Mom’s family history

Lorraine Barbara Kalish, high school graduation photo. 1951
Lorraine Barbara Kalish, high school graduation photo. 1951

Adam Malec was 20 years old in 1901. That’s the year he crossed the Atlantic in the zwischendeck, or steerage compartment, of a steamship. Adam had seven years earlier fled the family farm in Poland to get away from a mean stepmother, walking more than 600 miles to Hamburg, Germany. One of his first stop was a cobbler shop, undoubtedly to fix up those shoes. The repair may have involved some barter as Adam stayed in that shop for the entirety of his teen years, working as an apprentice while saving money for passage.

Adam wanted to join his brother Stanley, who had found work in the meat-packing plants in Chicago, a treacherous place where workers were valued little more than the hogs and cattle they butchered, a place made infamous by Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle. It’s a classic book of the American literary canon, a must-read, just not while eating.

Adam in fact arrived in Chicago around the time Sinclair was there researching his book. They may have crossed each other on Halsted Street, or in a tavern in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. But Adam didn’t stay long. Stanley directed him 300 miles downstate to East St. Louis, where there were also meatpacking houses and where jobs were said to be more plentiful.

Adam took the advice, went south, and soon got a job at the huge Swift and Company operation.

* * *

Round about 1902, Julia Walczak finally succeeded in convincing her skeptical parents to let her leave Poland for America. A cousin in the navy had told glorious stories about the exciting country where it seemed everyone in Eastern Europe was headed, and also gave her the name of a supposed distant relative living a prosperous life in East St. Louis.

Adam and Julia Malec wedding. 1905
Adam and Julia Malec wedding. 1905

Julia wrote to this woman who sent back a letter urging her to come, going on to say how there was plenty of room in her big house for a member of the family and assuring her parents the teenager would be well cared for. When Julia arrived at the house on 4th Street, she quickly learned the “big house” was an overcrowded boarding house for packinghouse workers. And Julia was expected to pay rent.

With no money to return home and few options, she took a job in the sausage department at Armour’s in order to pay for one of the four beds jammed together in the dining room. Those were for women. In the adjoining living room were four beds for men. One of those men was Adam Malec.

“It’s okay to go out with a man,” Julia would in later years exhort to her daughters and granddaughters. “But don’t let him give you any beer!” This is an actual quote from one of those granddaughters: my mom.

Malec children. 1909.
Malec children. 1909.

Owing to the fateful beer and/or proximate sleeping quarters, Adam and Julia were married in August 1905 and had their first of five children shortly thereafter. Their youngest, Bernice, was my maternal grandmother.

Adam proved to be a dependable provider, thrifty saver, and caring husband and father. Julia proved to be resourceful, strong, and smart. She was also the family disciplinarian. When their son John or daughter Fay arrived home after curfew, Julia would send them out to the chicken shack in the backyard for handfuls of corn (I’m not making this up) in which they were made to kneel (though I wish I were).

When Adam was badly scalded by a tipping vat of boiling bones, unable to work for nearly a year while healing from wounds that nearly cost him his life, Julia hung up her apron and went back to making sausage at Armour’s. Later, once a fulltime homemaker again, Julia continued to bring in money, this time without leaving the house.

Julia had only to open a rear window to hand over a few coins to a bookie running numbers up and down the alleys of East St. Louis, hiding the strips of paper indicating her bet in a turkey pot in the oven. She didn’t make a lot of money gambling, but did have enough spare cash during Depression years to lend money to Kruta’s Bakery next door to their house on 8th Street when they needed a short-term loan to buy sugar or flour.

The connection with Kruta’s Bakery and our family would continue for decades, with their signature cheese and apple strudel a fixture of Sunday dinners well into the 1970s.

* * *

The wedding of Leonard and Mary Krokvica. Austria.
The wedding of Leonard and Mary Krokvica. Austria.

Anna Krokvica was 16 when she left the family farm in a region of Austria-Hungary that would later become Croatia, travelling to East St. Louis with her mother Mary and younger sisters Josefina and Maria. It was 1908.

Five years earlier, Anna’s father Lenhardt Krokvica had deserted his family and taken their life savings with him. The scoundrel didn’t say where he was going; Len figured his wife would never find him in and industrial nowhereville in the middle of America. But somehow word got back to Mary that her husband was living the life of a happy bum in East St. Louis while his wife and kids back home struggled to survive. She promptly sold the farm and used the proceeds to buy passage to America.

Like most immigrant crossings from Europe theirs was a difficult one, with the three girls and mother huddled among masses in the bowels of a ship where disease and sickness ran rampant. All four made it through Ellis Island but only three made it to East St. Louis. Nobody is sure what happened, but when Mary finally caught up with her runaway husband, the first thing he may have learned was that his daughter Maria was dead.

One thing we do know is that Lenhardt had bad news for his wife: the family money was all gone. He had drank it all. Len was broke, making just enough to get by working at Swift. Mary had no choice but to join him at the packinghouse and she took their daughter Anna with her. Had the expression “this sucks” been around in these days, I’m fairly certain both Mary and Anna would have used it more than once right about this time.

Len’s alcoholism would plague his family for decades. When in later years he worked the night shift at one of the railroads, he was often too drunk to leave the house. So Mary would go. Under the cover of darkness, she used every ounce of body weight to throw the huge levers to switch rails in order that her whiskey-sodden husband wouldn’t lose his job.

It’s a miracle the booze didn’t kill this man at a young age. But Lenhardt and Mary, known later as “Daddo” and “Bobby” to grandchildren, would both live well into their eighties. Go figure.

* * *

Twelve-year-old Louis Kalish stepped off a train in East St. Louis in 1903. Having travelled alone on the month-long journey, from the same region of Austria-Hungary where the Krokvica’s lived, this round-faced kid was no doubt happy to see his sister Annie waiting for him at the Relay Depot.

Stephan and Kata Kalish family. 1906.
Stephan and Kata Kalish family. 1906.

Annie had rocked the family just the year before when she left for America to escape the mean hand of their father Stephen. The elder Kalish was born illiterate in the Slovakian mountains in the 1860s, where he taught himself to read and write. He had used that talent to find work in the more populated Croatian region of Austria-Hungary, ultimately becoming the town notary in the village of Banova Jaruga. It was a powerful position for someone with his background but he unwisely let that power go to his head. And out through his fists.

The packing houses in East St. Louis paid five cents an hour to women and ten cents to men—wages unheard of back in Europe. With their combined incomes, Annie was confident she and Louis could earn enough to send for their four younger siblings and mother Katrina. They didn’t have to.

When his son Louis disappeared, Stephen figured out what was going on and decided to foil his free-spirited daughter’s plan to break up his family. In 1906, he brought the rest of the family to East St. Louis himself. It would not be a permanent reunion. After leaving a position of some respect back in Europe, Stephen Kalish didn’t like being like being looked down upon at the packinghouse.

“I’m no hunkee SOB!” he complained before getting back on the boat. (The ethnic slur “hunkee” came apparently from the earlier “bo-hunk” which referred to a Bohemian from Hungary. The term would later evolve into “honkey,” a slangy term used in the 1960s for a white person.)

Stephen returned to Europe with his wife Kata and daughter Mildred in 1912, just in time for World War I, which no doubt put a damper on their homecoming and may have been a factor in their re-emigration to the US in 1921. Sadly, Kata contracted pneumonia on her second time through Ellis Island and was dead within a couple of weeks.

* * *

Louis and Anna Kalish with son Jimmy.
Louis and Anna Kalish with son Jimmy.

Nobody knows if the Kalish and Krokvica families knew each other back in Austria-Hungary or not. In any event, the families were joined in 1910 when Louis Kalish married Anna Krokvica. Two years later, Louis was offered a huge raise in pay—from ten cents an hour to fifteen—as a packinghouse supervisor. But there was a catch. The job was some 500 miles away. They took it.

Their son Jimmy, my Grandpa Kalish, was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in August 1912. That’s about the time Louis and Anna learned something they hadn’t been told before leaving East St. Louis: The man who held the supervisor’s job before Louis, when he was fired, had vowed to kill anyone who tried to fill his old job. And apparently he tried to make good on the promise.

The death threat, and distance from family and others in their ethnic circle, was enough to convince Louis and Anna that Oklahoma was not OK. They were out of there less than six months.

Back in East St. Louis, Louis Kalish was not happy about his return to a 70-hour workweek at a dime an hour. He was determined to change his young family’s fortune. So my great grandfather did just that, in a big way, by getting out of the hogs and cattle business and into a more lucrative one: liquor and prostitution.

* * *

In the 1880s, East St. Louis began raising its streets in order to keep homes and businesses dry when the Mississippi flooded. The massive project wasn’t quite finished in 1903, when the city found itself under 39 feet of water in one of the worst floods ever recorded. The area around 2nd and 3rd street, between Missouri and St. Louis Avenue, had not yet been raised, so flood water collected there as if in a valley. The name stuck.

Property owners in the area, known for decades thereafter as the Valley, grew tired of waiting for the area to be raised, and simply walked away from their ruined houses on streets of mud. Tavern owners and prostitutes were only too happy to take over the abandoned properties. And they liked the streets that way.

Whenever the city did fill a pothole, bleary eyed working girls would dig it out promptly the next morning, forcing cars to slow down, making it easier for the ladies to hop on the running boards and offer their services.

City officials might have thwarted development of this corridor of unseemly services, but to do so would have cut off their most reliable source of municipal revenue. Many of the major employers of East St. Louis—the stock yards, meat packing operations and factories of all sorts—shrewdly located their operations just outside city limits to avoid paying taxes. Monsanto Chemical and the National City stockyards would go so far as to incorporate their properties, as bogus municipalities, in order to make the scam permanent.

But owners of Valley taverns with back room gambling and prostitution, known euphemistically as “resorts,” had no such options. The wads of cash they handed over for licenses, fees and bribes allowed the struggling city to pay its bills.

As you might expect, details of how Louis Kalish made his fortune in prostitution are not well known—these are not the kind of stories families like to pass down to posterity. His transformation apparently began with the help of his brother Joe and a Model T car, which they used to shuttle prostitutes the hundred miles between East St. Louis and the booming coal-mining town of Zeigler, Illinois. They made $5 dollars a ride and expanded their operation with the purchase of a boardinghouse in Zeigler.

Jimmy Kalish with Steve Walkco, Jr and Ed Walkco. Zeigler, Illinois.
Jimmy Kalish with Steve Walkco, Jr and Ed Walkco. Zeigler, Illinois.

Louis moved Anna and Jimmy to the boardinghouse around 1914, along with Anna’s parents and others relatives who helped run the place. It was very, very successful. They all moved back to East St. Louis around 1919. That’s when Louis paid $50,000—the equivalent of more than half a million 2020 dollars—for the Savoy Hotel at the corner of 2nd and Missouri in the Valley.

The once penniless immigrant Louis Kalish was now, just a few years later, a man of means. And his lucky streak continued. Louis and his hotel were well-positioned when Prohibition went into effect in January 1920. The ground floor tavern became a speakeasy, and there were plenty of rooms upstairs for both family and prostitutes. And his lively place in the red light district was even adopted as the home of the Shelton gang, archenemies of Charlie Birger’s gang in the bloody rivalry for control of the illegal liquor trade.

* * *

Jimmy’s father did not handle his turn of fortune well. This Louis was no saint.

As an alcoholic with easy access to all the booze he could drink, Louis would regularly force Anna and Jimmy to hide beneath the stairs while he trashed the house with a gun in his hand, vowing to kill them both. The terror came to an end in 1926 when cirrhosis of the liver killed the man.

The relief for Jimmy was short-lived. Within months, his mother Anna came down ill and went all the way to the Mayo clinic in Minnesota for treatment. It didn’t help. Anna came home with an infection that only hastened her death, and 14-year old Jimmy soon found himself an orphan.

Louis and Anna Kalish didn’t leave Jimmy with a lot of money, but he did inherit the Savoy hotel and a plot of land on Lake Drive, which his dad had taken from a customer as payment for a gambling debt. He would later appreciate the Lake Drive property but forever despised the hotel and left it to his uncle Joe to run.

And he thanked God he no longer had to live there; his Aunt Josie and Uncle Steve Walko took him in and he enjoyed the following years in a roomy house across the street from Jones Park. He had also taken his mother’s advice to study hard in school, advice he took very seriously, and his cousins took advantage of his ever-willingness to tutor them.

Luck turned again on Jimmy Kalish in 1929. Most people who lost their fortune that year could blame it on the historic stock market crash but Steve Walko had only a gambling addiction to blame. He lost every penny he had, along with his nice house, on a pack of ponies at the new racetrack.

With no place left to turn, the Walko’s, and Jimmy, moved into the Savoy. The young man remained stoic and redoubled his studies, never losing faith in education to get him out of a place he didn’t want to be. He turned as well to physical fitness and could soon do 100 push-ups without breaking a sweat. (He would do those push-ups every night before going to bed, well into his 80s, when his doctor told him to stop.)

* * *

James and Bernice Kalish wedding photo. 1933
James and Bernice Kalish wedding photo. 1933

Jimmy surprised no one when he got into Northeast Missouri State Teachers College in Kirksville. He had enough money to pay for classes but not for transportation. But being from East St. Louis he knew his way around railroads, and there were plenty of freight trains to get him home whenever he wanted.

On one of those visits home he met a delicate young woman named Bernice Malec at a dance. She accepted the impeccably fit college man’s offer of a date—but may have disregarded her mother’s advice about mixing men with beer. In any event, Jimmy soon learned his girlfriend was expecting his child.

As much as he valued education, he valued commitment to family even more. So Jimmy gave up his dreams of being a history teacher and got a job hauling salt bungs at Swift. Bernice moved in with him at the Savoy. Their daughter Lorraine, my mother, was born on December 7, 1933.

As one might expect, Adam and Julia Malec didn’t like the idea of their daughter and granddaughter living in a brothel. Shortly after my aunt Jackie was born in 1935, they offered the young family use of a small house they owned on 8th Street, next door to their own.

It was tight quarters—Jim and Bernice used a rollaway in the kitchen and Lorraine and Jackie shared the bedroom—but it was a welcome step up from the Savoy. They got more elbow room when Jim and some friends built a house on his inherited property on Lake Drive, not long before their son Jim was born. And there, at long last, life was good.

East St. Louis blossomed in the late 1940s, four decades after pushing itself out of the hard ground of a rapidly industrializing America. Back when my immigrant ancestors arrived it was said “Only those who must, live in East St. Louis.” In 1913, John Chamberlain was elected mayor after campaigning on the promise to “make East St. Louis a little more like home and a little less than Hell.”

Things had improved dramatically by the time Lorraine Kalish was growing up. Mom and her sister Jackie and brother Jim got good educations at well-equipped schools, spent free time in the giant sand-bottomed swimming pool at Jones Park—said to be the largest inland beach of its kind in America—and took summer “vacations” at Grandma and Grandpa Malec’s house on 8th street where they were showered with attention.

It was a good time indeed for many grandchildren of the Eastern European immigrants who had flooded through Ellis Island at the turn of the century. Life was not so good for the African Americans of East St. Louis.

The national scourge of racial discrimination and bigotry made no exceptions here. Race riots had ravaged the city in 1917, when mobs of excitable and sadly misinformed whites feared the blacks migrating from the South were taking all their jobs. East St. Louis in the 1940s was still hell for those unlucky enough to be born with the wrong color skin. And it would pretty much stay that way.

* * *

James and Bernice Kalish with children Lorraine, Jackie, and Jim.
James and Bernice Kalish with children Lorraine, Jackie, and Jim.

Like most American families, the Kalish’s had to endure the rationing, worry, and other deprivations brought on by World War II. The US reluctantly entered “the Good War” on December 7, 1941, Mom’s birthday, when news of Pearl Harbor came across the Malec’s radio as they sat down for her birthday supper.

Unlike later wars, this one was felt by virtually every household in America due to rationing of everyday goods. Shoes, for example, were limited to one pair per year. Grandpa Malec used his skills from his cobbler days to keep everyone’s shoes in good repair.

The Kalish family could at least count on meat on their table every day. Or nearly so. The packing houses let workers buy meat at a discount and Jim Kalish took advantage of the bargain. He’d bring home whatever cut was made available that day—short ribs, organ meats, pig knuckles—but never hot dogs. Nor bologna nor liverwurst, known then as Braunschweiger.

Grandpa had sworn off processed meat of any kind after one day watching a coworker sweep the grimy packinghouse floor and empty his pan into one of the grinding vats, as was routine. As he peered into the machinery this day, he spotted among the soiled and boot-trodden meat scraps a campaign button. I’m not making this up. “Wendell Willkie for President,” it read.

The powerful grinders reduced the visage of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s dark horse opponent to tiny flecks of filler, and Jim could only imagine what else might be going into America’s wieners and franks.

* * *

Mom’s parents provided a great many things to their children, but ethnic identity was not one of them. Like many children of immigrants they took pains to break ties to the old country. They didn’t want to be seen as immigrants, especially during wartime. They were Americans now and felt obligated to reinforce that.

They did things like only speaking English at home, and discouraging their own children from learning any Croatian, Slovakian or Polish, languages Jim and Bernice knew well. And they allowed the consumption of garlic only on Sundays when they were with family—God forbid coworkers and schoolmates should smell garlic on any of their breaths, a sure giveaway of being an immigrant.

One thing that was passed down from generations past was an unbending work ethic. This was a working class family to its genetic core, and every member knew that if you wanted something you worked for it. So when the kids became teenagers and wanted extra money, they got jobs.

Mom found one at Jimmy’s Malt Shop on State Street. There, a very pretty Lorraine Kalish scooped ice cream, wiped down countertops, and, when they needed it, went outside to wash the windows. On one of those occasions a young man she recognized approached.

“Are you Lorraine Kalish?” the nervous guy asked. “Oh you’re Bob Durbin’s brother,” answered Lorraine, catching the sharp-dressed fella off guard. Composing himself, he invited her to the annual Easter Dance coming up soon.

Mom accepted, enjoyed the dance, and accompanied my dad afterward to a road-house called the Chatterbox with a crowd of other couples. She didn’t enjoy that part of the evening as much, because she had never been around so many people drinking alcohol, which is not a surprise given her age.

When my dad learned his date was only fifteen years old, he returned her home and made it clear he had no idea he was four years older than her. Mom wasn’t sure if she’d ever hear from this guy again or not. And she’d wait a long time to find out.

Dad’s family history

William Pius Durbin, Jr. Central Catholic HS graduation photo. 1947
William Pius Durbin, Jr. Central Catholic HS graduation photo. 1947

In 1723, more than five decades before the 4th of July meant anything special, Samuel Durbin and Ann Logsdon were married on that date in Baltimore, Maryland. He was my great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather—my G6—and may have been one of the two brothers from Wales who, according to oral history, brought this line of Durbins to the new country by way of the Caribbean island of Nevis, the birthplace (half a century later) of Alexander Hamilton. Nobody can say for sure. But we know Samuel and Ann were married on that date and that he was a toll-road watchman near Owings Mill, a featureless exurb of Baltimore then and now.

Ann was the daughter of my G7 William Logsdon, a successful farmer who in 1705 or so met a ship full of women brought over for the boys toiling away in the colonies. One can presume he met the tall ship with more than a bit of manly anticipation, perhaps wearing his finest waistcoat, breeches and spatterdashes. How much of a say the women had in the matter is unknown. It may have been rather little, as the other fragment of oral history passed down from this era is that Honor O’Flynn was kidnapped off the coast of Ireland and taken across the Atlantic, where she would become William Logsdon’s wife and mother of his children.

* * *

Samuel and Ann had a baker’s dozen kids. One of the 13 was G5 Christopher Durbin, born in 1741. He and his wife Margaret Brown Parkinson were themselves prolific in the procreation department, having 12 children. Their son John J. Durbin, my G4, was born in 1769.

Not long after the Revolution, when the colonists finally succeeded in making King George go pee up a rope, John Durbin (and presumably his parents) made their way from Maryland to the vicinity of Sunfish, Kentucky. They may have known another European in the very same area, John Houchin, who legend has it was hunting a bear in 1797 when the animal turned against him, forcing him to utter obscenities appropriate for the era as he retreated into a hole in the ground that turned out to be the entrance to the enormous Mammoth Cave.

The joining of the Logsdon and Durbin families did not end with the marriage of Ann and Samuel. Ann had a nephew Edward Logsdon (son of her brother Thomas) who married her granddaughter Mary Brown (daughter of Edward Brown and Margaret Durbin, Samuel and Ann’s daughter).

Is it okay to marry your cousin’s daughter? Okay or not, it happened again one generation down the same branch of the family tree when John J. Durbin, son of Christopher Durbin and hence grandson of Samuel and Ann, married Patience Logsdon, daughter of the aforementioned Mary Brown and Edward Logsdon.

One hopes John and Patience did not quiz their kids on their ability to classify blood relatives, as they had a mother who was also their second cousin twice removed, a grandfather who was also their first cousin thrice removed, and great grandparents were also—you get the picture.

Our John J. Durbin lost his eyesight somewhere along the way. Henceforth known as Uncle Blind Johnny (he could have also been known, correctly, as Second Cousin Once Removed Blind Johnny) this G4 of mine was also a slave owner—but a peculiar one.

The story goes how Johnny would punish his slaves by whipping. Unable to properly aim the wicked strap of coiled leather (I’m not making this up) master Durbin would order another slave to mete plantation justice while he listened. The slave so-ordered would crack the whip not on the other slave but on the tree to which the punished slave was pretending to be tied, his fake wails thus satisfying Uncle Blind Johnny that the job was done.

Robert Anselm Durbin
Robert Anselm Durbin

Curiously, this G4 of mine chose to be buried not in the Catholic cemetery for which he had donated land, where his family was buried, but among his slaves in a cemetery just next door. He apparently objected to the church forbidding the burying of slaves in the very cemetery he made possible, and wanted to record his objection in a rather permanent way. I say he succeeded.

I don’t know much about my G3 Robert A. Durbin, son of John J. Durbin, other than he was born in 1813 in Kentucky and that he and his first wife (he would go through four until getting the hang of it) Elizabeth Ann Hill were parents to one of nine children. One was my G2 Pius Anselm Durbin, also born in Kentucky, in 1847.

Robert was apparently feuding with his children when he died in 1892. But he got in the last word, pointedly, in his will, by giving each child the screw-you sum of a dollar. The rest of his cash went to an assortment of priests with instructions to pray for his soul.

* * *

Pius and Elizabeth Durbin and children
Pius and Elizabeth Durbin and children

Pius Anselm took his wing of the Durbin line out of Kentucky. His first stop was Illinois. There he married Elizabeth Ellen Burtle of Sangamon County, and together in 1873 they crossed the Mississippi River they only way you could in those days, by ferry, to find their fortune in Kansas.

The slave-free state had disposed of most of its native American inhabitants by this time and was enticing settlers of European and African origin onto its wide open plains of opportunity. Its state motto was per aspera ad astra, Latin for “through hardship to the stars.” Elizabeth bore Pius six children before succumbing to some unknown ailment that took her life.

With a heavy heart and distraught beyond words, Pius rushed back to Illinois to deliver the tragic news, comfort his sister-in-law and ask how quickly she could pack a bag. Thus the widower returned to Kansas with Teresa Burtle who promptly married Pius and went on to produce another seven Durbin kids. One was my great grandfather William Oscar Durbin, born in 1881.

Even with his backup Burtle sister and brood of 13 children, the hardship to the stars got the best of Pius Anselm and his Durbins. They weren’t alone. The Midwest drought was of true biblical proportions, complete with dust bowls and grasshopper plagues, and gave rise to another popular motto of the era: “In God we Trusted, In Kansas We Busted.”

Pius Anselm cut his losses and tried again in Missouri. They didn’t do much better there and got spooked by the prospect of earthquakes after experiencing temblors on the massive New Madrid fault line that runs through the area. So Pius headed back to Illinois using the only mode of transportation he and his family could afford: their feet. And when they crossed the Mississippi this time, there was a bridge.

The masterpiece of engineer James Buchanan Eads was a jaw-dropping marvel when completed in 1874, and, as the longest arch bridge in the world and the first to employ all manner of technology, plenty of folks were afraid to step foot on it. As such, the first to cross the officially opened bridge was a giant elephant, borrowed from a circus to convince people it was safe. The first human to cross may have been some guy following with a broom.

Children of Pius Anselm Durbin. Back: Margaret Elizabeth, William Oscar, Mary Eleanor, Elizabeth Ellen. Front: Katherine, Anna Christina, Fidelis Francis, Leo Douglas, Clara Loretta
Children of Pius Anselm Durbin. Back: Margaret Elizabeth, William Oscar, Mary Eleanor, Elizabeth Ellen. Front: Katherine, Anna Christina, Fidelis Francis, Leo Douglas, Clara Loretta

Nine-year-old William Oscar Durbin entered East St. Louis for the first time in 1890. Lacking shoes, he would later recall for his grandchildren how walking on the metal grillwork of the Eads made his feet hurt. But he would never forget the sight of peering 88 feet below his callused feet at the brown water of the river known as the Big Muddy as he crossed the already legendary structure.

After crossing, the road-weary family of Pius Anselm and Teresa Durbin passed East St. Louis and didn’t stop until they reached Dahlgren, Illinois some hundred miles downstate. There, they would again put plow to soil in an effort to put food on the table.

Another family doing exactly the same thing in Dahlgren were the Gaul’s. They too had tried and failed to make a go of things in Kansas. We’re not sure if the families knew each other or not back in Kansas, but they were joined in 1902 when William Oscar married Margaret Gaul of Monmouth, Illinois.

* * *

Margaret was the daughter of Billy Gaul, a Civil War veteran and Irish immigrant who came to the U.S. as an infant in 1845 with his parents, brother and sister. They were among the million or so Irish refugees of the great potato famine. Both of his parents, William Gaul and Bridget Leahy, their bodies no doubt weakened by poor nutrition and near-starvation, died soon after arriving. The orphaned Billy grew up a farmhand for William Massey, a prominent landowner who would later stand as witness when Billy married.

We don’t know what life was like for Billy on the Massey farm, but in November 1861 he eagerly answered President Abraham Lincoln’s call for volunteers to put down the insurrection by the southern states. Like many of the first enlistees of the Civil War, young Billy may have seen joining the Army as a golden opportunity to change his status from “immigrant American” to simply “American.” Or maybe he was just tired of pitching manure.

After mustering in at the fairgrounds of New Carrolton, Illinois in midwinter, and nearly freezing his onions off waiting for enough enlistees to arrive to fill a bus, Billy Gaul and the rest of his Company C of the Illinois Infantry Regiment 61 survived one of the first major battles of the war, in April 1862, at Shiloh in Tennessee. Although Billy left no written record of his experience, another member of Reg 61, Leander Stillwell, published a complete memoir so we have a good idea where our Billy was and when.

William "Billy" Gaul
William “Billy” Gaul

Billy’s Army experience, indeed his life, nearly came to an end in September that same year. The infantryman who dodged countless bullets on the battlefield wasn’t so lucky as he passed a stopped wagon train on a long march between battlefields and got himself kicked in the head by a mule. This is true. The bone-shattering injury was rather a doozy, according to field surgeon affidavits in his pension application years later, but he managed not only to fight on for the remainder of his three-year term but to re-enlist in 1864.

Mary Cummings Gaul
Mary Cummings Gaul

His patriotism did have its limits, however, and when, in August 1865, his superiors refused to let his regiment go home—this was four months after Lee’s surrender and end of the war—Billy Gaul deserted. His brazen act was duly recorded, as was his debt of “69 cents due the U.S.” for the waist belt, plate and cartridge box he took home with him. In 1884 the charge of desertion was removed from his record by an act of Congress, which realized that leaving a war well after it had ended wasn’t such a terrible thing, and changed the discharge status of scores of such veterans from dishonorable to honorable. We don’t know if they made Billy pay back the 69 cents or not.

In 1866 Billy Gaul took advantage of the Homestead Act by acquiring from Uncle Sam 160 acres of undeveloped land in Kansas in return for a $10 application fee and promise to live on the property for a minimum of five years. One year later he sold the place for $2,200—earning a nice 10,000% return on his investment. Honorability would never be one of Billy Gaul’s long suits. When I met with his granddaughter Margaret Petterson in the 1980s, she referred to her grandfather as a rounder.

“What’s a rounder?” I asked. “It’s a drunkard who leaves his family and only comes around to pick up his pension check,” she replied through pursed lips. And that’s the last she wanted to say about my G2 Billy Gaul.

* * *

William Oscar and Margaret Elizabeth Durbin in 1902
William Oscar and Margaret Elizabeth Durbin in 1902

William Oscar and Margaret Durbin had a tough time starting a family in Dahlgren. Their first child died at birth in 1902, and daughter Helen survived only a few months after her birth two years later. Things didn’t look so good for their son William Pius Durbin when he was born in 1906. Ill and frail, he was fed by an eyedropper and slept on a pillow. But my grandfather eventually strengthened and his parents could at last thank God for a healthy child.

They weren’t so thankful for their dismal financial condition, however, and had to give up farming for good around 1912 to keep from starving. That’s when they moved to East St. Louis where William Oscar got a job first as a streetcar operator, and later as a bus driver. His family would never go hungry again.

Margaret and William Oscar Durbin were known as Ma and Pa (pronounced “maw” and “paw”) to everyone in the family, no matter the relation. The tireless work ethic brought from the farm served them well. Pa didn’t make much money as a bus driver but he was thrifty, patient and resourceful.

Ma and Pa
Ma and Pa

Pa built a garage behind their house at 484 29th Street with his own hands, and once fashioned an electric fan out of scrap metal—it moved air brilliantly but had no guard of any kind so it scared the hell out of Ma. She raised chickens in the back yard until the city told her it was against municipal ordinances. Then she raised them in the basement until Pa told her either the chickens were leaving the house or he was, but only in jest. In reality, their marriage was “tight as the bark on a tree” to use one of Ma’s woodsy expressions.

Ma and Pa took full advantage of the farm-to-city transition. And they introduced the Durbin family passion for baseball that continues today. There was an unspoken rule that Pa was never to be interrupted listening to the St. Louis Cardinals on the radio, and the same for Ma, though her team was the St. Louis Browns, thank you very much.

Ma and Pa followed different teams but prayed in the same church. They went as a family to weekly mass at St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church, and Ma went every day, no matter the weather. As she kneeled in the pews, she no doubt thanked God for the bounty they found in East St. Louis that had delivered them from a life of hunger, and perhaps snuck in the occasional prayer for the pitching arm of Dixie Davis.

* * *

William Pius Durbin
William Pius Durbin

Grandpa Durbin was a model son to his Ma and Pa. Healthy and fit, good-looking and humble to a fault, this devout Catholic was a good student who knew his manners. He was a member of the Knights of Columbus Drum & Bugle Corp (we don’t know whether he played bugle or drum) and went to work in the early 1920s at the Pennsylvania Railroad as a stevedore, loading and unloading cargo.

During the first half of the twentieth century, if you weren’t working at a packinghouse in East St. Louis then chances were good you made a living on the railroads. The confluence of so many rail lines here is what drew packing houses in the first place. And what got the railroads here was the coal. There were mountains of it beneath the Illinois bluffs just east of the city, mined like mad in the decades after the Civil War.

My grandfather would make his career on the railroad, where his sharp mind got him off the tracks and into the office where he would advance to the coveted position of Chief Clerk for the New York Central. On a blind date in 1926 he met Ann Kutkin, a Lithuanian immigrant, and in 1928 he married her.

It was more like a rescue.

* * *

Ona Kutkiten and mother Marcela Sorockaite
Ona Kutkiten and mother Marcela Sorockaite

Grandma Durbin was born Ona Kutkite in Jurbarkis Lithuania, in 1909. In 1911 she emigrated to East St. Louis, where her name changed to Ann, by way of Baltimore, Maryland with her mother Marcela Sorockaite and half-brother Leo Davlanski.

Marcele had been running a tavern in Lithuania when her first husband died of TB. Fortunately he left her a fair amount of money, but very unfortunately she soon married a fella named Rokus who happily spent it all on booze before taking off to America where he used the name Robert Kutkin.

He got a job as a steel molder at the Durbin Foundry (the name is a weird coincidence) where he made good money that he handed over to saloon keepers as fast as he could earn it. His wife and kids lived above a tavern she ran, and she may have suffered from alcoholism as much as her husband.

“You have to understand I never really had a home,” Grandma Durbin would share decades later.

Robert Kutkin
Robert Kutkin

Her parents moved frequently from one place to another when she was a kid, one time failing to tell her. She came home from school to an empty house and sat alone, with only schoolbooks and tears of bewilderment, until her brother Leo came to fetch her.

Once Ann reached her teen years, her own house was no longer safe. Rokus would chase her into the street barefoot in the middle of the night, and she had to defend herself against drunken men who went after her at wild parties, apparently with her parents encouragement.

Ann was living with relatives when she met William Durbin. She must have latched onto the morally upstanding and handsome young man as to a lifeline. He was only too willing to extend one.

19xxWilliamPiusDurbinAnnaKutkinWedding

At their wedding in 1928, Ma and Pa were there to celebrate their son’s marriage. Ann’s parents were not. Nor were they to be in Ann’s life much longer. Her mother died mid-sentence of a heart attack in 1930 and Rokus was not welcome in his daughter’s home. At first he was, as the young couple tried to be cordial. But the troubled man, reeking of alcohol, would demand money of his son-in-law and once at an attempted family dinner got so out of control that his step-son Leo grabbed a tire iron from the garage and threatened to swing it.

Rokus took the challenge but was too drunk to be any good to himself. When Leo cracked him in the skull, Rokus found himself drenched in his own blood. As he staggered out of the house, the bull of a man helped himself to a generous handful of salt from a barrel in the kitchen. He smacked it onto his head to cauterize the wound and stem the flow of blood. That was the last anyone in the family saw of my great grandfather Rokus Kutkin.

Around 1947, Ann got a call from the city with news her father had died and would she please come down to claim the body. “I don’t have a father,” she said, before hanging up the phone.

* * *

William Pius Durbin, Sr and Jr
William Pius Durbin, Sr and Jr

My dad, William Pius Durbin, Jr., was born in 1929—just in time for the Great Depression. His first bed was a dresser drawer. Money was always tight but Billy and his brother Bob, born two years later, were lucky to have a father with a good job on the railroad and a mother who was as strong, smart and determined as any woman who ever stepped foot in East St. Louis. No economic downturn was going to defeat Ann Durbin.

Dad’s family moved a lot. They lived on 30th Street when he was born, then 33rd Street in St. Patrick’s parish, then Belleview Avenue near 29th. In 1936 they moved to 484 29th street—next door to Ma and Pa at 486. The kids loved being so close to their grandparents, but in less than year Ann demanded they move after getting into a snit with her mother-in-law, vowing never to see them again (this was neither the first nor last time she’d do this).

Brothers Bill and Bob Durbin
Brothers Bill and Bob Durbin

They moved to a place on 41st Street, then a year later to 40th, then to a shotgun house on 33rd—so called because one could supposedly fire a shotgun from the front door and have it go clear out the back door without interference. This was across the street from the aptly named Acid Hills where ALCOA dumped its industrial waste into piles, favored by neighborhood boys on their bikes.

My dad and his brother were instructed to keep an eye out for huge clouds of chemical dust rolling across the street, then call for help in a rush to close all the windows.

Billy and Bob hadn’t seen Ma for three years, and Pa only on infrequent visits, when in 1944 Pa brokered a détente and Ann consented to their moving back to 484.

In 1937, Grandpa brought home for my dad a library card and a book on Roman mythology. The surprise gift made Billy Durbin a voracious reader and lifelong lover of books. This was the same year a traveling salesman convinced his parents to buy an accordion for next to nothing, in return for a commitment to take lessons. Dad mastered the complicated instrument and for decades thereafter could play any number of tunes by heart.

World War II was of course the defining event of dad’s childhood. Dad had a paper route and would read the East St. Louis Journal before delivering them. One afternoon he read that sugar was about to be rationed. On his way home he stopped at several stores and bought up as much as he could carry on his bike—nearly 30 pounds of it.

His mom gave him the 1940s equivalent of a high five and fist bump but his dad did not, pointing out that hoarding in wartime could get you in serious trouble with the law. Dad never did that again. One thing they never ran out of was eggs. Grandpa was in charge of the feed house at the New York Central and came home with an armful every day. My dad soon got hooked on fried egg sandwiches, and Grandma sold extras to neighbors.

In 1944, Bill and Bob Durbin got a little brother, Richard Joseph Durbin. Dick Durbin would one day be elected to the U.S. Congress, running in the district where Abraham Lincoln once served, and further advance to Assistant Majority Leader of the Senate where he would urge a reluctant first-term Senator from Illinois, whom he had befriended and mentored on the ways of Washington, to run for President. His name was Barack Obama.

* * *

My dad had a front-row seat to three of the great domestic battles of the 20th century, for women’s rights, union rights, and civil rights. His mother was a staunch feminist before anyone used the word, demonstrating at every opportunity that she could do both a woman’s work and a man’s work—better than any man could, she might add.

Grandma wouldn’t hesitate to paint a room herself or attempt the repair of a lamp, and took classes at business schools so she could go to work in an office. She eventually got a job as a clerk at the New York Central Railroad. Her husband and supervisor didn’t like the idea one bit—which probably only made her want to do it more.

Not surprisingly, my dad’s first job was also at the New York Central. His dad had helped arrange it and also appointed an African American stevedore named Jesse to show his son the ropes. Not only did Jesse know those ropes as well as anyone, but my grandpa wanted his son to see first-hand, as he had, the absurdity of judging a person by skin color.

African Americans were of course not called that in the 1940s. The acceptable term in public was “colored,” and at home the n-word was used, even, I am told, by whites who meant no disrespect.

My grandpa William Durbin was a union man to the core. He took a stand for the rights workers—of any skin color—as he rose through the ranks on the railroad, even after his promotion into management, when passions for worker rights are often put to test.

He navigated well the fine line between the interests of management and worker and decided at the age of 38 to apply his skills in the political arena. He was elected to the County Board of Supervisors in 1944 and within three years found himself chairman of the Finance Committee. He also found himself in a battle between personal ethics and government corruption.

My grandfather was offered bribes more than once, one time accepting a cigarette and noticing just before lighting it the tobacco had been replaced with a $50 bill—about a week’s pay.

We don’t know if he accepted the bribe but we do know he took an all-or-nothing stand in the 1949 election for Chairman of the County Board, when he refused to back a long-time family friend who apparently had no problem at all with the rampant corruption. Another bribe, for nearly a half a year’s pay, wouldn’t sway William Durbin but apparently it swayed others. His candidate lost, narrowly, and the very day after the election his former friend stripped William Durbin of his committee chairmanship.

The Durbin foray into politics was over. Or so Grandpa thought.

The St. Louis Gateway Arch under construction in 1964. Visible across the river, at the East St. Louis side of the Eads Bridge, is the New York Central Railroad where my dad, his brother Bob and parents all worked.
The St. Louis Gateway Arch under construction in 1964. Visible across the river, at the East St. Louis side of the Eads Bridge, is the New York Central Railroad where my dad, his brother Bob and parents all worked.

* * *

Grandpa Durbin fought battles at home, too. His marriage did not turn out to be a happy one. Nobody outside a marriage can truly know what goes on inside, but Grandma was certainly more willing to let the world, or at least her East St. Louis neighborhood, know how unhappy she was.

When Grandpa one night closed the windows to keep the neighbors from hearing a particularly angry tirade, she opened them back up and just raised her voice louder. Listening from their shared bed in the basement below, sons my dad and brother Bob debated who should go with which parent when they divorced. They never did, but the strains on Grandpa exceeded his ability to withstand it.

He displayed chronic symptoms of depression and found solace in few places. One was a pew at St. Elizabeth’s church and the other was his smoking chair. Cigarettes gave him much-needed comfort, but they also gave him cancer. Grandpa Durbin died on Friday the 13th of November in 1959, at the age of 53, as the bells of St. Henry’s rang in the noon hour on the Angelus bells.

Grandpa’s was a challenging life, respected and appreciated perhaps more so by others than himself. Over 500 mourners attended his wake. Among them was Maurice Tolden, an African American and railroad co-worker, who came to pay his respects. Owing to strict racial customs of that time and place, Mr. Tolden remained on the State Street sidewalk outside the Burke Funeral Home. When my dad spotted the impeccably dressed man outside, he promptly escorted him in. I know that would have made Grandpa proud. It sure makes me proud.

* * *

My dad enlisted in the United States Navy in 1948, in large part to put some distance between himself and his mother. Grandma had always dreamed of having a priest for a son and for a time thought it would be her eldest son. After an unimpressive eight years of grade school at St. Elizabeth’s, Billy Durbin surprised the nuns there—he was not a straight-A student, although his composition, penmanship and oratory skills were impressive—by winning a scholarship to St. Henry’s Seminary in Belleville. For his mother it was an answering of her prayers. For Dad it was a big mistake.

He went through the motions for the first two years, but by the third, the irreconcilable conflict of trying to please a mother who expected him to become a priest, and his very much not wanting to be a priest, only made him ill. He spent weeks in the infirmary before screwing up the courage to deliver the news to his parents: he was leaving seminary.

His mother said “Fine.” And then spoke not a single word to her son for six months.

Dad finished high school at Central Catholic then enrolled at Belleville Junior College, still not sure what he wanted to do with his life. His dad was ready to continue grooming him for a career at the New York Central railroad but Bill had an itch to do more.

With the euphoria of winning World War II still hanging in the national air, and the regret of having just missed the opportunity to serve in the Good War still nagging him, the idea of a career in the military crossed his mind more than once. And the walls of the little house on 29th street were closing in more and more every day.

His mother helped make up his mind. One night after dinner, his buddies came to the house to pick him up for a long-planned night on the town. Ann Durbin watched Bill, silently, as he grabbed a sweater and headed out to the curb. She followed him outside and waited until his friends were within earshot.

“Get back in here and wash these dishes!” she commanded from the porch.

The blood drained from Bill’s face before starting to boil. Knowing that if he defied his mother his belongings were likely to be strewn across the postage stamp front yard when he came home, Bill retreated into the house, defeated but determined.

The next day he went to the Navy enlistment office. The officer there greeted him with a warm smile, congratulatory handshake and an offer of coffee. As the steaming cup passed between their hands, the officer noticed the ends of Bill’s fingers. The nails were chewed down to the quick.

Brothers Bob, Joe, and Bill Durbin
Brothers Bob, Joe, and Bill Durbin

“You can’t join the Navy with fingers like that,” the officer explained. “It’s a bad sign. I’m sorry, son.”

Dad was crestfallen, but only until realizing the easy way around this obstacle. He grew those nails back, trimmed and buffed them until his hands were as handsome as any movie star’s, and within a few short weeks was using them to sign his enlistment papers.

* * *

Dad spent four years lugging his accordion back and forth across the Pacific as a radar operator on the USS Eversole. His brother Bob enlisted as well. Bill liked the work but got lonely, and homesick, which he treated with daily letters home. Letters to his mom were comforting, but what he really wanted was a girlfriend.

On his first leave home, in the spring of 1949, he was determined to find a date for an Easter dance where George Stoltz and His Orchestra would perform at the American Legion Hall. He went to his brother Bob for advice.

“Bill I know the perfect girl,” offered Bob. “Lorraine Kalish. Works at Jimmy’s Malt Shop and she’s a real doll.”

Bill appreciated the tip but was suspicious. Was he being set up? Did Bob know this Lorraine had a boyfriend already? Did he just want to humiliate his older brother when this Lorraine turned down his invitation to the dance?

“Is she going steady with anyone?” asked my dad. “Because if she’s got a fella I’m not asking her to the dance.”

“Forget it.” said Bob. “You’ll never have the guts to ask a girl to a dance.”

“Okay I’ll ask her!” said my dad, feeling the exasperation he always felt after an exchange with his brother Bob. A few days later my dad was on State Street.

“Are you Lorraine Kalish?” he asked, seeing the girl wiping the windows outside Jimmy’s.

“Oh you’re Bob Durbin’s brother,” answered Lorraine, catching the sharp-dressed sailor off guard.

Lorraine accepted the invitation, enjoyed the dance, and accompanied Bill afterward to a road-house called the Chatterbox with a crowd of other couples. She didn’t enjoy that part of the evening as much, because she had never been around so many people drinking alcohol, which is not a surprise given her age.

“Fifteen?!” asked Bill Durbin the next day of his brother. “Why didn’t you tell me she was fifteen?”

“You never asked,” answered Bob.

Bill Durbin put Lorraine Kalish out of mind. He would find some other girl just as nice. Or so he thought.

Climbing the family tree

At age ten or so I read a brief article in one of the St. Louis newspapers titled “How to draw your family tree” or something along those lines. The idea intrigued me, and when I asked Mom and Dad about it they sat me down at our kitchen table with a blank piece of paper. On it they proceeded to draw from memory a crude tree with every ancestor they could name off the top of their heads.

That sketch is long gone but the exercise continued. Dad and I kept at it together, even visiting the reading rooms of the National Archives when we moved from downstate Illinois to Washington, DC. As a teenager, my interest in geneology faded but Dad kept at it for the rest of his life. After he retired, geneology became a serious passion that consumed countless hours. It ranked up there with baking bread, reading books, and keeping the squirrels away from his beloved backyard bird feeder.

Thanks to Dad and his brother Bill, who was likewise bit by the family history bug in his later years, I can tell you something about dozens of my ancestors. The first thing I can tell you is where their life stories happened to converge: East St. Louis, Illinois. I think of it as my ancestral homeland. A number of my known ancestors spent much or all of their lives in this once booming (and now busted) river town just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri.

I never lived there myself. I was born three months after Bill and Lorraine Durbin moved their growing family out of East St. Louis in 1962, off the floodplains and past Cahokia Mounds where pre-Columbian Native America once thrived (and where the population in the year 1200, by the way, exceeded that of London) and up the Illinois bluffs to an unincorporated suburb known as Fairview.

But my parents, grandparents and some of my great grandparents all met each other and raised families in the town known by some simply as East Side. They arrived starting around 1901. These working class folks didn’t know one another as they arrived on the Illinois side of the Eads Bridge. But this is where Polish immigrants Adam Malec and Julia Walczak would meet and marry—their daughter Bernice was my Grandma Kalish. Slovaks Louis Kalish and Anna Krokvica would meet up here after emigrating from Austria-Hungary—their son Jimmy was my Grandpa Kalish. And long before becoming my Grandma and Grandpa Durbin, East St. Louis is where Anna Kutkin met William Durbin, she from Lithuania and he from a failed farm in downstate Dahlgren, Illinois. Unlike my other grandparents, William Durbin was already an eighth generation immigrant to the United States. His line started in the colony of Maryland and would meander to Kentucky and Kansas before settling in Illinois. 

None of my East St. Louis ancestors were educated beyond a few years of grade school when they arrived, none had any money, and, except for Grandpa Durbin, none spoke a word of English. But they all had strong backs and a will to survive. And in those days in East St. Louis that’s all you needed. It helped too if your ancestors came from Europe and not Africa.

The stories I can tell would hardly count as an abstract to the dissertation of knowledge my dad and his brother gathered. But tell them I must, doing my best to tell an authentic story of what is known of whence I came, applying the occasional bit of dialog invention along the way. The basic facts in my stories are just as I understand them.

Considering one’s ancestry is like peering up at a contrail, the trail of water droplets behind a plane way up in the sky. As you follow it back, the dense white line turns into blobs, then puffs, then nothing. Thinking back on my ancestors, of which I have thousands, just like everyone else, is to me like that. I’m lucky I at least know the names of three dozen or so of my progenitors. So before these puffs of story dissolve into forgotten history I’d better jot a few down.