My love affair with Auburn’s past — and history in general — began with a chance find one Saturday afternoon at the former Auburn Library, today the Auburn Senior Activities Center.
In the service of helping me ferret out materials to fill a book report, one of the librarians kindly led me to one of those cabinets with the flat, wide drawers that typically held large maps and world atlases. But to my surprise that summer afternoon it opened on something else: a single clipping from an Auburn newspaper, circa 1913.
An advertisement in the circle that often framed photographs in that era showed a cluster of prominent Auburn businessmen of that time.
I don’t know what it was about one of those faces that draws my eyes to it in particular, but its features fastened onto my memory like a lamprey.
A heavyset fellow, generously jowled. Thick dark hair. Heavy eyebrows and the sort of drooping, bushy mustache commonly seen on men’s faces before and shortly after the First World War.
“Clifford Hughes Knox,” I read.
He owned a confectionery shop on West Main Street that drew the attention of both boys and girls and cigar aficionados to the wooden storefront near the long, long vanished Oddfellows Hall.
He died of kidney failure on his return from a business trip to Yakima, I believe in 1917. His funeral was attended by his Oddfellow brethren and he was buried in Mountainview Cemetery.
That was it, but it was enough to launch me on a pursuit of a pleasure I indulge in whenever I can: to rifle the generous newspaper collection of the White River Valley Museum and consort with the people of the past.
That was about all. But that clipping supplied my mind with byways to wander into.
Here to continue my tale, I must here bare one of my oddities: fondness for cemeteries as places not so much of tragedy, but of reflection.
One day while visiting my brother’s grave on the hill, I decided to check out the final resting place of Clifford Hughes Knox. Yes, records in the cemetery office confirmed he was there, next to his wife resting under the shade of a dogwood tree. But the markers for both of them had long since vanished.
Today, as for many, many years, passersby perhaps mark the prettiness of the dogwood tree without any idea of the people buried there.
What changed for me that day — I did not know it at the time when I was only 14 — was how I looked at Auburn’s history. No longer as a collection of dates to be inscribed on the memory, but of people. About the marks they may have left on the soil, the grooves their feet wore into the floors, traces of the homes where they lived their lives perhaps still discernible in the weeds, the river that once ran through it.
In the city’s earliest days, a generous part of the papers was taken up with reports of what was happening with one’s neighbors. In the old White River paper, you learn how Mrs. Smith had gone two weeks earlier to Boston to visit her sister, how Mr. Johnson had bought himself a fancy new bit of farm machinery, how the boy down the street had a toothache.
In those papers, I first met Irving Knickerbocker, a prominent Auburn lawyer for many years and at one time a state senator. This New York native and West Coast transplant was responsible for writing a bill in the Legislature that renamed what had been the city of Slaughter to Auburn, tapping a famous Oliver Goldsmith poem that described, “Auburn, fairest village of the plain.” Beat Slaughter. The house he lived in is an apartment building today.
I say all this not so much to talk about myself, but because I mean to bring what I can of them to life in an upcoming regular column, rescuing some of the long-agos from the pages, dusting them off and telling bits of of their stories.
I hope you join me on that adventure.
–Robert Whale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.