Friday, August 5, 2011

How I Contracted the Disease

When I was a kid in the 1970s, my mother’s family had somewhat regular family reunions in the summer. There were essentially two branches of the Wenz family, located in New York/New Jersey and Boston. Most of the reunions I remember were in Boston, except for one big one in 1976 in New Jersey. Each year, I would have an opportunity to hang out with cousins who were ostensibly related to me and then not see them again until the next reunion. My mother’s mother, Dorothy Mae (Irving) Wenz, lived in Miami, and would come up for a visit at the time of the reunions. As we were preparing for the 1976 reunion, I was sitting at the kitchen table with Grandma Dot and I asked her how I was related to the cousins I only saw once each year.

It was a bit of a tangled situation, the result of the marriage of two sisters, Dot and Millie Irving and their marriage to two brothers, Ted and Fred Wenz. I finally had to get out a piece of paper and draw a little chart to keep things straight. As she waited for me to draw the lines, she would tell me stories of her childhood.

Her father was an immigrant from Canada, where he used to run the ferry from St. John, New Brunswick to Boston. One trip, it seems, he just got off the ferry and never got back on it. Eventually he got a job with the Houghton Publishing Company in Boston (millions of schoolchildren then and now will recognize the Houghton Mifflin name!). He used to bring home the seconds to his children, starting them, and subsequent generations, on a lifetime of a love of literature.

Grandma Dot said that her legs were bowed as a child, and that her father had dug a shallow trench in the backyard, sit her in it and pack her legs with dirt each day. I don’t remember how long this process took, but eventually, my grandmother had nice, straight legs.

To this day, thirty-five years later, I can still remember the magic of that moment – I loved the stories about the people and the history and wanted to know more! I embarked on a mission to accumulate dozens of vital records certificates from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, and each one provided both missing pieces of the puzzle and more holes in the puzzle! From the scrap of paper (which I still have) came a half dozen poster boards delineating the Wenz-Irving family for the reunion. Wonder what became of them?

Then one day two LDS missionaries came to the door while I was working on the posters. I could say coincidentally, but I’ve come to know that there are no coincidences in the work of family history. There just happened to be a woman in town, part of the only LDS family in town, who know a lot about family history.

Learning about the genealogical resources of the LDS Church opened up a whole new world to me. In September of 1976, I moved to Miami and went to my first local Family History Center, in the Miami 1st Ward building, with Sister Edna Slay as director.

Since then I’ve spent countless hours in Family History Centers, National Archives Branches and online and had some marvelous “adventures of the Spirit.” Oh, and I'm a Mormon now!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

La Belle France

Last semester in my French class I was given the assignment to create a digital storytelling project on some aspect of the Francophone world. I decided to do mine on the story of my French ancestors and their journey to the United States.

My 3rd great-grandparents, Joseph and Marie (Seltz) Drach came from the town of Benfeld, in the Bas Rhin region of France. Around 1843 they took their two daughters - Ernestine and Marie Aloise, and left Benfeld for Le Havre. Joseph's brother Antoine, his wife Marie Anne (Gastiger) and their five children. They apparently stayed there for a time, as Emil and Josephine were born there, and Ernestine died.

They sailed from Le Havre on the ship William Goddard and arrived in Boston on August 26, 1847 and traveled to Lowell, Massachusetts. There is a large French community there, although it is primarily QuebeƧois.Joseph Drach became a naturalized citizen in Lowell in 1894. His son-in-law, Hugh Gillon, was one of his witnesses.

Emil enlisted in Company K, 31st Massachusetts Infantry in February of 1862, and by December he was dead, killed by a sniper's bullet. But that's another blog.

The parents of Marie Aloise's husband, Theodore Antoine Vautrinot, were Jean Antoine and Marie Rosalie (Munier) Vautrinot. They came from Liepvre in the Haut Rhin region. They sailed on the ship "Mary & Adele" (637 tons) from Le Havre and landed at the Port of New York in January of 1855. From New York they traveled to Boston. Marie Rosalie gave birth to two more girls, but by 1862, she and the two girls had died. Theodore was their oldest child, and by this time he had already married Marie Aloise and started a family of his own. Jean Antoine took Marie Louise and Jean Jr. and moved to Egg Harbor City, New Jersey.

This is one of the great family mysteries. First, why didn't they stay in NYC when they landed in 1855? Then, after Marie Rosalie died, why pull up stakes and go to NJ? Egg Harbor City was a planned community as a safe haven for German immigrants, mostly Moravians. The Vautrinots have traditionally been French Roman Catholic.

The Vautrinot and Munier families have made their own individual marks in American history. Donald Vautrinot was a member of the Army Air Corps stationed in the Philippines at the start of WWII, and survived the infamous Bataan Death March only to die in a prison camp shortly before its liberation.Mary Canning, daughter of Ernestine Vautrinot Canning was an Army Nurse in the African and Italian campaigns and finished the war in Tokyo. Many other Vautrinots fought to defend their country in WWII, Korea and Vietnam.
Madeline Vautrinot was a well-known artist in New Jersey, and was commissioned to paint several WPA murals, including one in the Atlantic City Post Office. Her father was a banker who established a scholarship at the local high school which still exists today.
Ferdinand Munier was a bit player in 1930s Hollywood, acting in movies with the likes of Fred Astair and Lucille Ball. He played Santa Claus in Laurel & Hardy's "Babes in Toyland," and a senator with Will Rogers in "Ambassador Bill" that you can watch on youtube here:

In 2002, I was privileged to be able to travel to France to see the beautiful towns of Benfeld and Liepvre and drive through this beautiful region.

If I ever get the audio straightened out on my project, I might just post it on my blog!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

From the Birth of Naval Aviation to the Jet Age in One Lifetime of Service

When Edward Aloysius “Ned” Wenz was born in Massachusetts in 1893, controlled flight was still only a dream. But by the time he graduated from Boston College in 1914, flight was taking its first ascents out of infancy. It was only five years earlier that British politician David Lloyd George had proclaimed “flying machines are no longer toys and dreams, they are an established fact.

In May of 1917, Ned enrolled in the U.S. Navy as a Seaman 2nd class. He then attended and subsequently graduated from MIT Ground School Training. He was commissioned an Ensign and earned his Aviator’s Wings in December of that year in Pensacola, Florida. His Naval Aviation Number was 224.

While in Pensacola, Ensign Wenz earned a commendation for bravery for his actions as part of Group 8’s actions during a hurricane. The War Bureau citation states it was “pleased to note that your action in this case has demonstrated that you are willing to take advantage not only of the responsibilities of the naval service, but also of its opportunities for service outside the routine of duty. Your action in this case is heartily recommended.”

The Navy sent him overseas to Budleigh Sallerton, England the following February, and in May, experienced a crash landing that sent him to the hospital for a month. Ned received his promotion to lieutenant in October of 1918 and was loaned to Britain’s Royal Flying Forces and based in Whiddy Island, Ireland.

Sometime between the end of the war in November of 1918 and 29 Jan 1920, Ned was enumerating the 1920 Federal Census in the Panama Canal Zone, listing the names and hometowns of the officers and sailors of the U.S. Naval Air Station Coco Solo in his own neat penmanship.On his way to Coco Solo, he met a beautiful young lady from Missouri who was traveling to Panama after graduation to visit with her stepbrother for two years.

While there, he took her up in an airplane and flew her over the canal. They were married in Missouri in 1922. After his marriage, Ned was sent to Naval Reserve Aviation Air Wing 92 at NAS St. Louis and Lambert Field in St. Louis as part of VF-75A.

Ned moved his wife and daughter to Michigan around 1929 when he received orders to command Naval Reserve Air Base Grosse Ille. The columns in the 1930 Federal Census include the columns“Occupation” and “Industry,” and they list him as “Commanding Officer, U. States Naval Base. The dedication ceremonies for Detroit’s Ambassador Bridge in 1929 featured a flyover by Lt. E.A. Wenz, USNR and ENS C.R. Olson, USNR, each flying an NY-2 seaplane from the base at Grosse Ille.

Between his time at Grosse Ille and the outbreak of WWII, Ned worked a series of civilian jobs while retaining his reserve status. At the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, he was working for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Even though he was now 48, he was recalled to active duty. He was sent first sent to Corpus Christi, Texas, and then to the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He graduated from the NWC in June of 1943, and was sent to Norfolk, VA. His service record lists his Navy Active Service for 16 Feb 1942 – 22 Jan 1946 as COMAIRLANT, Commander Air Force, Atlantic Fleet. At some point, he was sent to San Diego, and was in Saipan when peace was declared, although he did not fly planes due to his age.

After the war, he returned to St. Louis and retained his Reserve status until he retired from the Revenue Service at age 60 in 1953. He died in 1985 and is interred at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis.

I never had the good fortune of meeting Uncle Ned; it was many years after his death that I learned about his amazing history in Naval Aviation. Would that I could have sat at his feet and heard his story! This is a work in progress and I hope to be able to add more information as I gather it. Good thing Chief Keillor is now stationed in Pensacola!