Over the past several months, I’ve shared a lot of information on the Bier family, and there’s still a lot more to share. Why? Because I’m lucky. My Grandma Bier was a collector, and I received a trove of primary sources, artifacts, and already-done work from her. When it comes to the Bier family, I feel more like an archivist or docent than a true genealogist; there just weren’t that many difficult questions to be answered. Just an ever-increasing mountain of things to be digitized, cataloged, and preserved.
So for the new year, in addition to continuing to tell the Valentine Bier story, I want to take on a new challenge. The biggest challenge on my genealogical horizon will involve making a dent in my husband’s Kim and Lee heritage given that, (a) I don’t speak Korean, (b) well over the half the population of Korea shares the surnames “Kim” and “Lee” and (c) he himself knows next to nothing about his family story. I’m going to set that particular challenge aside until my skills are a bit more honed.
Instead, I’m setting myself a different challenge: my maternal grandmother’s family. My Grandma was named Annella Teresia (Yench) Cousin. People called her Nell, Nellie, in addition to mom, aunt, sister, grandma and great-grandma. She was a lovely, loving woman and deserves a post in her own right. For now, though, I went to set the challenge of discovering a bit more about her family history.
See, in all of my family trees, her story truncates with the names of her parents: Thomas & Helen Yench. According to my mom, they defected from Lithuania and never talked about nor communicated with relatives in the old country again, save for once receiving a photograph of someone laid out in a coffin. So, I thought this would be a fun challenge both for myself and for my readers to live vicariously. I’m trying to convince you that genealogy is fun, after all.
Where to begin? In the words of Glinda the Good Witch of the North, “It’s always best to start at the beginning” So, with no further ado, here’s what I know about my Grandma Nell’s family history:
She was born May 17, 1925 in Hartshorne, Oklahoma. I know this is true because my mother told me so. However, in the world of genealogy, this isn’t good enough. I need documentation of both those facts.
Item #1: Verify her birthdate and place, ideally with a copy of her birth certificate.
She was baptised on July 28, 1925, at the Church of the Holy Rosary, also in Hartshorne, Oklahoma. Her godparents were Enoch and Katherine Polonis. Her date of birth is verified on her baptism certificate.
Her father’s name was Thomas Yench. Yench is a anglicanization of the Lithuanian name “Jankus.” He was a coal miner when the family lived in Oklahoma. He arrived in the United states in 1901 and applied for citizenship in 1907. The Declaration of Intention, below, is rich with interesting details, including that he was 5′ 10″ and had gray eyes.
Question #2: Why does he list his country of birth as Poland rather than Lithuania?
Question #3: Who were his parents and brothers and sisters, if any?
Her mother’s name was Helen Shareva. At least that’s what my mother told me. I have no record of what her unmarried name actually was, and further a cousin of my mother’s reports that her last name was actually Dubas! What’s up with that? And finally, there was a photograph amongst my grandmother’s things showing a picture of her mother, Helen, with another woman identified on the back as “her sister from St. Louis.”
Question #4: What was Helen Yench’s actual maiden name? Who were her family? When did she emigrate?
Nell was the youngest of seven children. This is confirmed by census records and numerous, amusing photographs.
By 1930 the family was living in Proviso, Illinois, where Thomas was working at Richardson’s Battery Factory. The federal census of that year shows a lot of other interesting things as well. Their neighbors were all uniformly Lithuanian and Italian. Two of the boys were working out of the house at that time as well. Finally, the census includes a field for “age at first marriage” and a little math indicates that not only was Thomas married previously, but so was Helen.
Question #5: Why did the family move to Illinois?
Question #6: What are Thomas and Helen’s previous marital histories?
In 1936, when Nell was 11 years old, her mother, Helen, died of pneumonia; this is verified in the Illinois Deaths and Stillbirths Index of 1916-1947. It was at her mother’s funeral that Nell learned some shocking news. I’d recorded the story in my mother’s words some time ago:
Bob, Joe, and Fed were Thomas’s children by his first wife. Nell never realized they were her half brothers until her mother, Helen, died. She died of pneumonia when Nell was about 12 years old. At the funeral, she overheard some neighbors talking about how Helen treated those older boys just like they were her own sons. Nell got mad, yelled, and ran from the room. –Janice (Cousin) Bier
So, this is further confirmation that Thomas was married before he married Helen.
My mother also made a point of recording her mother, Nell’s, recollections of Helen, few as they were:
I remember her ironing. She talked with the other Lithuanian neighbor ladies. I called her mama. She used to have to yell at the boys. The girls would help, but I was so much younger, I didn’t have to help as much. My mom was stocky. I don’t remember her singing. She was a full-time homemaker. She was born in Lithuania. I think they came over becvause the Russians were taking over. –Nell (Yench) Cousin
After her mother died, my Grandma Nell was essentially raised by her two older sisters, Ronnie & Annie, before moving to Wisconsin and meeting my grandpa, Fred, and the rest is much more recent history.
So where will I begin? How will I even begin to answer those questions? It was hard for me to NOT start the work before posting this; on some level I wanted to be sure that they were answerable. But I did it–I held off. I didn’t even call my mom to clear some points up. So stay tuned.
If you are reading this and have recollections, questions, comments, or answers about the Yench family history, please comment below!