Do You Have Anything of Your Grandfather’s?
I told my family at a recent family reunion, where I’d brought family trees, genealogical records, family stories and photo albums from both my mother’s mother and my father’s father, that I was looking for two things buried among all the records.
I was looking for the story about how my great-grandfather, Abraham Lincoln Frederick, had come to be named.
And, I was looking for a poster from my mother’s father, a customs agent in Nogales, Arizona, where my mother was born.
Several family members told me they’d read the story about Abraham Lincoln Frederick.
They quickly directed me to where I’d included it, among many family photos and stories, in an album I assembled for my mother’s memorial service in 2003.
They’d all received copies of the album and remembered the naming story.
The day before we left the family reunion, I found the poster.
The poster was an announcement about the program for celebrating Mexico’s Independence Day.
September 16, 1810 is Mexico’s Independence Day, from Spain, their 4th of July.
The poster was dated September, 1912.
Three days of festivities were planned by the volunteer organization that had been created in 1825, four years after independence was gained, to arrange festivities across the country, La Junta Patriotica.
My grandfather, George Claire Notley, penned in a translation of the poster on the front.
Notley, a graduate of the University of Chicago (Class of 1909), had traveled for a few years after college and settled in Nogales, Arizona, to work for the U.S. Customs Service.
On the back of the poster, in careful, legible script, in pencil, was a detailed description of my grandfather’s first few weeks on the job as a customs agent.
“The Mexicans as a people are admirable in many ways.
“They are very easy to get along with.
“I never saw a drunk in the whole evening nor a harsh word spoken but the crowd was having the best time imaginable throwing clouds of confetti serpentinas [?] etc.
“The job I had at first was somewhat like a nightwatch.
“I could go anywhere I thought I could do the most good to prevent people from smuggling things across the line.
“My hours were from 4 to midnight.
“I used to hold up every drunk mex. who came across the line and search him for booze.
“I have stopped them in bunches and searched them and never heard a growl. It [if] they had been Americans they would have knocked me stiff some time.
“As far as the rebels are concerned nobody minds them on this side of the line any more than so many schoolboys playing in the next lot.
“Anybody who goes over where they are is apt to lose his money and his horse and his provisions but nobody is going to get hurt.
“Every day a hero comes in and demands the surrender of the town (that is the part across the line) before a certain time and then when the time is up another comes and demands it again.
“They have kept up that farce for months and still no rebels have ever shown themselves within several times gunshot….
“One night somebody set off a few sticks of dynamite on the hills over the town.
“The Mex population thought the rebels had come and they all came across the line in a bunch with their valuables, looking glasses, birdcages, bedding and everything they could carry.
“We couldn’t pretend to inspect the whole bunch so let them all pass on the run as they thought the rebels were on their heels. They are a great bunch.”
In 1915, he met my grandmother, Geraldine Elizabeth Stuart, in the boarding house where they both lived.
My grandmother told me that Pancho Villa used to come through Nogales on a regular basis.
Normally, he shot into the air when he rode through Nogales, so as to scare people but not hurt anyone.
Her story is consistent with what her future husband wrote on the back of that 1912 poster.
My grandmother said she always scooped up her two children and ran into the house.
But, one time, according to my Uncle Don’s written recollection of stories from his mother,
“…Pancho Villa and his men were encamped in Nogales, Sonora, a mile or so away [from my grandmother’s house] and the men were whooping it up with lots of shooting.
“One stray bullet entered the Notley house where it was stopped by the water tank.
“Another bullet clipped off the heel of a lady sitting on the porch next door.”
Villa was a Mexican rebel, alternately lauded for championing the peasants of Mexico and reviled for political ambition.
U.S. General Pershing tried to capture Villa after his raids started bringing Villa into the U.S. to hold up banks and trains on a regular basis in 1915-1916.
Villa, according to my grandmother, lived openly with his family just across the border, but Pershing never caught him.
Villa was assassinated in 1923.
Those behind the assassination are variously described as a son seeking revenge for the death of one of Villa’s former generals or political opponents as Villa considered running for President of Mexico.
My grandfather eventually had an affair, contracted syphilis, and was transferred to Douglas, Arizona in 1921.
By 1923, he was too ill to work. They moved to Vicksburg, Michigan, where he had been born and his mother still lived.
He died when my mother was 10, in 1927, leaving my grandmother a widow with two young children to raise.
She was helped out by her recently widowed mother-in-law who offered to buy her a house and move in to help with the children.
My grandmother would eventually put her two children through college, on the strength of her own college degree.
She got a job running an in-hospital school for long-term pediatric patients, at the University of Michigan.
But, on the back of that poster, 100 years ago, four years before my grandmother and grandfather married on July 7, 1916, the world was still new and exciting.
Do you have any family heirlooms that go back 100 years?
Do they have any special meaning for your grandchildren?
Have you told your grandchildren the stories?
To you and passing on family memories to your grandchildren.
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Carol Covin, Granny-Guru
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