Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Pilgrimage

As I headed west across Wisconsin, I was hoping to drive out of the back edge of the clouds and rain that had blown in the day before. Sadly, the seamless gray sky and the off and on showers draped over the endless horizon. A far cry from when I traveled this highway two days earlier going east.

That was a sunny, warm, Upper Midwest spring day. That was the day after I stood in front of 3 generations of the Meath family in a house built by James Jerome Hill. I told them of the exploits of their great, great-great, and in some instances, their great-great-great uncle John Robert Meath. Many learned for the first time of the part he played in the 1910 Wellington Avalanche disaster.

Harriet Meath, the unofficial matriarch of the family was there, of course. After the reading she made sure I was coming out to Hammond, WI the following day to visit “John Robert’s” grave. Apart from the reading, it was the principle reason for visiting the region. Well, that and a journey west to the prairie of Minnesota, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

In true Midwestern fashion, Harriet’s house in Hammond smelled of fresh baked cinnamon rolls and chocolate chip cookies. She had taken down the good cups, saucers and plates and served a “little morning coffee.” Along with the aforementioned treats there were various types of Wisconsin cheese, crackers and naturally, butter.

We talked for a good hour about many things. Harriet’s late husband James was a Meath. Like his great uncle, he was “a talker. All the Meaths are talkers,” Harriet says. “I think the only way you could make them stop talking is to tie up their hands. When you were giving you talk last night and using your hands so much, that was just like how a Meath would have told that story.”

I saw old photos of the original Meath farmhouse where Bobby and his family grew up.

“It’s tore down now,” Harriet laments. “It had nine bedrooms. Not sure why they had to tear it down.”

Then there was the studio portrait of John Robert and his wife, Elizabeth McCabe. Taken, what we think is shortly after they were married, shortly after the avalanche that killed so many of Bobby’s friends. John Robert, with wavy hair parted the left had ever so slight a smile. It was betrayed by the same sparkle in his eyes, the very same described by Basil Sherlock some 50 years later. Elizabeth was stately, an angular face, herself with a serious but pleasant expression.

“Do you think that’s the same person in the picture?” (the cover shot on Vis Major), Harriet asks.

“Oh, I’m sure it is,” I tell Harriet. “I’m certain that’s Elizabeth.”

Harriet takes another look. “I always thought Elizabeth was better looking than that.”

“Well I don’t think she’s bad looking,” I counter. “Just the styles back then and the photo don’t do her justice.” (I don’t think I convinced Harriet.)

Harriet herself is more than just a little interesting. At 87 she still drives. As her niece Linda,, (who was also over for “coffee) tells me, “She drives all of the ‘old people’ in town to their appointments. We caught her up on the roof last winter shoveling snow.”

Harriet tells me she knows little of her mother’s background.

“My mother came west on the orphan train not long after arriving from Ireland. A couple in the area took her and a boy.”

During WWII, Harriet and a gal friend answered a want-ad place in the local paper by the Boeing Aircraft Company. Packing up their bags, the two young women boarded a train and spent the next 3 years in the airplane assembly plant in Renton, WA.

“So you were a ‘Rosie the Riveter’?” I tease.

“Well, I soldered,” Harriet says. “And I worried about those planes. I worried that my solders wouldn’t hold.”

“Aunt Harriet is a worrier,” Linda adds.

“I am that,” Harriet confesses.

But time is slipping away and Harriet has appointments to keep starting at noon. I “convince” her that it would be easiest if I drive, and off to the cemetery behind the Immaculate Conception Parish we go.

Under a budding tree, on a gentle grassy slope is a large, gray marker with the name “MEATH.” Beneath that two names are engraved. To the left is “John Robert.” To the right, “Elizabeth McCabe.”

Bobby was born in 1870 and died in 1934. Elizabeth was born a year later, in 1871 and died two years before, 1932. Both were young, even for 1930’s standards.

“Interesting that Lizzie has her maiden name on the stone,” I comment.

“Well, there were lots of McCabes,” Harriet tells me.

And indeed there were. Directly behind Bobby and Lizzie’s graves is the grand “McCABE” marker, with small stones of the family placed in the ground, stretching far up the slope. Directly behind Lizzie is her sister, Nellie, the second woman in the cover shot. Nellie did not marry, and died well after her sister.

I thought I might get a little emotional standing there, but I didn’t. There was, however, a sense of accomplishment, a sense that a major goal had finally been attained, or at least well on the way to being attained.

At the base of the hill and beyond a row of scrub trees was the old Milwaukee Road mainline from the Twin Cities to Chicago.

“I’ll be darned, the tracks are right there,” I say.

“John Robert can hear the trains whistling through town,” Harriet adds.

And I bet he does.

I returned Harriet home in time for her to get ready for another busy afternoon. She filled a baggie with cookies, and another with a cinnamon roll. Before sending me on my way she gave me a hug and told me, “that’s for Janice.” (We didn’t just talk about the Meaths.) I was almost out the door when Harriet stopped me.

“I need to ask a personal question. How old are you?”

“Well, how old do you think I am?” I countered.

“All of us were talking about it last night. A couple think you’re in your 40’s. You know, farmers tend to age. And a couple think you’re about 60.”

“So what do you think?”

“I think you’re in your early 50’s.”

“57, Harriet.”

She then gave me a final “request.”

“That friend of John Robert…”

“Al Dougherty?” I ask.

“Yes. You need to find out more about him. When John Robert finds him in the snow, well, I liked how you wrote about that. If you find out more about him, I’d like to know.”

My marching orders given, I was on my way across lower Wisconsin to the CRPA conference in Lake Forest, IL.

And now I was driving back west under gloomy skies. Harriet is right, I kept thinking. I do need to find out more about Al. That is where I was now going, through the Twin Cities and out onto the two lane Highway 12. Through the towns made famous by David Plowden’s overnight ride on Train 28, the Fast Mail,…the eastbound version of the train in which Anthony John “Al” Dougherty was asleep at 1:43AM, March 1, 1910.

I had traced Al’s beginnings to Waverly, Minnesota, a town on the old GN mainline and US 12. That he ended up in the St. Mary’s cemetery was not a “for certain.” Three days earlier, Ted Benson had made a quick survey of the site and came up with one “Dougherty,” but the names and dates were all wrong. Still, there was hope. Ted felt there was plenty of cemetery yet to explore.

There was a definite sense of anxiety building as I drove over the mainline on County #8 and up the slight hill to the cemetery. The cemetery road looped in a “U” around the southern base of the knoll, then climbed to the top, with the graves on the northern half falling away towards the lake. At the top of the hill I stopped and got out.

On the south side was a large reddish pillar with “DOUGHERTY.” This was the wrong family Ted spotted earlier. On the north slope, near the road where I was parked, was yet another, but the wrong spelling, “DORERTY.”

I turned an wandered west about 50’. There was a newer stone, with the name “DALBEC” engraved. Directly behind it, barely two feet from the backside of that marker was another large, gray stone with the name “DOUGHERTY.”

I might have gasped. I know for sure my heart started to race. There were no markers in the ground in front, only the newer stone. Odd…I thought.

Immediately my eyes shifted to the left, to an open space well clear of the new stone. There, nearly covered by the spring growth of grass were two small, flat markers. I could see “ANTHO.” I brushed the grass away….and there it was, plain as day: ANTHONY J 1881 – 1910.

I straightened up and for a moment probably thought nothing at all. A great sense of relief come over me…and then it happened….a westbound BNSF freight whistled for Waverly. It was as if Al was telling me, “Yep, you found me.”

I knew I wanted to get a shot of Al’s last resting place with a train passing in the distance, so in spite of the dreary day and bad light, I sprinted for the car. I fired away as two Dash-9’s led a short mixed freight west. That bit of business done, I returned to the graves of Al and his younger brother Daniel, laying side by side.

I took shots of the markers as I found them, and then using my moustache trimming scissors clipped away the grass, exposing the full stones. So into the clean-up duties was I, I somehow failed to hear the eastbound approaching. It was blowing for the #8 road before I got situated, so I had to settle for shots of the grain and tank cars passing below. All the while I couldn’t help but wonder if Al was chuckling….”I could have told you there was an eastbound coming, dumbass. Didn’t you notice how slow that westbound was going?”

Pictures taken, I finally just stood and contemplated who and what I was seeing. Daniel was a year younger than Al, born in 1882 and died a the year before, 1909. And then there was Al, killed a year later. No other members of that Dougherty family were there, only the newer stone with a completely different name.

Were the losses of their two youngest sons in rapid succession more than they could bear? Did they stick out one more crop year after losing Al in the March of 1910, then move somewhere else? Someplace where the memories could be dampened by distance? Or do the two brothers lying side by side have nothing to do with the sudden departure of the remaining family from Waverly? Could it be something as simple as a sudden turn of fortune on the family farm? Maybe it was simple economics that forced them off their land.

Harriet was right. I need to learn more.

The next day, Mary, the pleasant and helpful secretary at the St. Mary’s Catholic Church office listened to my story about Al and his family. She searched the church records. John Dougherty was found, the “Dorerty” record was found, as was Dalbec. Nothing, however was recorded for Anthony J or Daniel. She concurred with my guess; the remaining Dougherty’s left town and the unused plots reverted back to the church to be resold at a later date.

And so I have been thinking what if….

What if I could locate the descendants of Al Dougherty?

And what if I take Harriet at her word and tell her what I find?

And what if, what if I tell Sara Scrimshaw at the Hill House Mansion of a vision I now have…a meeting of the two families at that grand monument built by men like Meath and Dougherty?

What is the point of a pilgrimage if something positive doesn’t come of it? And shouldn’t that positive go beyond just personal fulfillment?

I have a great sense of satisfaction that I was able to tell of the antics of Bob Meath and his friend Al Dougherty directly to the Meath family. I carry with me that same sense of satisfaction and even accomplishment having stood and looked at that simple stone nearly 100 miles west of Hammond, on a grassy slope above the tracks at Waverly. I thought this pilgrimage would bring me full circle, put the final period to this story I call “Vis Major.”

But it hasn’t.

The Dougherty family need to hear the “Turkey Tale” as well.

Harriet Meath gave me my marching orders.

Al Dougherty and Bobby Meath need to reunite one more time.


MTengr said...

I enjoyed your emotions when you were with Al. It didn't surprise me, after all, you brought him back to life. Forever.

Kudos Martin

Nancy in WI said...

Enjoyed this so much! This should be a book! I live not that far from Hammond, WI and it brought back memories of my mother and I going to Iowa to find our ancestors graves. Many good memories.