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.

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