Something had to change. That much for Benjamin W. Pidgeon Sr. in 1917 is clear.
I gaze upon the entry for Ben in the 1910 U.S. Census with fascination because there’s something relatable between us even if we exist 118 years apart.
Ben that summer turned 49. Life expectancy in 1910, according to the University of California-Berkeley, was just 48.4 years. The math and the mindset isn’t that hard to figure.
Even if Ben lived a healthy life (he actually had 29 more years to go), a restlessness apparently stirred inside of him. He was middle age, and he must’ve heard an echo from a distant past.
I’m approaching 40 in a few months — don’t worry, I’m okay with it — and as I do I find myself reconnecting with things and activities from my past which used to bring me joy. I even wrote a tribute about my boyhood home of rural southern Lancaster County, Pa., for a local magazine, lamenting how my sons growing up in suburbia won’t quite know the same childhood.
Ben must’ve felt something similar.
I know this because when I turn the page to the 1920 U.S. Census, Ben and his wife and two daughters no longer live in Louisville, Ky., with other Irish immigrant families, as they had since 1890. He no longer worked for the Louisville & Nashville Railroad as a locomotive machinist.
No. Instead, he found himself about 100 miles south in a much quieter corner of Kentucky, Brownsville, renting a farm.
It’s a twist no one today quite understands. And so I investigated.
SIMPLIFY COMPLICATED ANCESTOR RESEARCH
Tell me if this sounds familiar to you.
A free hour presents itself, maybe two, and you dive into family history research. Your tree has grown so unwieldy you aren’t sure where to start, but you dive in and just follow the leads.
Once those hours are done, you’re exhausted. The leads had you hopscotching from ancestor to ancestor, decade to decade, even family to family, making very loose connections. You’ve opened up more questions than you found answers.
I’ve been there. It makes me feel like the better way to connect to my family’s past, rather than go looking for another obscure digital document, is to pour some Maker’s Mark over ice and call it a night.
We don’t have to be so unorganized and spontaneous. In fact, a less is more strategy maybe the right path to follow.
That’s what I did to solve a family mystery about Ben Pidgeon Sr., my great-great grandfather. While railroading stands as the most prominent family legacy — six straight generations have worked for American railroads, including Ben — Ben was the first to leave the industry.
Where to was not quite known other than he inexplicably moved out of Louisville’s ethnic Irish enclave and the dependability of railroad work for the breezes and open spaces of Edmonson County, right outside present-day Mammoth Cave National Park, Ky.
This had always drawn my curiosity. No diaries or other evidence exist to explain why.
But whenever I sat down to do family research, I fell for the trap. You get lulled into a less-than-conscious state of research, going along on Ancestry and Family Search, chasing every shaking leaf, every hint, every hunch. You start with the Pidgeons in Louisville and end up a century and a half later in Tennessee with the Pierces with no clear explanation for how you got there.
Instead, focus your time and efforts. Right now, write a list of questions, mysteries, and gaps in your research. No particular order, just write them down.
Next time you engage in family history sleuthing, pick one of those items. Just one. Don’t deviate for the entire hour or two. Stick to the topic at hand, and you’ll find a more satisfying research experience and perhaps uncover more than you ever expected.
FROM IRELAND TO CAVELAND
One night, I determined to learn what I could about Ben’s move to rural Kentucky, an area known as “Caveland” for its proximity to Mammoth Cave.
I started at the beginning. Ben was born and grew up in County Tipperary, a rural part of central Ireland that’s known for its varied topography — long stretches of plains interrupted by several mountain ranges.
It’s likely Ben and his family existed as poor tenant farmers before immigrating to the United States. Once here, though, they landed for unknown reasons in Louisville, and every male took jobs with the L&N railroad.
That included Ben. First, he labored as a fireman, thrusting shovels of coal into the burning belly of locomotives, dangerous but dependable work. Eventually he landed inside the L&N’s new locomotive shop outside of Highland Park as a machinist, a little safer of an environment.
Life in Louisville’s Irish and railroad families was cramped but vibrant. Work at the shops and the yards, convene at the pub. Ben married a woman named Mamie, and they had five children.
That all changed, though, at about 1917.
That year is the last one Ben is listed as a resident of Louisville in the city directories. By 1918, he not only bade goodbye to one of his sons, who signed up with the Kentucky National Guard to serve in World War I, but also, Louisville, his home of nearly 20 years.
According to the 1920 and 1930 U.S. Census, Ben and Mamie rented a farm 100 miles from their once adopted home.
I can only theorize about why. Maybe as Ben reached middle age (or late age for that time), he heard an echo, felt a stirring, for an old way of life. Spend days with hands in the dirt and sun on your face, rather than coal dust in your lungs and the squeal of steel-against-steel in your ears.
He couldn’t return to Ireland. Why would he? Ireland in 1918 teetered on the brink of all-out-war, which would erupt in 1919 over Home Rule, plus economically, what opportunities did Ireland really hold? He was an American now.
Farming must’ve been the way out, the way to reconnect to his childhood, to rebuild after 20 years on the railroad.
By the 1940 U.S. Census, Ben owned a farm on Clarke School Road in Edmonson County, although without a street number, I at this point have no way of knowing what farm he owned. I’m not even sure what he harvested, whether corn or tobacco or wheat or barley.
That’s another mystery for another time.
But after spending one night connecting these dots, I came way with a better understanding of Ben and how he went from railroader to farmer. What I’m left with is awe. Think about it. Through the Depression, he earned enough to buy his own farm. That’s impressive even in the best of times.
This post is part of Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks blogging program. This week’s theme is “farming.”
Dave is a writer and photographer based in Lancaster, Pa., who’s working on a memoir about the attempt to reunite his father with his birth-mother after 60 years apart. You can contact him at email@example.com.