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.

Ancestor Stories: Mary King (1906-1969)

This week’s ancestry project was my great grandmother, Mary King, and it was a doozy. I uncovered a Pandora’s box about other family members that contains more pain than I can share. However, if I focus the lens solely on Mary, I can freely share my findings. Pregnant with my grandfather at 14, she was an intriguing mystery to attempt to uncover, and I am left with as many questions as I found answers. But I did find answers. My general ancestry takeaway this week is that our own histories are all around us, the ghosts of our pasts are in the air that we breathe.

So this is everything I could determine about Mary King, mother of my late grandfather William Petrie, a man I never knew. As before, please correct any inaccuracies and add any memories you have.

My great grandmother Mary King descended from Irish Catholic immigrants two or three generations prior. She was baptized and had an integral familial relationship with the church, as was typical of her time and culture. But despite the best efforts of her church and community, as far as I can see, Mary King had her share of scandal, as was also typical of the era.

This journey begins in Chicago. At the turn of the 20th century, the city was undergoing massive population growth. Fifty years prior, the city was home to only 30,000 people, but by 1880 it would reach half a million. And by the turn of the century it would double to one million, hitting 2.7 million in 1920. It was the second largest city in America and the fastest growing city in the world. Mary King’s parents were among the thousands who migrated from the countryside. They settled in what is present day Hyde Park.

Chicago was a magnet for those seeking economic opportunity. It was a crossroads of a nation in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, and the heart of the rail industry. It had the stockyard center (meatpacking), large steel mills, textiles. There was a constant need for cheap labor. So when Mary King entered the scene in 1906 it’s a bustling and vibrant place, where people mostly live and work close to their immigrant neighborhoods, navigating the city on foot or with horse-drawn omnibuses or trains. There is a cloud of smoke surrounding the city. Smells of industry and animals are pungent in the hot summers, and dulled in harsh winters. At night there’s a red eerie glow of the furnaces of industry. Along with the Irish, there are large populations of Poles, Germans and Italians, each establishing villages within the village.

Mary King was the first born to 19 year old Loretta Mead King and 31 year old George King. They lived in a narrow building with two flats, one for her family and one for another family. I won’t explore her parents this week, but with an age gap like that I have so many questions already. From the little I’ve been told by my aunt, Mary’s family life was “haphazard,” and included gambling and likely drinking. But they bore witness to the dawning of a new century in a new city. Her father was a railroad inspector. Her mother was at one time (perhaps later in life) an oddsmaker at the Arlington Race Track, which I’m told was unusual work for a woman, “and not exactly Hidden Figures-level math but impressive nonetheless.” Including Mary, the couple had eight children, one of whom died at 2 and another at 14. Mary had red hair and freckles, so I assume she had no problem holding her own.

Mary was still acquiring siblings when she became pregnant herself. In 1920, at the age of 14 she had taken up with a 19 year old from around her Chicago neighborhood, recently returned from the Navy after having served in WW1. (He was 17 when he enlisted, and I will explore his convoy operation another week.) One of this week’s great undiscovered (undiscoverable?) mysteries is exactly how they met and became sweethearts. I wonder if their families or extended families attended the same Catholic congregation. Was there already a family connection of some kind? The post-war years are a period of much juvenile delinquency, with very large families on very long leashes. In any event, (which will remain fodder for my imagination) she met young Lawrence “Ed” Petrie who was back from the war and by then working as a file clerk for the post office. At an age where some were still playing with dolls, Mary got pregnant.

Five days after turning 15, on a cold day in January, they were married. And four months after that, she gave birth to my grandfather. They named him William Petrie. I wonder what the birth was like. Was she scared? Was it a difficult birth? Where did they live afterwards? Did her mother help her? Her mother wasn’t done having (or losing!) children herself. How must those first days have been? How well did they handle this giant step in life? I wish I knew the next part of the story, but I don’t quite. My best guess is that they went to live with Ed’s mother, and it lasted until it didn’t.

Here’s what I know. By 1930, 9 years after the birth of her baby and at the age of 24, Mary was counted in the census with Ed’s last name and “married” yet she was living in a boarding house or tenement of some kind with a large number of people in their 20s and 30s, some married and some single, but none with children, and none listed are her husband or son. Her occupation is waitress. By the next year she’d be remarried.

Meanwhile her (apparently) estranged husband, Ed Petrie, was living across town in a home with three others in their 30s, and he’s also not living with their son. He is a fire extinguisher salesman, which is as 1930 a job as you’ll find.

As for their son, my grandfather? He grew up in the household of his paternal grandmother, Ed’s Irish mother (2nd generation), and was often entrusted to the care of two aunts who both lived in the house, too. One had lost her only son at 6 years old, and then a few short years later, her husband took his own life. You might wish that she would pour all her love and hope for brighter days into poor William, but I think it was more like a drowning woman caring for a baby. He grew up lonely and then terribly mistreated by his uncles, and by his teenage years he avoided going home. But he was raised with the religious faith and structure of his grandmother.

For now, back to his mother, young Mary. She’s 24 on the precipice of the Great Depression. On the same Fullerton Avenue where she’s living as a boarder and working as a waitress, a young man in his early 20s was also living. He’s from Cornell, Chippewa County, Wisconsin, and is the oldest son of homesteaders from Canada and New England. I assume he moved to Chicago to find his fortune, because he was living alone and working as a bondteller at a brokerage firm. A year later he and Mary were married. She would remain Mrs. Howard Foster for the rest of her life.

During the next decade, the dismal 1930s, they appear to mostly live in a home or divided apartment with another married couple, and neither family appear to have children living with them. Throughout the Depression, work is spotty. The 1940 census asked how many weeks they worked during that year and the previous, and they each report only working a small handful of weeks. I think Mary might have found some sporadic work at a candy manufacturer and Howard is listed as an unemployed office clerk for an electric appliance manufacturer. I struggle to imagine these years.

The war years also remain a mystery to me for now. Did she have more of a presence in her son’s life now that he was becoming a man? The photo I’ve shared is Mary with her son William in the 40s. How often did she see him as a child? My mother reports that she believes their relationship was one of love and trust.

The next chapter where I can locate them are the last couple decades of her life. Around their mid-forties in the early 1950s they appear to make a change and move to Howard’s home town of Cornell, Wisconsin. Cornell is quite far from Chicago, and very rural. These days it would be around a six hour drive on the Interstate. There, they run a Supper Club for 17 years, which remains a treasured institution in the community to this day. Then it was called Foster’s Supper Club and today it is Foster’s Riverview Inn, a rustic lodge on the Chippewa River. It’s about 45 minutes from where I went to college and I imagine my younger self stumbling in mid-road trip, and being totally unappreciative of its history.

During these remaining years, Mary’s son starts his own family back in Chicago, which includes my mother. He raises his family in Chicago where Grandmother Mary in far off Cornell remain a bit of a mystery to all of them. My mom remembers her grandma as a “dainty” woman with a large vanity upstairs where they lived above the restaurant, and that she might’ve been a bit of a “girly girl.” She had a pet parakeet named Petey. (It inspired my mom to get her own pet parakeet which she loved and trained to talk.)

As for Howard, her second husband, I am told by my mother that he had lost an arm to a hunting accident, and this is yet another interesting detail that I could try to investigate further. Did he lose his arm in childhood or adolescence? Is that why he moved, the first born without his family, all the way to Chicago as a young man? Did he lose his prospects in an agricultural community, and have to try his fate in the city? Or did it happen in middle age after he returned to his home of Wisconsin? Did she marry a man with one arm or two?! These are the things that really don’t matter, but are endlessly fascinating to me nonetheless!

My mother remembers Howard as a distant “grandfather,” not mean, just disinterested. He was never a father-figure to Mary’s son, my grandfather Bill. But they were cordial. My aunt recollects finding Howard’s collection of Playboy magazines somewhere around their home above the Supper Club and giggling about them with her sisters. Through the years they bowl and seem to enjoy the trappings of small town life. Steak and fries is the restaurant specialty.

Another memory my mother relays is that Mary was terribly distraught at the funeral of her mother, which happened in 1963 when she was around 57 (her mother 77). I’m not sure what this illuminates except for she likely had a close relationship with her mother, even though they both became mothers before they could best handle it. My mother thinks Mary’s mother spent all or part of her last years with her at the Supper Club, far away from her Chicago home.

In the years following her mother’s death there was likely more pain and heartache. Howard took up with a waitress at the Supper Club. Mary’s time would not go on much longer past her mother’s. During that time, she sent my own mother a book of Spanish poetry. My mother was in high school, and she remembers it as a gift to thank her for holding down the fort in Chicago while my grandmother, Mary’s daughter-in-law, made the long journey to care for her when she was in poor health. My grandmother remembered her as a “sweetheart.”

Mary died in 1969 at the age of 63 of heart disease, and Howard would marry the waitress the next year. Three years of wedded bliss (?) before his own death.

I picture Mary spending years in a smoky supper club. I picture her desperate early years, decades of stress and hardship. And yet I imagine joy and celebration as well. Years of great optimism. I still have so many questions about her life that will likely have to remain unanswered. Mainly, what’s the story behind the disintegration of her marriage to my great grandfather? It must’ve been so unimaginably hard. Why and how was it that she and Howard, her second husband, never had children despite decades of marriage? Were they unable? Did they find ways of birth control despite the era and her religious culture? Is it possible that she did have other children? These are things I can’t know for now.

Still, after this week I do feel like I understand her a little better, and have yet deeper appreciation for another life that makes me who I am. Next week, I’ll return to my paternal line.

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.