Thursday, April 28, 2016

Leo the Incurable Romantic

Leo was my mother's step-father. He died before I was born, and I've never seen a picture of him, so I didn't know him and I have no personal knowledge of what he looked like. But since I've been on this journey of genealogical discovery, I feel like I've learned a great deal about him, enough, perhaps, to have a fairly good idea of what he was like.

I have little doubt that he was an incurable romantic.

He was second-generation American. He and his parents were born in the United States; his grandparents were born in Germany. That surprised me, for I thought he was Welsh or even Irish, but according to the records, he was German. He was born and reared in Indianapolis, and as far as I know he was a friend of my mother's biological father. That's what I was told by my mother, and the records I've found indicate they both worked for Indianapolis's streetcar company, and at least for a time they were neighbors.

Leo was a machinist for the streetcar company, whereas Larry (aka "Riley"), my mother's biological father, worked mostly as a conductor. When he worked. Leo was a member of the Sons of Pythias, and seems to have parlayed that and his own rather sunny personality into a much better life than Larry the Rebel was able to do for himself and his many offspring.

Larry would be killed in a railyard incident in St. Louis just before Christmas of 1916. He left behind a widow and young daughter in St. Louis and another widow and young daughter in Indianapolis. There were a number of other women and children, but those two households were primary at the time of Larry's death. The yard boss in St Louis married Larry's St. Louis widow Marie and adopted her daughter Helen, and they lived in St. Louis for the rest of their lives.

Larry's Indianapolis widow Edna would be married by Leo, and Leo, Edna and her daughter Virginia -- my mother -- would move to California in 1917 to start a new life. Leo never legally adopted my mother, but he treated her as his daughter and she used his last name as her own until she married.

Leo and Edna had no children together of their own.

In California, Leo started out as an auto mechanic for the Ed Reubel Dodge dealership in Santa Maria. He worked his way up to service manager, and he and his little family had a nice little California bungalow a few blocks away from the dealership. The house is still there and it still looks cozy and cheerful though it's now part of a multi-unit compound.

Sometime after 1930, Leo pulled up stakes and bought an auto court and filling station on the Redwood Highway in Willits called "U-Auto-Stop" where he and Edna moved. By this time my mother Virginia was married to her first husband, and shortly she would give birth to a daughter, Patricia, my (half) sister. They continued to live in Santa Maria where my mother's husband, Polk, worked as a mechanic and at other jobs for Ed Reubel.

In 1939, Leo sold the "U-Auto-Stop" and at first, I didn't know what had happened to them. Turns out he and Edna moved to Reno where he became the Secretary-Treasurer of a mining company. After some further search, I found out it was called the Jungo Mine, and it was located outside of Jungo, NV, the site of a very famous gold mine that had been extensively featured in Life Magazine. That mine was called the Jumbo Mine.

I found some ads for the Jungo Mine offering penny shares to all and sundry with extravagant promises of riches to come. Sacks of ore were being taken out of the Jungo Mine, some of them assaying at $12 and $15, so the ad copy said, and this translated to a remarkable return on a penny investment. "Get in now!"

Whether or not this mine actually ever operated, I don't know. There were lots of diggings around Jungo following the Jumbo strike in 1936, but whether any of them proved worthwhile is unknown to me. The ads I found for the Jungo Mine seem to have been placed only in 1940 -- I found none before or after -- and by 1941, Leo and Edna were living in Vallejo, CA.

Leo took a job as a machinist at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard -- where all those Liberty Ships were built to win the War -- and Edna took sick with the cancer that would shortly kill her. She died in October, 1941. Leo continued to work at Mare Island until his own death in 1945.

My mother spoke rather highly of Leo, when she spoke of him at all -- which wasn't often. Except that, when it came to her mother's death, she became hard and unforgiving. Suddenly her attitude toward Leo changed, and she blamed Leo for her mother's death at age 52. According to her, Leo and Edna had adopted Christian Science, and that meant Edna got no medical attention during her illness and according to my mother, she died in agony. There were hints in the story she told me that they had turned to Christian Science because they couldn't afford traditional medical treatment, and the fact that they couldn't afford it was due to Leo's profligacy.

That could be, but my mother didn't say anything to me about Reno or the mine or Vallejo. Her stories of her mother and stepfather stopped in Willits, which is where I thought Edna had died. But it wasn't so.

She lived at least briefly in Vallejo and died at the Solano County Hospital where she was taken when it was too late.

At the time, my mother was living with her husband and daughter on an orchard-ranch in Yolo County owned a Japanese-American family. Her husband, Polk, she said, was working as an oil-jobber, but according to records I found, he was a service station attendant. It's possible he was both. She divorced Polk in 1941 or 42 -- due to his infidelity, she said. She and my sister stayed on the ranch until some time after the Japanese family was sent away to the camps. Then they moved into town, Sacramento, just across the river from the ranch. Polk was also in Sacramento at the time, and he stayed there through the War and afterwards. In fact, he's buried in Sacramento, which surprised the heck out of me as he died in Walnut Creek where he lived with his second wife for thirty years or more working for Chevron, eventually becoming a vice president for sales.

But his new wife Jean was from Sacramento, and after Polk died she moved back to Sacramento where she lived the rest of her life.

This is getting far afield of Leo, however.

Leo's romanticism comes through in the path he follows from Indiana to California, from California to Nevada, and from Nevada back to California -- when it seems that his hopes in the mine were dashed.

In the end, I see his story as a romantic tragedy.

Leaving Indiana in 1917 and making a new life in California with my mother and her mother was in itself a romantic gesture, a supremely romantic gesture, it seems to me.

My mother's mother Edna had come from a rather well-off matriarchy headed by her mother Ida. Ida was a widow-woman who had apparently inherited quite a lot of property from her parents and her husband, land and buildings in the path of Indianapolis's growth during the 19th and early 20th centuries. She lived off the income and proceeds of sales of this property and provided a home for her sisters and son and daughter, and soon would be providing a home for her granddaughter when Edna gave birth to my mother Virginia in 1911. The house where they lived on N. Sherman Drive is still standing, and it seems like a rather modest place, though it's deceptively large. It's next door to a fire station which was built in 1915 on the site of Ida's former home, the place she'd shared with her husband and children. Though I've never seen a picture of that house, my impression is that it was an old two story farm house that was built when that section of Indianapolis was rural. It apparently burned in 1912 or 1913, and Ida sold the lot to the city -- for a fire station. The household moved next door to a house Ida also owned at the time.

These places on N. Sherman Dr were half a block from the Michigan Avenue streetcar line where Larry, my mother's biological father, worked -- when he worked -- as a conductor.

Larry was quite a ladies' man.

He'd been married in 1896 and had three children with his wife Maud, but they were divorced around 1907 and his children were farmed out. His daughter Florence went to live with his brother Frank and Frank's wife Edna, and for all anyone knew, Florence was Frank and Edna's daughter for ever more. Larry's sons, George and David, went to live with Larry's parents where they stayed until they reached majority.

Larry fathered other children, three of whom I found records of. One, Virgil, was born the same year as my mother (1911) to a woman (girl, really; she was 17) who never claimed to be married to Larry. My mother's mother Edna did claim to be married to Larry, though I could find no proof of it. According to what I did find, she claimed to be married to him in January or February of 1910. But she did not live with him as man and wife -- ever, so far as I could find out -- and she did not use his last name until after my mother Virginia's birth.

Larry's other child, Helen, was born to Marie, his wife in St. Louis. I did find records of their marriage, though he married her under what appears to have been an assumed name. My mother always claimed that he was a bigamist, and the scandalous discovery was made at his funeral when his "other family" was revealed. My mother remembered attending his funeral, and she recalled feeling sorry for his daughter Helen who was then two years old (my mother was five.)

She recalled the funeral taking place in Indianapolis, but it didn't. It was in St. Louis on the 23rd of December, 1916, and Larry was buried in Friedens Cemetery in Bellfontaine Neighbors just north of St. Louis.

I suspect my mother simply didn't remember the train trip of several hours from Indianapolis to St. Louis to attend his funeral.

My mother said she had few memories of her father, but I suspect she had none. Not only was he a ladies man, he was a somewhat notorious petty criminal, accused of numerous robberies and burglaries from the time he was a young teenager. In March of 1912, he was chased through the streets of downtown Indianapolis by a "merchant policeman" who was firing his gun at the fleeing Larry -- who he accused of burglarizing a drugstore.

Larry was apprehended by regular police -- who knew him -- and taken to the stationhouse where he denied everything. The proprietor of the drugstore averred that nothing had been taken from the premises. Larry was arraigned and the case was bound over to the grand jury but I found no disposition. He may have gone to trial, but maybe not.

Larry's father David was a prominent Civil War veteran who held a number of patronage positions in Indiana state government. He was the legislative parliamentarian, later the state land clerk, and he served in a number of other capacities. He had six sons, three of whom became prominent in Indiana in their own right. Larry, the second youngest, on the other hand, became notorious.

It seems that Larry's father got him out of one scrape with the law after another, but the 1912 incident may have been the last straw. By sometime in 1913, Larry had moved to St. Louis where his older brother Harold had long lived and worked as a printer and Linotype operator for the St. Louis Globe Dispatch. (As a side-note, David, the pater familias, had published a newspaper in Lebanon, Indiana, before moving to Indianapolis and taking up positions with the state government.)

After Larry died in St. Louis, Leo -- his friend in Indianapolis -- took it upon himself to "make an honest woman" out of Edna and to take care of and protect Edna's daughter Virgina. They moved to California to start a new life -- a project which appears to have gone very well.

The family's life was very different and better in California than it could possibly have been in Indiana. Indianapolis was rough and gritty and dirty, and whether she wanted to be or not, Edna was caught up in scandal brought on by Larry's misbehavior.

Given the "moral" standards of the era, Edna was sullied, and there was nothing she could do about it -- though she tried. Leaving was her best option, and the fact that Leo was there and ready, willing, and able to take the risk of building a new life in California with Edna and Virginia was a godsend.

It's too bad that Leo's romantic vision culminated with his mining adventure in Nevada -- which apparently came to nothing and left him broke, his wife ill, and his stepdaughter hating him.

It's a very common story in some ways, but on another plane, it may be unique to this particular group of people at this particular time in American history. I knew little about it because it all took place before I was born, and my mother was not necessarily forthcoming. She harbored great resentment -- indeed hatred -- towards Leo, blaming him and his incurable romantic vision for her mother's death. She could not and did not forgive him. I have little doubt he carried his own sense of guilt and failure to his own death a few years later (I believe he died of a heart attack -- or perhaps of a broken heart).

I didn't know Leo or Edna -- let alone Larry. I've never even seen a picture of any of them. But they had an influence on my life through my mother. Finding out about them -- who they were, where they came from, what they did -- is an adventure for me, something I could not have done to this extent prior to the advent of the internet.

Now that I've found living cousins I'm learning a whole lot about my father's family I never knew before, too. It's all quite a wonder.

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