a question from patron Katie Godwin. Her family has an old portrait from 1951 of her late grandmother Mary Lou Bisplingoff. At the time, Bisplingoff, who had not yet married, was on the edge of twenty and a student at Florida State University. While Katie was replacing the broken glass of the framed picture of her “Nana,” she discovered something interesting about the photo: “When I took the frame apart to install the new glass, I found two surprises: one was a baby picture of my mother. The other was that the picture we had admired for so long was actually an ‘unfinished proof.’ A stamp on the back said the picture had been made at L’Avant Studios.”

With a sense of mystery, Katie began her quest. This is her story:

“You don’t get new pictures of people once they’re gone.”

Mary Lou Bisplingoff, 1951

Mary Lou Bisplingoff, 1951

While the new glass was being cut for the frame, I searched online and found that L’Avant had been a prominent studio in Tallahassee for decades. The studio closed in the 1980s and donated their inventory to the State Archives of Florida. I began to get excited. I hoped that I could find the original version of this beloved picture and get a clearer, brighter copy to share with my family.
The next morning I called the Archives and asked about the photograph. I was referred to Photographic Archivist Adam Watson, who knew the collection well. At his request, I sent a copy of the image and the stamp on the back, as well as an approximate date for the photograph. As promised, I heard back within just a few days; however, I was only partially prepared for the response. The image I was searching for was not there, but Adam found eight other pictures of Nana. Upon seeing the photos, I recognized only one of them. The rest were entirely new to me and my family. Nana has been gone for two years now. You don’t get new pictures of people once they’re gone. It was surreal. These pictures were taken just before she turned twenty, over sixty years ago!

“Seeing and holding the photos felt like having a visit from Nana.”

Initially I thought I would print all of the pictures and surprise my mother with them for her birthday, but I couldn’t keep something this big to myself. Instead, I immediately told her over the phone and then sent the proofs to her. I also texted the photos to my sisters. It was all so out of the blue and unexpected. As for my grandfather, who struggles the most with losing Nana, we decided to wait to tell him until we had the prints. I worked with Jackie Attaway to purchase high resolution digital scans of all eight images and then had them printed at a local print shop.

Mary Lou Bisplighoff, 1951

Mary Lou Bisplighoff, 1951

“…they gave us a glimpse of who she was before we knew her.”

Seeing and holding the photos felt like having a visit from Nana. My Mom noticed that in one picture you could see Nana’s resemblance to her father’s side of the family. Another was my favorite because I thought you could see the glint in her eye and the sparkle she was trying to contain. In one of the photos, we noticed that her shoes were almost the same as the shoes my sister wears now; and in some you could see the shadow of a huge lamp that made the whole scene look like something from the movies. All of the photos were glamorous, and they gave us a glimpse of who she was before we knew her. My grandfather could hardly speak when he saw them.  They were bittersweet for him, but he has told me several times how much he loves the pictures and how he took them around to his friends in town, showing her off. I had no idea that the State Archives could hold such a treasure for our family. Working with Adam and Jackie was pleasant, easy, and more rewarding than I could have imagined.

Mary Lou Bisplingoff, 1951

Mary Lou Bisplingoff, 1951

At the State Archives we use our institutional knowledge, tenderness, and care when assisting patrons like Katie. Each day we have the privilege of being the custodians of a vast and wonderful collection of historic treasures. Katie’s story is an example of how a little archival research can allow patrons to connect with history on a personal level. As archivists, those are the most rewarding days for us.

What will you find in the Archives? This October, join us in celebrating Archives Month by exploring the Archives yourself. You can search for pictures of your family members on the Florida Photographic Collection, then further your research in person at the State Archives. In addition, the Photographic Collection provides high resolution scans and prints to the public for a nominal fee. Did Katie’s story inspire your own family research? Let us know in the comments section below!

It’s in the Directory

Remember back before the Internet when you needed the “phone book” to find a phone number or address for a person or business? These days, we tend to use printed directories for booster seats and doorstops more than for their intended purpose, but these volumes do have a critical role to play as a historical resource. Especially the older ones.

A few of the printed city directories available at the State Library of Florida - others are available on microfilm or through online databases like Ancestry.com.

A few of the published city directories available at the State Library of Florida – others are available on microfilm or through online databases like Ancestry.com.

For many Florida municipalities, city directories have been published annually for over a century. The content in each volume varies by town, year, and publisher, but generally they include an alphabetical list of residents with addresses, a classified business directory, information about local officials, clubs, public services, and societies, and a street guide. Some directories also include information on nearby towns too small to have their own published directories.

City directories are a goldmine for genealogists, because they can potentially provide several kinds of information about an individual:

  • Where the person lived
  • The person’s occupation
  • The names of persons living in the same home (including spouse) or neighborhood
  • Who lived at the same address before someone moved in
  • Where the person moved to/from (if in the same city)
  • How long a person lived in a particular city

These volumes are also useful for local historians because they can help with tracing the history of a particular building, a business, a club or society, or other local entity.

City directories may be found in public libraries, the State Library of Florida, or through one of a number of online databases. Ancestry.com provides searchable digitized editions of many Florida city directories, and a number of Florida cities have completed their own digitization projects to make the directories available online.

So how do you use these city directories for family history research? Let’s make an example of this gentleman whose portrait is included in the Florida Photographic Collection:

Leonard A. Wesson of Tallahassee (1940).

Leonard A. Wesson of Tallahassee (1940).

The catalog record for this portrait of Leonard A. Wesson says it was taken in Tallahassee in 1940. That’s all we know at this point. Using city directories, however, we can determine whether he actually resided in Tallahassee, and if he did we can determine roughly how long he lived there. We can also find out his occupation, whether he was married, and whether he moved around a bit while he was in the area. Let’s start out by checking the alphabetical name index in the 1940 Tallahassee city directory:

Excerpt of a page from Polk's City Directory for Tallahassee, 1940.

Excerpt of a page from Polk’s City Directory for Tallahassee, 1940.

And there he is! From this entry, we see that Leonard had a wife named Winifred, and that the two of them were living at 503 E. McDaniel St. in Tallahassee in 1940. We also see that Mr. Wesson was a busy fellow, serving as Secretary to both the Middle Florida Ice Company and the Tallahassee Coca-Cola Bottling Company. This is good information, but it’s only a start. How long did Leonard and Winifred live at this location? Who lived in this house before they did? Was Leonard Wesson always associated with the two companies he was working for in 1940?

To find the answers, let’s back up a few years to 1936. We’ll start out by looking at the alphabetical name index once again:

Excerpt of a page from Polk's City Directory for Tallahassee, 1936.

Excerpt of a page from Polk’s City Directory for Tallahassee, 1936.

This entry turns up some interesting information. It appears Leonard Wesson was serving as mayor of Tallahassee in 1936. He was living at the same location as he would four years later in 1940, and we get to see his telephone number in this directory. Note that Winifred’s middle initial is listed here as “A” rather than “L” as it appeared in 1940. One is probably her given middle initial and the other the initial for her maiden surname. This information could come in handy later when searching for Winifred in an index.

Let’s keep going backward in time to see what else we can learn about Leonard and Winifred. Here is their alphabetical index entry for 1930:

Excerpt of a page from Polk's City Directory for Tallahassee, 1930.

Excerpt of a page from Polk’s City Directory for Tallahassee, 1930.

Intriguing… Leonard Wesson was working as a civil engineer in 1930, and living with Winifred in a completely different location, 403 E. Park Avenue. Also, we can tell that the Wessons didn’t own the house, because the address is preceded by an “R” for “roomer” or “resident” rather than an “H” for “householder.” Each directory explains its use of abbreviations at the beginning of the alphabetical name index.

If you’re wondering who was living at the Wessons’ future home on McDaniel Street at that time, there’s an easy way to find out. Most city directories have a reverse lookup street guide that allows you to determine who was living in each building along a particular city street. So, to see who was living at 503 E. McDaniel Street in Tallahassee in 1930, we need to look at McDaniel Street in the street guide. Here’s the page:

An excerpt of a page from the reverse lookup street guide included in the 1930 Polk's City Directory for Tallahassee.

An excerpt of a page from the reverse lookup street guide included in the 1930 Polk’s City Directory for Tallahassee.

Notice that the address 503 E. McDaniel Street does not appear at all in the listing. Since this directory shows when a house was vacant (e.g. 1045 Lake Jackson Rd. in the excerpt above), we can safely assume this means the Wessons’ house had not yet been completed when the directory was published. (Note: A little extra research confirmed that the Lafayette Park neighborhood where the Wessons relocated in the 1930s was indeed undergoing development at this time.)

To determine how long Leonard and Winifred lived at 403 E. Park Avenue or elsewhere in Tallahassee, we could continue following them through various city directories, but let’s try to find out who lived at their home on Park Avenue before they began rooming there. To do this, we simply look up that address in the reverse lookup street guide for previous years until we find a different occupant listed. Let’s try the 1927 directory for Tallahassee:

An excerpt from the reverse lookup street guide in Polk's 1927 city directory for Tallahassee.

An excerpt from the reverse lookup street guide in Polk’s 1927 city directory for Tallahassee.

L.M. Lively shows up as the primary householder for 403 E. Park Avenue in 1927. That’s helpful to know, but who is L.M. Lively? We can find out more about him by looking him up in the alphabetical name index in the same 1927 volume:

Excerpt from Polk's 1927 city directory for Tallahassee.

Excerpt from Polk’s 1927 city directory for Tallahassee.

Interesting! The resident of 403 E. Park Avenue in 1927 was Lewis M. Lively, president of the Middle Florida Ice Company, which Leonard Wesson would later work for. We see from the address listing that Lively owned the house, which suggests that he was likely the person who rented it to Wesson and his wife Winifred in the 1930s.

From these bits of information, a clearer picture of Leonard Wesson begins to emerge. In the late 1920s, he was a civil engineer in Tallahassee, possibly working for Lewis M. Lively at the Middle Florida Ice Company. By 1940, Wesson had moved up the ladder, had served as mayor of Tallahassee, and had become secretary to Middle Florida Ice. He had also built a house in the new Lafayette Park neighborhood. Armed with these details, we can now begin cross-referencing the information with other sources to help build a more detailed profile of Leonard Wesson’s life. A quick search of the Florida Photographic Collection, for example, reveals that photos exist of the Lively house at 403 E. Park Avenue:

Lewis M. Lively house at 403 E. Park Avenue in Tallahassee (photo circa 1980).

Lewis M. Lively house at 403 E. Park Avenue in Tallahassee (photo circa 1980).

This is just one example of the many life stories that city directories can help reconstruct. Visit your local library, the State Library of Florida, or an online database to explore city directories and see what you can discover!

Need help finding a specific city directory? Contact the State Library’s reference desk by phone at (850)-245-6682 or email at library@dos.myflorida.com for assistance.

Employee James McCamon of the Middle Florida Ice Company cools off by reading the Tallahassee Democrat while sitting on a block of ice (1965).

Employee James McCamon of the Middle Florida Ice Company cools off by reading the Tallahassee Democrat while sitting on a block of ice (1965).

 

The Armed Occupation Act of 1842

Land records are some of the most useful items in a genealogist’s toolbox. They pinpoint specific people in specific places at specific times, and can serve as a stepping stone to other historic records that illuminate the lives of our ancestors. Sometimes land records can tell us a lot about a given moment in the broader history of Florida as well. The records associated with the Armed Occupation Act of 1842 are an excellent example.

Read more »

Family History on the Farm

Sometimes the best genealogical information comes from truly unexpected sources. The State Archives of Florida holds records from a wide variety of state agencies, many of which have had direct contact with the state’s citizens over the years. As a result, many of the records document the specific locations of specific individuals at specific times, which can be a big help for folks tracing their family trees. Read more »

Doing Genealogy with Pension Records

The Confederate Pension Applications are one of the most popular series of historical documents on Florida Memory. They chronicle the efforts of Confederate veterans and their wives to obtain pensions from the State of Florida in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By law, in order to obtain a pension a veteran or his widow had to provide information about the veteran’s Civil War service, his birth, and proof of a qualifying disability. Widows of Confederate veterans had to provide proof of their marriage. The State Board of Pensions reviewed these applications and approved those that met the proper qualifications.

The applications alone are full of useful information for genealogists and historians, but when used in conjunction with other collections at the State Archives of Florida they can do much more. For example, if you know you have a Civil War veteran or veteran’s widow in your family tree who received a state pension, in many cases you can find out how long the person received that pension, how much they received, and where they lived while they were receiving it. This can be achieved by finding the veteran or widow’s pension application on Florida Memory, then visiting the Archives for a look through the State Comptroller’s records of pension payments (Record Series 678).

Let’s use Floridian Civil War veteran Robert H. Parker as an example. If you search for Robert H. Parker on the Confederate Pension Applications page, here’s what you get:

Search results for "Robert H. Parker" in the Confederate Pension Applications" on Florida Memory.

Search results for “Robert H. Parker” in the Confederate Pension Applications” on Florida Memory.

Sometimes an individual will have multiple application numbers, but as the example above demonstrates, usually only one application will have the best information. In Robert Parker’s case, if we click on the application numbered A01666, we’ll get over a dozen pages of information from his soldier’s pension application, as well as the widow’s application of his wife Marietta.

Page from the Confederate Pension Application file of Robert H. Parker of Hillsborough County. Paperwork from the pension claim of his widow Marietta is also included in the file.

Page from the Confederate Pension Application file of Robert H. Parker of Hillsborough County. Paperwork from the pension claim of his widow Marietta is also included in the file.

We see from Marietta’s pension claim form that her husband Robert died on October 16, 1914, and that the Pension Board approved her to continue receiving a Confederate pension as his widow. What we can’t tell from this paperwork is how long she continued to receive that pension, or whether she moved after her husband died. That’s where the Comptroller’s records can help!

Volume 24 of the State Comptroller's record of approved pension claims, 1895-1917 (Series 678, State Archives of Florida).

Volume 24 of the State Comptroller’s record of approved pension claims, 1895-1917 (Series 678, State Archives of Florida).

If you’ll notice in the example search results above, each of the Confederate Pension Applications is identified by a number. In Robert and Marietta Parker’s case, the number is A01666. The “A” in this code simply means the application was approved; the “1666” is the part used across state agencies to identify the pensioner.

The State Archives holds a series of ledgers from the State Comptroller’s office that record each payment made to each pensioner up through 1917. There are separate ledgers for soldiers and widows. The entries in each ledger are sorted by the pension number, so if we know Marietta started receiving a widow’s pension after her husband Robert’s death in 1914, we should be able to track her payments from that time by looking in the “Widow” volumes for entry number “1666.”

Volume 24 of the State Comptroller's record of approved pension claims, 1895-1917 (Series 678, State Archives of Florida)

Volume 24 of the State Comptroller’s record of approved pension claims, 1895-1917 (Series 678, State Archives of Florida)

And there she is! In the example above, you’re seeing the information recorded for pension payments made on October 1, 1915 by the State Comptroller’s office. For each pensioner, you get the pensioner number, name, pension amount per year, postal address, Comptroller’s warrant number, date the pension was sent, and the amount of this particular payment. The pension payments were generally sent quarterly.

Just from this entry alone, we learn a few helpful bits about Marietta Parker. We know she was living on a rural postal route near Lutz in Hillsborough County in October 1915, and that she was receiving $37.50 every three months. Each ledger page typically covers a year’s worth of payments. Let’s keep following Marietta Parker’s payments to see if anything else helpful turns up.

Volume 26 of the State Comptroller's record of approved pension claims, 1895-1917 (Series 678, State Archives of Florida)

Volume 26 of the State Comptroller’s record of approved pension claims, 1895-1917 (Series 678, State Archives of Florida)

Going through the Comptroller’s records of payments to Marietta, we learn that she moved to Tampa sometime in the spring of 1916, evidenced by the fact that her postal address changes. Also, when we get to the entry above, we learn that Marietta died sometime during the quarter leading up to the October 1, 1916 payment.

If you happen to be researching an ancestor whose death date or location have been tough to ascertain, these records can be very helpful. Plan a visit to the State Library & Archives soon to have a look. Remember, Series 678 only covers through 1917. If your Civil War veteran ancestor or his widow lived past that time, researching his or her later pension payments will require a different approach.

You might also want to have a look at our Guide to Genealogical Research. It has some helpful hints for getting started with your family history adventure!

Find Your Pioneers!

In 2014, Florida Memory digitized the returns of Florida’s 1845 statehood election. They explain who voted in each precinct, which offices each voter voted for, and whether their qualifications as a voter were challenged at the time of the election. Each return also contains the election officials’ certification of the results.

An example return from Precinct 1 (Tallahassee) of Leon County. Visit the 1845 Election Returns collection page to browse or search the entire collection.

An example return from Precinct 1 (Tallahassee) of Leon County. Visit the 1845 Election Returns collection page to browse or search the entire collection.

On the surface, that doesn’t sound like much information. To a genealogist, however, these
documents can be a real treasure. First of all, voters were assigned to precincts based on
where they lived. So, if you locate an ancestor in these returns, you can determine with
some degree of certainty the county and precinct in which that ancestor lived as of May 26,
1845, when the election was held.

Excerpt from an election return from Sopchoppy Precinct in Wakulla County. Click on the image to view the full return.

Excerpt from an election return from Sopchoppy Precinct in Wakulla County. Click on the image to view the full return.

But there’s more. To have voted in the statehood election in 1845, a voter would have to
have been at least 21 years of age, and would have to have lived in Florida for at least
two years to vote for statewide officers. This can be very helpful information if you have
what we call a “mystery” ancestor, whose details are so obscure you may not even know which
generation they belong to.

It also helps if you are looking to be certified as a descendant of a “Florida Pioneer”
through the Florida State Genealogical Society. To obtain a state-level “Florida Pioneer Descendant”
certificate from the Society, you must demonstrate that you descend from someone who
settled in Florida before it became a state in 1845. In theory, any person who voted in this election would legally have had to live in Florida for some time prior to statehood. Other evidence may be necessary to receive a certificate from the Society; consult their website for details.

The documents have their drawbacks, of course. Women, persons under 21, and African-
Americans do not appear in the collection, as they were not permitted to vote at this time. Finding an ancestor using this source, however, can be the first step in locating many more.

Do you have ancestors who voted in the 1845 statehood election in Florida? Tell us about it by leaving a comment below, or by sharing this blog on Facebook!

Genealogy Resources on Florida Memory

Looking for your relatives on Florida Memory? Several of our online collections provide excellent materials for researching genealogy and family history.

Did your relatives serve in World War I? Were they from Florida, or entered the service while in Florida? On Florida Memory, you can search for their World War I Service Cards.

World War I Service Card for Albert McLeod Bethune, son of Mary McLeod Bethune

World War I Service Card for Albert McLeod Bethune, son of Mary McLeod Bethune

 

Did your relatives serve for the Confederate Army during the Civil War? Were they from Florida, or lived in Florida after the war? You can search for their Confederate Pension Applications on Florida Memory.

Confederate Pension Application for Joseph H. Haddock of Duval County, submitted by his wife Martha Haddock

Confederate Pension Application for Joseph H. Haddock of Duval County, submitted by his wife Martha Haddock

Did your family live in Florida before the United States took control of the territory in 1821? On Florida Memory, you can find Spanish Land Grant claims. These records represent claims made for land purchased in Florida from the Spanish government prior to 1821.

Confirmed claim of Reuben Hogan

Confirmed claim of Reuben Hogan

Photographs are a great resource on family history. We have over 170,000 photographs available online, some of which contain unidentified persons. Perhaps your relative is waiting to be identified on Florida Memory? Search the Florida Photographic Collection.

Portrait of an unidentified family: Gainesville (ca. 1900)

Portrait of an unidentified family: Gainesville (ca. 1900)

Found a great photo or document from your family’s history on Florida Memory? Share it with us in the comments.