But for a spontaneous decision on a lazy Friday afternoon in Hershey, Pa., I would not know that this photo exists, and I’d certainly never have it in my possession, ready to whip out at a moment’s notice to tease my beloved mom.
It’s a rather long story to tell, so please forgive me for breaking this up into multiple posts. But I think it’s a story that needs to be told, because I believe there are many people today who come from the same place I did, not really knowing their family history and not sure where to start.
I hope that the story of my mom’s search for her father’s family will serve as motivation for others to begin their own research.
But first, some background…
I lost my dad in August of 2004. He was my biggest fan, and in addition to a great father-daughter relationship, we were actually friends. From my dad I learned how to spot holding by an NFL offensive lineman, how to install a curtain rod, how to stand firm in my convictions even when it might cost me friends, how to be curious, and how to appreciate and delight in the ridiculousness of everyday life.
I miss him every day.
When my dad died, my mom went through some difficult emotional adjustments. She had a lot of anger toward him, and it seemed like every time she mentioned him, it was in a negative context. I won’t go into the specifics, but on several occasions I tried to probe why she never referred to any happy memories when she talked about dad. She always seemed genuinely surprised to hear me make those observations, and a bit defensive, but she was definitely in denial.
Eventually, she came to terms with her loss, which brings us to Father’s Day 2011.
It had been difficult few months for the mom and me financially. Her job as an office manager for the local Hospice organization had been eliminated and my consulting business was feeling the pinch of the perceived “second dip” of what the media was calling a double-dip recession.
We were both a bit depressed, and to help keep us from falling into a deep funk, we vowed to spend the majority of our weekdays looking for work (full-time for her, new clients for me) and devote our weekends to finding fun, inexpensive or free activities to keep our spirits up. We focused on seeking out museums, parks and attractions within a few hour’s drive of mom’s home in West Virginia, learning about the history of this very interesting part of the U.S.
That’s how we ended up having a picnic at Hershey Gardens on the Friday of Father’s Day weekend. And that’s when mom made a statement that started us on our genealogy journey:
I’d heard the orphanage story before. Mom had told me years ago that her dad and his brother grew up in an orphanage, but they weren’t orphans; they lived there because their widowed mother had worked there as a nurse.
Maybe it was the effect of Father’s Day, or the fact that I was missing my dad. Or maybe it was because I was simply curious, since mom never really talked about her father, except to talk about his alcoholism and how his drinking made it impossible for the two of them to have a healthy relationship.
So, channeling my own dad and his curiosity, I pulled out my brand-new smartphone and Googled “orphanage near Carlisle, Pa.” Sure enough, the Google geniuses came back with “Tressler’s Orphanage, Loysville, Pa.” And since we were in no hurry to get home on that Friday afternoon, I pulled up the navigation app and found that Hershey was only about an hour away from Loysville.
It didn’t take too much convincing to get mom to agree to a detour. I guess 52 years of marriage to my dad had turned mom into an adventurer. Or maybe the whole Father’s Day thing had sparked her curiosity. After all, she did remember hearing about “Tressler’s” and the name “Loysville” sounded familiar.
Regardless, we soon found ourselves backtracking to Carlisle and heading west over the mountain to Loysville.
As it turns out, the Tressler’s property was sold a few decades ago and the property is now a “Youth Development” facility, complete with a 12-foot fence topped by razor wire. Most of the buildings looked like they were from the mid-to-late 19th Century — hulking gray stone walls, darkened with age.
It was all a bit depressing, to say the least.
But there was an office outside the gates, so mom went in to see if there was anyone there who could tell us about the facility and its history. There wasn’t; we were referred to the Lutheran Synod for more information.
While our lighthearted side trip had ended on a somber note, we were determined to get to the bottom of this story, and to learn more. So once we got back to WV, mom signed up for a 14-day Ancestry.com trial (remember, money was short then) and we dove in to see what information we could find about her dad’s time at Tressler’s.
And that’s when we stumbled across our first in what would be a series of mysteries surrounding my maternal grandfather’s family; in the 1910 Census, my grandfather and his brother are listed as orphans living at Tressler’s. But there’s no mention of their mother.
How could this be? I had seen my great-grandmother’s headstone in the cemetery where my mother’s parents are buried. I knew she had lived with my grandparents in the late 1920s and until her death, just months before my mother was born in 1932. So why were my grandfather and great-uncle “orphans” and what were they doing in Carlisle, nearly half a state away from Butler, Pa. where my grandfather was born?
So many questions. But we are only getting started…