Author to discuss book drawn from 120 years of family letters
The heirloom sat unopened on a shelf for 30 years in New Castle, its secrets undiscovered. When Mary Jo Sonntag finally convinced her mother to open the white, wooden chest in 1992, the family history spilled out in letters, postcards, photographs, pieces of art, and even locks of hair.
“It was overwhelming to see all that in there,” says Sonntag, co-author with her mother, Mary K. Sonntag, of “Write, If You Live to Get There: Tracing Westward Expansion Through 120 Years of Family Letters” (Word Association, $19.95).
Mary Jo Sonntag will appear Aug. 11 at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Oakland branch as a guest of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures’ Writers Live Series.
The postcards and other ephemera belonged to Mary Jo Sonntag’s grandmother, Myrtle McConahy Keefer, who died in 1962. Mary K. Sonntag avoided opening the chest because “it made her sad most of her family had passed away,” Mary Jo says.
But when the scope of the material was revealed, it launched the Sonntags on a journey of discovery.
From Vermont, where Elisha Phillips, a Revolutionary War soldier was born (he eventually migrated to Beaver County) to the Sierra Nevadas, where their ancestors were important historical figures, the Sonntags found stories about plucky explorers and hardy pioneers.
Notably, there were strong women in the family, starting with Mehitable Jane Ball Phillips.
“She divorced her first husband because he was on the wrong side of the Civil War,” says Mary Jo Sonntag, director of global talent management for Development Dimensions International in Bridgeville. “She was a Yankee, and, for some reason, when she married him she didn’t know he was a Southerner. So, she divorced at a time when women did not do that.”
Mehitable’s daughter, Sierra Nevada Phillips (known as Vade), was even more unusual than her mother. Born in 1854, Vade ran three resorts in the Lake Tahoe region, at first catering to miners, then reconfiguring her business to accommodate tourists.
“I thought these women were very adventuresome,” Mary Jo Sonntag says. “They just didn’t go and stay in a cabin. They were all over the Lake Tahoe area, and they were running businesses, coming up with clever marketing slogans. (Vade’s) slogan at Rubicon Springs (in El Dorado County, Calif.) where she bottled water, was ‘It Tastes Better Than Whisky.’ I thought that was very clever. … These women liked to take on hard challenges and solve big problems.”
The Sonntags had no idea their family’s legacy lived on in the Lake Tahoe area until 1993, when they were on a trip to Placerville, Calif., to visit the graves of their ancestors. In Meeks Bay near Lake Tahoe, the younger Sonntag struck up a conversation with a college student working the front desk at an inn. The young woman knew about the Phillips’ family legacy from her studies at the University of Nevada and introduced the Sonntags to the owner of the inn.
The owner became excited when he learned Mary K. Sonntag had a raft of documents and photos with her and started calling historical societies and writers from the Lake Tahoe area.
“They came over and spent the afternoon with my mother, asking her questions,” Mary Jo Sonntag says.
The title of the book comes from a line in one of the family letters. Such were the perils of cross-country travel in the 19th century that those left behind knew they might never see their loved ones again. Letters were the only assurance that relatives had safely reached their destinations.
“Across multiple generations and thousands of miles, over all that time, this family stayed connected through letters,” Mary Jo Sonntag says.
Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.
Mary Jo Sonntag, co-author of “Write, If You Live to Get There,” has tips for budding genealogists:
• Explore what’s in your attic.
• Use family gatherings and holidays to seek out family legends, photographs and letters. Use your cellphone to record family stories during holiday meals.
• Network: Interview your grandparents and elderly relatives. Find out the names of cousins, neighbors, friends, business colleagues and acquaintances of your family members. They can add new information and perspectives.
• Ask family members and friends to record memories, stories, facts, additional contacts on 3-by-5 cards. Sonntag’s mother did this, and they used the information on the index cards to write the introduction to each decade of letters.
• Document your sources. Record the source of each item of information in your database.
• Get organized. Create file folders labeled with the surname and geographical location of each family member. Include genealogy, photos, letters, timelines, biographical sketches, family stories, migration paths and census information in the folders.