Friday, April 2, 2010

Uncle Milton Holden and Camphor Refining

If you were to ask me what my favorite part of genealogical research is, the answer would undoubtedly be placing individuals into the large mosaic we call history.  Just like us, our ancestors created, or had to react to, the events and actions around them.  When I look at a census record, I am always fascinated by all the family groups living in and around the individuals I am looking for. 

The first thing I look at on a census page is the date the census taker recorded the data.  As I scan down the page, I keep in mind the time of the year.  What were these families doing?  If it was a farming community, was it planting time?  Maybe it was haying time?  Another area that I look at is the occupation of the individual.  We forget that our environment has many aspects that don't translate very well on a census page.  Things like sounds, smells, and sights are very difficult to envision in a list of names, but all of these things had profound influences on our ancestors.

Uncle Milton Holden listed his occupation as a camphor refiner.  I will admit, he is the first camphor refiner I have come across in my research.  I was intrigued by this occupation.  When his brother Josiah Holden writes to Sara Cummings, he is always mentioning Milton's poor health.  My guess is Milton's occupation had a lot to do with his ill health.  Josiah talks about Milton working 'at the mill' and so I had assumed Milton was working at a grist mill or maybe a saw mill.  It was neither.  Milton worked at a camphor mill.

Camphor was used for many things in the community.  It was regarded as a snake repellent (though I am not so sure how effective it would have been), it was used as an insect repellent, a lineament (along with menthol), and for itchy rashes.  I'm sure there are many other uses I am totally unaware of, too.

Another thing I do when researching something like camphor refining, is search in Google Books.  It is a great source for information.  I clipped a small entry from the Pharmaceutical Journal of 1874, shown above.  It was an English publication which described chemical manufacturing.  Not only did it cover camphor refining, it included the description of the camphor mill at Rumney, New Hampshire.  I believe the 'raw' ingredient used is turpentine.  It is mixed with something like nitric acid and is then distilled.  What drew my attention is the 15 + hour workday required to evaporate the liquid!  A long work day, indeed.

I also found a description of Milton Holden in the Gazetteer of Grafton County, New Hampshire.  He is the individual who constructed the camphor refinery described in the Pharmaceutical Journal.  I added that description, above.  See, I went looking for Sarah Cummings's sister and ended up learning about camphor refining!  Can you imagine what that neighborhood smelled like...  

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