Friday, December 28, 2007

Lettie Watson Mize: an introduction

Way back when I used to do archaeology, one of the questions someone was always asking me was, “How do you know where to dig?” If I answered them honestly, I would reply, “If it was up to me, I sure as hell wouldn’t be digging here.” Of course an answer like that would require some explaining, and that would take time- something that was usually at least as precious as having enough water for the day while taking a pounding from the sun in the middle of the Sonoran desert.

The bottom line is that roughly 100 percent of every archaeological project I was ever paid to work on was driven by some pending construction project that had some level of governmental funding, and therefore required cultural resource studies to be completed. Ideally, those studies would be completed before the project got underway, but I think most of us here are adult enough to accept that we don’t live in a perfect world.

On the other hand, some of the “neatest” projects I ever worked on were done so on a volunteer basis. The kool thing about a volunteer project is that you are able to pick and choose the ones to invest your time and energies in. So if you think it sounds like a crackpot idea, not getting involved is always an option. Oddly enough, I can’t name a single historical project where I ever volunteered my help.

I guess that all changed for me when we bought our house in 2004 and I began wondering about the people who had lived here at different times over the past 100 years. Basic questions like “Who were they,” and “What sorts of things did they do?” Unfortunately, it seems that when you buy a house, a comprehensive listing of that sort thing isn’t included. Perhaps it should be. Then again, I quickly learned that the process of figuring out answers to my questions is as entertaining as it is challenging.

The initial challenge is deciding where, and how, to dig without a shovel. Armed with pencil, a notebook and the knowledge that our house was listed on the New Mexico State Register of Historic Places as the “Lettie Watson House,” I made my first of many walks to the historic records library. Once there, I set about going through all of the available* Albuquerque city directories published since 1904 and making a list of the names of people who lived in our house. (*Note: Not surprisingly, they don’t have city directories for every year, so my data was almost immediately compromised.) In addition to keeping track of the occupations of all the people who lived in the house, my database also included names and address for anyone named Watson or Mize (Lettie’s eventual married name) to possibly assist with my long range plan of finding living descendants who might be able to provide old photographs of the house or people who lived in it over the decades.

This undertaking was going to take a considerable amount of time and dedication in order to make any progress, not to mention ample portions of good luck. Eventually I had pieced together enough information that I started to think of my database as the exterior portion of a jigsaw puzzle. You know, the pieces with one straight edge. To be sure, there were still some missing pieces, including a couple of the corners, but at least I had some firm lines to build upon.

From that information alone I was able to figure out that Lettie had lived in our house “pretty much” all the time from 1906 or 1907 through the mid 1950s. Her mother, Louise Watson, had lived here “more or less” all the time that same period until she passed away right before the Great Depression. Lettie had married a meat cutter named Isaac Mize, who used to work across the street from the school where Lettie had been employed as a teacher. (Yes, part of my research includes walkabouts so I can make observations of the actual structures and properties in order to better visualize the physical environment rather than trying to imagine it in my brain that is already stuffed with numbers and names and such.) I also had determined that Lettie and Isaac had at least one child named Henrietta, but that was pretty much the end of that source.

Eventually, additional investigative work led to my discovery of Lettie’s gravesite in a cemetery just a few miles north of the house. Her mother had been buried on one side, her husband on the other. A thorough search of the surrounding area failed to reveal her daughter’s grave, and I chose to think of that as a good sign that she had either moved away, or was still living. The possibility that she had married and produced children was the best-case scenario.

Although you might suspect that finding someone’s headstone would be somewhat of a dead end, it is in reality quite the opposite for a historian. Those grave markers actually provided key information that I needed to push forward- dates of death. With that information, I was able to quickly locate appropriate obituaries by accessing copies of old newspapers on microfilm at the library. Without those dates, I wouldn’t even have attempted such a task.

There are some fantastic cemetery websites available to today’s historians. One that I am particularly fond of is called Find a Grave. I plan on supporting that site by adding the information I gather from this project, as well as posting photos I snap of random headstones. If I end up helping a single historian or genealogist on a future project even if by accident, then it is well worth the effort it takes to upload a few images.

It seems important to state that the discovery of these obituaries has led to the unearthing of a wealth of data about Lettie and her family. In turn, that information has set my research on a course that I had not anticipated. While I ponder what to do with the information, it makes sense for me to begin writing short biographies of the people involved- noting that these bios will require modification as additional information becomes available.

This blog seems an appropriate place as any to post them, and it seems only fitting to begin with what I’ve learned about Lettie. Assuming I fail to find a different voice to describe other people encountered in my research, they will be discussed based on their relationship to Lettie, or to the historic property itself.

Lettie W. (Watson) Mize

Lettie W. Watson was born on the westernmost edge of the United States on November 26, 1881 in New Santa Fe, Missouri. Today, only a small cemetery surrounded by a wrought iron fence remains of the town that once served as the virtual starting line for the Santa Fe Trail. Born ten years after her parents Dr. John Ellis Watson and Louisa S. Lipscomb were married, Lettie grew up with one sister, Alma Watson (Horton), and one brother, Dr. Frank L. Watson.

Following the death of Lettie's father, her mother packed up the house and moved to Albuquerque in 1905 with Lettie and Alma in tow. At present, there is no evidence to suggest that Frank moved to Albuquerque. It is reported that he was living in McAllister, Oklahoma in 1928. Louisa and Lettie became the first residents of the brand new house at 316 Walter Street sometime between 1906 and 1907. It is unclear whether or not Alma also lived here or elsewhere in the city.

By 1907, Lettie was employed as a teacher at the First Ward School. By 1911, she had taught at the Third and Second ward schools. Not long after that, she had married a butcher named Isaac Mize, and given birth to two children- Henrietta in 1913 and Wallace (date unknown- but I am working on it).

By the end of the 1920s, Lettie was employed as an “expression teacher,” a job I believe she performed here in the house. If you have any idea what an “expression teacher” did, please shoot me a comment. I am of the belief that she coached people in the art of public speaking or debate.

The last time I can confidently place Lettie in the house was 1955, but I suspect she remained in Albuquerque after she moved. A charter member of Monte Vista Christian Church, Lettie also served as a regent of the Lew Wallace Chapter of the National Society of the Daughter of the American Revolution.

Lettie passed away following a long illness at the age of 90 on July 8, 1972, exactly 33 years and one day after the death of her husband Isaac.

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