Mount Alton School, 1912, Lafayette, Pennsylvania

Documents and photos scatter repeatedly with the death of each generation. What was once a treasured bit of history becomes an unknown piece of historical data tossed in the bottom of a drawer, eventually to be thrown away in a housecleaning.

Leah Van Houtte, top row on right Amos Van Houtte, front row, second on left John Van Houtte, front row, second on left

I remember it being suggested that I write the names of classmates down on the back of school photos. I also remember thinking, why that was necessary, I know who they are and could name them all off. Looking back now, 45 years later, no one seems to remember who that one little blonde in the photo was or that shy looking kid in the back.

I have been gathering information for a family book on my Van Houtte ancestors. I asked my cousins if they had any photos that I could include in the book. One cousin shared with me a photo of the Mt. Alton School children in 1912. The Mt. Alton School was located in Lafayette, Pennsylvania, an area now that is dominated by the Bradford Regional Airport. Property that my great grandfather owned is now a part of the airport property. My grandfather, great uncle and great aunt are in the photo, along with 30 other nameless children.

I am pretty sure among those children are the children of Peter DePrater. Peter was my great grandfather’s sponsor. The DePraters were from Belgium and had lived in Tourcoing, France, where my great grandmother’s family also had lived. Immigrants had to have someone state side that would be responsible for them and their integration into America. Peter and his wife Adele had been living in Pennsylvania for almost 15 years before my great grandfather and his family decided to try their luck in the United States. Peter and Adele would have 11 children, 8 of which were born in New York or Pennsylvania.

Of the 11 children, there is a great possibility that five of the DePrater children could be in this picture. Mary Margaret, 14 years old, Victor, 12 years old, Madeline, 10 years old, Fanny, 8 years old and Anna at 5 years.

Leah Van Houtte, top row on right
Amos Van Houtte, front row, second on left
John Van Houtte, front row, second on right

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House History

I remember my grandparent’s house well. It is one of those memories that conjures up both sight and smells. I can see it as if I had visited just yesterday instead of the 30 plus years it has been. It was a long, narrow, white clapboard building, wedged between two others, situated just outside of what once was a bustling downtown. When my dad was growing up, it was on the wrong side of town.

There was a big front porch that spanned the entire front and sagged this way and that. The front door was planted in the middle and a window flagged each side. We never went in the front door, we were family and that meant you used the back door that opened into a warm kitchen full of grandma’s cooking smells. Getting to the door could be an experience to be remembered. Reaching out I could touch grandma’s house on one side and the neighboring building on the other, which was good because in the winter time, the drainage from the roof would create a dangerous ice slick from the front to the back of the house.

Once safely inside the back door, you walked directly into the kitchen. The stove was to your left and a pantry area with the fridge and mobile electric ringer washer was to your right. A small kitchen table was directly in front and the houses only bathroom door just the other side of it. The floor and walls seemed to pitch and roll throughout the house and dad and the uncles had been known to crawl under the foundation and prop it back up on more than one occasion.

The dining room was the next stop on your way back through the house to the front, the stairway to the bedrooms was back against the wall we used to keep from sliding when making our way down the walk outside. Under normal circumstances, the room was full of furniture, a table and 6 chairs sat in the middle, a desk for paying bills to the right of the door and a large buffet across the wall adjoining. As if that wasn’t enough, a china cabinet sat wedged in against the far wall that you had to squeeze past to get into the closet under the stairs. At holidays the dining room was impassible, the aunts and uncles all sitting at the table, the noise at a level I haven’t heard in years. For a young person to get from the kitchen to the living room on the far side meant, squishing, squeezing  and dodging past chairs and legs of relatives in the way.

The living room was small, a couch and a couple of chairs, one of them grandpa’s rocker that he use to sit and smoke his pipe in, along with the TV. Somehow they found space to stuff a Christmas tree in the corner for the holidays and there was always a table full of Easter or Mother’s day flowers positioned in front of the window during those holidays. Upstairs there were two bedrooms in the front, barely big enough for the double beds pushed in them, one bedroom in the hall that was Uncle George’s and always had a stack of unopened Christmas boxes full of new shirts. Farther down the hall was another bedroom, a curtain hung in the doorway keeping the heat out and the floor took another drastic dip heading to the back of the house.

What I would learn as an adult was that the house had been owned by my great grandmother, Clemence Mary Defruytier Van Houtte. She purchased the house some time before 1930 and lived there until her death. She willed it to Uncle George with the stipulation that it be sold once he married and the money split between her four children. Uncle George would never marry, and my grandparents would live in the house until after Uncle George died and the money was divided among the living siblings. The house is gone now, and an ice cream store sits on its memory.

I went looking for what happened to the house in 1940, the year after my great grandmother died. I knew my grandparents would live there eventually, but in 1942 they were living in Olean, New York in a new home that they had built. I went looking for Uncle George and couldn’t find him either.

After digging through the census records by hand I found that in 1940 Uncle George had rented the house out for $22.00 a month to Marion Miller Toles and her son Robert Toles. My curiosity got to me and I went looking to see what I could find on them. Marion was listed as married in the census and had lived in rural Cattaraugus County in 1935. Her 18 year old son was listed as having lived in my great grandmother’s house in 1935. I found this curious, why would the son and mother not live together and where was the father.

What started out as curious got even more bizarre when I did a search for Robert Toles and brought up his death certificate. Robert died at 20 of a gunshot wound to the chest in a homicide in Erie, Pennsylvania. The reports that were in the paper claimed that Robert had been shot by his mother’s fiancé, who had shot his mother, twice, non-fatally and then fatally shot himself. If that wasn’t enough, Marion and Robert went by Bonnie and Robert Devere in the 1930 Census in Erie.

 

Bradford Era, April 23, 1942

FBI to Decide 2 Erie Deaths

Toles and Ziegler Deaths Are Probed; Shirt Examined

Erie, April 22 – (Special) Investigation into the deaths of Robert C. Toles, 21, of Bradford, and Albert J. Ziegler, 60 of Eris has been reopened, it was revealed in an announcement by Burton R. Laub, district attorney.

Toles and Ziegler were found shot to death in the latter’s home, 2650 Poplar street, early the morning of April 12. Laub reporte he is awaiting a report from the Federal Bureau of Investigations as to whether powder burns were found on a shirt worn by Ziegler.

Laub said: “If powder burns are found on the shirt, Ziegler shot himself after he killed Toles and wounded Toles’ mother. Mrs. Marian Toles, 58, during an argument about setting a wedding date.”

Laub pointed out that if powder burns were not found on the clothing the Robert Tolse shot Ziegler, then killed himself.

Paraffin test failed to reveal who fired the .44 caliber revolver used in the double killing. Zieglers hands, Laub said, naturally had been washed preliminary to burial, thus spoiling the test.

Laub also said Mrs. Toles, who was shot twice, has been exonerated of the shooting. She is Robert’s mother.

An autopsy shows that Ziegler may not have shot himself, according to Laub. The district attorney pointed out that the course of the bullet in Ziegler’s body was not consistent with a left-handed man shooting himself.

Damian McLaughlin, assistant district attorney, conferred with Mrs. Toles who is confined to St. Vincent’s hospital, and reported that her statements did not vary with the  that she gave police the day of the shooting.
 

New Castle News, Monday, April 13, 1942, New Castle, Pennsylvania

Two Are Slain in Erie Home

Woman Is Also Badly Wounded in Tragedy of Sunday over Wedding Plans.

Erie Pa, April 13 _ Mrs. Marion Toles, 56 of Bradford, lay seriously wounded, while her son and the man she planned to marry in June were dead today, victims of the husband-to-be’s anger over wedding plans.

Robert Toles, 21, the son, was shot through the heart as he tried to interfere after Robert J. Ziegler, 60 twice shot his mother at the Ziegler home in Erie early Sunday.

Ziegler then shot himself above the heart, authorities reported. Deputy Coroner Frank St. George issued a verdict of murder and suicide.

Toles had been living with Ziegler for three weeks. Last Tuesday Mrs. Toles came to Erie. Ziegler and Mrs. Toles had planned to marry in June but became involved in an argument over the former’s insistence that they wed immediately. The shooting followed.

Police said Ziegler fired two shots at Mrs. Toles, one fracturing her shoulder, the other wounding her in the abdomen.

 

The Bradford Evening Star, Tuesday, November 23, 1943

Mrs. Marion Toles Seeks Damage on Death of Her Son

Erie – (Special) – Seeking to recover damages totaling $35,000 for the murder of her 20-year-old son, Mrs. Marion toles of 108 West 16th street, Erie, formerly of Bradford, Pa., has filed suit in Erie County courts against Charles W. Gorton, administrator of the estate of Albert J. Ziegler, who killed himself after firing a fatal shot into the youth’s body during an argument in the Ziegler home on April 12, 1942.

Mrs. Toles served Ziegler as his housekeeper, and with her son Robert Devere Toles, also formerly of Bradford, lived at Ziegler’s home according to her statement.

Ziegler was said to have wielded a revolver when he and Mrs. Toles allegedly became embroiled in an argument over their proposed marriage. When he allegedly threatened the woman, her son intervened and was shot to death. Mrs. Toles also suffered two bullet wounds before Ziegler finally turned the weapon on himself.

In her claim against Ziegler’s estate, Mrs. Toles asks $10,000 punitive damages and $25,000, to recover for pain and suffering by her son and loss of his earnings.

 

The Toles lived in Bradford for a period of five years, from 1937 to April 1942. Here they were known as Mrs. Bonnie Devere and Robert Devere. They left for Erie on April 5, 1942, a week prior to the shooting where Mrs. Toles was to accept a job as a housekeeper.

 

 

 

 

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Johannes Evanglieus West, 1786 – 184?

My fourth great grandfather on my mother’s father’s side of the family was Johannes Evanglieus West (Wiest, Weist or Wust) He was born in Hechigen, Wurttemberg Germany, January 28, 1786. Around 1824, Johannes and his wife Susanna (Haugh) immigrated to the United States with their children, Ulrich, Aldinger, and Petrus. By the early 1840s they had settled in the Clarion County, Pennsylvania area.

According to an article written about Ulrich West in “A Century and a Half of Pittsburgh and Her People,” Johannes’ (John) death was caused as the result of an injury inflicted by an unruly horse. It seems that Johannes was a blacksmith. From Census records, I could tell that the death had to have occurred between 1840 and 1850. In the 1850 Census, Susanna is living in Washington, Clarion county, Pennsylvania her daughter Mary, who was born in Pennsylvania around 1833.

Familysearch.org would provide another document that would help to narrow down the death date to some degree. By hand searching the Pennsylvania Probate records, 1683 – 1994, for Clarion county, there is a record in the Register’s and Orphan’s Court record index 1840-1891 Mi-Z for a John West, orphan children listed as Peter and Mary, letters date February 2, 1846. No death date is listed for John West. The administrator, executor or guardian is listed as Christopher Sigworth (Seigworth). There is only a minor’s estate document number and page, no will information is listed. Although Familysearch has a lot of Pennsylvania documents available that you can manually search through, they do not have the minor’s estate documents.

johann west 1846

I searched for (Johnathan) Christopher Seigworth in the Clarion county area and found him, born around 1805-1808 in Germany, so I am pretty sure I have the correct John West and children. Peter didn’t get married until 1850, so that would leave him in the household during 1846. I lose track of Mary once her mother dies, post 1850 Census. Christopher Seigworth and Susanna West were living just 2 houses apart according to the Census.

Ulrich, my third great grandfather, would move to the Butler county area and die there in 1900. His brother Peter would move to Mckean county and die in 1904. I lose both Susanna and Mary after the 1850 Census. After 1850, either Susanna died or remarried and I haven’t found any documentation on a marriage for Mary.

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Sorting through Siffrin Genealogy

It started out as barely a name and has turned into 50 pages and 10 generations of Siffrin genealogy facts. To say I know a lot more about this line of my father’s family is a massive understatement.

The name has taken on multiple spelling variations from the mid-1700s until now. It seems the progression was something along the lines of Zeverii, Ziverii and Ziwerii became Siveri. From Siveri the spelling changed to Siverin or Siffering before becoming Siffrin. For some unknown reason, my great grandfather spelled the name Siffrinn. To keep my documentation straight in my family tree I have used the Siffrin spelling for all those members before my great grandfather and Siffrinn for those following. I have noted the difference in spelling with the Siffrin spelling.

I have traced the family back to Friedrichsthal, Saarland, Germany at the birth of my sixth great grandfather, Philipp (Siverin) Siffrin around 1745. The city of Friedrichsthal has its own interesting history. I am wondering, since having my DNA results returned showing Scandinavian roots, if this family actually came from Scandinavia. I have found Sievers listed as fourth cousins and they seem to be located in northern Germany. Could the family name actually originate in Norway or Sweden? Were there glassmakers in Norway and Sweden in the late 1700s?

Count Friedrich Ludwig of Nassau-Ottweiler inherited land from his father including Nassau and Ottweiler. The small town of Friedrichsthal was named after its founder and the glassworks was established in 1723. Coal mines from the area were used to fuel the furnaces of the glass factories. For the next couple hundred years the village would prosper.

Over the next 150 years my ancestors can be found in the Friedrichsthal area. It seems that most of them were glasmachers, not glasbläser (glassblowers). The difference between a glasmacher and a glasbläser, as I have been told, is that glasmachers make sheet or window glass, where glasbläser, create blown glass objects.

Around 1882, my great great grandparents and their family immigrated to the United States from Germany. They settled in Norristown which is near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At that time my great great grandfather can be found in a Norristown Directory listed as a glassblower. I don’t know if the same distinction was made in the states between glassblowers and glassmakers like there was in the German glass industry. Grandfather Ludwig would die in Norristown in 1888. My Grandmother Lena (Caroline) would marry his brother William in Norristown two years later and remain in the Norristown area until 1900.

From Norristown some of the family would move on to Kane, Pennsylvania and continue to work in the glass industry.

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DNA Puzzles

I am European. Not like that is a big surprise to me. My very pale, very sun unfriendly skin has reminded me of that every summer for as long as I can remember. The tanning gene skipped me completely, even though my mother can tan and quickly.

I sent off my DNA kit just shortly after Christmas to see what details I may not know about how European I really am. From the results did hold a surprise. Seventy-five percent of my ethnicity estimate was as I thought it would be. From the chart I see 30% Great Britain and 11% Europe East. These people I know very well although I would have guessed the Europe East would have been greater with all of the German ancestors that I have. Two of my great grands were of German ancestry, the West and Siffrin branches. My Belgian ancestors, Defruytier and Van Houtte, also fall in the Europe East classification, although also display under Great Britain.

For Great Britain I have the Oakley and Davis branches. The third section, placing last in the top four is my Irish ethnicity. Of the great grands represented by the Collins branch. One generation further into the great great grands more of the Irish branches are visible, Taylor, Collins, McKim and Donegan.

If you had asked me just days ago, I would have told you that I was, German, English, Belgian and Irish. What I found out was that I am 27% Scandinavian. Primary locations for Scandinavia are Sweden, Norway and Denmark. The secondary locations include Great Britain, France, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium Finland and the Baltic States. Although the secondary locations cover many of the areas that I know my ancestors lived, it more surprised me that Scandinavian would be my second highest marker.

I am relatively sure of my ancestors 6 generations back, at the 7th and 8th generation I start losing detail on some branches although others blaze on back into the 1600s. So far from the results I don’t have any cousin matches. I think the things that surprised me most about that is my Stewart/Stuart branch that supposedly goes back to Ireland and Scotland. I would have thought that someone from that line would have already had DNA completed and cousin matches would have shown up. Also, my Burgess line is another that I thought would have shown matches, as wide spread as that family is and as far back as it is claimed to have been documented.

I t will be interesting to see what happens as more DNA results are gathered and my results become updated what the findings will turn out to be.

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Another Taste Into My Past

On my first trip to Europe, I visited Paris, France. My grandfather was born in France, his parents were born in Belgium. The family hopped back and forth across the line between the two countries as work was available. Although I don’t consider myself any more than a brief dash of French, I managed to find several dishes in France that were worth adding to my family favorites.

Although this recipe is a bit lengthy to prepare, it is so very worth the time. The French really know how to do a ham and cheese sandwich. My very first taste of a Croque Monsieur was at a sitting outside at a bistro table at a small restaurant near Sacre Coeur. La Basilique du Sacré Cœur de Montmartre, Sacred Heart Church, is favorite location, and I made a special trip back to see it again this past October when in Paris. This time I climbed the stairs up towards the beautiful white church, passing the antique double decker carousel at the bottom.

I had two things that I knew I wanted to do, buy another painting from Behras and have a Croque Monsieur for lunch. I had lunch under the tent at Au Cadet De Gascogne that is surrounded by painters. Wedged into a long table, elbow to elbow with other travelers, I watched the world go by and lunched on my sandwich and wine. It was as I had remembered it from before, warm and cheesy on the top with the salty taste of the ham to follow.

I found Behras right where I had left him in 2010. He was working on a painting and had sold his last two before I got there. I said hello and he told me that he remembered me from my previous trip and purchase. He must not get a lot of short redheads that buy paintings! He gave me his email address on a piece of card board to contact him about a painting and I headed back towards Sacre Coeur for one last look.

Croque Monsieur

French Ham And Cheese Sandwich

2 Tbsp butter

2 Tbsp flour

1 1/2 cups milk

A pinch each of salt, freshly ground pepper, nutmeg, or more to taste

6 ounces Gruyère cheese, grated (about 1 1/2 cups grated)

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese (packed)

8 slices of French or Italian loaf bread

12 ounces ham, sliced

Dijon mustard

Preheat oven to 400°degrees.

Make the béchamel sauce. Melt butter in a small saucepan on medium/low heat until it just starts to bubble. Add the flour and cook, stirring until smooth, about 2 minutes. Slowly add the milk, whisking continuously, cooking until thick. Remove from heat. Add the salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Stir in the Parmesan and 1/4 cup of the grated Gruyère. Set aside.

Lay out the bread slices on a baking sheet and toast them in the oven, a few minutes each side, until lightly toasted. For extra flavor you can spread some butter on the bread slices before you toast them if you want. You can also use an electric toaster to toast bread.

(Alternatively, you can assemble the sandwiches as follows in step four and grill them on a skillet, finishing them in the broiler with the bechamel sauce.)

Lightly brush half of the toasted slices with mustard. Add the ham slices and about 1 cup of the remaining Gruyère cheese. Top with the other toasted bread slices.

Spoon on the béchamel sauce to the tops of the sandwiches. Sprinkle with the remaining Gruyère cheese. Place on a broiling pan. Bake in the oven for 5 minutes, then turn on the broiler and broil for an additional 3 to 5 minutes, until the cheese topping is bubbly and lightly browned.

If you top this sandwich with a fried egg it becomes a Croque Madame.

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A Taste of the Past

I have been lucky enough to be able to get in touch with my heritage by visiting the places that my ancestors came from. Work has taken me to Europe twice so far and allowed me to not only see where they lived, but, on the first trip, meet not so distant relatives.

One of my favorite parts of visiting is returning home with favorite new recipes. On my first trip to Brussels, Belgium, my cousins introduced me to Belgian Beef Stew. When we sat down in the restaurant they ordered for me, beer and stew. What was sat before me was a wonderful mix of tender beef in a heavenly sauce with a bit of onion and carrots. All of this topped off with a cold Belgian beer and the best French fries ever, crispy on the outside, soft, warm and tender on the inside. The aroma was heavenly and I dug straight in. When I returned from my travels, I went straight into researching that wonderful meal.

The cubed beef had been slow cooked in beer for several hours, rendering it moist and tender. The flavor of the sauce was dependent on the richness of the beer, plus mustard slathered on bread that flavored and thickened the sauce the last part of cooking time. I don’t know if my Belgian great-grandmother had this on her favorites to cook list, but it sure is on mine. Recipes from her were never handed down through the family.

I purchased a couple of Belgian cookbooks and searched on line for a recipe that would match the flavor of that first experience. It was called Carbonade Flamandes, French for Vlaamse Stoverij, stew from Flanders. This is the recipe that I have been using to make this hearty meal.

Vlaamse Stoverij

1 ¼ lbs. stewing beef or chuck steak (we use chuck roast), cubed

3 tbsp. all-purpose flour

4 tbsp. butter

1 large onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, crushed

4 carrots, peeled and sliced

11 ½ oz. bottle dark Belgian beer (the darker the beer the better the broth, enough to cover the beef)

Bouquet garni (6 parsley sprigs, 2 bay leaves, and 2-3 sprigs of thyme tided together with kitchen string)

2 tbsp. red wine vinegar

2 tbsp. light brown sugar

4 large carrots chopped

2 slices of rustic bread – white, dark brown, or spice cake)

2 tbsp. Dijon mustard

Handful of fresh parsley, chopped

Salt and ground black pepper

Generously season the beef cubes with salt and pepper, then coat in flour.

Heat a large, heavy cast iron kettle (oven safe) that has a tight-fitting lid. Melt the butter and the oil over medium to high heat. Add the cubed beef in batches and brown over fairly high heat for about 4 minutes to seal. As each batch browns, remove cubes from the pan and place them on a plate.

Add the onion to the fat remaining in the pan and cook gently for 6-8 minutes, until translucent, then add the garlic and fry for 3 minutes more. Return beef to kettle.

Return the meat to the kettle and stir well to combine with the onions.

Pour in the beer and bring the mixture to just below boiling point. Add the bouquet garni, vinegar and brown sugar. Cover the pan and place in a preheated 325 degree oven for 1 ½ hours or until the meat has become tender.

Add carrots to the meat and spread the bread thickly with mustard and place it on top of the stew, mustard-side down. Replace the lid and return to the oven for 30-60 minutes more. The bread will absorb some of the pan juices and dissolve to thicken the stew. (I found I had to stir it into the stew)

Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Remove the bouquet garni and stir in the parsley. Serve with fries, potato puree or breads, also good on egg noodles or rice.

A comment from a Flanders native on a blog site called the original beef-in-beer stew, Gentse Stoverij, Stew from Gent. It is a poor man’s dish of beef, white bread and stale beer. His recipe was cooked on the stove top, not oven and included beef liver, a pound and a half of old white bread and a gallon of beer.

From personal experience, the darker the beer the better the sauce, so go for a dark rich lager. While in Brussels, this past October, I talked some of my coworkers into trying the local stew. It didn’t take much nudging once I mentioned that the beef was cooked for hours in beer. It was interesting for me to taste the difference in this version over my first experience, although slightly different in flavor, was just as good.

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