Trunk found in storage unit unlocks family's story
by Eddie Burkhalter
eburkhalter@annistonstar.com
Oct 21, 2013 | 6961 views |  0 comments | 84 84 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Tom Stouffer didn't think much of this trunk when he found it in a storage unit in Pennsylvania, but it unlocked the story of a an Anniston family. (Photo courtesy of Tom Stouffer)
Tom Stouffer didn't think much of this trunk when he found it in a storage unit in Pennsylvania, but it unlocked the story of a an Anniston family. (Photo courtesy of Tom Stouffer)
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Carleton Sterne Lentz, in an undated photo from The Star's archives.
Carleton Sterne Lentz, in an undated photo from The Star's archives.
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Tom Stouffer found the steamer trunk tucked behind some old wicker furniture.

He didn’t think much of it then, as he loaded and unloaded the contents of the storage unit he’d bought to resell. He buys those storage units often now that he’s retired and living in Carlisle, Penn. It gives him something to fill the hours, he said.

But then he spotted markings along the large trunk’s sides that sparked his curiosity.

Along with the words “Anniston - Alabama,” “Carleton Sterne Lentz” and “Hoboken,” the trunk had a sticker of some kind, its print hard to read. Stouffer grabbed his magnifying glass and read what he believed to be the word “Lusitania.” (It would later turn out he was mistaken on that point.)

“When I saw the name of the ship I thought, ‘Wow,’” Stouffer said. “Normally I would just take and get it appraised and try to move it on down the road, but my curiosity got the best of me.”

Stouffer called The Star and a reporter was able to track the family name to a retired professor from Kenyon College. The trunk belonged to his mother.

Perry Lentz, 70, grew up in Anniston. He became a novelist and has spent a career teaching English and literature at Kenyon College, an old liberal arts college in central Ohio. The Lentz House at the college is named after him.

Lentz said by email to The Star that he’s certain his mother – born in 1920 – could never have taken a voyage on the grand British ocean liner, the RMS Lusitania, which was sunk by a German torpedo in 1915.

“And I don't think it departed, ever, from Hoboken. That would have been distinctly déclassé for a Cunard liner holding the Blue Riband for the speed record on the north Atlantic run, I should think,” Lentz wrote.

But it was her trunk alright. He remembers it well.

“The matter itself instantly produced all kinds of memories, of Anniston in the late 40s, the 50s and the 60s, when among other things there were three movie theaters along Noble Street (Ritz, Calhoun, and what was the one down near Tenth?),” Lentz wrote. “The textile mills were flourishing (my father was an executive at Classe Ribbon), segregation was the law of the land, and Oxford was a tiny little village. Last time I was in Anniston, about five years ago on family business, none of those things were true.”

He never remembered the old steamer trunk in use, however, saying his parents packed extensively and heavily as people of their generation did for trips. But the trunk stayed in the attic of their home at 45 Sunset Drive in Anniston, he said.

The words "Carleton Sterne" are embossed, while "Lentz" looks to have been painted on later, Stouffer said. Sterne was his mother’s maiden name, so “Lentz” was likely painted on after she married, Lentz said.

The couple had three children. Lentz’s brother, Preston, lives in Honolulu, his sister, Lucy Lentz Hovious, in Nashville.

Lentz thinks the trunk – large and lined in velvet, with wooden clothes hangers and a key to keep its contents safe — must have been what his mother took off to college at Randolph Macon Women's College, now called Randolph College, in Virginia.

“She was in the class of 1941, so that would mean that she boarded a train — probably from Anniston — sometime in the autumn of 1937, with the trunk loaded into the baggage car,” Lentz wrote.

She transferred to Vanderbilt for her last two years of college, he said, in order to be closer to her mother. Her father, Neil Paul Sterne, died unexpectedly in 1939.

The trunk, to the best of his knowledge, stayed in that attic until 1990, when his parents moved to Nashville, where both his siblings lived at the time. His father died there in 1993, his mother eight years later.

“During the estate sale, the trunk was obviously sold off — how it then migrated to Carlisle, Penn., is beyond my knowing,” he said.

Tucked inside an envelope in The Star archives is a clipping from June 4, 1975, with the headline “Mrs. Lentz ‘Woman of Year.’” A black-and-white image of Lentz shows a dark-haired woman with an easy smile, a pearl necklace and a broad-collared top with small white flowers.

Carleton Lentz worked as coordinator of volunteer services for the local food stamp program. She served on the board of the Public Library of Anniston and Calhoun County during the turbulent days of its integration. She volunteered and served on the boards of numerous civic organizations.

The woman whose steamer trunk was found in a storage unit in Carlisle, Penn., once wrote a letter to the former Alabama governor, then a Montgomery judge, George Wallace.

Dated Nov. 17, 1962, her letter to Wallace reads that she “did not approve of your statement to the effect that you would ‘stand on the schoolhouse steps and block the path of any negro trying to register at a white institution.’”

“... If you have any part of turning Alabama into another Mississippi when the same issue arises here, I shall oppose any further political steps you may ever try to take,” she wrote.

But the Lusitania sticker Stouffer thought he’d read correctly? Could the trunk have been passed down to his mother from her parents?

Her father was an attorney in Anniston. He married her mother in 1911, four years before the ship crossed in front of a German U-boat 11 miles off the coast of Ireland. Could her parents have taken that trunk on a honeymoon trip aboard the lavish Lusitania?

“No idea, nor do I know any way of finding out. But the date sure makes sense,” Lentz said. “From the description of the trunk, I had derived the idea that it was made especially for my mother with that incision of her name. But of course, that could have been done later, couldn't it?”

Stouffer loves a good historical mystery, he said. He spent seven years digging through his family’s genealogy.

“A couple years ago I found a lot of Indian artifacts and arrowheads in the bottom of a box of junk,” Stouffer said.

That made him some money, but finds like that don’t happen very often, he said, and nothing as interesting as the trunk that belonged to Carleton Sterne Lentz has ever been on the other side of doors of storage units he’s bought.

Stouffer wanted to make sure the trunk got back to the family that once owned it, if they wanted it.

But the mystery of the trunk’s trip on the Lusitania proved no mystery at all. Upon a closer look at the sticker, what Stouffer believed to read “Lusitania” is actually the word “Lucien”. That’s Lentz father, Lucien Boyd Lentz.

And the ship was the SS Nieuw Amsterdam, which operated for the Holland American Line. The 758 feet steamer spent nearly all its career making transatlantic runs, but near its end it began regular trips to the Caribbean. The ship was scrapped in 1974.

“I can remember that they took two vacation trips to Jamaica, probably in the 'forties,” Lentz said. “Their notion of a vacation was to repair to a resort somewhere, rather than moving from city to city sampling diverse cultures.”

Lentz plans to travel in November from his Ohio home to Carlyle to pick up his mother’s trunk, then bring it to his sister’s home in Nashville.

It’s a roundabout trip, Lentz explained, “but it will give us a chance to see the Shenandoah and the Blue Ridge.”

Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.

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