Category: <span>Genealogy</span>

Curley Miller and his Ploughboys

Curley Miller and his Ploughboys in The Economy Rodeo on Diamond Street

If the title sounds like a country music band, well..

It’s probably because it is a country music band.

This image is likely from a program or promotional poster/flyer for the band and was found in a scrapbook of my grandmother’s who was kind enough to note “Coalport, 1936, In Person” up in the top left corner.  Coalport refers to Coalport, PA in Clearfield County, and it’s easy enough to assume she saw the band in 1936.  Economy Rodeo seems to have been a popular radio station program during the time period, featuring country music acts.  The reference to Diamond Street appears to reference the radio station WWSU that operated out of the Hotel Schenley in Pittsburgh – an article from 1931 mentions the station opening on the 10th floor of the hotel which is located on Forbes Ave, formerly known as Diamond Street.  The hotel is now the student union building for the main campus of the University of Pittsburgh.  I couldn’t find an advertisement in any newspaper for that specific concert in the photo note, but I did find quite a few other ads for similar shows around that region of PA.

So, I went on a little dig to see what I could find about Curley Miller since genealogy is my focus and I know precious little about the early days of country music.  Grandma was a huge fan her whole life, and we’d routinely show up for visits to find her watching the Grand Ole Opry reruns on TV, so this type of bluegrass/country music would’ve been right up her alley.

Curley Miller was born Calvin Ellis Miller to parents Calvin McCormick Miller and Elda Blanche Miller on 2 December 1914 in Versailles, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania (found via the PA birth records index, the actual document should be online in the next year or two).  He shows up on census records in 1920-1930 as “George Miller” instead of Calvin, but the birth record clearly shows his name as Calvin.  It’s possible they may have called him George around home to differentiate between Calvin the child and Calvin the father.

He lived for the majority of his early life in McKeesport, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania with his mother and father, and later his stepfather (verified by census records).  A half-sister, Mildred Evangeline Espy, would later join him in the music scene as Millie Wayne.  Our Curley Miller is not to be confused with a different Curley Miller from the Milton, PA area though which is what made my initial searches lead in the wrong direction.  The first newspaper reference I could find was in 1935 when Curley was about 21 years old and playing on a local Pittsburgh radio station, KDKA.

Just two years later, Calvin Ellis Miller married Sybil Clarice Lowell in Greensburg, PA on 25 April 1937 (verified by Westmoreland county record search).

Sybil seems to have gone by the name “Sally Dare” or “Molly Dare” as part of the group and likely is the woman seated in the middle of the photo.  Advertisements in old newspapers have photos of her that look awfully similar.  There are also ads referring to their daughter “Patsy Belle” having been part of the act as a “Child Singing Star.”  I did find the three of them living in Wheeling, West Virginia as of the 1940 census but was unable to find anything about Patricia “Patsy Belle” after that point.  Patsy was also born in Tennessee (according to the census) two years before Curley married Sybil, so this may have been a daughter from her first marriage.  Sybil was granted a divorce on 28 April 1941 while living in Wyoming.  The divorce decree mentions zero children affected by the divorce, so I’m not entirely sure if Patsy Belle was their child or just part of their travelling act?  Not enough paper evidence to support that, and I couldn’t find a birth record for Patsy at all.

Part of the fun of sorting out fact from fiction were articles like these, telling fantastic stories about Curley that were part of his stage persona and printed in newspapers, but weren’t at all true according to paper records.  That article states Curley was born in Oklahoma, and while this birth location also appears on the 1940 census, he was very clearly born in Pennsylvania.  I started to wonder if the stage/radio persona bled into his real life.  That hunch was confirmed in a later article from 1974 in Florida.

The article, which has a problem with column formatting, states,

“Miller comes by his interest in “songs of the soil” naturally.  Two of his ancestors were killed at the Alamo and a great-uncle (The Rev. William Snider) was the Indian agent to whom Sitting Bull surrendered when he came down from Canada.

While Many parents were reluctant for their offspring to enter show business, it was different with Curley.  His parents were both horse enthusiasts and expert at trick riding.  They were also amateur entertainers.”

As far as I have been able to research, absolutely ZERO of that is true.  He didn’t have a great-uncle named William Snider (I found the names of his grandparents and none of them were Snider/Synder).  As far as ancestors being killed at the Alamo, none of that tracks at all since all I can find is that his ancestors lived in Pennsylvania.  For the bit about his parents, on their marriage license, it lists his father as a machinist and later in the 1910 census as working in an electrical shop, and his mother was a music teacher.  Granted, his mom may have helped foster Curley’s love of music, but there’s no paper evidence to prove any of the claims he made in the article.

He did participate for years in the West Virginia country music scene and participated in the WWVA Jamboree in Wheeling, West Virginia (link to tour program in 1941, alternate link to the program page about him).  He had been drafted into the Navy during WWII which meant he left radio.  When he returned home after the war, he returned to civilian life and went into horse training, still as a showman, taking the title of “Colonel Curley Miller” with his dancing horses in various rodeos and circuses.

He later moved to Florida in about 1962.  While in Florida, he continued working with radio as a talent director, according to the article above.

He died on 14 Feb 1994 in Orlando, Florida (obituary link). His obituary states, “Mr. Miller was a retired project director for an employment service,” which I guess could mean he was a talent scout which would fall in line with his history in the entertainment business.  Every genealogist loves long obituaries with tons of detail, but this one had very little.  There’s a granddaughter mentioned, but no daughter, though this could possibly be the aforementioned “Patsy Belle.”  The 1950 census is due out this year (2022), so it’s possible I’ll be able to find out more once that’s released!

Random stuff in scrapbooks seldom leads me down a deep dive into the history of the subjects in photographs, but once I started digging, the information about Calvin “Curley” Miller ended up being so fascinating, and a great example of the difficulty in separating actual factual documents from self-reported information in newspapers and sometimes even censuses.

Herman Luzier

Long time, no blog!  As you can imagine, a lot has changed in the 2.5 years since I last posted anything here.  But, this isn’t a post about that.

We recently came across my maternal grandmother’s scrapbook, and I scanned everything into the computer.  She kept a lot of fun little things, including a photo of  “Herman Luzier” along with a page of photos of other musicians.  Herman is holding a steel guitar in the photo, and a quick search on Newspapers.com turned up an article saying he was from the same area as my grandma and played music on the radio.  Through some more sleuthing, I found that Herman was born on 20 Sep 1912 and died 3 Feb 1985, having grown up around the Clearfield, Pennsylvania area.  The article from Newspapers.com is added below.  Just a short update, but I hope to go through more of these random photos and bits of history grandma saved in an effort to digitally preserve them and maybe, someday, should someone go internet searching these names, they might be reconnected with their families!

20 Feb 1937, Sat The Progress (Clearfield, Pennsylvania) Newspapers.com

Film Rescue International

Earlier this year, I sent in a roll of film we found in an old Kodak Vest Pocket Autographic camera to Film Rescue International for their cycle starting April 1, 2014.  The camera was in my grandfather’s office and was presumably my great grand uncle Herb’s at some point.  Herb probably took it off to war with him and after he passed away, my grandfather kept the camera since he was quite the shutterbug.  As far as turn-around time goes, I had a link to the scans in my inbox on May 16th.  It ended up costing $34 for 5 images which is steep, but I’m not sure I would’ve trusted film that was over 30 years old to just anyone.  Even though Kodak Verichrome Pan is more stable than other films, it could  have been  anywhere between 30-50 years old, and the possibility of some lackey at a lab not familiar with developing old film screwing up what may have been priceless photos was just too much of a risk to take.  As it turns out, there was nothing really precious on the roll, but it’s great to know for sure, rather than sit around wondering what the heck is on there.  I am VERY happy with the level of communication and the extra care they take to manage expectations.  Expired and old film is a real crapshoot and sometimes you win big, sometimes you lose big.  I opted to download the free scans (at 532×864, 300 dpi), but if I wanted quality copies, I could’ve purchased the full resolution download for $.99 each with a 20% discount if I placed an order in the first two weeks.  The images are available on their website for a full year.  They mailed me the developed negatives in plastic sleeves along with the original spool and backing paper.

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The images are below, and that first image is the one I shot out of the front door of grandpa’s old house when I realized there was still live film inside.  Clearly, I’ve got some practicing to do if I want to use the camera again, but it appears to be light leak free which is a plus!  The next three shots are of grandpa’s junkyard in the snow which helps me date them to somewhere in the 1970s probably and the last one is the view from great grandma Olga’s house.  It’s a view that shows up over and over again in photos, so it’s one I’m very familiar with, even if the house no longer exists.

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Sepia Saturday 241: Writing and Letters

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Nellie Gasparri

I went back and forth on this week’s theme since I have plenty of letters, but very few pictures to go along with them.  The letter is written  to  Nellie Gasparri in the photo on the left (b. 9 May 1924, Dysart, Cambria County, PA, USA, d. 9 Oct 2007, Pittsburgh, Allegheny, PA, USA), my first cousin, once removed, or my mom’s first cousin (her mother’s sister’s daughter).  It was written by  Angelina Guerrini who is Nellie’s Aunt (her father’s sister).  From what I know from living family members, Nellie never learned to read or write in Italian, but had a friend who read/wrote back letters for her.  This particular letter was one in a series of letters written to Nellie that she saved for many, many years.  After her death, relatives found them and didn’t know what to do with them, so they ended up with my mother somehow who fairly recently found them in a drawer while cleaning and passed them on to me.  I had studied Italian at University as well as taking a semester abroad, so about 12 years ago, I was just about fluent.  It’s faded a lot since then, so in order to translate these, it’s quite a process.  First, I try to figure out what was written and type that up – it can be a struggle between the handwriting and spelling/grammar issues, but fortunately it’s just about the same region where I took my semester abroad, so that helps!  Then, I run the translation through Google Translate to see what it comes up with, correcting the Italian side to fix spelling issues.  Finally, I go through and do my own translation on top to fix odd phrasing that Google doesn’t really translate well and make it sound more like it was written in English.  Some of the phrases don’t translate well from Italian to English, and I tend to go for a more literal than flowery approach in terms of translation.  I’m always open to correction, so if you happen to be Italian and want to help me out, please leave a comment!

If you’re interested in the other letters, they can be found here:
A Letter to Great Grandma
Searching for a Son
Angelina’s First Letter

San Valentino, 6 April 1947
After several days of delays, I have come to respond to your dear letter that I received with much pleasure, to hear that you remember me with much affection and that you are in good health as are your brothers.

As for me, always little is well, but nothing is so serious, just a little bit of organic deterioration.  My husband and my daughters are doing well.  My husband is 60 years old, and I’m 50.  Grandmother is also well, she is 84 years old.  I haven’t had the courage to tell her the news of the death of her son, and I think that’s because my brother has found a wife so cruel that the old woman could not ever see her and stay in good health.  They have a 4 year old daughter and live quietly, but I ought to say very little to you about the awful things they did to this poor old woman.

If you send something to grandma, send it to me or write it to me because she doesn’t know how to read or write and she’s deaf such that to have her understand, it takes time, and even when you repeat it, she substitutes whatever she wants.

Dear Niece, I am happy to hear you explain in your letter so many things that I wanted to hear about you and your brothers.  Now all that remains is the desire to have a little written also from him and I’d even like to have a photograph, but first we must send you ours.  I would like to know about the brother that isn’t in the army.  Your aunt told me he works – what does he do?
I received the letter from your aunt with the photo of your father.  It made me happy and at the same time a little sad that he isn’t around anymore.  I don’t know how to find peace.  You tell me that you work in an office. I’m happy to hear that, and I hope you enjoy it.

I’m sad that I can’t give you any help being so far away.  You sent us the package and you said you can send another but what can I send you?  Do you want anything that I could send to you?  Tell me please!  Let me know if you read my letters yourself or if you have someone read them to you the way I do the with your greetings to me, your friend Gina Canali.

Thousands and thousands of dear greetings and kisses from us that you will pass on also to your brothers, your aunt, and even these coming days I’ll write more to you.
Many dear kisses from me, your aunt, Angelina Guerrini.

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