22 June 2017

Unconventional Great Grandparents (part 2 of 2)

This is a continuation of my discussion about the perception that those who came before us led more rigid and strictly “conventional” lives.  My great-grandparents, as detailed in the previous posting, were all born during America’s Gilded Era, when Victorian principles were adopted and family life was conventional and predicable.  At least that is our perception of the time – in reality, life presented challenges and complications to the people of that era, just as is does with us today.  All four sets of my great grandparents experienced some unconventional aspect of their lives.  In my previous post I addressed my paternal great grandparents, one set divorced and the other set estranged.

In this post, I address my two sets of maternal great-grandparents.  For one couple, and like one set of my paternal great-grandparents, there was a long-term separation.  And for one great-grandfather, the story is one of tragedy compounded with further estrangement and manipulation, really a very sad reflection on the key players of a 100-year-old misfortune that still has an impact on his descendants today.

Closing up the House

My maternal grandfather’s parents were both born in Mansfield, Ohio.  Howard Kenneth Dirlam (who went by “Kenneth” and after whom my younger brother was named) was born in March 1881 and died three days before his 89th birthday in March 1970, both in Mansfield.  His wife, Rebecca “Reba” King Baxter, was born in Mansfield in June 1880 and died in February 1968 in New Haven, Connecticut, age 87.

Reba's grandfather, top center, founder of the
company, with his sons, her father bottom center.
Kenneth was the son of the president of the Mansfield Building and Loan Association bank (which was referred to by locals as the “Dirlam Building and Loan”) and the grandson of a local lawyer and later judge, Darius Dirlam, who had been in law practice with General William Tecumseh Sherman’s brother, John Sherman (who later served as Senator, Secretary of the Treasury and Secretary of State).  Reba was the youngest daughter of one of the brothers who owned the Baxter Banner Stove Company, which had been founded by her grandfather.  The Baxter Stove Company produced wood burning stoves for both household and industrial use and Kenneth was the company’s sales manager. Kenneth and Reba, from these two prominent Mansfield families, were married in 1904.

Soon after my grandfather, Joel Baxter Dirlam was born in Mansfield in 1915, the Baxter Stove Company closed its doors after a disastrous fire, which came on the heels of some bad business decisions.  The family moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania and then settled in Albany, New York, which was where my grandfather always felt he had been raised.  In 1931 they moved to New Haven, Connecticut where my grandfather Joel, an only child, had been attending Cherry Lawn, an alternative boarding school in nearby Darien, and then went on to Yale University, where he ultimately earned his PhD in Economics.
Kenneth and Reba Dirlam with
my grandfather Joel, circa 1930

After Baxter Stove closed down in Mansfield, Westinghouse leased the plant for production of their new electric stoves.  Interestingly, Tappan, another large stove company, was also based in Mansfield, which made the city a big name in stoves for more than 100 years.  In 1938, with my grandfather completing his PhD at Yale, Kenneth’s brother, Jay Dirlam, suffered an untimely death.  Jay had worked for their father at the Mansfield “Dirlam” Building and Loan, and Kenneth agreed to replace him.  When their father died in 1951, Kenneth took over as president of the bank.  At his brother’s death in 1938, he immediately moved from New Haven back to Mansfield and lived, temporarily, with his widowed sister.  Reba stayed in New Haven to “close down the house.”

Kenneth lived in his sister’s house for more than thirty years, inheriting it after her death.  Reba closed down and sold the New Haven house . . . and then got herself an apartment.  Always of an academic bent (she was once given a series of books of philosophy by her uncle because she was “the most intellectual of the family”), she was in her element in New Haven, particularly with a son in studies at Yale.

There are stories, as told by my family historian cousin John Black, of Reba visiting Mansfield (one sister, numerous nephews and cousins and, of course, her husband were living there) and staying downtown at the Leland Hotel.  Her husband, living a few blocks away with his sister, would walk down Park Avenue West, meet her for breakfast in the hotel dining room and then walk next door to work at the bank.  It was said (and also disputed) that they referred to the other as “Mr. Dirlam” and Mrs. Dirlam”.

The Leland Hotel, center, with the Mansfield "Dirlam"
Savings and Loan, the white 3 story building, to the right
They remained estranged from 1938 until Reba’s death in 1968, 30 years!  They really were not very compatible.  Reba was liberal and outspoken on a broad spectrum of topics and issues, picketing factories and supporting liberal causes.  Kenneth was more conservative and was better able to focus his energy on specific topics, one or two at a time.  Kenneth was an authority on John Chapman, otherwise known as Johnny Appleseed, and he wrote numerous monologues and articles on local Ohio history, including Elbert Hubbard’s Roycroft experiment in Aurora, Ohio, in which Kenneth participated when he was young..  He focused an enormous amount of energy and some hard earned dollars, unsuccessfully, in a campaign to keep the city from creating a cut-through in the park at the center of Mansfield (now, in 2017, there is talk of blocking off the cut-through and restoring the park, which means Kenneth really was a progressive, whether he liked it or not).

Kenneth died just a year and a half after Reba, yet his obituary in the Mansfield News Journal stated he was  “long a widower”.  He had been without a wife in Mansfield for 32 years so that was the local perception.  He was buried with his sister, her husband and their grandfather, Darius Dirlam, in the Mansfield Cemetery.  Reba had been buried in Connecticut, in North Stonington, where her son was living at the time (and where my mother was married in 1962).  No one has since been buried in the Mansfield plot.  Their only son, my grandfather, was buried with his wife in the plot in North Stonington with his mother.

“What will become of my poor motherless children?”
[quote from Edward Gould Rowland's diary, 1910]

My maternal grandmother’s father suffered a tragedy early in his life with the death of his young wife.  The aftermath of this event continued long after his own death, impacting his children and their descendants as well.

Edward “Ned” Gould Rowland Sr was the son of a minister and became an ordained minister himself, in addition to his primary occupation of medical doctor and later psychiatrist.  Born in Lee, MA in April 1878, Ned was influenced not only by his father’s role as minister of the Lee Congregational church, but by his father’s education as well.  His father, Lyman Sibley Rowland, had been valedictorian of his class at Amherst College (which later conveyed upon him an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree) and continued his education at Andover Seminary, after which he was ordained.  Ned’s mother, Elizabeth McLellan Gould, was Lyman’s second wife.  His first wife died soon after the birth of their third child.  Ned had two full sisters, two half-sisters and a half-brother, but the family was a cohesive unit, with no such distinctions in play – Elizabeth loved all six children equally.

Edward "Ned" Gould Rowland, age 22
Ned attended Rollins College in Winter Park, FL, Williams College and finally Oberlin College, from which he graduated in 1899.  He then earned his medical degree from Baltimore Medical College in 1903.  In June 1906, Ned married Margaret Osborne Stevens, a recent Wellesley graduate.  Her family was from Clinton, CT, neighboring the town of Westbrook, where Ned had his medical practice.  They were married for seven years before she died in October 1910, soon after the birth of her third child.

Ned and Kate in 1939 with Ned's first
grandchild, Edward Gould Rowland Chalker Jr
Within a year, Ned met his future second wife, Catharine “Kate” Stevens Burdick, a 1906 graduate of Mount Holyoke College, where Ned’s younger sister Eleanor was teaching as assistant professor of Philosophy, Psychology and Aesthetics in 1906.  It is speculated that the introduction of Ned and Catharine, in 1911, may have been made by Eleanor.  Catharine, born in May 1883, was the daughter of a Newport, Rhode Island banker, Edwin Spooner Burdick and Clara Thurston Carr, both from old Newport families and descended from early Rhode Island families.  Ned and Kate were married in 1913 and she had three children, all daughters, one of whom was my grandmother.  Ned died in Philadelphia, PA (the family was living in nearby Trenton, NJ at the time) in April 1947.  Kate lived for another 36 years, dying at the age of 100 in 1983 in her native Newport.

The recurring name of “Stevens” (Ned’s first wife’s surname and his second wife’s middle name) is a coincidence as far as we have been able to tell.  Perhaps there was a family connection, but it has not yet been made.

Because Ned’s father had experienced the exact same circumstance of the death of the first wife with three young children left behind, no doubt Ned expected to be able to recreate the result: raising his three children with the help of a second loving wife.  For her part, Kate, Ned’s second wife, would have welcomed the children.  Their three daughters would also have welcomed the two boys and daughter from the first marriage, according to comments made by the two surviving daughters in 1990.

Soon after Ned was widowed of his first wife, just after the birth of their third child, Cushman, his widow’s family succeeded in having his three children taken from him.  I plan to devote a future post to provide greater detail about the circumstances of this, including the research undertaken in 1990 by several cousins and me, eighty years after the events took place, that put many of the pieces of this sad story together.

Ned Rowland's six children, left to right:
Gould, Hester and Cushman, Margaret's children
Priscilla (who died young), Barbara and Joan, Kate's children
The shorthand version is that Ned was naïve and believed that it would be best for his three children to be sent to his wife’s family temporarily as he got his life together (he and Margaret were living in Kentucky at the time, where he was principal of a church school – she died there and he had to stay to make arrangements for the school before he left).

He didn’t realize that her family had the intention of keeping the children once they had them.  After lengthy accusations, demands and court battles, he was legally removed as guardian for his own children.  Key testimony made by Margaret’s family about his financial and personal circumstances was proven to be false through our research, but it was not recognized as such at the time.

Letter excerpt - written by Ned and sent to Margaret's brother, who testified against Ned in court, to Ned's surprise

The result was that two of the children, Cushman and Hester, were adopted by their deceased mother’s aunts (Hester later said that it was odd to suddenly call her great-aunt as “mother”) and the third, Gould, was adopted by a high school friend of their mother.  Gould had a regular relationship with his father, but he was still renamed – born Edward Gould Rowland Jr, he became Edward Gould Rowland Chalker.  Cushman and Hester were kept estranged from their father, even when he was close to death.  Attempts by his second wife Kate, my great-grandmother, to encourage Hester (born Hester McLellan Rowland, her name was changed to Hester Harrington), to see her father before he died were stopped by her adopted mother.  It was a tragic circumstance that haunted him to the day he died in 1947 and all five of his surviving children for their whole lives.  My grandmother and her sisters were always told of their older brothers and sister, but didn’t get to know them until they were adults.

The descendants of the children from both mothers are back in contact today and we held a family reunion of both sides in 2012, representing the three current generations.   Ned and Kate Rowland were buried, 37 years apart, in Norwalk, CT.  Margaret Osborne Stevens Rowland was buried with in her family’s plot in the Indian River Cemetery in Clinton, Connecticut.  Ironically, none of Margaret’s siblings ever had any children of their own, so the only descendants from her family are through her marriage to Ned Rowland, who they vilified in court and so despised that they took his children from him.

Members of both sides of the family still feel the impact of this event, more than 100 years after the fact, knowing the loss felt by all six of Ned Rowland’s children – some not ever knowing their own father and others not knowing the siblings they longed to meet.  And then there’s the impact on Ned himself – knowing that his children had been taken from him by deception in 1911 and then two were kept from him for the rest of his life.

The complicated adoptions of Ned's first three children

The Takeaway

It’s common for the current generation to think that they and their contemporaries are more complex, better educated, more worldly, etc.  Certainly many young people think they invented scandal and sex!  They can’t conceive of their ancestors involved in anything controversial or un-conventional.  And they absolutely can’t envision ancestors who lived over 100 years ago having anything in common with their complicated lives.  But they did. They had so much in common with us that it’s sometimes tragic to hear of their tribulations and sadness.  In fact, at least in my case, this generation was exactly that: a generation of sadness.  Betrayal, estrangement, divorce and two sets of children removed from their father’s presence for life.

For me, it makes these ancestors more human.  They’re flawed individuals, just as their children and grandchildren were and just as I am.  I can relate to people whose story I know – they’re no longer just names, places and dates.  They are feeling, caring human beings who didn’t always make the right decisions – but most of them did the best they could.  And those who didn’t do the right thing are almost more poignant because I wonder what circumstances caused them to become those people.

For better or for worse, they are all my ancestors.  And their decisions and circumstances impacted their children greatly.  And I was impacted by those children’s circumstances, my grandparents.  There’s no genealogical takeaway from this story (other than the importance of understanding the truth and telling the story, whether it’s a pleasant one or not), but there is a much more important takeaway:

Our actions today and the decisions we make will affect not only ourselves, but also the multiple generations ahead of us.  One hundred years from now, what will our great-grandchildren be writing about us?  It gives one pause to consider, doesn’t it?

Black, John Baxter, A History of the Family of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Blymyer Black of Mansfield, Ohio; 2 volumes, privately published, 250 copies, 1995
Mansfield News Journal, obituary archives, www.mansfieldnewsjournal.com
Rowland, Edward Gould, Diaries, unpublished
Rowland, Elizabeth McLellan Gould, The Rowland Book; five copies created, 1915
Leland Hotel photo: Richland [County, OH] Source website: http://www.richlandsource.com/area_history/native-son-shadow-of-the-leland-hotel/article_d275b928-b6ff-11e6-b872-4f0f910db8b7.html

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