Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center – part 69

Part 69: Kismet

A series of fortuitous events occurred after I became unemployed. I chose to interpret these opportunities as if the universe were giving me a big “thumb’s up” on my current path in life. Whether fate or luck, long-hidden information kept appearing out of nowhere.

In 1996, I sent out a series of handwritten letters to the decedents of Thomas Gibbs Moses just prior to the opening of the museum exhibit “Theatre of the Fraternity: Staging the Sacred Space of the Scottish Rite.” It was just one of my many tasks as assistant to the curator, Lance Brockman. Almost all of these letters remained unanswered and I figured that this particular chapter of my life was closed. That was the case until the spring of 2016.

Thomas Gibbs Moses (1856-1934), scenic artist and eventual president of Sosman & Landis Studio (1877-1924).

An instant message was sent to me during March of 2016. I missed it. During my first month of unemployment in August, I stumbled across the request to “accept” on Facebook. It was an inquiry to see if I was the same “Wendy Waszut” who had written a letter in 1996.

A great grandson of Thomas Moses was finally responding to one of my handwritten letters! Apologizing profusely for not responding two decades earlier, he had been in the process of moving to another country when he received my letter. It simply got tucked away in a box and only recently emerged as he was downsizing.

I was astounded by his actions. There is something amazing about someone stumbling across an old letter and regretting not responding to the author. But it is something else entirely to find the letter and actually contact the author after twenty years. By now, Moses’ descendants were scattered across the world. Many still had paintings and other personal artifacts of their famous relative. Some were now trying to decide what to do with these precious artifacts and how to preserve them for others to enjoy. Here was one asking me for help.

The great grandson was a man who wanted to keep his identity private, so I will not mention his name or home. Sadly, he knew only bits and pieces about his “famous” great-grandfather. Regardless, he treasured his small stockpile of fine art pieces produced throughout the course of his great-grandfather’s life.

During September 2016, we started corresponding by both email and telephone. We immediately connected and enjoyed each conversation. He was a delightful and accomplished individual, having overcome his own share of struggles. I told him stories that I had read in Moses’ typed manuscript and how I had first indexed his writings and scrapbook during the early 1990s. As always, added my own personal insights into the artist’s passions, hobbies, friends, frustrations, and business betrayals.

He shared pictures of Moses’ paintings that remained in the family and were passed down to him. These blurry photos made it very difficult to see the painted details. He then provided me with contact information for a few other family members, so excited was he to have me make contact with them. I emailed all immediately – no response. I began to wonder if the remainder of his family wanted to be left alone. Anyway, I had enough on my plate with the upcoming photo shoot in Santa Fe.

Enter again my friend Janet Wolter. Remember that we had formed a fast friendship after volunteering together at the Scottish Rite library (she is noted in installments 16 and 52). Janet and her husband were planning to fly to the author’s region for an upcoming project. “For how long?” I asked. “Two weeks,” she responded. It just so happened that they would be nearby the great-grandson on the last day of their travels. “If I can arrange it, would it be possible for you to visit and photograph some pictures of Thomas Moses?” I asked, further explaining that he was having difficulties with taking quality images. Janet and her husband did visited the great-grandson and took fabulous details of each artwork. I now had a further understanding of Moses’ fine art techniques for my records.

Detail of one painting that still remains with the family. Photo courtesy of Janet and Scott Wolter.

About this same time I finally make contact with another descendant. He also apologized that it had taken him so long to respond to my initial inquiries and explained that he had some of the handwritten diaries tucked away somewhere. This absolutely shocked me as I had just transcribed what I understood to be the only remaining handwritten diary that fall.

I explained that I would happily transcribe any diaries that he had, if only he could send me images. He admitted attempting many times to decipher his great-grandfather’s scrawling penmanship with no luck. He needed someone else to do it. “Chicken scratch,” he said about his great-grandfather’s writing and we finished our conversation.

Two weeks later, I received the scans of the four diaries –1929, 1930, 1932 and 1933. I had just transcribed 1931 and we discussed why that particular year would have been removed from the sequence. Why would it have ever been separated from the original set? If I had not just identified and examined the 1931 model at the Harry Ransom Center, I would still be left pondering that question.

February 8, 1932 entry: “They were all pleased with the model, which we had quite a time packing the first time.” The model had been shipped from California to Chicago for the first time during December 1931.

I believe that John Rothgeb requested to borrow that particular year from the family. This was an attempt to glean any information about the electric theater model. Like me, he had noticed the manufacture date of 1931. Unlike me, he hadn’t read the 1931 diary first. At the time, Rothgeb received the diary, he was still unsure if it was model was Moses’ work or not.

To be continued…

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