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).