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.