Lona Winterhalter – My Mother

My mother was born on the afternoon of September 25, 1941 to Lonnie Winterhalter and his wife Elsie Westphal. Her parents intended to name Lana, after Lana Turner, but somehow her birth certificate ended up with Lona, I don’t know why my grandparents never had it corrected – maybe they thought it was unique and decided to stay with it, who knows.  Lona was raised a Lutheran, baptized into the faith in 1951, though by the time I was born she had moved away from organized religion; I like to think she was more of a deist than agnostic or atheist.  When I was young I attended Sunday school; later in life my mother told me that she pulled me out of Sunday school when I came home one Sunday and told her we shouldn’t vote for someone because of their religion.

The earliest photograph Lona WinterhalterI have of my mother shows a young girl with bright eyes, freckles and a mop of blonde curls. You can see the joy and happiness in her eyes, she a young girl who looks forward to tomorrow. I don’t know that I can I ever saw that young girl in my mother; by the time I really was old enough to understand who she was the young girl was gone, replaced by a woman whose life was far removed from the dreams of her youth.

My mother rarely talked about her childhood. I know her grandfather would take her to the race track to watch the horses run; my Mom said she used to enjoy that. That is about the only personal story I remember my mother ever sharing. Everything else  I know comes from talking to others who knew her – but not her mind, her hopes or dreams.

The two biggest resources I have for my mother’s youth are my aunt and my mother’s best friend. Their accounts differ in a lot ways, but there is one area where they seem to agree – my mother was not happy about her home life. In their own way each paints a picture of young woman who wanted more out life.

Nobody that I’ve spoken to knows when or how my parents met. They didn’t attend the same school. Los Angeles was a smaller place in the 1950’s so it may be that they simply met at a local hang-out and started to talk. My parents eloped on October 3, 1959; it must have been one heck of a surprise to my grandparents. My mother told me once that on the trip back my father’s car broke down and they had to call my great grandfather for help.

I’m not sure where my parents lived once they returned home. My mother returned to school but dropped out not too long afterwards. My mother said she got tired of all the other girls asking my mother what it was like to married which in the vernacular of 1959 meant that they kept asking her about sex. My mother, who was already a quiet girl, found it was all too much and choose to drop out of school and become a fulltime stay-at-home wife.

After more than one miscarriage my mother finally managed to carry a pregnancy to full term – the result was me.  My parent’s marriage didn’t last very long. I suspect that neither of them was really ready to be adults, let alone the parents of a small child. Both spent time dealing with mental health issues.

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Who Are We?

I went on a little road trip a couple weeks ago to meet a distant cousin who lives a couple of hours south of me. We had a very enjoyable visit; we discussed more than just genealogy, we talked about growing up, the history of California and other topics like kids and work. I’ve even been invited to come down for a day of fishing in the spring, which is technically only a few days away.

Of course the main purpose of the visit was to share family information, and we did a lot of that. He shared with me some photographs, a couple of letters and a partial diary that his grandmother kept. She wasn’t very good at writing in the diary and most of what she wrote talks about the loneliness she feels being in her 80’s and isolated from family and friends.

One of the photographs he shared with me has become quite the little conversation piece because we don’t know who it is. At first we thought it might be Jesse Slack, the common ancestor from whom our two branches of the tree originate; we thought this because that is what his mother wrote on the back of the photograph. I had some doubts because in all the other photographs I’ve seen of Jesse he has long white hair and a mustache where the gentleman in this photograph doesn’t.

I sent the photograph to Myrtle, one of the only people still alive who knew Jesse and his wife Emma Hobson, to see if she recognized these two people as Jesse and Emma or if they were perhaps someone else. Myrtle confirmed the people in the photograph are not Jesse and Emma. My next thought was that it might be Henry Slack and his wife Tamar Hobson, Emma’s sister, but the clothing worn by the couple seem to be from the late 1920’s or early 1930’s; Henry and Tamar died in the early 1920’s.

So here I am with but another little mystery that needs solving. In all likelihood this couple is from the generation after Jesse and Emma. Maybe one day I’ll connect with a family member who will recognize them. In the meantime I’ll just hold on the photo in my electronic box of stuff.

Katie Dewitt James – The Rest of the Story?

My last post was about the murder of a distant cousin in 1905 – Katie Dewitt James. The post gave the basic story of Katie and her ill-fated trip to visit relatives after she had filed for divorce from her husband.

However there is so much more to the story. There is the story of young man who was said to have seen Katie’s body in the back of a wagon; a woman who supposedly claimed to have been a part of the murder – if her paramour is to be believed. There is also the curious reaction of her husband and his air-tight alibi that just happened to be provided by a friend who was also the local deputy sheriff.

The story of the young man who claimed to have seen Katie’s body in the back of a buggy is an interesting one, and one that seems to lend some credence to other stories told about the murder.

According to the nephew of George Cornell, the man who found Katie’s body in August 1905, a young man came to Mr. Cornell’s law office in Oklahoma City and detailed what he saw on the day of Katie’s murder.

On the day of Katie’s murder the young man was cutting fence posts near Deer Creek when he was approached by four people, 2 men and 2 women. He was asked to open the gate for them and as they passed by he saw blood dripping out of the buggy.  When one of the men noticed that the young man had seen the blood he raised the alarm and the group stopped. At first there was some disagreement among the group about how to handle the situation; one of the women consistently cried out for the young man to be killed to keep him from talking about what he’d seen however, one of the men said there had been enough killing and that he had another idea – an idea that if this story is true is somewhat gruesome.

In the back of the buggy a canvas tarp had been used to cover up the source of the blood. The man pulled back the tarp and revealed the body of woman with blood streaming out of head wound. The body was pulled from the buggy and the young man was forced to sever the head from the body with the axe he’d been using to cut fence post. Once the deed was done the group departed with a warning to the young man that he was now part of the murder and if told anyone he’d be strung up along with the rest of them.

Sometime after the young man told his story to Mr. Cornell, Mr. James and another man visited with Mr. Cornell at his office. When the topic of Katie’s murder and the young man’s story was mentioned, both Mr. James and his friend are said to have become uneasy.

The story told by this young man seems rather interesting because it brings back the idea that Mrs. Norton may not have acted alone. Could the four people this young man met have been Alta Hood, Fanny Norton, Katie’s husband and his friend the deputy sheriff?

Lost Resources in the Digital Age

My great, great grandfather, Jesse Slack, was one of the people who kept things and one of the things he kept was all his old letters. When Jesse died the family was going to burn all his old letters; Myrtle Shaw, Jesse’s granddaughter, took a handful of them as mementos. She said she later regretted not taking all of the letters as they would have such a treasure trove of family history.

Letters from previous generations really are a wonderful find. They help to bring these people back to life by giving us a glimpse into their daily lives. It’s sad that so many people didn’t keep old letters; with e-mail taking over from letters I wonder if we haven’t seen the end of this resource as a way to reach back and get in touch with our past.

Photographs are another potential treasure trove of information, although they can also be a source of mystery even if everyone in the photo is identified. Photographs used to be treasured items, not like today where digital photography allows us to take so many photographs that they become disposable. This may another source of information that will disappear over time as we keep photographs in a digital form.

E-mails and photographs, text messages – these little pieces of communications are kept in private accounts that once we die or change service providers are deleted, never to be recovered. I remember reading about a young soldier who died in Iraq or Afghanistan, I don’t recall which. His parents wanted access to his e-mail account so they could print out all the e-mails and keep them as a reminder of his life, but privacy rules by the e-mail provider didn’t allow for anyone else to gain access to his account. I don’t know if they ever got access, something inside me says they probably didn’t.

This has made think that perhaps I should keep a list of passwords to e-mails accounts, this blog and other websites where I have family history and photographs so that when I’m gone this information isn’t lost.

New Family Members

My family tree has grown a few more leaves recently.

A few weeks ago I noticed a family tree on Ancestry.com that contained people in my own tree. I contacted the owner even though it had been a while since they had last logged in; I really didn’t expect to hear back from them but I was actually surprised when they got right back to me. After a little bit of probing to see how we might be related, it turned out that the owner of the other tree was the daughter of someone I had been looking for!

Later than night I received a call from a woman named Myrtle who graciously spent over an hour giving me little updates to my tree and filling in some leaves. Myrtle is in her 70’s but still sharp as a tack; she has personal knowledge of many of the people in my tree and is helping me bring them back to life.

Just this week I received an e-mail from someone who provided me with a brief history of my family; a couple of days ago I called the individual who sent me the e-mail. His name is Mike and he is the grandson of someone in my tree. We spent some time talking about family history and just getting to know one another.

These past few weeks have really energized me to keep working on my family history project. Who knows what gems these two contact hold, or what new family members I might discover next.

The Old Family Homestead in Iowa

Not long ago I sent a letter to the people who currently own the farm my 3rd great grandfather purchased in the 1850’s. Part of me expected to never hear back from them, part of me expected a polite “we don’t have anything for you”. What I never expected is that they would not only be interested in the history of the farm but would go to the local library and dig up information without my every asking!

They have provided me with so much information I don’t know where to begin, and they have more coming in the next couple of days. I can never thank them enough for the help they have provided me.

The Old Family Farm

Sometime Between 1846 and 1852 my 3rd Great Grandfather packed up his family and migrated from Canada to the new American state of Iowa. It wasn’t an easy trip; travel by horse drawn wagon would have been slow; wagon’s had no supsension making the ride over what were really nothing more than dirt paths rough on anyone riding in them. But the lure of good farm land was too good to pass up.

Daniel settled his family in what is now New Providence on 80 acres of land he obtained from the US Government under the land act of 1820. He put his $100 and paid $1.25 per acre. Daniel finished paying off the land in 1855. The land stayed in family until 1911 when it was sold to pay off debts associated with Rebecca’s estate.

The land consisted of the West 1/2 of the South East Quarter of Section 5, in township 86 North, Range 20 West. The land is still used for farming to day.