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  http://jollettetc.blogspot.com
"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
cassrailroad.com
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  http://jollettetc.blogspot.com
Death Certificate for Chelie Anne Shiflett Davis


Virginia death records recently released on Ancestry.com 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  http://jollettetc.blogspot.com
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.

27 comments:

  1. He had a long life even if he was poor - I always wonder how people get lost in the families, it seems such a shame.

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    1. I guess some people did something that others in their family just couldn't forgive.

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  2. Wow, he seemed fascinating! Wouldn't you like to know "the rest of that story." I'm sure though a lot of families have an Uncle Renza in them.

    betty

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    1. You're right -- Uncle Renzas are out there in every family, for sure.

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  3. Goodness, you have discovered so much about him. It does sound as though he had a rather sad and lonely life, and yet in the photo he appears to have such a happy, sincere smile. A giggle even. I'm thinking no matter what the road was,he had some happiness along the way. Of course being in the company of children and animals is always a sure bet. Love those long tall boots too.

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    1. I noticed that too, Karen. He seems kindly, surely a welcome visitor.

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  4. What a nice photo of you with your Uncle Renza! Poor fellow. Sounds like he had a hard life.

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    1. That's not me -- that's my mother! Yes, it does sound like a hard life. He must have messed up pretty bad if his kids were not around for him in his old age.

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  5. Wendy,

    I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today's Fab Finds post at http://janasgenealogyandfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/2015/09/follow-friday-fab-finds-for-september_25.html

    Have a great weekend!

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  6. So you don't think that Renza was really an uncle to your family at all? Sad story, but at least your family befriended him and he gets some recognition here in your post. Maybe someday a relative will find him here, get in touch with you and tell you more, even if they did not get in touch with him!

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    1. No, he really was an uncle. He was my great-grandfather's brother.

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  7. You unearthed through your research one of those stories that makes family history so fascinating.

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    1. I agree. I love tracing the story but I want the whole story.

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  8. A very interesting post with a great photo for this weekend's theme, Wendy. The name Lorenza is unusual as it's an Italianate feminine name, Lorenzo being more typical for a man. He also looks rather prosperous in his Sunday best suit. But in those days, even laborers always wore coat, hat, and tie.

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    1. I figured the "a" had to be a misprint, but I see it spelled that way for him more often than with an "o." Believe it or not, he was not the only LorenzA Davis living at the same time.

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  9. Poor Uncle Renza. Wouldn't it be interesting to find out what happened to the family to break it up.
    We had a couple of single uncles too and they seemed sad to us because they didn't have children...but that was our child's point of view. I too love the tall lace-up boots.

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    1. My sister recalls our mother saying Renza was "flirty." Hmm -- I bet that was it. He might have been a cheater. If so, no wonder the kids turned their backs on him, especially if their mother had a hard life as a result.

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  10. The theme photo is a treasure - everyone looks happy, and the occasion obviously rated with the family because a photo was taken to record the event. I reckon you'll find more positive info about Renzo, especially if you can get in touch with some of his descendants.

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    1. I hope the descendants find my blog. That would be very interesting for me.

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  11. Good research to learn as much as you did about your great great uncle! I kind of think that smile might be called a smirk, as if the joke was on the photographer, whoever that might have been!

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    1. Yes, I always wonder who the photographer was.

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  12. I tried at the weekend but my comment didn;t go through. I love Uncle Renza and the fact that he is not forgotten. He looks like fun and they are having a lovely giggle. I hope you can find out more about him from his descendants.

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    1. You couldn't?? I guess Blogger was acting up. I've had that experience on other people's blogs too. I'm glad you came back.

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  13. Dig a little and so often family stories are full of sadness. But then I realize a lot of the time they appear to have been sad because of our personal perspective. They might have been fine with their lives. You've at least given voice to Uncle Renzo, whether complete or not.

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    1. Right - genealogy isn't for sissies.

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  14. I always feel so sad for those I uncover who seemed to be lacking for so much. Apparently he must have felt loved and welcomed with your mother's family.

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