As I noted in my last post, our impromptu trip to Loysville left us with more questions than answers. Mom tried to contact someone at the facility, but no one returned her phone calls or emails. To this day, we’ve never heard from them.
Our online research revealed that Tressler’s Orphanage had been managed by the Lutheran Church. So after a couple frustrating weeks of waiting, I advised mom to call the public relations office of Diakon, the Lutheran Social Services Organization. I knew from my time in corporate communications that the PR staff would be the best ones to provide historical information, and might be able to connect us with someone who could answer our questions.
That’s when we struck gold.
Diakon’s spokesperson was able to tell mom that her father Arthur and his brother Albert, ages 8 and 13 respectively, were signed into Tressler’s on January 17, 1910 by their grandfather, William H. Ensminger of Butler, Pa., who paid $125 per child, per year for their care.
Another call revealed that Albert was released to the custody of his father, William George Ensminger of Butler, Pa. on June 6, 1913 and Arthur was released to his mother, Charlotte Ensminger of Crafton, Pa. on June 2, 1916.
This was a huge breakthrough for us, because, as I’ve mentioned in other posts, when we started our genealogy research mom didn’t know her grandfather’s name, let alone her great-grandfather. She thought her grandparents and great-grandparents lived in Butler, Pa., a small city northwest of Pittsburgh, and this call confirmed that information.
The Diakon spokesperson wasn’t able to tell us why these two boys, with two living parents, and with a living grandfather, were taken to an orphanage 200 miles from their home. Even with today’s vehicles and roads with 55 MPH speed limits, that’s a 3 1/2 hour drive. Imagine how long it took to travel there in 1910. And imagine how abandoned those two boys must have felt, so far away from their parents.
We needed more answers. So we decided to travel to Butler, Pa. to see if we could find them there.
Even before I started researching my family roots, I was a fan of the show, “Who Do You Think You Are?” so I knew that the county courthouse would be a good place to start searching for our family records. Let me assure you that when the everyday, average person shows up at the records department of the county courthouse, they are NOT met by the head of the history department of the local university, who has prepared a scroll documenting 17 generations of family members. It’s a tedious process, marked by hours of searching through barely legible microfilms and dusty old records.
We started in the land records office to see if we could find any deeds or other records. As total novices, we were quickly discouraged by the slow progress, so after a fruitless hour or so, we gave up there. Next, we headed to the Widows and Orphans records, where we were told we could find birth and marriage records from the late 19th and early 20th Century. And that’s when we made another huge discovery.
We found a copy of the marriage license application for William George Ensminger and Charlotte V. Merriman, dated January 28, 1897. William was 19 years old, but Charlotte was underage (about 17), so her mother signed her consent. Now we had Charlotte’s mother’s name — Ellen Merriman.
We also found the birth records for Albert, Arthur and an infant sister, Mildred Alien who died at the age of 7 months . In each case, the home address for the family was a different one, indicating that that family moved around a great bit over a seven year period.
Mom remembered being told that her grandmother Charlotte had been divorced, so our next stop was the office that handled divorce records. There we found a copy of the divorce degree, filed by William George on May 3, 1912 and finalized on June 25, 1912. Unfortunately, there were no grounds for the divorce included in the paperwork.
So now we have proof of marriage, birth of the children and divorce. But again, we are stuck with the mystery of why these two little boys were shipped halfway across the state to live in an orphanage when both parents were clearly alive. What happened between 1900 and 1910 that caused the boys to be taken from their parents and put into an institution?
As someone remarked to us early in our search, “Some family secrets are best left secrets.” Maybe this is one of them…