This Tale Has Teeth

Anemoia is a thought-provoking word that means “nostalgia for a time you’ve never known.” If you’ve ever pondered what it would have been like to live in a different era, congratulations; you’ve experienced anemoia. Most of us have. That’s why the concept of time travel is so prevalent in our culture. Whether we’re following the exploits of Marty McFly, Sam Beckett, or The Doctor, we long to see what it would be like to experience a different blip on the timeline of human existence.

My anemoia often revolves around my ancestors. When my imagination runs wild, I’m crouching down in a foxhole beside my Grandpa Becker in Nazi Germany, hoping and praying this damn war ends soon. I’m jumping off a train in 1880s Iowa with my great-great-grandpa Allen Siver, hoping to find work at the first farm I come to. I’m crossing the Atlantic with my ancestor Johann Martin Seubert and his family, watching hundreds of my fellow passengers succumb to disease as they attempt to reach the New World. When that sense of nostalgia takes over, history comes alive.

Since time travel is impossible, the most authentic way I can experience these scenarios is through family photos, letters, and stories handed down through the generations. As I’ve mentioned more than a few times, my family has been blessed with a treasure trove of old family photos. Any time a relative passed away, their photos magnetically gravitated to my Grandma Siver. After she passed away, we discovered photos out the wazoo, including a closet where suitcases of photos were stacked like Jenga blocks. This was 21 years ago, and I still haven’t fully explored that abundance of visual history.

While looking through those photos earlier this year, I came across a handwritten letter that practically begged for a trip down Anemoia Lane. Pack your bags, gas up the car, and use the restroom one last time before we hit the road, because we’re about to embark on a riveting trip…. 118 years into the past.

It’s September 1903. Earlier in the year, Henry Ford founded Ford Motor Company with $28,000 cash, and a former chimney sweep won the initial Tour de France. If you were a baseball fan, you were anxiously awaiting the first Word Series, a best-of-nine affair pitting the Boston Americans versus the Pittsburgh Pirates. In North Carolina, the Wright Brothers were preparing to test a newfangled contraption that would be called an airplane. Teddy Roosevelt was president and everything was bully.

Our tour guide for our journey back in time is one James Otis Siver, known to me as Great-Grandpa Otis. But in 1903, Otis isn’t a wrinkled old man with a herd of Shetland ponies and a questionable fashion sense. He’s an 11-year-old boy, writing a letter about the recent adventure he took out east with his family.

Our tour guide, a young James Otis Siver.

Here’s the letter along with a transcription below (thankfully, Otis had respectable penmanship). This is the itinerary for our trip.

Fullers, New York
September 12, 1903

Dear friend,
Last Wednesday we went upon the Helderberg mountains. The road is very steep. We had to walk up it; is one mile long.

When we got half way up, Papa, Mamma, John and I went around the mountains in a path where the Indians went a long time ago.

We walked under rocks and water falls. It was like rain under the water falls because it was mist.

We climbed up the Indians ladder to the top of the mountains. And then we went to Aunt Em’s about eleven o’clock and stayed till Saturday morning. There was a lake up there. It was a one mile long and a half a mile wide.

We rode in the rowboat four times.

We saw our great grandfather and great grandmother.

Yours truly,
Otis Siver

Young Otis lived in rural Jones County, Iowa with his parents, Allen & Cora Siver, and younger brother John (youngest brother Arthur was still three years away from entering this world). They were farmers… a loving family that worked hard, yet enjoyed life thoroughly.

Brothers Otis (left) and John were about four years apart in age and were cohorts in all sorts of shenanigans as kids, including the time when they placed caps on their cows.

Because I’ve always seen them as an industrious, hard-working farming family from the late 1890s/early 1900s, I assumed they never traveled far from home. Long-distance travel was challenging at the time, as was the prospect of temporarily abandoning your farming responsibilities. However, this letter reveals that the family did indeed take at least one distant journey together. In 1903, they headed east to upstate New York. This part of the country held immense importance for the Siver family, as this was where Johann Martin Seubert and his family settled after migrating from present-day Germany almost 200 years earlier in 1710. The Siver clan put down roots here until the 1880s, when a teenaged Allen Siver boarded a train in Schenectady and rode it all the way to Mechanicsville, Iowa, where he started cultivating not only the land, but also his family. Soon his parents and siblings followed him to Iowa.

This photo shows Allen & Cora Siver standing on the front porch of their first house. My great-grandpa Otis is on the far right. His brother John is standing on the left; friend Amos Kohl stands beside him.

The mode of transportation for an Iowa-to-New York trek in 1903 would have been by rail. As the locomotive barreled east, I can only imagine Allen pointing out landmarks to his sons that he had seen while traveling in the opposite direction some 20 years earlier. Cora may have jokingly waved in the general direction of her parents’ original homestead as the train sped through Ohio.

Otis wrote his letter from Fullers, New York, which is just south of the ancestral family base in Schenectady. On Wednesday, Otis recalls that he and his family walked up a steep one-mile road into the Helderberg Mountains. The Helderberg Mountains (or Helderberg Escarpment as it’s sometimes known) are a steep plateau south of Fullers. They were first named and recorded by Dutch settlers in the early 1700s, right around the same time that Johann Seubert and his family emigrated nearby. “Helderberg” is low Dutch for “clear mountain,” and it’s plain to see how they concocted that name.

Helderberg Mountains (photo credit: UpstateNYer, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Now, no one’s going to confuse Helderberg with the Rockies, but it is indeed steep as Otis noted. Wikipedia says it has “an elevation difference of approximately 700 feet (from 400 to 1,100 feet) over a horizontal distance of approximately 2,000 feet.” Imagine climbing this in 1903: no memory-foam sneakers, no moisture-wicking shorts, no sunglasses, no Fitbit to tell you how many flights you climbed. Instead, the Siver family probably scaled Helderberg in dress shoes, dress pants, and dress shirts. Oh and by the way, let’s not forget about smelly pits. The first antiperspirant was launched just that year and had not reached widespread use yet. I hope they had a socially-distanced picnic at the top to celebrate their achievement.

Otis then talks about traversing a path the Indians used a long time ago, and about climbing an Indian ladder to the top of the mountain. This path and ladder came from Mohawk tribes in the area who traveled over the mountain on a well-worn trade route. According to legend, they felled a large tree to scale a steep rock wall, chopping off branches close to the trunk in order to create hand/foot holds, thus creating a ladder of sorts. I chuckled when I read Otis’s mention of Indians “a long time ago,” because it reminds me of my grandpa doing the same thing. When we were kids, we’d often hold family gatherings at Wapsipinicon State Park in Anamosa, Iowa. Along with telling us tall tales about Horse Thief Cave (appropriately named as a refuge for horse thieves of long ago), he’d always point up to the tall pine trees and tell us how Indians would walk barefoot over the fallen pine needles to sneak up on wildlife while hunting.

Following the hike up Helderberg, the family traveled to Aunt Em’s, staying there until Saturday morning. I presume that Aunt Em was Emma Hartman Siver, wife of Allen’s youngest brother Frank. Frank and Emma did not marry until two years later in 1905, but it’s reasonable that Otis was already calling her “Aunt” at this time. I haven’t been able to discover much about Aunt Em. Like the rest of the family, she and Frank eventually migrated west to Iowa and are buried in the Lisbon cemetery.

Lastly, Otis records that they visited his great-grandparents. That would have been Harry and Phoebe Warner. They were the parents of Elizabeth Warner Siver, who in turn was Allen’s mother. Harry (formally known as Henry) and Phoebe were born in the 1810s and would have been in their upper 80s at the time of Otis’s letter.

Harry & Phoebe (Hurst) Warner, my great-great-great-great-grandparents, in their slightly younger years before Otis visited them in 1903. Harry lived from 1814-1904 and Phoebe from 1816-1907.

Harry and Phoebe lived up in the mountains of New York at a resort by Thompsons Lake. I can’t say that I’ve been able to discover too much about Harry and Phoebe’s lives. They both lived to the age of 90 and are buried in Thompsons Lake Rural Cemetery in East Berne, New York. That being said, I do know exactly one major thing about Harry…

He had a double set of teeth.

Let me repeat that in bold and all caps so you comprehend what I’m saying.



Harry had what is medically known as hyperdontia. It’s a rare condition; only 1 to 4% of people have extra teeth. Most of those cases are limited to a single extra tooth, so Harry was even more of a rarity because he had double teeth across both the front and back. How he never got nicknamed “Chopper” is a mystery to me.

Harry Warner (and presumably his glorious double set of pearly whites) in his elder years.

A penciled caption on the back of the above photo reveals that he never suffered from toothaches and “ate stick candy a mile high.” I can easily picture him sharing his sweets with Otis while gleefully gnashing on his own stick candy like a beaver destroying a log.

This 1903 trip might have been the only time Otis ever met Harry and Phoebe, so it definitely would have been a historic occurrence. If you ever doubt the relative youth of our country, consider this: Otis was fortunate enough to meet his great-grandparents, both of whom were born during the presidency of our fourth commander-in-chief, James Madison. Otis lived to the age of 95, enabling him to also meet me (I was born during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, which was nowhere near as impressive as James Madison’s).

It absolutely blows my mind to realize I’m only two degrees away from a man who was born smack dab in the middle of the War of 1812. Seriously. Harry Warner was a baby when the British torched the White House.

It also blows my mind that the man had a damn double set of teeth. I’ll never be able to watch Coneheads the same way ever again.


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