‘Making friends is easy. Keeping friends is difficult.’

Published 5:04 pm Wednesday, June 7, 2017

By RENE’ DAY / Community Columnist

It caught my eye at a recent estate sale. I must admit the plain gray box in the ornate display table seemed a bit out of place. That it didn’t seem to fit is what first drew my attention. Then, I noticed three cigarette nubs and tiny papers with foreign writing tucked inside the box. The easiest to decipher was a date, 21/7-1/8 1923 – the other, S. S. Bremen. Hooked, I knew I had to rescue it for further examination.

Notes from the past spark future search. (Contributed)

You are probably asking yourself the same question I asked – “how did a 1923 box of partial cigarettes and tiny notes written in German end up in Shelby County, Alabama?” It’s an intriguing thought – and probably could be asked of so many things – and people – in this diverse part of the state. There were clues and some provided more questions than answers.

Small notes covered the inside of the box – obviously personal and written in a neat, feminine hand. The author’s identity, Miss Lilly Damm, was printed on an old calling card. So, who was Lilly? To whom did she write these notes, and what happened all those years ago? Fortunately, today’s technology provides ready assistance in finding links to the past. It only took a few moments to find out that the S. S. Bremen was part of the North German Lloyd Shipping Line that once rivaled the White Star Line of Titanic fame. Ships flying the Lloyd banner plied waters between Bremen, Bremerhaven, New York City, and other ports around the world in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Although World War I drastically affected the line’s finances – as it did Germany’s in general – it was running commercial and passenger shipping again in the 1920s. After a few clicks of a mouse, a cabin class list of passengers from 21 July 1923 appeared. Amazed, I found myself staring at the names of Mr. Max Damm, Mrs. Else Damm, Miss Ethel Damm and Miss Lilly Damm – passengers No. 49-52.

Next, an on-line “English-German” translator provided rudimentary translations of the notes contained in the box. Two definitely stick with the reader:

“A healthy body; a dear woman; a little money. Who has that may be a pleased and happy soldier.”


30th July 1923

  1. S. Bremen

And, “Making friends is easy. Keeping friends is difficult.” The second is a statement with which many of us might quickly agree.

So, who was Lilly’s new friend – the recipient of this “boxed” gift? There are other clues and the mystery continues to unravel. A return to finish “the rest of the story” will be a future column.

But, sometimes the search is the best part.

Many today are unraveling mysteries of their own. Family genealogy has become a hot new hobby. Certainly online tools can help the search – but we have another resource that will help you write your story, the Shelby County Museum and Archives in Columbiana. We’ll explore it next time because it’s going to help me find Lilly.