Friday, March 26, 2010

The Quest for Al's Birth Parents

As his daughters grew older, Al began to grow concerned that he did not know his birth family and where they might be living.  He set out to find the truth about his birth parents in the 1930s. I do not know how much he knew when he started this quest, but he eventually found his maternal grandfather still living in New Castle, Pennsylvania. But his mother had died just a short time before he found his grandfather. As for his father, according to Ethel, Hazel, and Lois, Al did not find out who he was. However, there is no doubt in my mind that his grandfather whom he visited with several times knew the identity of Al’s father.

Al also learned that the circumstances of his birth.  Al's birth mother was a young, unmarried girl who was "taken advantage of" by the man who likely lived next door. I will refrain from passing judgement on what "taken advantage of" means here since all parties are long since gone and cannot speak for themselves and there is no record of what happened.  That said, there are other records relative to the lives of Al's birth parents that can help paint a picture of these two people and their character.

Al learned that his mother was Catherine Biddle, the daughter of John Wesley Biddle, who was living in New Castle. Al developed a relationship with his newly found grandfather and got to know several of his Biddle uncles, aunts, and cousins. I will come back to Biddle family in a future post, but for now will focus on Catherine.

Catherine Biddle was born in New Castle in September 1879, the daughter of John Wesley Biddle and Mary Virgilia Lloyd. Catherine was 17 years old when Al was born. In about 1908, Catherine married James Pemberton who was a laborer in the tin can factory in New Castle which was where Catherine’s father also worked. Catherine worked as a bookkeeper at the same factory. Catherine and James lived with her parents in New Castle’s 5th Ward. By 1930, Catherine and James had moved to Youngstown, Ohio where James worked as a laborer in street construction. Catherine died in Youngstown on 8 April 1934, at the age of 54. She had no other children.
All that Al passed on to his daughters concerning his father was that his name was Gardner which was not much to go on. There were several Gardners living in New Castle around 1897 who could have been Al’s father, so positively identifying him is nearly impossible. However, extremely strong circumstantial evidence leads me to believe that Al’s father was Victor Marcellus Gardner. The evidence is very simple but compelling. Victor and his family were the very next door neighbors of the Biddles at the time Al was born. Victor’s sons were too young to have been Al’s father, but a look into Victor’s life also strengthens the likelihood.

Victor Marcellus Gardner was born on 5 July 1864 in Butler County, Pennsylvania, son of William M. Gardner and Euphemia Jane (Effie Jane) Ralston. Victor, a Catholic, married Amanda Ott, a Protestant, in 1884. Victor and Amanda had 7 children who were raised Catholic. Victor was a carpenter by trade. He died of typhoid fever in 1907 at the age of 42 in New Castle.

So those are the facts of Victor’s life, but fortunately we can know more about the character of Victor from a couple sources. From court reporting in the New Castle newspapers we learn that Victor was arrested in 1902 for non-support of his family and in 1906 was in jail again for abandonment and non-support. There are also a number of newspaper accounts of violent fights between members of the Gardner family and with neighbors—involving Victor’s mother (again a subject for a future post)! From a grandson with whom I have been in contact, we learn that Victor was a chronic alcoholic. According to grandson George Gardner, Victor “was also a kind, hard worker, and sentimentalist who loved his wife and children, even though he made their lives difficult by his drinking.”

Of course George Gardner knew nothing of Al Redmond until I contacted him, but he was not surprised. He believes as I do that Al was Victor’s son. Unfortunately since the DNA trail is passed from father to son and Al had no sons, unless someone has a lock of Al’s hair or some other bit of his DNA, there are no DNA tests can prove the connection beyond question. Based on what Al passed on to his daughters and the evidence above, I think that we can say that it is likely that Al was Victor’s son.

It is true neither Victor Gardner or Catherine Biddle played a role in the upbringing of Al Redmond, but beyond the circumstances of Al’s birth and Victor Gardner’s flaws and despicable actions, there are two colorful families that are branches of our family tree. We cannot ignore that Al likely had seven half-brother and sisters and a large number of nieces and nephews.  There are a number of interesting stories from both Victor and Catherine's families that will come in future posts.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Terry and the Pirates

Well of course today is Terry's birthday.  I hope it is a great one!  The note on the back of this photo says that it captured the very day you took your first steps--at 11 months!

Named Terry Albert--of course Albert after Grandpa Redmond, but I have always heard tell that the name Terry came from Terry and the Pirates which was a very popular comic strip from the 30s-50s.  It was also a radio program and much later a television program.  Since I didn't find the comic strip in the Derrick at the time Terry was born, it is my guess that Bob and Ethel got the name from the radio program.  I did some looking into the story line of Terry and the Pirates and was very interested to find out just how popular it was and it is now considered the first of the many action-adventure comics that would follow over the years.  The basic story is of an American boy named Terry who goes to China with a journalist named Pat Ryan in search of a lost gold mine.  They meet a number of interesting and sometimes questionable characters that develop into endless exploits.  During the second world war the characters, especially the Chinese characters, take on increasingly evil personnas.  The term "Dragon Lady" to describe a ruthless woman in today's society came from the name of one of the enduring, evil characters in the Terry and the Pirates story line. 

Take a look at the strip below.  What popular cartoon would you guess was greatly influenced by Terry and the Pirates?

Happy Birthday Uncle Terry!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Remembering Aunt Hazel

I remember always being excited that Aunt Hazel was coming home for a visit.  I can't really put a finger on any specific reason, but she held a special place in my heart.  She was my grandmother's sister, yet so different, and maybe that was what was so intriguing about her.  I remember a vacation I took to Florida in March 1989.  Grandpa and Muriel were also down there at the time and the three of us went to visit Aunt Hazel and Uncle Paul for the day.  We had a very nice time, ate lunch, sat by the pool, and Aunt Hazel made me an Old-fashioned, which is basically whiskey with a slice of orange.  It was a good day!  The picture from that day is of Aunt Hazel, Uncle Paul, and their dog with this incredible poinsettia growing in front of their house. 

I don't have any whiskey in the house to make an Old-fashioned, but I have poured a glass of wine to raise in memory of Aunt Hazel in honor of her birthday, March 13th.  Happy Birthday Aunt Hazel!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Raising Robert

I was born at 11 A.M. on February 17, 1916 on Oil City's Southside. I was given the name Robert Norman Reese. I was named after my two uncles; one was my great-uncle Robert Reese, a Civil War veteran who died ten year before I was born; my middle name came from my mother's brother Norman Walker who was said to have been kicked in the head by a horse [I think that he was actually born with something like Down syndrome]. My father was Edward Aaron Reese, a tailor by trade, and hard-working, but like his father Samuel, Eddie, as he was called, was always looking for a quick path to wealth. My mother was Mary Elizabeth Walker from Cochranton, Pennsylvania. She was 4 years older than my father and 40 years old when I was born. 

I lived with my parents at 201 East Front Street, in Southside Oil City. This was located roughly were the Riverside grocery story and Southside Post Office are now located on the four-lanes today. Next door lived my Grandpa and Grandmother Reese, my widowed Aunt Minnie Hookins, and her two children, my older cousins, Arthur and Lucille. This was a wonderful place to grow up, surrounded by family and a close knit neighborhood. Mrs. Dale lived on one side and next door to her was Mrs. McCollum, aunt of my lifelong friend Leroy Blair.

I was an only child and was undoubtedly doted on by my family. Grandmother Reese saw my first smile when I was 1 week old. Mother discovered my first tooth when I was 22 weeks. And my first word was papa. I got my first hair cut in August 1917 at the barber shop--I sat very still. I could count to 10 before I was 2 years old--Mother was so proud.

Birthdays were family affairs. On my first birthday, my Grandmother Walker was visiting from Cochranton. We had cake and father gave me a "kiddie kar" and I got stockings from Uncle John Walker. On my second birthday, Uncle John Walker got me 2 pair of stockings; from Aunt Bessie, Uncle John's wife, a silver spoon; Harry Reese Jr. gave me a toy and his brother Gerald gave me a handkerchief. Grandpa Reese gave me 5 cents for my bank and Daddy and Mother gave me a rocking chair and new shoes. On my 4th birthday in 1920, we had a chicken dinner with cake. Grandpa and Grandmother Reese, Grandmother Reese's sister Aunt Sarah Smith, and Uncle John Walker were there. Daddy gave me a bowling alley and from Mother 2 pair of stockings. Uncle John gave me $1 (guess he figured I had enough stockings); Grandpa Reese gave me another 5 cents for my bank; cousins Gerald and Harry Jr. gave me 4 pennies, 2 handkerchiefs and a card; cousin Lucille gave me a little cake; and Grandma Reese and Aunt Sarah gave me cards.

My father operated a tailor shop and a dry cleaning service, first out of our house, but later from a shop down Front Street closer to the State Street Bridge. He provided for mother and me very well. On a sunny day in June 1923 when I was 7 years old, my father was sitting on the front porch when he had an aneurysm and died. It would be years before I realized fully how that changed things, especially for my mother. This happened before social security, before insurance, and other programs that are now in place to take care of widows and orphans who lost their sole source of income. 

Widowed at the age of 47 with a young son and no income meant that mother had to find a way to support us. Besides income she received from renting the garages in the alley behind out house, mother earned money making pies, dressings (sauces such as ketchup), and mayonnaise for Cribbs Grocery store on the Southside. At first, mother would make all of the pies and dressing in our kitchen and a delivery boy would take them to Cribbs. Later she worked in the kitchen at the grocery. Remember that this was in the early days of modern conveniences. Refrigeration was still being developed and preservatives that are in food today to prolong shelf life did not exist. That meant that mother would work everyday to supply the grocery store with the fresh pies and dressings for its customers. Mother worked hard and all of our needs were met. Even during the Great Depression of the early 1930s, we managed better than most because the wealthy families from Oil City's West End still wanted fresh pies and dressings for their tables.

As a boy, I remember the trains pulling endless lines of oil tankers, coal cars, and flatcars loaded with timber which would pass in front of our house on the tracks across the street. My mother would complain about the soot that was left behind by the steam locomotives. She would have to sweep the front porch after each train passed to keep it from being tracked into the house. From the train station across the river, we would take the train to visit my mother's family in Cochranton. During the summer 1927, I took the train to Cochranton to stay with Mother's family on the farm outside Cochranton. That was with Mother's brother's Uncle Will and Uncle Wilson and their family. That was a big deal for this 11-year-old city kid and my first time away from my Mother. Uncle Will and Uncle Wilson raised draft horses--the biggest animals I had ever seen. 

I attended elementary school in the Central Avenue School which was an imposing stone structure on Central Avenue where the firehouse now stands. This was the school that John Dewey, Father of Modern Education, kicked off his teaching career. The school was several blocks away and uphill in the morning. I attended the South Side Junior High before going to the Senior High school on the north side. Crossing the bridge and walking up the hill to the senior high during the winter or rainy weather was miserable. I was well behaved and had perfect attendance in 1926, 1928, 1930, and 1931. The most days I missed were in March 1922 when I was in First Grade. I got the chickenpox and was quarantined for 16 days, missing 10 days of school. Book wise, I was just an ok student, and struggled through junior high. I excelled at what was called industrial or manual arts and I was very good at fine art. I was especially good at drawing and my favorite subjects to draw were cowboys.  

Mother and I attended the Grace Methodist Church, just a short walk up to the corner of Central Avenue and West First Street. Mother was a praying mother who made sure I knew the importance of living a good clean life. But she also knew that without a father, I still needed a male influence in my life. A Godly man [I can't recall his name] from the church stepped in to take on that role. He made sure that I was involved in activities that would help me learn a sense of duty and hard work. I also developed a strong group of friends from my neighborhood where our favorite past times were playing marbles or stick ball in the alley behind our houses.

I was a very active member of the Sea Scouts which was an offshoot of the Boy Scouts--but with cooler uniforms! I was on the crew of the good ship "Crusher," local Sea Scout Troop 3 from the Grace Church. I was an active member of the Sea Scouts until I graduated from high school. 

I helped mother around the house and helped with her work at Cribbs which allowed her to get done early. After I learned to drive, I also earned money driving for women from Oil City. I would take them to town to help with shopping, take them to visit relatives and friends in other towns like Titusville or Mercer. The longest drive I made was in 1936 when I took Miss Phillips and Mrs. Lee of Oil City on a two week driving tour to Bangor, Maine.

I graduated from High School in 1935. I was glad to be done with school. In fact, my yearbook says “Bob is mostly an outdoor man who has little use for school or other commonplace activities.” I did not really have a plan for what to do after I graduated, but I liked to work with my hands and solve problems so I toyed with the idea of going to engineering school and even took a few engineering and chemical correspondence courses. But I lost interest in that. I would rather spend my time racing my new Harley Davidson motorcycle and finding the girl of my dreams—and that is just what I did. But that story is for another time…