Ernest Arthur Laney (1889-1958) was my father’s paternal grandfather. He was a miner in the lead and zinc mines that at one time dotted the landscapes of Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma.
One generation further removed on my father’s maternal side, his great grandfather, David Williamson (1846-1908) was also a miner. David Williamson, along with numerous brothers and sons, had been coal miners in Scotland before immigrating to this country. They worked in these same mines and, as recent immigrants, they were probably particularly desperate for this work and qualified to do little else.
While the working conditions and health hazards of this particular segment of workers has not gotten as much attention as has the plight of coal workers, those who mined ore were no less vulnerable to exploitation by their employers.
Eagle-Picher Mining and Smelting Company was a conglomerate that owned many of the mines in the tri-state area. My great grandfather Laney worked for this company. At least one of his assignments was to a mine near Picher, Oklahoma.
While those who worked in lead and zinc mines did not suffer the effects of Black Lung disease, there were inherent dangers in their work environment nonetheless.
My father remembers as a child playing, climbing up and sliding down the huge piles of “chat”—the detritus brought up with the ore. The toxins contained in these erstwhile playgrounds of by-product had yet to be discovered.
Eventually, Picher was declared a Superfund site, and the town in which my father was born is no longer in existence. My father and I shared a heart-breaking documentary that details the environmental destruction wreaked by the tri-state mining industry upon Picher and the subsequent abandonment and condemnation of this once vital community. The film is entitled The Creek Runs Red, and I highly recommend it.
As members of a collective bargaining unit, my great grandfather and fellow Eagle-Picher miners had the backing of a labor union in combating such environmental work hazards and in negotiating for better pay on their behalf. Eagle-Picher miners were members of Local 861 of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers (which later merged with United Steel Workers of America.)
I am proud to have recently discovered, through researching newspapers of the time, that my great grandfather was personally involved in negotiations on behalf of those Eagle-Picher miners, successfully securing a new collective bargaining agreement in 1946.
Jennie Taylor Harding was one of nine children born to John McKeney Taylor, Sr., born in Massachusetts, and Meta Christina Asmussen Taylor who was born in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany. Meta immigrated to Kansas with her family around 1870.
On January 1, 1907, Jennie married Reginald Harding in Junction City, Kansas. The couple spent their early years of marriage touring with various musical and theatrical troups, and in fact their first child, Gladys, was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, during a tour of the Western states.
It seems that Reginald led an interesting life, finding work in various unrelated ways.
He raised poultry.
He worked in a cigar store in Topeka.
He was a performing artist.
His singing and acting talents were utilized in performances and tours in which Jennie was also involved. In fact, their oldest daughter, Gladys, was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, during one of the couples’ tours.
He was employed by and later owned and managed a Standard Oil gasoline station in Wakefield, Kansas.
Reginald Harding passed away on January 2, 1956, at the age of 70. He was predeceased by Jennie.
Surviving were his three children and seven grandchildren, four of whom are pictured here.
Reginald Harding is buried in Highland Cemetery in Junction City, Kansas.
Newspaper clippings from The Junction City Daily Union and The Junction City Weekly Union.
Twenty-two years ago last night I was standing in my kitchen when I felt a deluge of warm water plunge all at once down my inner thighs, instantly soaking my clothes and creating a sizable puddle on the kitchen floor.
My water had broken.
My obstetrician had examined me only a few days earlier, boldly stating at the time, “This baby’s going to TERM!” Armed with that information, I figured I had the next two weeks until my due date to continue preparing my “nest” as well as to complete an embroidery project that had occupied a lot of my leisure time that summer. I began stitching “September” on the counted cross-stitch baby sampler that was now, like my baby, very near completion.
What I had not remembered (or hadn’t known previously) is that medical wisdom of the time dictated that once the mother’s water had broken, if labor did not happen on its own within twenty-four hours, labor would be induced. It was not advisable for the safety of the fetus for it to remain in utero without the protection of the amniotic sac and fluids.
Apparently having utter confidence in her prediction of several more weeks’ gestation, my obstetrician had taken a hiatus. And so it was that the obstetrician on call was the one to return my phone message. She prepared me for a night of cramping and bleeding and instructed my husband and me to meet her at Mount Sinai Hospital early the following morning.
I went to sleep that night (or tried anyway!) thinking, “Tomorrow I will have a baby!”
I now knew that my baby’s birthdate would be August 28, 1997!
The “September” stitches were easily pulled out at a later time.
I know that it is not uncommon, especially when the health of the mother or baby is concerned, to be given a date by which a mother might be induced or a C Section performed; nonetheless, it was a unique feeling to have gotten into bed that night thinking that, whatever other tasks I would perform the following day, I was going to give birth!
I recently read an article in the Science section of the New York Times in which I discovered that at least some in the medical community are now questioning the wisdom of this practice. In the article, entitled 10 Findings That Contradict Medical Wisdom. Doctors, Take Note, the author states:
If a pregnant woman’s water breaks prematurely, the baby does not have to be delivered immediately.
The author went on to explain,
Sometimes, a few weeks before a woman’s due date, the membrane surrounding her fetus ruptures and amniotic fluid spills out. Obstetricians worried that bacteria could invade what had been a sterile environment around the fetus, causing infection. Better to deliver the baby immediately, doctors thought. But a clinical trial found that if obstetricians carefully monitor the fetus while waiting for labor to begin naturally, the fetus is at no greater risk for infection. And newborns left to gestate were healthier, with less respiratory distress and a lower risk of death, than those who were delivered immediately after a break.
I find it fascinating that, even one generation later, a common practice associated with childbirth is now being reconsidered and that some medical practitioners now consider the practice unnecessary at best and detrimental to the development of the fetus at worst.
In the thousands of documents, personal stories and, sadly, photos of infant grave markers I have come across in plotting my family tree, it’s astonishing to me how problematic and fatal childbirth was not all that long ago.
In my research, I have found so many cases of still births, often with the mother’s date of death being the same as her infant’s. Thankfully, that was not the case with my maternal great great grandmother. She did, however, live to mourn the loss of five of the thirteen children born to her.
Jannet White Mathews (1831-1915) was one of ten children born to Thomas Mathews and Nancy White Ross Mathews in Ballymoney, County Antrim, Ireland. She and her family came to American when she was eight years old, joining others of their Covenanter faith in a community in Southwestern Illinois. At the age of nineteen, Jannet married a fellow church member, Robert Beattie Cathcart.
Life in rural Illinois was a harsh one to begin with, but my great great grandmother also lost five children there. Perhaps thinking that a change of venue would help his distraught wife, my great great grandfather and grandmother and their five surviving children relocated to Eastern Kansas, leaving behind her parents and all but one of her siblings. (A brother of Jannet’s also chose to move to Kansas.)
She also left behind the graves of her four children who had died in infancy and that of a daughter that had died at the age of three.
In Kansas, the couple would have three more children, and they both lived to see those children prosper and have their own families.
According to family lore, Jannet never really recovered from the loss of those children and, before departing for Kansas, she had instructed a family member to erect suitable gravestones for each of them, promising to send money for that purpose at a later date.
Her strong desire to see her young children given proper burials was realized. This photo of the five small markers holds a certain poignancy for me. On the one hand, looking at the photo, I feel a sense of hope that perhaps the existence of these markers had given my great great grandmother some sense of peace and closure; but viewing the photo also stirs in me a sadness that must be a mere taste of what had to have been her tremendous sense of loss and heartache.
While today is a celebration of the day I safely gave birth to a healthy baby girl, I have never lost sight of the miracle that the birth of my child truly was.
Thankfully, dramatic advancements in science and diagnostic medicine since my great great grandmother’s time have made pregnancy and childbirth safer and healthier for mother and baby. Sophisticated methods of monitoring the fetus in utero and the prevalence of neonatal intensive care units have also resulted in reduced infant mortality rates.
Advances in medical technology are not the only technological advances that have changed the labor experience, however. As my ob-gyn often remembers to mention when I see her–even over twenty years after she assisted me in my daughter’s birth–that day marked the very first time she had ever seen a digital camera.
Yes, my husband and I were early adopters and had one of the very first digital cameras that came out. One look at the pixelated photos with slightly “off” colors above and at the top of this post, taken in my hospital room, is a reminder not only of how much more sophisticated digital photography has become since 1997 but also of the fact that today’s high resolution images and video are widely available on cellphones, devices seemingly ubiquitous to twenty-first century living.
While the advancement in medicine and the encouraging statistics might logically result in “routine” births being taken for granted, one would do well to remember the true miracle that is the cycle of pregnancy, childbirth, and the extremely rapid growth changes the infant undergoes in its first year of life.
I know I will NEVER forget the miracle of your arrival into the world, dearest daughter. And I will always enjoy celebrating that date just as much as you do.
And I like to think that perhaps I even got to meet you two weeks earlier than I would have if common medical wisdom twenty-two years ago had been what it is today!
My maternal grandfather, Clifford Lorraine Harding, was born on this day in 1909 in Junction City, Kansas. He was a successful farmer in Northeastern Kansas. I fondly remember visiting my grandparents at their home in Lawrence, and I particularly enjoyed going there in the summertime. While my granddad had a large commercial farm outside of town, he also had a farm on my grandparents’ very large personal property. Granddad’s backyard garden stretched at least seventy-five yards out from my grandparents’ storm porch. Whenever our visits included staying for dinner during the summer months, my brother and I got to go with Granddad to his garden to pick vegetables for supper.
My grandfather taught my brother and me how to distinguish when ears of sweet corn were ripe: when the color of their silks had turned brown but their husks were still green and the kernels were still “milky”. We also had to make sure that no worms had made their way inside the husks and eaten from the cob. We also learned how to tell when his large heirloom tomatoes–red, orange, and yellow–were ripe, and we were then allowed to pick what was needed from the vines. We also pulled radishes out of the ground. I have never acquired a taste for them, however.
We also picked pea pods. Although this was perhaps the most labor intensive task of all, I always loved the “plink, plink” sound of the individual peas hitting the bottom of the aluminum pail, after I had pried open their hulls.
Besides tending his own crops, my grandfather also helped other less fortunate farmers. My grandfather was a local agent for the Resettlement Administration as well as the federal program’s successors: the Farm Security Administration and the Farmers Home Administration. The RA, FSA, and FHA were New Deal initiatives, designed to assist those in need of assistance due to the effects of the Dust Bowl and the Depression. These initiatives followed passage of the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938– “An Act to provide for the conservation of national soil resources and to provide an adequate and balanced flow of agricultural commodities in interstate and domestic commerce and for other purposes“–essentially a modification of the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933.
As an experienced farmer and a person familiar with the needs of the agricultural community, my grandfather was hired by the government to serve as an intermediary between local sharecroppers, tenants, and landowning farmers and the governmental agencies set up to assist them. From what I understand, his work was diverse. He served as an educator, advising farmers on the latest scientific discoveries related to agriculture, innovations in industrial equipment and farming practices, as well as on the governmental assistance available to them. He made suggestions regarding selection and rotation of crops, rotation of crops with livestock, and on matters such as irrigation and soil conservation. My grandfather counseled struggling farmers and made applications on their behalf in order to avoid foreclosure on their farms. In some cases, based upon his expertise and recommendation, the government chose to purchase sub-marginal land and to resettle farmers and their families on government-owned group farms. (See article above.)
Here are a handful of local newspaper clippings, dating from 1940 to 1968, that mention my grandfather’s activities on behalf of the farmers of Jefferson, Allen, and Douglas Counties:
There were conflicting opinions on the advisability of the government taking on this level of responsibility, just as public sentiment today varies on matters of federal assistance. A Supreme Court case and subsequent legislation necessitated changes to the structure and financing of the initial agency: the Resettlement Administration. In 1937, the program was transferred to the Department of Agriculture and became the Farm Security Administration. For various reasons, the FSA’s role was later reduced, and in 1944, the agency’s responsibilities were then transferred to the Office of War Information.
A highly detailed piece on the impact of World War II upon farmers with regard to the government’s needs, crop yields and types of crops or livestock, and price fixing is available here.
The establishment of programs to aid farmers was merely one of President Roosevelt’s many New Deal initiatives, of course.
Hired to document the initial work of the Resettlement Administration was a staff photographer named Roy Stryker. Stryker then stayed on with the subsequent agency, the FSA, leading its Information Division. In that capacity, he and his staff were responsible for a body of work that served as a testament to the plight of those living in poverty as well as evidence of the need for and the success of the New Deal initiatives. Stryker enlisted an entire team of photographers and writers, instructing them to document–in their own views and words–the conditions of poverty they encountered in both rural and inner-city America.
One of Stryker’s hand-picked photographers was a man by the name of Arthur Rothstein. Rothstein captured images of poverty from Alabama to Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, to Nevada, to Oregon. And it was Rothstein who captured these two images of my grandfather meeting with clients in Northeastern Kansas.
I was thinking recently of my grandfather’s work as well as of President Roosevelt’s interest in and efforts toward fostering a better understanding between those in need, the government, and the rest of America. This was prompted by my having read an Opinion piece in the New York Times.
The co-authors are advocates for re-examining federal aid to farmers, moving away from existing federal subsidies toward a system in which financial rewards would be given to those farmers who take on the additional cost and effort involved in adopting more ecological farming methods. Doing so, the writers argued, would simultaneously assist the agricultural community and enlist them in a tactical strategy for addressing climate change. They write,
Government programs like the current farm bill pit production against conservation, and doing the right thing for the environment is a considerable drain on a farmer’s bank account, especially when so many of them are losing money to low commodity prices and President Trump’s tariffs.
My grandfather passed away in 1976. He never heard the expression “global warming”. I’m not even sure that evidence of the phenomenon existed in the scientific community at that time. However, the first Earth Day had occurred in 1970, and he lived to see a handful more in his lifetime. Concern for the environment was at least in its infancy.
I do know how much my grandfather cared for the earth and its inhabitants as well as for those who work the earth. I also know that he believed in the government’s responsibility to address the sustainability of the soil, water sources, and the country’s natural resources in general. And I know that he knew first-hand how challenging the farming life is and how critical it is–for farmers, for our nation, and for our nation’s food supply–that our government is directly involved with the farming community.
Knowing all of the above, I am proud to think that, were he alive today, my grandfather would probably share the concerns of these two Iowa writers and others currently working to address issues pertaining to the farming industry and to the environment. I’m quite confident that he would be at the forefront of efforts to put farmers on the front lines of the war on climate change.
I was born in Winchester, Kansas, and grew up in Cherokee County, Oklahoma—the capitol of the Cherokee Indian Nation—where I learned a lot about the history of the Cherokee (Tsalagi) people.
One particularly fascinating tribal leader, Chief Sequoyah, created a system for writing the oral Cherokee language (Tsalagi Gawonihisdi.) The resulting “syllabary” of eighty-six characters was introduced in 1821 and was officially adopted by the tribe in 1825. It is said that the Cherokee’s literacy rate quickly surpassed that of surrounding European-American settlers.
Sequoyah’s dream of providing for his own people something akin to the white man’s “talking leaves” had been realized.
I’ve long loved the imagery conjured by Sequoyah’s term: documents that could literally speak. The term is a fitting metaphor for the intended purpose of this blog: to allow my ancestors to “speak” to me through documents I have assembled in researching my family tree.
My research has largely afforded me only a limited “dialogue” with previous generations. I have discovered a plethora of citations, licenses, records, and certificates connected to any one ancestor. Less frequently, I’ve located an obituary. Rarer still are the times I have unearthed written stories shared within the genealogy community at large. I’m fortunate to have amassed so many photographs in my endeavors, but even the sum of each of their “thousand words” have left me wanting more.
Thus, the objective of this blog is to combine this accumulated physical evidence, viewing it through the prism of both its historical context, twenty-first century perspective, and my own personal beliefs and philosophies and distilling from that personal and familial narratives.
Native Americans have a rich tradition of oral storytelling as do the Celts from whom I descend. In ancient Celtic society, bards held a position of esteem, second only to kings, says present-day Irish storyteller Marianne McShane. McShane explains that Bards memorized vast amounts of poetry which they performed live, and their poems and songs were often the only historical record available. Bards evolved into the traveling Irish storytellers known as the “seanchaí” (The Anglicized “shennachie” and variations thereof were used in the Scots language.)
Éamon Kelly, who brought the style of the seanchaí to Irish radio and television, wrote,
…the storyteller was the local historian and genealogist — a walking library, the repository of folk wisdom and culture.
My knowledge of history–even my own family history–pales in comparison to that of these storytellers of old, but if this post and those to follow capture a bit of the flavor of the oral storytelling tradition of my Scottish and Irish ancestors, my goal will have been met.