Saturday, September 22, 2012

A letter home

I was slogging through mounds of documents that I've saved over the years and came across this sweet little letter from my dad.  He and his brother Buddy were visiting Aunt Helen and Uncle Al in Chicago. Gordon is writing home to tell his parents about all the fun they are having.  There is no date on the letter but Gordon is old enough to write and figure out how to use a typewriter so I might estimate it was written around 1940. Pay attention to the main theme of his letter -- an indication of what was important to him.  Still runs in the family...ha ha!

Following the letter are a couple photos that are much earlier, probably about 1936-1937. One shows Buddy and Gordon with their Aunt Helen at a kiddie car place.  I love how Aunt Helen looks so happy.  This would have been around the time that she reunited with Uncle Al. 


Helen Metzner Kramer with her nephews Gordon and Buddy Metzner, about 1936

Buddy Metzner about 1936

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Alex's Story

Since the last blog, a few of the Metzner cousins have had a flurry of Facebook messages reminiscing about Aunt Helen and Uncle Al. It's been fun reading about everyone's memories and I've learned a lot!!!! Thanks everyone.  Since we are on the subject I thought I'd add a little more genealogical information...bear with me...genealogical facts can be BOR-RING!!!

First things first. After the last blog I went on-line and dug a little deeper and found that Aunt Helen's 2nd husband, Charles T. McCarthy, died on May 5th, 1935 in Lakewood, Ohio (a suburb of Cleveland).  He had a heart attack at 57 years old.  Not only did he leave a widow, our own Aunt Helen, but two ex-wives.  I presumed he had no children but now hear from some of you that he had two adopted sons.  I'll keep digging and see what I can turn up about Charles "Mac" McCarthy.

What I really want to do with this blog is share genealogical information I've found for Uncle Al (Alex Kramer 1897-1969).

Last summer, as I was delving deep into the relationship between Al & Helen, trying to prove their two marriages, I knew I had to "leave no stone unturned" where it concerned Uncle Al.  First, and to my surprise, he was born in Grand Rapids on Feb. 25, 1897. You'll see in his birth record below that his first name was recorded as  Elias. In 1942 he had it officially corrected in the record. At the same time he corrected his father's name from Zachariah to Zachary.

My expectation was that Alex and his parents would still be in Grand Rapids in 1900 but, unfortunately, I couldn't find them there or anywhere in the U.S.  Finally! 1907 I found Zachary and three of his sons listed in the business directory of Albany, New York.  Zachary was working as a rabbi and Al's three brothers were salesmen.  Al (a.k.a Alex) was not listed since it was a business directory and he would have only been 10 years old. 

The family was in Albany in 1910 and recorded there in the census for that year.  Zachary was listed as Yiddish, born in Russia, and working as a butcher. The older boys were all retail clerks -- one in a dry goods store -- and 13-year-old Alex was listed as a student.

It seems the rabbi's work had him moving around a bit and in 1912 he and the boys (most grown men at this point) were back in Grand Rapids. Grand Rapids city directories and the 1920 census record the brothers in various lines of retail work.  One was a pharmacist and, in 1920, Alex was working as a salesman in a leather shop.   By 1921 the Kramers again have moved on -- but where? Probably Muskegon.  That's where we find Alex in 1924, employed at Kramer's Clothes Shop.   That same year Alex and Helen were married on Nov. 13th in Muskegon, only to be divorced eight months later (July 11, 1925). By 1925, Helen had moved to Cleveland.

A youthful Alex Kramer, date unknown
All of this data is nice but it doesn't provide any anecdotal information and, frankly, I'm a bit curious as to how Helen and Al met. They were both born in 1897 -- Helen in Ft. Wayne and Alex in Grand Rapids.  Aunt Helen and her parents and younger brother, Albert (Grandpa Al), move to Grand Rapids by 1912, which is the same year the Kramers return to Grand Rapids.  The families lived at opposite ends of the city so it's unlikely that they met in high school. Maybe Helen met him while shopping in a store where Alex or one of his brothers worked.  Or could someone have introduced them?  Helen was a bookkeeper and perhaps her work brought her in contact with the Kramers' business ventures. We don't know so, back to the story... 

Of course now we know that after the divorce Helen married Charles T. McCarthy on June 11, 1926.  While she is creating a new life in Cleveland, the Kramer brothers have moved to Chicago where, by 1930, they've established Kramer Brothers Clothing Company.  Whether Aunt Helen had a hand in the brothers pulling up stakes in Muskegon and reestablishing themselves in Chicago is unknown.  Some cousins recall hearing that she helped the Kramers get into business twice.  Since she probably didn't have money until her marriage to Charles in 1926, it's unlikely that she helped them establish their shop in Muskegon. It's certainly possible that she helped them relocate and set up in Chicago. We should also keep in mind that the Kramers' company was operating smack dab in the middle of the Depression, the 1930s.  Could Aunt Helen have helped them stay solvent through those rough years? Her money may have allowed her to pay debts they had with the banks, or when business was slow, help them keep their heads above water.  Again, we can only guess.

While the Kramers are running their business in Chicago, Helen is in Cleveland (Lakewood to be exact) until 1936 (a year after her husband died, probably to settle his estate), then she's gone.  It's presumed she went to Chicago to marry Uncle Al as soon as she could.  I've yet to find their second marriage record but by 1940 they were living together as husband and wife (according to the 1940 census) on East 50th Street in Chicago.  The value of the couple's property (real estate and personal property) is listed at $20,000.  By contrast, their two nearest neighbors are listed with $8000 (a proprietor of a rubber goods store) and $60 (a waitress).

Like any genealogical information, it can be overwhelming to try to keep names, dates and places straight. And while the above is a lot to absorb, I think it's interesting to read between the lines and imagine what was happening to these ancestors of ours.  I ask myself, and maybe you might too, during the nine years that Helen was married to Charles, what was her relationship with Alex, and how did she maintain it?  Did she travel frequently to Chicago to "check on the business" (wink, wink!)?  And what might have happened if Charles hadn't died in 1935? What if he had lived another 20 years -- would or could Aunt Helen have stayed away from Uncle Al for all that time?  Ah, so many questions to ponder and so few that can be answered. 

Next time I have a fun little letter to share with you so stay tuned! 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Helen's Story

As I was thinking about writing today's blog, I had to ask myself if this was the right thing to do.  The story isn't very flattering to our ancestors.  I could just stick to stories that are funny, charming, and shed a positive light on the family, but how unrealistic is that???  So, I've decided to tell this story because it reveals something about the attitudes within our family three and four generations ago, but mostly because it's just a pretty good story. It is about my Aunt Helen Metzner McCarthy Kramer (1897-1984), the daughter of Louis Metzner (1872-1930) and Elizabeth "Lizzie" Reiter Metzner (1874-1958).

Lizzie Metzner holding Paula, with Albert (right) and Gordon, 1954

My first memory of Aunt Helen was when I was probably 3 or 4 years old.  I remember a trip to her house in Chicago, but it wasn't Aunt Helen that made an impression on me that particular day. What I remember most distinctly was an old woman sitting in the living room looking very stern.  I have never forgotten that woman's face -- it's etched in my brain.

No one told me at the time who she was. It wasn't until I saw a picture of her years later that I figured it out. She was my great-grandmother, Lizzie Reiter Metzner.  It was the only occasion that I consciously remember seeing her, and I probably never saw her again. She died in 1958. I imagine she had an incredible impact on Aunt Helen's life based on the story I'm about to tell.  Let's start with a little background ...

Helen Kramer, 1954

Aunt Helen and Uncle Al Kramer moved to Grand Rapids some time in the 1960s.  They became a fixture at family events and I have to say that I enjoyed Aunt Helen's company, even though most of the older generation described her as, you might say, "a piece of work." Aunt Helen had a great smile and laugh.  I loved her, and Uncle Al, too.

I didn't know much about Uncle Al.  What I did know was that he was Jewish. Having been raised Christian (Lutheran to be exact), I thought it was pretty special to have someone Jewish in our family.  Funny though, no one ever talked about it, and neither did Uncle Al.  I have no idea how I found out that he was Jewish -- it seems like I just always knew.

Uncle Al died in 1969.  It wasn't until Aunt Helen  passed in 1984 that I heard this story from my Uncle Bud Metzner. I just sat on it until last year when curiosity got the best of me.

Uncle Bud said Aunt Helen was married to Uncle Al twice.  On the occasion of their first marriage (Nov. 13, 1924, in Muskegon, Mich.) she was told by her parents to have it annulled. They didn't approve of her being married to a Jewish man.  So, as a dutiful daughter, Helen divorced Al on July 11, 1925.

I was a bit surprised to hear that that kind of attitude existed in our family -- it wasn't one that I was raised with.  But I was especially bothered to hear the next part of the story.  According to Uncle Bud, Aunt Helen had a plan to be so rich that no one could ever tell her what to do again...and once she was rich, she'd remarry Uncle Al. Ahhh...the plot thickens.       

Uncle Bud continued the story, telling me that Aunt Helen found a rich man to marry, inherited all his money, then went back and remarried Uncle Al.  And that was the end of the story, at least from Uncle Bud.   

Last year I decided to get to the bottom of the story. How much of it was really true? I started digging and found that the facts were true. Now, whether or not Aunt Helen ever proclaimed that she was going to get rich so no one could ever tell her what to do again...that I can't say for sure. But knowing Aunt Helen, it certainly sounds plausible.  She didn't take any "guff" (so to speak) from anyone.

Based on a few tidbits of information found over the last year, I can tell you that Helen moved to Cleveland, Ohio soon after her 1924 marriage to Al. She is found in the 1925 Cleveland City Directory listed as a bookkeeper; and 11 months after her divorce was granted from Al  (on July 11, 1925) she married a very wealthy Cleveland-area businessman, Charles Thomas McCarthy, on June 11, 1926.  McCarthy was about 20 years Helen's senior. He owned an electrotype factory and, according to the 1930 U.S. Census, he and Helen were the wealthiest residents on their street -- their property was valued at $50,000 while surrounding neighbors were between $8,000-$12,000.

Marriage Record for Charles McCarthy and Helen B. Metzner, June 15, 1926

What happened after 1930 is not clear.  Charles died around 1935-1936 (record of his death cannot be found on-line) and by 1937 Helen is no longer listed in Cleveland-area city directories.  A second marriage record for Helen and Al has not been found, but I suspect the couple reunited in Chicago around 1937 and married shortly thereafter.

What this story says about Aunt Helen is that she was a very determined woman, even though her way of achieving her goal was, in my opinion, less than stellar.       But she was, obviously, deeply in love and wasn't going to be stopped.  Good for her... I think.

The story also reveals an attitude of anti-semitism that existed in our family a century ago.  Of course I'd be naive to say "not in OUR family." Then, as now, it is a prevalent and unfortunate attitude. I'm happy that I don't see it in our family today.  Maybe Uncle Al's presence in the family helped those generations before us change their perceptions of Jewish people and not pass it on to their descendants.

That really is the end of the story. But I wonder what affect Helen's second marriage to Al had on her relationship with her mother, Lizzie Metzner. It's clear that Helen "got rich" to spite her parents. But the fact that Helen and her mother are together in photographs after Al and Helen "re-united" in marriage, indicates that Grandma Lizzie must have finally accepted Helen's relationship with Al ... or did she? Could that stern look that I remember so well have been the face of disapproval? I surely hope not, but we'll never really know. 

Saturday, July 21, 2012

...and Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show

Besides the family myth surrounding Jesse James (from the previous post), the other was that a great-grandfather Metzner (either Louis N. or his father William) went into the hotel business with Buffalo Bill Cody.  I was pretty young when I heard this but it always stuck in my head.  Obviously, I must have known the importance of Buffalo Bill -- probably from all those cowboy shows that filled the airwaves in the 1950s.

Fort Wayne Sentinel, 1896
Buffalo Bill was a "romantic" American character and I am sure that my great-grandfather Louis and his brother Jasper were as smitten with his escapades as they were with those of Jesse James.  But the story of someone going into business with Buffalo Bill may be just that -- a story. Years of research have turned up nothing to confirm a connection between our ancestors and the great showman. But that said, we have two interesting photos of Louis and Jasper.  There is no identification on either photo to tell us when or where they were taken, but my assumption is the brothers went to one of Buffalo Bill's Wild West shows.  The show went to Fort Wayne a number of times...and it played at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition is Chicago.  

Ads in the Fort Wayne Sentinel for 1896 claim that the show is An Exact Duplicate, Man for Man and Horse for Horse, of the Exhibitions given at the Columbian World's Fair at Chicago in 1893, all summer in New York in 1894, and in 160 of the principal cities of the East in 1895.  

One of Cody's most famous performers was Annie Oakley.  She was listed as one of the performers in Fort Wayne that summer of 1896, along with 100 Indian Warriors, Ogallalla...Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapahoe...American Cowboys, Mexican Vaqueros,  South American Gauchos, Western Frontiersmen, Bedouin Arabs, Russian Cossacks... the U.S. Cavalry... and the list goes on and on. It must have been quite a spectacle for the folks of Fort Wayne. 

Annie Oakley, 1899; Library of Congress

I imagine the presence of Buffalo Bill in Fort Wayne would have generated a similar kind of excitement that my generation would have felt if the  Beatles or Elvis was coming to town.  It would have been a huge deal with everyone on pins and needles until the big day.

The 1896 show in Fort Wayne was preceded by rumors that Buffalo Bill would not perform with the show and the show would be only half the size of the one in Chicago.  The show's manager, Maj. J.F. Burke, assured residents that "Colonel Cody is with the exhibition every day and takes his part in the performance along with the rest."   The Fort Wayne Sentinel encouraged its citizen to attend the show, saying "This exhibition will be something that our people have never had a chance to see before, and it is not likely that it will ever come again, as Buffalo Bill is growing old and will not last forever."  The people of Fort Wayne were not disappointed. Buffalo Bill appeared in all his glory and, in fact, the Wild West Show continued touring until 1913.

For years I have assumed that Louis and Jasper Metzner found their way to a Wild West Show, based simply on these photographs.  I also think they may have had an opportunity to meet Buffalo Bill himself.  The Wild West Show was transported on trains, and because Louis and Jasper each worked for the railroad out of Fort Wayne, it's highly likely that they meet the famous showman and his entourage.  Did it go any further than that?  Such as business dealings?  I don't think we'll ever know.

Louis N. Metzner (top) and Jasper Metzner (bottom)

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

...and the family legend of Jesse James

Almost anyone who has seriously worked on family history, other than just compiling a lot of dates and places, has woefully asked…. “if I had only asked more questions” --  questions of grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles as they were reminiscing and telling stories.  When you’re a little kid, you don’t think about asking probative questions…in fact, most kids are probably a little bored sitting around listening to relatives relay all those old stories.  In my case, if I had only known that someday those stories would be important to me…but now, after many of the oldest storytellers in the family are gone…I find myself thinking, “why didn’t I ask more questions.”  It may feel like it’s too late, but it’s not entirely hopeless.

Louis N. Metzner, about 1891
Genealogical facts are relatively easy to uncover – names, dates, places – but when you’re trying to prove some of those old family stories, that is when the search can be a bit more troublesome.  One branch of the family has some stories that are real doozies!  I never asked the right questions when I was a kid – just assumed they were tall tales.  Now I’m curious about those tall tales.  How did they get started and are they really so “tall”?

The two big stories swirling around in the family for years was that a great-grandfather, Louis Napoleon Metzner (1872-1930), ran away from home and lived with Jesse James’ mother. The other was that the same great-grandfather went into the hotel business with William Frederick Cody aka Buffalo Bill Cody.  There is no evidence that either of these accounts are true.  Jesse’s mother, Zerelda, lived in Clay County, Missouri until she died in 1911.  That’s a long way from St. Louisville, Ohio where Louis N. Metzner was living as a boy (he moved to Ft. Wayne, Ind. in 1891).  And Louis never went into the hotel business.  He always worked for the railroad doing runs between Fort Wayne and Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Now his brother Jasper is another matter.  Jasper (1856-1938) seemed to have a bit of the wanderlust.  According to Fort Wayne newspapers, he periodically took trips out west – for business and pleasure. My suspicion is that Jasper perpetrated some of these family tales. 

Typical dime novel published at
the time Louis & Jasper were boys.
Library of Congress

Both Jasper and Louis were adolescents during a very dynamic time in American history.  They heard stories of the Wild West, gunslingers, Indians, and outlaws, and probably read some of the popular dime novels of the time that told stories of the escapades of the likes of Jesse James, Buffalo Bill and Deadwood Dick.  One can only imagine the daydreams of these two boys growing up in a small farming community in Ohio. Jasper and Louis eventually went to work for the Grand Rapids & Indiana Railroad, with their home base in Ft. Wayne. For Jasper, it was a job he held from 1878-1900. Then, in 1900, he went into the laundry business in Ft. Wayne. Curiously, he left the running of the business to a partner and took a job as conductor on the Choctaw, Oklahoma, and Gulf railroad, leaving his wife and four children back in Ft. Wayne. It's not clear why he took that job -- perhaps to help support the new laundry business...or maybe it was an opportunity to feel part of that "romantic" west that he had read about as a youth. 

Eagle Laundry ad, 1922

At the time Jasper was working for the C, O & G -- the rail ran from Arkansas through Oklahoma. By 1902 it had reached Amarillo, Texas. That year Jasper went back to Fort Wayne to take over the operation of the Eagle Laundry, but that didn’t stop his sojourns west.  According to Fort Wayne newspapers he took a number of trips west, including a 6-week trip from Nov. 1903 to April 1904 which was reported as a “prospecting trip.”  Not prospecting for gold – it appears he was seeking business opportunities.  One report stated that he wanted to “establish a laundry business in Indian Territory.”  It doesn’t appear that that ever happened however.

As for the family connection to Jesse James, all that can be found is that Jesse James’ mother, Zerelda Samuels, died in a Pullman train car just outside of Oklahoma City in 1911.  She had just finished visiting with her son, Frank, of the once-infamous James gang, in Fletcher, Oklahoma.  Perhaps in the two years that Jasper worked on the railroad in Oklahoma, he met Zerelda on one of his trains – or perhaps he heard stories of her riding the C, O & G.  Of course, we will never know... and no matter how hard one might try to find some truth to the family myth of Louis (or Jasper) and Jesse James’ mother, nothing points to it being true.  Darn!

Next time I’ll try to unravel the Buffalo Bill family myth, which could be slightly more plausible than our Jesse James tale.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

For Grandma

I spent a lot of time with my Grandma Linnea (Christensen) Metzner when I was a kid. Mom was teaching so I stayed at Grandma's house during the week -- at least until it was time for me to head off to kindergarten.  But we'd still visit on weekends, sitting around the kitchen table drinking coffee (I even got coffee -- it was mostly sugar water with cream -- but I loved it; I would dunk my toast in it, which I would never dream of doing today).

Paula's birthday, about 1955, with Grandma Linnea (center) and Aunt Anna Christensen Dunn

Grandma gave me odd tips like never use mascara because she knew someone who used it and her eye popped out.  Now I was probably only 3 or 4 when she told me that so I may have heard the story wrong (probably heard the story wrong).  And she told me stories about when it was time for the children to do dishes (Grandma was the youngest of 10), she would use the excuse to go to the bathroom then run out to the outhouse and stay there until she knew the dishes were done.

I also remember a sad story ... Grandma grew up in Cadillac, Michigan and in the winter they'd walk across Lake Cadillac to go to school (this would have been around 1910 or so). One day the school kids were on their way to school when a little girl fell through the ice. Grandma said she was right there when she fell in. I don't remember what Grandma said happened to the little girl but I could tell it made her very sad -- it was something she had never forgotten.

Speaking of going to school, in Grandma's primary school they spoke Swedish, even though the Christensens were Danish.  Grandma probably spoke Danish at home, but she and her youngest brothers and sisters also learned Swedish at school.  When I was little, I remember many times Grandma Linnea and Aunt Anna (Grandma's sister) would talk in Swedish when they didn't want anyone else to hear their conversation, and then they'd laugh and laugh. I'm not sure what was so funny but they were probably talking about something cute I had said or done...ha ha!

So, for all my wonderful memories of Grandma, I am creating this blog to share stories and discoveries about her family and her husband's family (that would be Grandpa Al Metzner).