Ancestor Stories: Irene Steiner (1908-1995)


This eighth and final story of the life of each of my great grandparents has been the most challenging. It’s like putting together a puzzle where half the pieces are missing. I spent by far more time investigating this story than I did for any of the others, and in the end, I need to content myself with it as a work in progress. While I went around and around, second guessing and double checking, I might have made mistakes along the way. Still, I do see her more clearly than I ever have before.

I’m going to start with what I know.

Irene Anne Mildred Steiner was born to George Steiner and Elesabeta (Bertha) Krebbers in 1908. They were immigrant farmers, her father’s people from Germany and her mother’s from Holland. Side note, finding Bertha’s obituary was a thrill and confirmed the “Holland” origin that I’d seen on census records. Until recently I had no idea I had roots that extended there.

The farm Irene was born into in 1908 was already home to five children aged 7 and younger. Irene was the sixth of what would ultimately become nine children for the family. Their farm was 130 acres in Forestville, Wisconsin, which was rich land on a large peninsula that juts into Lake Michigan on one coast and Green Bay on the other.

About the origin of the name Forestville, Jim Lundstrom from Door County Living writes, “Sometimes it’s not so much about how a place got its name as it is about who gave it the name. And if those names seem obvious or without imagination, you have to remember that the folks who gave the names to places on this peninsula were pioneers trying to hew subsistence existence and, eventually, community, out of what was nothing more than an untamed land, arrived at by boat due to the inland forests and lack of roads. Who had time for imagination in such conditions?”

George and Bertha Steiner weren’t part of the very first wave of settlers to this new land, but their families brought them in the decade that followed. They would have each grown up witnessing the struggle and perseverance of building a community out of the wilds of the forest.

In 1920, when Irene was 12, her father sold their 120 acre farm for $23,000 and bought a 360 acre farm in Gillett for $30,000. All but one – eldest daughter Frances who had already married – moved the 70 miles away. 

The family settled into the small community outside of Oconto, the children helping on the farm and attending school not much beyond the middle grades. Census records indicate Irene’s highest grade attended was the first year of high school. 

When Irene was 17 she got pregnant. The father was 27 year-old Owen DeVillers. At the time he lived in the bustling city of Green Bay 30 miles away, and he worked in a creamery. But he made frequent visits to the communities of his youth, and one of those was adjacent to Gillett. It is also possible that Irene and Owen somehow met in Green Bay. The way I concluded that Owen DeVillers is my great grandfather is that his last name is listed (along with Steiner) on my grandmother’s birth certificate. My cousin is a DNA match with his daughter.

It is almost certain I will never know the circumstances surrounding their relationship or the pregnancy. I don’t know how their paths crossed nor for how long. I haven’t yet found any connections to link their families besides having farms relatively close to each other. Since Owen worked in a creamery in the city, maybe Irene’s family did business with him. I don’t know if Owen and Irene cared for each other, made plans that didn’t work, or any other answer to these types of questions. I don’t even know if Owen was aware of her pregnancy.  

I just know that my grandmother was adopted from a Catholic-run home for unwed mothers. This might be where Irene lived when she gave birth to the baby. Her eldest sister was living in Green Bay at the time. Perhaps she stayed with her for a time before or after the birth.

I have always been captivated by family lore. Many years ago when I was probably in my teenage years and asking questions of my mother about my grandma’s birth parents, she told me my aunt’s version of events – there had been an affair with a married man, perhaps a doctor or business man that she worked for. My mother was skeptical about this story, chalking it up to an unsubstantiated rumor shared callously with my grandmother when she was a little girl at a family reunion. Fast forward to decades later when I have a real interest in the truth of my ancestor’s lives. Since the theory was shared with me in such a long forgotten past and my aunt didn’t seem to remember it, I discounted it as a failure of a game of telephone.

Nothing in my dogged research on Owen indicated he had been married before or when my grandmother was born. He did get married about a year after my grandmother’s birth, so at most he was engaged, but that is as close to an affair as my research substantiates. In fact, the phone book shows him living independently in Green Bay in the year my grandma was born. 

However, as I continued to piece together Irene’s life, I discovered something interesting. In the years that followed the birth of my grandmother, she appears to have built a life as an independent young woman in the city of Green Bay. She shows up a couple of times in the Green Bay Press Gazette.

In Feb 23, 1928, less than a year after my grandmother was born: “Some employees [of the newspaper] staged a sleigh ride…” Her name was listed among the participants.

irene3It is right around this time – Irene is picking up and moving on in her life – that a young married couple from Green Bay conceive their first baby. He isn’t a doctor, but he’s a pharmacist. You can see where this is heading.

In 1928 Irene appears again in the newspaper, this time to correct something that she claimed was misreported in a previous issue. “Irene Steiner whose name appeared in the list of guests at a party given Saturday evening at the home of Marie Madden for Dorothy Delahaut, says that she did not attend the party and did not authorize the use of her name.” I found the list of attendees of said party. None seem to have any obvious connection to the pharmacist who’s soon to appear on the stage of my great grandmother’s life. This newspaper clip is likely just as it appears: an innocent correction. But I include it because around this time, Irene takes up with said pharmacist. And he is married. I include the little mini-find about Irene wanting to note the correction simply to shed light into her mindset at the time. She felt uncomfortable about the newspaper reporting her whereabouts, ostensibly inaccurately.

Random sad fact: The Dorothy whose party Irene absolutely did not attend died two years later at the age of 22 in a car accident with her father driving. The twists and turns of genealogical excavation.

So who is this pharmacist? Patrick Henry Maloney grew up in Green Bay, one of the youngest in a large family to an Irish father and German mother. His father was a mail carrier, but his older brother Carl would open a drug store called Maloney Drugs, and it was this establishment that Patrick would build his life around. Patrick went to the University School of Pharmacy, and was a successful entrepreneur and lifelong traveler. I found one passport record with him returning from Guatemala. He was 26 when he met Irene. I imagine she fell in love with him. Or somehow they got embroiled in a romance of some kind. But he was married. He had married Nora Peeters. They were 26 and expecting their first child.

So while his wife was seven months pregnant, he would conceive another. Irene Steiner, my great grandmother, would have her second experience giving birth alone, supported by the Catholic nuns.

Some of the descendants of this baby, a half sister of my grandmother, have on their own discovered parts or all of this story. In fact, it’s likely that some have more detail and insight than I do. I have been in contact with a descendant of this second daughter who is of my generation and whose late aunt had uncovered many truths through her own genealogical quest, but this aunt has since passed, taking some of these answers with her. The baby was adopted at 6 months old from the same orphanage in Green Bay as my grandmother had been two years earlier. She was raised a well-loved only child who moved a lot as a child. She passed away in 2006. 

For my grandmother’s part (Irene’s first given baby), she was adopted by an older couple (46 and 47 at her birth) who had one teenage daughter. The age gap made it so that my grandmother grew up without many close companions, and she was quite independent, enjoying long solo adventures around the lakes and nature of Antigo, Wisconsin. When I asked her recently about her childhood, she replied, “My childhood was mostly happy. I remember the lake and the property there. The neighbor places more than the people. I liked to explore – but it was called ‘running away.’ The police called Mom or brought me home.” I can just picture her by herself, summer breeze through tall grass, losing track of time.

I wonder if my grandma would be comforted or saddened to know there was another little girl, loved and free, but sisterless. Her name was Nancy. She died in 2006.

Let’s go back to young, married Patrick in 1929. He would go on to live his life in Green Bay, tending to his drug store, opening another business, and having a total of two children. Irene moved to Chicago right after the birth of the second baby. There she worked as a nanny/maid, caring for three children belonging to Oswald and Sarah Hampsch (I haven’t yet discovered any connection to family or anyone else in the story). Irene was listed as “servant” in a household on the 1930 census.

The Hampsch couple traveled to Cuba in 1931, leaving behind their children. It is likely they were left in Irene’s care during this voyage. The Hampsch children grew up to live very upright lives, one becoming a reverend and another a philosophy professor. So although I can’t find a clear connection as to why it was this couple she might have gone to work for and live with, I have no reason to believe they were a family that was anything other than decent. But how did she come to them? Maybe the Catholic church? I haven’t yet found out the answer to that question. Side note on geography for those not familar: Green Bay is over 200 miles away from Chicago. It’s a significant move, and would have taken her away from any shame or ostracism she might have faced in and around Green Bay.

Here’s where things get sticky, and I’ve gone around and around in so many circles that I think I’ll need to return when my skills have improved.

Irene’s sister Marie married a man who gave her the last name George. Irene also went on to marry a George: Harold George. They married in 1933. Since her sister was five years older than Irene, I theorize that it was her sister who met her own husband first, and that Irene would go on to meet her husband Harold George through this connection. When I investigated her sister Marie’s marriage, however, I came up with nothing. I couldn’t find any marriage record. I found her in the Milwaukee directory (where her father’s obituary claimed her to live), but I can only see her address, no family. There is a Marie George of the correct age and location in the 1940 census married to a Harold George. The same name as Irene’s husband? How can that be? This is either A) not the right Marie George in Milwaukee. B) Irene and her sister both married men with the exact same name. Cousins? C) Irene and her sister married the same man, and are both listed in the 1940 census, one in Milwaukee and the other in Chicago. The same man theory seems absurd. So… I’m going with A. But then where is my Marie George? The other confusing element is that Irene’s husband Harold George has two younger brothers, significantly younger than Marie and neither appear to have married a Marie.  This is why genealogy is a hobby that’s kind of like a marriage between a 5,000 piece puzzle and a slot machine. I know Marie’s story is just a side mystery to solve, but it seems like it could help me clarify how Irene crossed paths with her Harold. I feel like Marie could be the key to that discovery.

Irene Steiner in later years

I know without a doubt that Irene ended up in Chicago. Her father’s obituary puts her there. She is there in the census. I have more than one piece of evidence that she married Harold George, including the eventual birth certificate of a daughter. A descendant of her second daughter traced Irene back to her siblings, contacted them, and they shared photos and information with her before her recent death. It is this evidence that left me no doubt that I had tracked down the right Irene Steiner. My grandma’s resemblance to her mother is striking.

So back to Irene’s Harold George. This Harold George has two brothers (neither of whom married Marie) and a sister. He was from Missouri, but his family migrated to Chicago while he, as a young man, stayed behind to work in a Missouri factory. (Incidentally, he lived as a boarder along with a Howard George – not his brother – so that leads me to believe there are cousins out there who might have married Marie – though this one marries someone else.) The 1930 census indicates Hardold’s father found work as a janitor in a Chicago apartment building.

Irene moved to Chicago before Harold did. She was living with the Hampsch family in 1930 while Harold was living as a boarder with the Oliver family in Missouri. So perhaps she in fact did not meet him through her older sister. Perhaps it was the other way around and Marie became a George after Irene met Harold. It might seem silly to want to get it so right, but ultimately that’s what I want to do. I want to get it right.

At some point after 1930, Harold found his way up to Chicago and in 1933 he and Irene married.

The 1940 census in Chicago has a Harold George married to an Irene with a 3 year old daughter named “Joan.” Harold works as a janitor in an apartment building, taking on the same job as his father. Could it be that there was another Harold and Irene George in Chicago and this was the wrong family? If so, I am about to make a lot of mistakes going forward.

Three year old baby Joann Sylvia George. Another half sister to my grandmother. Her birth certificate lists her parents Harold George born in Missouri and Irene Steiner born in Wisconsin. Joann was born March 10, 1937. Ten years to the day after my grandma was born. They share a birthday.

Harold and Irene never have any other documented children. Since the census records are not released past 1940, it is very difficult to piece their lives together from here. I believe I’ve found Joann’s yearbook photo from the 1950s. She appears to have married twice. Unless I’m mistaken, there was a brief marriage in October 1956 when she was 19 to a man named Richard A. Graham. This union did not last and produced no children. Researching this man didn’t give me a lot of insight into who he was or what kind of life she might have had during the period of their marriage. The lasting love of her life is Henry O [name left out to protect privacy], whom she married in May 1959, and they remain married today. They have at least one child, possibly two or more? Joann is 82 and Henry is 89 and they live together in a condo in Florida.

As for Harold and Irene, Joann was their only child. Harold died in 1973 at the age of 62. Irene died in 1995. She was 86.

Joann moved to Florida in the 1990s after her mother Irene’s death. She has enjoyed notoriety in her area as a watercolor painter. Her work is excellent. Growing up, my grandmother also painted watercolor and had a special talent for it. (She would deny this, but seriously.) As she got older, my grandma’s preferred medium changed to basket weaving, and she was a founding member of the Headwaters Basket Guild. Her work is stunning, full of artistry and soul. When I was writing Owen’s story, I wondered where Grandma’s unique creative talent came from. Joann’s skill as an artist would lead me to believe it was in their mother’s genes. 

Going back to their shared mother, Irene. There are photos of her as an older woman – photos that look strikingly similar to my grandma. In the photos, she is visiting her many aging siblings and sibling’s spouses in Wisconsin. I have looked for an obituary to no avail. I wish I knew anything about her interests and passions. What did she enjoy doing in her free time? What did she love? What were her fears?

So I leave this work in progress here for now. It is so hard to truly know what kind of a woman Irene was from just the traces of documents and clippings of a newspaper. She was a farm girl who seems to have had some isolating and painful experiences with two different men, both of whom were older than her and neither of whom seemed to have taken much accountability for their role in the circumstance, whether by choice or ignorance. Then she met a man who fit, and they raised a daughter who seems to be thriving to this day.

I often end these stories with gratitude, and I feel bursting with it for Irene. To be pregnant alone, give birth alone, then face the pain of giving up not one, but two daughters. Then to go on to work as a nanny to other children before finally making a family of her own. Those are experiences I can only imagine. I still don’t know quite who she was. Was she wild? Was she creative? Was she impulsive? Was she taken advantage of? Was she soft or hard? Was she open or closed? I choose to believe she was strong. I choose to believe she was brave.

Ancestor Stories: Lawrence “Ed” Petrie (1901-1956)

ed petrie

This week I’m visiting my great grandfather, Lawrence Edwin “Ed” Petrie, and after a week of digging around, I’m not sure if Ed wants to be visited. I swear, when writing some stories, it’s like nudging ancestors awake from a deep sleep, and they are just brimming to tell me everything they can while I’m paying attention. But with Ed, he seemed a little too eager to just get back to sleep.

Ed was born on Emerson Avenue, Chicago (Evanston), in 1901. Evanston at that time offered an escape from the crowding of Chicago, which, nearly 30 years after the fire, was quickly growing. The community was designed with tree-lined streets, and an electric street railroad was constructed in the years just before Ed was born.

His father, James Petrie, of Scottish lineage, was a boilermaker. This trade – fashioning steel into large containers – was an important occupation of the Industrial Revolution, and for a long time the UK had a monopoly on the profession. Ed’s mother, Bridget Murphy, was of Irish lineage. Ed was born into a full house. His parents were in their early 40s with 6 children living with them between the ages of 5 and 20. A 49-year-old relative, Margaret Murphy (perhaps Bridget’s sister?), also lived with them. 


At some point the family moved to Hyde Park, Chicago. In the 1910 census, they still lived in a tremendously full house, with older siblings in their 20s, and even 30 year-old brother Robert and a 26 year-old son-in-law all living in the family home. They were a household of many young adults working various city jobs like stenographer and store clerk. Father James was still a boilermaker. Ed had some teenage brothers still in school, and he was a 9 year-old boy in the midst of this, the only one in single digits.

In April 1917 when Ed had just turned 16, the US entered WWI. Ed was used to a lifetime of his older brothers doing things before he was old enough to join. But on this occasion, all the brothers would enter into the war together. Each would be carried on his own path. In Ed’s case, he was a seaman with the Navy, participating in transport convoys to France. WWI transport convoys provided escort to merchant ships carrying all manner of things to and from various countries. 

The best insight I got into what my great grandfather’s experiences must have been like during his service during WWI was from the fascinating journal entries of 24 year-old sailor Guy Burrell Connor. From the introduction to his published journal, “During World War I the US Navy’s primary role was the safe transport of troops and supplies to the war in Europe rather than classic engagements with enemy ships on the high seas. This vital mission guaranteed the arrival of over two million American troops to the front lines, along with tons of supplies to support them. Some 503,000 enlisted men and 32,000 officers were serving in the American Navy at the time of the November 1918 armistice. One of these enlisted sailors who helped protect the flow of American troops and supplies to the Allies was Guy Burrell Connor, a resident of Cromwell Indiana. His diary, written during the last year of the war, reflects the daily life, concerns, and observations of an average battleship sailor risking his life escorting ships in these Atlantic crossings.”

10917397_10152664688416705_7243292662319812163_nI share a handful of diary entries in order to give a taste of what Ed’ experiences must have been like. Though he wasn’t the sailor who wrote these accounts, he was living very much the same life, and doubtless would share many similar thoughts and experiences had he left a diary of his own for me to find. Once again, at 17, he was probably around a bunch of older boys. These entries really transport the reader, but for the sake of a read-in-one sitting account, I share just a selection. I have transcribed them as written. For those interested, the entire collection is available here: 

July, 1918

Got back to the Pennsylvania at the Brooklyn Navy Yard July 17th after having the best leave and I certainly did hate to get back. Everything is in terrible shape and things are being rushed so as to get through before time is up. Have been trying to get transferred to a landwire job but guess it won’t go through. There’s too many men in the radio force on the Pennsy and I want to get where I can have more of an opportunity to do something. Left Navy Yard July 15th and landed at Base Two the next day. All we do is stay at this place and I wish I could get somewhere. We passed a ship on the trip down that was torpedoed shortly after.

Sept 21st, 1918

…A submarine stood back a couple miles one day and took a shot at the convoy in hopes of getting at least one ship. We saw the wake of the torpedo headed for the Henderson in time to save them. The Stingham came alongside us three days ago and received sealed orders from the Captain. They left at once and returned last night about nine o’clock.

Sept 22nd, 1918

…Have the 4 to 8am watch this morning.

Sept 25th, 1918

Heard stations in Morocco, Spain, England and Germany working last night and also heard British warships working. We are very near the coast of Europe. Last night instead of copying Washington press, I went on arc and copied English press from Horses and Carnarvon. They send it about twenty eight or thirty per minute and I got four pages in less than forty five minutes. We have been having abandon ship drills today and I also went aloft to fix the antenna. I heard that in the entire convoy there was only seven or eight deaths since we started. One Marine Captain on the Henderson died. Most of the sickness and death is due to Spanish Influenza which is spreading some now… Reports come down from foretop just now of firing heard off port bow. Four distinct shots heard. I just sent a message to Sigourney and rec’d one from him. He used commercial procedure, I used U.S.N. procedure. Covered 600 on black receiver all during 12-4 pm watch. Heard Cape Finisterre Spain, Alfonso XII and Reina Maria Cristina working all afternoon. About six o’clock p.m. a bunch of destroyers met us and the Pueblo and Stribling started back. We remain with the convoy until we reach longitude 15. There’s about a dozen destroyers with us now.

Sept 29, 1918

Arrived at Ponta Del Gada this morning about ten o’clock and the Islands are the most beautiful sight I ever saw. They are like mountains, or rather they are mountains sticking up out of the the ocean and far into the clouds. They are green at this time of year and the fields are laid off in even plots that seem plastered on the side of the mountain. Here and there white houses with red roofs dot the country, and the towns are built more compact than ours. The houses are similar to those of the Mesicans and the people are mostly Portugese. Ponta Del Gada has about 25,000 population. I imagine I would like to live here for a while at least and if I did it would be up on the mountain where everything is green and nice. The fields are all fenced off with hedges. In some places there’s also a stone wall along the roads with broken glass on top to keep out trespassers. Admiral Dunn is our naval officer here and he is also the power over the people of the city. The “Tonahpaw” an old monitor flys his flag and there’s three subs of K Type here, a couple of our gun boats and a few French sub chasers. The “Marietta” and “Arethusa” are also here. When we moored here there was big Portuguese troop ship in which had been chased in here by subs. It sailed from Africa for Portugal and there’s all kinds of people aboard with every kind of a uniform on also a few women. We area a curiosity here for the people hire bum boats and row around the ship to look us over. Some of the natives come out and dive for money in the water. One fellow threw five pennies in and one of the divers got them all before he came up again. I can’t say how long we will be here but I can’t see why we should stay here for there’s no place to get fixed up. All we can do is overhaul our engines. It’s wonderful to know that we were about three days in the submarine zone with crippled engines and then got through without hitting a submarine. We copied one SOS today and one Allo. The “Henry George” was gunned and wanted immediate assistance.

Sept 30th, 1918

Still at Ponta Del Gada eating lots of pineapples. Natives come alongside with bumboats full of pineapples and other kinds of fruit to sell. Only one tenth of the crew gets liberty here each day and it’s only for six hours. There’s plenty to drink here. Every other store has wines and liquor to sell and things are very cheap. They all advertize their wines, private rooms, and women. The women of the older families of the island where a peculiar cape and hood or bonnet. Both are black, the cape reaching their shoe tops and the hood is narrow, long and high, standing up like the comb on a chicken. ‘Tis said that in years past the Spaniards used to come over here and pick all the pretty girls and take them back to Spain so they got the idea of disguising the girls to make them appear older. Some of the older men where these costumes also.

Oct 1, 1918

Still at Ponta Delgada. We coal ship tomorrow and will no doubt leave in a day or so. All the fellows are getting money to keep for souvenirs. Would like to take some things back but there’s nothing but cheap novelties to be had. The sidewalks here are very narrow and inlaid with fancy stones. When a person gets on one street here you have to go to the end for there’s no cross streets or alleys. Wish I could get some mail from home. Will be glad when I can hear from Alice again for it’s been almost a month since I had a letter from her.

Oct 2, 1918

Still at Ponta Delgada. We have four corpses from the Chicago to take back to the U.S. We are coaling ship today and will leave tomorrow for the U.S. I worked all day putting jumpers on the antennas and it was some job.

Oct 12, 1918

Had general quarters at 2am this morn acct three torpedoes fired at us. We started zig zagging and made about 20 knots getting away from them. Had the 4 to 8am watch and sighted land at 6am. First time we have seen U.S. in month. Arrived in Yorktown about ten thirty am. I got read for the recreation grounds but they were delayed so I went and scrubbed clothes and took a bath. No mail today but one hundred bags tomorrow.

Oct 20, 1918

Have the 8am to 12 noon watch this morning. I certainly had a bad night last night. A new regulation on the water-tight doors keeps them closed only when the watches are being changed. I had the six to eight watch and when I went up to get my hammock it was too dark to see. I couldn’t find it so I slept in the tailor shop on deck, in the 4th div’n passageway, on a mess table and finally in the Interfleet. Hughes came in to get a bucket about 6 30 and dropped a big heavy angle iron on my head. I have a nice big bump and gash in my head now. We should reach New York this afternoon sometime and I hope we get some liberty so I can write some letters and send a telegram. We dropped anchor opposite Tompkinsville at 6:30pm during a drizzling rain. Have been looking at the “Statue of Liberty” and wondering if I will get any liberty. So far things look very doubtful. Word from the Pueblo says they have had no liberty account Influenza.

Oct 25, 1918

Very rough today. At daybreak the convoy was about 20 miles ahead but now we have caught up with them. This trip has been enough to get on a person’s nerves so far and before we get back I suppose it will be worse. I’ve aged about five years in the last week.

Oct 28, 1918

The weather is very rough yet and both the main and gun decks are flooded. We have been in this rough weather a week now.

Oct 30, 1918

Last night while I was washing clothes torpedo defense sounded and we fired two shots at a submarine and put on all speed getting away from torpedoes. We were at our stations about an hour… I was busy all day doing lots of little personal details and am not through yet. We meet the destroyers about tomorrow some time and will turn back soon after that. We will no doubt go back alone and if we have good luck it will be about the 10th of November when we get back. Hope I get leave soon as we get back so I can get to see Alice once more. I’ll bet she thinks I’m gone.

November 2, 1918

Still encountering heavy seas and not making such good time. Nearly half the crew has Spanish Influenza and its a surprise to me that they haven’t something else the way were are crowded up and the things we have had to contend with this trip.

November 3, 1918

About 40 go into the sick bay each day with the “flu” and only four or five coming out. We have 7 or 8 from the radio bunch in there now. We are proceeding very slowly and wont be in the U.S. for about ten days.

November 6, 1918

We headed into a hurricane this morning and have been bucking it all day. At least a week yet before we reach the states and more if we continue to run into these storms. We have had only about one day of good weather during the entire trip.

November 9, 1918

We were turned out for torpedo defence about two am this morning. Its getting cold and very rough also raining. Three men have died with influenza. We are making very slow time. Too slow for me.

November 10, 1918

Last night I copied the USNavy press telling of the Kaisers abdication and now everyone is talking peace and a chance to get back home. Theres where I want to be right away. The sea is smooth today and I passed a very lonesome Sunday. Sure wish I was home where I belong.

November 11, 1918

Hostilities ceased at 11am today and everyone on the ship is highly elated. The band marched around the gun deck with about half the ships company behind in single file singing and playing different pieces. Everyone is talking of going home but there will be some that wont gt home until the full enlistment is served. If peace is declared I will sure make every effort to get out for I only came in on account of the war. It will be at least six months before any one gets home though and it will take time to get settled.

The collection closes stating that little is known of this sailor’s later life. I tried searching for descendants, because I wanted to make sure they were aware of this collection of diary entries out there and available to the public. Although I couldn’t find evidence of any children, I was heartened to see he went on to marry Alice. 

In Ed’s case, I’m not sure how many transport convoys he was a part of, and it is only through the news clipping that I believe they were transatlantic to France. I included Guy’s experiences in Portugal despite the fact that my great grandfather’s land experiences must have been somewhat different in France. First, because I think it highlights the simple curiosities and pleasures of young men leaving home that must’ve been occurring in many different shapes and forms all around the world. And second, because it’s fun to remember Guy from Indiana even if he’s not my great grandfather. Indiana’s right there next to Chicago.

When Ed returned from the war, he was still a teenager, and would move into a smaller household than the one he left. His father James would die in early 1919. In fact, when my research skills have improved, I will have to explore whether or not Ed made it back in time to say good bye to his father, as Guy’s diary indicates that it might have been some time after the war ended before sailors could return home.

Ed began working as a clerk in the post office. He lived with his mother and older sisters. One of his sisters had learned tragedy with the death of a six year old son and then subsequent suicide of her husband. During that time in the post-war years, Ed met young (very young! 14 or 15 year-old) Mary King from nearby in the neighborhood. She became pregnant at 15 and a few months before the arrival of their son, my grandfather, they crossed into Indiana to get married.

Research questions: I know Indiana isn’t far, but what was the practical reason for wedding here? Did it have to do with her age? Did she have relatives there? Was it really the closest location (seems doubtful)? 

They were married on January 11th and baby William, my grandfather, was born May 13th. The year was 1921.

It is most likely that they moved immediately in with Bridget Murphy, Ed’s mother, and his older sisters. I believe many of his older brothers were also living nearby.

Ten years would pass before I could get another snapshot of them. By 1930 Ed and Mary were estranged. I have no idea how long they lasted. They were each listed as married in 1930 census records, but they were living apart. Mary was a waitress and apparently living alone. Ed was 29 years old, a fire extinguisher salesman listed as the head of house, living with another apparently estranged married 28 year-old man (chauffeur), a single 28 year-old man (salesman in a cigar shop), and an estranged 29 year-old married woman (waitress). William, their son, was left to the care of Ed’s mother Bridget and older aunts living at the home of their mother. I believe that was the case from as early as my grandfather remembered. He had a lonely childhood.

Back to Ed’s household in 1930. Three single/married-but-estranged men and a married-but-estranged woman. The woman, Harriet Bracht, was listed as Ed’s sister-in-law, but that didn’t add up. The name didn’t match with any of his sibling’s families as far as I could tell. I figured there must be an interesting – potentially scandalous – story there, and suspected she might be having an affair with one of the men. I started to dig into Harriet’s life. She had married a man six years before, and it turns out stalking that estranged husband did not disappoint. 

Ray Elfgen from Alton Illinois. He’d already married and divorced the same woman FOUR TIMES BEFORE he married Harriet. If that’s not a red flag, ladies, I don’t know what is. He married 26 year-old Harriet in 1924, but two years later, he’d be marrying a 15 year-old. (He was the grand old age of 35 by then.) By the way, census records show that he lived for a time in the same household as his 15 year-old wife and her parents (who were his age) and her siblings. Awkward. I’d say Harriet made the wrong call, but that it didn’t last more than a couple years means I guess she dodged a bullet.

There is actually a treasure trove out there about Ray Elfgen. For example, a police officer was shot in pursuit of a “negro man” whom Ray Elfgen had chased out of his store for shoplifting. I have a theory that the real source of Ray Elfgen’s life history of drama could be a car accident that he barely survived as a young man. It seems like there was some damage to the frontal lobe with this guy.

So I’m not sure how Harriet came about living in a household of married-but-not-married adults which included my great grandfather, when even his own son didn’t get face-time around there. Whether there was anything romantic happening, it doesn’t appear to have led to a marriage.

Ed’s later life remains very much a mystery to me. I think he married a woman eventually, perhaps her name was Florence Bretz, but that is something to confirm down the road. I can’t seem to find him anywhere in the 1940s census records and so that would be an interesting place to pick up research. Lawrence? Edwin? Ed? I can’t find him.

He died in 1956 at the relatively young age of 55. His occupation was bartender. Was his death smoking or drinking related as so many were in that era? What kind of relationship did he have with his son, my grandfather, by the end of his life? My grandfather was just beginning his family life with my mother and her siblings. Was his death a shock to him?

That concludes my time with Ed for this week. I’ll let him get back to sleep. For next week, I visit my German line: Christine Schleppenbach. How great is that name?

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.