A long-ago teacher of mine–G.E. Smith, who taught English, literature, and a lot more at Crete-Monee High School in the 1960s and '70s–became interested in his family ancestry late in life. It wasn't an easy thing. I don't know a lot of his personal story, but I do know that his mother left his biological father very early in his life, back in the mid-'20s, and that he was raised by a stepfather he remembered as generous if not saintly.
Also late in life, he brought out a book of poems he had written as a much younger man. He hadn't intended to, he said, but when he started into the family history business, his work took on a different meaning: "It wasn't until I began to think, as a genealogist, about how anything written by ancient relatives–even in signature–was (or could have been) so extraordinarily precious that I decided to consider publishing. I realized that I, too, someday, would likely be a long-ago ancient relative to someone who was pursuing my family history."
That line about the actual words of a forebear being "so extraordinarily precious" stuck in my head. I've listened to perhaps hundreds of hours of stories about my dad's family and my mom's, and recently I was struck with a little sense of urgency about setting down at least the basic outlines of what I've heard. So far, that's mostly involved cemetery visits and creating the beginnings of a family tree (through the very expensive and sometimes-worth-it Ancestry.com). There's a bit of an addictive thrill in tracking down someone you've been hearing about your whole life in a century-old census record: Wow–there they are, just like Mom and Dad said, in Warren, Minnesota, or on South Yale Avenue in Chicago. But records only take you so far, and they don't really give a voice to the people listed on the census rolls or on the draft records or on Ellis Island arrival manifests.
I imagine my family is like most in that whatever words were ever written down have mostly fallen victim to fastidious housecleaning, negligence, dismissiveness, or lack of interest. You know: "Who'd ever be interested in that?" or, "Does anyone want this old stuff?" (I think pictures are the occasional exception to this rule. Plenty get thrown away, but the images have an intrinsic interest for a lot of people when they can't readily identify the subjects of the photos.) Chance, mostly, and, less often, selection determine what survives. My dad has a collection of letters his father wrote to his mother during their courtship and early in their marriage, a century and more ago. I believe they are numbered and I remember hearing that after my grandfather, Sjur Brekke, died, in their 26th year of marriage, my grandmother continued to read those letters for years afterward. There used to be another set of letters, too–my grandmother's letters to my grandfather. But at some point she destroyed them. The story I've heard is that she considered them too personal for others to read. Wouldn't we Brekke descendants love to get a look at those.
Over to my mom's side of the family: They were Irish and stereotypically more voluble than my dad's Norwegian clan. But not much has survived (that I know about) beyond the oral tradition. One rather amazing exception: my mom's grandfather.
I don't know a lot about him, but Timothy Jeremiah Hogan was born in Ottawa, Illinois, in 1864 (I'll let him tell that story), lived as a child on the Great Plains (ditto), raised a family, including my grandfather Edward Hogan, in central and northern Illinois. He was a railroad man, working for one of the roads back there (on the Wabash, I believe, but don't know for sure). He was said to have spent a lot of time riding alone in the caboose and taught himself to play the guitar. He was losing his hearing at the end of his life, was described as taciturn and short with most of his grandchildren, and was reportedly heartbroken when a favorite grandson drowned in the summer of 1939. He died himself a month later.
Another thing about Tim Hogan: He had a typewriter, and he used it. He composed poems on the typewriter, and song lyrics. Here's one of his poems, about two of my mom's brothers (that's them in the picture at right) shortly after their first birthday:
AN ODE TO OUR LITTLE
TWIN BOYS TOM, AND ED
Early in the morning
When they open up their eyes
Laying in their tiney little beds
Rolling over, over
Both the same size
Cunning little round bald heads.
You couldent help but love them
With their smileing eyes of blue
Remember it was GRAND DAD told you so,
Charming little twinners,
Only new beginers
You can almost see them grow.
Tim wrote letters, too. We only have a handful of them, but below are a couple that he produced in 1936 when he was trying to do a little biographical/genealogical research of his own. The first (click pages for larger images; full text is after the jump) is to the clerk of LaSalle County, and he's hoping to find records of his family's residence from around the time of his birth.
The second letter is to the Railroad Retirement Board. He doesn't explicitly mention it here, but I recall a couple of my mom's aunts, Tim's daughters Catherine and Betty, saying he was trying to establish his date of birth in relation to a pension that might be due.
One question I have about these: Did he send them? As he says, he's earnestly interested in getting answers. So my guess is that these are copies of versions he sent. I haven't found any records in the sparse collection of family documents to suggest what answers he might have gotten. The full text of the letters is available through the link below. If the lines break in an odd way, it's because I tried to stick to how he broke the lines, starting nearly each new line with a capital letter. I've also tried to copy his punctuation and spelling.
MR. GEORGE HUNTER COUNTY CLERK
LA SALLE COUNTY
I am sorry to say, I can give you but very little information in regard
To the records of my birth, there seems to be no one living now who knows
Anything about it, I have tried every way imaginable with no result other
Then a faint rememberence of hearing my mother say I was born in OTTAWA
ILLS.FEBRUARY 2IST.I863.or64. I have had the records looked up in
Washington D.C. and found that my FATHER was honorably discharged from
The army in 1863.this of course would most likely make my arival in
In 1864. I was the last of a family of nine children whome have all
Passed away with the exception of myself and one sister Mrs.Annie Heaphey
The last of the generation, she is living here in Chicago her address
Is 644.Englewood Av. I am now 72 years old and she is three years older
She also was born in OTTAWA but cannot remember anything in regard to
the matter. I Have Already made a sworn statement from the best of my
Memory that I was born in February 1863.that was before I received
the records from Washington. I know I was born in the year after my
Father came home from the army, for I heard my mother say, that I was
A tiney baby when father took charge of A gag out of OMAHA NEB.building
The union Pacific R.R. My mother ran the boarding car my three brothers
And a cousin working for my father, we traveled with them as far as sidney
Nebraska And left them there, my father then took charge of a section
At LODGEPOLE Neb, first station east of SIDNEY and we wer living here
When LINCOLN was shot in I865.
I have One cousin Catherine Birmingham living here in Chicago she is
Now about eighty years old and the only liing person that I can find
That was living in OTTAWA when my folks were their, I called on her and
She told me she could not recall the doings that far back, other then
We were living in ST. COLOMBO parish At the time, I wrote too the parish [OVER]
PRIEST of that parish and they have no records of our family atall
So it would seem there was no records of any births kept before 1877.
My father was born in county MAYO IRELAND MICHAEL J. HOGAN Dont know
What city. My mothers maiden name was ELIZABETH O'BRIEN and she was born
Near MALAH.COUNTY CORK.IRELAND they were married in this country in
The state of NEW-YORK. I am not sure but I think LONG-ISLAND.
There was nine children born to my mother when I was born, two of them
A brother and sister had passed away before. I do not know where they
They were born. my sister has my mothers old Bible some folks keep A
Record in the Bible but there's is not an entey in ours. I can assure
I have tried most earnstly to get the records of myself and family
I wanted them for my grand children. But any more then this is beyond me.
However if I should ever Happen on A new clew I will follow it up and
Advise you OF the result.
Very Truly yours
TIMOTHY JEREMIAH HOGAN
CHICAGO ILLS.APRIL 29TH.I935
Railroad retirement board
I have tried every way I can think of to get the exact date of my birth
And it seems every one who might be able to help me have passed away
I wrote the county cler of laselle county, and he advised me that the
Law requireing them to keep the birth records was not inaction in the
State of ILLINOIS untill the year of 1877. And he had no records bbeyond
That year.Ithen wrote the parish priest of the parish in OTTAWA ills
where I was born and he in his return reply, stated they had no record
Eather. [Handwritten insert: I was married in Braidwood Ills June 21st 1887. Received license from Co Clerk in Joliet Ills]
I then wrote washington for my fathers army records and they informed me
He was honorable discharged in 1863. [and come home same year]
The world the following year after he was discharged and came home, the
Last of a family of nine.
Shortly after I was born, we moved to Omaha and my father hired out with
A contractor and my mother took charge of A boarding car and they went
west with the gradeing of the union Pacific R.R. My father was section
Foreman at Lodge-Pole Nebrasky my three brothers Tom, Dick, and Mike and
A cousin Billie Hogan was working for him I was a baby just learing to
Creep at the time, And I remember my mother and the boys saying Laiter
That we was still there when LINCOLN was shot.
There was three of us children under ten years old and the Indians was
Very bad we had no protection other than father and the boys and the
Village was composed of A section house and A depot, father for safety
Moved us to Sidney nebrasky under the protection of the Soldiers, we left
There and came back to JOLIET ILLS in 1871. I earnest hope this will help
You some it is the best I can do.
Tim J Hogan