Monday, September 21, 2015

Irving Augustus Potwin: Outdoorsman (52 Ancestors #22)

Irving Augustus Potwin. Man of adventure. Born March 9, 1878 in Corning IA to Monroe Augustus Potwin and Ella Augusta Burt. Irv was the fourth of five children born to Monroe and Ella, and by all accounts had a mostly carefree middle-America-type childhood. His parents were well educated, well liked and successful in the community. His family lived in a large comfortable home with plenty of food on the table and clothing to wear.

It was not without a dark time or two, however. When Irv was 7 his older brother drowned while swimming one hot August day. This was the family's second loss of a child, their first child having died the summer of 1869 on their journey to Iowa.

When Irv's younger brother came along in 1892 his mother had started to become weak, and tired easily. She was weary and was unable to keep up with the daily household duties. His sister was summoned from New York City, where she was living, to care for their mother and baby brother.

 In 1893 Irv was sent to Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota to study on recommendation of his sister, who had taught there for a time. He stayed for two years, returning home on school breaks and holidays. He studied the classics as well as mathematics and business courses. Irv would tell stories of the severe winters he endured while in MN. From a recollection by his daughter "Before the winter months many structures were erected, which appeared to be scaffolds over all the walkways; one who lives through a winter in snow country is familiar with snow fences, but these strange looking skeletons were a puzzle until the snow storms arrived. The students and all residents walked on top of the snow by way of the high stilts"

When Irv was home on holiday he would be found in the company of Miss Carrie Elizabeth "Bess" Twining. The two were childhood friends, having attended church and Sunday School together as well as two years of Academy prior to Irv going to Minnesota. The courtship began in earnest when the two would walk home together at the end of the school day. Bess recalled "I used to see him in Sunday School and Irv would rest himself on the roof of the woodshed. I'd often see him for he would ride his huge bicycle and that was the way he'd get off it."

The couple was married on January 3, 1899 in the home of the bride.

Their first child, a daughter named Dorothy Irene "Dot" was born in 1900, and shortly after that Irv got the idea into his head to go to Oklahoma, a new territory, not yet a state. The plan was hatched between Irv and his long time friend Gus Nelson that they would venture to Oklahoma to establish a home, and return for Bess and baby Dot.

While in Oklahoma Irv contracted smallpox and was gravely ill for some time, delaying his return home to Iowa. When he did return, Oklahoma had made enough of an impression on him that he packed up his family and moved to Guthrie OK in 1901.

Irv and Gus
During this time Irv's mother had been getting progressively weaker and was finally given the diagnosis of cancer. In 1901 while Irv was in Oklahoma, his mother traveled to Chicago for an operation that would, hopefully, save her. It did not and she died in March, 1902.

In April of 1902, in Oklahoma Territory, Bess gave birth to their second child, a son named Kenneth. Irv had established himself as a house painter and teamed up with his friend Gus who was a carpenter. The two helped build the new community of Guthrie, OK. Later Irv started a water service, hauling barreled water and delivering it to the homes.

Sometime around 1903 Irv and Bess moved back to Iowa, settling in Des Moines. Irv's friend Gus had heard of a position for bank cashier at the Des Moines National Bank. Irv applied and was hired. His education in mathematics was what won him the position.

In 1904 the couple welcomed their third child, Elizabeth into their family. They had a fine, large home on College Ave, Irv was doing well at the bank, life was good.

In 1907 their son contracted measles and died. Irv left the bank to pursue accounting positions at various Des Moines businesses. Among them the Des Moines Brewing Company and Jaeger Manufacturing.

In 1910 Irv broke ground on a new two story house on 33rd St, at the western edge of Des Moines. There was much open country and the feeling of freedom and being close to nature. Irv was an outdoor man and enjoyed sports, so he had on his new property a fine clay court constructed for tennis. The streets were being paved at the time so Irv had the steam roller, being used for the road construction, driven on the new court to make it firm and even.

Irv fishing in Minnesota
Every fall Irv and Bess would head north on an annual hunting trip. His daughter recalls their home being filled with many trophies.

By 1916 the stirrings of war overseas was leaving Americans uneasy. In 1917 Irv and his family, like all the families in America at the time were talking about the Selective Service Act. Waiting and watching, Irv observed young men from Des Moines being called to fight. By September 1918 Irv was called to register for the draft. He was 40. He was never called to serve. However the family participated in the war effort in other ways, they dug up their fine clay tennis court to plant a potato field to supply food for themselves and the community.  Irv was now the president of Smith Silo Hardware Co.

After the war and the Armistice was signed, life returned to normal. Irv constructed a brand new house on the site of the former tennis court turned potato field and the family moved into it in 1920. That same year  Irv opened his own accounting office.  He worked for himself for the next 18 years.

The years of the "roaring twenties" were good for the family. Irv and Bess saw their daughters married and starting families of their own. In 1923, when their youngest wed, she remained in the home for a time with her new husband, giving birth to her first two children there. Irv and Bess would eventually becoming grandparents to nine grandchildren.

The story gets a little foggy around 1929. According to a memoir written by his daughter, Irv was said to have purchased a home for his in-laws upon his father in law's retirement. The census records and city directories show Irv and Bess residing in a 6 unit apartment building, in the same apartment as Bess's parents. The home on 33rd was occupied by another family. However, a year after his in law's pass away, Irv and Bess are once again in their home on 33rd. Did Irv, in fact, purchase the apartment building? Why didn't the in-law's come to stay at the big home?

On the morning of August 16, 1938 as Irv was preparing to enter his automobile for the usual day at the office, he died. He was just 60 years old. His daughter writes of "no more pain or suffering", but it is unclear if he was ill prior to his passing.

Irv is buried in the Masonic Cemetery in Polk Co, IA

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Old Stories, New Eyes; Verifying Family Lore: Tales From The Cave, part two

Sunday morning.

Labor Day weekend.

Anxious to get back in the Cave to solve the problem I uncovered yesterday.

I knew the answer was there - or at least an explanation. I needed to dig deeper.

{Palm slap to forehead} The obviousness hit me. I needed to look at every city directory between the years 1911 and 1920.

Feeling a bit stupid, I settled in for a session of flipping through electronic records, year by year, verifying my great grandfather's address.

An hour or so later, my grandmother's story was proved correct, partly. The family did move in 1911 and again in 1920. BUT that still didn't prove that the house was built in 1919 and not 1916.


Back to the city directories. This time instead of the name, I  employed the handy street index located towards the back of each directory. Looking up the house number and street, I flipped through the virtual pages, electronically unindexed, of course. Knowing both addresses all I needed to do was look for the year the address of the second house first appeared.

Tedious. Time consuming. Oddly rewarding, I must confess.

I felt a little like a time traveller, maybe that is part of the draw of genealogy for me. Anyway, another two hours passed and guess what?! Yup. The second address did not appear until 1920! The Genealogy Queen was correct!

But what about the Zillow listing? What about that?

Again I had to resist the urge to hop in the car and drive the 300 miles to Polk County to show them what I had discovered, and maybe could their be a chance that their records were wrong?

I gave myself a good talking to and decided to just let it go. For the sake of my story I had the proof that I needed. I did put it on my spreadsheet (thanks Thomas MacEntee!) for future research.

OK. On with the story. This should wrap up nicely now, I thought.

I worked my way through the 1920's. The marriage of my grandmother, the career of my great grandfather. Everything was lining up with the "family story" left by my grandmother.

Until 1929.

Oh, oh. Another discrepancy. Or perhaps merely an omission of more detailed information? Rats!

The tale was told that my great grandfather was so successful in his business that he was able to buy a house for his in-laws to retire in. That's not exactly what the records were telling me. I did find my 2nd great grandparents in the 1930 census - but they were living with my great grandparents - AND they were all living in a apartment!?!

Back to the city directories and the year 1929. Shoot. The (extended) family was living in the apartment. The 'big house" had a different family residing in it. 1929! We all know what happened that year. Could my great grandfather have lost everything? Was he forced to sell the big house and move to an apartment?


Apart from driving to Polk Co and looking at the real estate histories for the house and the apartment, I had to just let it go, for the moment. (Put it on the ol' spreadsheet for a later looksee)

OK. The Queen has been correct up to this point, why would I doubt her now? I continued to dig into those city directories.

My great grandfather remained in business, his ad ran in the city directory every year. Good.

I took a look at my 2nd great grandparents. 2nd great grandma passed away in December 1932, and 2nd great grandpa in April 1933 Hmm. The foursome was listed as living in the apartment every year from 1929 to 1933. Hmm.

Then I looked at 1934.

Well, well, well. Guess what!? My great grandparents were back in the "big house"!

This just opened up all sorts of questions.

Why did they move to the apartment?
Why did they move back to the big house?
Why, if they were caring for the elderly relatives, did they not just care for them in the house?


Resigned to the fact that I would not know the answers, at least not today from the comfort of the Cave; I accepted, grudgingly, that I had reached the end of my quest.

I still don't feel the story is "wrapped up", but the ending is a happy one. And further research revealed that the house remained in the family until at least 1960 - the last year I was able to find a city directory online.

I really need to get to Polk Co one of these days .....

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Old Stories, New Eyes; Verifying Family Lore: Tales From The Cave, part one

I had finally committed to catching up with my 52 Ancestors 52 Weeks challenge.

I miraculously had the entire house to myself for a full three days over the Labor Day weekend. No distractions, no obligations. I could hunker down in the Cave, clad in the athletic apparel of the genealogist (pj's and slippers), and power through some major research!

On Saturday I got up at a reasonable time, shuffled into the Cave and laid out a plan. Eight ancestors in three days. Should be doable. I had a good outline on all of them. This time I decided to be a little more methodical. I would concentrate on my maternal side. I would start with my four maternal great grandparents and continue with my four 2nd great grandparents on my maternal grandfather's side. (I had done the four on my maternal grandmother's side previously). Easy peasy.

My grandmother, the Genealogy Queen, had written a family story in the early 1980's. I started my research there using her facts and anecdotes. First up: my grandmother's father. Again, easy peasy. She had already written his story. All I needed to do was double check the facts and lay it down "on paper".

This should be a breeze!

Enter modern technology. What my grandmother did from memory, many hours at the microfiche, and personal correspondence with other relatives to produce her "finished" story was only the tip of that genealogical iceberg! (We knew this, didn't we?)

Nine hours later, bleary eyed and needing a shower, (and well past wine o'clock!), I walked away from the computer to sort out all the new information I had found, and to contemplate the discrepancies I had discovered. So much for eight ancestors in 3 days! I hadn't even finished one!

To clear my head I binge watched Who Do You Think You Are (naturally), poured myself a glass of wine, and found something to heat up. Once I was "all genealogied up", I shuffled back into the Cave for another look. I had to be missing something.

The bones of the story worked with all the proof I could find except for one detail. In my grandmother's recollection, the years of 1916 to 1920 were not lining up with what I was finding. Sure, she would have been 12 to 16 years old - her memory of the sequence of events could be off.

But she's the Genealogy Queen!

She would not have written something without exhaustive proof. Even from her own memory.

To match up her time line I looked at all the records available to me online. I  searched newspapers, scrutinized the census', checked the city directories. What was throwing me off was the dates listed for the construction of the houses her father was said to have built, and the timeline of where the family resided.

The story went that my great grandfather built a new home for his family shortly after 1910. He then built another larger new home right next door after WW1, around 1919, on the site of the family's Victory Garden. Great story!

I wanted to verify this, of course, before I wrote about it as truth. I took another look. Ran it all again. Maybe I was seeing it wrong?

The census did not help, as I could only verify the 1920 address with this story. I looked at the city directories for 1910 and 1911, and the family did in fact move during that time. The 1911 address was different than the 1910 address (which matched the 1910 census) and the 1920 address would, 9 years later, be right next door! Cool. That works.

Next up Google Earth. Where the problem started.  I put in the address and "flew" right to the house. I looked at the 1911 house, still standing, and the 1919/20 house right next door. Zillow helped me along from there. Both houses had some photos included so I got to look inside and poke around a bit. Then I noticed something disturbing. Zillow lists the second house as being built in 1916. What??? No, how could this be? This does not line up.

I checked the description on the 1911 house and it was correct: Year built 1911.

If the second house was built in 1916 and not 1919/20 then what else is off in my grandmother's timeline? And the charming anecdote she told of the Victory Garden that stood where the new house was later constructed. What about that?

I resisted the urge to get in my car and drive to the Polk County Recorder's office right then and there to solve this. Besides, it was a holiday, ... and Saturday night, .....Oh, and well over 300 miles away.

Tired and frustrated, I decided to call it a night. be continued ....