Friday, January 17, 2014

Are you related to Phoebe Albert, Harriet Bowers, Dorothy Boyer, or Beatrice Saylor?

Sometimes, I wish that there were regional "History Detectives." Today I found a tantalizing item that captures a summer that was significant to someone. Unfortunately, it doesn't reveal the characters, setting, or plot. I'd love some help filling in the story! 

I was sorting through miscellaneous documents and photographs at the Dauphin County Library System's McCormick Riverfront location when I found a small blue and yellow scrapbook with the words "County 1936" hand-drawn on the cover. It only measures about 9 inches tall and 6 inches wide and consists of about a dozen leaves.

A mysterious scrapbook at the
Dauphin County Library System.
Several pages in, there is a small photograph of a stone building, perhaps a garage or workshop. Above it, penned by a feminine hand, is a brief verse: 

"We were a part of the County 
For eight short weeks or so, 
And we want to leave this record, 
That our achievements you may know."

Subsequent pages consist mainly of statistical tables. They apparently track the daily work of 4 people: Harriet J.  Bowers, Beatrice A. Saylor, Phoebe J. Albert, and Dorothy J. Boyer (in order of their appearance). There is a numerical table for each woman, tallying the number of items she "washed" and "mended" for each weekday from June 22nd through August 14th. Over the course of 8 weeks, the team repaired 5331 items. 

The scrapbook records an 8-week cleanup effort
-- but cleaning what, and why?
What is frustrating -- and fascinating -- about this scrapbook is that it provides such granular data, yet does not state what the women were cleaning/repairing, why they were doing it, or how they were chosen for the task. In fact, one can only assume they were handling books based on a single photo which shows them posing in front of a Dauphin County library book truck. Whether they were permanent library staff or volunteers isn't mentioned. Given that many libraries during the 1930s were utilizing temporary employees from the Works Progress Administration, Albert, Bowers, Boyer, and Saylor may or may not have been Harrisburg residents. To add to the mystery, there are actually 5 women in the group photos, but the names and activities of only 4 of them is recorded. Perhaps one is a companion, assistant, instructor, or supervisor who did not do the bulk of the work?

I wonder if the scrapbook documents an effort to refurbish materials that were damaged by the Great 1936 Flood. Although the Harrisburg Public Library's main branch was undamaged, a contemporary article in Pennsylvania Library Notes mentions that it "sustained loss of books in circulation and a complete loss of a branch library which was located in one of the public school buildings" (see April 1936 issue, pg. 58). Yet the PLN article also mentions the library's "quick action in getting books to the bindery," which seems inconsistent with the fact that these women are handling materials months after the flood took place. Maybe they were a special team which helped other affected libraries in Dauphin County? Or perhaps there was another emergency which prompted the "washing" and "mending" of thousands of items? 

I have already tapped the limited resources available to me and unfortunately I've found no definitive answers. None of the women are mentioned in The Years Speak Volumes, the go-to history of the Harrisburg Public Library/Dauphin County Library System. Unfortunately, the institution does not have a complete backfile of published annual reports, board of trustee meeting minutes, or newsclippings as some libraries do. Penn State's newspaper databases don't help either: America's Historical Newspapers' coverage of the Patriot ceases in 1922, and Newspaper Archives offers no Harrisburg newspapers at all.

Using censuses via HeritageQuest proves frustrating as well. At best, the database might identify 2 of the women. The 1930 data isn't available, so I used 1940. That year, there is a 22 year-old Beatrice Saylor living with her parents and younger siblings on Reel Street in Harrisburg. At the time, she was a substitute teacher in a public school. I did not find a Phoebe Albert living in Harrisburg in 1940. However, on the other side of the Susquehanna River, in Camp Hill, there is a 44 year-old married woman who was born in Harrisburg. Could she be the tall, more serious-looking female in the scrapbook photos? 

Sadly, it is difficult to pinpoint Harriet Bowers. The 1940 census lists several women with the same name. The one of a proper age who lives closest to Harrisburg is a 25 year-old living in Reading. The 4th woman, Dorothy Boyer, may be untraceable because her surname is so common in this area of Pennsylvania. In 1940, there were more than 40 Dorothy Boyers statewide, though none in Dauphin or Cumberland Counties. 

Although I have so little information to offer, I was moved to share this story because at least 1 of the women wanted her and her friends' efforts to be remembered. In my experience, very few paraprofessionals and volunteers are captured by library records, and yet, as the scrapbook's copious statistics illustrate, a significant portion of an institution's work is accomplished through their hands. Nearly 80 years after the fact, it may not be reasonable to hope that Albert, Bowers, Boyer, or Saylor will see this homage, but perhaps a son, daughter, nephew, niece, or grandchild will. If that's you, please know that someone is appreciating and wondering about your relative. 

Harriet Bowers, Beatrice Saylor, Phoebe Albert, Dorothy Boyer,
and an additional woman. Unfortunately, I don't know who is who.
Do you?


  1. According to Rosanne Chesakis, a reader of this blog, may contain some additional information about these women. There is a 1930 census record for a 12-year-old Harriet J. Bowers in Harrisburg, daughter of Harry and Hope Bowers. She would have been about 18 in 1936. Pennsylvania marriage records on the same website show a Harriette Joy Bowers of 2319 Rudy Rd., Belleview Park, Harrisburg, who married Donald Snyder Geistwhite in Harrisburg on January 24, 1942. Family Search contains additional information about Geistwhites currently living in the Harrisburg area who may or may not be relatives.

    FamilySearch also lists a Dorothy Jean Boyer of 227 S. 20th St., Harrisburg, born around 1920, who married James Russel Sunderland Jr. in May 1941.

    I can't verify this information or look up the other women, since I don't have access to that database. But thanks, Rosanne, for these clues! Potential married surnames will definitely help in tracking them down. :)

  2. Laura Ax-Fultz, who has a subscription to, says that the woman in the back of the photo with her chin on her hand may be Phoebe Albert. If so, she went to John Harris High School and Indiana Teachers College, now Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

    Since I don't subscribe to Ancestry, I can't follow up on these clues. But I hope they help!