Guest post from my mother! . . .
Some people go to the beach, I like to spend my summers investigating a family history “mystery.” This summer it was Efner Atchison [see the last post for more on him] and Mary Ellen Williams, from the Fjerstad/Atchison branch of our tree.
We had very little information on Efner. He was my “Mystery Man.” Or so I thought.
Mary Ellen Williams, or Mae Atchison as she was known in later years, was my husband’s great-grandmother. I had met her, at family gatherings and her annual two week visits with my mother-in-law. She was a feisty, little old lady. This was someone I actually knew, no mystery there. Or so I thought, again.
To investigate a family history “mystery,” I gather all the information I have (fact or not). See what’s missing and begin a list of questions I don’t have answers for. Then I go in search of those answers. Find the facts and put the pieces together. Simple, right? Maybe for Sherlock Holmes.
Efner and Mary Ellen were married in 1897 in Staples, MN. Efner seemed to have died in 1909. That left Mary Ellen a young widow with 3 children to raise. And apparently she stayed a widow right up to her death, 1971 in Staples, MN. That intrigued me. How in the world did she support herself and raise 3 children? Did she live in Staples all those years? 60 years of missing pieces?!?! Now I had a “Mystery Woman,” too.
She lived in Staples, she had family and friends there. Yet she seemed to have moved to Canada somewhere around 1913. I had trouble believing that. Why would she have packed up her children and moved to another country? Putting myself in her place, I guessed that either she was traveling with someone or that she knew someone where she was going.
Canadian records for that time and area are sparse. She seems to have visited someone in Canada according to a 1912 Border Crossings from the U.S. to Canada record. Further searches showed me that she had a brother living in Saskatchewan at the time. The 1916 Census of Canada shows that she did indeed live in Saskatchewan, beginning in 1913. Border crossing records show that between 1917 and 1921 she returned to Staples several times. Maybe to visit her parents? Fact: she lived in Canada from 1913 to 1921.
Only 50 missing years to go. Since the Canadian resources had dried up, what other facts did I have? The end of her life! She died in Staples in 1971, how long had she been there? By searching through newspaper archives, I found “resident tidbits” about her all the way back to 1942. Bingo, the last 30 years of her life were spent in Staples. Some of those years were spent in a local retirement home.
Still 20 missing years. And this time I had the 1930 and 1940 U.S. censuses to help me. 1930 turned up nothing, that was disappointing. But in 1940 she shows up in Duluth, MN working as a housekeeper for the Spencer family. And the Duluth City Directories show her living with them back to 1935.
1921 to 1935 – 14 years still missing. Totally frustrating for me. Where was she? In Canada? Duluth? Staples? Or someplace else? Why didn’t I ask her about her life when I had the chance? Maybe there wouldn’t have been a mystery, or missing years. But then what would I do with my summers?
P.S. Note from Jill . . .
I just want to underscore how surprising this all was. From the stories I had heard, I thought this little old lady had lived in Staples her whole life. But no, she got around! I was so surprised she lived in Saskatchewan! It also seems good to mention that she lived for 95 years – so she had a lot of time to move around & have an interesting life.
Extra bonus – I thought I would share a couple more pictures I have of Atchie, as we called her. I wish I knew more about these images. It is easy to pick out May/Mary in the black dress & her mother Margaret in the white dress. I don’t know who the other people are in this one:
And here they are again in this car. I am guessing around 1910 in Staples? Perhaps the man on the left is Margaret’s husband John, but it is hard to tell for sure.
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