My Greats


My Great-Grandmother was a bootlegger.  She cooked up beer and whiskey in her kitchen along with the rest of the food and laundry and other labors of a depression era homemaker.  My Great-Grandfather didn’t make the booze; he just sold it.  He invited his friends home after work for a bottle or two.  He might have taken the credit for it.  But it was Frances who brewed it.

The women were always the cooks.  All over America, for generations, the housewife labored at home, feeding hungry mouths without the conveniences we take for granted today.  My Grandmother Helen told me about having ice delivered to their home.  It was cut out of the lake in the dead of winter and stored downtown in hay and sawdust.  The ice man would come around with his horse and buggy to refill the icebox.  And yes, they did run out of ice in the summer.

There wasn’t enough food to go around during the depression.  Even those people who were lucky enough to have a job, machining tools all over town, there wasn’t enough food or money to feed six or seven mouths.  Something had to give. So my Great-Grandmother Frances turned to the booze.  She didn’t drink it.  She brewed up big batches of beer on her stove along with dinner.

I am fascinated with this.  In the pictures I saw of her, she is an old woman.  She is a Grandmother to my Mother, still a child.  She didn’t look like a felon.  But that’s what she was technically.  It blows my mind.  Things were so different then.  It’s creeping towards 100 years since Prohibition.  Frances was a felon in her own home.  I know a lot of people who are brewing their own beer and wine today.

I’m pretty sure that Frances wouldn’t have been a bootlegger if she hadn’t been forced to.  But desperate people to desperate things.  She had to feed her family somehow.  Her husband, Michael, was less than a reliable bread-winner.  He lost jobs more than once or twice or three times.  My Grandmother Helen didn’t like to talk about her father, Michael.  I know the least about him of all her immediate family.  He died young, before any of my Mother’s generation could know him.  But I got the clear impression that he wasn’t exactly anybody’s favorite person.

Towards the end of her life, my Grandmother told me more about him, but he remains a mystery.  His childhood in Poland is a million miles away.  I never got to know his immigration story.  I’ve since falling head of heels in love with genealogy and I know the ship and the port of call when he arrived.  But I want desperately to have had the change to ask him what his passage was like.  Why did he leave Poland in 1910?

My Grandmother told me that her parents never like to talk about Poland.  Poland was gone, their childhoods were gone.  There was only the here and now, in the roaring twenties and crushing thirties.  They never told her about their immigration.  They were anxious to assimilate into their new home.  I have no story to know, only stories to make up.  I know the dates and times and places.  I’ve seen the census reports and passenger lists.  The rest is up to me to fill in.  And do I fill it in indeed!  I have hundreds of relatives to research.

Parts of their stories are all the same.  Eventually it goes back to all of my multitudes of relatives decided to leave their homes and set off into a new land, a new frontier, a new life.  But why did they?  Why did Michael Augustanovich leave Sango Poland in 1910?  Why did John Christian and Catherine Schlegel leave Germany in 1847?  Why did Richard and Dorothy Sears leave England in 1630??  Why did Louis Jacob Kreitner leave Germany in 1848?  Was he leaving to avoid being conscripted into the German Army?

It’s easy for me to guess why James O’Leary left Ireland in 1859.  That’s the no-brainer.  In the aftermath of the Great Potato Famine, the Irish left in droves.  During the Famine 20% (that’s 1 in 5) of the population died.  In the next decade 30% of the remaining population left.  Everyone and everything was decimated by the Blight.  Meanwhile, the British were evil overlords and evicted thousands of farmers and laborers from the farms they had worked and “leased” for generations.  I wonder if James made it across on one of the “Coffin Ships” where the conditions were so bad, one in four died in transit? Did they call him Jimmy?  Records show that he spoke Gaelic, but maybe English as well.  The Brits were insistent on that point for the occupied Irish.  Was he an indentured servant? Did he pay for his own passage?  Who in his family died?  Virtually every family in Ireland suffered a death during The Famine.

I want to know when he met his wife Mary.  What was her maiden name, where did she come from in Ireland?  Did she take the same boat?  My great grandmothers are always so much harder to track down with the name changing and all.  Maiden names get lost, maternal lines get blurry.  I don’t know Mary’s last name, I don’t know the name of her boat.  Maybe she was on the same ship, The Victory!

I have always wanted two of my ancestors to have met in transit and fallen in love.  Isn’t that the real immigrant dream: to find your true love on the way to your golden new life?  So far none of my grandparents have been on the same boats except for the ones that were already married.  I haven’t yet been able to trace my ancestors beyond their arrival in America in New York or Philadelphia or Massachusetts.   I love to imagine what it was like to arrive to a new home?  Which ones spoke English?

I know Michael and Frances spoke only Polish.  My Grandmother’s first language was Polish.  She was pushed to learn English to go to school and lost the language except for the rare word, dupa or pierogi.  I do have some connections to family in Poland.  Other family members did that work for me.  There are fewer generations.  I know that Frances’ mother died when she was young and her elder sister raised her along with her own children.

There are questions I want to ask Frances.  She always felt like my closest great-grandparent. She died shortly before I was born.  As a child I felt like I just missed knowing her.  She was still Grandma to my Mom.  She was spoken of often.  During all the holidays the family would inevitably bring up Christmas at Grandma’s house.  The bootlegging fascinates me.  I wanted their home to be a speak-easy with a bar that converted to plain looking furniture.  It wasn’t.  I wanted to know about Poland.  I wanted to hear her speak Polish.

Frances born in Austrian occupied Poland.  She wanted a new life in New York.  She had no parents, she was an orphan who felt alone and brave.  She turned 18 and inherited a small amount of money from her deceased parent’s estate.  She had just enough to buy a ticket to a new a life.  She came over with a friend and acquired a job teaching a wealthy patron Polish in NYC.  I never learned about her life before America.  That’s all she told her children.  She met Michael in sometime in NY.  Or perhaps they met before in Poland?  He worked for Thomas Edison for a bit but he lost that job.  They moved to the West Virginia coal mines.  She started having babies.  Eventually she started brewing beer.  She was well-loved by my mother and aunts and uncles.  She survived Michael.

Did she love him for very long?  He was violent, that was main thing my grandmother didn’t want to tell me about her father.  I assume Frances must have hardened her heart against her husband, his children certainly did.  My Grandmother Helen would talk about the bootlegging, which humiliated her as a child.  She couldn’t talk about the violence.  It continued to humiliate her throughout her entire life.

I took her to StoryCorps to have our conversation recorded for eternity.  She asked me to not ask about her earliest memory.  She did not want that recorded.  She told me when I asked, but she didn’t want it recorded.  Of course I respected my 93 year old Grandmother’s wishes.  It was clear that her father was still hurting her all these years later, decades after his death.  His shadow was deep and dark on the land still.  Some of the family wonders if he was “kicked out” of Poland.  I don’t know if that is possible, but it’s amusing to contemplate.  He ceases to exist for me before arriving at Ellis Island.

Most of my relatives don’t exist before arriving in America.  There are many questions I want to ask their ghosts.  Were my German Schlegels wealthy or lucky?  John Christian acquired farmland in Pennsylvania soon after arriving.  Did he speak English?  That is unlikely.  He was one of Germans that became known as Pennsylvania Dutch, a community with their own Germanic language that still exists today.  He probably didn’t speak English unless his nameless parents had been wealthy and he was well-educated as a child.

Great x 3 Grandfather James O’Leary certainly did not arrive with any wealth.  Not an Irishman in 1859.  James was clearly desperate.  He was trying to escape.  I can only assume that his wife Mary, also born in Ireland, felt the same.  They had seen so much death.  It was fear driving them, not hope.  Ireland was a place to leave.  If you wanted to survive, you had to get out.  In the 1850s there was nothing but death and disease remaining on the Emerald Isle.  Their stories are colored by loss.  I am still looking for the lives they might have had before The Starvation Years.

When I think of all that they had to survive to bring me forth, it humbles me.  I read about The Great Starvation in Ireland and felt my bones begin to dissolve.  How easily I could have not existed.  So many people died.  My great-great-great-grandparents survived and got out.  Somehow.  Somehow James and Mary O’Leary escaped the death in Ireland and then again on the “Coffin Ships” that brought the starving and dying Irish to America.  On some ships, more than a quarter of the population died somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  Not James.  Not Mary.  We survived.  We are the lucky few.  Ireland suffered nothing less than genocide in the 1840s.

Richard Sears was certainly well to do.  He has left quite the heritage.  He arrived in Massachusetts and the “New World” shortly after the Mayflower arrived.  He became sheriff and has a statue and everything!  His seed has spread far and wide into America.  There is some online controversy as to his pedigree in England in fact.  He may have been a Duke.  Once I found my great x3 grandfather Miles Sears, the next 7-9 generations popped up online.  Many other extended cousins had already done the work.  I’ve read wills and trial notes back to 1630.  I have the names of so many relatives.  Each name was a person, with a life, with their own story.  I imagine them all.

I have personalities invented for several of them.  Richard Sears was clearly a bad ass.  He left a large amount of land to his children.  He fought for that land and lost an arm in the battle.  He lived though and became sheriff.  He was gruff and ambitious.  You didn’t cross him.  Perhaps he had a temper.  He left his children disproportionate amounts of land.  He held a grudge.  He was an explorer.

There are clues and family cemeteries to examine.   I never thought that I would be the person who wanted to take a vacation planned around visiting a cemetery.  But look at me now!  I can’t wait to go to the Sears Cemetery in Mass and the Schlegel Cemetery in Berks County, PA.

The best thing about genealogy is the braiding together of fact and fiction.  There are the constants, the physical records, the marriage licenses, the birth and death certificates.  Yet there are huge holes of untold secrets about the actual living of the lives that mattered.  If they didn’t live the exact life that they lived, I wouldn’t be here today.  There are hundreds of stories of happiness and sorrows, children born and lost, land purchased and lost, madness and genius, achievement, falling into and out of love.

It all goes back to a brave few who decided to leave their homes and all they ever knew, to take a risk for happiness in an unknown world.  Welcome to America!  Thank you for coming!  Richard and Dorothy Sears (1633), John Christian and Catherine Schlegle (1737), Valentin Howerter (~1740), Catharine Krohn (~1770), William Reese (~1815), Louis Jacob Kreitner (1847), James and Mary O’Leary (1847), Frederick and Margaret Herman who brought their entire family with them from Germany (1846), Michael Augustonovich (1909) and my favorite Bootlegger Frances Symanska (1910).  Without each and every one of them (and dozens of others whose immigration records I haven’t been able to find) I wouldn’t be here.  What a world it is!

Thank you for leaving Poland and Ireland and Germany and England and whatever other far-flung lands I have yet to track down.  It was the great diaspora of dozens of lands that occurred before I was born here.  And the chain of time hasn’t stopped with me.  My children have an entire other branch of history and ancestry.  Their great-grandparents had to leave their own war-torn Poland, The Netherlands, and who knows where else.  I will research them next; the people that had to exist in order to bring my children into the world.  Without our ancestors we would be nothing.  Their terrible existence brought this wonderful world into being.


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Filed under Essays, Non-fiction

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