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.


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?

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