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Woodworking column: A florally decorated autograph book

Many years ago, I fell heir to an old barn next to my grandparents' residence in Whitehall.

I don't know what possessed me but I saved boxes and barrels of stuff stored there by my ancestors. The valuable materials I donated years ago to the Wisconsin State Historical Society, but I still am in possession of little things that I occasionally peruse in order to figure out what my ancestors were really like.

Recently I ran across an ornate little autograph book, leather-bound and embossed with cunning color drawings on every fifth page. The book belonged to my great uncle James Lincoln Wood, who must have been 14 when he received it in 1881, when the autographs begin. Jim was the only fellow from Whitehall who served in the Spanish-American War and is always mentioned at Memorial Day celebrations. I know he was a farmer and a carpenter who built many of the residences in Whitehall and that he married a fancy lady from Chicago, named Olive Tull, who had grown up in Whitehall, but moved to Illinois when she became a nurse. I have photos of Jim and Olive. Jim was a handsome, sturdy fellow with a handlebar mustache. Olive was, well, sort of fat.

My father always described Jim as a coarse, plainspoken farmer. What was he doing with a florally decorated autograph book? I guess because everyone had one in those days.

Paging through Jim's I found loads of advice from friends and relatives. And a good deal of doggerel.

Cousin Cora VanSickle wrote: "Jimmie: I never try to write for fame/I will only write my name."

"These humble lines which here I trace/Time may not change nor age efface./ They may be read, though valued not/ When the hand that penned them is forgot. Lydia H. Holmes, Sechlerville, Wisc. Jan. 5th, 1883."

"In memory's wood-box/drop one stick for me. Your cousin, Esther M. Sherwood"

"Dear Jimmie: "May all your years in joy be passed/And each prove happier than the last. Mary Van Sickle."

In 1884, a young woman set her sights on the plain-spoken swain in a glorious Spenserian hand: "Writing is silver./ Silence is gold. Your Friend Ollie Tull."

(Many years later, after Olive married Jim, her closest friend, the town doctor's young wife, who had given birth to three kids in three years, asked Olive her secret in staying childless, to which Olive replied "I take an aspirin before bedtime and nothing after."

When a Sunday School Missionary from Beaver Dam came to town in 1881, Jim cornered him for an autograph:

"Glad memories of bygone years/ Linger upon an album's face./ Around each page flock joys and tears/ Detaining thought in sweet embrace./ Your album may its written love/ Sweet emblem be of joy above. Rev. E.B. Edmunds."

Apparently the Reverend's good advice didn't stick with Jim. Years ago, I dug through Jim's Gladstone bag and found buried away from his mother's glance several pamphlets authored by Robert Ingersoll, the age's most popular freethinker, including "The Necessity of Atheism."

Finally, buried in the middle of the little book is a nugget of poetic advice:

"A pleasant manner and a helpful word

A manly spirit, from no task deterred.

A wholesome temper held in just restraint

A soul that long endures without complaint,

A heart in strict accordance with God's plan,

Are attributes becoming any man. (or boy)

M. Wood."

"M. Wood" was Jim's mother Mary.

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