Amanuensis Monday: Part 3: The Buerers in Africa: a letter excerpt from the early days

Idiofa via Kikwit
Congo Belge, W.C. Africa
November 25, 1946

Dear Friends,

Harry and Nancy in front of the second house.

A few days after we sent our circular letter to you in August, our outfit arrived. That is, it arrived with the exception of our trunk which was lost on the way to New York and one case which was lost at the ocean port in Congo. We have been notified that both have been found and are on the way, although neither has arrived yet. We were very happy to be able to unpack our dishes, bedding, books, and all the other things that we waited so long for. There were some disappointments, too, as we discovered that almost every box had been broken into any many things, mostly new clothing, stolen. Also, many dishes were broken and one box contained a quart bottle of ink and a large can of Flit which both broke and gave things a distinctive odor as well as color. However, these things were not very important and we have almost forgotten about them now.

About that time also, the rainy season started and we found our house living quarters (crossing out of "house" done by my grandmother in her letter) quite uncomfortable. Rain here is almost always accompanied by a strong wind and we could hardly find a corner in the house where we could keep dry. However, the stone house that had been under construction for several months, was almost finished so the Brower family moved into it and we moved into their former house. It, too, is a temporary building but it will keep us dry until another permanent house can be built. The house is made of clay with a grass roof and floor woven of split palm poles. It has two rooms, a bedroom and a dining room while just outside are a cookhouse kitchen (crossing out of "cookhouse" done by my grandmother in her letter) and two storerooms. Harry made several pieces of furniture from the wood in our packing cases which helps a lot as we had no place to put things.

Vickie cooking outdoors in Africa.

We are able to carry on conversations with the natives now if they don't talk too fast. Harry has been busy every day supervising the buildings that had to be done. A workshop, a boys' dormitory, a girls' dormitory, a garage, a bell tower, a print shop, another dwelling house, and a school have been started. Some of them are completed. Our former house had a porch as big as the house. This was enclosed, the partitions taken out and the building used as a church and schoolhouse.

Every morning at 6:15 the school children and the workmen attend chapel for a half hour. Some of the children attend school from 8 to 12 and others from 1 to 5. On Wednesday evenings there are prayer meetings and on Sunday there is the church service. The Word of God is given out in each of these meetings, sometimes by Angus Brower and sometimes by the native Christians who were trained at Tshene, our other mission station. We have six of them here helping as cooks, houseboys and school teachers.

Sometimes it seems as though nothing unusual every happens here but the past week we had had more than our share of excitement.

And unfortunately this is the only part of the letter I have. I really hoped for some swashbuckling intrigue and dastardly villains. But I have many, many diary entries, and there is no lack of excitement ahead for Harry and Vickie in Africa. (Worms in cookies, anyone? Stay tuned...)

Amanuensis Monday: Part 2: Vickie and Harry Buerer Wait for the River Boat

Below is the second part of the first letter my grandmother, Vickie Prinzing Buerer, sent home to her parents. The first letter about my grandparent's journey from Chicago to the Belgian Condo in 1945 talks about the initial steps in their journey.

A Little Golden Book from 1945, probably similar to the ones my grandmother bought my mother and aunt at the bookstore in Leopoldville.

A Little Golden Book from 1945, probably similar to the ones my grandmother bought my mother and aunt at the bookstore in Leopoldville.

Part 2

I can’t seem to get this letter finished. We haven’t done much but it’s so hot and there are always so many people around talking. There are two English missionaries here and one especially is always razzing us about America. He’s always asking about the strikes and about the gangsters in Chicago. He raves about Dillinger and says there are 3 kidnappings a day in Chicago and everyone has to carry a gun in his hip pocket to protect himself. He believes it too. I guess yesterday he said, “I heard that Life is the most widely read magazine. You can’t tell which is an advertisement and which is serious matter. In England we have our advertisements in the front and in the back of our magazines so they don’t interfere with the reading matter. America has a dreadful mania for advertising.” Someone asked him something about Paul Revere though and he never heard of him so we teased him so much he kept still.

We can’t get a river boat until Monday morning. It takes five days to get to Mangai and we wired Angus to meet us. When we got here there were letters waiting for us from Charles and Pearl, Arthur & Evelyn, Lena, and Louis and Ruth Zelle who passed through here last week. Ruth is Mrs. Feleen’s niece. Then the day afterward, we got a letter from Angus saying he received Grandpa’s cable. We took some pictures of our family for Grandpa and will send them if they turn out all right. We are buying lots of canned goods and supplements to take to the station with us.

The bookstore here has the Little Golden Books for 12 fr. each. I bought one for each of the kids and one for Nancy’s birthday.

The children are getting along fine here although Nancy has prickly heat. There is a swing in the back yard and they have lots of fun on that.

We have bananas for breakfast every day and the girls really love them. We have lots of canned fruit, too. The peaches, apricots, and pears are really delicious. We have found some very good friends in Nolan and Ruth Balman going out under the Scandinavian Alliance Mission who are staying here. They are Baptists, too, and have two small children. They went to Moody and Northern Baptist and know Art Brower, Bob Shermer and Bob Prinzing.

We are going to town now so I will close and mail this.


Please let Grandpa read this and the rest of the family, Aunt Viola and anyone else that might be interested.


Amanuensis Monday: Vickie and Harry Buerer Journey to Africa

When I look at the wealth of photos and information my grandmother left behind, I'm incredibly grateful. I believe (and I think a lot of people who knew her would agree) that she was a very difficult person to know on a personal level. But I'm hoping that through her letters and diaries, I can understand this person better. And it's fascinating to read her writing when she was a young woman.

All her life, my grandmother longed to go to Africa as a missionary. Her relatives ran the Belgian Congo Mission, and she made it her life's intent to join them. But I don't think things turned out the way she wanted. In her life story she wrote for my cousin, she explains a lot of things in detail. But when she gets to the part about Africa, she basically accounts that they went and only stayed three and a half years. And after reading her letters and diaries, I think I can make a bold statement.

The experience really sucked for them.

But I would like to share the letters and diaries for many reasons. Posterity. To delve into a story about a couple taking two young children to Africa in 1946, an experience I can honestly say I would never, ever do. And to hopefully understand Vickie more. (And let me tell you a lot of what my grandmother says in her diaries and letters does not translate well to our current time. You'll see what I mean.)

Vickie's first letter to her parents about their journey. Part 1.

Harry, Peggy Ann, Nancy, and Vickie Buerer in the airport before boarding the plane to Africa.

Harry, Peggy Ann, Nancy, and Vickie Buerer in the airport before boarding the plane to Africa.

April 2, 1946

Dear Mamma and Daddy,

We should have written sooner but it is so hot here in Leopoldville that one doesn’t feel much like writing. We are getting along fine here except that almost no one speaks English and my French is pitiful. I can sometimes make myself understood but can seldom understand anyone else.

The night before we left New York, there was a bad rainstorm and Pan American called to say the plane would be delayed until 3 P.M. Wed. After that they kept delaying the flight until 5 and then 7. When we got to the airport, the plane didn’t leave until 8:45. We got to Newfoundland about 2 o’clock (EST) Thursday morning. That was the worst part of the trip for me. There were several rough spots and the landing was very rough. Harry got air-sick and I felt awfully nauseated. There was snow on the ground and it was very cold there. We had to sit in the waiting room for six hours there because the weather was too bad to go on. Soon after we left there Peggy Ann became sick and didn’t eat anything from Newfoundland to Lisbon. During that time she vomited 10 times and was a very sick little girl. She was very good though and never cried or complained. She slept or just lay there looking at us. Nancy was very good too. Every so often she wanted to get off the plane because she got so tired riding, but we didn’t have any trouble with her. We landed at Shannon Airport in Ireland at 11:15 P.M. (6:15 EST), had supper, and sat around waiting for a couple hours. Finally they decided to take us to a hotel for the night in Ennis. It felt good to sleep in a bed for a few hours even if they did wake us up at 5:30 a.m. There were stone jug footwarmers in the beds and they really felt good. After we got back to the airport we had to wait until 10:30 a.m. before they got started. One rumor was that the crew was on a spree in Limerick and they couldn’t get them together. We had a lovely ride through the Irish countryside just at daybreak and it was very quaint and picturesque.

We landed in Lisbon that afternoon (Fri.) about 3:00 P.M. (EST). We were there for about two and a half hours. While there Pan American took us for a bus ride around town and to a ritzy restaurant to eat. The meal was delicious, although we turned down all the wine. We refused the whiskey in Ireland, too. Lisbon was very colorful. Everything was in bloom and the houses were shades of pink and peach stucco with red or orange tile roofs. In Ireland they had grass (illegible until the next page)…better after that. We arrived in (illegible) about 2:15 a.m. Saturday. It was our first glimpse of Africa and it wasn’t anything encouraging. It was an army post as Newfoundland was. We were served a buffet lunch by natives and even the air had an African odor. We took off again in 45 minutes and landed at Roberts’ Field in Liberia at 7:00 a.m. (EST). That was the filthiest place I’ve ever been in in my life. We slept in the army barracks and ate in the mess hall. I couldn’t find a clean spot on the tablecloth. The food was really unfit for children and was served by dirty natives. The only good thing was that the water was cold which we haven’t been able to say since. The sheets we slept on were filthy and when I put down the mosquito netting, bugs rolled out. In the room next to ours the stewardesses entertained army officers all night but it was against army regulations for our husbands to sleep with us. They had to be in the officers barracks and one stewardess spent the night in a room near Harry’s. There were 10 missionaries and 7 missionary children on our plane. Another couple got on there with two children. The heat there was terrific and the very sticky kind. We didn’t leave there until 3 a.m. Sunday morning, so were there almost 24 hours. While there, they took us on a tour of Firestone rubber plantation which was very interesting. We also went to a nature village which was also very interesting. We bought bananas for a penny a piece from the natives.

The trip from there to Leopoldville, I mean the last part, was very rough. Most of the dinner fell off the table all over the floor before they got to serve it but we didn’t feel like eating anyhow. At one time, Harry, Nancy, and Peggy Ann were all vomiting at once.  Nancy and I were in one seat and I was holding a paper bag for her but couldn’t reach the others to help because we were all strapped in. They were each using one side of the same bag so got along O.K. I’m the only one of our family that didn’t get air-sick but I didn’t feel very comfortable. It won’t bother us if we never fly again.

We landed in Leopoldville Sunday afternoon about 2 o’clock. It is a very lovely place and the mission home where we are staying is nice and clean and serves delicious meals.

Who was my great great grandfather? My search for F.B. Vines

Many family trees start with information given by relatives, stories and facts passed down from generation to generation.  One such story told again and again focused on my paternal great great grandmother, Nancy Collins.  (Nancy belongs to my paternal grandmother's line, not related to Hannah.)  The story constantly reiterated about her was that she had five kids and never married.  My family said he was a judge, and I knew the man's name:  Brown Vines.  After finding Hannah on, I set out my search for my great great grandfather.

I didn't have much trouble finding Nancy Collins in 1880 when she was 16 years old; on page 16 of the census marking District 8 in Washington County, Tennessee, she lived with her father and mother, Calvin and Mary, and her sister.  I did a search for Brown Vines and didn't really come up with much, but I figured if they eventually had children together, they probably lived near each other.  And my guess paid off:  page 18 of the District 8 census shows a Brownlow Vines living on a farm with his father and mother, Andrew and Lucretia, and his five siblings. 

At this point, I knew I was on to something.  However, the next available census doesn't show up until 1900.  One of the most discouraging things facing genealogists researching the late 19th century in the United States is the absence of the 1890 census.  The 1890 census, taken in June 1890, was the 11th census taken in the U.S.  You can read more about the fate of the 11th census here and here, but to make a long, complicated story short, a fire broke out at the National Archives on January 10, 1921, and subsequent flooding destroyed much of the information.  So I have a 20 year gap in their lives, but I still can take the information given in the 1900 census and make some sense of it.

In 1900, Nancy still lived with her parents, and five grandchildren have joined the household:  John, Lottie, Henry, Pearl, and Elizabeth.  Her family appears on page 14.  On page 13, the record shows Brown still living with his parents.  Again, they still live very close to each other.  In 1910, the story stays pretty much the same:  both close neighbors and living with their parents. 

Nancy Collins, her parents, and her five children in 1900.

Brown Vines and his family in 1900.

Before I go further, I just want to state the obvious:  having five children out of wedlock between 1880 and 1900 could not have been well accepted by society.  Even today single women face a stigma of having a child without a partner.  When I first heard of my great great grandmother and her situation, my young, former evangelical mind went awry.  In other words, I judged her.  I figured she had to be a woman of loose morals and character.  Shame on me.  Shame on me for adding to the oppression of women.  I hope I never do it again.

Discovering and researching documentation can clear up misconceptions and can sometimes send you on a different path to clear up confusion.  First, I have found no documentation supporting the rumor Brown Vines was a judge.  All of the census records state "farmer" as his profession.  When researching your family history, documentation is essential in making claims.  If you can find no proof, you have to chalk it up to hearsay until otherwise noted.

Finding Brown Vines's death certificate answered some questions, raised more, and offered perspective.  First, he had gotten married by the time he died.  And he died relatively young, even for 1915.  And his death certificate reveals alcoholism and cirrhosis of the liver contributed to his death. 

brown vines death certificate final.jpg

So here's the obvious question:  why did Nancy Collins and Brown Vines never marry?  Maybe there  was an economic disparity between the families.  Maybe one or more of the families didn't approve.  Or maybe Nancy loved a man enough to have five children with him but refused to marry and live under the same roof as an alcoholic.  The answer will probably never be found.  I think she did have to be brave with her circumstances, and it looks like she made the best of what life dealt her.

When I initially began this idea for a post, I thought I had all the information out there.  Then my cousin told me he had Brown Vines's will, and I couldn't wait to get a hold of it.  This document is fascinating.  Completely fascinating.  And it reveals a lot about his character.  His will is extensive and goes on for pages.  He owned a lot of property in Tennessee and North Carolina and had specific instructions on how to handle each piece.  First, he bequeaths money to his ailing father for his care in his father's last years.  Second, he gives all five of his children $1,000 in real estate (equal to about $23,000 today.)  One of the things I love, love, love about him is he makes sure the property given to his daughters does not fall into the control of their husbands:

I give and bequeath to Henry Collins, John Collins, Lizzie Collins, and Pearl Collins, children of Nancy Collins, each one thousand dollars ($1000.00) in real estate, the same to be selected and purchased for them by my executor the title to which shall be vested in there, respectively, for life and, in fee, at their death to their respective children.  The estate given to the said Lizzie and to the said Pearl, respectively, shall be constituted a separate estate to each free from the control of her husband and not subject to his debts or obligations.  The purpose being to provide for each of these persons a home so long as each may live that will descend at death, to his or her children as the case may be.

But two sections of his will stand out and give insight on who Brown Vines really was.  First, he seems to have had a rift with his nephew, Silas, and wants to make sure Silas gets absolutely nothing:

The Bayless farm, referred to in Item number (7) of Paragraph VI hereof is not to be sold except in this way, to wit; it is to be valued or appraised at $3000.00, and included at that price in one of the five equal parts herein specified. This said farm ...I give and bequeath to my brother L.J. Vines for the term of his natural life; and, at his death, in fee to his heirs as Tenante-in-common, share and share alike.  Except that his son, Silas Vines, shall have no interest, share, lot, part, or parcel thereof, and if the other heirs shall undertake or attempt to divide or share with (illegible) Silas, there, this devise to them shall become and be void and shall revert to my estate to be distributed equally amongst the other beneficiaries of this will.  The cash part of said share shall be, at the option in of the said L.J. Vines, invested in real estate and the title taken in the same form and manner, so far as the law permits, as I have fixed the title to the Bayless tract.  If the said L.J. Vines (illegible) to have (illegible) stipulated, then, my executor shall loan the same upon good and sufficient, security, collect and pay the interest thereon to said L.J. Vines during his life; and, at this death, pay the principal to his heirs, share, and share alike, excepting the said son, Silas Vines, who shall have no interest, share, lot or parcel therein.  And the same penalty herein as above set out to those who may undertake to divide with him.

But the best part of the will lies in the section about the secret safe.  What I wouldn't give to know what hid inside of it! 

There is in my safe at home a secret written agreement between me and W.E. Uptegrove, which is valuable.  It is not my desire to give publicity to that secret private agreement; but it is of much importance and represents great value to my estate.  I bequeath and direct that my executor stand in my shoes and represent me with reference to that agreement and distribute the proceeds thereof in the same way that the balance of my estate has hereinbefore been bequeathed and devised. 

Nancy Collins never married and lived to be 88 years old, dying in 1952.  I hope her years were happy.  I only have one picture of her taken in her later years.  What I wouldn't give to listen to her stories.


nancy collins.jpg