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.