“Dear Leola. Happy, happy birthday. I have so many questions to ask you, although I know you can’t answer them. My name is Sophie. I am 12 years old and I live in Denver, Colo. The year is 2012.”
At first I thought the note was a piece of trash blown against the solitary gravestone of Leola Noel, which stands out among 92 weather-beaten wooden crosses in an abandoned cemetery in Alma, Colo. Born March 30, 1882, she lived just one year and 19 days, dying April 18, 1883. A heartbreaking inscription reads “Our darling sleeps.”
On Leola’s 130th birthday, her stone must have spoken to Sophie the same way it had to me more than a decade ago. I discovered it by accident one day after climbing the nearby Mount Democrat, and I’ve visited it often.
Curious about Leola’s identity, I questioned townspeople and learned little. I researched at libraries and the Colorado State Archives. Censuses, city directories and probate records led to the son of Leola’s sister, now 90 and living in California. In a phone call, he described the smallpox epidemic that struck the overcrowded mining camp, where the few doctors couldn’t get to everyone in time. Leola’s father, Francis, was one of several fathers who received the smallpox vaccine, which contained a live form of the virus, to administer to their families. He mistakenly gave Leola an overdose, killing her.
Now, I wanted to share Leola’s story with Sophie, who felt a connection with this long-ago girl in a remote town beneath the mountains. But how? I had only a first name and a large city. Hoping she’d return on Leola’s next birthday, March 30, 2013, I introduced myself in a note, wrapped it in plastic to guard against the weather, and left it on the stone.
An email arrived the next spring. I was ecstatic. “This is Sophie. I am the girl who wrote the birthday letter to Leola Noel. We went to the mountains yesterday and I found your note.” The family had a cabin not far from the cemetery.
Then on May 11, Sophie’s dad asked to meet. Sophie and her mom hugged me; her dad and I shook hands. We talked for two hours. They were saddened to learn how Leola had died.
Sophie’s wish for Leola to have a lived a different life was behind her burst of sympathy when she read the stone’s epitaph and its truth. Her note was like a bolt of sunlight in Leola’s story and the mystery that spanned 13 decades, from then to now.
Thomas Jenkins » Centennial, Colo.
Your article “Write On!” by David A. Fryxell (History Matters, January/February 2014) held some appeal for me. Since early 2000, I’ve had an abiding interest in the analysis of the handwriting of family members. A graphology instructor at a local community college has been a great help in providing insight into the personalities of my ancestors. For example, she said that my great-great-grandfather Bartholomew Lewicki was probably a collector. She laughed out loud when I later told her that he had four wives and 16 children. Likewise, she indicated that my grand-aunt Frances Jozwiak was a very smart woman but had worries about being a mother. Then I told her that Frances had only one child.
Handwriting analysis has helped me better understand 20 of my ancestors. The analyst can work from only a signature, although a larger writing sample is preferred.
Joseph F. Martin » Romeoville, Ill.
I’ve worked on German genealogy for a long time, and I’ve never seen an article as full of useful information as “Going to Church” by Rick Crume in your November 2013 issue. It’s obvious that the author has “walked the walk” and really knows his subject. His little clues about deciphering the writing in German church records—for example, the mark over the letter u to distinguish it from the letter n—are very important and come from his extended effort to understand the 200-year-old writing.
Ed Storey » Falcon, Colo.
Behind the Scenes
- Family history enthusiasts attending FamilySearch’s RootsTech 2014 conference, held Feb. 6-8 in Salt Lake City, kept Family Tree Magazine and Family Tree University booth staff busy.
- Last December, Family Tree Magazine editors made their ninth annual visit to the Anderson (Ohio) Senior Center Genealogy Group for genealogy talk and Christmas cookies.
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I have a cousin who medaled in archery. Never met him that I remember, but my granddaddy always bragged on him.
Pfhhhht! No athletes in my family … but go back a few hundred years and you’ll find a bunch of knights.
Nope, but on a Super Bowl Sunday, I found out I’m related to Terry Bradshaw—third cousins once removed. Mindy Jean Lammert
My grandfather was a runner in the early 1900s and brought home some hardware, winning events in St. Louis and Athens.
My second cousin was a goaltender on the women’s ice hockey team for the Winter Olympics in 2006.
My elementary school art teacher was a speed skater in the 1960 Olympics. That’s as close as I come.
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