My Family in McKees Rocks

In almost every old industrial town in Appalachia, the rich people populated the hilltops and lived on their capital, the poor people lived on the river flats on their brawn, and the middle-class people lived in the houses that climbed the hills, working as clerks or laborers or running small businesses.

I come from people who clung to the hillsides by their fingernails. 

My ancestors were bookkeepers and barkeepers, laborers, tailors and builders.  They owned furniture stores and barber shops.  When one business failed, they started another one.  They came to America from the Rhineland, Austria and Ireland, and persevered through Depression and war.  The lucky ones had real estate, or the proceeds from selling a business, to provide a retirement income.  Most of them worked until they dropped dead. 

Their lives played out primarily in McKees Rocks (see my previous blog post and The History of McKees Rocks) and Sheraden.  Here are some of their stories….

The Kriegers in McKees Rocks & Sheraden

My great-grandfather Frank Krieger was born in Austria in 1878.  His parents immigrated to the United State in 1889 and 1893.  Frank stayed behind and didn’t join his parents in Bridgeville, PA, until 1897.  In 1903, he married Suzanne Steiner, also a native of Austria.  He was a steel mill laborer and did well enough that he bought a house on Merwyn Avenue in Sheraden, where he died in 1936.

Frank and Suzanne Krieger with their 5 children about 1929: Pauline, Edward, Walter, Emma and Wilbert. I think this picture was taken on Merwyn Avenue

My grandfather Walter Krieger was the third of Frank and Suzanne’s five children.  A serial entrepreneur, the business that finally brought him prosperity was as a building contractor.  He bought a second home, a vacation cottage on Pymatuning Lake where our family gathered every summer.  When my parents bought their first house, Grandpap bought all their landscaping plants and helped to establish them, and bought me a swing set for the back yard.  That once-poor carpenter, who was frequently on the brink of insolvency during the Depression, must have been so proud to be able to do those things for his family. 

Grandpap retired to Florida in his 50s after a heart attack left him unable to continue working.  He lived a long life after that, dying in Florida in 1993 at the age of 85.  Grandpap was extraordinarily lucky to survive that heart attack back in the early 1960s.  His father and every single one of his siblings died of heart attacks.

The Marxes in McKees Rocks

Grandpap Krieger lost his father and his first wife in one terrible year in 1936.  My grandmother Margaret Marx Krieger, died of breast cancer at 28, leaving two little boys:  my dad and my Uncle Skip.  Her twin, Aunt Elsie, was an amazing warrior against breast cancer.  Diagnosed in her 30s, she underwent the treatments available in that era. She had her only child a few years later at 40, beat breast cancer AGAIN in her 50s, and lived another 30 years. 

Margaret and Elsie’s brother, Ed Marx, was a vivid, beloved figure in my
childhood.  All the Marx men were tall, thin and fidgety.  If he was
upright, Uncle Ed was pacing.  If he was seated, his legs were crossed and
the top leg was wiggling.  Ed’s brother, Fred, had the same quirk, as did
my father and Uncle Skip. 

Uncle Ed’s restlessness extended to business.  He and Grandpap Krieger tried a couple of business ventures together during the Depression.  Eventually, Uncle Ed owned a barber shop and dry cleaners in McKees Rocks with a partner (see my previous blog post).  Later, he owned a bar on Chartiers Avenue.  Like Grandpap, he eventually did well enough to retire – although his wife, my Aunt Mary, said that had as much to do with her steady work at the YMCA as with Uncle Ed’s many business ventures!

I know less about my Marx great-grandparents than my other ancestors.  Great-grandpap Marx was a tailor in McKees Rocks, and owned an apartment building on Woodward Avenue. My parents rented an apartment from him in the first years of their marriage.  I was born in that apartment on Woodward. 

Great-grandpap Marx’s apartment building on Woodward, where I spent the first 3 years of my life. Not sure who the folks in the picture are.

The Yaggis in McKees Rocks

My mother’s family came from Ireland and Alsace – the province along the Rhine that is German or French, depending who won the last war. 

The Yaggis came from an Asatian town called Befferen-on-the Rhine.  When Al and I went to eastern France in 2012, we tried unsuccessfully to locate Befferen-on-the Rhine. It’s either been absorbed into a larger town or it was wiped out in one of the wars.  My Yaggi great-great-grandfather, Christian, was born in Befferen-on the-Rhine in 1823. He immigrated to the United States as a young man, settling in Allegheny City and working for a brewer named Lutz on Spring Garden Avenue.  Christian married Anna Kilmeyer and they had 3 children before Christian’s death.   Anna’s second marriage produced 3 more children. 

Christian and Anna’s middle child, Fred, was my great-grandfather.  My mother remembers that he had a German accent, although he was born in Allegheny. He clerked in dry goods stores in Allegheny and the West End, before coming to McKees Rocks and going into the furniture business with his brother-in-law John Yunker, in 1900.  

My great-grandparents, Fred and Mary Yaggi

In 1886, Fred married Mary Linsler, and they had 4 children in a house on Second Street in McKees Rocks.  The eldest, Sylvester, went into the furniture business with his father.  My grandfather, Norbert (called “Nock”), was the youngest. He made his career as a bookkeeper at Duquesne Light, and earned a pension that supported him and my grandmother comfortably until they died.  I loved spending time at their house on Wayne Ave in McKees Rocks when I was a little girl, climbing trees with my Walsh cousins and buying penny candy at Zimmermans. 

Dinner at the Yaggi’s, early 1950s. L-R: Aunt Helen Grant Graham, “Little” Helen Graham, Barbara Graham, Uncle Walter Graham, Grandma Yaggi, Grandpap Yaggi, “Grandma Great”, my mom Roberta Yaggi before her marriage, Richard Yaggi, Mary Graham

Grandpap Yaggi’s VERY Short Military Service

When I was a little girl, I asked Grandpap Yaggi if he ever fought in a war and he said, very brusquely, “No, I was too young.”  But, at his funeral in 1989, my grandmother was presented with an American flag, as the widow of a veteran.  She finally revealed that Grandpap had been in the Army for exactly one day in World War I:  November 10, 1918, with a discharge date of November 11. Armistice Day!  Grandpap longed to enlist for the war but he was young enough to need his parents’ permission, which they refused.  Within weeks of turning 20, he was at the recruiting office, but too late to be a hero.  I finally understood why the war was a sore subject with him.  We have a copy of his discharge papers, and a receipt for his pay for one day’s service:  a grand total of $2. 

The Grants in McKees Rocks

Grandma Yaggi was Mary Angela Grant before she married Grandpap in 1923.  Born in 1901, Grandma was a flapper and bragged about being the first girl in the Rocks to shingle her hair and wear galoshes and short dresses.  Her grandparents, John Grant and Mary Ann O’Neil, were born in Ireland.  They must have emigrated early in life, because her father Michael Grant was born in Ironton, Ohio in 1870.  Grandma’s mother, Margaret Saunders (Sanders in some records), was born in Brady’s Bend, PA in 1869.  It’s not clear how they ended up in McKees Rocks, but my grandmother and her siblings all grew up in the Norwood section of the Rocks. 

The Grant family around 1918 (L-R): Uncle Jack Grant, my great grandparents Michael and Margaret Grant, Aunt Helen Grant Graham, my grandmother Mary Grant Yaggi.

Great-grandpap Grant worked as a laborer in the railyards and mills of McKees Rocks.  Great-grandma Grant – whom we little ones called “Grandma Great” – lived until I was 4 and resided with my grandparents.  I vaguely remember being afraid of her.  She was so terribly old, and didn’t seem to like little children very much.

The Adventures of Uncle Pat

Another person she didn’t much like was her brother-in-law Patrick Grant, who also lived with my grandparents for many years.  Uncle Pat, a railroad worker, took advantage of an opportunity to go to Russia and to help build the Trans-Siberian Railroad. When the Bolshevik Revolution interrupted the railroad work, Uncle Pat had to escape across Siberia and through Japan.  He brought back a beautiful piece of Japanese embroidery that hangs in my living room today. 

Grandma & Grandpap Yaggi with Uncle Pat sometime in the 1930s
The Japanese embroidery that Uncle Pat brought home around 1919

Uncle Pat invested his Trans-Siberian Railroad money in the American stock market at just the right time to become a paper millionaire.  And stayed in the market just long enough to be wiped out.  Destitute, he moved in with my grandparents at about the same time Grandma Great was widowed and moved in with them.  If you ever think you don’t have enough space in your house, consider this:  My grandparents owned a 6-room house during the Depression and had 3 children at the time, as well as a mother and uncle in residence, and – during one unbelievable summer – also Grandma’s sister and her husband and 2 children.  11 people in a 6-room house with one bathroom.  My grandmother used to eat her meals sitting on the cellar steps because there was no room around the table – and no other way to get a quiet moment. 

Uncle Pat took what work he could find:  tending bar at Corny Mann’s Hotel, a dilapidated place that slumped on a hill above the Windgap Bridge until about 10 years ago.  The building dated to the late 18th century, and unproven stories claim that George Washington once stopped there.  Uncle Pat took a break from bartending during WW2, to build LSTs at Neville Island, but after the war it was back to Corny Mann’s until he died in the 1950s. 

The infamous Corny Mann’s not long before it was demolished

My family in America

There are gaps in what I know about my ancestors and, like so many recently-retired people in their 60s, I am hoping to find time to fill some of those gaps with research.  So, there may be a follow-up blog post on this topic in a year or two.  But, before I close, I want to preview a tribute to my grandmother, Mary Angela Grant Yaggi, that erstwhile flapper.  I adored Grandma, and she deserves a blog entry all her own.  Watch for that in a couple of weeks.

The story of my ancestors is the story of America, and the story of every industrial town like McKees Rocks.  They failed and tried again and failed again until they succeeded. And they did that in an era when failure meant not unemployment compensation and COBRA, but destitution and eviction.  They sweated over lumber or molten steel, or squinted at ledger books, and built a world where their descendants could be accountants, project managers, auditors, analysts, software developers (LOTS and LOTS of software developers; it is the most common profession among living generations of my family).  The little town where they lived and worked and loved and died to make our lives possible has seen better days. But I’ll always have a deep fondness for the Rocks.  It’s like a grandparent to me:  wrinkled and age-spotted and unlovely, but loved nevertheless for its history and for what it gave. 


Chartiers Creek at McKees Rocks

When I last wrote, Al and I had traced Chartiers Creek from its origins in rural Washington County all the way to Bridgeville.  We are finally at end of our journey, in McKees Rocks, where the creek empties into the Ohio River – and where my own family has deep roots.

Early History of McKees Rocks

The town of McKees Rocks has a long and colorful history.  It was first settled about 5000 years ago.  The very first settlers grew corn and beans in the flatlands along the Ohio River now known as The Bottoms.  They hunted in the forests of the Ohio Valley and fished in the rivers and streams.  We know that they must have fought with other Indians, because they left behind remnants of their arrow and throwing spears.  But their ultimate fate is unknown.

The next settlers of The Rocks were the Adena (800 BC – 100 AD) and Hopewell (100 – 500 AD) peoples, the builders of the once-famous Mckees Rocks mound.  Mound Building peoples settled all across eastern North America, and the McKees Rocks mound was the oldest in Pennsylvania and among the oldest in the country. The mounds were apparently used as both burial places and sites for ceremonial and spiritual rites.  The McKees Rocks mound was surveyed and partially excavated in 1896, and slowly destroyed in the 20th century, by a combination of quarrying and collapse into the Ohio River.  Only the smallest remnant of the Mound can be seen today.

The Mound in the late 19th century

Peter Chartiers got a creek and a township named after him, but it’s Alexander McKee whose name lives on in the town at the confluence of Charters Creek and the Ohio River.

The McKees

In the era after the Mound People, many different Woodland Indians moved in and out of the Ohio River valley.  When the Europeans began trading in the area in the 18th century, the Delaware and Seneca Indians predominated.  The French were the first Europeans to consistently trade with the Indians, most prominently our old friend Peter Chartiers (see my earlier blog post about the West End of Pittsburgh). 

McKee was born on August 14, 1740, in the Pathe Valley, near the Susquehanna River in south-central Pennsylvania.  His father, Thomas McKee, had been a trader along the Susquehanna and later at the headwaters of the Ohio.  Legend has it that his mother spent some of her childhood years in Shawnee captivity, and that is was she who taught him Indian tongues.

On August 17, 1756, young Alexander enlisted in the 3rd Battalion of the Pennsylvania Colony Regiment, and served in the French & Indian War.  Later, he and his father both worked closely with George Croghan, who was put in charge of Indian affairs in the Ohio valley in 1758.  Alexander spoke several Indian languages fluently, and got wind of Pontiac’s uprising in 1863 when he noticed that the Indians had started trading their furs for lead and gunpowder.  He warned Croghan of the coming uprising, and was in charge of all communications with the Indians during the siege of Pittsburgh in June and July of 1763.

After the battle of Bushy Run resulted in Pontiac’s defeat, Colonel Bouquet rewarded McKee with a 1400-acre estate, including all of present-day McKees Rocks and a strip of present-day Pittsburgh on the west side of Chartiers Creek.  McKee was also named commissary at Fort Pitt, a post that he held until the British abandoned the fort in 1772.  After Pontiac’s war, McKee also resumed his trade with the Indians and became the Indian agent for the area.  His estate prospered and he entertained George Washington for dinner in his grand house called Fairview on October 20, 1770.

This picture of George Washington and Christopher Gist meeting with Delaware Indians at McKees Rocks used to hang in the PNC Bank branch on Chartiers Avenue .
Alexander McKee’s mansion Fairview, before it was razed by the P&LE Railroad in 1902.

But with the coming of the American Revolution, McKee’s luck changed.  He sided with the Tories and was run out of the town that bears his name in March of 1778.  His estate was taken over by his brother, James, who had backed the right side.  James lived on the estate until his death in 1853.

Alexander made his way to Detroit, where he worked as a liaison between the Delaware Indians and the British.  Later, he was appointed Superintendent for Indian Affairs in Canada and moved to Ontario.  He died in Maldeen, Ontario, on January 14, 1799.

Recent History of McKees Rocks

In the decades that followed, the McKees’ namesake town prospered into a railroad and manufacturing center, home to the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad, the Pressed Steel Car Company, the Shoen Works of Carnegie-Illinois Steel, and many other thriving industries.  19th-century immigrants to the Rocks were mainly from Germany, but in the first half of the 20th century, immigrants from eastern and southern Europe poured into the rail yards and factories of McKees Rocks.  They settled in row houses in The Bottoms along the Ohio. 

Housing in McKees Rocks Bottoms mid 20th century.

The Rocks in the early 20th century was a bustling little town, boasting at least two movie theaters, several grocery stores and supermarkets, a skating arena, and the dry cleaners, bakeries, and other little shops that allowed people of that era to thrive running their own small businesses.  My family has home movies of a Little League parade in the early 1960s.  The population of the Rocks was so large and active that they fielded several teams who never had to leave the Rocks for opponents to play.  I remember going to my cousins’ games where dust rose from the parched fields and the smells of diesel fuel and burning coke were the perfume of prosperity.  My own family’s history is very bound up in McKees Rocks’ glory days, and I will be blogging about that next time.

Like so many industrial towns, McKees Rocks’ fortunes declined in the late 20th century.  The factories closed, the P&LE Railroad shrunk and was finally sold, and the little businesses along Chartiers Avenue and Broadway slowly began to close.  The dry cleaner where my father worked as a teenager burned down about 20 years ago, and the shell is still a charred gap on Chartiers Avenue. 

My Uncle Ed Marx owned the Marx half of Marx & Petraitis Cleaners/Barber Shop pictured here in the late 1950s. My dad worked there as a teenager.

But the community is fighting back hard.  For 50 years, the Focus On Renewal organization has been providing social services such as a food pantry, early-childhood education, mental health support services, arts programs and small business incubation.  Some steel fabricating factories remain, CSX Railroad has increased their presence, the Roxian theater has re-opened, and the community is known for Pierogies Plus and Mancini’s Bakery.  I liked to think that old Peter Chartiers and James and Alexander McKee would be proud of their community’s tough, resilient spirit. 

Sources:

Images of America:  McKees Rocks and Stowe Township – Bernadette Sulzer Agreen with the McKees Rocks Historical Society

https://historicpittsburgh.org/islandora/object/pitt%3A31735066234331/viewer#page/1/mode/2up


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