Most people pass through life and leave little written record of what they have done. Only if they are “famous” and someone has written a book about them do we know many of the details. But occasionally this is not the case.
Such was the situation with Charles Somers Miller (known as “Uncle Charley” by many). He was born on September 27, 1858 and died at the age of 94 on March 14, 1943 and is my great-great-uncle. But the reason that we know so much about what he did is that he kept a journal (*1). The first entry is dated Saturday, 1/1/1876 when he was only 17 and the last entry was on Saturday, March 13, 1943 – written the evening before his death. Sometimes there are gaps of several weeks and the entries are only a few words, but other times there is a several paragraphs for one day. The journals for some of the early years are missing. With over six decades of material, I could probably write a full-length novel about his life, but in the limited space of this blog, I’ll only touch on a few of the highlights.
In the days before the availability of automobiles, most people stayed within a few miles of home. But Charley got around more than most. Sometimes it was a short ride to another town and one of his first recorded trips was to Litchfield, CT, a distance of about 20 miles. But even this short trip meant leaving on one day (generally Saturday), and not returning until the following day. Since 1876 was the first centennial of the US, the first centennial exposition was held in Philadelphia from May through November (*2). That was of great interest to Charley. He noted in his journal that on the first day that there were 130,000 people in attendance. In September he went himself, leaving on Monday, September 18, and returning that weekend on Saturday, September 23. What a great experience for someone just approaching his 18th birthday!
In the fall of 1890, Charley took several weeks for a “pleasure” trip that took him north through Massachusetts, into Vermont and New Hampshire, and back home. He left on Saturday, September 20, going nearly 50 miles the first day, but generally traveling 30-40 miles each day. He did not get back home until Wednesday, October 18. Quite a trip for being on horseback!
Charley was very family oriented and he often recorded things about them. In 1877 both of his grandmothers passed away – his grandmother Miller in April and his grandmother Somers in October. He took the opportunity to document his siblings and their ages – Frank (21), himself (almost 19), Mary (15), Carrie (14), Fred (13), and Ivan (3). In 1890 when his uncle Levinus Warner passed away he recorded the names of the pallbearers as Austin B. Pierpont, Chas [Charles] J. Pierpont, Elmer E. Pierpont, Wilson L. Pierpont, Chas Branuis (?) and himself. (Levinus was the brother of Mary Ann [Warner] Pierpont. Austin, Charles, Elmer and Wilson were her children and Charley was her son-in-law).
Sometimes these entries are a mix of what you think would be very important together with the mundane. For example, the entry for February 13, 1891 reads, “An appointment at the dentist. My wife had a baby girl this morning at 6:30 o’clock had Barber for doctor and Miss Maddy (Ruth Brundage) for nurse. I got my emery grinder shaft from the Waterbury Machine Co. this morning. Gave Porter S. Woods some bills to collect.” The birth of a daughter was not allowed to interrupt his activities of the day.
My grandfather’s birth was recorded on March 4, 1898 in the following manner: “When my wife got home from the Grange, she was greatly excited because her brother Wilson L. Pierpont (who is Master of the Grange) and his wife Annie (who is Secretary of the Grange) were in their respective places when she go there, after a time recess was declared and she did not see Wilson or Annie again, but just before the Grange closed a note was received by the acting Secretary which stated that the Master and Secretary had a new ten pound son.” (My grandfather was given the middle name Granger because of the circumstances of his birth.) But it was in a more somber tone that he recorded Annie’s death just 13 days later, noting that “She was 39 years old, the same age of myself. She leaves an infant child and six children.” There were over 400 people at her funeral the following Sunday.
In 1898 on September 22 he recorded, “Today is Mary’s birthday, she is 38 years old. To me she seems as young as she did when I married her when she was 23 although we have now a family if six children.”
Fife and Drum Corps
Charley was very involved in the Mattatuck Fife and Drum Corps (*3, *4) for many, many years and is credited with keeping it going when it went through a period of low enrollment. He joined the band in 1877 (*5), but his first record of involvement in his journals was in 1878 when he purchased some fife and drum equipment. The following year he recorded several instances when he drummed at various fairs – Wolcottville (Torrington) Soldiers Monument Dedication (*6), Hartford, Harwinton, and Wolcott. In 1881, Charley was elected the leader of this group, a position he held for the next 50 years (*5). Without his leadership, the band would likely not have survived, as there were as few as 5 men still active in the years following the Civil War.
Charley didn’t document just the trivia of day-to-day living. He also noted other significant events that happened that impacted him. In 1888 the railroad line from Waterbury to Meriden, CT was completed. He noted that the stock holder’s special train made the trip in just 45 minutes. The following year he noted that the freight train was 25 cars long, “the longest train I ever saw on the road and the longest I think that ever passed over it drawn by one engine.”
In 1898, Charley recorded the blowing up of the Battleship Maine in the harbor in Havana, Cuba, as well as some of the discussions and actions of President McKinley in the following months. Later that year he recorded all the details of the surrender of the Spanish and the particulars of the treaty.
I had written previously about General Rochambeau and his travel through CT on his way to meet Gen. George Washington and assist him in what turned out to be the ending battle of the Revolutionary War (*7). Charley was on the committee that organized a monument to be placed where two of Rochambeau’s men were buried when they fell ill on that trip across CT (*8), but interestingly he does not mention that fact at all in his journal. But that he was selected for the erection committee was not a surprise as he had been involved in placing flags on the graves in that cemetery as early as 1891. He had taken an interest in Rochambeau as evidenced by an entry in 1898: “This evening went to see the Rev. Dr. Davenport at Major Tucker’s to give him information about the French army which passed through here under Count Rachambeau[sp] in 1781. Dr. Davenport is to write a paper to be read before the Order of Patriots and Founders in Milford a week from next Saturday.”
Charley was unfailingly honest in his journals. One entry in 1891 reads, “Mr. C. S. Fairclough is 63 years old today, he is an ugly man.” He also recorded a lot of seemingly trivial information, such as an entry in 1898 which read, “lay down for a nap but could not sleep as one fly would fly into my ear then into my nose and pestered me other wise so that I was obliged to get up and fight him…”. In another entry he was at the waterfront in New Haven and recorded, “There were many girls in bathing which I took much pleasure in watching.”
Recounting even a small portion of all the Charley wrote would take me several days just to read through all of his journals. I’m sure that there are many more interesting incidents that I have yet to discover. But even the short amount of time that I have spent gives me a wonderful insight into the thoughts and activities of this fascinating individual.
I have attached to this blog just two pictures which were sent to me by my cousin Bob Kraft (a great-grandson of Charley). One is a picture of him from 1942, just a year before his passing, in his uniform from the Mattatuck Drum Corp. Bob is standing next to his great-grandfather. The second is a bust of Charles Somers Miller that was presented in 1942. In (*5) it is recorded as follows:
“On October 16, 1941, the Mattatuck Drum Band played at the dedication of the Noah Webster Statue in West Hartford where the Band became fast friends of the sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski (Kor-chok Jewel-CUFF-ski) and his wife. The Band asked Mr. Ziolkowski to make a portrait bust of Charles S. Miller, who had been their leader for 50 years and a member of the Band for 65 years. On February 15, 1942, this portrait bust was unveiled.
“Mr. Miller said during the presentation of the bust, "This business from the beginning has been a series of surprises. But the greatest surprise of all is that at this age, I have so many friends. I have come down from a former generation. And I rejoice and I thank God that I have lived to see this day. But my feeble tongue can find no words that can express the joy, the gratitude, and appreciation that I feel within. I know not whether my future coming days are to be many or few. It will be as directed. But the memory of these faces all radiant with hope, with good wishes and beauty, will remain with me to the final end."
“On March 16, 1943, twenty-three members of the Band assembled in special meeting at the call of the President at the Alderson Funeral Home to pay their respects to the late Leader and member, Charles S. Miller, who died suddenly on March 14, 1943, at the age of 84 years and 6 months. His memory and his spirit live on in the Band even to this day.”