Reflecting on the Journey: Eight Great Grandparents Stories Completed

Tree with moonI set out to write a life story for each of my eight great grandparents, sticking to a one-week deadline to complete each story.

Family history has been a newfound interest of mine for about a year, and I thought in order to take my research to more sincere and disciplined places, I should immerse myself in one project at a time. In addition to researching documents, searching newspapers, researching local history, and interviewing family, I also thought it was important to take the time to write narrative reports of my findings. I didn’t want to simply gather a collection of disparate facts without any context or synthesis.

In retrospect – and the conventional wisdom from professional genealogists – is that I should have started with myself, then branched out to parents, then grandparents, before getting to the life stories of my great grandparents. This is mostly to ensure you have the correct identity of your subject and are not running full speed ahead down the branch of a family tree without being certain that someone belongs there in the first place.

I do intend to write stories for each of my grandparents and parents eventually, but starting with my great grandparents was the challenge I was looking for – I had just enough clues to begin with, I was able to interview older family members while they’re still alive in order to collect their insights and memories, and I was able to flesh out a story over outlines I could be fairly confident of. These eight grandparents led me to unexpected places: immigrant communities, farms, cities, prison!, plenty of loss, a home for unwed mothers, France in World War I, a one-armed philandering husband, a fiddler at a barn dance. I feel like I know a little better each of these eight people whose struggles, sacrifice, and very existence brought me the gift of life. By knowing them a little more than I did before this quest I feel connected to something much larger than myself. I’m riding a wave that was once cloudy beneath me, and now is illuminated. I want to keep going.

When Stephen King discovered some of the stories deeply hidden within his own family tree, I love the analogy he used. He said it was as if he was on a stage, and different parts of it were being lit up to reveal previously unknown set pieces.

Since starting, I’ve been trying to decide on where to go from here. The stories, of course, are works in progress. I will circle back to them in time, as my research experience grows and I gain new insights. But for now, I want to keep growing as a genealogist by branching out into different kinds of research and writing projects. It is recommended that an amateur genealogist log 1,000 research hours before considering more serious steps in the world of ancestry work.

So while I work toward those hours, I have a few ideas in mind. I will use this space to share my progress and document the journey. Next week I’m going to Arkansas during the Dust Bowl.

Ancestor Stories: Christina Schleppenbach (1895-1991)

christinaIt’s remarkable how patterns repeat themselves down the line of a family tree. But sooner or later someone comes along to break the pattern. I like to think of my great grandma – the story for this week – as breaking a cycle of women who marry tragic figures that leave them behind at the height of their vulnerability – pregnant, with many mouths to feed, and a farm to tend.

Christina Schleppenbach is the only of my eight great grandparents that I have any faint memories of. I remember a joyous celebration in 1985 for her 90th birthday. She was gifted a money tree with real bills hanging down from real branches, and this was pure magic to my 6 year-old self. Between that event and her last year in 1991, I don’t remember ever seeing her. Toward the very end of her days, she spent a little time in the home of her daughter, my grandma, and by that age, she was confused by me, trying to make sense of whose child I was, struggling to decipher whatever polite, shy thing my parents prompted me to say to her.

So my two fuzzy little girl memories don’t much contribute to her story.

Christina was the first born to 30 year old Johann Schleppenbach and 24 year-old Johanna Rakovitz. Johann had arrived from Bavaria, Germany (I suspect Deggendorf was his village, but I have to verify) to the US at the age of 20, and made his way to the German immigrant farming community of Albany, Minnesota. 1885 census records find him starting his young life in America by helping on the farm of an older brother, Ferdinand. The neighboring farm had a familial connection to the woman who’d become his wife, Johanna. She was first generation born of German immigrant parents, and her father’s life was cut short by suicide. This event left Johanna’s mother alone with ten children and a farm. Johanna, as the oldest, surely must have shouldered a great burden.

Christina was the first child of Johann and Johanna, and as was typical of their farming community, many children followed in quick succession. By 1905, 10 year-old Christina shared her household with her farming parents, 8 and 6 year-old brothers Johnny and Frank and 4 and 2 year-old sisters, Johanna and Franciska.

For now I can only surmise that the home was very musical. It was quite typical of German communities to be gregarious, and musical. Christina’s children and grandchildren remember her as playing the piano and their family was raised very musical, and so I can only guess that Christina’s love of music started in her childhood household.

However, as it had for her own mother, the music would be cut off suddenly in 1910 when their father Johann died suddenly and tragically.

In 1910, Christina’s parents were 18 years into their married farm life. Eldest daughter Christina was 14. Two year-old and one year-old Joseph and Ferdinand brought the total number of children to seven. They were also joined by 15 year-old “hired laborer” Joseph Lesser. When I overturned his stone, I found that he was Johanna’s nephew. His mother, being Johanna’s sister, had also lost her father to suicide when they were growing up. After she started her own family and while her children were still quite young, she disappeared from the census records. Then she came back. And so I can only wonder for now about her whereabouts when she was missing. In any case, in 1910 this 15 year-old nephew Joseph was part of the Schleppenbach household. 

Father Johann “drank too much.” These were the words scribbled by a family member on a newspaper clipping about the accident. These were also the words whispered by 100 year-old Lou, his living granddaughter. I can only imagine what that meant exactly. I know the temperance movement, which was steadily rising to a boiling point, was formed in direct opposition to the chronic alcoholism that was damaging the peace, safety, and finances of families at the time. The extent of Johann’s drinking problem is something I can only guess at, but what I do know is that it was alcohol that led to his unseemly and untimely death.

This is translated (Google) from the German that ran in the local paper Der Nordstern :

“After a requiem held on Friday morning in the local parish church by the high-priest Father Andreas, the earthly remains of Johann Schleppenbach who had fallen asleep the previous Wednesday, were buried with great sympathy for the final rest. The deceased fell one week before his death from a heavily laden with lumber car whose wheels went over his body, where he suffered internal injuries that caused his death. He used his short time of suffering to a dignified preparation for the difficult journey into eternity…”

A horse-drawn drunk driving incident. That sounds awful. He remained alive with his injuries for one week. That must have been an awful, awful week for the family. And then long years getting on with things. 

One Sunday Christina would spot young Christian Fuchs, another child of German immigrants. He would catch her eye again playing the fiddle at a barn dance. The two met and I can only imagine that music returned to her life. Christina began working as a nanny in a neighboring farm in order to help her family, and Christ would travel to spend long afternoon visits with her. I am told by their daughter, Lou, that the logistics of this courtship weren’t easy by today’s standards. There was always work to be done and long walking distances that separated them.

christina2They were married in June of 1916. This is the (Google translation) announcement in der Nordstern: On Monday of last week at a wedding ceremony held at 9 a.m. by Rev. P. Andreas, O. S. B., Christian H. Fuchs and Miss Christina Schleppenbach were married for life.

I just love discovering ancestors getting married on weekday mornings. Let’s just be real about the long life of service that is marriage. They even add “for life” in the announcement.

However, Christina’s and Christ’s marriage was one of true love. Daughter Lou notes how well “mom took care of daddy.” Maybe she harbored a deep fear of experiencing the loss that her own mother felt (loss of both her father and then her husband, each around the age of 49 at the height of the responsibilities of family life).

I wrote a long account of Christ and Christina’s married life in Christ’s story of which I will only summarize at this time. Christ traded his farm for a blacksmith’s shop, and the two had a prosperous and peaceful life together. They had one son and five daughters, and all were a musical family. They played music all around the St. Cloud community including on local radio and sporting events. 

For the fullest account of my findings, Christ’s story should be included with Christina’s. However, there are a few details I will add that are specific to Christina:

According to their daughter Lorraine, my grandma, Christina “sewed like a charm.” She was always sewing clothes for all her children. Also, she quilted and my father recalls an old antique quilting loom in her house (also an organ). Also, my grandmother spent summers gathering berries and mother Christina kept jars and jars of preserves in the basement for the long, cold winters.

Screen Shot 2019-11-15 at 8.26.57 PM

Christina’s daughter Lou remembers her mother as the more effusive of the two of her parents, and she speaks with a great deal of love and tenderness for both of them. Indeed, my own grandmother was a bright ray of sunshine and I can only imagine that so much of her joy was a gift from her parents and siblings. I remember my grandma once saying in regards to love and relationships something to the effect, “It might not seem obvious, but it’s the woman who chooses.” Whether or not that’s always the case, I feel like in Christina’s case it was. I think she chose with true intention a solid life partner and together they worked hard to provide a happy life for their children – one that wasn’t cut off prematurely. I believe she reversed a pattern, and I am grateful for her.

Christina Schleppenbach Fuchs died on July 29, 1991 at the age of 96. Her husband preceded her, but he lived to be 80. In her later years she was quite healthy, living independently in a tidy home in Albany, tending with care to a lovely garden. In her last few years she stayed with family and then a nursing home in Albany. Her life was long and full with plenty of music.

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: 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.