Coming to and Being In America in the 19th & 20th Centuries … Now the 21st
When Joan asked me to prepare something regarding Coming to and Being In America, I thought, I just read my 97 year old mother’s memoirs written in 2009, to her out loud while staying with her in Waukesha, Wisconsin this summer. At first when I told her I had printed them out, my sister Joan had transcribed them back in 2010, and made them available to me and my 3 brothers, 5 siblings in all, she, my mother, complained she couldn’t remember anything, but miraculously as I read them out loud, she was correcting items and adding missing facts as she became engrossed in her own story. And what was her story of Coming to/ Being in America?
My mother Grace Dorothy Schimmelpenny McCarthy, was born in a boxcar in Fiborn Junction, Michigan in 1924. Fourteen of the 16 live births of her mother, Emma Winters Schimmelpenny, were in that same boxcar. A boxcar, you say? A boxcar! The Fiborn Company, (Named after owners Wm. Fitch and Chase Osborn) offered the boxcars, de-wheeled and with appropriate windows and doors cut into them, to workers who would come to the “German Worker’s Paradise” in the wilderness of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and work the limestone quarrying operations starting in 1904. My grandfather, William Schimmelpenny, saw the paper hand flyer distributed throughout the Midwest and Europe, heeded the call, and packed up his wife and 2 daughters born in Appleton, Wis and moved north. My grandmother cried all the way on the train with two toddlers and all their earthly belongings. They lived in the same boxcar from 1904 to 1928, 24 years in a boxcar. No roads into Fiborn Junction except for the railroads until corduroy roads were built years later. About 65 families lived there during its 26 year history. There was also a boarding house for “single” men who worked there, a one room schoolhouse, and a “company store”, 16 tons and what do you get another day older and deeper in debt, St Peter don’t you call me cuz I can’t go, I owe my soul to the company store. Traveling salesman and preachers would arrive by train to sell their particular goods since once you were there, there was no way out. When my mother was 4 years old, in 1928 when the quarrying operations were winding down, the family moved to Milan, Michigan near Ann Arbor where my mother’s older sisters, she had never even met, had moved and left home when they got married. In Milan, the family lived in a real house with indoor plumbing, electricity, a gas stove and a wringer washer. Luxury. Didn’t last long. With the ongoing presence of the great depression, work dried up, and by 1933 the family moves back to the UP [upper peninsula] to work harvesting pulpwood or working in the CCC [Civil Conservation Corps] planting forests. Fiborn Junction is now a ghost town, with the quarrying operations shut down. Moran, where family on both sides live, is the logical choice for the return. My mother, Grace, had gone through the 3rd grade in Milan. In Moran’s 4 room school, she will finish the 8th grade at 16 yrs old in 1940. She will live in the wood frame house with cardboard walls and tar paper brick siding until she begs her mother to leave home and go to live with relatives in Port Huron where she will survive doing child care and restaurant work. She regrets not going to high school, I point out, there was no high school to go to, but does not regret escaping to a better life. Both of my grandparents lived out their days in the tarpaper shack with no running water they had lived in since 1934. They didn’t even have a well and water had to be toted from a town pump about 100 yards away. The children had to do that work. My mother has stated repeatedly the most important invention of the 20th century is the washing machine. After hauling wash water, heating it on a wood stove and scrubbing clothes on a washboard from 1934 to 1940, she knows of what she speaks.
But I digress, and I won’t even get into my father’s side of the family except for my grandmother, Nellie Boudreau McCarthy, a French Canadian orphan born in New Brunswick, and adopted? [no one is sure] into the Amos Boudreau family in Tomahawk, WIS. [All of her many brothers & sisters were born in Tomahawk or thereabouts]. My mother Grace and her sister aunt TOOTS [Emma Lydia] worked for Nellie McCarthy at the Trail Lunch in Sault Ste Marie, Michigan during the war. Nellie used to take my mother and Aunt Toots to Canada every Sunday, the one day off at the Trail Lunch, for a meal, shopping and smuggling hamburger back into the states. Due to food rationing during the war, Nellie could not get enough meat to satisfy the 100s of soldiers who would come in to Trail Lunch before returning to base. [the US was sure the Japanese were somehow going to bomb the Soo locks and therefore stationed 1000s of soldiers in the SOO.] My mother swears she never participated in the smuggling of the meat, and Nellie somehow was able to handle 20 to 30 lbs. of hamburger herself? In a very large handbag? a snood? Steak tartare chapeau? Nellie, tells her last unmarried son, Maurice James McCarthy [my father has always disliked his French name, and insisted all his sons Michael, Patrick, Kevin and Barry have Irish names, and so it was] So Nellie asks Maurice her last unmarried son to come to Sault Ste Marie to help with the books. Indeed. He does, he meets my mother [who is sure that Nellie is up to something] and they get married 6 months later on New Year’s Eve in 1944 in Sault Ste. Marie. And travel overnight to Milwaukee, to begin their married life living with Aunt Kay and Uncle Cam, their 2 children, my father’s sister Aunt Pat [still alive also 97] and a girlfriend. 8 people under 1 roof. Housing was in short supply during and after the war.
And my father was the only boy in his family to finish or even go to high school. Hence, the importance of all of my brothers and sisters getting a good education. And so it was. But the end piece of all of this, and my appreciation of what I have in my privileged life of college degreeing in secondary ed with an English Broad Field major and Journalism and Theatre minors is something that happened in 1983. Having already finished my formal teaching work in 1979 and preparing for my life in the theatre, I knew my parents had never entered a library in their adult lives. I planned to get them library cards for their 40th wedding anniversary. Something they would never get themselves. I did all the paperwork at the library. I had to wait for the official cards to be made up. I went back to the library at the appointed time. I asked for the cards. They told me only those people with their names on the cards could pick them up.
So, instead of presenting the actual cards to them, I made another card for their anniversary and let them know I had registered them both for library cards that were awaiting them at the Waukesha Public Library. An awkward silence ensued. They thanked me. But, they never picked up the cards. Was the barrier to entry to the entity known as library, so intense, they couldn’t pick up the cards themselves? My mother is a reader, and now gets books from the library lady who visits her non-assisted care Berkshire living facility in Waukesha on a monthly basis. Large print of course, and she tells me about what she’s reading. She even read Grapes of Wrath years ago and talked about how much the story seemed like her own. My father toward the end of his life, even started going to the library to do family genealogical research. The only books he read were about sports.
How do we all get to where we are? It’s a mystery to me but I am appreciative of those from whom I spring Coming and Being here in America. Where else could we be?