Ancestor stories: Catherine Goff (1888-1966)

This is my great grandmother Catherine Goff, born in 1888 and died in 1966. This is all that I know or think that I know about her life. Please, family, correct inaccuracies, fill in blanks, read, remember her and honor her. All of our ancestors were survivors.

She was born in 1888 in Greenleaf Township, Meeker County, which is near present day Litchfield, Minnesota. Thirty years before her birth the place was entirely belonging to the Sioux Indians. In 1856 two men broke sod on a claimed parcel of land in what was vast wilderness, but would only two years later become the newest state in the union. They were not expecting their fate to be undone by Indians. As far as they expected, the land was nameless and their own, but shortly they would know it to be called Minnesota after the Dakota Sioux word “Mnisota” which means sky-tinted water. The two men had just plowed three acres when they took a break to eat in their lean-to shed. While eating, some Indians surreptitously killed one of their two oxen team, rendering them incapacitated. Discouraged, they left their claims and made their future in Forest City, fourteen miles to the north.

I am brand new to my interest in genealogy and local history, and will need to revisit this period because sometime in the three decades between that fateful incident and the birth of my great grandmother there were massacres and bloodshed, and by the time she was born, her family had been living in this township 12 years already. Her mother and father are stories for another time, but at this point in their lives they are living in a farming community that I picture to be much like Little House on the Prairie.

Her parents, Edward Goff and Catherine Dailey are Irish descendents (father born in Hartford Connecticut and mother born in Wisconsin), and they will each be trickier nuts to crack for me on my ancestry quest. Edward Goff, twenty years older than Catherine’s mother, was a veteran of the Civil War who started his family life late and anew after the war ended. I’m telling you, we are all products of people who survived. Catherine was their seventh child of eight, with two babies lost along the way. By the time Catherine arrived, her father was already 55 and her mother 36.

As far as I can tell, their family life was one that was governed by faith and family. In the words of my late Aunt Sue, “The Goff family was very devout and upright. They often provided lodging for the priests who served this small community and many stories held sacred within the family illustrate their deep faith and perhaps superstition.

“One of these stories, often related in family gatherings, says that whenever death is imminent unusual happenings are signaled. One such example of this unusuality occured at the death of Katherine’s youngest sister, Anastasia, who died at the age of 21. Anastasia’s father was ill, and being 20 years older than his wife, death was more probable. Anastasia, realizing the burden which would fall upon her mother should her father be taken in death, asked God that her life be sacrificed in the place of her father’s. While dining with her family one evening, Anastasia became seriously ill. Her sister took the girl upstairs. As they went up the stairs, a priest who was dining with them, Father Meade, thought he saw an angel pass between the two sisters. However, he was a sane man and thought that if he mentioned it, everyone present would think that he was having hallucinations. Anastasia’s death occurred that night. Three years later, while at the same table, and Anastasia’s father completely recovered, the discussion turned to Anastasia’s death. Great grandfather Goff, knowing nothing of Father Meade’s vision, mentioned his own observance of an angel passing and Father Meade realized that what he had seen was a true vision.

“Another story of equal tradition is that of Anastasia’s older sister, Emma. Emma died in her late 20s in the bitter cold of winter. Her body was laid to rest in a cold, barren, treeless region. Nothing was visible except snow and more snow, yet those standing at the grave site witnessed a rose of unusual beauty and delicacy float from the heavens and rest on her casket.” Catherine was 14 when her eldest sister died.

Catherine grew up lovely and sociable. I have found some announcements referring to her in her early 20s entertaining around St. Cloud with the “Fortuna Club,” a social club of some kind. For example, appearing in the St. Cloud Times in 1911, “a delightful evening was spent playing five hundred. Miss Catherine Goff won the prize last evening. Delicious and dainty refreshments were served.” My late aunt reports she won “beauty contests.” As a young woman she followed in her late sister Emma’s footsteps by attending the St. Cloud Normal school where she graduated a teacher and was assigned a teaching position in the 6th grade of Lamberton Public Schools.

This is when the imagination in tracing roots needs to come into play. In the 1910 census, she was a young woman of 22 still living at home, finishing her studies and hanging out carefree with her girlfriends. Shortly later, she’d be on a train to Lamberton, a town 90 miles away from the life she knew. It is in this community where she met my great grandfather, Eugene Terry. Eugene was a young man around her age. When Katherine Goff arrived in town, many of the young eligible men were interested. Eugene worked in the State Bank of Lamberton, where he’d been working for some time since the age of 18. He won her heart despite other suitors. Eugene was not Catholic.

Together they had four sons and one daughter. Their only daughter, my great aunt Beth, became a nun. My own father, Catherine and Eugene’s grandson, was the third of 11, and much of our Terry clan remain Catholic to this day. So you can see from this the strength of that Goff Catholicism. It withstood the Terry secularism for generations to come.

Again, since I am new to this hobby, it is difficult to trace the family’s path from here. A combination of census records and family legend tells me that the family moved a bit. Hard times hit the banking industry after the Great Depression. But I think they might have been bouncing around before that. From Lamberton to Morristown 80 miles away and In 1930 they are living in Stillwater, again another 100 mile move. Bits and pieces I’ve put together include that the family set up restaurants along the interstate en route to the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1933. I see a census record that says Eugene is working as a laborer perhaps at the prison in Stillwater? And then they made their way to St. Paul where it appears they stayed put for their remaining days.

Of their grandmother Katy’s later years, my Uncle Paul relays this memory:
I recall that I stayed with Grandma when Pat, Tom and Kate were being born. It was a grand house and Catherine left toys strewn around a vast hardwood floor. It seemed she was watchful but not much engaged in my work of flitting from one toy to another. Her house was museum like, fine things to marvel at but surely not to be touched. She also had a regal bearing, distant, dignified, pleasant but a world apart. My Mom, Lorraine, seemed grateful but also hesitant about entrusting me to Grandma. I was the only one dropped at Grandma’s, the other kids were dispersed elsewhere during Mom’s gestation and deliveries. Such are recollections that could be clouded a bit by 60+ years of other psychic layers.

Catherine died in St. Paul at the age of 78. I wish I knew more about her personality and friendships and dreams, but I will revisit her again. And I’ll reflect on great grandfather Eugene at another time. For next week, I plan to turn my attention to the other side of my tree and explore an ancestor on my mom’s side. My grandmother was adopted and never knew her people. But I found them.

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