HOLIDAY HIDDEN GEMS: Siblings stumble upon late grandmother’s century-old correpsondence at Shirley Christmas tree display


Siblings Larry and Rhonda Bennett look over the letters that had been used to decorate one of the trees in a display at the Octagon House in Shirley.

SHIRLEY — The century-old letters are in impeccable shape — neatly folded and stuffed into envelopes postmarked in the early 1920s.

“My sweet Russell,” begins one, addressed to a man named Russell Trees of Shirley.

The letter is filled with love and affection from his clearly smitten fiancee, who signed off, “With My great and deep love to you, Your Dorothy.”

Imagine their future grandchildren’s surprise when they stumbled upon the couple’s love letters this month at the annual Christmas tree display at the Jane Ross Reeves Octagon House in Shirley.

Larry Bennett and his sister, Rhonda Bennett, had brought their significant others along to walk through the display at the historic home Dec. 4 when they made the discovery.

Rhonda was admiring a tree adorned with vintage handwritten letters and photographs in one of the home’s upstairs bedrooms when the names of two little girls on a black and white photo caught her eye.

The girls — Dorothy Bennett and Opal Stickler — had grown up in the Shirley area as cousins.

Rhonda, 66, recognized Dorothy’s name as that of her grandmother.

“I couldn’t believe it when I saw it,” recalled Rhonda, who grew up in Madison County but now lives on the west side of Indianapolis.

“I called Larry over and said, ‘Hey, look at this,’” she said.

Larry, 74, a history buff who lives just north Shirley, couldn’t believe his eyes.

“I have some letters from my uncle who died at the age of 22 in World War II, and reading those helps me feel like I got to know him better,” he said. “Now reading these letters helps me feel like I get the chance to know my grandparents better, too.”

On Tuesday — after the Christmas tree display wrapped up, drawing in 1,000 visitors over two consecutive weekends — the brother and sister traveled back to the Octagon House to take a closer look at the correspondence.

With their ancestors’ letters and photographs scattered neatly across the home’s antique dining room table, the siblings marveled at the well-preserved letters and the heartfelt words each contained.

Many of them were love letters written by their grandmother Dorothy Bennett, to her future husband, their grandfather Russell Trees.

The cursive writing in each of the letters was flowing and ornate, with much of the correspondence written in pencil.

One letter, dated July 24, 1925, had no street address, but was simply addressed to “Russell Trees, Shirley, Indiana.” With a two-cent stamp affixed neatly on the top right corner, it was postmarked in Lebanon, Indiana, presumably where his future wife Dorothy lived.

Although Larry and Rhonda never got the chance to meet Dorothy — who died in 1938 at age 32 from diabetes complications — they loved being able to read her correspondence to her future husband and her parents.

Cheryl Wright, a longtime Octagon House volunteer, said the letters had been tucked into a drawer at the historic home for over a decade, having been dropped off there by a local historian years ago.

Wright was inspired to pull them out and use them to decorate one of the holiday display’s Christmas trees this year, since a tree was being sponsored by a recently retired postal carrier named Becky Skinner.

“I thought she would get a kick out of that,” said Wright, who had no idea that the letters could be traced to family descendants living nearby.

Through the letters, Rhonda discovered that one of their ancestors had once lived in the Octagon House — which was built in 1879.

When the brother and sister returned to pore over the letters and photographs on Tuesday, Wright shared a special surprise — a yellowed but richly preserved booklet of colorful postcards Dorothy had sent to Russell nearly 100 years ago.

Each page in the book contains a different card, celebrating special occasions like birthdays, Valentine’s Day, Christmas and Easter.

“What a pleasant surprise to be able to read through all this correspondence between your family members,” said Rhonda, grinning widely as she flipped through the collection of postcards that had withstood the test of time.

Seeing the siblings’ joy over stumbling upon their ancestor’s letters was perhaps the best part of this year’s Christmas tree display, said Wright.

Between 25 and 30 trees are decorated and displayed throughout the house each year. The cost to sponsor a tree is $25.

“We had the Hancock County Master Gardeners come in and decorate three trees this year, and they were just beautiful,” said Wright, who helps coordinate the event each year.

“We try to have two on display in each room of the house,” she said.

The public is invited to tour the home and see all the trees on the first two weekends of each December.

Wright said the group could use more help, and invites those who are interested to come to the Octagon House meetings, held at 6 p.m. the first Tuesday each month at the home.

“You can’t spend much time in the house without falling in love with it,” said Wright. “We’d love to find more people who are interested in helping to keep it going.”