Family History as Time Travel

timetravelAs I embark on the new, exciting journey of exploring family histories, I’d plan to use this little corner of the Internet to collect my thoughts. I currently have a plan to post twice each week: one story of a family member (as I’ve been doing), and one reflection of takeaways for the week on the field of genealogy as I strive to learn and improve.

This week I’ve been continuing to voraciously consume genealogy-themed books, podcasts, and TV shows. I feel like I have dived into a new ocean and want to consume all of it, but know I need to pace myself, enjoy the new waters, and trust that I will get stronger with time.

One thought that keeps returning to me is that despite being a disciplined, responsible, and relatively organized person, my life path has oftentimes been unconventional. I spent earlier years moving to new countries and making new friends, finding new jobs. I was extremely independent and trusted that the universe was a place of open-ended adventures. I still tend to trust my inner voice when making big life-changing decisions.

The heart-pull I felt toward travel was always strong and clear. It’s been many years since I’ve had such a clear intuition of anything. I felt clear intuitions around particular decisions having to do with my children. But I haven’t felt any clear, strong insight about career for a very long time. I’ve had ideas that inspire and excite, of course. Teaching made a good deal of sense. Some business plans have popped into my imagination. But I haven’t felt booming certainty for a very long time. But now, with the discovery of the investigative and spiritual work that comes with genealogy, I feel a similar kind of heart-pull that I did in my youth about travel. I can’t help but notice that it’s indeed a new kind of travel – one without the barriers of time or space.

And so here I begin a new kind of journey in earnest. I’m not sure where it’s leading. Right now I’m a high school Humanities teacher. I teach World History, Hawaiian History, and a handful of other subjects in a small high school in Hawaii. And I love my job. There’s a cautious part of me that says I should wait to express my thoughts on this burgeoning passion until I’ve got more street-cred. But, for me, part of the pull IS about creating. Sharing is about connection, and so I’m compelled to share. There is a very clear voice in my head that tells me that although right now I am green, and am in a place of openness and vulnerability, there is space for me here, and that I have great potential to grow and contribute. So I trust a new kind of process.

I have a very long to-do list. It’s all good. I freaking love lists.

Ancestor Stories: Lawrence “Ed” Petrie (1901-1956)

ed petrie

This week I’m visiting my great grandfather, Lawrence Edwin “Ed” Petrie, and after a week of digging around, I’m not sure if Ed wants to be visited. I swear, when writing some stories, it’s like nudging ancestors awake from a deep sleep, and they are just brimming to tell me everything they can while I’m paying attention. But with Ed, he seemed a little too eager to just get back to sleep.

Ed was born on Emerson Avenue, Chicago (Evanston), in 1901. Evanston at that time offered an escape from the crowding of Chicago, which, nearly 30 years after the fire, was quickly growing. The community was designed with tree-lined streets, and an electric street railroad was constructed in the years just before Ed was born.

His father, James Petrie, of Scottish lineage, was a boilermaker. This trade – fashioning steel into large containers – was an important occupation of the Industrial Revolution, and for a long time the UK had a monopoly on the profession. Ed’s mother, Bridget Murphy, was of Irish lineage. Ed was born into a full house. His parents were in their early 40s with 6 children living with them between the ages of 5 and 20. A 49-year-old relative, Margaret Murphy (perhaps Bridget’s sister?), also lived with them. 

evanston

At some point the family moved to Hyde Park, Chicago. In the 1910 census, they still lived in a tremendously full house, with older siblings in their 20s, and even 30 year-old brother Robert and a 26 year-old son-in-law all living in the family home. They were a household of many young adults working various city jobs like stenographer and store clerk. Father James was still a boilermaker. Ed had some teenage brothers still in school, and he was a 9 year-old boy in the midst of this, the only one in single digits.

In April 1917 when Ed had just turned 16, the US entered WWI. Ed was used to a lifetime of his older brothers doing things before he was old enough to join. But on this occasion, all the brothers would enter into the war together. Each would be carried on his own path. In Ed’s case, he was a seaman with the Navy, participating in transport convoys to France. WWI transport convoys provided escort to merchant ships carrying all manner of things to and from various countries. 

The best insight I got into what my great grandfather’s experiences must have been like during his service during WWI was from the fascinating journal entries of 24 year-old sailor Guy Burrell Connor. From the introduction to his published journal, “During World War I the US Navy’s primary role was the safe transport of troops and supplies to the war in Europe rather than classic engagements with enemy ships on the high seas. This vital mission guaranteed the arrival of over two million American troops to the front lines, along with tons of supplies to support them. Some 503,000 enlisted men and 32,000 officers were serving in the American Navy at the time of the November 1918 armistice. One of these enlisted sailors who helped protect the flow of American troops and supplies to the Allies was Guy Burrell Connor, a resident of Cromwell Indiana. His diary, written during the last year of the war, reflects the daily life, concerns, and observations of an average battleship sailor risking his life escorting ships in these Atlantic crossings.”

10917397_10152664688416705_7243292662319812163_nI share a handful of diary entries in order to give a taste of what Ed’ experiences must have been like. Though he wasn’t the sailor who wrote these accounts, he was living very much the same life, and doubtless would share many similar thoughts and experiences had he left a diary of his own for me to find. Once again, at 17, he was probably around a bunch of older boys. These entries really transport the reader, but for the sake of a read-in-one sitting account, I share just a selection. I have transcribed them as written. For those interested, the entire collection is available here: https://www.jstor.org/stable/27791701 

July, 1918

Got back to the Pennsylvania at the Brooklyn Navy Yard July 17th after having the best leave and I certainly did hate to get back. Everything is in terrible shape and things are being rushed so as to get through before time is up. Have been trying to get transferred to a landwire job but guess it won’t go through. There’s too many men in the radio force on the Pennsy and I want to get where I can have more of an opportunity to do something. Left Navy Yard July 15th and landed at Base Two the next day. All we do is stay at this place and I wish I could get somewhere. We passed a ship on the trip down that was torpedoed shortly after.

Sept 21st, 1918

…A submarine stood back a couple miles one day and took a shot at the convoy in hopes of getting at least one ship. We saw the wake of the torpedo headed for the Henderson in time to save them. The Stingham came alongside us three days ago and received sealed orders from the Captain. They left at once and returned last night about nine o’clock.

Sept 22nd, 1918

…Have the 4 to 8am watch this morning.

Sept 25th, 1918

Heard stations in Morocco, Spain, England and Germany working last night and also heard British warships working. We are very near the coast of Europe. Last night instead of copying Washington press, I went on arc and copied English press from Horses and Carnarvon. They send it about twenty eight or thirty per minute and I got four pages in less than forty five minutes. We have been having abandon ship drills today and I also went aloft to fix the antenna. I heard that in the entire convoy there was only seven or eight deaths since we started. One Marine Captain on the Henderson died. Most of the sickness and death is due to Spanish Influenza which is spreading some now… Reports come down from foretop just now of firing heard off port bow. Four distinct shots heard. I just sent a message to Sigourney and rec’d one from him. He used commercial procedure, I used U.S.N. procedure. Covered 600 on black receiver all during 12-4 pm watch. Heard Cape Finisterre Spain, Alfonso XII and Reina Maria Cristina working all afternoon. About six o’clock p.m. a bunch of destroyers met us and the Pueblo and Stribling started back. We remain with the convoy until we reach longitude 15. There’s about a dozen destroyers with us now.

Sept 29, 1918

Arrived at Ponta Del Gada this morning about ten o’clock and the Islands are the most beautiful sight I ever saw. They are like mountains, or rather they are mountains sticking up out of the the ocean and far into the clouds. They are green at this time of year and the fields are laid off in even plots that seem plastered on the side of the mountain. Here and there white houses with red roofs dot the country, and the towns are built more compact than ours. The houses are similar to those of the Mesicans and the people are mostly Portugese. Ponta Del Gada has about 25,000 population. I imagine I would like to live here for a while at least and if I did it would be up on the mountain where everything is green and nice. The fields are all fenced off with hedges. In some places there’s also a stone wall along the roads with broken glass on top to keep out trespassers. Admiral Dunn is our naval officer here and he is also the power over the people of the city. The “Tonahpaw” an old monitor flys his flag and there’s three subs of K Type here, a couple of our gun boats and a few French sub chasers. The “Marietta” and “Arethusa” are also here. When we moored here there was big Portuguese troop ship in which had been chased in here by subs. It sailed from Africa for Portugal and there’s all kinds of people aboard with every kind of a uniform on also a few women. We area a curiosity here for the people hire bum boats and row around the ship to look us over. Some of the natives come out and dive for money in the water. One fellow threw five pennies in and one of the divers got them all before he came up again. I can’t say how long we will be here but I can’t see why we should stay here for there’s no place to get fixed up. All we can do is overhaul our engines. It’s wonderful to know that we were about three days in the submarine zone with crippled engines and then got through without hitting a submarine. We copied one SOS today and one Allo. The “Henry George” was gunned and wanted immediate assistance.

Sept 30th, 1918

Still at Ponta Del Gada eating lots of pineapples. Natives come alongside with bumboats full of pineapples and other kinds of fruit to sell. Only one tenth of the crew gets liberty here each day and it’s only for six hours. There’s plenty to drink here. Every other store has wines and liquor to sell and things are very cheap. They all advertize their wines, private rooms, and women. The women of the older families of the island where a peculiar cape and hood or bonnet. Both are black, the cape reaching their shoe tops and the hood is narrow, long and high, standing up like the comb on a chicken. ‘Tis said that in years past the Spaniards used to come over here and pick all the pretty girls and take them back to Spain so they got the idea of disguising the girls to make them appear older. Some of the older men where these costumes also.

Oct 1, 1918

Still at Ponta Delgada. We coal ship tomorrow and will no doubt leave in a day or so. All the fellows are getting money to keep for souvenirs. Would like to take some things back but there’s nothing but cheap novelties to be had. The sidewalks here are very narrow and inlaid with fancy stones. When a person gets on one street here you have to go to the end for there’s no cross streets or alleys. Wish I could get some mail from home. Will be glad when I can hear from Alice again for it’s been almost a month since I had a letter from her.

Oct 2, 1918

Still at Ponta Delgada. We have four corpses from the Chicago to take back to the U.S. We are coaling ship today and will leave tomorrow for the U.S. I worked all day putting jumpers on the antennas and it was some job.

Oct 12, 1918

Had general quarters at 2am this morn acct three torpedoes fired at us. We started zig zagging and made about 20 knots getting away from them. Had the 4 to 8am watch and sighted land at 6am. First time we have seen U.S. in month. Arrived in Yorktown about ten thirty am. I got read for the recreation grounds but they were delayed so I went and scrubbed clothes and took a bath. No mail today but one hundred bags tomorrow.

Oct 20, 1918

Have the 8am to 12 noon watch this morning. I certainly had a bad night last night. A new regulation on the water-tight doors keeps them closed only when the watches are being changed. I had the six to eight watch and when I went up to get my hammock it was too dark to see. I couldn’t find it so I slept in the tailor shop on deck, in the 4th div’n passageway, on a mess table and finally in the Interfleet. Hughes came in to get a bucket about 6 30 and dropped a big heavy angle iron on my head. I have a nice big bump and gash in my head now. We should reach New York this afternoon sometime and I hope we get some liberty so I can write some letters and send a telegram. We dropped anchor opposite Tompkinsville at 6:30pm during a drizzling rain. Have been looking at the “Statue of Liberty” and wondering if I will get any liberty. So far things look very doubtful. Word from the Pueblo says they have had no liberty account Influenza.

Oct 25, 1918

Very rough today. At daybreak the convoy was about 20 miles ahead but now we have caught up with them. This trip has been enough to get on a person’s nerves so far and before we get back I suppose it will be worse. I’ve aged about five years in the last week.

Oct 28, 1918

The weather is very rough yet and both the main and gun decks are flooded. We have been in this rough weather a week now.

Oct 30, 1918

Last night while I was washing clothes torpedo defense sounded and we fired two shots at a submarine and put on all speed getting away from torpedoes. We were at our stations about an hour… I was busy all day doing lots of little personal details and am not through yet. We meet the destroyers about tomorrow some time and will turn back soon after that. We will no doubt go back alone and if we have good luck it will be about the 10th of November when we get back. Hope I get leave soon as we get back so I can get to see Alice once more. I’ll bet she thinks I’m gone.

November 2, 1918

Still encountering heavy seas and not making such good time. Nearly half the crew has Spanish Influenza and its a surprise to me that they haven’t something else the way were are crowded up and the things we have had to contend with this trip.

November 3, 1918

About 40 go into the sick bay each day with the “flu” and only four or five coming out. We have 7 or 8 from the radio bunch in there now. We are proceeding very slowly and wont be in the U.S. for about ten days.

November 6, 1918

We headed into a hurricane this morning and have been bucking it all day. At least a week yet before we reach the states and more if we continue to run into these storms. We have had only about one day of good weather during the entire trip.

November 9, 1918

We were turned out for torpedo defence about two am this morning. Its getting cold and very rough also raining. Three men have died with influenza. We are making very slow time. Too slow for me.

November 10, 1918

Last night I copied the USNavy press telling of the Kaisers abdication and now everyone is talking peace and a chance to get back home. Theres where I want to be right away. The sea is smooth today and I passed a very lonesome Sunday. Sure wish I was home where I belong.

November 11, 1918

Hostilities ceased at 11am today and everyone on the ship is highly elated. The band marched around the gun deck with about half the ships company behind in single file singing and playing different pieces. Everyone is talking of going home but there will be some that wont gt home until the full enlistment is served. If peace is declared I will sure make every effort to get out for I only came in on account of the war. It will be at least six months before any one gets home though and it will take time to get settled.

The collection closes stating that little is known of this sailor’s later life. I tried searching for descendants, because I wanted to make sure they were aware of this collection of diary entries out there and available to the public. Although I couldn’t find evidence of any children, I was heartened to see he went on to marry Alice. 

In Ed’s case, I’m not sure how many transport convoys he was a part of, and it is only through the news clipping that I believe they were transatlantic to France. I included Guy’s experiences in Portugal despite the fact that my great grandfather’s land experiences must have been somewhat different in France. First, because I think it highlights the simple curiosities and pleasures of young men leaving home that must’ve been occurring in many different shapes and forms all around the world. And second, because it’s fun to remember Guy from Indiana even if he’s not my great grandfather. Indiana’s right there next to Chicago.

When Ed returned from the war, he was still a teenager, and would move into a smaller household than the one he left. His father James would die in early 1919. In fact, when my research skills have improved, I will have to explore whether or not Ed made it back in time to say good bye to his father, as Guy’s diary indicates that it might have been some time after the war ended before sailors could return home.

Ed began working as a clerk in the post office. He lived with his mother and older sisters. One of his sisters had learned tragedy with the death of a six year old son and then subsequent suicide of her husband. During that time in the post-war years, Ed met young (very young! 14 or 15 year-old) Mary King from nearby in the neighborhood. She became pregnant at 15 and a few months before the arrival of their son, my grandfather, they crossed into Indiana to get married.

Research questions: I know Indiana isn’t far, but what was the practical reason for wedding here? Did it have to do with her age? Did she have relatives there? Was it really the closest location (seems doubtful)? 

They were married on January 11th and baby William, my grandfather, was born May 13th. The year was 1921.

It is most likely that they moved immediately in with Bridget Murphy, Ed’s mother, and his older sisters. I believe many of his older brothers were also living nearby.

Ten years would pass before I could get another snapshot of them. By 1930 Ed and Mary were estranged. I have no idea how long they lasted. They were each listed as married in 1930 census records, but they were living apart. Mary was a waitress and apparently living alone. Ed was 29 years old, a fire extinguisher salesman listed as the head of house, living with another apparently estranged married 28 year-old man (chauffeur), a single 28 year-old man (salesman in a cigar shop), and an estranged 29 year-old married woman (waitress). William, their son, was left to the care of Ed’s mother Bridget and older aunts living at the home of their mother. I believe that was the case from as early as my grandfather remembered. He had a lonely childhood.

Back to Ed’s household in 1930. Three single/married-but-estranged men and a married-but-estranged woman. The woman, Harriet Bracht, was listed as Ed’s sister-in-law, but that didn’t add up. The name didn’t match with any of his sibling’s families as far as I could tell. I figured there must be an interesting – potentially scandalous – story there, and suspected she might be having an affair with one of the men. I started to dig into Harriet’s life. She had married a man six years before, and it turns out stalking that estranged husband did not disappoint. 

Ray Elfgen from Alton Illinois. He’d already married and divorced the same woman FOUR TIMES BEFORE he married Harriet. If that’s not a red flag, ladies, I don’t know what is. He married 26 year-old Harriet in 1924, but two years later, he’d be marrying a 15 year-old. (He was the grand old age of 35 by then.) By the way, census records show that he lived for a time in the same household as his 15 year-old wife and her parents (who were his age) and her siblings. Awkward. I’d say Harriet made the wrong call, but that it didn’t last more than a couple years means I guess she dodged a bullet.

There is actually a treasure trove out there about Ray Elfgen. For example, a police officer was shot in pursuit of a “negro man” whom Ray Elfgen had chased out of his store for shoplifting. I have a theory that the real source of Ray Elfgen’s life history of drama could be a car accident that he barely survived as a young man. It seems like there was some damage to the frontal lobe with this guy.

So I’m not sure how Harriet came about living in a household of married-but-not-married adults which included my great grandfather, when even his own son didn’t get face-time around there. Whether there was anything romantic happening, it doesn’t appear to have led to a marriage.

Ed’s later life remains very much a mystery to me. I think he married a woman eventually, perhaps her name was Florence Bretz, but that is something to confirm down the road. I can’t seem to find him anywhere in the 1940s census records and so that would be an interesting place to pick up research. Lawrence? Edwin? Ed? I can’t find him.

He died in 1956 at the relatively young age of 55. His occupation was bartender. Was his death smoking or drinking related as so many were in that era? What kind of relationship did he have with his son, my grandfather, by the end of his life? My grandfather was just beginning his family life with my mother and her siblings. Was his death a shock to him?

That concludes my time with Ed for this week. I’ll let him get back to sleep. For next week, I visit my German line: Christine Schleppenbach. How great is that name?

The Magnificent Universe Disguised

the magnificent universe

Discovering the world of family history has been extremely soul-nourishing for me. I love this exchange from Finding Your Roots between host Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and guest Deepak Chopra.

Deepak Chopra, looking at a line of 6 generations: Looking at this gives me a feeling of awe, of reverence, of humility, but also magnificence. I’m the magnificent universe disguised as Deepak Chopra. This opens the door. Chopras all the way. The Magnificent Universe Disguised

 

Ancestor Stories: Eugene Terry (1886-1958)

One of the great opening lines of literature comes from Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

I started exploring my family tree by choosing one ancestor each week to intensely focus on, starting with my great grandmother, Catherine Goff. In that first story of Catherine, I described a happy family. She was an educated and dignified woman of Irish Catholic lineage, and she raised her five children to value the church and education. Her husband was successful in banking, and the family was entrepreneurial in their later years. And that was all true. But I was just getting my feet wet with genealogy. It turns out there was a lot more to the story. 

A month and four ancestors later, and it’s Catherine’s husband’s turn to be looked at through the lens of history. He was my great grandfather, Eugene Terry. The more I uncovered about his life, the more it seemed that he was an apt representation of America in the 1920s and 30s – a meteoric rise followed abruptly by a dizzying fall.

He was born in 1886 in the small community of Lamberton, Minnesota. About Lamberton’s earliest days, I can do no better than this description that I found at an area school’s website, “In the beginning there were four-foot tall, blue stem prairie grasses that trembled and bent in the strong winds. The winds subsided, they straightened and held fast in the rich soil of southwestern Minnesota. Clusters of Native Americans lived and laughed, raised their children, hunted for buffalo and deer, fished and trapped on the banks of the Cottonwood River. There were traders, solitary men, who traveled through this vast, empty land, searched its silent horizons, and made money from trading trinkets and fire water to the Native Americans for pelts and furs to supply an eager Eastern market. They came on horseback leading their pack animals, sizing up this land and its future.” With the Homestead Act of 1862, it would be a matter of decades before the land would be transformed into something wholly new and full of possibility.

Below is a picture of the Lamberton of Eugene’s youth.

lamberton

Eugene was the first born to 29 year-old Pliny Terry and 19 year old Estelle (maiden name Small). A side note: Pliny Terry is the ancestor who ignited my interest in genealogy. When I first heard his strange name mentioned – without any story attached – I wondered what kind of a person had a name like Pliny. He was a bit of a mystery to the elder members of my family as well, so my imagination was left to run wild. It seemed urgent that I find out for myself just who he was.

Pliny, of course, has a backstory. In fact, my Terry line is the longest on US soil, tracing back to Samuel Terry, a teenager from Barnet outside of London who travelled to Springfield Massachusetts as an indentured servant in 1650. But this week’s story is closer to the present.

Eugene, born in 1886, would be the only son for Pliny and Estelle, but his arrival was followed by four sisters. He gained sisters Eliza (Elsie), Lola, Kedie, and the last baby Evelyn came in 1903 when Eugene was 17. 

After his years as a Lamberton schoolboy, he began a trend that would continue for his progeny: he attended college. He studied at the commercial college in Mankato, 70 miles from home. After college, he returned to his hometown and was given a position in Lamberton State Bank.

By the age of 21, he had already purchased his own property in Lamberton. The very next year he purchased yet another property from a man for $9,000, and within the year would sell it back to the same man for $9,600. As usual with genealogy, answers lead to more questions. 

Over the next five years, Eugene appears to climb an economic and social ladder of sorts. The newspaper announced his comings and goings doing business dealings around the region with his boss, the president of the bank, A. F. Kuske. He met and married, Catherine Goff, a school teacher a couple years his junior, who’d come from 90 miles away to take the position as 6th grade teacher in the Lamberton public school.

I share this newspaper announcement of their nuptials as an insight into social media in the days before social media. Readers of the day savored every detail of decor and dress. 

Miss Catherine Goff Wedded to Eugene Leslie Terry at Home of Bride’s Parents Today. Dignity and simplicity characterized the appointments of the wedding of Miss Catherine Thressia Goff, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Edward Goff of this city, to Eugene Leslie Terry, son of Mr. and Mrs. P. Terry of Lamberton, Minn., which was solemnized Tuesday morning, January 12, at 6:30o’clock in the music room at the home of the bride’s parents. Rev. Father Boland officiated. Mrs. Butler of Spokane, Wash., an aunt of the bride, was matron of honor and Dr. Butler attended the groom. The rooms were decorated with southern smilax, American beauties, Chinese lilies and broad-fingered palms. Miss Goff’s bridal costume was of pale gray crepe de meteor, fashioned on girlish lines. The bodice was pink satin, trimmed with Venetian point lace, and the bride’s jewel was a ring set with twin diamonds, the gift of the groom. After the ceremony a bountiful breakfast was served in the dining room. Mr. and Mrs. Terry left the same morning for a trip through the west. A part of their honeymoon will be spent at Los Angeles, Calif. They will be at home at Lamberton on their return where Mr. Terry has business interests. For travel Mrs. Terry is wearing a handsome three-piece tailored suit of midnight blue colored broadcloth, a blue hat and Alaskan seal furs.

Weddings at 6am and seal furs! I couldn’t make this stuff up, you guys! I am so in love with these stories.

My aunt wrote in her own genealogy account prepared over 50 years ago, “Eugene, like his father Pliny before him, worked assiduously and accumulated a respectable amount of money with which he started his own banking system; having banks in three small Minnesota communities.”

In 1915 at the age of 29, the up-and-comer would celebrate the arrival of his first son, Eugene Jr. The same year, the Lamberton Star reported, “E. L. Terry is spending a few days in Lamberton. He has made arrangements for opening a bank at Olivia in the near future, of which he will have charge as cashier.”

His star kept rising. Written of a bank with which he was associated: “The capital and surplus of this institution is one of $18,500, and upon this moderate capital an astonishing business is done. The individual deposits foots up extremely high, and although subject to the usual quick fluctuation marking this particular phase of banking are on the average remarkable in total. … We commend this institution to the patronage of our readers.”

Eugene was apparently at the top of his game. When the US entered WWI in April 1917, Eugene was 30 years old, living large, and two weeks away from having his second child, a daughter. The war must’ve felt a world away. He registered on June 5, 1917, on the first round, as required by law. He was now a banker in Renville soon to move to Morristown, 100 miles away from his home of Lamberton, ostensibly to open another bank. He had brown hair and eyes, short, medium build. He might’ve been short, but the hats he wore were straight gangster.

Let me pause for some foreshadowing. We’re entering an era of unprecedented laissez-faire bank practices. What would happen over the next decade would precipitate the most devastating financial collapse in world history and finally elicit regulations such as the establishment of the SEC. But until then, much of the country was in an unparalleled decade of growth and prosperity. Eugene, a banker, was at the right spot at the right time.

Eugene and Catherine had another son. And another. And another. One was my grandfather, Jerome, born in 1921. They regularly visited Eugene’s family a hundred miles away back in Lamberton, and even met in the middle, allowing the grandparents to take the children back for short visits from time to time.

My grandfather passed down a memory from when he was just four years old about Eugene’s father, his grandfather, Pliny. At this time in Lamberton it was with pride that a man owned a 1920 Buick touring car. Pliny was visiting his son Eugene one summer and he had come proud as a peacock with a new 1920 Buick touring car with a canvas roof. My grandfather Jerome, who was four years old at the time, was playing outside and found a hammer, crawled up on the hood and completely demolished the roof of his brand new car. From my aunt’s letter recounting the story, “Pliny was, as grandfathers still are today, compassionate, understanding, and only took amusement at the incident! (I bet!)” Eugene himself, like his father, was no stranger to new cars. He was referenced in a newspaper article back in 1914 as having purchased a Cadillac. My dad’s cousin, Betty, also has a car memory associated with Eugene. She remembers him as an older man, driving with her in a nice two-toned green 56 or 57 Chevy. He promised it to her when she graduated from school. Cars and education, I’m telling you, were a thing with those Terry men. He would die before he could keep his promise.

I include these anecdotes, because it is through them that I suspect that Eugene thought very highly of his father, Pliny, and perhaps tried to emulate him in some respects. Pliny worked very hard – without the guidance of parents – to rise to a place of relative prominence and comfort in the community. Eugene was Pliny’s eldest and only son, and I suspect the relationship between father and son was foundational to Eugene’s life.

And sometimes, when you’re living the dream, you are reminded of just how tenuous that life can be. In 1928, a year before the Wall Street crash, Eugene would experience his own personal fall from grace.

In the papers, Feb. 1, 1928: E. L Terry, cashier of the closed Farmers’ State Bank of Morristown and a former resident of Lamberton, was arrested last week, charged with three embezzlements totaling $2,353.36. Terry pleaded not guilty when arraigned in municipal court at Faribault and was placed under bond of $9,000.

Shortly upon his release on bond, while awaiting his fate, he would go for a few days to visit his parents. His father had fallen ill and become bed-ridden. What must they have spoken about on that visit? Did Pliny counsel him on a course of action? Within a few months his father Pliny, a man I am inclined to believe was Eugene’s hero, would die. Eugene was 41 when his father died, and only weeks away from his sentence. 

From the Redwood Gazette, May 30, 1928 TERRY, BANK EMBEZZLER, GETS 10 YEARS IN PRISON E. L. Terry, cashier of the defunct Farmers’ State Bank of Morristown, near Mankato, appeared in district court at Faribault last week and pleaded guilty to a charge of grand larceny and was sentenced to serve ten years in the state prison. Terry was arrested after the Farmers’ State Bank was closed by the examiners and was charged with misappropriating funds. The grand jury had recently indicted him on seven counts and it was one of these counts that he pleaded guilty. The other six are still pending.

In order for me to get beyond the newspaper accounts and into court and prison records, I would need to go to Minnesota, 4,000 miles away from my home. So I did the next best thing, and reached out via email to the Morristown Historical Society, where as luck would have it, Karen Schroeder has been researching the history of Morristown banks. (I love this about genealogy! There is a whole network of investigators even more passionate and diligent than I am, and they are generous with their findings.) She saw my last name and suspected right away which ancestor I was inquiring about. In her words, “The Farmer’s State Bank folded right after this incident. When people made payments on their loans, he did not record them. A couple tellers were called to testify at his trial. They looked at the books and found no records that the payments had been made.”

Eugene! Come on, man!

She goes on, “The Morristown State Bank was formed shortly after that because the townspeople felt they needed a bank. They contacted a lawyer in Northfield who already owned two or three banks in small towns. He agreed to open a bank in Morristown if the Banking Commission would approve it. This was a time of great financial difficulty in the United States.  The Commission looked at their plans and agreed to what the townspeople and lawyer asked. When the bank opened, a member of the Banking Commission was working in a back room figuring how much depositors of the previous Farmer’s Bank would get back. I think it may have been 50 cents on the dollar, but off the top of my head, I am not sure I remember that correctly.”

Eugene’s actions had a reverberating impact on not only this community, but his family.

One day I will dig further into the years he spent in prison. What was Stillwater State Prison like during the Depression? How did Catherine get by on her own with five children? Eugene Jr., Beth, William, Jerome, and James. What I can see is that he served around 4.5 to 5 years of his sentence, and Catherine moved the whole family to Stillwater to be near him in prison (a distance of 80 miles from where they’d last lived, 100 miles from her hometown, and 170 miles from his hometown). That must have taken a great deal of strength. I can also see many newspaper accounts from the local papers during that time of Eugene’s family (mother, siblings, etc.) traveling back and forth to Stillwater to visit, sometimes staying for some length of time, sometimes bringing a child or two home with them to Lamberton. They must have been trying to help Catherine manage. My great aunt Beth spent entire summers back with family in Lamberton. She would go on to become a Catholic nun.

So what I take from this is that they got through it as a family. It couldn’t have been an easy chapter for them. Eugene’s mother, Estelle, whose son was newly in prison and husband had just died, appeared in the newspaper in 1929: Ladies Aid of the Church of Christ entertained at the home of Mrs. Pliny Terry. They got through it with family, and also with community.

The first account I have of Eugene having completed serving his time was from a newspaper account on Sep. 1, 1932, in which Eugene and his sons visited his mother and sister.  This begins several more announcements of similar visits over the next few years. Several trips with one or more children, Catherine staying behind with one or more children. I wonder if there is a practical explanation. I wonder what strain the time served took on their marriage.

Their next chapter appears to be a move to Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they lived for just a few years. One account I heard was that the family ran a restaurant there. They continued regular journeys to visit Eugene’s mother and siblings, despite a distance of 200 miles, sometimes bringing his mother back to Wisconsin with them.

But by 1936 the family had relocated to St. Paul where they would spend the rest of their lives. All four of their sons would serve in the military during WWII. In fact, granddaughter Betty shared with me a newspaper clipping of Catherine signing a consent for her fourth son to join the marines. It is around their St. Paul stomping grounds where my grandfather, post-military service, would meet my grandmother. There they would start their own large family, as did Eugene’s brothers. Catherine and Eugene would remain stable fixtures in the family lives of their children. Some struggled and even buckled under the stress of raising very large families in post-war America. In fact, Eugene bought a house for one of his sons, who was struggling to raise 12 children.

My own father remembers his grandparent’s home on Prior Avenue: a large, stately turn-of-the-century house. It had a stairway that felt like a secret passageway to him and his many siblings and cousins. My uncle reports a museum-like quality to the house, “fine things to marvel at but surely not to be touched.” Theirs was a family of many children in a small tract house, so a grand, quiet house would surely feel oppullent to a small boy.

Eugene died in 1958 at the age of 71. I believe it was a similar death to that of his father, likely related to his heart. He was at home and ill for some time before passing away. My dad was only seven, so his memories of his granddad are fuzzy. He was a detail-oriented man, with a tidy workshop with nuts and bolts that were stored in herring cans neatly lined up. He says his mother liked her father-in-law very much, that he was a rather taciturn man. Although he wasn’t effusive, he was quick to smile. Granddaughter Betty remembers him very similarly. Quiet, but warm. I almost feel like I could say the same of my memories of my own grandfather, Eugene’s son Jerome, who died when I was six.

I leave Eugene Terry for now. The genealogy lessons I take away from this week: we are more than our worst deeds, but newspapers preserve the highlight reel. It takes a great deal of diligence to unearth more than that. Life takeaways: our own worst deeds have reverberating effects. On our families and on our communities. Or, in other words, don’t rob the bank. Also, history carries us on a wave. 

 

I have three more great grandparents to visit on my genealogy quest, and next week I will turn my attention back to my mother’s side: Lawrence “Ed” Petrie. Scoundrel? Hero? Or something in between?

Genealogy Takeaway: History Surrounds Us

As fun as it is to dive head first into our own family history, many of us don’t live in a place directly linked to our family trees. But that doesn’t mean we can’t uncover the rich history all around us. The stories of those who tread on the same ground as you can be just as intriguing as those of your own ancestors, if you listen to them.

Five minutes from where I live on the slopes of Maui, Hawaii, there is a hidden memorial. I’ve taken my kids here to run around and blow off steam, never realizing the history beneath our feet. The park is for Sun Yet-Sen, revolutionary who served as the first president of China. Until I looked and listened, I had no idea that he considered my own town of Kula a second home of sorts. In fact, his brother was known as the “King of Kula” for his influence on the Hawaiians and lavish gatherings.

Sun Yet-sen followed his older brother to Hawaii at the age of 13. He was educated there and later sought refuge in Kula, Maui with his family after his revolutionary activities back in China resulted in threats on their lives. Sun Yet-sen experienced the history of Hawaii unfolding before his eyes with the overthrow of a monarchy. If it weren’t for his formative years in a land of great change, the history of China certainly would have played out differently.

Ancestor Stories: Christ Fuchs (1891-1971)

Stearns County Minnesota, where my great grandfather was born in 1891, so mimicked Germany, the Fatherland of most residents, one did not even need to speak English. In the German language newspaper, Der Nordstern, you could read stories about such things as Valentine Welk being crushed to death by a rolling log escaped from his sled. Or about the schoolteacher breaking through the ice and drowning while skating home on Pelican Lake. Or about a little girl, aged 11, who died eating wild parsnips, while her brother, who had eaten a lesser quantity, was saved by the use of emetics. In 1891 Stearns County, Minnesota was a town of German immigrants with the highest density of German-American Catholic parishes of any settlement in the United States.

How was it that so many of their tribe flocked to this spot in particular? Well, it was certainly in part inspired by the dubious claims of one nineteenth century Slovenian priest, Fr. Francis Xavier Pierz, who came as a missionary to the Native Americans in 1854, and wrote back to his flock in Europe that “in three winters I have not seen more than a foot of snow” and that “farmers work in shirtsleeves the year round.” Wow. Anyone who’s experienced a Minnesota winter can tell you that Father Pierz was full of scheisse. But he had a vision. He hoped that others would come and that none that would arrive were “freethinkers, red republicans, atheists or agitators” because that would not do in his German Catholic paradise. Fortunately for me, this sounded good enough for some of my ancestors, and they decided to set up shop. Also fortunately for me, my ancestors were pretty good-natured about the whole Minnesota con job.

There was more to it than this, though. Germans by and large did not come to America seeking religious independence. In the mid-1800s, Germany did not adhere to one unified system or culture. The Industrial Revolution was not yet benefitting the country in the same way it was other European countries, taxes were increasing, and there was not a great sense of patriotism. Peasants had to rent their land, and it was the eldest who inherited the family farms which left many landless. Furthermore, farms weren’t often big enough to support more than one family. As people left for America, they sent letters home, which enticed their kin to join them for new frontiers where land was abundant.

Christ Fuchs, my great grandfather, was the progeny of two such immigrants, and before we go further, let’s stop for a little chat about his name. That is actually the name everyone knew him by. It is on his headstone. I’m not sure how you’re pronouncing it in your head, but it rhymes with Kissed Books. He was baptized Christopher just the day after he was born while his mother was likely bedridden. Christopher, however, was not the name his parents gave him. They named him Christian and he would always go by Christ. One of Christ’s older brothers would go on to change his name to Fox as many others with the common German surname would do.

He was the eighth of nine children born to Peter and Susanna Fuchs, first generation immigrants from Trier, Germany. As I start to dabble into the history of the Rhineland-Palatinate region where Christ’s parents were born, I see that the quest to uncover my roots will eventually take me into a fascinating exploration of European history as well. This particular region close to present day Luxembourg has undergone seismic shifts throughout its history, but Christ’s life in Stearns County was quite stable. He was born there and died there.

Peter and Susanna Fuchs are a story for another week. As a young couple starting life in a new land, he and Susanna were pioneers. By the time Christ was born, many siblings had preceded him – two brothers and six sisters, and two babies not surviving. The children attended school and labored on the family farm. Christ walked four miles each day to the small schoolhouse. I wonder if, during this period of icy treks, he was ever made aware of Father Pierz’ claims. 

One by one, his siblings left home to begin their own lives, so that in 1910 at the age of 19 Christ and his younger sister Lizzie were the only ones still living at home. The others mostly stayed around their farming community of Albany, starting their own families and farms. I suspect one of his older sisters died as a teenager or very young adult, but wasn’t able to unravel the mystery. Despite  much toil in an extreme climate, the pace of life was slow, centering around family and community. One day at church, Christ was noticed by attractive, dark-haired Christine Schleppenbach, five years his junior. My grandmother, their daughter, once told me, “It’s the woman who chooses.”

It was at a social barn dance where he was playing the fiddle that they eventually met, and their courtship began. With him on the east side of town and her on the west, visits were not simple when transport required a horse and buggy. Then tragedy struck Christine’s family. Her father died suddenly and tragically, leaving her mother pregnant and with seven children. Eldest daughter Christine was prompted to find work as a nanny on a neighboring family farm. Christ would pay her visits there while she looked after the children. On June 26, 1916, the two were married in the Albany church. He was 25 and she was 20. 

Many happy years followed for them. They lived for two years with his parents until Christine became pregnant. They farmed the land of a bachelor for one year until they could buy their own small plot of land. Christ’s father gave him a cow and some chickens to get started, but alas farming was not Christ’s preferred livelihood. He had a cousin who was a blacksmith, and so he and this cousin made a trade: one farm for one blacksmith and welding shop. Family lore states that this shop was the first building erected in the community. Today there is a small but thriving community of artisanal blacksmiths in Albany, Minnesota. In fact, the craft is having a bit of a resurgence. You can even take classes, and for their Pioneer Days summer event the public can watch craftspeople work. I have been geeking out on this video, happy in the knowledge that this relic from the past, instituted in this community by my great grandfather’s family, is still flourishing. When I was visiting my dad over the summer, I asked him about his memories of his grandfather. He pointed right next to where we were seated in the backyard on that pleasant summer evening to an ornamental iron planter. “Well, as a matter of fact, he made that.” And there Christ was with us. And I like to think his spirit is still in Albany with each satisfying ting ting of the hammer.

Christ and Christine had six children, one son (the eldest), followed by five daughters, one of whom was my grandmother. Peter, their son, helped his father to maintain the growing business. A second machine shop was built years later and the family prospered. Christ worked in his blacksmith shop in Albany for 24 years. With his success, in the midst of the Depression, Christ hired the men of town and together they built an English Tudor house with brick trim, which was quite unusual and modern. It remains in Albany today. Later they moved to a home on a lake in nearby Avon, where their youngest daughter Marion loved to swim.

This gallery paints quite a clear picture of what Albany looked like throughout Christ’s life: http://www.lakesnwoods.com/AlbanyGallery.htm

I was honored to speak this week with Christ and Christine’s eldest daughter Lucille. She has just celebrated her 100th birthday, and on the phone sounds maybe half her age. She remembers both her parents very warmly. In her words, “He was the kindest and most honest person I’ve ever known. Mom took such good care of him. He worked so hard to make a good home for us. He would flood the back yard so we could go ice skating and after a hard day’s work he’d drive us to our soft ball games. I owe my genes to them.” She remembers a very compatible marriage between the two, with her father being the quieter and her mother more effusive and talkative. Life sounds as if there was always plenty to do with both parents always working hard. She remembers her mother being the sterner parent of the two, but both happy and good natured. 

A portrait of the Fuchs family would not be complete without noting their musical inclination.    

It was typical of German immigrants to bring with them a love of art, music, and sociability, and the Fuchs family certainly fit the mold. As mentioned, Christ played the fiddle. Christine played the piano (my father remembers a large organ in their home), and each child adopted his or her own instrument: eldest brother Pete played the bass, sisters playing accordion, saxophone, and harmonizing vocals. The family often played their musical instruments for the entertainment of others at dances, sporting events, and even on the St. Cloud radio. Lucille said in a self-deprecating way that “maybe we weren’t very good” but that “we were always playing music around the house.” However, a previous genealogical study notes, “no school program was ever complete without several of the Fuchs children participating through singing or musical instrument.”

When I ask my own father to describe his grandpa, I can hear the smile in his voice. He describes the family this way: “All of the Fuchs were very outgoing. There was a lot of laughing and joking around. They were adventurous and fun-loving, not serious. They were very accomplished, but also very self-deprecating and humble. We only saw them once or twice a year. Growing up, they weren’t in the Tudor-style brick home anymore, but a modest house in Albany near the post office and the main drag of town with a screened-in front porch and lots of flowers in the yard.” He remembers an unfinished basement with a huge quilting loom and old victrola record player that you wound by hand. His brothers and sisters loved to listen to a 78 rpm “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream,” a hit from the 1927. They crowded around and listened to it over and over. Grandma had a root cellar in that basement with mason jars full of canned veg and fruit. Big organ on main floor of living room.

Christ suffered from colitis for many years, and after a surgery, he didn’t survive much longer. He died on the day of the Feast of St. Joseph in 1971 at the age of 80. His wife Christine would go on to live another 20 years and die at the age of 96. 

After a week of deep reflection on these two lives well lived, I feel overwhelming gratitude. My paternal grandmother, Lorraine, passed away last year, was a warm ray of sunshine. And my own dad is a man I am enormously proud of. After this week of exploration I feel like I understand how and why they are who they are just a little better.

Ancestor Stories: Owen DeVillers (1898-1992)

Uncovering the Identity of my Grandma’s Birth Father, Healing Ancestral Wounds

I set out to determine everything I could in just one week’s time about the father my grandmother never knew. Adopted as an infant, she has gone her whole life without knowing the story of her biological parents. Millions of babies and children were surrendered for adoption in the years between WWI and the women’s rights movement of the 1960s. During that era, there was often much shame and stigma attached to unwed mothers, and my grandmother has always avoided kicking up the dust surrounding the circumstances of her origin.

In previous genealogy projects the words flowed, but this week’s research has me struggling to articulate thoughts. Since beginning to write the stories of my ancestor’s lives, I’ve felt a twinge of guilt about it. They weren’t my lives lived, so they don’t feel like my stories to tell. I’m bound to get things wrong. But is as-close-as-I-can-get still a worthy way to know and honor them in the absence of all else? If there are long-lost journals or memoirs out there, I haven’t found them. Is it a relief to them, this wild-eyed attempt to stitch together a ragged patchwork of their lives with every document I can find? Or does the prying and speculation aggrieve them?

Owen DeVillers, this week’s tale, feels the most intrusive, the most speculative, the most potentially painful and the most likely to get wrong. At the start of the week I felt hesitant to tread upon his legacy. But by the end of the week, I claim him as my own truth. He’s written on every cell of my body. I will remain cautious about connecting the dots. But I found plenty of dots. And I can present them because they are part of my story too. As of this writing, I don’t know if my grandma wants the dots. She has done beautifully without them.

I also know that having exposed wounds isn’t unique to our family. With the explosion of DNA testing and the ever-more-accessible paper trail that can lead us to uncover family truths, there are skeletons in every closet. You can try to lock it all away, but even your third cousins can read about it in their 23andMe reports.

Here are the facts I was confined to in beginning my quest: My grandmother was adopted from a Catholic Institution in Green Bay, Wisconsin, in 1927. I know her birth date. I know the name given to her by her biological mother which was later changed by her adoptive parents. I know both her parents’ surnames and that she was only given that of her mother’s. I don’t know how long she was in the care of the church nor how much, if any, time her biological mother spent with her. But she was with her for time enough to give her a name.

So there I began my search one year ago. I tried to place any young woman of child-bearing age with the surname of Steiner in or around Green Bay on her birthdate. I searched census records, telephone directories. I googled the Green Bay orphanages of the era: St. Mary’s Home for Unwed Mothers and St. Joseph’s Children’s Home, quickly realizing it wouldn’t be as easy as a Google search, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of us trying.

I pieced together Steiner nuclear families all around Wisconsin using census records, trying to determine if this Steiner was the daughter of that Steiner. Around and around I went. That is how you do things when you don’t know what you’re doing. You just try to fit puzzle pieces together in any way you can think to do it, carefully scrutinizing your decisions. Asking are there holes in my logic?

But finally, in the wee hours one morning, like a tireless bloodhound, I found my grandma’s mother, and I knew without a shadow of a doubt that she was the one. It was there in the photograph: the familiar features of my grandma. Her family members had put photos of her up on Ancestry.com. As an old woman she looked just like my grandmother as an old woman. As a young woman she looked just like my grandmother as a young woman. They even wore their hair the same way. I am so grateful for her descendants for taking the time to share those photographs, tiny time capsules there to unearth by the family she’d never know. After generations of wondering, there she was.

She was 17 when she became pregnant.

But for this week, her father. I didn’t have the same photo evidence of his identity, but I had something even more ironclad: DNA.

After endeavoring upon a similar search, going on nothing more than a last name, I tried to locate every DeViller living in or around Green Bay in 1927. I found a family of DeVillers with many brothers. One was an Owen DeViller, a buttermaker at a creamery. An older brother and two younger ones lived in Green Bay too. When one of my family members took a DNA test on Ancestry, she matched with Owen’s daughter. Jackpot. He was our guy.

So there they were! I had them both! But….then what? Owen has living descendants, half siblings of my grandma. I approached the task like a history project: find out what I can without poking the bear. What happened between Owen DeVillers and Irene Steiner in the year leading up to my grandmother’s birth? I doubt I’ll ever know exactly. I doubt his descendants have any clue about any Irene Steiner or their baby surrendered to the able care of Catholic nuns. But the universe bears witness.

This history lesson takes place at the start of the 20th Century on a narrow land mass not far from the Sturgeon Bay strait, otherwise known as Death’s Door. It is named for the many shipwrecks occurring from doomed passages between Lake Michigan and Green Bay. The region had been known to early explorers for centuries. They came via these waterways, encroaching Indian territory in search of fur and timber.

If I gain nothing more from this week with Owen DeVillers, I’ll at least have gained the knowledge of his people. It’s a fascinating detour through American history to a very small enclave of Belgian settlers. They spoke Walloon, a French patois and relic of an ancient era, and settled in roadless dense forest among nothing more than wolves and bears. Upon their arrival to the New World in the nineteenth century, their numbers dropped sharply due to starvation and disease, so that when word of the calamities reached families in Belgium, there was a swift decline in those who would attempt the journey. But for Owen and his parents and grandparents, they would survive. I will explore in more depth the story of his parents in subsequent weeks.

By the time Owen takes his place on the stage in 1898, much was already in flux in the region with many forests having been cleared for farmland. His family’s farm was in Rosiere, Kewaunee County. The entire community and neighboring communities were Belgian. They spoke Walloon. They fished as a way of life. For some time in earlier years, their livelihoods were dependent on making tiles by hand, and exporting them in the millions via the various channels that funnel through Green Bay.

They celebrated traditional customs such as Kermiss, the multi-day Harvest Festival. In fact, here is a newspaper article I found in which Owen (19) and Delwiche, his mother’s maiden name, appear:

Sep 13, 1917
Algoma Record Herald
ROSIERE
The Kermiss was very well attended and all had a very fine time. Owen DeVillers of Lena, who has past two weeks returned to his home Wednesday afternoon. Miss Julia Bouche of Brussels visited part of this week Messrs. John Delwiche, Tomas Stodola, Pascal Delwiche and the Misses Mary Delwiche, and Julia Bouche took a joy ride to Algoma Monday after­noon. Frank and Josephine Shillin of Algoma visited with friends here during the Kermiss days.
Pascal Delwiche made a business trip to Casco Wednesday.
Another big dance coming next Monday evening at Landlord Louis Ruben’s hall. Music by the Luxemburg Piano orchestra.

Owen’s parents, Adolph and Adolphine, were 38 and 33 when he was born, and they had five children already. (They would go on to have four more after Owen for a total of 10.) According to census records, his parents couldn’t read or write, and they spoke only the Walloon language, which was typical of the first couple generations of settlers. Through my time poring over records, I determined that Owen and his siblings mostly did not attend school beyond the 6th grade. They would have been more valuable on the farm. There is an absolute treasure trove of recorded oral history, accounts, and photographs of these fascinating communities here: http://digicoll.library.wisc.edu/cgi-bin/WI/WI-idx…

In 1910 by the time Owen was 11, the family had moved to a different farm in another community nearly 100 miles away. This leads me to questions best left for an experienced historian or genealogist. What might have prompted such a move? Were they outgrowing what was mostly a subsistence farming community? What did Stiles offer that Rosiere did not? The children were all still living, only the eldest had left home so there were now 9 children living and working together with only the very smallest attending school.

In 1918 when Owen was 19 Owen’s sister Lena died at the age of 21. Being close in age, they must have played as small children, and I imagine her death brought him great sorrow.

Here is the newspaper announcement:

Former Kewaunee COUNTY GIRL DIES
Miss Lena DeVillers Passed Away at her Home in Oconto County Wednesday of Last Week.
Miss Lena DeVillers, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Adolph C. DeVillers, passed away at the home of her par­ents in the Town of Stiles, Oconto County, Wednesday evening at 11:55, March 27th. She leaves to mourn her death her parents, seven brothers, Joseph of De­troit, Mich., Charles of Green Bay, Willie of Oconto Falls, and Owen, Harry, Eugene and Edward at home, also two sisters, Mrs. Alfred Haase of Sawyer, and Lucy at Home. Deceased was born September 11th, 1895 at Rosiere, this county, and lived there until 1909, when with her par­ents she went to live on a farm near Stiles Junction, Oconton county, where she remained until the time of her death, which came after an illness of two years’ duration. She was buried from the St. Charles Catholic church at Lena, on Saturday, March 30th, at 9 o’clock a. m. Rev. Father Kolby officiated at the ceremony. Owing to the rules of the Catholic church no masses are said for funerals taking place on the day pre­ceding Easter Sunday, but an eloquent requiem sermon was ably delivered by Father Kolby. [It goes on to list several pallbearers including her brothers, and guests.] The bereaved parents and family have the Sympathy of their many old neighbors and friends in the northern part of this county where the family resided for many years.

Owen was 18 when the US entered WWI. He registered on the final round on September 12, 1918. It was the day after what would have been Lena’s birthday, the first that would come after death. On his draft card he describes himself as having dark brown hair and eyes, medium height and build. He’s a farm laborer. He would not end up serving in the war.

However, five months later tragedy would strike. His mother died at the age of 52 when Owen was 20. I don’t know how she died or if illness preceded her death. I could not find an obituary. In any event, it undoubtedly brought more sorrow to the family. Only a year afterward, Owen’s father moved to the city of Green Bay with the two youngest sons, 13 year old Eugene and 11 year old Edward. Their farming life was forever ended and the eight older siblings were making their adult lives elsewhere. Father Adolph tried his hand at trucking.

Of Owen, I only have bits and pieces of the next eight years, the years leading up to my grandmother’s birth. My most educated guess is that he was by and large living in Green Bay, likely near his father and several brothers. However, he frequented the Belgian country towns to pay visits to family and friends and to socialize. He appeared several times in local papers, which announced visits: Owen DeVillers of Green Bay was a visitor in this vicinity for a few days last week, Owen DeVillers and Otto Brozek called on friends in Rosiere, Owen DeVillers visits relatives in Gardner. In 1923 at the age of 24 he was even employed for the summer on the farm of Isadore Bellin, whose surname was one of the few included in Lena’s death announcement, therefore must have been close to the family.

So here was a young man, pulled like many other of his era, to the bustle and opportunity of a growing city. This is an early silent film of the countryside around Green Bay and the city itself in the 1920s: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJOHVqvELjg

Yet Owen still felt very much at home in the tight-knit Belgian communities of his youth. And in one of his many social visits to these communities, the 27 year-old must have met 17 year-old Irene Steiner. For although I haven’t yet done the same meticulous patchwork on her life, she was still living in one of these small town communities.

How did they meet? What happened between them? There are a hundred directions my mind goes. Why does it matter to know? Why do I crave this information? Are we made any more real because our ancestors left stories for us to know or not know? Are these stories even real? Are our own memories real? Where does this thirst for answers come from? The truth of the universe, and this urgency to discover it, matters to me despite the time and space between us. One thing I do know is that Owen would marry a girl named Agnes one year and three months after the day my grandmother was born. Agnes was a schoolmate of Irene’s. Agnes had a younger sister in Irene’s class. They knew each other.

Was Irene spirited away to Green Bay as soon as she was “in the condition?”

DeVillers was declared under “father” on the birth certificate, but the baby was given the surname of Steiner. I’m no historian, but that, to me, indicates her mother was alone in this. What did Owen’s conscience say? What was his awareness of it? The year the baby was born he was a buttermaker at a creamery in Green Bay, and a year later he’d be married and beginning his family life in earnest.

The next snapshot I have of Owen DeVillers’ life is from three years later, the 1930s census. He moved to Milwaukee where he has a new life and a radio! (The things these census records reveal to us — too bad the scandalous details of heartbreak are not surveyed.) I wonder what, if any, are the thoughts Irene Steiner spends on him. Owen is 29 and a press operator in an auto body shop. He lives with his wife Agnes, who’s 21, their 9 month old son, one brother, and a boarder.

I find them again in a newspaper in 1936. On April 3rd of that year the nation was transfixed by the execution by electric chair of Richard Hauptmann, a German immigrant carpenter who’d been convicted for the kidnapping and murder of the baby of Charles Lindbergh. Also on this same day Owen and Agnes and three of their friends got in a car crash with another driver. A headline would later read, “$36,400 Asked by Milwaukeans in Auto Crash.” They were the plaintiffs, and I can’t find the outcome of the case nor the details of the crash. I feel like $36,400 was probably quite a bit of money to seek during the Depression. I am not genealogist enough to know how it worked out for them.

By 1940, the family had grown and were settled in Milwaukee. There are four children, and there they will stop: three sons and one daughter. Four half siblings of my grandmother, undoubtedly oblivious to her existence. I saw something of her face in their yearbook photos, one handsome brother in particular. Owen worked rather steadily as a die setter. The decade preceding had been hard for most of the country, and not all were so fortunate to have work.

During their many long years together as a family, they would return often to the small communities around Green Bay. Over the decades, local newspapers would announce their visits, usually around July 4th or Memorial Day weekend. One thing I’ve quickly discovered about genealogy is that versions of Facebook have been around a long time.

Owen died in 1992, and is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery and Mausoleum. He lived 96 years. But his obituary remains undiscovered. Besides his mother and sister Lena, several of Owen’s other family members appeared to have also lived long lives. His brother Edward was called “Frenchy” in his obituary. I wonder if they all remained pickled and preserved in the Walloon culture of their parents.

I leave my time this week, spent in my own way with my great grandfather Owen DeVillers, feeling conflicted. I’m fascinated and awed by the people he came from, but also the wounds of my great grandmother – if they are indeed wounds – remain shrouded. Did he ever think of her? Did he wonder about my grandma? What did I miss, Owen? In all my searching, I wish I could find the story in your own words. How would Irene tell it? And Agnes? How would their versions differ?

And despite meticulous unearthing, there was one crucial artifact I couldn’t excavate: a photograph.

My grandmother is a woman with amazing gifts and talents. An artist, always creating. She’s strong in this tranquil yet no-nonsense way. She definitely wouldn’t use this descriptor herself, but I think of her as this sort of Earthy creative nature goddess. Just a whisper of something primal and ancient inside someone very grounded. There must be something of her father’s people in her, people who shared the forest with wolves. People who slept with the heavens for a blanket.