Archive for June, 2022

I never really knew my paternal grandfather, Samuel Anderson Matteson, even though I visited him a few times while growing up. Nor, as I think about it now, did he seem to give much thought to me. He was not the hugging kind of man. I wonder if he even knew my name, although it was an echo of his own. (I was informed years later that I was not named in his honor but rather for my maternal great grandfather Samuel Hilburn Holland.) Perhaps we, the Sams Matteson, could both be forgiven our reciprocal and mutual ignorance because he had over 30 second-generation progeny who were my paternal first cousins, born of his nine surviving children, my Dad and my eight Matteson aunts and uncles. Our encounters were infrequent in part, too, because his estranged son, the seventh child, Lewis, my Dad, lived over 800 miles away.

There Were Other Reasons

My grandmother, Octa Dell Cooley Matteson, had died when Lew was a few months shy of his 18th birthday, nearly the same age as I was the last time I saw Grandpa Sam. Soon after she died in 1937, her son moved out of the house, Dad told me. Indeed, Lewis E. Matteson at age 20 is not found in the 1940 census living on the Matteson farm near Dudley Township in Hardin County, Ohio, but rather appears as a boarder in the Elizabeth Webster household in Claiborne, Union county 20 miles distant. Dad had intimated to me that as soon as he could he worked as a “day hand” at other farms, living on his own. Soon after his sister Daisy married Robert “Bob” White and moved, in late 1940, to Mt. Victory, the future site of family reunions, Lew headed south to Brookley Field Air Force Base in Mobile, Alabama and to a future career as an aircraft mechanic. There he met and married after the end of the war a cute clerk Audrey Moates, who had also moved from a farming community but located in Dothan, Alabama to the port city to do her part in the war effort in the Maritime Commission Office.

During my childhood my immediate Alabama family comprising my parents, me, my sister “Cindy Lou” 20 months my junior and “Baby Dale”—just short of 4 years younger than I—rarely ventured out on the arduous road trip to Ohio for the family reunion. In 1956 (when I was nine) we made one such trip and someone of our party took snap shots. Below are two colorized images of Grandpa Sam from that traditional gathering at the Painter Creek (pronounced “Crick” in central “Ohi-yah”) Grange Hall.

Sam A. Matteson (1889-1969) picture (colorized) taken 11 Aug 1956 at Matteson family reunion, Mt. Victory, Ohio age 67.

In the summer of 1964, (probably August) we again drove north.  Thus, I had another opportunity to become acquainted with the patriarch of my family. But, I, at age 17 and as self-absorbed as any other teenager whose thoughts and anxieties are preoccupied with his future, was unaware that this casual meeting would be his last chance to ever get to know in the flesh his ancestor.

Lew E. Matteson (age 38) and Sam A. Matteson (age 67) 11 Aug 1956, Matteson Family Reunion Mt. Victory, Ohio. [Colorized]

My memories of those few minutes (it must have been less than an awkward and uncomfortable hour) are fuzzy at best, although I was not a child this time and could have stored away more details if I had paid closer attention. What I do recall are evanescent images: we climbed a set of narrow stairs to a small apartment. The Old Farmers’ Almanac for the area records that the maximum temperature was about 90°F with about 50% relative humidity and dew point of 69°F. Such conditions might have been uncomfortable to Yankees but were standard fare for us swamp rats from the coast. Still, his small airless apartment was stifling. I sat with my siblings beside me on his twin bed, our backs against the wall, while he sat—as I recall it—in a straight-backed chair across from my parents. Cindy tells me that she does not remember my images, although, as usual, she can accurately recount the season and date. Dale tells me that he remembers the apartment and Grandpa Sam brought out a stack of photographs. I would not have recognized anybody, I am sure. But more than anything else he sensed a feeling of sad loneliness that surrounded our grandfather.

Reality Checks Confirm and Correct Our Memories

When memories are vague I have found it reassuring to research what physical or documentary evidence persists that can confirm or correct my impressions. I discovered in a newspaper filler in the personal section of the 1945 Marion Star that Sam resided in the Milner hotel, formerly known as the Pilgrim Inn on N. Main Street, Marion, Ohio. Notably, this is about the time that Jacob Matteson, his son, with whom he was living in 1940, had settled in Albuquerque, New Mexico after serving in the army there. New Mexico is where he met and married Frances Tarazon of Deming, N.M.  Apparently, Sam Matteson the senior began to live alone during the war in the residential hotel that was built by Robert Kerr in the 1870s. I purchased a vintage postcard (shown below) of the landmark hotel, a card that was posted in about 1909. The charming message reads [quoting verbatim] “Dear Sis, We are having a swell time. We was up to town this morning and the wind nearly blowed us away. Mary” It is addressed to Mrs. Nye Smith, Ashley, Ohio [town and state only]. The hotel was still there in 1964 in its final iteration as the Taft Hotel retirement residence. It was soon acquired by the county and razed to the ground for a new building in the late 1960s. It is a parking lot next to the county offices today. When I saw the post card, I thought that I recognized the building, since I had seen it across the street from Grandpa’s residence 58 years earlier.

Pilgrim Inn, Marion, Ohio [Postcard image owned by author] about 1909.

The 1950 Census reveals that Samuel Matteson age 58 had in the interim moved on; he then resided across the street to 153½ N. Main St and was working as a “cleanup man” at a “Refrigerator Manufacturer,” that is, Tecumseh Products Cooler Division. His apartment number is not recorded but is sandwiched between apt #6 and apt #14.  In his 1969 obituary (where he is misidentified as Samuel L. Matteson) his address is still listed as 153½ N. Main St., Marion, Ohio. Thus, he lived alone at the same address, possibility in the same apartment for nearly twenty years. A search of the business addresses on Main Street identified the Acme Bar and Grill at 153 N. Main as the first floor occupant of the building.  Below is a snap shot from the 1950s of the west side of north Main Street. (Provided by and used with permmission of Tom Photo.) We can make out the sign for Acme Grill, an establishment that appears periodically in the newspaper for liquor license violations. It was a tough neighborhood. The Marion Heating and Air Condition next door had been Pete’s Pool Hall that had been raided in a gambling crack down years earlier. During Sam’s tenure the space was occupied by yet another notorious bar called “The Elbow Room.” Several assaults, thefts, and knife fights were reported over the years on the block.  In January 2000 the building was finally knocked down to make way for the drive through for the Fahey Bank. The spot is a paved driveway today.

View of west side of North Main Street, Marion, Ohio looking southward. A stairwell just one door north of Acme Grill led to the efficiency apartments upstairs. You can barely make out a stone step at the bottom of the photo. The building called the Lust Block was built originally as the home of the J. F. Lust Candy company in 1894 (see next photo).[Image used by permission of Tom Photo]

While researching the details of the neighborhood, I joined a Facebook group “The Good Old Days in Marion” and put out a plea for information about the building and its occupants. I told how I had visited my grandfather Samuel A. Matteson in 1964. A member of the group, Morita Matteson Wolbert, responded with a memory of “Uncle Sam.” I found her in my Ancestry.com family tree, my 2nd cousin, the daughter of Morris Kimball Matteson, son of Joseph Lewis Matteson, Grandpa Sam’s brother.  Joseph Lewis was my father’s uncle and the proximal source of Dad’s given name. Morita recounted how her father would, every year, pick up Sam to take him to the family reunion “at Prospect,” which is near Mt. Victory. She remembers always seeing him waiting on the stairs, smoking a cigar.

The J. F. Lust Block 131-161 N. Main St, Marion Ohio. The Marion Star Marion, Ohio 15 Jun 1895, Sat page 6.

All that I learned reinforced my hazy memories. The photographs and her verbal picture takes me back to that summer when we came calling. I can imagine I remember the scent of cigar smoke mingling with the yeasty aroma of beer. It might have been wafting upward from the smoky bar at the bottom of the stairs or it could be a false memory recovered from imagination. What I am convinced I did witness was a small efficiency apartment illuminated by a single bare 40 watt bulb dangling overhead and activated by a cotton pull string.  On the wall above the heads of the Matteson kids hung a small pin-up calendar sporting a voluptuous woman clad only in a short denim bib overall. She adored the hood of a tractor sold by a local implement store. Of course, I, a teenage boy, took proper notice of the wall art! I also wondered if passion still stirred in a 75 year-old man. I—now a 75 year-old man myself—can now attest that it does. When I shared my memory with a trusted peer he reminded me of an observation that I had shared with him, “The best way to make a dirty old man is to start with a dirty young man and let him grow old.”

I only recall snippets of the conversation that passed between my parents and my grandfather. We “children” were seen but not heard. When my father apparently expressed some concern about his father’s safety, Sam retorted. “I can take care of myself. A Mexican tried to roll me out by the railroad tracks,” he said motioning with a thumb jerking over his shoulder toward the Chesapeake and Ohio tracks that crossed Main Street at the end of the block. “I beat the tar out of ‘em” he continued by punching the air with a big, bony fist. “No. I can take care of myself.”

I believed him.

He lived in a dangerous world but with a fierce pride, he survived for another five years to the age of 80. As if underlining his tenacity, I read how just two days before my grandfather perished in the hospital, a younger neighbor, one Peter Napper age 61, fell down the stairs leading to the apartments and died. Circumstantial evidence suggests to me that alcohol might have played a role. Samuel Anderson Matteson had fared better.

What We Learn in Recalling

Sam had lived as a widower for 32 years, the last twenty-five years alone. He was a tough man. But his defiant independence came at the cost of tenderness and emotional investment as I assess his character. On the other hand, this conclusion may be uncharitable, based on so small a sample of experience and so little first-hand knowledge. Nevertheless, I see in myself at times the same belligerence and self-preoccupation that I discerned in my grandfather. Yet, I cannot blame him however, even if it is an inherited predisposition. It is my responsibility to give control to my better impulses and love unconditionally with kindness and generosity.

I can only hope that my grandchildren will know me better than I did their great-great grandfather. May they know me as I know them and know that I love them.  I am resolved to do what I can to make it so.

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