Saturday, July 5, 2014


Himself, c. 1930

My father would be 113 years old today.

He was born July 5, 1901, in what was then a vibrant Mississippi River railroad town, a transhipment point for crops and hogs and lumber and such from the vast "New Northwest" of Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

He was a patriot. Being born on the 5th of July, the day after Independence Day, was always thought significant by his family. He was always considered an Independence Baby.

As he got older, he took up the patriotic cause. He signed up for service in a battalion that was never sent overseas in WWI. As the battalion's 17 year old second lieutenant, he drilled the troops around the town square and took them on bivouacs into the wilds of the Mississippi River islands. By the time his drills and the expeditions were completed, however, the war in Europe was over.

He was drafted for service in World War II.  By then he was a middle aged lawyer, though still quite enthusiastic to serve. He never went overseas. Instead, he was assigned to domestic Army Air Corps bases where he conducted investigations into problems and practices of training which he reported to his HQ at Wright Patterson Field in Ohio before being reassigned to the Office of Contract Settlement of the War Mobilization and Reconversion Office where he spent the rest of the War. He remained in the ready reserves until the end of the Korean Conflict, though he was never called for that one --
so far as I know.

As this is the anniversary of his birth, I did a little research, as I usually do, into his ancestors and their lives before and after they came to America. The Google is sometimes useful but often not when it comes to finding out about one's ancestors. I've tried many times to find out more over the years by plugging in the names of known ancestors only to be led on wild goose chases or coming up against a pay wall -- or coming up blank.

But this year, I encountered for the first time the obituary of my German great-grandfather, and a detailed biography (up to 1911 anyway) of my Irish-American grandfather that explained for the for the first time what had happened to his mother, and why his father was listed on Census rolls as married to someone else.

Transcription of my great-grandfather Reinhold's obituary: (I'll redact the last names merely because it's what I do...)

July 20, 1901: 
Reinhold S_______, an old and respected citizen of C__________, died at his home at 312 9th Avenue about four o'clock Friday afternoon after a long illness. Mr. S_________ lived in this city for a long time and was in the employ of the North Western Railroad continuously for 28 years.
He was born in Weibstadt, Germany, July 21, 1840. He came to this country in 1855 and settled [here] in 1861. In 1863, he married Miss Veronica C_________ . He is survived by his wife and seven children, four daughters, Mrs Anna K__________, Mrs. George F. S_________, Mrs. W. H. C________ (note: she my grandmother), and Miss Josephine at home; and three sons, Frank J., John W., and William P., all of this city. He also leaves one sister, Mrs. A. Dietz of Chicago. He was a member of the Roman Catholic Mutual Protective Association. Funeral services will be held at the German Catholic Church, Monday morning at 8 o'clock.

Brief, to be sure, but it tells me a lot that I didn't know. First, that his date of death was July 19, 1901, the Friday before the obit was published. It was two weeks to the day after my father's birth. I didn't know his address in town, and from what I'd been told, I thought he lived on the bluff above the river, not down by the river essentially next to the railyard. That house is no longer standing as the whole block has been taken up with a supermarket. I didn't know that he'd worked for the railroad itself for nearly 30 years, as I'd been told he was alternatively a carpenter or a banker. He may well have been a carpenter for the railroad, but no one in the family ever mentioned the railroad. I learned much later that his son John had been a banker, and that may have been where the story came from that Reinhold was a banker. I didn't know about his sister in Chicago. I'd been told he was a Roman Catholic converso born in Bavaria or "Germany" -- which didn't exist when he was born -- but I didn't know exactly where or when. I thought from some of the stories I heard that he was born in Frankfurt which was a free city before it was absorbed by Prussia. Weibstadt apparently is -- or rather was -- a village outside of Heidelberg; it has apparently since been absorbed by Heidelberg and no longer exists. Heidelberg is in Baden-Wurttemberg, not Bavaria, so the origin of the origin of the story of Reinhold being born in Frankfurt or Bavaria is something of a mystery. I may have confused stories about him with other German ancestors, or the stories I was told were... wrong.

I didn't know that he had emigrated to America when he was fifteen, in 1855. I had assumed he left Germany after the Revolutions of 1848 and that he was an adult when he left. I didn't know when he was born, however, and thought he was probably born about the same year as my other great-grandfather James, who I knew had been born in Ireland (though exactly where -- County Meath is hardly exact -- I still don't know) in 1833. The  information about James came from census records, but I could find very little about Reinhold in the census records I looked at.

Reinhold died at the age of 61, and I thought he was older. I have found very little information about his wife Veronica, though she was apparently German, born in 1840 as well, and died in 1918.

Their daughter Elizabeth Veronica was my grandmother. She married my grandfather, William Henry in 1899, and in 1901 had their second son, my father, Raymond J.

My father's father was a relatively prominent man in that part of Eastern Iowa, maintaining law offices with his brothers in two towns simultaneously and having lots and lots of children on poor-suffering Elizabeth Veronica. I never knew more than a few of these people -- my grandparents were deceased long before I was born -- so I only heard stories about most of them, and most of those stories were incomplete or, as I would come to find out about the "ancient ancestors", inaccurate. As in... Blarney.

So, when I come upon stories in print/online that I hadn't known before, as I did yesterday, it's with more than a little interest.

This is an excerpt of a story about my grandfather published in the County History in 1911.
"Through struggle to triumph'' seems to be the maxim which holds sway for the majority of our citizens, and. though it is undoubtedly true that many fall exhausted in the conflict, a few, by their inherent force of character and strong mentality, rise above their environment and all which seems to hinder them, until they reach the plane of influence toward which their faces were set through the long years of struggle that must necessarily precede any accomplishment of great magnitude. Such has been the history of William H., one of the most popular attorneys of [this] county and one of her most public spirited and honored citizens.
Mr. C_____ was born ... April 16, 1869. He is the son of James and Alice (O'Brian) C______. The father was for a number of years a prosperous farmer...  He is now living retired in the city and is highly respected by a wide circle of friends and accquaintances. His wife passed to her rest on October 17, 1870.
William H.  grew up on a farm ... and attended the rural schools, and he was graduated from the Dixon Normal School in 1888, receiving an excellent education. He began teaching in Scott County, also continued to teach after coming to [this] county, having been principal...for a period of one year, giving the greatest satisfaction to both pupil and patron, being both an instructor and an entertainer in the school room. Had he continued teaching he would doubtless have become long ere this one of the notable educators of the state, but believing that the legal field held especial inducements for him, he entered the law department of the State University of Iowa in 1892, where he made a splendid record and from which institution he was graduated in 1894.
He soon afterward entered the law office of his brother, [Alexander], in [this city], and has remained in the same office until the present time....  As a trial lawyer he has few equals and no superiors, and he is always a very busy man, his services being in great demand at all times. Owing to his ability and his interest in public matters, he was soon singled out for offices of trust and for the past six years he has filled to his own credit and to the satisfaction of all concerned the office of assistant county attorney. ...Fraternallv, [he] belongs to the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, the Knights of Columbus, being a charter member of the latter and is past grand knight. He is also a member of Sheridan Club.
Among the many things I learned from this bio was that his mother, Alice O'Brian (alternatively spelled O'Brien), died in 1870, when William H.  was barely one year old. This helps explain why James's wife is sometimes named "Margaret" in subsequent census records I've seen. Sometimes she's not mentioned at all, and in one record, Margaret claims that James has died, though the census worker found him quite alive a few doors down the street and made note of it in her book. I guess James and Margaret didn't always get along, hm? But you know what? Until I saw the census records, I never knew "Margaret" existed at all.

I also learned that my grandfather had been a teacher, something I didn't know previously, and that he had even been a principal for a time. He would have been 19 in 1888 when he graduated from the (quite rural) normal school, and he started law school in 1892 when he was 23, graduating in 1894, when he was 25. Quite an accomplishment given what are said to be the rigors of legal educations today. I didn't know that he served as assistant county attorney, though I knew he was prominent in Democratic Party politics, something that isn't mentioned in this bio. I knew he was a Knight of Columbus but not that he was an Elk or a member of the Sheridan Club (not sure quite what that is come to think of it... does it have something to do with General Sheridan? Dunno.)

Stories of ancestors were limited when I was young, partly because the dead tell no tales. A good deal of what I was told was simple fabrication, too. Sorting it out has not been easy, as it has never been easy to find records. I'm not sure the ones I've found recently are particularly reliable in any case. The living do tell tales, and not all of them are true.


Cheers, Dad!

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