Grad student solves handkerchief mystery

Courtney Morgan stands in front of a worktable holding an item from the Avenir collection.Design and Merchandising graduate student Courtney Morgan is working at the Avenir Museum from Fall 2018 through Spring 2020, when she expects completion of her Master of Science degree. She recently conducted in-depth provenance research into a small but intriguing object in the Avenir Museum collection, and shares the path of discovery in her own words. 

Early in Fall 2018 semester, I helped process a donation of handkerchiefs dating from World War I (1914-1918) for an upcoming exhibit. Rolled in with the century-old handkerchiefs was a plastic sleeve holding a letter. Curious, I scanned the letter and saw that it was written by a sailor in 1919. It was signed only “The Old Miller” and had the name of a ship, USS Keresaspa. My imagination went wild and I wanted to know the sailor’s story.

A concurrent proposal from Avenir Museum staff to curate a small November 2018 exhibit – featuring the handkerchiefs as a centennial salute to the WWI Armistice in November 1918 – meant that my fellow CSU graduate student Kim Selinske and I now had a focus for our research!  My mind immediately jumped to the letter from “The Old Miller.” Could we uncover his story with the few clues we had – a common last name, a date, and a ship? I parsed the letter for more hints like place names, but nothing seemed to stand out. The clues I had were not robust enough to use an online database. I knew that the United States military would have kept records of who was on a given ship, and this led me to contacting the National Archives in St. Louis, where naval records are held.

I sent an email to the National Archives explaining my project. A week later, I received a reply: if I could supply an exact date, the archives specialist could search the muster roll. So, I provided the dates from the letter and within two hours, I had a name: Glen O. Miller. The muster roll also provided a place of enlistment, Cincinnati, and a date of enlistment, August 17, 1917. With this new information, I used Fold3, a military records database, to find a headstone application in Ohio for a sailor with the correct name and enlistment date. This also gave me a birthday, December 23, 1898, and his middle name, Otto.

I then typed this information into Ancestry.com and found Glen Otto Miller in someone’s family tree. I clicked the name, and found that the tree author had uploaded a page from Ohio soldiers, sailors, and marines, World War, 1917-18. And there he was, Glen Otto Miller, with the same service number from the headstone application and from service on the USS Keresaspa! Confident I had the right man, I enlisted the assistance of Avenir Museum Curator Katie Knowles to provide a formal introduction to the CSU museum exhibit project, and then I emailed the author of the tree, Barry Miller, through Ancestry.com. He emailed me back to tell me he is Glen O. Miller’s second cousin, three times removed. More excitingly, though, he is an avid genealogist and would use his resources to help me find any living descendants.

Not long after, I received an email from Joanne Miller Behymer, Glen O. Miller’s daughter! She generously provided the enlistment photograph of her father, along with his military records and family history. We shared these details in the label text next to his photograph and handkerchief, providing Avenir Museum visitors with a vivid personal connection to a an otherwise apparently simple textile: they “met” a young man, just 20 years old, who wrote a letter and sent the sentimental handkerchief to his loved one back home after serving in the most devastating war the world had yet endured. I can’t begin to explain what a joy it was to learn and share The Old Miller’s story; it has been one of my most rewarding professional experiences.

The Miller Handkerchief, with a border made from American flags and a few figures depicted in gray at the center.

 

Avenir Museum #2018.37.41

The letter from Glen O. Miller that enclosed this handkerchief was sent January 28, 1919, from Baltimore.  It is made of silk, and measures 14.75” long by 15” wide.  The U.S. flag border and the center decoration of soldier and sweetheart are printed onto the silk; the verse reads Remember Me / Sweet be to thee life’s passing hours / and all thy path be decked with flowers.

A black and white photo of "old Miller" in a military uniform.

 

Glen O. Miller: 1898 – 1962

After enlisting in the U.S. Navy in August 1917 at age 18, Miller was honorably discharged in September 1919 at the age of 20 with the rank of Quartermaster 2-C; his discharge papers commend him for sobriety. Miller married in 1932 and had five children – his daughter Joanne responded to the Ancestry.com research request by Avenir Museum graduate student Courtney Morgan in Fall 2018, supplying this image from the time of Miller’s 1917 enlistment, as well as her father’s service record.