Tag Archives: family skeletons

(Re)searching for Grandmother

grandmother

I never really knew my grandmother Jessie. I visited her house in Yakima, sat across the dinner table from her in Tacoma, occasionally tagged along with my Dad when he brought her dinner at the convalescent home where she spent her final years years. But I didn’t really know her.

I’m not sure any of us in the next generation did. We agree that she was subdued, beaten down, after years of bullying by her husband and perhaps her sister and her parents.

In a blog post last month I wondered why she didn’t divorce my grandfather sooner — the snake who kept a woman, Erma, on the side throughout their marriage. Married in 1911, Grandmother divorced him sometime in the 1950s, more than a decade after her last child left home. I know why he married her — she was his stepping stone to respectability — but I still don’t know why she married him. And why she stayed. I wrote, “Divorce wasn’t impossible even when she married; four were reported in the paper on her wedding day.” Her father, early in his career, represented women in divorce cases. Presumably, she could have had free counsel, if she had wanted it.

And then it dawned up me. Duh. She didn’t divorce him because it would make the paper. Because she would be publicly humiliated. More than she was already by the open secret of his other household.

Her older sister Janie wasn’t present when Grandmother married in their father’s home. Janie’s absence, I assume, was a message. But, afterwards, what was done was done. Janie, who considered herself a society matron, may have insisted Jessie stay lest a divorce besmirch the family reputation. Janie was notorious for her screeds to various family members; when in the presence of one, she usually criticized another.

This week I went back in time. At least it felt like it, combing through newspapers and the archives of the Yakima Valley Museum and the Yakima Valley Geneological Society. Among other things, I wanted to know:

  • Was it true that my Grandmother and Janie dropped out of high school? What were the consequences for my Grandmother’s self concept?
  • What were the expectations of women at the time she married and raised children? How much pressure did she feel to live up to those expectations?

My Grandmother and Jessie most likely attended Central School in the early years of North Yakima. A cousin heard that Janie insisted they drop out after a black girl enrolled in their class. Janie and Jessie were raised by their mother to think of themselves as descendants of “the Harrisons of Virginia,” and Janie worshipped the glories of their plantation past. Janie even had an expression for people she viewed as below her: “the low people.” In the 1900 US census, both Janie and Jessie were listed as “at school.” At the time, Janie was 17 1/2 and Jessie was 15. In 1905, the year Janie would probably have graduated, the Central School senior class picture does not include her. School census records were not kept until several years later, but it’s possible that Grandmother — whose mother completed college in Virginia — did drop out at Janie’s urging, and was isolated in part because of her incomplete education.

1905 Central School, Yakima, WA, senior class

1905 Senior Class, Central School, Yakima, WA

Next, Part II: What Propriety Demanded of My Grandmother

Photo source: “The Papoose,” Senior Class, Central School, Yakima, WA, 1905. (For those interested, the Yakima Valley Geneological Society has a self-published document in its stacks about the history of African Americans in the area. African Americans were present from the pioneer period of the late 1800s and made contributions to many fields, including education, farming, law and commerce.)

With appreciation: to Mike Siebol and John Baule of the Yakima Valley Museum, along with Josie at the front desk; and Frank at the Yakima Valley Geneological Society!

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A Ghost Story from the Hoosier Hills

Frank Campbell and Mary Sharp, wedding photo, 1877, Crawford County, Indiana

They used to be big on telling stories in Crawford County, Indiana, where my grandfather was born — down in the Hoosier hills, which, in the 1800s, was a poor and sparsely populated area. Folks in the region were especially fond of ghost stories.

You might say this is one of them.

My father was haunted by the memory of his father. “Why didn’t he want to spend time with me?” he often asked.

Because he was a jerk, I thought to myself. I knew he’d kept a mistress for more than 40 years until my grandmother finally divorced him. Dad always told his father’s story almost exactly the same way. Here’s a version I recorded in 2000:

“He never talked about home. As near as I could pick it up, he was one of seven siblings. They grew up on a dirt poor, hard scrabble Kentucky farm. But he was under a very severe father, which explains some of the harshness with which he treated us. When he was 13, he ran away from home. Went to Chicago. Growing up on that farm, he was a fairly independent guy. He could have fought for himself. He picked up bottles on the street in Chicago, washed them and turned them over to bottlers to make enough money to eat. He was very much living on the street. Somehow he got a job on the floor of the Chicago grain exchange when he was 17. When he was 18 or 19, he caught the eye of one of the traders on the floor who made him his assistant. By the time he was in his 20s, he had made $100,000. That was in the 1890s. When the crash came along, he lost most of what he had, but he saved enough to go to dental school. So he went to dental school in Chicago. After the first year, he was made an assistant to one of the professors, which paid his tuition and board the second year. He left there and went west to Seattle.”

Someone, maybe my grandfather, read a lot of Horatio Alger stories.

He wasn’t born in Kentucky. I don’t think he was poor. I’m not sure he ran away from home, though he may have, but if he did, his mother may have been the cause as much as his father. I’m almost certain he didn’t make a fortune in Chicago, and I know he didn’t go to dental school there.

I started to suspect the story when I was doing some research for a memoir project. My grandfather’s death certificate lists his birthplace as Louisville, KY. In 1940, someone gave the Yakima census takers the same answer. But when my grandfather was two, in 1880, the census listed him as born in Indiana.

The year before my grandfather’s birth, his parents married in Crawford County, though they drove over the state border to get a wedding portrait in nearby Louisville, KY. Frank, my grandfather’s father, had been in the area for some time. After his first wife died, he had four children to care for — two boys and two girls. In 1877, he married Mary Sharp, a widow. She had two children — both girls. Five years after my grandfather was born, another boy came along. They named him Zenor, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

In 1880, whoever talked to the census taker said Frank’s occupation was “bricklayer.” They also affirmed that he was “maimed, crippled or bedridden.”

Seven children and the father couldn’t work.

Two months before my grandfather was born, in 1878, Frank applied for a license in Jennings township to sell liquor in “Mary Sharp’s property.” An E.M. Tracewell filed a “remonstrance” against Frank on the grounds he was not a fit person, since he had violated the liquor law before. The town commissioners listened to testimony from 18 people, after which Frank withdrew his application. When he reapplied, the Board refused him the license due to a petition Tracewell had submitted with 44 signatories. At the time, fewer than 1,000 people lived in the area, but the temperance forces were active.

A year later, William H. Dean filed an application to sell whisky. E.M. Tracewell filed another remonstrance, but Dean prevailed. His saloon — to be located in “Mary Sharp’s room” — was approved. Who, I wonder, was the brains behind the original scheme, and the end run around E.M. Tracewell?

Dean’s attorney’s was W.T. Zenor. Was it Mary or Frank who chose to name their youngest after him?

By the 1900 census, Frank ‘s occupation was listed as “farmer.” Perhaps the temperance movement finally put such a damper on the business that he figured he needed a more dependable source of income.

Admiral said he ran away from the farm when he was 13, in 1890. Was he escaping his father’s cruelty, or his mother’s? Were eight mouths one too many? Was he longing for an education, but forced to work the farm?

School, in those days, cost money, about $2 per term. The four oldest children were listed as attending school at the time of the 1880 census, which suggests Frank and Mary had both the money and the inclination to educate their children. In 1900, when Zenor was 16, he was listed as “at school” — probably one of the state’s “Normal” schools, which offered a broader curriculum and a better teacher-student ratio.  Around the time Admiral might have attended, Normal schools cost $6.00 per term plus $2.25 for boarding .

Let’s get back to the question of cruelty. In Frank and Mary’s wedding portrait, neither one of them look like people you’d want to cross — but of the two, Mary looks less pleasant. Beady eyes (like Admiral’s), downturned lips.

What about Mary? In 1880, whoever answered the census questions said that she was 33 and Frank was 38. In 1900, she is listed as born in 1846 to Frank’s 1840, although the census taker was told she was 63 and he was 60.

On every census, Mary was listed as being unable to read or write. Apparently, she couldn’t do arithmetic either. To recap, by this juncture she has claimed to be five years younger than Frank, six years younger, and three years older. At the time of the 1920 census, he is listed as 82 and she is 73. Now she is nine years younger. The Cedar Hill cemetery in Jennings, Indiana, lists her as born in 1847 and Frank in 1837. She enters posterity as younger by a nice round decade.

Mary would hardly have been the first woman to fudge her age.

Admiral’s half-sisters, photographed around 1915, obviously prospered. They sat for formal portraits in expensive gowns. One, my father remembered, eventually lived in La Jolla.

Maybe Admiral didn’t run away at all. Maybe Frank and Mary paid for his secondary education and supported him through dental school.

More things about my grandfather’s story that don’t add up:

He was listed as a junior at the Ohio College of Dental Surgery for the 1898-99 term. The program indicates he graduated previously from the Louisville College of Dentistry. If his specialty training took two years, and he spent one or two years training in Louisville, he may have started toward dentistry in 1896. When he was 19.

His was a great story — washing bottles, working his way up to stock trading, amassing $100,00 and losing it all in the panic of 1893 — but he’d have to have accomplished all that by the time he was 15.

He did begin practice in Seattle, probably in 1900, where he worked for the Florence Dental Parlor. After a year, he arrived in Yakima and set up practice.

He soon had everything he wanted — a growing practice and a lady friend. Everything except the upper-middle class respectability that goes with the Horatio Alger myth. So he courted my grandmother, Jessie, the daughter of one of the most successful men in town. By telling her he’d run away from home and pulled himself up by his bootstraps, there was no family to correct the record. Perhaps Jessie’s father appreciated his gumption, since he, too, had come west to make his fortune.

But I still don’t know why my father’s father didn’t spend time with his sons.

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