As I told you in this post about his encounter with a panther, my grandfather Duncan Browning was a cowboy for a year or so in Texas at the beginning of the 20th century. And the family story goes that while he sat around the campfire and in the bunkhouse with other cowboys he wrote down in a ledger the words to songs and poems he heard.
When I went to my sister Martha Lou’s last week, I brought home some very old photo albums. So for this post, I looked for a picture that might show what Duncan looked like around the time he was a cowboy. This is the oldest picture of him I could find. I believe these were taken about 1914 (9 or 10 years after his cowboy days.) He would be about 45, my grandmother would be about 25 and Mama would have been 6 years old. The picture on the left is of my mother’s parents (Ruby and Duncan) with her little sister, Ivy. On the right is Mama with her mother and her mother’s mother, Grandma Thompson (who came to live with them a few years before she died) and Ivy. Mama always said because she was short (5’3″) she must have gotten her height from Grandma Thompson, because her parents were very tall for those times. Her mother was 5’10” and her dad was 6’4″.
So, back to the ledger. I mentioned in that previous post that I thought my sister Martha Lou might have the ledger now, so I would ask to see it the next time I went there. Well, when I went to visit Martha Lou last week, she had our grandfather’s ledger waiting for me (she reads my blog, so had read that I was interested in seeing it), and she said I could take it home with me! Thank you Martha for trusting me to be the caretaker of this family heirloom (as well as the old photo albums).
I think Duncan must have let his young daughters play with the ledger — because the names of his two oldest daughters, Aileen and Ivy, are printed on the cover, and then it looks like the same little writer also tried to print her daddy’s name on it too, but either ran out of space or couldn’t decide how it was spelled!
So, this book has obviously seen a hard life and, as you can see, is in very poor condition. Needless to say I am treating it very gently, because I certainly don’t want to be the family member who has it in her possession when it disintegrates!
There were several things that surprised me when I got home and sat down to really look at the ledger.
First of all, there are no personal stories from Duncan. I was hoping for some insights into him, with maybe some stories about his cowboy days. But I haven’t found anything like that yet. Just poems and song lyrics.
I’m also surprised, considering the nomadic life of my mother’s childhood, when several times they just picked up and moved taking very few belongings with them, that this book is still around. Someone (and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was my mother who always had a keen interest in family history) must have taken a special interest in making sure the Ledger always got taken along, wherever they moved.
Looking through this book also reminds me of what an effort people had to make to retain and pass on information a hundred years ago. Maybe many people did what my grandfather did and wrote down things like this, but I would guess alot of the retention was by memory. In that vein, there are several poems in this book that I remember Mama reciting to me when I was little, and I’m sure they had first been recited to her when she was little. It’s remarkable, considering my bad memory, that all these years later I can still recite a little of some of those.
I’m also surprised at how many songs and poems are in the ledger. Maybe Duncan continued to add to the ledger, or his daughter’s did.
The fact that cowboys recited poems and sang songs around the campfire that weren’t necessarily just about cowboys and cows surprises me too. (I obviously have seen too many old western movies!)
So, the bottom line is, I’m going to start another series that will pop up here occasionally, called Duncan’s Ledger. It will be some of the lyrics to songs and poems that I find interesting in my grandfather’s ledger.
I hope that you will enjoy, as I already am, reading how people expressed themselves in verse 100 years ago.
To begin, this was written on the first page:
Steal not this book for fear of shame,
for on it is the owner’s name.
And when you die the Lord will say,
“Where is that book you stole away?”
And when you say you do not know,
The Lord will say “Go down below!”
Those library fines pale in comparison to that threat, don’t they?!
More from Duncan’s Ledger to come.