Monday, March 31, 2014

The Telegram

I was recently given a box of family papers by an aunt who was cleaning out her closets.  This telegram, sent on October 27, 1944 to my grandmother, was among the papers.  I am certain it was a day she never forgot.

The telegram informed her that her son, Second Lt. Robert M. Wallin, had been injured in action in Germany.  Since she knew that he was a front-line infantryman and platoon leader, she was aware that he was risking his life on a regular basis—and indeed, he had already earned one Purple Heart by this time.  But this was different; this was bad.  But I wonder—was she at some level relieved that he was, at least for the time being, headed to a hospital of some kind and out of harm’s way?

I heard my father talk about the day he was injured, and I have the letters he wrote home when he was able to write.  I also saw that, for the rest of his life, he didn’t walk quite straight, and his back sometimes bothered him.  But all Grandma Wallin knew that day was that her beloved son was hurt.

Here’s how Dad told it in an understated letter home, written on October 19, 1944:

“Now don’t get excited, I ain’t hurt.  They got tired of having me at one hospital, and shipped me back to this one, so you can quit worrying about me for a while...  All that is the matter is that my back hurts, and they taped me up and won’t let me walk around...  It has been released and published in the papers, so I can tell you I was in the Battle of Mortain in France August 4-10 (approx.)...  That was really quite a fight.  I have been in so many others since that it would take a book to tell about them.  Now that I am back where it’s safe, I don’t see how my luck ever held out. 

The way I got it the other day, my platoon was shelled...  I thought they had finished, and went out of my hole to see if anyone was hurt...  Then s-s-s-s-s-s I heard it coming, and thought I could make it to a hole just in front of me.  I took 2 steps and Blam the thing lit about 20 feet behind me and exploded and blew a hole in the ground 8 feet across and 5 feet deep.  It sent me rolling, and I thought I was killed, but the concussion just hit my back.  Darn inconsiderate not to give me a little piece of shrapnel for a souvenir.”

The Battle of the Bulge happened that winter, and most of the men in Dad’s platoon didn’t make it.  Perhaps being almost killed in October and spending five months in the hospital actually saved his life!  At any rate, after he was patched together, he returned to the front lines the following March, and he later wrote this: 

“You no doubt read in the papers how we spearheaded the 9th Army drive across the Rhine.  We came in shooting and they just couldn’t hold us...  [The papers] probably said “negligible opposition.”  It was, after we shot or captured everybody in our way...  Incidentally, when we crossed the Rhine, our mission was to reach and cut off the superhighway (Division objective).  It was 6 miles from the Rhine…  Our platoon was the first one in the 9th Army to cross the highway, and this bird was the 3rd man across.  (The other Lt. and one scout could run faster.)”

It’s an honor to have a hero in the family.  Thank you, Dad, for all you did for your country and for the cause of freedom in Europe.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Grumpy Genealogist

I try to be a cheerful and upbeat genealogist—but once in a while, even a real peach of a human being like myself just has to let off some steam.  Lately, four old and familiar issues in particular are really getting on my nerves, genealogically speaking…

1.     The missing 1890 census.  Honestly, nearly an entire census lost?  How did this happen?  In all the United States of America in 1921, from sea to shining sea, there wasn’t one safe and fire-resistant building with a fireproof vault in which they could store the census records?  It wasn’t worth the price of one night watchman to make sure everything was okay?  And the worst part of it is, I’ve read that most of the records survived the fire (with water damage)—and they were kept for many years, while discussions went on about what to do next, before someone decided one day that the best thing to do was to just throw them all away.  Incredible!  When I think of all the loose ends I could tie up, all the mysteries I could solve, all the gaps I could fill in…  all those missing children…  sigh…

2.     Those blurry, badly microfilmed World War I draft cards.  I’ve read that after the cards were microfilmed (obviously by workers who were either legally blind or looking out the window most of the time), the original cards were discarded.  They threw them away!  Without anyone checking to see if the microfilm images were properly done before destroying the originals?  What I would like to know is this:  Who was the clueless government bureaucrat who made that decision?  I think his/her name should live on in infamy, like the person who threw away the damaged 1890 census.   

3.     Census takers with bad penmanship. Seriously, who was the genius who came up with the guidelines for selecting these people?  Did they not have to give a handwriting sample, perhaps write down a practice family or two?  I would think the ability to write legibly would have been a primary requirement for the job of census taker, but apparently no one thought of that during the hiring process.  I suppose some of the census takers just got sloppy as time went on and didn’t care anymore.  Or maybe some of them got hired because they were some politician’s nephew—I suppose then as now, when it comes to obtaining gainful employment, it isn’t always what you know, it’s who you know.

4.     Relatives who say “I really don’t have anything to share” when it’s pretty obvious that they do.  In this day and age of cheap Priority Mail and FedEx shipping, and scanners in practically every genealogist’s home or office, there’s no excuse for not sharing what we’ve got...  (Calm down, Aunt Emma, I’m not asking you to give it to me, just loan it to me!)  Yet I’ve had to ask some relatives five or six times, over a period of years, if I could borrow their box of family photos or papers.  Some are just too lazy to take the box down out of the attic or dig it out of the guest room closet, but some seem to be exhibiting strange territorial behavior.  Most eventually say yes—but a few hold out, as if “whoever dies with the most stuff wins.”  But everyone ends up losing that game.

Well, thanks for letting me vent…  What makes you do the “Silent Genealogist Scream”?

Monday, March 17, 2014

Military Monday: Jacob Heilman

My husband’s mother has three great-grandfathers who served in the Civil War.  One died (Charles Alwood, whom I wrote about previously), and two others survived.  One of those who survived was Jacob Heilman.

Jacob was born in Bavaria in 1819 and came to the United States in 1844, according to a book of historical sketches published in 1976 by the Henry County, Ohio Historical Society.  (A New York Passenger list I found supports this.)  He came to Ohio in 1847 with a brother and married Maria Baker there in 1850.  They had twelve children—four sons and eight daughters—eight of whom survived him. 

According to his service record on, Jacob was a Private in Company F of the Ohio 68th Infantry Regiment, and his grave marker confirms that fact.  He would have been in his forties at the time—not a young man!  It was said that his unit marched over 7,000 miles and rode trains or steamboats another 6,000 miles, and that his regiment was in every Confederate state except Florida and Texas.    

There are good histories of his unit, and they bear this out.  I consulted “Dyer’s Compendium” online and got some details.  The 68th started out at the Battle of Fort Donelson and took part in nearly every major battle and siege of the war, including the Battle of Shiloh, the siege of Vicksburg, and Sherman’s March to Atlanta.  The regiment lost two officers and 48 enlisted men in battle, and another one officer and 249 enlisted men to disease, for a total of 300 deaths.

The actual dates of Jacob’s service are sketchy.  The 1975 biographical sketch (written by Jacob’s great-grandson Lyle Heilman) says that Jacob enlisted in 1861 when the war broke out and served until the war was over.  Maria had a daughter in May 1862, but the baby could have been born after Jacob left for the war.  Dyer’s history shows that his unit had a long furlough in early 1864—but judging by the birth date of Jacob’s son John (June 1864), Jacob was home by September 1863.  A draft register listing him as “discharged” in June 1863 bears that out.  So the extent of action Jacob actually saw is uncertain—but whatever his length of service, it was enough for Jacob to apply for, and receive, an Civil War veteran invalid pension in March 1873. 

It is said in the family that he was blind the last twelve years of his life; he died in 1907, with his wife following in 1912.

I found Jacob’s grave a few years ago at Florida Cemetery in Henry County, Ohio.  My husband and I put a flag on it before taking a photograph.  I was pleased to see the G.A.R. marker there.  In an original photo of him which survives, and which I was fortunate enough to borrow from my husband’s cousin Dale Garver, even in his old age Jacob looks brave and strong—a survivor. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

Mystery Monday: The Mysterious Dr. Jay

I recently did some work for a client in which the assignment was to find out all I could about a man named Dr. Henry Alfred Jay (1893-1970).  I ended up with more questions than answers.

First of all, his birth.  The date seems consistent, but the place is a mystery.  According to the family, Henry was born and raised in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on February 13, 1893.  I wrote to Kenosha County, Wisconsin to obtain his birth record, but they had no one on record by that name.  When I obtained his death record, it said he was born in Chicago, Illinois.  But Cook County, Illinois didn’t have any birth record either.  The date of birth seems to be consistent, being found again on his death certificate and SS5 (Application for Social Security).

Secondly, his parents.  On his death certificate, his second wife gave his parents’ names as Arnold Jay and Catherine O’Conner.  But on his SS5, Henry gave his parents’ names as Noel Patrick Jay and Catherine O’Conner.  I was unable to find any census records for Henry with either set of parents—not in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and not in Cook County, Illinois.  Not for 1900, 1910, or 1920.

Thirdly, his so-called military service.  Family tradition holds that he went to South Africa “during the war” and liked it there, so he settled there afterwards.  But what war would that be?  The United States didn’t send soldiers to South Africa in World War I, and I found no WWI draft registration for Henry. 

Fourthly, his time in Africa.  We know he ended up in South Africa, because my client’s relative (Henry’s daughter) grew up there.  A newspaper article says he arrived in 1920, but that article was written in 1938 and may or may not be accurate.  How and when he did go to South Africa?  All I know for sure is that he married twice, the second time in South Africa.  His first wife was Agnes Schweder, who might have been German.  I found no marriage record for them.  Henry and Agnes had two children, one of whom is related to my client, before she died around 1934.  I did find, on, a record for his second marriage, to Winifred Reeve in Durban, South Africa in 1936.  Henry and Winifred had two children also.

An alert message board reader found some newspaper articles online that shed a little more light.  The articles ran in newspapers all over the United States in 1938.  Henry was the inventor of a method of preserving fruit with chemicals.  Family tradition says that his “partners” stole his invention and he never made a dime from it.  Another intriguing thing:  The article says he became a British subject in 1934!  What was that all about?

I found some U.K. Passenger Lists on concerning the family.  They tell me that Henry arrived in England (from South Africa) in March 1939, with Winnie and the two children from his first marriage arriving in April.  They all left together to return to South Africa in February 1940.  Winifred had the first of her two children later that year.

Next, his later years in the United States.  I’m not sure when or how he returned to the United States, but he (and presumably Winnie) were there by 1962, when he applied for Social Security in Virginia.  He died in Virginia in 1970 and was buried there, at National Memorial Cemetery in Falls Church, with second wife Winnie.  (This I know thanks to  National Memorial is a Jewish Cemetery; was he Jewish?  The funeral home (Ives) is now out of business, and I was unable to obtain their records.

So, who were Henry’s parents?  Where was he born?  Where did he grow up?  Why are there no census records for him?  When and where did he get his medical training?  (He always avoided the subject, the family says.)  How and why did he end up in South Africa?  How and why did he become a British subject?  When and how and why did he return to the United States?  Why was he buried in a Jewish cemetery?  Like I said, more questions than answers.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

West View Farm

Some of the happiest times of my childhood were spent in Minooka, Illinois. 

My maternal grandparents were Robert J. Erickson (1888-1968) and Clara Anderson Erickson (1892-1967).  They were married in 1913, and before long, they purchased the farm of Robert’s father, Charles Erickson.  But the Great Depression took its toll on Midwestern farmers like them, and the mortgage didn’t get paid, and by the time my mom was in high school they had lost that farm and then lived on two or three rented farms.  Grandpa was down, but not out.  The same year Mom married Dad—1950—Grandma and Grandpa Erickson bought West View Farm, and paid cash for it. 

West View Farm was 120 acres of Illinois clay loam.  Many of the buildings were already unneeded in the 1950s, having been built for an earlier time.  My grandpa kept a beef steer in the stable, and raised chickens in another barn.  Then there was a corn crib used as a repair and maintenance building, a small shed or two, and a huge barn which wasn’t used for much of anything, along with three empty silos and an old orchard…  and then there was the house.

The view of that farmhouse from Holt Road is something I will carry in my memory forever.  It was a magnificent place, especially when seen from the road across the vast expanse of front yard which my grandfather kept in magnificent condition all the years he lived there. 

We visited the farm most Sundays, and in the summers I would spend a happy week there, following my beloved grandfather and Uncle Bob around the farm.  It was a wonderful place for a child—the windmill, the cistern, the water pump, the corn crib with its souvenirs of my Uncle Bob’s plowing championships, the chicken house, the orchard, the garden, the sundial—and that wonderful house.  Grandma and Grandpa lived on the main floor, and the second floor had been an apartment for Uncle Bob and Aunt Shirley, until the women quarreled and my aunt and uncle built a house down the road.  So now it was unoccupied, with room after room to explore, full of furniture, toys, old clothes, and every kind of thing.

In the mid 1960s, Grandma Erickson’s high blood pressure finally took its toll.  The heart went out of Grandpa after that, and within a year or two, he was gone, too.  After a protracted legal battle, Uncle Bob bought out his three sisters and carried on with the farm—but the hard feelings lingered, and I didn’t see the farm again for nearly twenty years.  After that, I made occasional visits there, but as my uncle let the place “go to seed” as he got older (and as he went to seed as well), it was harder and harder to make myself drive out there and witness the farm’s slow demise.

Eight or ten years ago my uncle died.  Some time after that my sister and I drove out to Minooka to walk around the old place.  Looking up from the road, across the once magnificent lawn, and seeing the house boarded up brought tears to our eyes.  We walked around the buildings, marveling at how quickly the now-vacant farm was being reclaimed by nature.  We knew it would never be restored to its former glory; if the real estate slump ended and someone bought it, its proximity to Interstate 88 would make it prime property for development.

Last summer my sister and I returned once again.  We thought we were prepared for anything we might see, but we were mistaken.  Where the farmhouse once stood, there were only charred ruins.  I stopped at the farmhouse across the road and was told that it had burned down the previous year—perhaps due to lightning, or squatters who were careless with a cooking fire inside.  I grieve the loss of that farm like I would grieve a dearly loved friend.  But my childhood is bound up in the memories of that place, and always will be.