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Historic trunk opened

by Nancy Hamlett

Janice Hansen hovered over the trunk with all of the excitement of a child on Christmas morning. Her fingers trembled, she took a deep breath and she lifted the lid. Hansen was about to embark on a trip into the past.

The trunk, a family heirloom, once belonged to her grandmother, Eliza Park Hansen, who was born in the Carson Valley in 1880 and lived there until her death in 1977. Through the years, it was passed down to family members until Janice Hansen received it in 1997 from Joy Uhart.

“When my father, Hugh, passed away, Joy kept it for me,” said Hansen. “Then one day, she showed up with it. I don’t know why I didn’t open it right away. I guess I never imagined what could be in it.”

As Hansen carefully unpacked and unfolded items from the trunk, the old farmhouse that was built by Eliza and her husband William in 1913, overflowed with history. Programs from an opera house in Carson City, heavily tarnished silver serving pieces still in the original boxes, camisoles, slips and pantaloons, all with matching lace. And remarkably, many of the pieces were carefully itemized.

n A note from the past. Hansen opened a box. Thick tissue was wrapped around two linen tablecloths. A slip of paper lay on top.

Hansen read from the slip of paper. “Made from a table cloth used at Mama’s and Papa’s wedding, also Maggie’s, mine and Evelyn’s wedding. Also used at Mama’s and Papa’s Golden Wedding, Oakland, January 19th, 1923.”

Many other pieces of jewelry and clothing were similarly marked, providing a documented history and tangible proof of the style of life lived by the Hansen family. Hansen then smoothed out a christening gown and unboxed a pair of shoes.

“Oh, my gosh,” said Hansen. “I think these are the ones.” She held up a picture of her father on christening day. He was wearing the same outfit.

“This is a little bit overwhelming,” said Hansen. “It’s typical for my family, we save everything, but I had no idea that it contained so many exciting things.”

As Hansen removed items from the trunk, Laurie Hickey, a distant relative of Hansens and family historian, wove a story around several of the pieces.

“Look at this fan. It’s in perfect condition. And this beautiful velvet jacket,” Laurie held up the pieces carefully. “They were packed together with the program from the opera. Do you think she wore this to the opera and carried the fan?”

A quilt, ruffled with a taffeta-type material, contained vibrant colored swatches of material. Other swatches were elaborately embroidered. Hansen and Hickey said that they vaguely remember a similar quilt in Hickey’s home when they were growing up.

“We’ll have to do a little bit more research on the quilt,” said Hickey. “With the initials embroidered in it and the connection to my family, maybe we can determine who made it.”

Hansen gently cradled a doll, another piece of Carson Valley history. The beautifully preserved doll wasn’t packed in the trunk, but was a gift to Eliza Hansen from her aunt, Dr. Eliza Cook, the first woman doctor in Nevada. Hansen remembers spending afternoons with Dr. Cook, her great-aunt.

“She was very strict, but I liked her a lot. I particularly liked her library,” said Hansen. “There were tons and tons and tons of books and a big desk. She would let me sit there while she read to me. I went there every day.”

Eliza Hansen even preserved the wooden crate that the doll was shipped in.

“It came from New York City, from Funk and Wagnall at a cost of $1.42,” said Hansen. “Isn’t it remarkable that they saved all this?”

n Treasure, not trash. According to Hansen, many items that today’s society would toss in the trash were saved by her grandmother. Scraps of material. Letters. The tags from Christmas gifts.

Many items packed away in the trunk were gifts too beautiful to use and placed in safekeeping so that they could be admired at some later date. And many of the gifts were accompanied by handwritten letters – the sentiments more personal than the mass-produced greeting cards of today.

“You have to remember, they preserved everything because there might be a use for it later,” said Hansen.

“They weren’t a throw-away society like we are,” added Hickey.

Hansen held up a hand-beaded belt. She spanned the tiny waist on a slip. She marveled over the crisp texture to aprons and undergarments. And she opened a box containing a ring, a bridesmaid’s gift for her sister’s wedding with engraving on the inside of the band.

At last she held up a black jacket, well worn and lovingly packed. What story did it tell?

Hansen wants to share all of the stories in her trunk with the Carson Valley. To celebrate National History Preservation Week, she will open the trunk again on Friday, May 14, during a special champagne reception at the Genoa Courthouse Museum. The evening event will be by invitation only, with members of Hansen’s extended family and history buffs invited to view the contents of the trunk and other Hansen family heirlooms.

The exhibit will continue on Saturday and Sunday, May 15 and 16, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and will be open to the public. There will be a $3 charge, with all proceeds going to the museum.

“We want to share my grandmother’s keepsakes. There are years and years and generations and generations of stuff in that trunk,” said Hansen. “But then we are going to pack them away again. Maybe in a few years we’ll do it again.”

In the meantime Hansen and Hickey are planning to pack a trunk of their own. They will follow Eliza Hansen’s lead and label the pieces so that following generations will have a documented history.

“Not everyone is crazy about history like we are,” said Hansen. “Who knows what the reactions of our grandchildren or great-grandchildren will be? But maybe, someday, they will open it up and be as fascinated as we are with the contents.”