As many of you know, genealogy is one of my hobbies. I enjoy researching and digging up stories on ancestors and distant relations long gone. It is interesting to learn about the saints and the rascals of my blood line. It is much like detective work and goes very slowly. But once in a while a new tid bit of information emerges. It is like putting together pieces of a huge puzzle.
Recently, I discovered that an Aunt of my maternal Grandmother Pearl once owned a saloon. This was in the late 1800s and early 1900s before Prohibition. Actually it was Great Auntie Minnie Mae’s husband who was the proprietor of the Red Onion Saloon somewhere near Scranton, Pennsylvania.
I never had much of an interest in Scranton until I discovered that my Grandmother Pearl had a strong genetic connection there. Years ago I drove through the town on a road trip. I remember making fun of the place’s pronunciation. A lot of jokes fly at the thought of this place, especially now in the context of the popular TV show, The Office. I am discovering that a lot of Americans have longstanding ties to the older cities of the East. Many of these places now stand boarded up and abandoned with hints of grand architecture of a bygone era.
When I was a little kid, once in a while my grandmother spoke of what she referred to as her Pennsylvania Dutch ties. But she gave very few details and I didn’t pay attention. She was a very modest and reserved person and tended to be very secretive especially about family matters. As a result, we know very little of my grandmother’s background. When I would pry, she would answer, “You never mind.” This only perked my curiosity all the more.
So recently upon finding Auntie Minnie Mae in some old federal census records I discovered that her husband was listed as the proprietor of a billiard room and hotel. It was only through searching old newspapers that I discovered it was actually named “The Red Onion Saloon.”
One can imagine the images that this conjures up in my brain. I see old Auntie dressed with her petticoat and laced up corsets slinging cold beers in dirty glasses across an old wooden bar stool. The reality of the matter is that she was probably back in the kitchen stoking a cast iron wood burning stove making hot plates for the daily special or wash boarding sheets and changing bed linens for house guests. But whatever really happened at the Red Onion Saloon, no one this day really knows. A google search of the term shows that there was such an establishment with the same name in Skagway, Alaska which was once a house of ill-repute. Ironically the place in Alaska is now a tourist attraction and on the National Register of Historic Places. As far as I can determine, The Red Onion Saloon in Scranton is no longer in existence.
I did find an article where Uncle was run out of town and later settled in Pottsville, PA. His obituary appears several years later and states that he died “from a short illness of acute pneumonia . He was a prominent hotel proprietor, a former Councilman, volunteer fireman, and a leader in fraternal societies” (August 8, 1915 issue of Philadelphia Inquirer). It actually sounds like a very nice sort of eulogy. He was only 38 years old. Aunt Minnie Mae was a young widow with at least three children. We don’t know if she had a broken heart. I have yet to determine if she ever remarried. I have no idea of what became of her three children.
Grandma never spoke of the Red Onion connection. It could be that she never knew about it either. Like I mentioned earlier, her family members tended to be very secretive.
This Sunday (February 5) Job states: “Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery? Are not his days those of hirelings?” I cannot help but continue to wonder about what might have been going on in poor old Aunt Minnie Mae’s life. Running a saloon could not have been easy work and even could have been downright disreputable. I noticed that she maintained ownership for several years after her husband’s death. It could have been that she was doing the best she could in order to survive. There was no social security back then. As they say in the South, “Bless her heart.”
A lot of times when I go to Mass, I think about many of these old timers. Sometimes they even pop into my mind out of the blue. I take these opportunities to pray for them. You never know.
Stay tuned as I continue my quest unearth a family saint! (Laugh out loud!)