Monday, April 23, 2012

Quick Search

Took a quick ride over to Lakeland Sunday afternoon to visit the grave sites of some of my ancestors. My father's sister, Nellie, is buried next to her husband in a plot with enough room for five burials. Both of Nellie's sons are in the same section and the one son that was married has his wife buried next to him to round out the total of five. Nellie, her husband, and their oldest son all lived long lives and passed away in their 80's. The other son died at the age of 67.  In the same cemetery with Nellie but in different sections are grave sites for her husband's mother and a number of his siblings and half siblings.  And finally in this cemetery there is a lone grave marker for one of Nellie's grandchildren.

Up the road about 3 miles from the cemetery where Nellie and the others are interred is the cemetery where Nellie's daughter is buried. She just passed away last year at the age of 95.  A beautiful and gracious lady (just like her mother), Bernice Chiselbrook was kind enough to share some stories of my ancestors in the last couple years of her life. I plan to use some of her comments in the other blog I'm working on about the sort of secret past of my grandfather.

In addition to Bernice's husband in the other cemetery is one of their daughters, Carol Jean, who tragically died in a car accident at the age of 42.  I like to visit cemeteries to pay my respects to those who have gone on before us. Not in a ghoulish way but simply to visit and remember (as well as generate genealogical info on those relatives I may have never met). Seems to me that if someone goes to the trouble of having their remains marked in stone with critical information about their lives, then those of us left behind should visit from time to time just to honor their memories and say a few words. Don't know if anybody can hear me but it makes me feel better. And makes me feel a little bit like I'm being responsible in some way when I pray they'll all rest in peace.

Monday, April 16, 2012

My Grandfather's (Sort Of) Secret Past - Part 2

No skeletons found in the closets I've searched so far but you never could pop up anytime, anywhere, anyhow. That doesn't mean I expect to discover anything astonishing.  And expectations can be a hindrance to good research so I try to keep intriguing speculation in the far resources of my brain and just gather as much evidence data as I can. Once I think I've accumulated as much info as I can, then that will be the time to put on my private investigator hat.

So that's pretty much what I've been doing.  Gathering facts.  Avoiding making conclusions. And hoping that all the information I can find will turn "sort of secret past" into one of those mundane and ho-hum revelations that show my father did not hold back secrets from me about his father and, moreover, my grandfather had no secrets to hide. Not big ugly ones anyway. I don't care if he skipped a church service now and then or smoked a cigar behind the outhouse. On the other hand, if my research discovers he was an ax murderer or something, I would be shocked and disappointed but I sure want to know about it.

My search has gone forwards and backwards since I posted Part 1. By that I mean I searched through some records my sister gave me that included many of my father's sermons and some half-letter sized 3-ring binders with notes and essays from his days at Yale Divinity. To be honest I haven't dug through the sermons much other than just a few. With all due respect, I still find them boring. I loved my father but when I listened to the sermons he preached from the pulpit, they just about put me to sleep. In the few that I've gone through recently I was hoping to catch a glimpse of some of his personal thoughts that might shed some light on his personal history. No such luck. Other than to solidify my opinion that he was an intellectual giant despite a short physical stature. The binders from Yale support that description as well. Here's one page of his notes that would have been written around 1930.

Sometimes I look at his notes like this and I wonder if he thought in outline order. The man was an organized and diligent student. There are probably thousands of pages in these notebooks, all noted on both sides and out of all of them I think I saw maybe one or two doodles! And not extravagant doodles, either. I don't think his mind wandered one second away from whatever subject matter he was studying. I thought a couple of times I caught some real doodle examples that would prove he was human but, nope, they were diagrams of logical progressions that his instructors must have designed to clarify their teachings.  So while I'm looking at all this data, the question in my mind is where the heck did a 25 year old kid from East Podunk Florida come up with, one, the incentive to study religion, and, two, the ability to analyze and organize himself with so much scholastic discipline?  Did he get any of this from his father? 

Anyway, I found little data of a personal nature inside any of the notebooks. Not that he didn't have a life. There was a postcard from his mother that told him she enjoyed his visit home, apparently with a friend and around New Years 1930. And there was a 1929 class schedule card inside one of the notebooks. But not much else to shed light on anything personal that I could see.  But it's way too early to draw any conclusions about anything other than the data gathered to this point suggests he was a serious divinity student at Yale.

From Yale I backtracked to his undergraduate history at Florida Southern College. I had a photograph that had been noted on the back (I believe by one of his sisters), "Charles King, the graduate 1928" which I combined with a listing of 1928 graduates of the college. So I know he attended college there and graduated but when I asked the school if I could request a copy of his transcripts I was told they would not release school records to anyone other than the student. Catch 22 if the student is no longer alive! I hope they don't have a genealogy department at the school. Or if they do I wonder if the department head could explain to the registrar's office that genealogical research, or at least good genealogical research depends on documentation. What do they think I'm going to do, steal the identity of a graduate who by now would be 107 years old if he was alive?

But for the research I'm concentrating on here the transcripts probably wouldn't shed much light. Possible but not likely. I'm actually more interested in my father's high school records because it's closer to the time period I'm looking at. The secret past angle to all this is why did our family have the impression that our father's father passed away when he was about 12 years old, when in reality we have discovered our father was 18 years old?  And why did our father attend high school in Lakeland, Florida 80 miles south of where his father resided in Yalaha?  Could be some very simple answers to all this but hopefully the research will provide some insight on the matter. And to that end I requested copies of transcripts and "any available records pertaining to my father's attendance at Lakeland High School" to the Polk County school board student record department. I called first and was told they would locate whatever they could find for a small fee and proof that I was the son of Charles King. I sent them a copy of my birth certificate and a check for the fee. I have subsequently heard from them that they also need a copy of my father's death certificate as (this sounds familiar) "they can only release to the student."  Unlike Florida Southern they at least indicated they could release the files to me if I provided them with a copy of my father's death certificate. So I have sent a request to the Florida State Office of Vital Statistics requesting a death certificate for my father. While I did that I sent another request for a death certificate for my grandfather as well. There is always the possibility that there is no certificate on file for my grandfather since the state acknowledges some records date back to the late 1800's but not all files were registered. We'll see.

My interest in the high school transcripts is not to discern his academic performance (although I'd be surprised if he was anything less than an "A" student).  I'm interested in finding information on when he attended Lakeland High School and, hopefully, what school he attended previous to Lakeland. I already know from Lakeland High School yearbooks that my father attended the school during the school year 1921-1922 and that he was in the graduating class of 1924.  One of my Florida cousins was kind enough to pass the yearbooks onto me for safekeeping. My father is the handsome guy pictured top right of this page of class of 1924 senior photographs.

I think it's pretty safe to assume at this point that his Junior year at Lakeland High School took place in the school year 1922-1923.  And hopefully the transcripts will verify this. But the big question that lends itself directly to my research into school records is this: where did my father attend school for his Freshman year of high school, the school year 1920-1921? And two Federal Census Reports recorded in 1920 lend themselves to the confusion. My father is listed in two places. Moreover, in two places with two different names! Tell me that doesn't cause the eyebrows to raise up a bit, as in "Oh, REALLY?"

On the 1920 Yalaha census (enumerator, Geo J King, no less)! recorded in January 1920, my father is listed as "Geo C." listed as son of the head of the household, "Geo J. King" directly under his mother, "Agnes E," listed as wife. The general procedure for census recording was to list head of household including surname first, with other family members with same surname listed by given name only. George J King's wife, Agnes, was listed next, followed by his 14 year old son, George C. (that was my father).
On the Orlando census recorded in February 1920 there is a listing for my father again. But this time he's listed as Charles G. White! The head of the household listed was Stephen Claude White. Next listed in the standard fashion of census records (that is, without surname) was wife, Carol King and brother in law, Charles G. So based on enumerator recording procedures this was the White family with head, wife, and brother in law. The brother in law part was correct; Stephen Claude White married my father's oldest sister, Carol Elizabeth King who apparently preferred her maiden name to be listed as her middle name. And Carol's younger brother was correctly listed as brother in law of the head of household. But at this point I don't know if the enumerator recorded my father under the White surname in error, in omission, or was he told to list it that way. I would imagine he would have concluded that brothers in law did not normally share the same surname but you never know. Enumerator errors are pretty common and not really surprising when you consider that most, perhaps all, census records were transcribed from notes taken at the original census interview. That seems obvious to me when I look at records that may have varying types of penmanship but are almost always uniformly recorded within the columns with few or no scratch outs or corrections. That's a lot of work for an enumerator to fill out 50 horizontal lines per page and 25 + vertical wonder they took advantage of listing the surname only once per family.  Must have prevented a lot of cramping fingers.

It's a little early to draw any conclusions from the two census records. I know enumerators were given instructions on how to account for residents they didn't actually see but recorded by testimony from whoever they interviewed. Sea captains, for instance, were generally listed as residents even though physically they might be sailing on the other side of the world. As long as they weren't known to be dead, they were listed as residents. I'm not suggesting there were too many sea captains in Yalaha and Orlando in 1920. My point is that an interpretation of "resident" might be different. Since my grandfather was the enumerator for Yalaha it may have been his interpretation that his son should be listed even if he was physically in Orlando. On the other hand, maybe his son belonged on the Yalaha census record and was just visiting Orlando.  In which case, the Orlando enumerator might have screwed up by listing a visitor as a resident.

Our family lore has it that my father and his mother both moved to Orlando to live with my father's oldest sister. Our impression was that this relocation was after George Johnson King's death. But the Orlando 1920 census hints that possibly our father moved in with his sister while his mother stayed home with her husband. Records after George J's death do show his widow living with the oldest daughter but I haven't found anything yet that would suggest mother and son relocated to Orlando together.  We also were aware that our father changed his given name from George Charles King to Charles George King because "he didn't like his given name."  So far I've been unable to secure documentation of a legal name change so I'm not sure how and when that came about. But the 1920 Orlando record seems to imply that the name change was already in the works.  An additional legend (maybe too strong a word?) we attached to our father was that his oldest sister was very domineering when it came to her young brother (she was 14 years older) perhaps in a loving way but much more suffocating than he wanted. And that was supposedly the reason why he moved to his other sisters home in Lakeland.  A few years younger than the overbearing Carol, our father's other sister, Nellie, offered him haven in more comfortable surroundings. And he could "help earn his keep" by babysitting for Nellie's young children. Carol King White never had children of her own but allegedly didn't hesitate to make sure her young brother, Charles, washed his hands before meals and went to the bathroom before travelling, even when her brother reached middle age and was raising his own family.

Another angle I'm looking at is to try to piece together George Johnson King's life from the time he arrived in Florida.  Nellie King had constructed some family research back in 1980 that indicated her father, born in Kentucky in 1864 had inherited monies from his father's estate (his father died before he was born)  when he turned 21 and came to Florida to start his adult life. So somewhere around 1885 might be when he arrived. I have found his 1890 marriage certificate from Lake County and I've found a few land deeds for land he purchased in Yalaha. I'm also gathering records for land purchases for his wife and his father in law, William Sweet. So far all I have is data that is too soon to start drawing any conclusions on. I plan to travel up to Lake County before too long and see what else I can find in the county records and newspapers (I hope) to reconstruct the history of George Johnson King's life in Yalaha. And to that end, my search goes on.  

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Here We Go Again

Finally getting through on the website for 1940 Federal Census. Not easy when it's not indexed by name but managed to pin down my parents who resided with my older sister and brother in West Springfield, Ma.

Also identified my wife's ancestors residing in the same town, showing my wife's grandparents living with their six children (including my wife's mother).

I've updated my files for each of those listed on the two records, to include scanned copies of the Census forms themselves to support the entries for residence.

It was impossible to get through the first two days the 1940 Census records were available, apparently because of the volume of hits by amateur genealogists like me. I think I'll wait awhile before trying to update my files with any more. I've got a lot of other work I can do on my files including continuing my research into the "sort of secret life" of my paternal grandfather. Identifying census records is a whole lot easier when the information is indexed by name. So to that end, my search will continue but as far as the 1940 Census records search goes, it will be a little while.  Maybe a big little while.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

My Grandfather's (Sort Of) Secret Past - Part 1


I picked up a book at Costco last week that has me salivating with genealogy research envy. Martin Davidson, in The Perfect Nazi relates his research into the life of his maternal grandfather born in 1906 in Prussia. Davidson grew up in England but had relatives who remained in Germany that he visited from time to time. But prior to his grandfather's death those relatives were less than forthcoming about his grand dad's life history. After he died the relatives opened up a little.  Davidson also discovered that German record keeping during the rise of the Third Reich was meticulous as well as substantial and he was able to use public documents to pinpoint his grandfather's memberships in political parties and eventually into becoming an officer in the SS. The author was even able to locate his grandfather's original application to the SS which was a handwritten narrative describing his history of involvement with militaristic and nationalistic groups which he submitted to support his credentials. Davidson then
combines the documentation along with some family testimony with the history of Germany's transformation from defeat in World War I up and  through the rise and fall of the Third Reich. His research compiled a fascinating glimpse of how and why a German born in 1906 could so easily grow up to become a fanatical Nazi. Davidson does not excuse his grandfather...he just thoroughly examines his grandfather's life. Developing world and European events mixed with Germany's history of militarism and a 1920's infatuation with  violence created a perfect storm of circumstances to transform men like Davidson's grandfather into the thugs and brutes that typified those belonging to the Nazi party.

Davidson's inspiration to research his grandfather's past rose from growing up in a family that did not talk of World War II experiences. His grandfather's past was an unspoken mystery of which a child's inquiries were pushed aside or tip toed around.  His grandfather on the other hand was not ashamed of his past nor did he put away his nationalistic philosophies and opinions in the attic and throw away the key. But he was smart enough at the conclusion of World War II to know it might be unwise to be evangelistic about his beliefs. It could even be seen as his good fortune to have held positions of responsibility far away from the concentration camps so he did not suffer any repercussions from association with the brutal and sadistic treatment of prisoners and thus, avoided any implications of involvement in war crimes. He was a fanatical Nazi but his military service was in administration in Berlin and Prague during World War II.  He certainly had his hands bloodied in the 1920's and 1930's during Berlin's history of street violence but that's a far cry from participating in concentration camp atrocities.  Anyway, I have really enjoyed reading the book and admire the extent of research the author put into it and how he tied all of the information together to construct a fascinating biography of his grandfather. He did a masterful job of uncovering and solving a conspiracy, so to speak. A family conspiracy of silence and misdirection to hide the Nazi in their midst.

                               ANOTHER CONSPIRACY IS BORN (sort of)

So I'm inspired too. About the secret past of my grandfather, George Johnson King.  That's George on the far left of the group photograph below. I'm estimating the photo was taken around 1915 based on the fact that the young man in the center of the photo was my father, Charles George King, who was born in 1905 and looks to me to be about ten years old here. They are standing in front of guava trees, I presume at the citrus grove my grandfather and his father in law, William Sweet, owned and operated together in Lake County, Florida in the early 1900's. (William Sweet is the white bearded fellow with the cane in the photo).

And before we get too far along into this whole conspiracy thing I've got to admit that the issue of my grandfather's sort of secret past is nothing as dramatic as if he had been a Nazi or something.  At least I assume not. But you never know what kind of skeletons are going to fall out of the genealogy closet when you're doing family research. And although the cast of characters pictured here might look to be a little suspicious in a Bonnie & Clyde bank robbers kind of way I don't think anything sneaky was going on unless that fellow on the right was holding grenades to his chest  instead of just  his lapels. No, the sort of secret past I'm talking about  is mostly my own invention in that while my family might have appeared to be withholding information on my grandfather's life, it could just as easily be the fact that they were telling me but I wasn't listening. Or not listening closely and perhaps even misinterpreting what was said. Like many amateur genealogists (and probably professional ones as well) I regret not being able to go back in time to kick my immature and uninterested butt to wake up and listen to the stories my elders shared with me. But other than occasional blips of interest on my genealogy radar screen when something from days gone by might have tickled my attention, for the most part I wasted valuable and irretrievable opportunities to ask questions, write down a few notes, and fully appreciate my family history, not to mention document any of it. It never dawned on me until I retired that I just might get some enjoyment from knowing something about the lives of my ancestors.

But I digress. Here's the mystery. I had the impression that my father's father, George Johnson King, died when my father was around 12 years of age. My sister had the same impression. We apparently shared this time line interpretation from what our father told us. I remember when I was around 12 years old thinking what a sad thing that must have been for my father when he was my age. And at the same time being grateful my father was still with us. I do not recall my father telling me any stories about my grandfather except that he apparently once owned a grocery store. Nothing was said (or heard by me) of the cause of my grandfather's death. If there were any other details provided about George Johnson King I just don't recall.  Nor does my sister. So in retrospect it just seems as though our father was rather tight lipped about anything of his father's life.  At least around me and my sister. Thus for many years in my non-inquisitive ignorance I had a rough time line in my mind, knowing my father was born in 1905, that his father must have died around 1917, maybe give or take a year or so.

In 1971 just a few weeks before my father suffered a fatal heart attack, I visited him and my mother in Florida where they were vacationing near the town where my father was born and raised. I don't know what inspired him to do this but my father took us to the cemetery where his parents were buried. We looked at the grave markers for his parents which are flush-type granite ground markers engraved with their names and years of birth and death. I remember clearly that we parked on the road next to an old cemetery  in rural Lake County, just a small graveyard located at the top of a small rise surrounded by woods and citrus groves. The thing that glued itself to my brain was the fact that there were two cemeteries, one on the East side of the road where my grandparents were resting and another on the West side of the road where blacks were interred. That's all I remember about that visit forty years ago. No stories, if related, remain in my memory. No information or revelations about my grandparents stand out in my mind from that visit except that they were buried in a small rural segregated cemetery on a gentle slope shaded by large trees decorated with Spanish moss.

The photo above was taken at Yalaha Cemetery around 1995. It is the graveyard where my father's mother and father are buried. My wife and I looked for this cemetery on a Sunday afternoon with our initial area of search focusing on a town named Okahumpka. My father had always told me he was born and raised in Okahumpka so it seemed logical to start there. In retrospect I think my father's Okahumpka origins were designed to catch the interest of a young boy (me) because he knew it was a much more exciting name (and an Indian name at that!) than the name Bloomfield. He was born in Bloomfield which later changed it's name to Yalaha. Whatever the case, our search in Okahumpka came up empty. One last stab driving East out of Okahumpka on a two lane highway brought us to Yalaha and...KOWABUNGA!! (as perhaps the Okahumpka tribe might have exclaimed) there was the cemetery on the right hand side of the highway. We turned right onto a narrow road that ascended up a gentle slope where the Yalaha Cemetery stands looking exactly the same as it did in 1971. We recognized it instantly as one and the same graveyard my father had taken us to so many years prior. And after a short reconnaissance we found my grandparents' markers.

                                DOING THE MATH 

The grave markers stand side by side engraved with my grandparents' names and dates of birth and death. Both were born in 1864 with my grandmother passing away in 1944, a few months before I was born. George Johnson King preceded his wife in death almost twenty years earlier in 1923. My grandmother's date of death jived with my impressions of her passing before she ever got to know me. I recalled seeing photographs of her, an elderly woman always dressed in white, always wearing a hat, and obviously a widow posing alongside various relatives without her husband. Looking down again at George's marker seemed unsettling until I did the math...1923...1923...1923!!! Duh, 1923 minus 1905 meant our father was 18 years old when his father died. Not a young boy as we had believed but a young man. Moreover, I recalled that my father had gone to high school in Lakeland, Florida nearly 80 miles South of Yalaha in Polk County where he resided with an older sister and her family. So what's up with that?!? So my mental image of my father losing his dad while he was a shoeless kid playing in citrus groves and attending a one room school house down a dirt road in Bloomfield or Yalaha or whatever faded to a different mental photograph entirely. My father obviously lived apart from his father for a few years, enough time at least for him to attend and graduate from a high school a good distance away.  Why did he do that?  Why would a boy and his father be separated during the son's later teenage years and, more important to me while pondering this genealogical surprise, why wasn't any of this explained to me or my sister?  Was there a conspiracy of silence going on that our father employed to keep it all a secret?  Was there an illness or a behavioral issue involved that would have been swept under the rug (or hidden in a closet, so to speak)?  It just didn't make any sense to me that information might have been withheld about our grandfather.

I'm not a conspiracy fanatic. I trust the Warren Commission's findings, Obama's Hawaiian birth certificate, and scientific evidence of global warming. And the truth of the matter is I trust my father...still. I don't think he would hide anything from me unless he had a very good reason. So I don't believe he conspired to create a cover up of his separation from his father. But as an amateur genealogist trying to piece information together to get an accurate picture of my family history, I feel obligated to research this period of time to find out all I can about the last few years of George Johnson King's life. And to that end, my search goes on.