Category Archives: Mitchell

Marion’s Ukulele


Marion learned to play the ukulele while vacationing in Hawaii before WWI. She took it with her to France in 1917 and played for the wounded soldiers at the field hospitals that she visited. Her letters home about Christmas, 1917, became an article she published in Sunset magazine in 1918. She describes visiting the wounded and taking them comfort bags of goodies from home. While there she pulled out her ukulele and played songs from home – I Been Workin on the Railroad, Sweet Rosy O’Grady, When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for  Alabama and My Honolulu Tomboy. The French soldiers sang along with her when she played Madelon for them.

Another time (Feb. 22, 1918) she describes a bombardment on Nancy and while folks gathered in the shelter they were serenaded by her with Hawaiian love songs and hulas. That probably did wonders to take their minds off the bombs falling all around them.

The ukulele was a very popular instrument in the early 1900’s. It was made even more popular at the 1915 San Francisco Panama Pacific International Exposition in the Hawaiian pavilion. It seems to be having a resurgence today and Marion would have enjoyed this rendition of an old favorite – Ukulele Weeps by Jake Shimabukuro


The Lusitania


With construction beginning in 1903, the British Cunard liner Lusitania made it’s first voyage in 1907.  It had been built to be the “Greyhound of the Seas” and captured a Blue Ribbon for the fastest Atlantic crossing. It was the largest, fastest and most luxurious ship for its time. During the ship’s lifespan, it made 101 round-trip voyages.

On May 1, 1915, it set sail for Liverpool departing from New York. Despite warnings in New York newspapers (from the German Embassy) that “vessels flying under the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction”, there were 1,924 people on board. The warnings were taken seriously by some as the number of passengers was only half the ship’s capacity. The Captain felt the ship was safe as it could ‘outrun’ any German submarines.  Still, the ship was on ‘high alert’ when it was torpedoed in the Irish Sea by a German U-boat on May 7th and sank within 20 minutes, with 1,198 people perishing; 128 were Americans.

Sentiment mounted in the US to declare war on Germany, but Wilson hesitated. In fact, he waited two years and didn’t officially declare war until April, 1917.

Marion headed to France on the SS Rochambeau on May 17, 1917, two years after the sinking of the Lusitania. While still on board the ship, the first line in her first letter home is “Well, no submarines so far….”

There have been many books written about the Lusitania. The latest one (2015), Dead Wake by Dead WakeErik Larson is the type of narrative non-fiction that captures the reader and keeps our attention from the first page until the last. His attention to detail and recounting of the history and demise of this famous ship is told from every side, British, US and German. The book is a gripping account of a time in history and provides a different perspective on a memorable event.






Kodak and Aerial Photography

Alexine by Lt. Hoyt_WWI001v2While Marion was busy journaling their experiences during WWI, Alexine, Marion’s sister, was taking photographs as they traveled about doing their work. Alexine first mentions ‘investing’ in a Kodak in a letter home from Paris (April, 1917) and actually writes about taking pictures in a letter dated May, 1917. In the photo at left she is holding the Kodak that she used. While we don’t have her original camera, we have many photographs that she took, most with outstanding clarity and detail. So many of the pictures are the exact size of the film, making us think that the developers made ‘contact’ sheets of the negatives.

Kodak introduced film as we know it today in 1885, with the folding pocket Kodak camera coming to the public in 1898. We know the family had one at the turn of the century because of all the camping pictures  of Yosemite in 1901-1906. This ad is from a National Geographic magazine dated April, 1917 when Kodak started producing this particular model. We think it is very similar to the one that Alexine used, perhaps even the same ad 01

Also, in 1917, Kodak developed aerial cameras and trained aerial photographers for the US Signal Corps to help in France during the war. Some recommended books to read about this time period in photography’s history are: The Last Summer of the World by Emily Mitchell (no relation), a novel about Edward Steichen; and Terry Finnegan’s book Shooting the Front: Allied Aerial Reconnaissance in the First World War;

Alexa and I both had fathers that enjoyed photography as a hobby, each of them using high-end camera equipment with fantastic results. My father went so far as to take me up in his airplane and teach me how to do aerial photography. You never know when that special skill may come in handy! He also constructed a darkroom in the house I lived in as a teenager and I learned the fine craftsmanship of every phase of photography while in high school and later after college I worked in a camera store for three years. It’s no wonder we feel a special affinity to the photographs and equipment that was used by the Mitchell sisters.

Alexine and ‘Trench Dogs’

AM-dogs001Alexine Mitchell, Marion Mitchell’s sister, went to France in December, 1916 and did not return until the Spring of 1920; she was there for almost 3 1/2 years. When she did come back to the US, she brought with her two dogs, Takou and Basoche. Takou was given to her as a puppy by a wounded soldier recovering in the hospital in Nancy where she was stationed; he had found the puppy in a trench. She acquired Basoche while hiking through the Pyrenees after the war. Both dogs only understood French commands. She bred the dogs and sold their puppies after returning to Alameda.

A more famous ‘trench dog’ was found as a puppy in a bombed dog kennel by Lee Duncan who was serving in France as an American Gunnery Corporal. He named his dog Rinty, also known as Rin-Tin-Tin and brought the dog home to the US. Realizing how smart his dog was, he took him to the Warner Bros studios to see if he could get him into the movies.  Rin-Tin-Tin ended upRin Tin Tin IV starring in 26 WB silent movies before he was ‘let go’. At one point it was reported that he was receiving 50,000 fan letters each month. His descendants went on to star in the 1950’s-1960’s TV show The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin and today a Rin-Tin-Tin, reputed to be the 12th descendent of the first one, is the spokesdog for the American Humane Association. A recent book – Rin-Tin-Tin: The Life and the Legend by Susan Orlean has more information, if interested.

Every side fighting in WWI used dogs in the trenches; their jobs included being a sentry, scout, messenger, mascot, sniffing for explosives, finding the casualties and chasing the rats out of the trench. Sometimes they just helped boost the morale of the soldiers. It’s estimated that about 20,000 dogs were in the trenches with the British soldiers.

Bears of WWI and Winnie-the-Pooh

Margaret and Bear

For over a year now Alexa and I have been sorting and ‘cataloguing’ the photographs, slides, glass negatives and lantern slides in this collection (we have 100’s) and one of the pictures that intrigued us was this one. The caption is ‘Margaret and Baloo, the bear.’  Margaret was a friend of Marion and Alexine’s  who went to France with them and served as a first aid worker with the Red Cross. I thought perhaps bear cubs during WWI were plentiful as there were many forests in France and perhaps the cub’s mothers were being killed. My research, however, did not support my theory.

However, I did come across something very interesting (at least to me; I have a great affection for children’s literature). In August, 1914, a train carrying Canadian troops was making it’s way from Manitoba to Ontario. Stopping at one of the stations, Lieutenant Harry Colebourn photo-2paid $20 to a hunter for a female bear cub that the Lieutenant named Winnie (for his hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba). When Colebourn was being sent over to France to fight in December 1914, he left the bear at the London Zoo for safe-keeping. A.A. Milne took his young son, Christopher Robin, to the zoo and the bear and Christopher became good friends. There is a picture of the young boy actually in the enclosure feeding the bear. In 1924, A.A. Milne decided to put his son’s childhood ‘friends’ and stuffed animals into print with his first book and the Bear of Very Little Brain was introduced. His son had named the bear Winnie-the-Pooh after his friend at the zoo and a swan that he knew named Pooh. The real bear, Winnie, stayed at the London Zoo until she died in 1934. Lieutenant Colebourn did come back for her, but when he saw how popular she was with everyone, he decided to leave her there. We only have this one picture of Baloo, the bear, and the bear is not mentioned in Marion’s journal, so who knows the story behind this. What we do know is that Marion admired Rudyard Kipling so she was probably the one to name the bear and take the picture.  Posted by Vicki Rondeau

Three + Two = Lantern slides

It took nearly fifty years, the invention of the Internet and social media plus three Alex’s and two librarians for the most surprising event to occur.

As a result, I am in the possession of hundreds of lantern slides along with the projector that belonged to my great grandmother Lily Von Schmidt Mitchell Tilden.

It is a complicated story and we are just now filling in the blanks. It started shortly after we rebooted this blog. I got a note through the contact form that said:

I believe my boyfriend and I have a journal written by your grandmother, Alexine Michell, during World War I with a set of glass lantern slides from the same time. There are also glass slides from a trip around the world that Alexine took, perhaps in the early 1920’s. We’d love to share these items with you.

This is the kind of serendipity genealogists and social historians dream of.

Jackie, who wrote this note, is a librarian. Vicki, my partner in crime, is a retired librarian. Thus the two librarians.

Jackie’s boyfriend is named Alex. I am Alexa and my grandmother was Alexine. Thus the three Alex’s.

Norma, Alex’s mother, bought these slides at auction in the sixties. Alex enjoyed looking at them growing up. Fifteen or twenty years ago they showed them to Jackie. She kept them in mind, determined to help the collection find their way back to the family of origin. Then on Sunday, two weeks ago, Jackie searches again for Alexine Mitchell and finds this site.

Norma writes:

Alex told you about my finding the slides/journal at an auction preview. I was struck with the conviction that I had to have the lot. We bid on it and since there were very few [none?] other bids, we won the lot. I did not know anything about the contents or the names or why this happened to me. This must have been @50 years ago. I have never understood what this matter was about.

Over the years my husband and I talked about donating everything to a local museum or historical society but I could never decide to actually do it. Just had to keep all. This has never happened to me before and has never happened since.

Now the mystery is resolved and I have closure and a peace about it. Alexine and Marion and the family are going home. I am sooo happy that you want them.

When my great-aunt Marion died in 1966, she left me the family photo albums and diaries. Apparently, some of the household items were auctioned off when the Tilden family home was sold.

It has taken nearly 50 years but the lantern slides, some from the Great War, and others from round the world trips taken by the family in the 1920s are back with the rest of the family archive.

The projector works. The slides need to be catalogued and digitized. It will take some time. As we make discoveries we will share them here.

Next year, as we build interest in Marion’s book, we hope to do slide shows using the old projector and the original lantern slides.

As I told Alex when he gave me the slides, I feel like I have found lost family. We will be forever grateful to Norma, her husband Leonard Gilbert, MD, Anthony, Alex and Jackie for their tenacity, perseverance, and generosity. Thank you!

Happy Veteran’s Day

11-11-18-WWI-039“Paris was alive! The entire city seemed to be fluttering with millions of flags.  Every vehicle of every sort was bedecked with the Allied colors.  As far down side streets as one could see was a billowing sea of flags flung to the breeze from every housetop, pole, and window.  Bunting was festooned from every lamppost.  Everyone had red, white and blue ribbons or flowers.  In front of the Gare de Lyon two French officers bumped into each other.  They turned to apologize, there was a shout of recognition and they fell into each other’s arms and embraced on either cheek, French fashion, no less than six times! ”

(Chapter 31, November 11, 1918, Marion Mitchell)