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.