In my quest to learn about my biological great-grandfather Zygonia Ray Shearer (who understandably went by the name “Ray”), I’ve written several posts over the past couple of years (see here, here, here, and here). Despite my investigative digging, I still know almost nothing about who Ray was as a person. Today’s post won’t shed much light on Ray, but it will help understand how his son—my grandfather, Vernon C. Black—dealt with the death of his father.
As I have a good amount of extra time on my hands on account of the mandatory shelter in place orders stemming from the coronavirus pandemic (I still have to work from home, but I save over two hours of commute time per day), I’ve decided to start digging through the family history letters and postcards I’ve digitized but not yet written up. There’s a goldmine of information in this correspondence.
Today’s post is about one of these initially overlooked letters—actually two letters. These letters are from just before Christmas 1937. Vernon was 21 years old and had apparently borrowed money from his mother to strike out on his own, traveling across the western U.S. to find work and his future. Shortly before he wrote these letters he landed a door-to-door magazine sales job that I’ll discuss in a later post.
For several years in the mid to late 1950s my father Keith Black and my uncle Gary Black had a foster brother named Richard Bearden. You may remember him from the post I did on my family’s visit to the opening day of Disneyland in July 1955. Where he came from before joining our family and where he went to after leaving our family have been a mystery to me. My grandparents never spoke of Richard to me other than saying “oh, yeah, that was Richard Bearden” when I asked who the mystery boy in the photo was. Keith and Gary had little to say about Richard. The unanswered questions have bothered me ever since I learned about the existence of this foster uncle (?) of mine.
Who was Richard Bearden? Who was his birth family? How did he come to be a foster child in our family? What was he like? Where did he go? Why does no one talk about him?
I recently found a letter from Vernon Black to his mother and stepfather Catalina and Frank Black, dated February 13, 1955, that answers many of these questions. Vernon realized that his parents would have just the same sorts of questions I have had. Understandable questions, I think, when a new family member suddenly appears. For today’s post I’d like to share that letter with you.
In the family stories I was told about my father’s father’s father Ray Z. Shearer, Ray was always portrayed as poor, but he was a very capable, mechanically minded man who worked for a bunch of different garages as mechanic, drove a truck for a while, and even raced dirt track race cars. The details in these stories were thin, but consistent. I was under the impression that the most important parts of his work history were included in this brief overview. I figured that if he had been involved in something grand—for instance, let’s imagine that he established and ran his own business, that he advertised it extensively in the local paper, that he built a custom race car in that business, and that he then watched as his business was lost in a tragic accident that made headlines—well, that surely would have merited a mention in the brief story of Ray’s working life. Right?
So imagine my surprise when I found an advertisement in the August 1, 1919, edition of The Palco News (of Palco, Kansas) for The Star Garage—open day and night, Ray Shearer, proprietor. How had no one managed to remember such a big deal, especially for a man of apparently rather modest means?
After finding this 100-year-old ad, I did a deep dive and looked for any and all mentions of The Star Garage in local papers. What I found was nearly 60 mentions of Ray Shearer and/or The Star Garage in The Palco News between January 30, 1919, and March 19, 1920. Most of these are ads belonging to one of several advertising runs in the newspaper, and just a couple mentions are actual news pieces about Ray or The Star Garage. But even the advertisements have stories to tell.
Today’s post is not only about a new mystery photo I just discovered. It’s also a reminder to double-check anything possibly related to family history before throwing it out. You never know what might be hiding within unless you check thoroughly.
From about the mid 1970s to the late 1980s, my father and grandparents accumulated a number of faux vintage photos and frames. I don’t know whether they were fans of the style or whether that’s just the way that the stores they frequented marketed their frames. In any case, they accumulated piles of these that I later inherited and am still going through.
What I mean by ‘faux vintage’ are generally stained and sometimes artificially distressed oak frames with matted black-and-white or sepia-toned prints behind glass. And to add a layer of realism, my grandmother and father were both heavy smokers for periods of their lives, so the glass and frames were coated with a nicotine patina that made them look like they had been hanging in an old house for decades. But when you turn over these faux vintage frames, their modernity becomes a little more apparent. Relatively clean cardboard is held in place by shiny staples that were hastily and asymmetrically placed during mass production. Remove the cardboard and you find that the antique print is just a modern print on thin, glossy paper.
Dirk van den Heuvel (1725–1800) is my 5th-great-grandfather; a Dutch man who apparently spent his entire life in the Netherlands. In fact, his children and grandchildren on my line stayed in Holland as well. It wasn’t until his great-granddaughter (and my great-great-grandmother) Anna Kant van den Heuvel came to North America that his family ventured beyond Holland.
In my great-aunt Anelia Hayes’ 1991 “Edell Family History,” she stated on page 58 that “Anna Kant Vanden Heuvel’s other great grandparents were Dirk Vanden Heuvel born in 1725 and died in 1800 and Cornelia Zweart born in 1734 and died in 1814.” She appears to have based this on a pedigree chart done by Marie Hogan on November 3, 1990, and included on page 61 of Anelia’s family history.
This was how I first learned the names of Dirk van den Heuvel and his wife Cornelia Zwart. Almost 30 years ago I added these names and dates to my family tree and there they’ve stayed without much further attention for three decades. Until today.
Imagine that you were born in a rural area to poor parents in the back room of your rented house. Your parents moved a lot, and they never told the county officials that you were born. So no birth certificate was ever registered. And then your dad leaves your family when you’re five years old, leaving your mom alone with you and two younger siblings. You’re upset about that and change your last name to that of the kind man who married your mother and stepped into the father role in your family. But for whatever reason, you and your family don’t make the adoption legal, nor do they inform the county or state officials of the name change. And then for unknown reasons, you decide to change your middle name, too, from the traditional Dutch Cornelius to the hip, modern “Curtis.” And again, no government agencies are informed. We’ve all been there, right?
This presents no problems for you for most of your life. You get your Social Security card, you enlist in the Army and serve in World War II, you pay your taxes, you work until your early 60s and you’re beginning to think about your retirement. And then you apply for your Social Security retirement benefits and discover that—poof—you have no proof that you are who you say you are.
It seems odd to me that while I’m able to trace my family back on dozens of lines more than 400 years, my own patrilineal great-grandfather—my father’s father’s father—is nearly a complete mystery to me. I would normally begin an exploration of his life by saying that his name was Ray Shearer, but even that is a bit of a mystery. While many people called him Ray, more often than not, he referred to himself as Zyionyi Ray Shearer. As with many of my difficult-to-research ancestors, I keep setting aside his information, waiting for some hint or help to emerge, as they so often do.
And so it was with Ray. Just this past week I got an unexpected letter from my cousin Peggy, who’s a cousin on my Shearer side. Her great-grandmother was Ray Shearer’s mother—Mary Belle (Coddington) Shearer Stokes. Peggy’s grandmother was Ray’s younger half-sister, Zealia Faye Stokes, and Zealia apparently was very interested in preserving family stories and history, and she passed much of this on to Peggy.
Today’s post could not have been written without Peggy’s help. Thank you, Peggy! Continue reading →
In a recent post, I shared photos from two trips to Kansas in the mid-1950s that my grandparents Vernon Black and Dorothy (McMurry) Black made with their kids, Keith and Gary. In today’s post, I’ll be sharing some photos I just discovered of a much earlier trip back to see Vernon’s family, a trip taken in 1941.
This morning I was going through an old photo album that my grandmother Dorothy (McMurry) Black put together in the early 1940s. I had quickly skimmed through it a few years back and made a mental note that it was a photo album of their wedding and of their newborn son Keith. When I went through it today, page by page, I discovered that, sandwiched between the pages devoted to those two events, there were several other “chapters,” each documenting an adventure of the newlywed couple.
One of these adventures was their cross-country road trip back to Kansas in May, 1941. They had been married for about five months, and this may have been the first time that Dorothy got to meet Vernon’s family. It was certainly the first time she saw where he had grown up.
From what I’ve heard, my grandfather, Vernon Black, didn’t get much from his biological father—not even his surname. Vernon’s mother, Catalina Edel, divorced Vernon’s biological father, Zyonia Ray Shearer, when Vernon was only 5½ years old “on the ground of gross neglect of duty.” On several occasions, my grandfather even denied that Ray Shearer (the name his father went by) was his father. In his later years, my grandfather was somewhat more forthcoming about his biological father, but it was clear that Vernon held onto a lot of resentment for Ray.
I’ve never seen a picture of my great-grandfather Ray Shearer, nor do I know of any items that once belonged to Ray. What little I know of Ray I learned from my grandfather’s sister, Anelia (short for her given name of Anna Cornelia) Shearer. She was just a little over a year old when Ray left the family, but she kept his last name and kept his memory alive.
I’ve been going through a stack of papers and letters from my grandfather’s teenage years, and I found one envelope that was particularly worn out and discolored (as compared to the relatively clean envelopes that contained letters from Vernon’s friends and girlfriends). When I removed the letter contained in the worn envelope, I was surprised to see that it was a letter from Ray to Vernon, dated July 2, 1932, when Vernon was 15½ years old.
My grandfather, Vernon Curtis Black, was named Vernon Cornelius Shearer at birth. I don’t know why he stopped using Cornelius (his maternal grandfather’s name), but I have a fairly clear understanding of why he changed his last name. When Vernon was only five years old, his biological father, Ray Shearer (born Zyonia Ray Shearer), was given an ultimatum by Vernon’s mother Catalina: he could sober up and stay with the family, or he could continue to go out drinking with his friends and flirting with women. Ray chose the latter option, and Vernon never saw his biological father again.
As the ancient proverb states, however, there are always two sides to every story. Ray was apparently a friendly, outgoing man who had his own childhood scars—he also lost his father, Gilbert Michael Scherer, when he was only about five years old. According to Vernon’s younger sister Anna Cornelia (“Anelia”) Hayes,
“Gilbert Shearer was building a home in Missouri. He was working on the roof when he fell off across a tree stump, bursting his abdomen open. He fell from his house while shingling his roof. He was taken to a sanatorium, but died four days later. He was buried in Edmond Cemetery, 4 miles north of Powersville, MO.”