Sometimes as I research my family lines, I come across an individual I enjoy researching a little more than the rest. This is not necessarily because they did something especially significant but sometimes because they are a bit of a mystery and perhaps because they are a little bit different than the rest of their generation. I like mysteries and puzzles so perhaps that is why I am drawn to them. Of my great-great-grandparents, there are three I enjoy researching the most, two that made me work a little harder to find them and that were different than the rest. My Poppy’s namesake, Harry L Bemis, is one of those two. I wish I had his picture. I would love to know what he looked like, how anyone in my family today may resemble him.
When I was researching my Poppy’s mom-Harry’s daughter, Shirley Yolanda Bemis, confusion reigned. She died when Poppy was three. Little was known about her. Her mother died when she was young and she was adopted. Her last name was changed to Thomas and I got bits and pieces at a time from my great-aunt regarding Shirley’s birth family. Her father’s name was Bemis. “Harry, I think; that’s who your Poppy was named for.” Her mother was an Osgood, “Ida, I think. They were from Cleveland.” I was about ten years old, holding on to these little bits of information, not really knowing what to do next. This was the days before ancestry.com, before the internet was even widely used. I went to Cleveland Public Library trying to look through census microfilm like a needle in a haystack. My Gran took me to Case Western Reserve Historical Society. I searched through old Cleveland city directories and found a Harry Bemis. I found an Ida too, who I have now figured out was the wrong one. I practically gave up ever knowing anything more. From time to time over the years, I picked my genealogy hobby back up along with their mystery and half-heartedly looked, not thinking I could find them.
Sometimes when you start researching, you end up with ten screens open trying to look up different bits of information as you find them. One day, years ago, I began looking into cemeteries with Bemis’s or Osgoods. You start at the end and work your way back, right? More frustration. I could only find a few Bemis’s and Osgoods in Cleveland or all of Cuyahoga County. Then somehow I stumbled upon a few Bemis graves in Lorain County, then more, and more. Same with the Osgoods. Why were they in Lorain County? Could they be related? Further questioning my aunt and Poppy, I heard, “Well, yes, I think Ida was from Lorain County, maybe Harry too.” I had been looking in the wrong place the whole time! I scribbled down the Bemis and Osgood names from the cemeteries I found on a slip of paper, then stopped. Life gets busy and hobbies get set aside, but I often thought about them possibly being under my nose in my home county my whole life and having no clue!
Enter this genealogical excursion. Only within the last couple of months have I pieced together the details of Harry’s life.
First, I found Harry’s daughter Shirley’s death certificate which confirms he and Ida were her parents. Working backwards, I first found Harry listed as Henry on the 1900 census living in Cleveland Ward 19 at 13 Oakland Street with his wife of thirteen years, Ida, a 9-year-old son, Walter, and an 8-year-old daughter, Sybil. Bingo! I already knew Harry was married to Ida and had a daughter named Sybil, my Grandma Rodgers. There were two more interesting pieces of information I had not known before. His father was born in Massachusetts, his mother in England. England? England! I had finally gotten “across the Ocean.” Maybe that’s why I like Harry so much. This census also lists Harry as a street-car motorman. Cool! Not a farmer. Almost everyone I had researched so far were farmers. A streetcar? Maybe that’s why I love touring Cleveland on Lolly the Trolley so much. This census also tells me Harry and Ida had been married for thirteen years, so about 1887.
Next, I found a 1910 census with Harry widowed, living in Painesville with a friend. He is working as a laborer in a livery stable. I knew Ida died in 1908 so I guessed that this was him. To be honest, it felt kind of awful to see him living without my great-grandmother, ten at the time. I guessed that she had been put up for adoption by then and I wondered what her life was like. Later, finding his Lorain County family and knowing there should have been any number of sisters to take her in, I wondered why that never happened.
But what of that Cleveland city directory I found so many years ago? I took a second look and found Harry listed in Cleveland as early as 1891, four years after his marriage. I also found him in the 1892-1904 directories. More often than not, he was listed as gripman and was also listed as working for the Cleveland Railway Company. I love city directories. If you have a relative who lived in a big city, I highly recommend checking them out.
Next, I found Harry’s death certificate. It states he died in Lorain, Ohio July 19, 1916. His birthday is listed as April 3, 1865. His occupation: teamster. The certificate states he was buried in an Amherst cemetery. I have visited the Cleveland Street cemetery where many from his family are and have been unable to find a marked grave. Contacting the cemetery for a location is on my research to-do list. Harry’s parents were listed as Uriel Bemis, born in Massachusetts and Mary Standen, born in England. I was ready to look for censuses from his family of origin.
In the 1880 census with his parents and two younger sisters, Hattie and Nettie, in Sheffield, Ohio.
I had to really search through the 1870 Sheffield census to find the family. There I found Harry had three older sisters, Emma, Ella, and Celia, and another younger sister, Kittie. The only son with three older sisters and three younger, I wondered why he left his father’s farm to go to Cleveland. He was a gripman or motorman on a trolley, a difficult job that required a lot of upper body strength so perhaps it was for employment. But there were trolleys in nearby Elyria at the time. It is difficult to know why he left and why his daughter didn’t come back to stay with one of his sisters when her mother died rather than being adopted. Could he have had a falling out with them? Perhaps I’ll never know.