Back in the Old Neighborhood

On my recent research trip to Chicago, there were a number of memorable finds and ancestral breakthroughs. Yet one of my most gratifying days was spent driving through the South Side, stopping at, taking pictures of, and trying to visualize those important and life-changing family events that took place at those locales.

Before my trip, I had amassed an impressive list of addresses for various bungalows, apartments, schools, churches, and other significant landmarks that defined and shaped my family’s life in Chicago. Using Google Maps, I plotted out all the locations out in advance, and re-ordered my list several times to make sure my route was the most direct possible. No sense criss-crossing the city wasting precious research time! Although Google offers the Street View, nothing compares to being there on location, driving the same streets and viewing the same neighborhood cityscapes.

Throughout the day, several locations stood out for me. The first was 8227 S. Indiana. According to my great aunt, this was the house where my grandparents were married in 1942.

8227 S. Indiana, Chicago (IL).

The Alderson’s first moved to that address in the mid-1930’s, according to the Chicago telephone directories from the era, and remained there for nearly 20 years. Fast forward to the mid-1960’s, a few short miles away. The Avalon Theater was showing “Disorderly Orderly,” starring Jerry Lewis. In the audience, my mother and father were on their first date.

Avalon (New Regal) Theatre, 1641 East 79th St., Chicago (IL).

Originally opened in 1927, the historic theatre was renamed the New Regal in the 1980’s. I remember both my parents pointing out that distinctive dome from the Chicago Skyway as we drove past. My parents’ first date must have gone well, as a few years later, they were married at St. Felicitas Church.

St. Felicitas Church, 1526 E. 84th St., Chicago (IL).

Located at 1526 E. 84th St., the church is again only a short distance from the other landmarks, schools, and residences that I visited on my travels that day. I thoroughly enjoyed my adventure, touring my family’s Chicago neighborhoods, viewing first-hand the sites and locations that shaped my family’s narrative. Yet perhaps the most rewarding part of my journey will be when I sit down with my parents to share and discuss my trip and findings. Perhaps I’ll glean some new insight into their experiences there in the South Side or learn about new locales that I’ll explore on my next adventure to Chicago.

The Meeting of the Minds

Growing up, I was fortunate – blessed, really – to have all 4 of my grandparents in my life. My brother and I have hundreds of memories shared with the Alderson’s and Rzepczynski’s, whether in New Buffalo, Kalamazoo, or at Gravel Lake. Yet despite all the time we spent with each set of grandparents, there were precious few moments or gatherings where all 4 of them were together. Of course, there certainly were those moments before I was born, but as a child, the idea that all 4 grandparents would be together was quite extraordinary and exciting. Whether a graduation party or the summer get-together at Gravel Lake, those shared family events were always memorable.

I have very few images of my 4 grandparents together as I knew them later in their lives, although I do have a few photos of them separately or as adults years before. Here is a fairly recent one with my two grandfathers:

William Alderson and Leo Rzepczynski, April 1995.

This meeting of the grandfatherly minds was in the spring of 1995, likely at my college graduation party; William Alderson is on the left, and Leo Rzepczynski on the right. This gathering represents one of the last family functions where all 4 of my grandparents were together; William Alderson died in December 1997, and Leo’s wife Stella passed away in January 1997.

As a youngster, I always eagerly anticipated having my two grandfathers together, as there was sure to be some raucous storytelling, the occasional expletive, and plenty of laughs. Yet with my two grandfathers, one story always stood out.

Back in the day, driving near or around Gravel Lake, one grandfather apparently cut off the other. A car horn blast by the innocent grandfather was answered by the other with the universal hand gesture. What makes that exchange so funny is that neither man realized who the other party was until later. I don’t recall much more about the exchange, but two things I remember vividly are the absolute delight in my Grandpa Alderson’s voice as he retold and relived the story, and my Grandpa Rzepczynski’s uproarious laughter at being “fingered” as the guilty party.

I think of that terrific story every time I see a photo of the two men together, and in this case, the family story is perhaps even better than the image itself.

William the Fisherman

As a child, visiting my grandparents in New Buffalo, Michigan was always something my brother and I looked forward to. Upon arrival, we would run straight to the family photo albums and peruse through the new pictures. My grandmother had the charming tendency to photograph every visitor and/or stranger, whether a carpet installer or grand-child, so there were always new photos to be had!

My brother and I would then spend a lot of time in the lower level of the house, away from our parents’ watchful eyes. Downstairs, now that was where the serious fun was – cards, TV, board games, and the like. In that same room were several paintings, including portraits of my grandparents and one of an unknown fisherman holding his catch of the day. As I got older and became more curious, I learned the fisherman was actually my great-grandfather, William Alderson, and the painting was based on a photograph taken at Gravel Lake, near Lawton, Michigan. Here is an image of the painting on the wall.

Painting of William Alderson, photo taken c. 1966

William Alderson was born in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania in July 1894, joined the National Guard in 1917 and later served in France during World War I, and after returning to the United States, married Julia Kamp in November 1919. Their first child – William, my grandfather – was born in 1922 in Pittsburgh, and the family moved to Chicago soon thereafter. William – the fisherman – died in April 1951 and is buried in Bly Cemetery near Marcellus, Michigan, a short drive from Gravel Lake.

The fisherman painting clearly held a place of prominence at my grandparents’ house, and I regret not talking to my grandfather more about it and his family. Rather, his World War II stories were always more enthralling to me as a youngster.

One can imagine my excitement when I stumbled across an actual photograph of “the fisherman” during a visit with my great-aunt – a particularly gratifying find! Here is the actual photo of William Alderson, showing his catch of the day at Gravel Lake, taken c.1940.

William Alderson, c. 1940.

I’m no fisherman, but that’s an impressive catch….

“Looks As If We Had a Fight Here”

One of my all-time favorite family pictures is of my Grandma and Grandpa Alderson, sitting with all of their grandchildren, 5 of us at the time. Taken in the mid-1970’s, I was a young blond-haired toddler. Everyone in the picture, with one exception, has a look of absolute disgust, annoyance, and “I can’t believe I have to sit here for another picture.” My Grandma, on the other hand, looks as if she’d won the lottery, complete with a beaming million-dollar smile. Neither my brother or I remember the circumstances with that photo, but we both just love it.

I am reminded of that Alderson smile-fest when I look at another family gem, this one of a different line in the family. Sophus Hansen was born in Denmark in 1860, and after immigrating to the United States, settled in Chicago. He married Rose Grobner in 1895, and together, they lived at 7042 Kimbark Avenue in Chicago for nearly 50 years. Rose Grobner was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1878, and moved to Chicago with her family around 1890. Rose died in 1939, Sophus in 1945, and they are buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Chicago.

This photo of Sophus and Rose Hansen was taken sometime in the late 1920’s. Their expressions are priceless, and reminiscent of the Alderson photo mentioned above.

Sophus and Rose Hansen, c. late 1920's.

To top it off, there is a caption written on the back of the photo: “Looks as if we had a fight here.” I love it! Based on their body language, Sophus did not fare well in the exchange with his beloved Rose, and she looks particularly delighted with the course of events. Perhaps he “can’t believe I have to sit here for another picture.”

A missing Kamp

With the release of the 1940 Census now less than 40 days away (!), many researchers are anxiously awaiting the opportunity to explore the records, make new discoveries, and reconnect with lost ancestors.

In my research, there is one couple I am particularly anxious to reconnect with. Frank and Mary Kamp lived in Washington County, Pennsylvania (about 15 miles south of Pittsburgh) at the time of the 1920 Census. Here is the Kamp family in 1920: Frank, Mary, Albert, Jane, and Julia with her husband William Alderson.

The Kamp family, 1920 Census, Peters Twp., Washington Co., PA (ED 209, p. 2B)

Following that enumeration, however, I have been unable to find evidence of either Frank or Mary in any records. By 1930, their son Albert had moved to California, daughter Jane had remained in the Pittsburgh area, and daughter Julia had moved to Chicago. Yet Frank and Mary have continually evaded detection and proven to be my genealogy kryptonite.

The one question from the 1940 Census that I’m most interested in is the “In what place did this person live on April 1, 1935?” query. Think about the value of that question! Given the post-1920 gap in my research, this question could unlock the mysteries surrounding my Kamp research.

Over the years, I’ve had several promising leads and a few educated guesses about Frank and Mary’s whereabouts in 1930 and beyond, but nothing has ever panned out. I’m hoping that, if still alive then, they will represent my first 1940 Census research triumph. Here’s hoping the 1930 Kamp mystery will finally be solved a decade later!

Intersecting Ancestors

Our family narratives are full of fascinating stories of heroism, romance, joy, tragedy, and so much more. These dramatic tales become even more compelling when our ancestors’ lives overlap at unexpected moments, events, or places across generations. In my family, one such intersection occurred before and during World War I, in the deep waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

Stanislaus Piotrowski, my paternal great-grandfather, immigrated to the United States aboard the liner S.S. President Grant, arriving at Ellis Island on April 15, 1909. Originally from Kolo in Russian Poland, Piotrowski lived briefly in Chicago before getting married and starting a family in Gary, Indiana. Here is a snip from his arrival record, showing his name, age, and occupation.

Closeup of Stanislaw Pietrowski arrival record at New York, 15 April 1909.

The President Grant was constructed in 1907 in Belfast, Ireland, and served the Hamburg-America Line for several years until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Here is a picture of the ship taken in 1919, courtesy of the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command.

USS President Grant, c. 1919

The President Grant remained in New York until the United States entered the war, was then transferred to the U.S. Navy, and during the course of the war, ferried nearly 40,000 troops through the treacherous waters of the Atlantic Ocean and to the European battlefields.

William Alderson, my maternal great-grandfather, enlisted in the Pennsylvania National Guard in April 1917. Originally from Mount Lebanon, Pennsylvania (just south of Pittsburgh), Alderson served overseas during World War I, largely in Paris with the Finance Division of the Ordnance Department. The 19 February 1918 excerpt from Alderson’s diary, written aboard the USS George Washington during his Atlantic voyage en route to France, reads: “I awoke this morning at 6:45, dressed, I went to the deck to see the ocean, there was no land in sight….All I could see was water on every side and the water was rough….There is seven other ships besides our own, three of them are the, DeKalb, Pres. Grant and Pres. Lincoln, they are very good ships and carrying soldiers on board. It is estimated that 30,000 troops on board the ships and it some of the ships are carrying mules and cargoes of supplies.”

What a great story! The ship that carried one great-grandfather to the United States was in the same troop convoy that brought another great-grandfather back over to Europe to serve his country. I never anticipated that Piotrowski-Alderson would overlap as they did; indeed, nearly 50 years after the President Grant intersection, Stanislaus Piotrowski’s grandson would marry William Alderson’s granddaughter, linking the families together on the pedigree chart.

As my research continues, I look forward to discovering new connections, remote or otherwise, in my family’s journeys through the generations.