Duncan’s Ledger: An Introduction

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.

8 Responses to Duncan’s Ledger: An Introduction

  1. C. Beth says:

    Whew, nothing like a little hellfire to deter would-be thieves! 🙂 I like the picture–those old, stoic pictures are charming. And the book fascinates me, as all old books do.

  2. Sandra says:

    Beth — I’m really enjoying the ledger and the old pictures too. Not only are they fun to look at myself but they’re also so fun to share. 🙂

  3. gigi says:

    My mother has a book like that (2 actually). She mostly wrote down song lyrics. I think she did this as a fun way to practice her penmanship and as a way to pass on the songs. She was born in 1934; I’ll have to ask her about them next time I talk to her.

    I did the same thing, you know; that is, I use to transcribe lyrics by listening to them on my record albums. That was back before you could so easily Google for information. That was when you had to spend money to buy song sheets and both my mama and I grew up dirt poor.

    I have my saved poems and songs stored in two binders on my book shelves. Sometimes, it’s more fun to sit and search a book for the information rather than Google it. Plus, the binders are easier to share.

  4. Hi Sandra!

    This post is so interesting! I also am fortunate to have an old ledger book, letters and photos which I plan to share at some point! My g-grandfather was also a cowboy in south Texas around 1883 on to 1899 when he died. His sons carried on the cattle business; his son-in-law opening a meat market here in LR when they got stuck with a bunch of cows from TX–that’s how my grandmother was the only part of the family that didn’t go to TX, because that was their plan.

    Looking forward to your sharing the poems, etc. It was such a different way of life and we’ve lost so much! V.

  5. Sandra says:

    Gigi — I think we are very fortunate to have had mothers who were savers of what others might have thought of as the mundane. As they years go by, those lyrics, photos, words become more and more important! And it’s great that you’ve followed that tradition too — and actually have it in binders where you can get to it! Good work! 🙂

    Vicki — I’ll look forward to seeing your old ledger posts too. It’s so much fun to share that kind of history, isn’t it? And, as a reader, I enjoy that type of post to read on other blogs too.

  6. Suldog says:

    I think that photo of him fairly shouts out “Cowboy” (or, at the least, person who has worked outdoors and sometimes had to scramble for a living.) The somewhat drawn face, with the full mustache… it speaks of another time, for sure.

    Love the poem/threat!

  7. Sandra says:

    Suldog — I agree that there is a certain cowboy “look” about him. And he definitely DID have a hard life, but he was always beloved by his family. A kind, gentle man.

  8. Denise says:

    I’ve been looking for evidence of the age of the poem about Dried Apple Pies. The only publication information I’ve found is in a book of poems that I acquired about 40 years ago. The book is copyright 1936, but the poem is “anonymous” and no source is given.

    Would you provide a photo of the ledger page on which the poem was copied? Are any of the entries in the ledger dated? If so, would you provide a photo of the dated entry that is located closest to the pie poem?

    Thank you very much for your assistance.

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