Over a year ago, GeneaJourneys readers were introduced to Grace Desmond (1891-1972)–a gifted pianist at the turn of the last century, who just happens to be my aunt.
Our family knew nothing of Grace’s fascinating past which I was fortunate to learn about for the first time from a complete stranger–Jay Sherwood–who I now count among my dearest (and most generous) genealogy friends, for providing me with numerous photos, newspaper clippings, and historical ephemera related to Aunt Grace and Chautauqua which he has gifted my family with.
You can read all about how this talented, liberated young woman from the early 1900s traveled the Chautauqua circuit with equally gifted artists of the day–like Jay’s grandmother Ruth Bowers, a violin virtuoso–bringing music and culture to the American west in the early 1900s.
I first met Jay online and we began conversing by email. Eventually I had the good fortune to meet him in person during a research trip he made last year to repositories throughout the eastern U.S. and Midwest for the book he’s writing on his grandmother’s Chautauqua career.
It was Jay who showed this genealogist how obtaining primary, original sources can add to the richness, depth and context of the family stories we tell.
Noting his success, I decided to give newspaper research a try myself, and was delighted to uncover a number of fascinating headlines and stories that not only mention Grace–but more importantly–place her in a time period of American history that brings her story to life .
One example is the item that opened this post which I repeat below:
Once I got past the astonishing headline describing Aunt Grace as a “child wonder”, I looked a little deeper into this brief newspaper mention from 1901.
Grace is described as the daughter of Owen E. Desmond (my grandfather), yet her mother’s name is not even mentioned–an oversight which would be politically incorrect if not outright offensive to women today, over a century later.
She’s also described as a “musical prodigy” which is borne out in numerous other newspaper articles I found in Chicago and across the country in the years that followed this one.
The age listed for Grace is incorrect. Grace was 10 years old in 1901. Was this perhaps a two year old story actually written in 1899 which appeared in the Michigan newspaper years after it was originally penned? Who would know?
The details about Grace “playing piano by air”, taking lessons at age 6, and and “reading music at sight” may or may not be accurate. I’m not a musical prodigy and have no idea what “playing the piano by air” and “calling the root, third and fifth of a chord upon hearing it struck” even means.
All of the above are minor points, though. My favorite part of this newspaper mention is right there in the last line which states that “Little Miss Grace has given several recitals under the patronage of Mr. and Mrs. T.S. Bergey, at the Carter H. Harrison house.”
That’s when I put my keystroking skills to work on Google.
It seems Mr. and Mrs. T. S. Bergey were voice and piano teachers in Chicago as seen by this advertisement in the July 1900 issue of The Musical Critic, a publication of Chicago Musical College.
Perhaps Grace was one of their proteges in 1901 and the Bergeys obtained engagements for her to enable her to practice her craft.
And the “Carter H. Harrison” home where Grace gave numerous recitals at that very tender age?
Why, that refers to the residence of The Honorable Carter H. Harrison II, who served five terms as the mayor of Chicago between 1897 and 1915.
Way to go, Little Miss Grace!
Copyright © 2014 Patricia Desmond Biallas
Up next: Other articles that appeared on the “Society” page of the Jackson Patriot on August 23, 1901 which place Grace Desmond in historical context.