Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Cousin Russell and The Spooly Army

 Beulah Lewis, Billy Lewis, Russell Brayton
My Mother smiled whenever she recounted the summer visits to the farm by the New York cousins.
'Aunt Emma' [sister to Mother's grandpa, Eddie Ross] had lived in Albany since her husband's passing in early middle age; 'Cousin Etta' was from Queensbury where she kept house for her husband Albert, her widower son Clifford, and grandson Russell.
There was scant affection between Eddie and his cousin Etta's husband, but that seems not to have troubled the annual pilgrimage of the two women and the little boy from the city heat and noise to the comparative calm of the Vermont farm.
Certainly the three children had a splendid time.
All three were possessed of great imaginations.
Billy was the eldest, born in 1914, Russell in 1918, and Beulah in 1919.
It seems likely that Russell may have been the ringleader in many of the undertakings.
He had a great interest in American Indians and considerable time was spent in creating 'bows' from slender springy limbs and lengths of heavy string.  Arrows were fashioned from carefully sharpened twigs.
The three, armed with these useful weapons, went on the hunt for buffalo [or other hostile Indians] stalking through the cow pasture and ranging along the edge of the woods, never too far from sight of the big white house that sat comfortably shaded by the dooryard maples.
As Mother told me decades later of her cousin's fascination with Indians I made a connection.
My sister and I in childhood, ranging over the farm buildings, had marveled at the drawings of Indians in feathered head dresses which adorned the greyed plaster walls of the 'woodshed chambers.'
"Of course," said Mother when I mentioned them. "Some days it rained, so we played in the hay barn or the woodshed.  Russell drew 'Sitting Bull' and his mighty warriers on the walls."

Beulah and Russell
with walking sticks, ready for adventure

Russell brought with him his 'spooly army' a collection of wooden spools in several sizes.
Large spools which had held coarse 'button and carpet thread' became 'generals.'
The sturdy spools from everyday black or white thread became 'captains', while the smaller spools which had once been wound about with colors for finer sewing became the rank and file soldiers.
In those days when all mothers, aunts and grandmothers sewed, Beulah also had her assortment of spools.
A cloudy morning might find the opposing armies lined up on the linoleum of the sitting room floor or arrayed on the dining table's slick oilcloth while Russell outlined grandiose battle plans.

The climax of at least one summer visit was the Circus Day Performance held in the haybarn with its doors rolled wide. While startled barn swallows wheeled overhead in the loft, kitchen chairs were lined up for the audience. The two grandmothers and Aunt Emma were summoned and settled to watch and applaud as the three young performers stood on their heads, flailed through almost perfect cartwheels, teetered along a plank set up on two sawhorses to serve as a 'high wire.'
The dog Shep was put through his repetoire of tricks--'roll over'--'shake hands' ---'play dead.'
'Tiger cubs' [the skittish barn kittens] were admired.
The crowning moment was when the long horizontal shutter of the bull pen was briefly lowered on its hinges and the astonished bull gaped through the confining bars, a tuffet of good clover hay dangling from his jaws.
The hatch to the bull's pen was swung into place and the wooden fasteners swiveled to hold it shut.
The circus was over and the triumphant troupers, each lugging a kitchen chair, processed to the back yard for lemonade and cookies.

Aunt Emma Ross Russell [left]
Cousin Elviretta Ross Brayton [possibly]
Mother reported that while Aunt Emma and Cousin Etta appreciated the clean airy farmhouse, the shade of the maples and the afternoons sewing in the cool parlor, they were apt to occasionally wrinkle their city noses at the barnyard odors--an affectation which caused Eddie to grin and refer to them as 'high and mighty.'
After a few weeks of bucolic vacationing on the farm, Eddie cheerfully took them across on the Fort Ticonderoga ferry and into Hague where his younger half-sister, Edna, kept a guest house.  There the ladies, with Russell in tow, could recuperate in genteel leisure before the waning days of August called them home.

Russell Brayton's high school graduation portrait.

Beulah Eliza Lewis,
yearbook photo

"Russell Brayton
grown up"
The last photo of Cousin Russell is labeled in my mother's handwriting.
There he stands, in his young man's glory of white flannels and dark blazer
in the driveway of the farm where he had played with Beulah and Billy during childhood summers.
[In the right background is the haybarn where the circus was conducted.]
I can't guess as to the occasion.  The maple tree is in leaf and the various barn doors are open suggesting summer or early autumn.
Russell Brayton enlisted 2 July, 1942 and records indicate he was married and employed as a salesman at that time.
My mother was married in August, 1941.
Mother gave me the family photos and enlarged upon the memories of the cousins and their visits in
2000 when I had become serious about family research.
She wondered "whatever became of Russell"--an indication that they lost track of each other as adults.
I learned from a noted Queensbury, NY historian, John Austin, that Russell Brayton had died in 1988.
This news seemed to astonish my mother.  For her, Russell was ever the cousin of long ago summers with his
passion for Indian lore and his spooly army.


  1. Idyllic summer days -- just our imaginations and bits and pieces. It's funny how people never age in our memories. It happens to me all the time. Former students will recognize me long before I would ever recognize them. It's an intriguing thought that people never age in our memories. I wonder how that lines up with the old question of how old we will be when in heaven.

  2. A wonderful account of those long ago summers on your family farm. I am glad that Cousin Russell made it until 1988 and was not one of so many young Americans who lost their lives in WW11.

    Children remain so imaginative, across the ages. How real the Spooly Army must have seemed! I love the image of the startled bull being a Star Turn in the "Circus"!

  3. How lovely to have this glimpse into your family past. Like DW, I'm glad Russell survived the war and made old bones, even if you all lost touch with him. The Spooly Army sounds wonderful and what imaginations children had in the days before electronic toys.

  4. Like me you have been blessed with family photos and stories ...that was a great post.

  5. Chris: That 'old question' has perplexed so many minds through the ages---one of the mysteries which continues to intrigue us.
    I look at the photos of my mother--and struggle to imagine that she was both child and grown-up before I knew her from the perspective of a daughter.
    DW: My Grampa Mac was careful to keep me and my sisters well away from the bull--thus I have pondered how the chidlren got away with showing him off. Maybe it was a very young and mild-mannered bull!
    BB: My next younger sister and I played almost exclusively games of the imagination. We had a decent assortment of the toys and games popular in the '50's--but they were only a jumping off place for 'let's pretend.'
    Angie: I'm glad you enjoyed the post. The family details and photo layouts which you create are an inspiration.