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Back in the Family

One of the reasons I started collecting antique furniture (and eventually selling them) is that every piece has a story to tell. I think when it comes to these piece that are 200 to 300+ years old, pretty much anyone that admires them thinks, "If only it could talk, what stories it could tell." Often we are left to deduce things about the piece's past. Did it get much sun? Was is moved often? Was it well looked after? If we're lucky, there is some provenance information available like it being sold at a previous auction or perhaps a bill of sale from its history. Sadly, this information often gets lost to time. It is a rare occurrence, but sometimes a person in the piece's history acts in attempt to convey the piece's human connections with future generations. This is a story of one of those times.


I purchased an early 19th Century bureau or slant front desk from an estate sale at a home very close to mine in Northern Virginia. The piece was in very good shape but by the looks of it had not been used or moved in a very long time. After getting it home to take a closer look, I made a sweet discovery. This bureau, like so many from the 18th and 19th Century, has two little "secret" document compartments, one to the left and one to the right of the centered internal cabinet. These often will look like columns or such, and with long enough finger nails and a little tug, these will slide out. Upon doing this I discovered writing on the internal sides of the the little compartments.




A little over a hundred years a ago, a Frances Bruce Phillips purchased the bureau in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania and decided to mark the occasion for future generations in ink.

I find it striking the manner in which this was done. Frances, the new owner, doesn't simply write "Purchased on March 20, 1914" as if to make a note for herself or her family, she inscribes it in a manner that demonstrates it's being written for the future. She realizes that the bureau itself is a type of time capsule. She may have realized this after seeing what was written on the side of the compartment from the left side.


On the other compartment was older written script in pencil that spelled out "Maid in 1838", "Curtis Fortna Purchesed this Desk 1847", "Felix Fortna Purchesed this Desk 1868". Isn't that great? Even the misspellings add to the charm! I immediately assumed that Curtis and Felix were likely to be father and son. With these names (Felix isn't terribly common) and dates, the amateur genealogist in me started wondering if with a little research I could find out more about these two and Frances Bruce Phillips--largely out of curiosity but also with the hopes that I just may be able to find a living descendant that would be really treasure the familial connection the piece offers.


So I went to good ole Ancestry.com to first see what I could find out about Frances, which was, unfortunately, very little. Interestingly, I was able to corroborate her location in PA through the census, and determine that she served during WWI. I was also able to determine that she had a daughter, but after that the trail went cold.


I then went further back in time looking for information on the two Fortna gentlemen. It was easy to determine that they were indeed father and son and that they had lived in PA as well, and not terribly far from Chambersburg, where the bureau surfaced in 1914. So it all made sense. Additionally, the birth and death dates for Curtis and Felix worked, with Felix purchasing the bureau from his father's estate upon his death. All things considered, I was happy that I had indeed pinpointed the correct Curtis and Felix Fortna. I just needed to track down descendants and see if any were interested in obtaining a family heirloom that had been hidden away for many years.


I reached out to as many descendants of Curtis and Felix as I could find on Ancestry. Per the usual, I didn't hear back from anyone. So I then started looking for other options. I found a Fortna family group on Facebook that obviously had an interest in the family history. I reached out to that group. They agreed to share the information to their members to see if anyone was interested. In the meantime, someone from the original batch of Ancestry messages got back to me with information about a cousin that was very interested in the piece. So, I reached out to them and ended up communicating with the wife of the man that was Felix's GGG-Grandson. She wanted to purchase the bureau and have me deliver the piece to them in order to surprise her husband.


I would usually hire someone to deliver a piece from Virginia to up-state New York, but I wanted in on the surprise as well. After a long journey, I showed up with the bureau. After having the man help me move it inside, I began to explain the typical history of the piece--when it was made, what wood it was made from, etc. I saved the interesting bit until the end of my little Antiques Roadshow-esque schpeel. Once he saw and read the writing on the side of the compartment, he looked at it for a moment in silence making glances at me and his wife in stunned amazement. To say he was touched by the situation, would be an under statement. After leaving the family at some point in the later half of the 19th Century, the bureau, with a little help from a friend, had made it back to the family.

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