Friday, September 25, 2015

Sepia Saturday: Uncle Renza

Sepia Saturday challenges bloggers to share family history through old photographs.

This week’s Sepia Saturday photo is of sisters and their dogs on the steps of a mansion. About 1935, someone snapped a picture of my mother and her brother and their dog Fritz on the front steps of someone’s home which was anything but a mansion. The smiling gentleman was their grandfather’s brother known among family as “Uncle Renza.”

Lorenza Davis, Mary Eleanor Davis, Orvin Davis Jr, and Fritz Shenandoah, VA about 1935-36
"Uncle Renza" (1871-1947)
my mother Mary Eleanor Davis and her brother Orvin Jr.
and of course, Fritz

Apparently Uncle Renza was an object of pity. He seemed to be poor. My mother thought maybe he was divorced. He would show up and then disappear. But those are the recollections of a child. Just what was Uncle Renza’s story?

He was born Lorenza Ridell McKinley Davis in 1871, the thirteenth of fifteen children of Mitchell and Martha Willson Davis of Rockingham County, Virginia. He obtained a sixth grade education, which was the typical length of education in rural parts of the state at that time. In August 1892, he married Chillis/Chelie Ann Shiflett of Greene County.

By 1900, Lorenza and Chelie or Anne or Anna, whatever she went by, were the parents of four children under the age of six. As was typical of women of the time, Anne took care of the household in their rented home in Augusta County while her husband worked as a farm laborer, likely on someone else’s farm.

Company houses at the logging camp near Boyer
photo courtesy Cass Scenic Railroad State Park
Apparently there was more opportunity in the remote Pocahontas County in West Virginia. The steam railroad had finally reached those mountains, enabling the growth of commercial timbering. By 1910, the Davis family had moved into a rental home in Boyer Village, a logging camp in the Green Bank district where Lorenza and most of his neighbors were employed by the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Mill.

In the census record for that year, Lorenza and Anne could boast that all six of six children were still living. But something must have happened to the family after 1910. Lorenza and Anne are nowhere to be found in either the 1920 or 1930 census. None of the usual creative spellings and combinations have produced a hit. Maybe it was true – maybe they divorced and maybe Anne remarried. Nevertheless, that does not explain Lorenza’s disappearance.

Most of their children did not show up in 1920 or 1930 either. Those that did were married but apparently did not take their parents in.

Incorrect information on the children’s later marriage and death records led me to search using the names “Lorenzo McKinley” and “Alonzo Davis.” Still nothing.

Death Certificate Chelie Anne "Anna" Shiflett Davis 1939
Death Certificate for Chelie Anne Shiflett Davis

Virginia death records recently released on provided a few answers while sparking new questions. Anne’s whereabouts were confirmed: at least by 1939 and in failing health, she moved to Covington, Virginia, likely near, if not with, her daughter Bessie Weiford who was the informant on Anne’s death certificate. The answer to the question of whether she and Uncle Renza were divorced seems to be “No.”

However, in the 1940 census, Uncle Renza claimed he was Single. Yet at his death in 1947, he was a widower according to his death certificate.

For a few years at least, Uncle Renza seemed to be getting by. He owned his home, but it was valued at only $100 while his neighbors’ homes were valued between $1200 and $6000. At age 69, he was still employed - as a laborer for a private family. That probably translates as “handyman.” He was already past the age of normal working years, so there is no telling how much longer he was able to work.

As meager as Uncle Renza’s life seems to have been, his circumstances must have taken a grim turn. The informant at his death was not one of his children, not a sister or brother, not even a family friend.  It was the Department of Public Welfare in Fairfax, Virginia.

Death Certificate Lorenza Ridell McKinley Davis 1947
Death Certificate for Lorenza Ridell McKinley Davis

Whether he had been a long-time recipient of public assistance or had merely fallen on hard times in his declining years is not known. At any rate, my mother’s recollections of a “poor uncle” must have been right.

Why don’t you and your sister take the dog for a walk to the Sepia Saturday mansion?

© 2015, Wendy Mathias.  All rights reserved.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Sepia Saturday: Julia's Cousins

Sepia Saturday challenges bloggers to share family history through old photographs.

This week’s Sepia Saturday prompt is of a woman hanging laundry. Laundry was never the focus of any of the old photos passed down to me. However, glimpses of mundane chores were caught in several photos, albeit not as artistic as the prompt unfortunately. The laundress appears almost to be floating in the dark, hovering between basket and line.

That same description can be applied to me. When it comes to learning more about my Irish great-grandmother’s sisters and families in New York, I continue to float in the dark, hovering between a “basket” of unidentifiable photos and no strong family “line” to hang them on.

Julia Walsh Slade, Catherine Walsh Baraney, Tate Walsh about 1913 Portsmouth, VA
from top to bottom:  Walsh sisters Julia, Catherine, Teresa (Tate)
about 1913 or 1914
Now admittedly, I do know SOME of the players. The day someone snapped this picture of my paternal grandmother and her two sisters Cat and Tate was the same day someone washed clothes. (Do you suppose it was a Monday?) Is that long-legged underwear on the line?

A later photo of my grandmother and some cousins captures a neighbor’s laundry hanging from an upstairs window on what appears to be a retractable clothesline.

Elmira Christian, Julia Walsh, Raymond Christian
Torn photo of Elmira, Julia, and Raymond
I wonder who is missing.

As interesting as that contraption is to me now, the real interest is the children and who might have been in the photo in its original condition.

Since the photo is of my grandmother with her cousin Elmira Christian, daughter of Delia Sheehan and William Christian, I can guess the little boy is Elmira’s brother Raymond, IF I’m correct in guessing the ages of the girls to be about 10-12 and the little boy about 2-3.

Grace Christian, Julia Walsh, Elmira Christian about 1917-1918
What is that cloth? A sheet drying on a rack?
from left to right
: Probably Grace Christian,
Julia Walsh, and Elmira Christian
Adding this photo to another one of my grandmother and her cousins almost completes the Christian children. Missing is the baby of the family, William, who was perhaps either a newborn or not yet born at the time.

Another cousin photo was taken the same day, it seems, judging by my grandmother’s dress. It is Julia with Sadie Burns/Byrnes, daughter of Elizabeth Sheehan Burns/Byrnes. The rickety fence, perhaps an extension of the fence in the photo of Julia and the Christian girls, makes me think they were all there together at one time, wherever “there” was – maybe Sadie’s house in New York, maybe Elmira’s house, but would that have been in New Jersey or New York?

Julia Walsh and Sadie Burns about 1917-1918
Julia Walsh and Sadie Burns

There is so much more to learn about my great-grandmother’s family. Yet the clues are limited. I have found only two descendants, both Delia’s grandchildren. However, neither one seems to know anything at all about their grandmother, not even her maiden name.

Or maybe they know more than they let on but just don’t want to “air the dirty laundry.”

It’s laundry day on Sepia Saturday. See who else is hanging out at the line.

© 2015, Wendy Mathias.  All rights reserved.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Sepia Saturday: Corn Whiskey and a Patriotic Duty

Sepia Saturday challenges bloggers to share family history through old photographs.

This week’s Sepia Saturday photo celebrates wine and labels. Wine production in Virginia is as old as Virginia herself, but there are no vintners among my ancestors. However, quite a few were distillers of spirits, both legal and illegal.

James Franklin Jollett
James Franklin Jollett
My 2X great-grandfather James Franklin Jollett was a distiller. How long, I don’t know. How large the operation, I don’t know. What kind of spirits he distilled, I don’t know. But I know he was legal because he paid taxes on what he made.

During the Civil War, distilling of spirits did not suffer the strong sentiment against it as it did later in history and even today. In fact, the Confederate government kept corn whiskey on order. It was sometimes used as part of soldiers’ rations, but more often the whiskey served as medicine in field hospitals. It was poured over wounds to clean them, and it was administered to the injured to ease the shock. Sometimes it was the only anesthetic agent when ether, laudanum, and chloroform were not available for the next amputation. Quinine, morphine, whiskey – it was the best the doctors knew in the days before antiseptics, antibiotics, and awareness of how unsanitary conditions contributed as much to patient death as did illness and injury.

So I like to think that James Franklin and his neighbors in Greene County were doing their patriotic duty, distilling for the cause.

Distillery ad
Ad in the Richmond Examiner
January 1864
Now I’m not so na├»ve as to think James Franklin distilled ONLY to support the war. The tax records that I found on are from 1866, a year after the war was over.

The 1866 tax was the result of the Internal Revenue Act passed by Congress in 1862 to support the Government and pay interest on the public debt – in other words, to finance the Civil War. During the war, the states that had seceded from the Union were not taxed, but following the war, Southern states were expected to step up just like their Northern neighbors, even if they had not been officially readmitted to the Union.

Tax assessment August 1866
Tax assessment September 1866

In August 1866, distillers were taxed by the month whereas in September they were taxed by the gallon. I wonder why. Perhaps the August tax was just an estimate due to inability to account for what was produced while part of the Confederacy. In August, then, James Franklin was taxed $15.00 for nine months-worth of distilling at the rate of $2 per whatever the unit was. The following month, a clear account of 13 ¾ gallons at $2 per gallon cost him $27.50. That equates to around $430 today (depending on the online calculator).

Spirits were not the only item subject to taxation. Goods, services, licenses, income and personal property were assessed annually or monthly, depending on the designation. While James Franklin was taxed only on the spirits he produced, his neighbors were taxed on their carriages, watches, pianos, silver plates, and licenses to practice law and medicine. Apparently James Franklin owned none of the “luxury” items signaling wealth.

The Internal Revenue Act of 1862 continued until 1895 when the Supreme Court declared income tax unconstitutional. It took an amendment to the Constitution – the sixteenth – to establish the power to tax income. That was 1913. The “experiment” of 1862 helped establish the format and structure of today’s tax system that we’ve come to know and love so well – wink wink.

For all the best in wine and spirits, visit Sepia Saturday.  Cheers!

© 2015, Wendy Mathias.  All rights reserved.