February Beard Month

It is February again – time for the beard to grow. This year things are a little different since I don’t think anyone is contesting my strength of beard with their own. I may have frightened everyone away after last year, when I bested co-worker and self-proclaimed ape-man WS by producing the longest beard in 28 days.

I forgot how bad I look when I don’t shave. Regardless … the month is upon us and I have no other choice but to let the wild man within emerge.

Edward Braun’s Documents

In September, 2008, we donated all of Michael and Edward Braun’s papers to the John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh.

Included in the collection were: two work visas, which I previously thought were passports, for Michael and his wife, Adelaide, several legal papers in French, probably sales contracts, one of Edward’s stock certificates, and letters from the stock broker about the mining company. We also gave them a letter which a friend tried to translate, a letter written in ornate, spidery French handwriting, which seemed to be addressed to an official of the forest service and described an incident involving a dog attack in the forest. How incredible to think that when Michael wrote this letter in the 1840’s, he could hardly imagine that it would survive so many decades and will someday, like the rest of the collection, be posted on the internet.

The archivist from the History Center corresponded with me recently about their progress in the translations. Here’s what he said, in part:

We’ve been working on the collection since the time of arrival of the material to the Heinz History Center.  I currently have two assistants working on it.  One person, a former French teacher, is transcribing each document.  Each document has been reviewed and I believe that 50% plus has been transcribed.  He is now working on the sample booklet and he is currently in communication with an archivist in France.  He’s not a textile expert and he doesn’t quite understand the patterns.  The other person working on the collection, a professional genealogist is working on the family tree and she is attempting to verify dates and names in regards to the materials present in the collection, i.e. she is going to show that everything makes historic sense according to census data and what can be found in the collection.  She is also searching for information on your family in regards to what they were doing after the dates of materials present in the collection; therefore we may be asking you for more information, that is if you have it?  I think that all three of us have been engrossed in the project and therefore we are interested to know more! The three of us meet or at least discuss the project each and every week.

When all the materials have been translated, it will be posted on the History Center website in the archives as the Michael and Edward Braun Collection.

Starting Off Right

I’ll be nice since the holidays are coming; I’ll begin my new Pittsburgh blog with a pat, but lest you worry that you’ll be caught in the treacle, I’ll pan something soon.

The praise goes to Right By Nature, Pittsburgh’s new organic grocery in the Strip. I haven’t been there yet. They opened last week and according to the press coverage, the store intends to supply organic food, including freshly cooked items, at very reasonable prices.

Attracted by a recent Post-Gazette article, I called to ask if they had electric scooter carts for those of us who can’t navigate on our own. My phone call was answered by a (gasp!) human, and a nice, friendly human to boot. This person told me that they were still in the throes of opening week hubbub, and the carts haven’t arrived yet, although they are on order.

She offered to check on the ETA, put me on hold briefly until another human, equally cordial and helpful, picked up and assured me that she would keep my name and phone number and call me when the carts arrived. If this is the way Right By Nature intends to do business, all I can say is whooopppeee!

Experience leads us to expect corporate-speak idiocy or indifference from customer service most of the time. Cheerful, bright people who actually know how to communicate are so rare that this call left me bubbly with good feelings toward Right By Nature.

Reasonable prices for organic food are almost too much to expect and I can’t wait to shop there. Sure, Whole Foods is grand; the produce, bakery and prepared foods sections make me delirious, but who can afford to shop there? Well, I guess the Shadyside 30-somethings whose BMWs jam the parking lot can, but I can’t.

I’ve limited my shopping to the Giant Eagle Market District for more than a year, and they do many things well. Their staff is a cut above other Giant Eagle employees. Once, when I thanked a bagger for his helpful attitude, he told me that only one out of 100 Giant Eagle employees qualified to work at the Market District. It’s great to shop where the cream of the crop works, but unfortunately, that also means the curdled part populates the other Eagles.

On my last trip to the Market District, I was stunned by a $1.99 price for a single grapefruit. This was for a conventional, not organic grapefruit, so I was really dumbfounded. Last week, my son and I gazed at lovely, plump oranges priced at 2 for $3.00, and, feeling like a Dickensian orphan, I asked him if he might try to save up and give me an orange for Christmas.

I understand that the pervasive economic horrors have as much to do with prices for both organic and non-organic foods as any corporate Giant Eagle policies, but as a result, I have to reluctantly turn away from most of the organic offerings at the Market District. Earlier in the year, I got into the habit of treating myself to rarities like chicken and beef unsullied by antibiotics and growth hormones, but I can no longer afford to eat food that isn’t killing me.

Now that Right By Nature has opened, maybe that will change. Clean, wholesome food for the masses: what a concept!

Precipice of Bounty

Just like last August, my vegetables are on the tip of really producing a lot of yield. And, just like last August, I am leaving for a business trip – thankfully only for a week this time instead of a whole month. That means I will be able to take part in the harvest this year. I am happy about that.

Right now I have both a baby pumpkin and a baby watermelon! The pumpkins were a surprise from where I had left last year’s farm-bought Halloween pumpkin. The gourd rotted and the seeds just took hold in the soil next to my compost bin. They spread out across the walk way and are now trying to crawl up some shrubs along the property boundary.

Garden 2008

The second year garden has a head of steam on it and seems to be doing quite well. I already have two crops grown, eaten, and done. Check out this year’s sowing:

  • eggplant
  • watermelon
  • squash (two varieties)
  • cucumber (for pickling)
  • potatoes
  • peas
  • bush beans
  • bok choy
  • cabbage
  • tomatoes (6 varieties – pig pen, josephine, early girl, cherry, …)
  • corn
  • lettuce (mescaline and butter crunch)
  • broccoli
  • beets
  • radishes
  • carrots
  • onion
  • garlic
  • hot peppers (3 varieties)
  • Jerusalem artichoke
  • strawberry
  • sunflower seeds
  • basil
  • cilantro (failed)
  • spearmint
  • pumpkin

I also have two nice flower beds and a third area beneath my sunflowers where I put some annuals.

The potatoes are going bonkers. The peas and cilantro are not going to make it, I think. My mescaline and radishes are already done for the season. I have also eaten some beets (two, the bulb and the greens), a strawberry, and some basil. I am not sure when the rest will bear for me.Let’s keep our fingers crossed. I have been watering with an occasional treat of worm compost tea.

I Am A Closet Vermiculturist

Yes, i think it is time I admit the truth. I have worms living in my basement.

It was only a few months ago that I purchase 500 Red Wigglers and put them into a series of stacked, black plastic bins in my basement. Then I began to feed and water them – modestly at first. But more and more each week until all at once I realized I was obsessed. The worms grew right alongside my passion. Bigger and bigger – and not only did they grow bigger. No, they multiplied. And still I continued with the reckless feeding. Soon I was hording food particles from work and ferrying them home for my worms. My worms, my worms, my babies. My pets living in mud and food waste, churning through my kitchen waste and crapping out that fool’s quest -the fertilizer of all mothers. Yes, I speak of Black Gold. And I got a plastic bin full of it in my basement.

If that isn’t enough for you, lately I’ve caught myself in the catacombs of my crib mixing wormbrewed tea. I know what you must be thinking – but listen: it calls out to me, I tell you! I have to release the spigot and release the dark flowing tea of all teas! the plants love it. How can I say no?


I left work early today to go listen to a vermiculture lecture I had heard about. When I got to the place, it was locked up tighter than a buckeye in a squirrel’s left cheek. I got soaked in the rain. My notes on the lecture: no worms, lots of rain.

Prospect’s Garden IV

My flower bed has sprung some sprouts! I put a variety of annuals in this bed and they seem to be doing well. Today I put some fertilizer and mulch down. just to have some cut flowers around. It faces the dining room windows. Hopefully, I will be able to look out on nice bunches of flowers sometime this summer.

Here are my beds. There are three now; I added an extra one a few weeks ago because I realized I had run out of room for my tomatoes and hot peppers and pole beans. So, one more bed! But I did not use compost in this one and you can really tell the difference. The soil does not drain as well and these veggies are growing much slower. Also, I made a blunder when planting my peppers next to my tomatoes which are next to my beans. The tomatoes are shading the beans 🙁 Also, the tomatoes need lots of water, but the hot peppers do not. Since the water does not drain well, it is rotting my hot peppers!

67 Prospect’s Garden

Today I made a delicious salad from the greens in my garden. I had to thin out some of the vegetables. Instead of throwing them away, I cooked them up! There are beet, broccoli, and carrot greens, along with lettuce, basil, and cilantro. The tomato and asiago were bought down the street.

Edward Braun

Family stories often get lost in the jumble of daily life until decades take their toll, people pass away and no one is left who can fill in the forgotten details. As we age, snippets are remembered and the time comes when we wish we could ask questions, clarify details and understand more about our origins. Maybe these thoughts are triggered by our own inklings of mortality and the hope that we in turn won’t be ignored by our descendants.

I’ve started a search to find remnants of my grandfather, Edward Braun. His story posed a mystery because although he was a blue collar working man, he made investments far in excess of what his situation would have allowed. Did he have a secret source of income?He died long before I was adopted into the family but the stories I knew about him came back to life through items he left behind.

An old gun was the most memorable link, an object fascinating to me even as a child. It was carelessly kept around the house, and said to have been brought over from France by Michael Braun, grandfather’s brother. The gun was a small, extremely ornate revolver, embellished with finely carved flowers and scrollwork. It had a dull finish and when I was a know it all teen, I decided to polish it with baking soda. I let the baking soda dry, and it was encrusted into the fine carved lines for the next forty years. So much for my expertise at antique restoration!

I vaguely knew there were some papers pertaining to Michael, too, but I was middle aged before I developed the desire to decipher them. Now I am stunned at how very old they are, and their delicate condition makes them almost untouchable. These things have been kept in my safe deposit box for decades. Handwritten in French, in flamboyant calligraphy, they date back to 1845.

Most prominent are two passports, one for Michael Braun and one for his wife, Adelaide Lehmann. Adelaide’s is dated “29 Guillet, 1845″. Michael’s includes this phrase:travail des enfants pour un enfant dans les manufactures usines ou ateteers which might be translated into labor of minor children in the manufacture of ???? Phrases in the passport indicate he was 14 years old, but already Adelaide was his spouse. If I understand the documents correctly, both Michael and Adelaide were born in 1830.

Although the couple had passports in 1845, they continued to live in France awhile longer. All documents show they were residents of Sainte Marie aux Mines, a valley town in the Vosges Mountains in the canton of Alsace.

The city’s history revolves around mining, ranging from precious gems, silver, lead and arsenic, to coal. It is said by one account to have a ‘fairy tale reputation’ because of some fabulous finds which established its fame, including a 1200 pound block of silver unearthed during the Middle Ages. The Alsace Lorraine region had long been fought over by France and Germany, and despite Germanic sounding surnames, the Brauns were staunchly French.

Sainte Marie aux Mines is renown today as a beautiful tourist area, home to the second largest gem and mineral show in Europe. Held annually in June, the show draws thousands from around the world and is famous for its quality.

The latest date on a French document is 9 Juin, 1867. Beyond that, there is no clue to when they immigrated to America.

Michael brought with him a small notebook. Page after page contains postage stamp size fabric swatches, beautiful brocades, plaids and stripes. On each opposing page is a diagram, with lines representing warp and weft, and dots at various intersections depicting how the fabric pattern was created. Until everything is translated, it is hard to determine if he was a simple weaver or a more grandiose designer of textiles. From his passport, we know he traveled extensively.

All these documents relate to Michael and Adelaide, but what of Edward Braun? He may have failed to leave much of a paper trail, but he did leave the most exciting story in the family.

As a 3 year old, Edward had long golden curls, a style usually associated with aristocracy. One day he was playing with some wealthy children just outside the gate of the local nobleman’s estate. A band of Gypsies came along and kidnapped the children, scooping him up with the others, assuming he, too, was worth a ransom. Quickly the village men mounted horses and raced after the Gypsies, successfully recovering the children. What a different course our family history would follow if they had failed!

It was probably sometime around the late 1860’s when the Brauns came to America. We don’t know who all made the journey, whether separately or together, or why they settled upon Pittsburgh.

Edward married, and had two children, Elsie and Elmer. I remember visiting them during my childhood. They lived together in Coraopolis, PA all their lives. Both were schoolteachers. Neither ever married.

At some point, Edward’s wife died and well into middle age, perhaps around age sixty, he married Alice Fitzgerald on August 24, 1903 in Allegheny (now part of the city of Pittsburgh known as the North Side). Alice was from a family of Irish immigrants. I remember her as tall, large, but not fat, rather strong and handsome looking. She was a kind and beloved grandmother to me. They had one child, my mother, Rose Ella, born July 25, 1905.

Edward worked for the Pittsburgh Railways Company as a toll taker on the bridge spanning the Ohio River between Coraopolis and Neville Island. He was an old style European husband and father, so jealous and domineering that he sometimes required Alice and Rose to come to the toll booth with him while he worked.

During the 1920’s he built a handsome house in a nice section of Coraopolis, the home where I grew up. After his death, Alice continued to live there. Rose married John Elder on August 10, 1936, which was John’s twenty eighth birthday and they all lived in the house until their deaths. Alice passed on in 1950, Rose in 1969 and John a year later.

Though Edward left nothing like the letters or papers Michael kept, he did leave one fascinating set of documents: more than a dozen stock certificates along with some cash receipts for their purchase and business letters about the companies. All the stock was in mining companies. As a native of Sainte Marie aux Mines, he must have been convinced the path to fortune was through mining. But how did he pay for all this?

The toll to cross the bridge was five cents. We have no idea what Edward earned but to put the wages of the times into prospective, his daughter Rose was a legal secretary during the late 1920’s and early 1930’s and earned $20 a month. How did a toll taker who might have earned $400 a year, if that, invest almost $3500 in stock between 1907 and 1920?

The answer to that mystery probably died along with Edward and Alice. The companies he hoped would provide his road to riches, companies with names like The Nevada Greenback Wonder Mining Company died with the stock market crash of 1929, at least no trace of them can be found today.

The French documents await translation, keeping Braun family alive for their Twenty-first Century descendants.

Rose Elder Field

December 14, 2006