Robert M. Riddle

In the 1840s, at least six newspapers were published in Pittsburgh, including the Pittsburgh Catholic, the Daily Gazette, the Daily Morning Post, the Mystery, the Spirit of the Age and the Commercial Journal.  But, only one editor was brave enough to not only publish the work of a female journalist, but to support her when she became the first woman in the United States to start her own newspaper.1 Robert M. Riddle, editor of the Commercial Journal, and later mayor of Pittsburgh, deserves to be better known.

The year was 1847.  The abolitionist newspaper The Albatross had just ceased publishing, and the Liberty Party (a forerunner of today’s Republican Party) was without an advocating newspaper. Jane Grey Swisshelm marched into Robert Riddle’s office one day in the autumn of 1847 and announced that she intended to start her own abolitionist paper and she intended that Riddle should print it.

The Pittsburgh Saturday Visiter

At the time when she marched into Riddle’s office, Swisshelm had been writing for the Spirit of the Age and its successor the Commercial Journal for about three years.  So, she had newspaper experience.  But, even then, before competition from television and the internet, newspaper publishing was often unprofitable.  The Albatross and the Mystery had folded in the past two years.  It was far from obvious that Pittsburgh needed another newspaper. Riddle initially tried to talk Swisshelm out of her scheme.  In her 1880 memoir, she quotes his exact words: “Are you insane?”  He begged her to think it over, consult her husband and her friends.  He reminded her that she would be a woman working in a newsroom completely dominated by men, which would seem scandalous to many.

As in so many turning points in her life, Jane Swisshelm was unpersuadable.   She wore down her husband’s objections, she wore down Riddle’s objections, and she invested most of her inheritance in the newspaper she named the Pittsburgh Saturday Visiter. (Yes, that was how she spelled ‘visitor’; she insisted that it was correct, and people soon grew tired of trying to argue Jane out of anything).

Pioneers

Masthead of Pittsburgh Saturday Visiter

Swisshelm published the first issue of the Visiter on December 20, 1847, and the newspaper had 6000 subscribers by the end of 1848. 

Jane admitted that interest in the new paper was partly driven by the sensation of a lady publisher.  As Riddle had predicted, the public was both intrigued and scandalized.  Jane was small, pretty, and looked younger than her 32 years.  No photographs of Robert Riddle exist, but he was only 35 when he started printing the Visiter, and Jane’s own account describes him as “one of the most elegant and polished gentlemen in the city, with fine physique and fascinating manners.”  Jane’s biographer, Sylvia Hoffert, points out that “Neither Jane nor Riddle had ever worked as an equal in an office with a member of the opposite sex.  And they knew only one other man and woman in Pittsburgh who had done so.”  They had to make it up as they went along. 

To demonstrate that their relationship was strictly business, Riddle had the shutters removed from the windows of the Commercial Journal offices. So, the curious public had a direct view into everything that went on in the newsroom.  He and Jane took care never to be seen alone together.  If Riddle escorted Jane anywhere, his wife was also present.  Jane went out of her way to look unattractive and unfeminine when she was working in the newspaper office. She was so successful that Riddle at one point asked her why she was always covering her hair with “hideous caps.”

Business Partnership: Robert M. Riddle & Jane Grey Swisshelm

Jane Grey Swisshelm in 1850, tbe era of her partnership with Riddle. Sadly, no pictures of Riddle exist. A 1950 history of Pittsburgh’s mayors noted him as one of only 6 mayors of whom the authors could find no likenesses, but they noted that he was tall and handsome.

Their partnership worked well.  Published weekly, the Visiter carried political news and commentary and market reports, and re-printed literary and general-interest articles from other newspapers.  Hoffert speculates that Riddle had reasons of his own for supporting the Visiter.  He certainly knew and respected Jane’s work as a writer and reporter.  But the Commercial Journal published mostly business news such as commodity prices, steamboat schedules and advertisements.  Riddle published some political news, but tended to stay away from editorializing, perhaps to avoid antagonizing Pittsburgh’s business community.  Hoffert surmises that Riddle saw printing the Visiter as a way of promoting abolitionism, women’s rights and temperance, but at a deniable remove. 

The two didn’t agree on everything.  They disagreed ferociously about the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.  Riddle was an abolitionist, but counseled obedience to the Act as the law of the land.  Swisshelm remarked in her newspaper that “any of our southern friends who want business done in their line in our dirty city, should direct their communications to our good friend, Robert M. Riddle.” 

As Riddle predicted, even with 6000 subscribers, the Visiter struggled to make a profit. In 1849, desperate to raise some capital, Swisshelm sold half her interest in the paper to Riddle.  Later that year, Jane’s brother-in-law, William Swisshelm, bought Riddle out.  But by 1854, the newspaper was bankrupt, Jane’s estate was gone, and she and William sold the Visiter to Riddle. He continued to publish it under the new name the Family Journal and Saturday Visiter.  But Pittsburgh’s days of boasting the only female newspaper publisher in the country were over.  However, Jane went on to publish another newspaper in St. Cloud, MN, and to work as a hospital and battlefield nurse in the Civil War.  Read more about that in my upcoming book Righteous2.

Robert M. Riddle early life

But what of Riddle?  Let’s go back to the beginning….

The Riddles were a prominent family in Pittsburgh in the 19th century.  Dr. D. H. Riddle was the pastor of Third Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Samuel Riddle ran for state assembly in 1834, John M. Riddle ran a school on Wood Street, and another Riddle published the first Pittsburgh directory, Riddle’s Directory. J.W. Riddle was Treasurer of Allegheny Savings Bank.  Mid-19th century directories also list Riddles as drovers, shopkeepers, a whip manufacturer, a millwright, an attorney, a carpenter, a “cage maker,” and two “widows.” 

Robert’s father, James Riddle, was an attorney, a stock broker, a judge and a very well-known and well-respected person in the Pittsburgh community.  He ran for the U.S. Senate as a Democrat in 1825, but lost.

After attaining his degree at Washington & Jefferson College, Robert formed the wholesale mercantile firm, Riddle & Forsyth, with partner Jacob Forsyth.  The business failed, and Robert went to Philadelphia to work in banking, as Forsyth picked up the pieces of Riddle & Forsyth and went back in the wholesale business on his own. 

By 1837, Riddle was back in Pittsburgh editing a Whig newspaper, the Daily Advocate & Statesman.  He served as Pittsburgh postmaster from 1841-5, and had the distinction of appointing the first letter carrier.  Before that, everyone had to go to the post office to pick up their mail.

In 1845, he took over the Spirit of the Age and renamed it the Commercial Journal, which is where we first met him.  In 1858, his health failing, he sold the Commercial Journal to Thomas Bigham, an ardent Republican whose house was a stop on the underground railroad.  The Commercial Journal was merged with the Pittsburgh Gazette in 1861, forming the Daily Pittsburgh Gazette & Commercial Journal.

Robert M. Riddle in politics

Riddle was prominent in the Whig party, serving on many committees and delegations.  In 1853, he ran as a Whig against Democratic incumbent mayor William B. Guthrie, and won with 1887 votes to Guthrie’s 1568.    His one-year term as mayor seems to have been uneventful, and he was not re-nominated, but this anti-Riddle campaign ditty lives on in Pittsburgh’s historical records:              

An avid Pittsburgh promoter, Riddle was involved in the effort to extend the Chambersburg Railroad to Pittsburgh.  He was also a founder of the Republican Party and was present at the first Republican National Convention in Lafayette Hall in Pittsburgh in 1856.  Robert M. Riddle died of inflammatory rheumatism on December 18, 1858, and is buried in Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh.

In mid-19th-century Pittsburgh directories, Robert Riddle is listed as residing or doing business at various addresses below the 100 blocks of Second and Third Streets. These addresses no longer exist. Their approximate locations would have been between Stanwix St. and Liberty Ave., around the current location of Stanwix Place. Riddle is also listed as doing business on Grant St., address not specified. Grant Street was probably where the Commercial Journal offices were located.
On this 1853 map of downtown Pittsburgh, I circled where Riddle’s addresses used to be.
This block of Third Ave., between Wood and Market, is where Riddle’s father, Judge James Riddle, operated his brokerage and law offices, and possibly also where he lived. Robert Riddle may have been born on this block.

Notes and sources

NOTES:

  1. Jane Grey Swisshelm was, to my knowledge, the first American woman to start her own newspaper, but she wasn’t the first female newspaper publisher.  That honor belongs to Elizabeth Timothy, who assumed the role of publisher of the South Carolina Gazette when her husband, Lewis Timothy, died.  She later handed the newspaper over to her son.
  2. Publication date of Righteous is not yet determined, based on the current virus crisis and the sale of my original publisher to a larger house.

SOURCES:

Hoffert, Sylvia, Jane Grey Swisshelm, An Unconventional Life; University of North Carolina Press, 2004

Swisshelm, Jane Grey, Half A Century; self-published by author, 1880

https://historicpittsburgh.org/islandora/object/pitt%3A00ach3238m/viewer#page/1/mode/2up

https://historicpittsburgh.org/islandora/object/pitt%3A31735064610037/viewer#page/6/mode/2up

https://historicpittsburgh.org/islandora/object/pitt%3A00hc03974m/viewer#page/136/mode/

https://historicpittsburgh.org/islandora/object/pitt%3A00avl7273m/viewer#page/30/mode/2up

https://historicpittsburgh.org/islandora/object/pitt%3A31735056287505/viewer#page/414/mode/2up


Doughboy

After I posted the short-story about my grandmother, I remembered this story that I wrote about 15 years ago, based on my grandfather’s very short service in World War I. In this story, I imagine my grandmother as having a teenage crush on the older Nock Yaggi, and I hint at a future for my grandparents very different from the lives they actually lived. This story has never been published before…

We don’t have any pictures of Grandpap in his doughboy uniform, but this one was taken at about the right time.

               Nock shouldered his way through the crowds to approach Mike’s coffin.  He wouldn’t see Mike, of course.  Mike’s body was buried somewhere France.  But atop the coffin stood a picture of Mike in his Doughboy uniform, taken right before he shipped out.  Elaborately framed in leaf-and-flower carved gilt, draped with black ribbon, Mike gazed defiantly at the viewer frowning a little as if skeptical that his glory days would be brief, that his life would shortly end in a dusty trench under a foreign sun.

               The atmosphere at McDermott’s Funeral Home was almost festive on this hot August night in 1918.  Bodies were packed elbow-to-elbow, smelling of sweat and of suppers of cabbage or garlicky sausage.  The men’s necks glistened with perspiration over their starched collars, and the girls’ frothy white dresses wrinkled from the press of the crowd.  The matrons forming a protective circle around Mrs. Yerkovich discreetly dabbed at their faces with handkerchiefs to pat away the sheen of sweat.  Everyone talked at once, in low voices, of the first local boy to fall in the Great War.

               Nock knew it wouldn’t be polite to admit it, but he envied Mike’s hero status.  At least he got to go.  Almost everyone except Nock got to go.  Mike, Frank Loeffler, and Leo Braun all enlisted the day after high school graduation.  Even Leo’s younger brother, Karl, was allowed to skip his last year of school and sign up.  Only Nock was forced by his family to wait until his 18th birthday, still two months distant.

               They just wanted to keep him a slave in the family furniture business, was what  Nock had been a slave to that furniture store for as long as he could remember.  As soon as he could hold a broom, he was sweeping the sidewalk in front of the store.  Every spring, he painted the wooden stoop, and his parents had insisted that he take the business course in high school so that he could keep the books for the store when he graduated.  He had spent his summer sitting on a stool in the office behind the store, adding up sums in a ledger, unspeakably bored, the electric fan solemnly shaking its head back and forth, back and forth, as if forbidding him to imagine any other life.  Once every morning and once every afternoon, he stepped out into the alley behind the store for a cigarette.  If he wasn’t interrupted by a delivery, or by a neighbor or workman taking a shortcut through the alley, he could daydream undisturbed by debits and credits.

               Nock wasn’t sure where he was meant to make his life, but it was surely somewhere other than Yaggi & Junker Furniture in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, four miles down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh.  Did no one but him see the irony of being in the furniture business with a family named Junker?  When Nock pointed this out to Sylvester, his brother just rolled his eyes and said, “Yeah, Nock, real funny.  You oughta be in vaudeville.”  Sylvester, 24 and married, was humorless as far as Nock could tell.  Well, he could work in the furniture store with the Junkers for the rest of his life if he wanted.  Nock had bigger plans.  Well, not plans exactly.  He didn’t know for sure what he wanted to do, but he knew it wouldn’t have anything to do with ledgers and that it wouldn’t happen in McKees Rocks.

               Maybe he belonged in California, working for the movies, or on a ranch in Montana, or in Africa hunting wild game like Roosevelt.  Best of all would be to join his friends in France, fighting to make the world safe for democracy.  Mike had gotten a leave before he shipped out and Nock’s heart twisted with envy of the snappy Doughboy uniform, and the gun.  Working in the furniture business had given Nock an appreciation for fine wood, and Mike’s Springfield rifle was one high-quality article:  glossy and substantial.  Nock itched to heft it to his shoulder and hook his index finger around the satiny steel trigger, but Mike wouldn’t let him try it out.  He said he had orders not to let civilians handle his equipment, but Nock was pretty sure he was just showing off.

               After standing solemnly before Mike’s picture for a respectful amount of time, he began to make his way back through the crowds, so that he could slip into the alley and have a smoke.  There was that silly little Mary Grant watching him.  The minute he’d walked into McDermott’s, she came bouncing right up to him, bold as a stallion,  “Hi, Nock!” with a big sassy grin on her face, swinging her head so that the braid down her back tossed.  For crying out loud, she was maybe 14, didn’t even put her hair up yet.  Anyway, if she had her eye on him she should just forget it for a lot of reasons.  First, Nock doubted that he would ever get married.  Second, if he ever did get married, first he intended to see the world, starting with France, where he was pretty sure that buxom French mademoiselles were happy to be kissed or more by the sharply-dressed American soldiers come to save their country from the Huns for them.

               Nock had escaped to the alley and lit his cigarette and was just enjoying himself imagining the red wine and the mademoiselle and what her breasts might look like, when he felt a tap on his left shoulder.  He turned his head in that direction, but felt a swift movement behind him and spun his head the other way to see Mary Grant’s grinning face behind him on the right. 

               She laughed.  “Hi, Nock Yaggi.”

               “Hi.”  He made only the briefest eye contact and inhaled some tobacco, hoping to give her the hint to go away.

               Instead, she leaned against the wall behind him, one leg bent, with its foot flat on McDermott’s wall.  “Shame about Mike.”

               “Yeah.  You’re going to get your dress dirty leaning on that wall.”

               “I don’t mind.  It washes.”

               “Free country, I guess.”

               “Well, anyway, he was a hero and all.”

               Nock tossed the remains of his cigarette across the alley.  “Yeah.  Well, I’m going as soon as I turn 18.”

               “I though you were already 18.”

               “October 10.  I’m signing up that very day.  My parents can’t stop me once I’m 18.  I’m not so sure I’ll ever come back to McKees Rocks.  I’d like to see what it’s like in New York City or maybe out west, after France.  Or maybe I’ll even stay in France while after the war.  I don’t know.”

               “Oh, France.  I’d just love to see France.”

               He glanced over at her.  “Well, you wouldn’t like it much now.  Men shooting at each other across barbed wire.  It’s no place for a little girl.”

               Mary’s freckled cheeks flushed.  “I’m 15, you know.  Anyway, I’m talking about Paris, and I’m talking about after we win the war.  And first I’m going to New York to sew costumes for the stage.  Maybe I’ll even go out west to Hollywood and sew costumes for the movies.”

               “Well, that’s nice.”  He tapped out another cigarette and lit it, looking straight ahead and moodily blowing the smoke out of his lower lip.

               “Could I try that?”

               “What?  Smoking?”

               “Yes.”

               Nock glanced around the alley.  “What do you want to do that for?  You’ll just get in trouble.  Nice girls don’t smoke.”

               “I just want to see what it’s like.”

               He glanced both ways again and then passed her the cigarette.  “Don’t inhale too deep the first time.  You’ll get sick.”

               He watched her anxiously as she inched the cigarette towards her lips and hesitantly sucked.  She immediately choked and began to cough.

               “See?  I told you,” he said.

               She held the cigarette away from him, stifling more coughing.  “No, wait.  Let me try it again,” she gasped.

               “You’ll get sick,” he insisted.

               Mary ignored him and inhaled again, turning away from him.  This time, she emitted only one stifled cough.

               She passed the cigarette back to him.  “I just wanted to see what it was like.”

               “Well, it’s not for girls.  You know, New York City’s really no place for a girl all by herself either.  What do your parents say about that?  Where would you live?”

               “They have hotels where the girls live who work on the stage.  They all live together like sisters.”

               “Oh.  It’s like that out west if you work on a ranch.  All the guys bunk in together.  I might do that.  Or I might go to work in the movies, too.  I know bookkeeping, so I think I could do bookkeeping for a movie company, just to get my foot in the door, then maybe they’d let me do something more interesting.”  He had gotten this idea a minute ago, when Mary talked about sewing for the movies.

               “That’s a good idea.”

               “Mary?” Once of Mary’s skinny friends, a girl in a black and white sailor dress, poked her head out the door into the alley.  “Your mother’s getting ready to leave.  She’s looking for you.”

               “I have to go,” Mary said.  “Maybe I’ll see you around before you go to France.  Good luck.”

               “Same to you.”  He finished his cigarette and went back in to pay his respects to Mrs. Yerkovich.

               Nock counted backwards from October 10 and marked on his office calendar the number of days until his 18th birthday.  Monday through Saturday, from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m., he perched on his stool in the furniture store office scratching in the books, taking his cigarette breaks in the morning and afternoon, and walking home to have lunch with his parents.  He tried to win a little respect from his father and brother by sharing his modern ideas about the business.  For instance, why couldn’t they sell furniture on credit to some customers?  Nock thought he did a good job of showing that, if they charged a monthly fee for the credit, they would actually make more money on every piece of furniture that they sold.  “We’re the furniture store, not the bank,” Sylvester said dismissively.  His father and Mr. Junker didn’t think that people should be encouraged to go into debt.  They shouldn’t have the coat rack or the armchair until they had saved the money to pay for it.  What about electric appliances?  Couldn’t they look into adding electric appliance to their stock?  Electricity was in almost every home now, and people were crazy about electric vacuum sweepers and the new electric iceboxes.  They could make a lot of money selling electric appliances, Nock argued.  His father calmly explained to him that they knew furniture, that was their business; they didn’t know anything about electric appliances.  Nock felt like screaming at them, Well, then, find out!  Nock wanted to scream, just in general, a good bit of the time.  The whole world was changing, interesting things were happening, and he was trapped in the one place where nothing important was happening and nobody wanted anything to change.  

               Weekday evenings after dinner, Nock stayed home and caught up on the war news in the newspaper, then settled down with National Geographic or Popular Science.  Sometimes on Friday or Saturday evening, he went to the movies or a vaudeville show with some fellows who were still in high school.  One Saturday in September, he met Larry and Bob in front of the Roxian as usual, but Larry greeted him with, “No movie tonight, Nock.  Something more interesting planned.  You like ragtime, right?”  When Nock nodded, Larry continued, “Well, there’s a new kind of music you got to hear, then.  It’s called jazz.  It’s like nothing you ever heard before in your life, Nock.  They play it at some of the clubs in Pittsburgh.”

               They waited for some more of Larry’s and Bob’s friends on the corner, then took the streetcar to Pittsburgh.  Nock was surprised that Mary Grant and some other girls were among the group.  In Pittsburgh, they transferred to another streetcar that took them into the Hill District east of the city center, a neighborhood of poor lighting and drooping, unpainted tenements populated by Syrians and Negroes. The club was claustrophobic with tobacco and another sweet-smelling smoke that Larry said he thought was called “hemp.”

               They could barely see the small corner stage where a quartet of Negroes set up their instruments.  For the next hour, Nock felt as far away as he had ever felt from his white-painted frame house on Second Street with its picket fence and his mother’s hollyhocks.  The music felt dangerous.  It wrapped itself around you like a snake, like the curling smoke from that sweet-smelling hemp.  It got inside you and got your heart racing and your skin tingling, but at the same time you felt too relaxed to move.  Nock was acutely aware of Mary Grant’s freckled arm a few inches from his, imagined that the very tips of its pale, fine hairs were yearning toward the hairs on his own arm.  A few couples danced in the small space between the stage and the crowded tables, moving in a sinuous rhythm that Nock was embarrassed to watch.  Towards the end of the set, a pretty Negro girl in oiled, marcelled waves and a short dress that looked like it was pasted on her wet, sang a few numbers in a husky lisp.

               They were back on Broadway Avenue in the Rocks by 10, had walked the girls home by 11, and congratulated themselves on getting away with an adventure that would have scandalized their parents.

               On Sunday, the Yaggis went to 10:00 Mass, then had an early dinner, with Sylvester and his wife Margaret in attendance, and then the endless dull Sunday afternoon stretched ahead.  The day after the outing to the jazz club, Frederick Yaggi called Nock into the back parlor after Sylvester and Margaret left.  Nock’s father was a square man, short, broad of shoulder and growing broader of waist.  His complexion was florid, his hair the silver blond of a winter sun.  Although born in the United States, he retained traces of his parents’ German accents, an embarrassment in these times, Nock thought.

               His mother was already sitting in the parlor, twisting her handkerchief.  Frederick sat down and gazed at his son sternly for a few long seconds.  Nock’s heart began to flutter.

               “I spoke with John Pfeffermann at church, Norbert, “Frederick began, “and what he told me was distressing to me.”  Nock had been called Nock since babyhood.  To be called by his given name of Norbert could only mean bad news.  He remained silent.

               Frederick continued, “Did you and Lawrence Beck and some other boys escort some young ladies to a Negro club in Pittsburgh last night?”

               Nock kept his eyes locked with his father’s, afraid to look at his mother.  “Yes, sir.”

               “Mr. Pfeffermann makes deliveries to these places on weekends,” Frederick explained.  “He was very shocked to see you young people in such a place.  Do you have an explanation?”

               Nock felt himself flush.  “We wanted to see something more interesting than just another movie.  We wanted to go someplace more interesting than the Rocks for a change.”

               “You are not to go to such a place again,” his father said.  “And you are certainly never to take a young lady to such a place.”

               “Father, we were just listening to music.  It was something really different and exciting.  I – “

               “Do not argue with me, Norbert.  These places are not safe for nice young people.  I expect to be obeyed.”

               “Yes, sir.  May I go now?”  Nock felt a lump rising in his throat.

               “Yes.”  His father waved a hand as if to brush him away.

               Nock left the house and walked up to the end of Chartiers Avenue, fuming.  A fellow couldn’t do anything around here without being found out.  Everything you did was watched and controlled and commented on.  You couldn’t decide anything for yourself, not even what you did for fun or what music you listened to.  He might as well be in prison.

               He passed sagging Corny Mann’s Saloon, and continued up the hill through the cemetery.  He stopped at Mike’s gave and tried to feel sorrow, but all he could feel was anger at his father and the sense of Mike’s being gone, just like he had been since he enlisted, like the other fellows were gone.  Just not stuck in the Rocks like Nock.  It was hard to get the sense of Mike never coming back.  Maybe it would have been different if he’d seen the body in the coffin

               Still full of rage and nervous energy, he strode back down the hill until he found himself at the river.  It was the first cold snap of fall, with a wind that blew away the burnt-sugar smell of the coke ovens and the ashy smoke from the factories.  Nock never minded the fog and smoke and odors from the mills along the rivers.  To him, it was the smell of power and prosperity.  It meant that fellows could find work, and machines could be made and the war won.  It was a visible flexing of American muscle.  He stood for a while and watched the tugs pulling the broad, flat barges down the Ohio, laden with hills of ebony coal or neat rows of timber or steel bars  The railroad tracks along the river clattered with their burden of freight cars carrying corn from Illinois, cotton from Alabama, tanks and trucks to the coast for shipment to France.  Everything and everyone except him seemed to be going somewhere else.  He was marking time.  But not for long.  His birthday was nine days away.

               His father kept him at the office late the night before his birthday for a man-to-man talk.  Frederick solemnly fixed his small gray eyes on his youngest son.  “Do you truly understand what you’re about to do, Norbert?”

               “Yes, Father.”

               Frederick shook his head.  “I’m not sure you do.  I’ve spoken with the Loefflers and the Yerkoviches and others.  The letters that they receive from their young fighting men do not make a pretty picture.”

               “I can read, Father.  I know about the trenches and the gas.”

               “The war has turned in our favor.  I believe that it’s about to be won, with or without you.  Why risk your life?”

               “That’s just one more reason to sign up now, before I miss it altogether!”

               Frederick sighed and removed his glasses.  “Your mother is very distraught.”

               “I know, Father, but I can’t help that.  It’s my life. I have to be able to make my own decisions. I’m not going to die in the war.  I know it.”

               “A million young men already in their graves thought the same.”

               Nock was annoyed to find himself near tears.  “Well, I know I’ll die of boredom if I have to stay here much longer!”

               Frederick gazed at his son in silence for a few seconds.  “Your mother pleaded with me to forbid you to do this thing.  That I cannot do.  I see that you are determined.  So!”  He slapped his ham-hock thighs with his hands, then reached forward and placed a hand on Nock’s shoulder.  “God bless you then, son.  You will be in our prayers every day.”

               Nock went the next day and signed up at the recruiting station on Chartiers. Only a week later, his father and Margaret saw him off at the railroad station in Pittsburgh.  Sylvester stayed back and minded the store with Mr. Junker, and his mother had taken to her bed in distress.

               Margaret hugged him, and his father clapped him on the shoulder and wished him Godspeed.  “I’ll write,” Nock promised as he hopped into the train car.  His heart was light as the train pulled out of Penn Station, leaving behind the sullen, oily Ohio, the little frame houses clinging to its hills and bluffs, and the spewing factories sprawled on its flats.

               He spent the next four weeks in greasy New Jersey mud that he was sure couldn’t be any worse than the muddy trenches of France and Belgium.  He did pushups in the mud, jumping jacks in the mud, five-mile runs in muddy boots.  He stood, knelt and lay in mud for rifle practice.  Cold rain dripped from the metal brim of his helmet.  He sat at chow in his sodden wool uniform, eagerly scooping up plate after plate of gristly meat and lumpy potatoes, and his naturally thin frame began to fill out  He collapsed onto the creaking, musty bunk right after dark and fell instantly to sleep, only to be wakened in icy darkness what seemed like seconds later, by a tinny reveille.  He complained along with the other fellows, just to fit in, but secretly he felt as if his real life had finally begun.

               Mary Grant somehow got his address and wrote him a letter.  One rainy Sunday when he didn’t fell like playing cards with the fellows and he’d already written to his family, he decided to answer, just a few words.

               Dear Mary,

               Well, you asked what Basic Training is like and I can only tell you that it is work, work and more work.  We do exercise and rifle practice from 5:00 in the morning until it gets dark around 6:00 at night.  The food is awful, but we work so hard that we are hungry enough to eat plenty of it.

               The fellows here are from all over the place.  It’s funny that a lot of them feel the same about their hometowns in West Virginia or New York that I feel about the Rocks:  it is a fine place to be from, but not to stay in.  A lot of us feel like we’d like to see some of the world and have some adventures, and I guess we’re about to do that.  We should be shipping out for France around the first of January.  I don’t know if they’ll let anyone go home for Christmas or not.  I have to admit I would like to come home one last time before we ship out, but we’ll see.

               Sincerely,

               Norbert Yaggi

               He thought he’d walk to the exchange  to mail it right away, but just as he was pulling on his boots, Lefty Liguori burst into the barracks.  “Guys!  Guys!  Guess what!  The Kaiser just surrendered!”   –  only Lefty was from the Bronx so he said “the kaisah just surrendahed.”

               The barracks suddenly stirred.  Fellows dropped their cards, their newspapers, their fountain pens, and crowded around Lefty.  “You don’t say!”  “Where’d you hear it?” “Kaiser heard we was coming and knew he better give up!” 

               Nock stayed on his bunk with one boot on, apart from the crowd.  Maybe it wasn’t true.

               But Lefty yelled over the milling heads.  “Sweah to God!  I know the guy in the telegraph room.  He went to school with my brothah.  He told me.  The wah’s ovah!”

               They were mustered out the very next day, told to line up in their civvies at the quartermaster’s to get their pay for the four weeks and their train tickets home, and hand in their rifles and uniforms.  For a bunch of fellows who talked big about being glad to be out of their little hometowns, Nock noted grumpily that everyone except him seemed pretty excited and happy.  The guy in front of him, Lester Martin, kept babbling about getting hired back on in the coal mine and marrying his girl as soon as he got back to West Virginia.  There was a restless high-spiritedness in the air. 

               When Nock reached the sergeant’s desk and was handed a ticket to Pittsburgh, he asked, “Um, say…is there any way I could get a ticket to somewhere else instead?”

               “What are you talking about?  Ain’t you from Pittsburgh?”

               “Well, near Pittsburgh, yes, but I was wondering if I could just go somewhere else.”

               “You can go any place you want, soldier, but not at the expense of the U.S. Army.  You come from Pittsburgh, that’s where we send you back to.  Now move along: some other people is anxious to get home.  Next!”

               They were transported from Fort Dix the same way they’d come in:  in the backs of canvas-covered trucks leaking rain.  Then came the wait at the station for the train to New York City, from where they would scatter like billiard balls to their various dull homes.

               The train to New York was warm, and cavernous Grand Central Station even warmer.  The smell of hot, damp wool lay in Nock’s nostrils as he scanned the schedules for the next train to Pittsburgh.  Festive red, what and blue bunting hung over his head, and echoing voices formed a constant background roar.

               He stared at the schedule without really seeing it, waving his ticket absently.  His eyes wanted above the schedule, to the map of the United States.  What had the sergeant said?  “You can go any place you want, solider.”  Just because he had a ticket to Pittsburgh didn’t mean that he had to use it, and he had his four weeks’ pay.

               He approached a ticket window.  “Can I trade in this ticket to Pittsburgh?”

               The clerk stared down his nose at it through half-glasses. “Nope.  Military issue.  Can’t trade this one in. Sorry, fellow.”

               “Well, then, how much for a ticket to…” Nock thought for a second. “California?”

               “Where in California?”

               “Well, say Los Angeles.  Isn’t that where they make the movies?”

               “First class or budget?”

               “Better say budget.”

               The clerk consulted his price list. “Twenty-two dollars.”

               “I’ll take it.”  Nock pushed two twenties toward the clerk, more than half of his four weeks’ pay. 

               “Going to be in the pictures, are you?” the clerk asked.

               “Something like that,” Nock replied.

               “Good luck to you, fellow.”

               “Thanks.  When’s it leave?”

               “On hour from now. 7:00.  Track 12.”

               “Thanks.”

               Nock took his ticket and his change.  He’d write to his family from the train.  Maybe he’d write to Mary Grant, too, to let her know that he got out of town in spite of the Kaiser, give her a little hope.  As he passed a trash can, he dropped the Pittsburgh ticket into it, and kept moving.


Infamy

After I wrote the post about my grandmother a few weeks ago, I remembered this short story that I wrote in 2017 based on her last pregnancy. I always wondered what it must have been like to be expecting a baby in the early, dark days of World War II, so I started writing and the story took me where it wanted to go.

I emphasize that this is fiction. It was inspired by my grandmother’s pregnancy in 1942, but my grandmother, to my knowledge, never had an abortion or even considered one. I also emphasize that the story is not meant to be anti-abortion, nor is it meant as a plea for abortion rights. I simply followed the path where my character took me, and I think the story illustrates the complexities of the issue, based on the fictional experience of one woman.

The photo was taken in 1934, shortly after the birth of grandma’s third child, my mother. This story was published in PIF Magazine in December 2017….

The house cannot hold one more person.  Grace and Robert live in this 3-bedroom foursquare with their four children.  Robert’s mother Bridget has lived with them since she was widowed in 1931.  Grace’s older brother Patrick moved in after the Crash, the same brother who lost an arm in the Great War and used to drive a red Packard up to the house, bearing cigars for Robert and a sterling silver rattle and a mahogany crib for her first baby.  In the terrible summer of 1936, her sister Patricia and her husband and two children also lived here, the four of them sleeping in their double-bed set up on the front porch.  After a rainy night, Grace would find them curled up on the living room floor and she and Patricia would hang the sheets on the line to dry, but by the end of the summer the mattress was ruined.

They are always bumping into each other, on the stairs or coming out of the bathroom or all getting up from the dining room table at once, so that even her growing belly will be in the way, much less the child itself.   Her teenage sons share a bed with Uncle Patrick, and her daughters share with Bridget.  When she brushes the girls’ hair in the morning, they smell like their musty, decaying grandmother.

Grace is 42, slack-bellied and graying at the temples.  Every day, eight people must be fed on one railroad bookkeeper’s salary.  The house cannot hold one more person.

On this December Saturday evening, she has the bathroom to herself.  Robert is at his lodge meeting.  Patrick is at the bar where he works on Friday and Saturday nights.  An old war buddy was willing to hire a one-armed veteran who drinks up most of his pay.  She told Bridget that she wasn’t feeling well and asked her to mind the kids.  Bridget will sit at the kitchen table and play Hearts with Dotty and Shirley. Donny and Davy will slouch on the living room couch, reading comic books and listening to swing music on the radio.    And Grace can do what she needs to do. 

She tiptoes into the bathroom with her tools, and turns the lock quietly.  She undresses, fills the enema bag with carbolic soap and hot water, lies in the tub. 

Her hands tremble.  She can insert the nozzle into her vagina, but can’t find the entrance to her womb.  Then she finds it but can’t insert the nozzle.  Then the nozzle scrapes her cervix.  Her hands tremble more.  The house cannot hold one more person. 

The scraping of the nozzle against the inside of her cervix is nauseating.  Her stomach cramps.  She squeezes the ball and feels the hot water wash inside her.  She squeezes again.  She thinks she will vomit.  She squeezes again.  She is sitting in water now, cold.  She squeezes again. 

She will have to skip Mass tomorrow, claim illness again.  She will have to confess first thing Monday, go to a church downtown, where the priest doesn’t know her.  She will do any penance: pray the Stations of the Cross, climb the steps of Immaculate Heart on her knees. The house cannot hold one more person. 

The bag is empty, and the bath water is clear, no blood.  She dries herself, pins an old diaper inside her pajama bottoms, and goes to bed.  She thinks she won’t sleep, but she doesn’t hear Robert come home.

***

The next day is overcast.  It might snow.

Grace excuses herself from Mass and asks Bridget to cook lunch, citing severe “woman problems,” which is not exactly a lie. She stays in bed and keeps checking the diaper for blood.  When she finds none, she tries to convince herself that it is for the best, that God must want this child to come into the world.  But she knows in her heart that she will try again next Saturday, if she gets the chance. 

She decides that something might happen if she gets up and moves around.  She rises from bed, dresses and goes downstairs to help Bridget wash the dishes and start Sunday night supper.  They will have meat pie, made with leftovers from last night’s roast, and some of the peaches she and Bridget canned in August. 

Bridget is rolling pie crust with her loose-skinned sinewy arms, and Grace has just come up from the cellar with 3 jars of peaches.  The radiators are hissing warmth, steaming the kitchen windows so that it seems they are cocooned from the world outside. 

Donny and Davey come banging into the house, the screen door slapping shut behind them.  “Dad! Mom!” Donny yells, “Turn on the radio, quick!”

Robert has been sitting in his easy chair in the living room, reading the newspaper and dozing off, as he always does on Sunday afternoons. His newspaper rattles, and he asks sleepily, irritably, “What?  Why should I turn the radio on?”

 “The Japs attacked Hawaii!  It’s on the radio!” 

Grace and Bridget sleepwalk, gape-mouthed, into the living room.  Dotty and Shirley look up from their Parchesi game.  Patrick wanders down from his bedroom, his afternoon nap disturbed.  Robert is turning the radio dial.  She hears static, and then the urgent, staccato tone of a news announcer’s voice. 

Grace finally feels the gluey warmth between her legs and her gaze rests on her sons, bent avidly over the console radio.  They are 15 and 17, pink-cheeked from the outdoor cold, irreplaceable.


My Kick-ass Flapper Grandma

In my last post, I promised a tribute to my grandmother, Mary Angela Grant Yaggi, whose personality and spirit shaped my own.

Born in 1901, her life spanned nearly the whole of the 20th century.  She lived to see the Wright Brothers’ first flight, the first footsteps on the moon and the launch of the Hubble space telescope.  She was a young flapper in the jazz age and the harried matriarch of a large family during the Depression.  When she was born, her hometown bustled with industry.  Her husband toiled over ledger books and a 20-pound adding machine to make a living.  By the time she died, her grandchildren carried computers in our backpacks, and McKees Rocks was born was battered, hollowed-out ghost of its glory days.

Early life

Grandma began her life in the Norwood neighborhood of McKees Rocks in September 1901, the oldest of four children of Michael and Margaret Grant. 

When she was 12 or 13, her little sister, Roberta, died.  Family lore has it that, as she died, Roberta cried out, “Mother!  I see Jesus!”  Roberta became a sort of family saint (and is my mother’s namesake).  Her mother kept the nightgown she died in, and she and my grandmother used to cut little scraps of the nightgown to pin onto the clothing of anyone in the family who was sick. 

Mary and her surviving siblings, Helen and Jack, had the kind of childhood that children of railroad laborers in Norwood had in the early 20th century:  plain food, homemade clothing, Mass every Sunday and Holy Day without exception.  According to the history of McKees Rocks and Stowe Township, the Norwood and West Park neighborhoods were still semi-rural during grandma’s childhood, and many housewives helped feed their families by planting small gardens and raising a pig each year.  Grandma never mentioned her mother doing either of those, but I come from a line of doughty little women, so it wouldn’t surprise me in the least. 

Grandma grows up

We have several pictures of grandma as a little girl, but I chose the two below to share, because they so perfectly illustrate two sides to her personality.  The women in my family love pretty clothes.  In the picture on the left, you can see that my great-grandmother was turning Grandma into a fashion plate from an early age.  Grandma was the child of a laborer, but her mother made sure she dressed like a spoiled little princess in this portrait of her at age 4. The portrait on the right, taken around the same age but unposed, shows her fierce personality.  She’s the barefoot little girl on the right with the I-WILL-see-the manager-this-instant look on her face.  Like me, grandma was a classic firstborn: opinionated, determined and bossy, from toddlerhood to dotage. 

As she matured, grandma’s interest in beautiful clothing grew. In the photograph below, she felt very proud of the fur-trimmed coat she was wearing.  She must have sent the photo to someone because she typed on the back, “I don’t want you to look at the face, just the coat.”  The photo probably dates to about 1919, when grandma had finished school and started earning her own money.  She took advantage of her new freedom and income to do herself up as the Zelda Fitzgerald of McKees Rocks.  I remember her bragging about being the first girl in the Rocks to bob her hair and wear short skirts with unbuckled galoshes.  Yes, that was a thing; see this New York Times article from 1922. 

Here she is: the Zelda of the Rocks.

The young Mrs. Yaggi

There’s a picture of my grandparents taken right before their marriage, that I’ve seen but haven’t been able to locate again.  They’re on a picnic with friends in the early 1920s.  Grandma is dressed in full flapper regalia, five feet and 100 pounds of sass, energy and self-confidence.  She looks like a girl who would be up for just about anything, the crazier the better.  Grandpap looks more serious.  The look on his face expresses amused, fatherly indulgence.  “Don’t worry,” he seems to say to the camera, “I’ll tame the little spitfire.” 

But grandma was untamable by any mere human being. It took the hard realities of life in the 1930s and 40s to bring out her deeper qualities of character.

My grandparents married in 1923. Grandpap had a good job in the Duquesne Light Accounting Department, so they lived comfortably.  They move into a brand-new house on Wayne Avenue in McKees Rocks, pictured below as I remember it in the 1960s, with gorgeous spirea bushes blooming in front of their porch.  But their first baby died at birth, and grandma didn’t bear a living child until 1929. 

After that, came two more children in rapid succession, the Depression, and first grandma’s destitute uncle and then her widowed mother moving in with them.  Grandpap’s wages were repeatedly cut during the Depression, and grandma struggled to keep all those bellies full.  Then, right at the start of WW2, came a surprise fourth baby.  My mom remembers that Grandma was mortified by her pregnancy at the advanced age of 40, and hid it for as long as she could – under very fashionable clothing, I have no doubt.

Rising to the demands of life

Grandma faced those mid-life challenges with her characteristic energy and gumption.  She learned to pinch a penny until it squealed.  She bought whatever meat was on sale, didn’t hesitate to buy second-hand, and had little patience for children who expected indulgences as their right.  Like her own mother, she took to her sewing machine to make sure that her children wore nice clothing.  The picture directly below shows her three older children on Easter 1937.  Grandma made every stitch of clothing they wore, excepting undergarments and socks but including hats. My mother’s wedding gown and veil were also sewn by grandma (see my parents’ wedding picture below). 

Weren’t my parent’s good looking kids? And how about that dress?!

Grandma also became a model of good works.  She sewed First Communion dresses for little girls whose families couldn’t afford them.  The elderly man who still lives next door to her house remembers to this day the lemon meringue pie she delivered to his family to welcome them to the neighborhood.  A neighbor girl named Puggy became her project in the early 1960s.  Puggy, a chubby teenager with bad skin, came from a troubled family.   Grandma sewed pretty clothes for Puggy, and paid her a few dollars a week to hang around the house and help a little in the kitchen, hoping to keep her out of trouble. 

The grandma I remember

My own parents had three children and – like most families in the 1960s – only one income, which just covered the necessities.  Every luxury I had was provided by my grandmother:  5th birthday party on the Good Ship Lollipop, outings to the baroque movie theaters downtown to see The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins. 

Grandma also provided most of my clothing.  My sister and I always had pastel-colored Easter coats and matching hats, made by grandma.  For my first day of kindergarten, I was probably the last little girl in the United States to ever wear a pinafore (you probably don’t even know what that is; look it up here).  Grandma made me a navy-blue dress with white collar and cuff trim, and a white pinafore embroidered with a proud-stepping orange rooster on the pocket.   She could also be counted on for a dime for a vanilla ice-cream cone from Tastee Freeze or some penny candy from Zimmermans, treats unheard of in my parents’ penny-pinched household. 

Grandma absolutely did not tolerate bad behavior, though.  If an elderly person got on the bus after us, she only had to nudge me briskly to get me to stand and offer my seat.  She tolerated not a single second of whining,and had no problem utterly ignoring any level of pouting or complaining, so we quickly learned not to bother trying. Grandma was the absolute boss and we did not cross her.

Later Life

She’d probably have been at home in the 21st century as a career woman, but her era didn’t open that door, so she channeled her endless energy into creative pursuits.  In addition to the sewing and pie-baking that she was known for, she embroidered, painted china, and hand-made the kind of elaborate egg tree that you can purchase as an Easter decoration in any Joann Fabrics today. 

We gathered at her home for every holiday – and I do mean EVERY holiday, not just Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter.  She hosted backyard cookouts for Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day.  The house was always crowded with her own children and grandchildren, her sister’s family, and random grad students from foreign countries that my Uncle Fred brought home. 

Grandma was a praying woman all her life, and she needed to be.  She knew great sorrow.  Her mother and uncle died under her roof.  She endured the shame (in those days) of a daughter’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy and the sorrow of giving up the baby for adoption to distant relatives in New England.  She watched her uncle, her brother, three nieces, one of her sons and both of her sons-in-law succumb to alcohol addiction.

Old age

Yet not until advanced old age did she lose her energy or her spirit of fun, and she certainly never lost her sense of fashion.  I remember running into her downtown when she was about 80 years old and I was a young career woman in my 20s.  I was out to lunch with some girlfriends from work and there, walking through Market Square, was an elderly lady who looked like she’d emerged from the cover of Vogue.  Her tiny figure was held erect, her silvery hair perfectly styled, and she wore a fur hat, a fur-trimmed coat, stockings and French-heel pumps.  “Grandma!” I called, and I was so proud to introduce my friends to my elegant grandmother. 

But my very favorite grandma memory took place several years later.  In her 80s, we lost her slowly to dementia.  The time came when she still remembered her children but not her grandchildren.  I took her grocery shopping one day and she asked me who I was.  “I’m Kathy,” I reminded her, “your daughter Bobbie’s daughter.”  The next time she talked to my mother she said, “Oh, Bobbie, I met your girl.  She’s very nice.”  It warmed my heart to know that my grandmother liked me even when she didn’t remember that I belonged to her. 

My elegant grandma at age 80, right around the time I ran into her in town. This picture was taken at my cousin Sean’s wedding in 1981. My Aunt Joan Yaggi Walsh, mother of the groom, is to grandma’s right.

Grandma’s heart stopped in her sleep in August of 1998, shortly before her 97th birthday.  As a pie-baker, a homemaker, a mother, a grandmother, a Christian and a woman who puts on clothes every morning, Mary Angela Grant Yaggi is the standard by which I measure myself. 

Grandma’s four children in middle age. L-R: Joan Yaggi Walsh, my mom Roberta Yaggi Krieger, Fred Yaggi, Richard Yaggi. This picture was taken in my mom’s back yard in 1987.
Grandma & Grandpap Yaggi with my children in 1987. They were aged 85 and 88 at the time this picture was taken at my mother’s house.

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. 


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