My Grandma’s Trunk

I found a trunk very similar to my grandma’s trunk on an auction site, though it’s larger and in slightly better condition with the original paper covering still in place. It has patent dates of 1865 which seems pretty likely to me for my old trunk. It means it’s likely to have belonged to my grandmother’s grandmother, Phoebe Copenbarger, the daughter of Elizabeth Snavely (Schneebeli) the last person in my family to have the glorious Swiss name of Schneebeli. Phoebe very likely bought it new and took it with her west from Wythe County, Virginia (See The Price) to Iowa by covered wagon in the 1860s.

The other posts I’ve written (that will certainly make this one less cryptic and provide needed context) are here

“Schneebeli” means “Little snowball” and the family actually had/has a crest. This is really, “Schneebeli von Baden und Affoltern am Albis.” I’m afraid if I saw three snowballs on a shield I wouldn’t be sure whether to laugh or fight, but yeah, this is legit. But I guess it means any fight they fought was a snowball fight…

Bearing the Fardel

“C’mon, Martha Ann. Let’s go through that old trunk.”

“What’s she talking about?” I had no clue. My mother was the master of inscrutability, especially when I was a little kid. We went down the two or three stairs into the cellar in my grandma’s backyard. Way in the back, lifted above the dirt floor on 2 x 4s, was an old trunk, covered in paper. My grandma had been keeping it for my mom since my parent’s marriage a dozen years before.

Mom left the cellar door open so we had some light and she opened the trunk. There were all kinds of things in there. I don’t know what my mom was looking for, but she pulled out costume jewelry, crocheted and rhinestoned lace dress collars, old Indian jewelry and books.

She took out some of the books to take home with us on the train. One of those was Richard Halliburton’s Seven League Boots, a magical, life-changing book that I read on the train crossing Wyoming. Another book was I Married Adventure by Osa Johnson that my mom read to my brother and me. I think she had dreams of adventure as a young woman, but didn’t follow them.

When my grandmother died a few years later, and we all went back to Billings to help “see to things,” my mom pulled the trunk out of the cellar. At a big family picnic she pronounced, “I’m going to have the trunk shipped home on the train. The trunk and the sewing machine.” She claimed her territory. There was a bitter squabble over my grandma’s fardels, mostly out of sentimentality as my grandma didn’t have a lot.

Shipping it home on the train (I was confused about “shipping” on a train) must have involved a major process because even though we went home on the train, the trunk wasn’t with us. At some later date the chest and sewing machine arrived at the train station in downtown Omaha. We only had a Rambler American and couldn’t haul the trunk and sewing machine home. There was no U-haul in those days, either. A moving company had to be hired to bring them the 30 some miles RT from Omaha to Bellevue.

My mom, whom I remember as liking to fuss about stuff, fussed about what to do with the trunk now that she had it. At some point a metal box was built to sit where the wooden upper tray sat. The idea was that it would hold house plants. She got that idea from a decorating magazine, but the trunk took up a lot of space just by existing and twice as much with the lid open to let the plants have light and air. At another point she refinished it using Formby’s which meant taking off all the shredded and moldy paper on the outside. I guess one of her challenges was that the trunk has a curved top so you can’t set things on it meaning it could not be a coffee table or anything else. It could only be a trunk. I can only imagine how the trunk’s life would have been if Pinterest had existed in the early 1960s.

It’s one of the fardels I inherited, and while it IS kind of a pain in the ass (the handles are long gone, it’s heavy, the hinges are un-nailed) it’s my fardel to bear.

I wrote more about the trunk (with pictures!) here.



If you think humans communicate primarily in words, well, you’re mistaken. For most of the 200,000 years we’ve been around, we’ve communicated with things. In a way, words are one of the things we’ve devised to speed up communication. Enduring words are found on “things.”

Long ago (1959) my mom tried to communicate with me with this thing. This thing is an old trunk (duh). When I first met it, it was in my grandmother’s cellar and it was filled with books. Cool books, too. My mom’s books from an earlier, more dreamy, period of her life. One of those books had a huge impact on my life, and I wrote about it here. As time passed, the trunk came to our house and my mom started trying to figure out what to “do” with it. She thought of using it as a planter and had a custom metal box made to sit in the top instead of the old and broken wooden one (I don’t even know where that metal box went — but here’s the wooden one, where it’s been for well over 100 years). She got some Formby’s (the furniture refinisher of the day) and cleaned all the paper covering off the outside. She tried to repair the hinges in the back (they are still broken — unscrewed from the old wood, permanently, I’m afraid).

This thing. “You’ll inherit your grandmother’s sewing machine and the trunk.”

“What,” I thought, “will I do with that? I’m a world traveler, not an acquirer of stuff!!!”

Everyone acquires stuff, and this is my stuff now. I don’t know exactly what my mom was trying to say with the trunk. I know she felt it was important. I know she believed it belonged to my grandmother’s grandmother, one Phoebe Copenbarger. It could have come with my grandmother’s father’s mother, a Stober. My grandmother had HER Stober grandmother’s first name (Harriet).

All this leads to the question — who WERE these people and why should they matter to me? They didn’t matter to me much. All of that was so long ago, a dim past and memories that even my mother didn’t have…

My mom was convinced, however, and often said, “It came with Phoebe Copenbarger from the old country.” She didn’t even know what “old country.”

But I do…

Now that I’m writing a novel that is a VERY fictionalized account of the actual people in the actual old country I look at this trunk and wonder what influence it’s had on my life. My mom was interested in her “roots.” We went chasing after them when I was a kid. It was a lot more difficult back in the 60s to find out anything (and, in a way more interesting since it could involve travel and going to newspaper offices and libraries, not just sitting in front of a lap top and typing something in a search bar). Her work actually added something to the known facts of these obscure people. On a distant second cousin with whom I used to work has posted photos of our family that she got from my mom. Phoebe is the VERY old lady in the lower right corner…


So, the trunk. It could have come from the “old country” but Phoebe didn’t. She came from Virginia. The “old country” was four or five generations away from Phoebe. She is the daughter of the last person in my ancestry to have the name “Snavely” or “Schneebeli” — the name of a family from Affoltern am Albis, many of whom emigrated in the mid-18th century from Switzerland and the Alsace. I don’t think it’s very likely that the trunk came with the Schneebelis.


The hand-painted lithograph in the lid doesn’t say much — but my experience studying and writing about Godey’s Lady’s Book, and looking at thousands of images throughout the 19th century, puts it in the early-mid 1800s. Phoebe Copenbarger could have used it — but where. Maybe just to come west. I will never really know. I am sure, however, that when my grandmother, grandfather and their little family came west from Iowa to Montana in the early 1900s, grandma used the trunk.

I wish I knew the true story of this trunk. In any case (ha ha) it’s gone from being an annoying burden to tote around for the sake of “family” to an interesting relic that has been, maybe this whole time, trying to tell me something.