Monday, August 25, 2014

A Story of Poverty and Redemption

A few weeks ago, I shared about my grandmother Ethel's family and the rich tradition my cousins and I inherited from her. You can read about that family here.

But today I have a different story to tell. It's about my grandfather Guy - the one who married Ethel.

Guy didn't have a happy childhood.

Etta Maude, around 1900

Guy's mother, Etta Maude, was an orphan. She and her brother were raised by a childless Swedish couple who lived northwest of Topeka, Indiana. When Etta Maude learned she was pregnant in the spring of 1901, one of the men she had dated, Eugene, went ahead and married her. He didn't know who the baby's father was, but there was a possibility it might be his.

Guy was born in 1902, and his brother Orville in 1903. In 1908, against her doctor's advice, Etta Maude became pregnant again. She died on November 4, 1908, not knowing she had given birth to a daughter the previous day.

Guy (left) and Orville (right), 1905.
Don't you love the curls and dresses?

Grandpa Eugene did as many others did in those days and in his situation. He placed the baby and his two sons in an orphanage. The baby was adopted and the boys remained in the Rogers Home for the rest of their growing up years.

Grandpa Eugene, Orville (left) and Guy (right), just a couple
weeks after Etta Maude's death - the day the children
went to the Rogers Home.
Guy later told my grandmother that he remembered
this day..."he could hardly keep back
the tears long enough to have the picture taken."

The Roger's Home for the Orphaned Poor near Topeka, Indiana

During the next several years, Grandpa Eugene (the boy's father) worked as a day laborer, living in hotels as he moved from place to place around northern Indiana and southern Michigan. He seemed to be quite popular with the ladies, and was known as "Slim."

The front porch of the Topeka Hotel. "Slim" is the young man with
the suitcase on the left.

Meanwhile, once the boys were old enough to work, they were sent out to area farmers as indentured servants. They attended school (through eighth grade) and Sunday School in Topeka.

Once he reached the age of sixteen, Guy was on his own. He worked here and there for a few years, but then found a job working for a farmer in a neighboring county. This job changed his life.

John and Barbara Pancake in front of their home south of
Topeka, Indiana. There's no date with this photo, but I would guess
it was taken around 1915.

This farmer and his wife, John and Barbara Pancake, became substitute parents for Guy and they treated him like an adopted son. Even after John Pancake died, Barbara remained a second mother for Guy and "grandma" for his children.

Of all the people who influenced his life, the Pancakes seemed to have had the most profound effect. First of all, they provided a loving, stable home for him - his first - during his late teen years when it was so sorely needed. Second, they prepared him and helped him to be reconciled with his father. Third, they helped lay the spiritual foundation that prepared him to meet Pastor C.C. Cripe, of the Bremen Church of the Brethren.

Pastor Cripe had an even further influence on the troubled young man. He became Guy's mentor and life-long friend.

Later, when he moved to Shipshewana, he met Pastor George Sherck - my great-grandfather, and the father of his future wife.

But that isn't the end of the story. What about the other players?

Orville, Guy's younger brother, ran away from the Roger's Home when he turned sixteen. After years of working and traveling, he eventually moved back to the mid-west to be reunited with his father and brother. The brothers' early life affected both of them differently. Orville's daughter wrote, "...the two brothers agreed that they were mistreated in the Rogers Home. It carried over into their adult life. Uncle Guy reached for the Bible and my dad reached for the bottle."

Grandpa Eugene married one of those many girls who knew him as "Slim" in 1913. But in February 1914, they were invited to a revival meeting at the Topeka German Baptist Brethren Church (now Church of the Brethren). Eugene and May were baptized into that church, and it changed their lives completely. Grandpa Eugene enthusiastically embraced the church's Plain dress and strict lifestyle and served as deacon. It was said that when it was time to pray, it was a race to see whose knees hit the floor first - Grandpa Eugene's or the pastor's!

Grandpa Eugene and May in the 1920's. This smiling
man is the Grandpa I remember.

There's one more player in this story. Do you remember that baby girl who was born on November 3, 1908? The one who Grandpa Eugene put up for adoption during those dark days?

Guy told Ethel that he was working on a car in a garage in 1926 when Orville came in and said he wanted Guy to meet his wife. Guy cleaned up a little and went out to the car. He didn't know until he was told that this was his sister. They had written to each other and exchanged gifts after Ruth was told she had been adopted and had two brothers. Because Orville traveled around so much he had often worked in or near Chicago and had looked up his sister, but Guy hadn't seen her since a couple years after she had been adopted, when she was only a toddler and he was eight. They had been apart for eighteen years, but from that time on they were very close.

The reunion! From left to right: Orville, Ruth and Guy.
This picture appeared in the South Bend Tribune along
with the story of their reunion.

 Even though my grandfather's childhood was rough, sad and at times tragic, I can see God's hand working in his life. He and my grandmother didn't have an easy time - they married in 1928 and struggled all through the Depression and during the years afterward - but they raised a wonderful family.

Back row, left to right: Martha, Guy, James, John, Ethel.
Front row: Waneta and Nancy.
If you've read A Mother for His Children, you might recognize
some of those names :)
Guy passed away before I was born, so I never met him. I do know that he had only one real regret - that he didn't have enough schooling to learn to be a minister. It had been a desire of his even before he married. But he instilled a love for the Lord and service to the church in his children, along with a desire for education. All of them are active in their churches, and both of his sons became ministers.

And since here at the cafe we talk about food, I searched and searched to try to find out what his favorite food might have been. But, you know, as poor as he was as he was growing up, I don't think he had the luxury of being fussy about food! However, I did find this quote from an essay my grandmother wrote for her children after he died:

"By the time he was old enough to help do chores on a farm he was taken out of the home by Mr. and Mrs. Kauffman. They had no children of their own so needed some help with their work. They thought of adopting him but Grandpa didn't want to sign the papers. They were good to him but lacked the personal feeling people have for their own. 

Mrs. Kauffman was 'old-maidish' to put it in Daddy's words. She never seemed to understand a growing boy needed more to eat than her husband. Grape-nut cereal was just on the market and Daddy was very fond of it. She only dished out a small portion, just what she thought he needed.  He could hardly wait until he could eat as much as he wanted."

Every time I see a box of Grape-nuts, I think about my grandfather, his childhood, and the wonderful story of redemption told in his life.

And it's stories like these that made me want to be a writer. The more I read and hear about my family history, the more stories start taking shape in my imagination.

And then I start wondering - what stories am I living that my grandchildren will tell about me? Hmm.....


  1. How fascinating! (And my grandpa loved Grape-Nuts. I wonder if it's because it was a new thing back then?)
    This line gave me pause:
    "In 1908, against her doctor's advice, Etta Maude became pregnant again."
    Well, it takes two. I suppose a lot of women "went against" their doctor's advice because their husbands weren't on board with their decisions. Perhaps it could be "against her doctor's advice, Eugene got Etta pregnant again", lol. Gets everybody in the picture.
    This is fascinating history, Jan. Thanks so much for sharing it with us!

    1. And don't you wonder if the knowledge of timing was as well known then? Or if Etta really wanted a daughter? Or (and most likely!) it was a great, moon-lit night????? But how sad to lose her like that.... The background for Sarah, Plain and Tall is set around Jacob's need for a son to help run the farm, and that was his guilt in the movie version. Unstated in the book for children, but you can totally see the guilt a man might have for that loss.

      And yet, giving up the children..... I'd haunt Dave.

      I'd find a way.

      Snarky Yankee

    2. Ooops, did I erase my reply?

      Anyway, trying again.

      I think they might have known more than we do in this age of modern medicine. Or a very cold night and that old wood stove didn't reach far enough. That's why most of my kids have birthdays in the summer. Kidding! Sort of.
      As for haunting, I tell my husband he has my blessing to marry again if I die. BUT if he chooses a mean woman (meaner than me) who treats my children badly, I WILL FIND HIM.
      He hails from the mountain folk of central Mexico. He has dozens of stories about family curses, hauntings, food secretly infused with love/hate, etc. It doesn't take much.
      Which is nice, because he ignores my harping so utterly in these living years. At least I know he'll finally put the cap on the toothpaste when I'm gone.

    3. LOL, Virginia!!! :) I'm laughing so hard at you coming to find him and him believing you! :)

    4. Missy, not to make him sound crazy, but if I'm mad, he doesn't let me cook his food. That's a very powerful superstition among his people, that the person cooking for you can alter your feelings or health. You know, "Like Water for Chocolate".
      It's great because when I'm having a bad day, he really doesn't wan me to cook dinner. LOL

  2. Oh, I love Grape Nuts, too!!! Jan, this is a wonderful story, the poignancy of the brothers, their loss of their mother and the little sister.... So many stories from those times have the father or grandparents giving up the children. I wonder why that was? Was it a money thing or a social stigma thing? Or just tired of raising children?

    I see how many grandparents today are raising the children of unstable children and I wonder if this current trend isn't so new, maybe... but there are no orphanages handy.

    Thank you so much for sharing this! Who needs food with heartfelt stories like this??????

    1. Well, if he was going from job to job, and sleeping in boarding houses, I don't think he could have taken them with him. I think I had a great grandfather who was a day laborer, but he sometimes traveled for weeks to a job and then back, especially in farming season.

  3. What a blessing to have the stories, the pictures, the lineage of faith!!!!! I would have thought you could have put up a pancake recipe. Never heard of that as a last name. So good.

    1. One of my best friend in grade school is named Pancake. And her parents own a big construction business named... Pancake Construction. Their logo is a pancake stack of about 50 pancakes. Cute.

  4. What an amazing story and what pictures. I knew it was you, Jan, from the first picture. They look like you. Wow.

    1. I agree, Tina!! That was my first thought!

  5. They knew timing back then Ruth. It just didn't always work. I always feel sorry for women in the 19th century.
    Thank you for this post and the wonderful photos and stories. I hope that you are writing about all of this Jan--it's excellent stuff!

    1. Right. And the little-known fact that there was a five day window on either side of those dates because of the longevity of the... ahem... health class is adjourned.

    2. Exactly. It's not like timing is exact for a lot of us, and while I know there was general knowledge, well... I can totally see unexpected babies coming into being.

      Where's a good mail order bride when you need one??????

      What beautiful siblings they were.

    3. My favorite picture is the three children grown up. They seem to own their happiness!

  6. Love the story and the photos! I absolutely drool over old black-and-white photos, especially when you know who the people are. Thank you for sharing your wonderful and at-times not-so-wonderful family history, Jan. And I agree with Piper--"I hope that you are writing about all of this..."!

  7. Loved reading this addition to your story Jan, it makes me think of my own grandparents, I think I'll pull out my ancestry box and have a look at my past too.

    1. Tracey, I hope you get some good story ideas!

  8. Oh my goodness, Jan, I'm all a goosebumpy because I can see how God played a part in your ancestors's lives the way you've laid theyir story out. And totally envious over the rich, details of your heritage. And the pictures. What a legacy! i let out a cry of horror though over the orphanage scenario. How heartbreaking!!!!!!! Sniffle

    1. I know, Kav. So sad. I guess men felt they didn't have a choice back then. Especially if he traveled for his work.


  9. Oh -- and you have to put all this in a book, you know? Guy has to be a hero in fiction as well as in real life.

  10. I think ipad ate my post!
    I also wondered about 'she became pregnant' - surprised she wasn't before then with that ladies' man! I haven't done any research on the subject but exactly how were they not supposed to get pregnant other than the obvious not doing anything which is a pretty tough th ing to ask of a young couple...
    loved reading the story! :-)

    1. and why didn't he get his kids back when he remarried? or remarried sooner? poor kids

    2. I wonder if his new wife wasn't up for taking in two half-grown kids whom she didn't know at all...

    3. well I don't have kids never really wanted kids but I'll be darned if I married someone and found out his kids were abandoned in an orphanage..wouldtn think much of myself if I let them stay :-( now if they'd been adopted and happy with a new family that's one thing but stuck unhappy in an abusive orphanage? but hey it's easy to say that now in these days and times LOL! back then with things uncertain who knows might have done the same thing. easy to look back and point out others' shortcomings-according-to-susanna you know?! still can't imagine leaving my kids in an orphanage

    4. That just makes me love you all the more, Susanna. :) I could never have left children in an orphanage, either, even if they weren't mine. heck, I can't even walk through the Humane Society without getting teary. I want to take them ALL.

  11. What an amazing story, Jan! And you're right, through good times and bad, God was at work in Guy's life. I LOVE that!

    As for the Grape Nuts, I'll always think of Euell Gibbons. :)

  12. Oh, Jan, that photo of Eugene with his boys made me cry! How very sad. And what an amazing story. Yes, I think that definitely inspires you to write!

    1. It made me cry, too. I just can't imagine. What a blessed life we lead today, that there are ways to keep families together.

  13. Thanks for keeping the conversation going, gang!

    That last pregnancy of Maude's was always a big barrier between Guy and his father. Guy blamed Eugene for Maude's death - but I've always wondered. I've seen pictures of the two boys in the beautiful clothes Maude made for them, and it seems she was a wonderful mother. Did she have such a desire for more children - and maybe thought the years between Orville's birth and the new baby had changed her health - and was willing to take a chance?

    We'll never know. I'm just glad Guy and Eugene reconciled later on.

    We drove through Middlebury and Shipshewana today, and had breakfast at Das Essenhaus. Yes, cornmeal mush and head cheese. Biscuits and sausage gravy. Fresh baked donuts. Mmmm........

    And plenty of Amish sightings. I hope my pictures turned out!

    - Jan

    1. Jan, do you take pictures of the Amish? I've always second-guessed myself about that and then I was traveling with a Seeker who shall remain nameless. Anyway this Seeker's wisdom was "If you don't want folks to take your picture, stop dressing funny."

      I suppose I hadn't looked at it quite so pragmatically before, but it made sense, LOL!

    2. LOL. It makes me think of a story one of my priest friend tells. He was on the Ny subway wearing his Dominican robes and a kid with a green mohawk and piercings was staring, staring, staring. Finally, the kid edged up to him and asked, "Hey, not to be rude, but... are you for real?"
      And my friend said, "I guess I am, and hey, not a problem. In fact, I'm glad you finally came over here because I wanted to ask you the same thing."