Valentine Bier Family: What came next?

On this Valentine’s Day, I’d like to pick up the thread of the story of the Valentine Bier family.  I started weaving this story a year ago, in honor of Valentine Bier’s nameday and birthday, with an introduction to the patriarch of the Bier family in southern Wisconsin.  After several more installments, we left Valentine transplanted to a meager existence in Rock County, and his wife and children newly arrived from Ketzelsdorf to join him.  Then I was distracted by the Bier trip to the homeland and related topics.  For today, I’d like to pick up the thread of the family’s story where I left it.  Valentine and Catherine were reunited at the train depot in Janesville after almost a year apart.  He was meeting his youngest daughter, Amalia, for the first time.  They climbed onto a lumber wagon and began their journey home.

They arrived in the fall of 1882, and that winter the family lived in a two-room shack on the property of the farm on which Valentine was employed as a hired hand.  The farm was owned by Al Husker, and the building in which the family was to be housed was a two-room shack previously used as a woodshed and rummage room.  In the Memoirs of Father Charles, who was 3 at the time,

The walls were not plastered, and a single layer of siding boards, not too well matched, was all that kept out the wind and weather.  The larger room had two small windows and was used as kitchen, dining room, living room, and bedroom.  Into it were crowded a small kitchen stove, a table, a cupboard, two rough wooden benches, and a bed.  The smaller room had no window at all and was used as a bedroom.  There was no plumbing in the shack nor any household convenience whatsoever.  —  Father Charles Bier, Memoirs of an Old Recluse.

When my mother and I drove to the site, we found that a farm house sits on the north side of the road, and an open expanse of prairie to the south.  The winds through the ill-matched siding must have been fierce.  In order to fit into the tiny space, the two older children, John and Frances, were housed with other families where they worked to earn their keep, of course.  They were 11 and 12.  Valentine worked long hours and was seldom home before well into the night.

Inked1891 Harmony_LI

The Al Husker Farm straddled Wilcox Road in between Harmony Town Hall and Vickerman.  The pond just to the north is now on the grounds of Camp Rotamer.  1891 Plat, Courtesy of the Charles Tallman Archives, Rock County Historical Society.

The following fall of 1883, Valentine rented a few acres south of Milton where the family lived for 4-5 more years in the small farmhouse.  I don’t know the name or owners of the farm on which he worked, but on those few acres he raised the cash crop of the day:  tobacco.  He did so on half shares, meaning that 50% of whatever he earned from its ultimate sale went right back to the landlord.  As the meager amount that he earned from this enterprise wasn’t enough to support the family, he also hired himself out to other farmers at a rate of 75 cents per day.  The family’s principal income, however, depended on the labor-intensive tobacco crop.  Fortunately, much of the tedious work could be done by Catherine and the children.  In Father Charles’ words

The price paid for the leaf tobacco at the time was about 5 cents per pound. and the average yield per acre was about 1500 pounds.  This amounted to about $75 per acre of which half was paid to the landlord as rental. — Father Charles Bier, Memoirs of an Old Recluse

Around this same time, the two eldest children began to formally work out of the house as hired hands.  John worked for a local farmer for $10 per month with only Sundays off.  All of his earnings, save for what it took to keep him fed and clothed, went back to the family and allowed Valentine to invest in farming equipment and a few cows and to steadily increase his farming enterprise.  Similarly, Frances’ work as a hired girl was equally arduous and brought in $1.50 to $2.00 per week.  Valentine set aside the money she earned and after three years was able to buy his first team of horses with it.  Without John and Frances’ sacrifice of, essentially, their childhoods, Valentine may never have been able to break out of the cycle of subsistence or tenant farming.  Neither of them were able to formally go to school, save for a few months to learn English upon first arriving.


Edward, John, Louis, Frank & Charles Bier

Neither John . . .

Jiru-Bier Women Four Generation Portrait

nor Frances had the luxury of a gradually exit from childhood, nor did they ever really learn English.

During the time on this small farm, there were several joyful arrivals.  The first was the birth of the third to last child, Caroline, in September, 1884.  She is described from suffering from some form of epilepsy, and I suspect that this may have contributed to the fact that she never left home.  Far from being an invalid, however, later diaries show her as an integral member of the family, devoted to helping Catherine run the household as children and eventually grandchildren passed through.  The other arrival was that of Catherine’s mother and two brothers, Johanna, Frank, and Florian Jiru in 1885.  They had also become dissatisfied with life in Ketzelsdorf.    Frank was accompanied by his wife, Anna Hanauska (sister of Frances Bier’s eventual husband, Wenzel Hanauska) and baby daughter, another Johanna.  They all joined the Valentine Bier family in the tiny rented farmhouse, and for awhile there were 12 people under the tiny roof.

This only lasted a short while, however, as Valentine transferred his brood to a larger rented farm, the Lime Borden farm on the southeast side of Milton.  Frank Jiru and his family stayed behind in the small rented farm that they vacated, and Florian and Johanna Jiru stayed on with the Valentine & Catherine Bier family–Florian for a couple of years and Johanna for the rest of her life, about 20 more years.  The Lime Borden Farm had a relatively palatial 8-room farmhouse, along with the usual farm buildings and a tobacco shed.  Despite the better setup, however, the three years spent there were far from profitable, as the summers were all quite dry and the prices of farm products including tobacco were quite low.  When my mother and I drove by the place, on M-H Townline Road just west of Vickerman, it looked quite rocky as well.  It doesn’t seem as though the three years spent on the Lime Borden Farm were remembered very fondly.

Inked1891 Milton_LI

The Lime Borden Farm is just to the East of the area now occupied by and ethanol plant outside of MIlton, Wisconsin. 1891 Plat Map of Milton Township, Courtesy of Charles Tallman Archives, Rock County Historical Society.

Father Charles specifically recounts a few of the more harrowing incidents that occurred during this stretch of time that are best quoted directly in his words:

In the spring of 1886 while Father was doing work in the fields, the horses were accidentally frightened an ran wildly into a barbed wire fence.  The better one of the team was cut so badly that it seemed impossible to stop the flow of blood.  My parents were both in great distress and well I remember how they cried aloud to God to help.  As soon as father was able to quiet the animal sufficiently, mother pressed some rags into the worst of the wounds till the bleeding gradually stopped.  Incidentally, this was the valuable mare that was being paid for by my sister Frances with the wages she was earning while working as a hired girl for the family from whom father had bought the mare, and it took almost three years of this service to pay this sum in full.  –Father Charles Bier, Memoirs of an Old Recluse.

Can you imagine, working for three years just to pay off off a mare?  And what if it had died–she still would have had to keep working for the debt alone!  No wonder they invoked prayer!

The second incident involved Valentine attending a turkey raffle and winning a few birds.  Apparently these events differed from today’s meat raffles in that the turkeys were still alive rather than in a freezer.  As he was walking home with them, some jealous fellas jumped him and ended up injuring one and killing the other turkey!  And this is why we can’t have turkey raffles (or anything nice, kids.)

While Valentine toiled away and fought off turkey muggers, the children still at home started school at the Vickerman School, a short walk from the farm.  Yet, this wasn’t all sunshine and roses.  As the only Catholics at the school, they were automatically outcasts.  This was made worse by the fact that they didn’t speak any English and were quite visibly poor.  Eventually the other children let Charles and Frank and their siblings play with them, except they never got to be the blindman in “blindman’s bluff,” as they didn’t own their own handkerchiefs, and the other children didn’t want Bier germs on theirs.   Kids being perhaps unintentionally mean is a problem across the ages, I suppose.

So what happened next?  Did the venture on the not-terribly-profitable Lime Borden Farm do them in?  Stay tuned…


Olympic-level dedication

bob costas

Bob Costas in Sochi before they found him some subs to protect us, the viewer, from the horror of his conjunctivitis.


Today is the first day of the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang.  I love the Olympics, specifically marathon Olympic viewing.  I love immersing myself in sports that I don’t even think about during the intervening four years, briefly becoming a luge-obsessed freak.  I love the familiar voices of the play-by-play announcers and color commentators.  I loooove Bob Costas (what am I going to do without him this year?  It was bad enough when he had that eye situation last time).  I love the pre-packed bits of biographical information designed (uniformly successfully) to make me cry.  I love that it only feels slightly slovenly to take to the couch for a one to two week period.





The first time I truly dedicated myself seriously to Olympic viewing was, I think, during the Seoul summer games of 1988.  I would have been 12, and my younger sister Louise around eight or nine.  Because it was summer, we had nothing to do except gorge on the Olympics, and gorge we did.  We pulled out the sofa bed in the TV room and slept down there so that we could watch the official telecast from beginning to late-night end, well after everyone else had gone to bed.  And we tried to wake up for any special during the night broadcasts.   I remember the mental focus required to tune in for a 2 a.m. broadcast of Greco-Roman wrestling, but our goals were clear:  complete knowledge of the Olympics as related to us by Bob Costas and the folks at NBC.  

Our dedication to Olympic viewing continued through our childhoods, although I don’t recall another occasion when we were able to devote such single-minded focus to the games as that summer of ’88.  Since then we haven’t always been able to watch the midday live telecasts of events, the more unedited, exciting broadcasts with announcers that have become friends (I’m talking about you, Tim Daggett).  Despite this limitation, all primetime broadcasts were taken in, regardless of what usually-coveted sitcoms they came up against.  Sorry, ALF, the Olympics are on.

My senior year of college, the winter Olympics occurred in Nagano. While other 21-22 year-olds were pursuing more age appropriate activities like dating and excessive drinking, I was holed up in my dorm room, devoted to the evening broadcasts as viewed on my tiny TV-VCR combo.  Occasionally a friend would join as we sat across my dorm room bed and ignored our homework together.  Oh, and at the same time I was working on a cross stitch for a soon-to-be-born cousin.  Just to complete the completely ridiculous, pitiable picture.

nbc olympics

My key to Olympic obsession

Since then, professional-level Olympic viewing has become simultaneously easier and more overwhelming.  Now that NBC broadcasts over several channels, one has to really stay on top of one’s game to make sure an early-round curling match doesn’t slip by unnoticed.   Similarly, there will be moments where clutch decisions regarding a choice between channels must be made.  And it’s hard to know when to stop one’s obsession–online supplementary content is essentially limitless, which is why I avoid it.  Too many choices are a problem that I like to avoid.  I tend to bookmark a few key sites including broadcast schedules and leave it at that.  Just a little tip from a professional.  It leaves my hands free for needle crafts.

Which raises the question:  is it really the Olympics that I love, or the televised version of them delivered neatly packaged to my couch?  And is the distinction even worth teasing out?  If I ever have the chance to be at an Olympics live and in person, I will OF COURSE snap at the chance.   But I know I’ll be missing something if I do, and my couch is so comfy, the afghan so soft…   So my key channels are “favorited,” some websites bookmarked, Louise is on speed-dial, and a new cross stitch selected.  I’m ready.  Are you?

pyeong chang olympics


If I hadn’t been me

The other day, my 8 year old was having anxiety about who she would be if she’d never been born.  She’s never been one to present me with easy “worries before bed” topics.  One summer when she was around four, every night she worried about dynamite blowing up the house.  I could only calm her down with the white lie that dynamite ONLY works on boulders, such as in train track construction.  As she’s gotten older, things have become a bit more nuanced, but still quite challenging.  So I wasn’t exactly surprised by the nature of this most recent concern.  And strangely, I knew just how to relate–because as a kid, I had the exact same preoccupation:  if I wasn’t me, then who would I be?

I wonder if there’s a name for this particular obsession?  It gets to the heart of what it means to be human, what makes one unique in the cosmos, and the fleeting and illusory nature of consciousness.  Big thoughts to be having as an 8 year old.  While I remember having them at that age as well, for me the question didn’t exactly come out of the blue.  Rather it came from a book by Dr. Seuss that my Grandma Bier had, a big, hard covered picture book about a magical land that you go to on your birthday.  

happy birthday to you

Disturbing Dr. Seuss book

The book is probably intended to make kids giddy with with wild fantastical nature of a land all for you, but it mostly stressed me out.  I didn’t ever want to be whisked away from my bed by an odd, slightly bird looking yellow man only to go to a land of  very circuitously constructed aqueducts.  There was a line in the book something like “if you hadn’t been you, what would you be?…..You might be a bag of old dusty potatoes.”  Now that shook me up.  First, if I could be a bag of potatoes, that indicated that potatoes might be sentient, and I couldn’t even beginning to wrap my head around that.  Also, the idea that me-ness might be transmutable? No thank you, Dr. Seuss.  


Imagine this, but hung in an unheated laundry room and you’ll get the general idea.

When I was little, the potatoes were hung in one of those wire baskets in the laundry room,  an unheated lean-to attached to the north side of the kitchen.  The basket also served as an improvised hanging area for dad’s umpiring uniform shirts.  Those potatoes led a fairly forlorn existence, and every time I caught sight of them, I thought of that stupid book.  What if I were the potatoes?

So I knew we were in trouble when my daughter came to me with a particularly disturbing book to read last night:  Sylvester and the Magic Pebble.


Sylvester and the very concerning pebble.

In this shockingly award winning book, a donkey named Sylvester discovers a pebble that grants his wishes, and he accidentally wishes to become a rock.  Then he’s a sentient rock for OVER a YEAR until he luckily is turned back by a series of deus ex machina style plot twists.  He’s a rock out being snowed on day in day out while his parents cry at home.  GOOD LORD HOW WAS I READING THIS TO HER?  I tried to focus a lot on the more ridiculous aspects of the book, so that she wouldn’t realize just how disturbing the notion that you (or in this case, a donkey) could just turn into a rock version of themselves.  It just makes the whole potato proposition all  the more probable.

There’s a couple of lessons to be learned here.  One, children’s books can really freak people out, so let’s treat lightly, OK.  Two, treat your potatoes well.  And three, welcome to the world of lifelong existential angst, oh daughter of mine!

Yench / Jankus / Inksz / Inkcz / Inksh / Inktz / Inkez / Inzsz: The mystery of the Yench family continues to unravel

In my previous post on the topic of my maternal grandmother’s Lithuanian family, I indicated that my next focus would be on the story of Lithuanian immigrants in Chicago.  Well, I fully intend to pick up that thread, but before I do, I must present some late-breaking developments on the immediate family’s story instead.  In my original post introducing this story, I laid out a number of questions on which I sought to focus.

Thomas Yench Family

To remind you, the Thomas Yench family my grandmother Nell, the youngest, is not yet born.  The three boys in the back are actually stepchildren to Helen, who nonetheless raised them by all accounts lovingly as her own.

2010-05-01 01.41.16

And here’s a picture of the youngest, Nell (Yench) Cousin. Just because it’s amazing.


I’m pleased to report that I’ve largely put to rest one of them, “Question #2:  Why does he [Thomas Jankus / Yench] list his country of birth as Poland rather than Lithuania?” in the earlier referenced previous post.  I now will be able to address the sixth, “Question #6:  What are Thomas and Helen’s previous marital histories?”  You may or may not recall that my grandmother, Nell, grew up the youngest of seven children.  She didn’t find out until her mother’s own death that the eldest three boys were her half brothers.  Nell’s mother, Helen, was actually Thomas’ second wife.  And as far as I knew, no one had recorded the first wife’s name for the family’s posterity.

In an attempt to find answers to this and other questions, I started by writing the Pittsburg, Oklahoma, County Genealogical society.  I provided them with a sketch of what I knew about the family, including the two spellings for Thomas’ surname, “Jankus” and “Yench.”  I received back a reply that there was no trace of either of those names in any of their county indices.  Sigh.  I wished that I could teleport myself down to their archives and search, because I fear that no one approached the mission with the terrier like focus that I would have!  The woman who returned my letter suggested I try the Hartshorne Public Library.


hartshorne libary

Hartshorne, Oklahoma Public Library

So I did.  I called the library and asked for the reference desk, a query that was met with mild laughter and an explanation that they only have three staff members, what could she help me with?  I gave a brief explanation and was told to call back in a half hour when the gal who dealt with “that stuff” was back from lunch.  Her name was Amanda.




Baptism transcript for Annella (Yench) Cousin from Holy Rosary Church

I felt hopeful, so while waiting for Amanda to return, I thought I’d give Holy Rosary Church one more try.  This is the Catholic church in the town, and the site of my grandmother’s baptism as evidenced by a copy of her baptismal certificate.  I’d tried to call previously and the phone would ring and ring.  I figured that the parish was small and perhaps dying, it having no website or significant presence on the internet save for a mention on the Diocese of Tulsa website.  But, hey, what else to do while waiting for Amanda?



Father Bruce Brosnahan

Father Bruce Brosnahan, courtesy of the Diocese of Tulsa Website

And that, dear readers, is what led me to my breakthrough in the form of one Father Bruce Brosnahan.  His accented speech when answering the phone caused me to worry that perhaps my request may be lost in cultural and literal translation.  When I suggested that I could write him a letter with my request, he rejoined that I’d best “strike while the iron’s hot;  that’s what you say, isn’t it?”  Over the next hour and a half (no exaggeration) I felt that I was in the parish office with Father Brosnahan, as his lilting New Zealander’s accent, for that is where is from (Irish by way of New Zealand, actually) described the contents of several key parish record books in great detail.  In addition to answering some of my questions and finding some nuggets during our “sleuthing” as we came to call it, Father Brosnahan also covered a wide range of topics.  I started keeping rough track of these tangents only halfway through our conversation, but even this truncated list will give you a sense.  Father Brosnahan covered:

  • A brief history of Hartshorne, Oklahoma
  • Matthew and Mark’s proviso about the divorce of concubines
  • The etymology of his own last name as a “great” clan of Ireland
  • A description of fist-bumping as “colliding fists”
  • An autistic young man who enjoys coming to parish events that include food
  • What round brackets and inverted commas are
  • The Rebelling Colonies during the War of 1812
  • The 40 miles of records dating from 1100 that are contained under St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome
  • The history of marriage as a sacrament in the Roman Catholic Church
  • The development of the teenage brain
  • The existence of a church notary public
  • The etymology of the word “ecclesia”
  • Ann vs. Anne in Great Britain

Between all this, we still managed to find a few things related to my query.  And let me emphasize the dumb luck that led to the discovery.  For Father Brosnahan found neither “Yench” nor “Jankus” in his master index.  Shoot.  We decided that Thomas’ marriage with his first wife HAD to have occurred in the states, given the time lapse between Thomas’ arrival (1901) and the birth of his first son (1908).  Father B. speculated that he likely sent back to the old country for a wife.  So he pulled the “Index of Marriages.”  No Yench in the “Y” section.  No Jankus in the “J” section.  But what’s this?  A single “I” entry taped in just above the J’s?  With the name Thom. Inksh.  Could it be he?

It was.

I then remembered the one immigration document where his last name is spelled Inzsz, and the fact that his signature always appeared as an “X”.  Likely every time his name was written, it was done so by whatever bookkeeper or clerk was on hand.  These were all approximations of a name that lay somewhere between all of the guesses.  It wasn’t until his children went to school that the family seemed to settle on “Yench” as a commonly-used last name.


Declaration of Intention, filed 26 December, 1901


So.  By dumb luck, we found him in the The Index of Marriages, which led to a record of transcribed, typewritten notes of the original marriage certificates.  And therein we found that a marriage occurred at Holy Rosary Church between:

Thom. Inksh & Dorothea Palonis (Inkcz, Thomas & Dorothy Pallones)

Residence of Husband:  Hartshorne, Oklahoma

Residence of Wife:  Hartshorne, Oklahoma

Date:  18 January, 1904

So that’s it.  It’s the name of his first wife and mother of Joseph, Anthony and Peter.  WOW!  Interestingly, Palonis is the last name of the godparents of my grandmother, Thomas’ youngest child with his second wife, Helen.  Father B. speculates that whoever did the typed transcription of the original written records likely added the parenthetical (a.k.a., round bracketed) comments indicated the alternate spelling of Inkcz and Pallones.

Riding high on the wave of our sleuthing success and additional alternate spellings, Father B. then pulled down the “Original” Register of Baptisms.  We found three likely ones listed in the Index:

Ann Yench on p. 92

Anthony Jakiz on p. 73

Amilia Inkez on p. 28

I forced him to go first to Ann’s and confirm that, yes, this was my Grandmother’s older sister, all of the information listed matched with what I already knew.  But this Amilia Inkez must sure be some other family?  We didn’t have a chance to look at Anthony Jakiz, but there’s an older brother Anthony too.  But–there is not Amilia–only Veronica, Ann, and Annella.  So we turned to p. 28, line 42.  After applying a piece of tape to a small tear on the page, Father B. read aloud the following

Name of child:  Ammilia Inkez

Date of Birth:   24 November, 1905

Baptised:  25 November, 1905

Residence:  Hartshorned, Oklahome

Parents:  Thom. Inkez, Dora Palonis

Sponsors:  Ign. Paleck & Antonia Sesko

There was a child before the three boys.  She must surely have died, having never been mentioned again in the family story as far as I know.  And the rapidity with which she was baptized leads me to suspect that she didn’t live long after being born.  Similarly, the names of her sponsors aren’t typically Lithuanian.  Could they have been the nearest people on hand following her birth to consecrate the baptism of a quickly fading baby?

There’s a lot more questions to answer, but I am confident that the combination of extant records at Holy Rosary Church + my sleuthing partner Father Bruce Brosnahan will lead me to further success.

Lesson:  Researching this family necessitates using all versions of the last name, Yench / Jankus / Inksz / Inkcz / Inksh / Inktz / Inkez / Inzsz, until about 1920.

Needless to say, I never got back to Amanda.


The first typewriter that I ever used was the heavy gray one that sat in Grandma and Grandpa Cousin’s dining room.  It sat on Grandpa’s desk, which was squeezed in along a wall.  There was just enough room between the table and the desk that Grandpa’s chair could be rotated between the table to the desk.  You knew it was Grandpa’s chair because it had arms on it, and because it was the one next to Grandma’s.  Grandma’s was easy to tell, because it was closest to the kitchen door.

grandpa typewriter

Grandpa in his chair with the typewriter behind him.

grandma typewriter

Grandma in the dining room with the retinue of office equipment in the background.  In addition to dining and typing, the table was used most often for game playing.

The desk was always heaped with papers, these balanced carefully between the heavy gray beast of a typewriter and the two adding machines–electric and mechanical.  We kids loved to use those machines, but Grandma didn’t like us using the electric 10 key calculator too much because we burned through all of the adding tape paper.  So we’d take turns pounding out nonsense on the sheets of scrap paper that she kept around for our visits.  We never really ever SAW Grandpa using the typewriter, but I know that he did.  We occasionally received typed responses to school-related inquiries, and his sketches were often completed on the backs of the beginnings of typewritten letters that had gone hopelessly wrong.  Also, his records of the 15,000+ record collection were completed on that typewriter.  It had both a red and a black tape, and you really had to pound to get that thing going.

Abby typewriter

My cousin, Abby, taking her turn at the great gray beast.  Hey kid!  Where’s your paper?

CheaperByTheDozenI read the book “Cheaper By the Dozen” as a kid.  Not the dumb Disney version, but the actual biographical story of a family of 12 kids with parents who were interested in economy of movement and consulted for industrial operations to improve their efficiency.  One chapter focused on the father’s teaching the kids to “touch type” and taking them around to show off to prospective clients.  I figured that was OK, so I practiced at Grandpa’s and on mom’s machine whenever I got the chance.  Mom’s machine was portable and kept high up on a shelf in a closet.  She’d bring it out for us occasionally, and it released a wafting puff of “office” smell whenever it was opened.  I loved typing so much that I would simply transcribe stories, for the sheer joy of hearing the clack and seeing the smooth, even result of a perfectly-typed page.  She didn’t like us to type too often, though, because we burned through the correction tape.

When we got our first computer around about 8th grade, it came with a typing tutorial program that I took to like it was going out of style.  In my opinion, the resulting dot-matrix printed results weren’t nearly so aesthetically pleasing as those done in unbroken inked-letters on the powder blue travel typewriter.  My first research paper in 7th grade was done on that typewriter, footnotes and all, an exercise in frustration that was rivaled only by my senior thesis at Lawrence in 1998 in which my image drive was somehow corrupted.  In the spring of 8th grade Joanna McCall showed up with her social studies paper printed out on a smooth, creamy sheet of paper with nary a dot matrix in sight.  Her family had an early ink jet or laser printer.  It looked like her work could have been part of the actual social studies textbook, so smooth and professional.

In high school my mother made me take typing, a class that I resisted due to the effect that it would have on my GPA.  It is by far the class that I use most readily every day.  Sure, it didn’t do anything in particular to launch my academic career, but I can carry on a conversation or stare out the window dreamily while I type, thanks to that class, the only class I ever took in the Business department of Milton High School.

Computer keyboards have come and gone, but I’ve never felt a true commitment–lots of passing flings, but no keyboard monogamy.  I knew what I liked–clacky, a bit of oomph required, but my previous keyboard relationships were but mere infatuations once I met my new true love.



My new love, Azio Corp’s MK Retro 


It arrived under the Christmas tree, a gift from my husband who knows me so well.  It is a computer keyboard that looks like a typewriter.  The keys are round and raised slightly up.  They require a bit more effort to engage, and I suppose that this results in a bit more fatigue, but the sheer tactile joy of this thing makes up for it.  The keys clack so satisfyingly that even responding to mundane emails has been rendered a joy.  And the space bar–oh the space bar.  Its tone is slightly more high pitched and more resonant than the other keys.  I will simply never be able to give up two spaces after a period after this.

Every day I try to write at least 500 words, usually of sheer drivel.  My 500 word habit has become an obsession thanks to the love of my typing life that took me back to the dining room on Elm Street, kneeling on a phone book, clacking away on the old grey beast while Grandma cooked in the kitchen.

Thomas Jankus: Tracing the Mysterious Story of the Yench Family

Since I last wrote about my maternal grandmother’s family,  I have a few answers, a few new ideas, and even more questions.  Here’s some updates on the Yench family, who I’m sure had a history prior to showing up in Oklahoma!

To begin with, I’ve started referring to my grandma Nell’s father as Thomas Jankus / Yench, as he refers to himself essentially interchangeably during the first decades of his life here.  His children’s records seem to uniformly use the Americanized “Yench” version of the name, but Thomas vacillates.  In fact, by reviewing a rough timeline of Thomas Jankus / Yench’s life, we can arrive at answers to some of the questions I posed previously.  But only some, sigh.  So with no further ado,

Thomas Jankus:  A Life, Part I

About 1877:  Born in Kaunas, Lithuania

I could not arrive at a settled birth date, because there is not a preponderance of evidence for one specific date.  His funeral card lists 7 March, 1877;  his Declaration of Intention to Immigrate declares 11 November, 1877;  his Petition for Naturalization states 7 March, 1878.  Census records all state about 1877.  As tempting as it would be declare one of these dates the “winner,” I think “about 1877” is the most accurate birth date we can assign Thomas.

Doxie 0026

Funeral card of Thomas Jankus / Yench


Declaration of Intention, filed 26 December, 1901


Petition for Naturalization, filed 25 March, 1936


You’ll also notice that, between filling out one immigration form in 1901 and a second in 1936, Thomas changes his place of birth!  He initially identifies his natal town as Kwiedon, Poland, and later as Kauna, Lithuania.  Was he intentionally being deceitful?  The familial myth around his coming to American was one of literal escape from draft into the Red Army…

On the contrary.  It’s simply that in 1901, the country of Lithuania did not exist.  I hate to be a slave to Wikipedia, but sometimes the hive mind just states things so nicely:

After the fall of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1795, most of Lithuania was incorporated into the Russian Empire. The beginnings of industrialization and commercial agriculture based on Stolypin’s reforms, as well as the abolition of serfdom in 1861, freed the peasants and turned them into migrant-laborers. The pressures of industrialization, Lithuanian press ban, general discontent, suppression of religious freedom and poverty drove numerous Lithuanians to emigrate from the Russian Empire to the United States continuing until the outbreak of the First World War. The emigration continued despite the Tsarist attempts to control the border and prevent such a drastic loss of population. Since Lithuania as a country did not exist at the time, the people who arrived to the U.S. were recorded as either Polish or Russian; moreover, due to the language ban in Lithuania and prevalence of Polish language at that time, their Lithuanian names were not transcribed in the same way as they would be today.   Only after 1918, when Lithuania established its independence, the immigrants to the U.S. started being recorded as Lithuanians. This first wave of Lithuanian immigrants to the United States ceased when the U.S. Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act in 1921, followed by the Immigration Act of 1924. The Immigration Act of 1924 was aimed at restricting the Eastern and Southern Europeans who had begun to enter the country in large numbers beginning in the 1890s.  —


And the city now know as Kaunas, Lithuania, had different names depending on the ruler of the day.  The city was generally known in English as Kovno, the traditional Slavicized form of its name; the Polish name is Kowno; the Belarusian name is Koўна, Kowna. An earlier Russian name was Ковно Kovno, although Каунас Kaunas has been used since 1940.



Kaunas is the second most populous city in Lithuania, second only to the capital, Vilnius.


What his life there was like, I have no idea.  I still don’t know his parents’ names, nor that of any potential sibling.  There are neither family diaries nor memoirs.  As I suggested in my introductory post, this is where it gets hard.  It is clear that at the time of Thomas’ growing up, young men were compelled to serve in the Russian Army; perhaps there’s something to that famil myyth.  Regardless of what the ultimate deciding factor was, the above naturalization documents indicate that Thomas Jankus / Yench came to the United States.

1901 (age 24):  Emigrated to the United States

The degree of subterfuge and bribery needed to achieve his departure isn’t clear.  Like so many thousands of others, he departed from Bremen, Germany, and arrived via New York.  By the end of 1901 he was filing his immigration papers as shown above, and listing his occupation as coal miner in Hartshorne, Oklahoma Territory;  Oklahoma was not yet a state.  Many Lithuanians, Poles, and other eastern Europeans immigrating at the time were deemed highly suitable for such unskilled labor as coal mining and work in slaughterhouses.  Many Lithuanians, in fact, settled more predominantly in the coal mining regions of Pennsylvania.  So, how Thomas chose Hartshorne, Oklahoma, I have no idea.  However, the town itself was established as a coal-mining town, and mine operators were actively recruiting immigrants to work the mines.

The city of Hartshorne is now small with a population just under 2,000.  The Catholic Holy Rosary Church, which was established by Russian and other Eastern European immigrants, still exists;  this is the church at which my grandmother was baptized.


Hartshorne, Oklahoma is located in Pittsburg County.


2010-05-01 01.24.54

My grandmother, Nell, visited the town of her birth at some point in her adult life, as shown in this undated photograph


Between 1901-1908:  Marries first wife (assumed)

1908, 1910, 1912:  First three children born

These first three children were boys, Joseph, Anthony (who went by Fed), and Peter (who went by Bob). I wish that I could say I had copies of their birth certificates, or even the Yench family’s federal census records from 1910 or 1920, but I just do not.  As far as federal census records go, they MUST exist, however who knows what iteration of the last name I should be searching under?  Their birth dates and places are verified in other, later documents.  However, I have no record of who their mother was or whether she and Thomas married prior to arrival or after.  “Well, just pull their birth certificates!” you say.

This is a grand idea–in theory.  However.  The Oklahoma Department of Health abides by a statute that seals all birth certificates until 125 years after the date of birth!  I was able to see that a birth certificate for at least one of the boys does, in fact, exist–and presumably names his mother.  However, genealogists requesting a birth certificate from less than 125 years ago must provide (among other things:)

  • If the subject is alive: a statement signed by the Subject releasing record to the Applicant and a copy of the Subjects ID

  • If the subject is deceased:

1) a statement signed by a family member, proof of familial relationship to the decedent, and a copy of the family member’s ID [Applicant may also be required to provide proof of death if the death occurred outside Oklahoma] or

2) court order

So close, and yet so very far away.

Between 1912-1914:  First wife dies

Again, due to the largely unsearchable vital records of the state of Oklahoma, I got nothin.  No name, no death date, nothin.  However, there is always hope.  As a next step, I plan to:

  1. Attempt to contact any living descendants of the three boys to see what records they might have.  My mother still keeps in touch with some of them.
  2. Put in a query to the Pittsburg County Genealogical and Historical Society.  Most counties have a group who catalogs records and, to varying degrees, makes them available online.  Most also will take queries for a modest donation, which are generally researched by a volunteer.
  3. Attempt to contact the Holy Rosary Church.  If my grandmother was baptized there, I’m hoping at least one of the three oldest boys was as well (her half brothers).  They may also have funeral records on Thomas’ first wife.  The church doesn’t have its own website, so I suspect it is rather small at this point.  But it still has a telephone number and address.  I hate making cold phone calls, but for the sake of historical accuracy I must get over it!

25 August, 1914:  Marries Helen Shareva 


Marriage of Helen (Shareva) Yench and Thomas Jankus/Yench


Interestingly, they got married in Chicago, but then returned to Oklahoma to reside.  Why was this?  To answer that question, we must delve into the larger story of the relationship between Lithuanians and Chicago.  And that’s a post for another day…

So what do you have to look forward to next?  Hopefully results from my three-step plan outlined above.  And an interesting look at the history of Lithuanian immigrants in Chicago.  Hint:  Upton Sinclair took notice…



Snow Reverie

Two days ago it snowed, a light fluffy, non sticky snow, the stuff of bitter cold weather and bright clear skies.  Yesterday it blew, and the crisp edges of the driveway were blurred into little duney drifts.  Around town, those stretches of road with no windbreaks were heaped up with snow.  It was just the like snow on the stretch of County A starting just in front of my parents’ old house and heading east. It was a Bermuda Triangle-esque stretch of country road, where any bit of wind would sweep the snow off of the flat, plowed fields and send it racing across the prairie, to be caught and heaped up on the roadway.  We kids always thought that those swirling eddies of snow across the two lane road looked like the action of hockey players, racing and jostling across the ice.  Every winter, people heading east out of Janesville would be caught unawares by the treacherous stretch of windswept road just past the farmhouse, and they’d end up in the ditch.  Ours was the nearest house, and the drivers would inevitably end up at our back door, asking to use the phone, back in the day when cell phones weren’t a thing.  The kitchen phone was wall-mounted with a curly white cord that cold easily stretch into the unheated “back room” as we called it;  I know because perched on the washing machine was the only place that anyone could have a private conversation in the house. If mom was home alone with us kids, she’d make any single men make the call from the back room, with the door shut firmly between us and them, the white coil of cord mashed in the door jamb.  If there was a woman or kids however, a spot was generally cleared for them at the kitchen table.  One time, dad even gave the mom and kids donuts.  But that was a time that the mom was crying because she’d hit a farm dog in the road further up the way, not because of snow.


That swirly, windy, country snow would sometimes appear pink, as the debris from the silos filled with drying soybeans at the farm across the road would dust the top layers of it pink.  One winter the snow heaped up dirty  brown on the bottom, clean white next, and a pinkish layer on the top that looked for all the world like a cross section of the Neopolitan ice cream in the half-gallon box container in the freezer compartment of the house on County A.