Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Elusive Ezra Willis

Minnie Frances Palmer
I am a researcher at heart; give me a computer and a few free hours, and I can lose myself and all sense of time.  Over the last decade or so I have been fascinated and many times frustrated by researching my family tree.  In the first few years, I spent quite a bit of time in front of the computer, making connections, checking facts/sources, and sending off for public records.  I was able to establish a foundation of people within each of the major branches of my family from which to build on over the years.  There are times I hit a wall, and after many frustrating hours/days/weeks/months, I walk away for a time.  But, it is never far from my mind, and all I need is one hit, just one good bit of information and I’m back in, hook, line and sinker.  I sound like an addict... well, maybe I am just a bit addicted to genealogy. 

There is one person that I return to time and again, one who frustrates me above all others—Ezra Willis, my maternal grandmother’s father.  He was not a presence in her life, and on top of that, she didn’t like to speak much about the past.  When she did, she recounted stories that have left me baffled.  

My grandmother Rosa was essentially an only child; at least the only child born to Ezra and her mother, Minnie Francis Palmer.  There was another child, but unfortunately he didn’t live long, dying within the first year of life.  My cherubic great-grandmother had two subsequent husbands, but no further children. 

Rosa Willis
Once Rosa told my sister that she had had a brother and that they lived for a time in a boarding house in Chicago.  When it was time to move on, my grandmother’s mother (Minnie) didn’t have the money to pay what they owed, so she left her son behind in servitude.  According to my grandmother, she never saw him again.  Now the only son I can find, in all my years of research, is the son who died within a few months of birth.  See what I mean about baffling?  There is no one to confirm this story, not even my own mother who had never heard this before.  

My grandmother also told me she had a [half] brother named Eugene.  I even have a picture of them from when he visited my grandparents’ farm when my mother was still a girl.  Who was Eugene’s mother and did he have a family?  If so, where were they?  You can see how this might nag at someone like me.  I have been able to continue my research past Erza, finding his father and mother—Billy Willis and Almina Lavanway (I tell you this only to help in following along)—and each of their parents, and even their parents’ parents.  Finding a woman’s maiden name can sometimes be a challenge, as most often they are listed only by their married name.  But, they did sometimes give a son or daughter their family name as a middle name; this tradition has made my research possible. 

Eugene Willis and Rosa
So, why do I keep coming back to Erza?  Because I want to know what became of him—he was born in 1880; that really wasn’t that long ago.  Even if he only lived until he was sixty, it would have been 1940; you would think I would be able to find something about him.  And, I want to find my grandmother’s brother Eugene, whom she named a son after.  After his marriage ended to Minnie Francis, Erza seems to disappear.  The only grandfather my mother ever new was George Watson, Minnie’s third husband.  Even then she only knew him as “Grandpa Watson” (it took a bit searching to find his given name).  Thank G*d for the Federal Census, truly a genealogist’s best friend.

Recently, I have made what may be a breakthrough; although I hesitate to get excited—and definitely won’t add any information to my tree until I can do more work to connect some dots.  I have found an Ezra B. Willis who was born in Michigan (where my Ezra was born) around the same time as my Ezra.  This Ezra excites me (I know, I know) only because he had a son, you guessed it... Eugene!  

Ezra B. moved around a lot, which could explain why he’s been so elusive: from Michigan to Colorado where he married Edith (surname unknown) in 1909 and had a son named Clarence; then to Kansas where he married Rosemary Woodward in 1920 with whom he had Eugene (born in Missouri in 1922), Rosella, Joseph and Jesse; and then to Oklahoma where he married Catheline (surname unknown) and had two further children: a son, Billy (remember, Ezra's father’s name was Billy) and a daughter, Joaquita.  Eugene and Rosella are listed as living with them in Oklahoma in the 1940 Federal Census.  This was before birth control and men tended to have children well into their older years; Ezra is close to sixty at the time of the census and his wife is 23, just five years older than Eugene.  

So far there is more argument against this being my Ezra than for, like the fact that Rosa would have been 20 years older than him, but until I’ve exhausted all available resources, I at least have a possibility.

Dedicated to my grandmother: Rosa Mae (Willis) Otto, 1902-2001.

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