Thursday, May 23, 2019
Family Tree Stories

Some Genealogical Musings by Roger Ratzenberger

Roger Ratzenberger, the cousin of actor John Ratzenberger, is a regular researcher in the Bridgeport History Center.  This wonderful story of genuine genealogy research gives great insight into the jounery that genealogy can take you on.  Start the trip at the Bridgeport History Center, and you will be hooked!

Genealogy research is a fun and rewarding endeavor. It’s not
just about dates and relationships but the “color” that you can bring to your
family history. If you’re lucky, you’ll uncover some unexpected pleasant
surprises.

Growing up, I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ (Dewey
and Josephine Riccio Simmons) home. Dewey was not only my grandfather, but also my best friend. On our numerous fishing trips my grandfather shared many
stories of his youth – stories about fishing and hunting and growing up near
and playing in Howe’s Cavern. There were many stories about all of the fun he
had growing up.

One story that stands out in my mind seemed to be more of a
tall tale than a factual recollection.  I remember my grandfather telling me about having a tooth knocked out as he was hit in the mouth with a baseball. He said that he picked it up off the ground wiped it off, stuck it back in place and it grew back into place. I was fascinated with this story when I was young but as I grew older, it was one of those “recollections” that seemed to be more tall tale than fact.

I didn’t get the genealogy bug until after my grandfather died and I regret that to this day. His ancestors came to the United States in the 1600’s and had a long history in Schoharie County. With all of the information that I have found on his side of the family, his father, Oscar, has been most elusive.

Oscar Simmons lived in Cobleskill around of the turn of the century with his wife Carrie Dibble Simmons and their seven children: Harry, Ada, Charles, Melvin, Dewey, Dorothy and Nelson.  Family legend has it that he left his wife
and kids sometime early in the 1900’s with a married woman and a stolen team of
horses.

In my quest to find Oscar, I made a connection with Linda
Robinson, a genealogy researcher in Ontario, Canada via the internet. She was
doing research on the Schoharie area and was transcribing Worcester Times articles from microfilm. She found and sent me a few articles on births, deaths and
marriages of some of my ancestors. The information filled in gaps in my family
tree, but alas, she was unable to find much more about Oscar.

What I did find out was that although he may have run away
with another woman, he was apparently an honest fisherman, at least according
to an interesting article turned up Thursday, April 23, 1908 on page 5, column 2:

An Honest Fisherman

One of the noblest instances of self-sacrifice on the part of a trout
fisherman is that credited to O. M. Simmons, the Worcester barber. Last Thursday, the opening day of the season, he was fishing near the beaver dam
with rather discouraging luck, when his attention was directed to a muskrat
hole in the bank. More as an experiment rather than for any other reason he
dropped his hook, with a huge night-walker impaled, into the hole. He felt something take the bait, and from the struggle which followed “Sim” was convinced that he had hooked a muskrat. At least he dragged his catch through the mouth of the hole and found that he had landed the largest brook trout he had ever laid his eyes on. He measured the fish with a certified tape and it was exactly 28 inches long. It weighed eight pounds. “You are too big to be true,” said the honest barber with a sigh. “Even if I took you home no one
would believe it. My reputation must not suffer.” And he threw the big fish back into the creek. Worcester is the county seat for honest fishermen.

From the articles that Linda found, we were able to determine that sometime between 1915 and 1918, Oscar had fled the scene in one way or another. But there was no smoking gun.

Linda was a wonderful lady and pleasure to work with. In appreciation for her help, I sent her a check to buy a couple of more rolls of the Worcester Times microfilm.

Not to give up that easy, I wrote to the Worcester Town Historian, Marilyn Dufresne, looking for some more traces of Oscar. I explained the little I knew about him, from the family legend to information from the articles in the Worcester Times. One of those articles described Oscar’s trip to purchase two “Hydraulic” chairs for his barber shop. It turned out that Marilyn was keenly interested in that article. As it turned out, she had two “Hydraulic” chairs in the Worcester Historical Museum. Apparently, these had been attributed to another barber, Raymond Potter, who just happened to have followed Oscar in the same location as his shop. Marilyn provided me with some more information including photographs of the chairs.

With the information in Worcester exhausted, I turned next to the Federal census records. Thank goodness records were searchable electronically via the internet (ala Ancestry.com).  In the 1920 census, I was able to locate Oscar in Framingham, New Hampshire listed as single and living with a single woman, Anna M. Olmstead … his niece! In the 1930 census, I was able to find them again, this time living in Greenfield, New Hampshire. With this information, and a visit to Greenfield’s online cemetery burial records, I found that Oscar and Anna were buried in Greenvale Cemetery.

With that information in hand, I took a quick trip to Greenfield and Greenvale Cemetery. I may have found his final resting place, but the plot thickened. Knowing the year of his death from his gravestone, I could now try to find his death record.

Just down the road from the cemetery was the Stephenson library so I figured it would be worth making another stop while in Greenfield. There the librarian pointed me to a book on the history of the town, “The Story of a Town 1791-1976 Greenfield, New Hampshire”. It turned out that I was lucky to found him in the 1930 census as the book indicated that he had just moved there in 1930. There he opened a store and “carried on” a barber shop.

That was the extent of what I was able to find on my visit to Greenfield so I next attempted to locate a death certificate. The Greenfield vital statistics office referred me to the State of New Hampshire. I must admit that I was completely disappointed when I received a response that said that not only was there no record of his death in Greenfield in 1946, but none in the entire State of New Hampshire. Either he died out of state or the records were lost.

I found answers to many of my questions and information that I never expected. This has provided the “color” that makes Oscar more than just a name to me, more of a multi-dimensional character. I do, however, seem to have just as many questions, albeit different ones, as I started with. Always keep looking and follow all, even seemingly insignificant leads; you never know what you’ll find. That’s where I remain stuck today – my quest for more information about Oscar continues to this day.

Oh, remember about that story my grandfather told me about his tooth? Imagine my surprise the next time I heard from Linda. She contacted me about an article that she found on a roll of microfilm she had purchased with my check. The “news story” turned up in the June 10, 1914 edition of the Worcester Times, page 5, column 1.

While playing ball the other day a foul tip knocked out an upper front
tooth for Dewey Simmons. Dewey picked up the tooth placed it back in position and says “it is just about as solid as ever.”

That was the last I heard from Linda. I later found out that she had passed away.

So make sure to capture all of those stories and family legends. It just might turn out that some of those stories that sound a little far-fetched may actually turn out to be more fact than fiction. If nothing else, they make the search much more interesting and provide opportunities to make your ancestors more real for generations to come.

Genealogy is like putting together a puzzle without knowing what it should look like in the end. In fact, the beauty of it is that there is no end. You can spend as much time researching as you can and you will never be finished. Remember, it’s all about the journey and never forgetting where you came from.

Avatar
Mary Witkowski
Mary K. Witkowski is the former Bridgeport City Historian and the Department Head of the Bridgeport History Center, Emeritus. She is the author of Bridgeport at Work, and the co-author with Bruce Williams of Bridgeport on the Sound. Mary has had a newspaper column in the Bridgeport News, a blog for the Connecticut Post, and a weekly spot on WICC. She continues to be involved in many community based activities and initiatives on local history and historic preservation.