The Truth of My Family Is Different

I’m happy to say that an essay I wrote, “Stories from the Lost Nation,” will be published next summer in an anthology of writing about fathers and sons their children. The essay originally appeared in the summer 2009 issue of Colorado Review, edited by Stephanie G’Schwind, who is also editing the anthology. Here’s an excerpt. You can read the whole thing here [pdf]. If you’re not familiar with Colorado Review, check it out and consider subscribing.

The truth of my family is different when I coast down off the hill. The bumps begin to add up. This is country where it is easy to get lost, even for my dad and my aunts, for people who grew up here and whose people once settled here. I once rode in the car with Dad and Mary K on a trip back—this was just a couple years before Mary K died, and her hair was white and Einstein-ish and her grin typically elvish; nobody could ever giggle with more high-pitched ambiguity than Mary K—and they spent the entire fifty-minute ride debating the efficacy of various routes to and fro, although “debate” is the wrong word. They weren’t arguing; this was more a ritual, a mapping out of Clinton County in conversation the way that Joyce is said to have mapped out Dublin in Ulysses.

“You always took the Such-and-Such Road, didn’t you?”

“Oh no”—and that voice of hers would dance up two or three octaves—“goodness no. Now, Tom. The only way to get to So-and-So’s was to take That Other Road.”

“But didn’t That Other Road go west?

“Did it?”

And so on, with rhetorical stops in DeWitt, Delmar, and Maquoketa. In Toronto and Lost Nation, Petersville and Charlotte—pronounced shar-LOT. When Dad turned off 61 to find the “old homestead,” as he likes to put it, there was the obligatory mention of Mr. McClimon, that cigar-chomping Irish farmer who, back in 1926 or thereabouts, obstreperously refused to sell his land to the government, which was trying to extend the highway. The line on the map was forced to loop around him.

And the conversation also began to loop, confusing even Dad and Mary K. It was as if the geography of Clinton County refused to sit still for them. On another trip back, a few years earlier, we actually did get lost, hopelessly lost. We were headed for a McGinn family reunion at the home of Father Ed Botkin, another of Dad’s cousins, and we ended up stopping at a Casey’s for gas and advice. My aunt and uncle and two cars full of cousins happened to pull in at the same time, retreating from the opposite direction. We hadn’t planned it, but we became a caravan and were all lost together.

Stories, you’ll recall, are like maps. They are the opposite of simple. As Mandelbrot suggested, the more carefully you study them—zooming in on perfectly straight lines until they begin to waver and then finally to squiggle—the less they’re able to perform their original function. They don’t answer questions but only ask them.

image: Route 136 east of Delmar, Iowa (Google Maps Street View)

The Untouchable

It turns out that a Wolfe relative was commissioner of public works in Chicago in one of the most corrupt, mob-infested administrations in the city’s history. How corrupt? Where the mayor was concerned, two words: Al Capone. Where Richard W. Wolfe was concerned: The Chicago Tribune published on its front page images of canceled checks and bank statements bearing Wolfe’s signature, suggesting that he helped divert most of nearly $140,000 in flood-relief money (some of which was raised from school kids!) into the mayor’s own coffers. It gets worse. When a state’s attorney subpoenaed payroll records from Wolfe, looking for evidence of graft, some mobsters showed up at the garage where the records were stored and killed a night watchman in a failed attempt to get at them first.

Yet nothing ever seemed to touch Commissioner Wolfe. Remarkably, obituaries in the New York Times and even in the Tribune, published in 1951, make zero mention of any scandals. And the Trib really, really hated Wolfe back in the day. (It must have been awkward for Wolfe that his sister’s kid was a reporter there.)

Don’t worry, though. The commissioner got his payback. In 1930, the mayor, Big Bill Thompson, planned to give a campaign speech attacking the Tribune bosses and the publisher’s sister-in-law, Ruth McCormack, who was running for U.S. Senate. A sudden bout of appendicitis prevented Thompson from delivering his speech, so he had Wolfe do it for him.

It was Halloween night at the Apollo Theater in Chicago:

Wolfe employed a verbal scalpel to tear open eighty years’ worth of Tribune misdeeds. Rambling and reckless, Thompson’s speech linked old Joe Medill to the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and Mayor Carter Harrison, accused the nineteenth-century editor of debasing half a dozen pre-pubescent girls, and blamed the death of Governor Len Small’s wife on the paper’s relentless hounding of “the greatest constructive governor the state of Illinois ever had.” Thompson also dredged up the affair between “the moral pervert” Joe Patterson and the wife of a friend, leading to Patterson’s fervent embrace of Socialist doctrine …

The mayor, through Wolfe’s Irish brogue (the commissioner was born in County Limerick), went on to accuse the current publisher of the Tribune of adultery and, to some ears, he expressed hope that “some courageous citizen” might kill him. Ruth McCormack lost her election, but, in the name of all things just, so did Thompson. And aside from having to appear before a grand jury, Wolfe faded into obscurity.

He had a great run, though. For a fuller accounting of his life, including how he fits into the Wolfe family tree, go here. Or, after the jump, you can relive his rocky time as commissioner through headlines from the Chicago Tribune. We could all wish for such an interesting career!

As a taste, here’s my favorite, in which an alderman (with the Tribune‘s help) makes fun of Wolfe for having published a forty-three-page book titled Culture, a volume I have just ordered, by the way:

images: Richard W. Wolfe (left to right) from the Chicago Tribune, May 7, 1931; Chicago Tribune, May 30, 1909; Chicago Tribune, November 12, 1916; headline from the Chicago Tribune, July 28, 1928

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We Were Utterly Shocked


My dad didn’t know much about his own father, Raymond Wolfe, who died when he was nine months old. So he took whatever information, anecdotes, etc., he could find and ran with them. In an e-mail Dad wrote in 2007, he mentions a letter Ray received while on the school board:

Dad [Ray Wolfe] apparently had a very strong personality, was well liked, and was active in the church and community. I know, for example, that he was on the public school board at a time when [my sisters] Sara and Mary Kay were both attending the parochial school in Delmar! (Somewhere in Mary K.’s stash of memorabilia there is a letter to Dad from a man named Harrington suggesting that Dad’s position on the public school board while his kids attended private school was somewhat of a conflict of interest. At that time Delmar had a parochial high school which Sara and Mary K. attended, and they always defended Dad in that one, but I agree with Mr. Harrington.)

In my dad’s stuff I found such a letter, although it’s not from a man named Harrington but from Mr. and Mrs. A. L. Kinrade—probably Archie Leonard Kinrade (1897–1990) and his second wife, Emily M. Coverdale (b. 1889). It does not charge my grandfather with a conflict of interest, but does chide him a bit and rather provocatively suggests that he does not have the courage to think for himself. Doesn’t necessarily fit with the image of Ray Wolfe handed down—strong personality, etc. Judge for yourself:

Delmar Ia. April 8 ’38

Mr. Wolfe:—

We were utterly shocked at your reaction at the school board meeting Tuesday night. I was under the impression that you were a man that would hold your own ground and stand on your own two feet. I did not think I was misjudging you when I merited you as a very capable man, who would be a benefit to the school and its surrounding society.

Can’t you see that we need a man who will use his own mind to do his thinking with and not rely on someone else’s gray matter, which is not always too good?

Mr. Wolfe if you had children in the public school I am positive that you would think differently. But it won’t be long until you will have and you certainly want to keep the school in the superior condition that it is now in. You have nothing against Mr. Reid have you? Not even any personal difference when he came into the school three years ago it was in bad shape but he pulled it through. So why kick him out when he alone is responsible for the excellent condition of our school.

You are a smart man Mr. Wolfe and I know you will think this over and do the right thing.


Mr. & Mrs. A.L. Kinrade

Scans of the original letter can be found after the jump.

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What He Did Do Was Farm

An e-mail from Tom Wolfe to one of his nieces, providing history and recollections of his family, especially his mother:

October 15, 2007

Dear Mary,

I’ve been meaning to respond to your note from way back when for a long time now, but I’ve found it hard to do—largely, I think, because it’s hard to write about Mom, and I never knew Dad. I’ll give it a try though.

In case you’re not aware, the founders of our Wolfe family in America were John R. and Honora Buckle[y] Wolfe. She was reportedly from Belfast, making theirs a most unusual union in those days. They probably arrived in the U.S. from Listowel, County Kerry, Ireland in 1846, perhaps traveling through Canada, though I don’t know for sure. John R. came from relative wealth, so it’s not clear just why he and his family emigrated. It was, of course, during the Potato Famine, and leaving was the thing to do then. They arrived with three or four of their eventual ten children. John R. worked across the country on the railroads and Hennepin Canal before settling in Lost Nation in 1854 where he took up farming with other Wolfes who apparently accompanied him on the trek. Their fifth child, my grandfather Maurice (pronounced “Morris” by many Irishmen), was the first of that family to be born there.

Maurice married Sarah McAndrew (s?) sometime or other and promptly had five sons: Ray (my father, born in 1896), Phil (no children), John (two children, Jack being a good friend), Melvin (five children and Cousin David’s dad), and Jimmy (five children). Uncle Dan McGinn always claimed that Grandfather Maurice was once a Texas Ranger, but I don’t believe it. He also alleged that he was an excellent shot with a 45 caliber revolver, a gun that is very heavy and difficult to shoot accurately. What he did do was farm, and that’s where his five sons were raised. Sarah died first, sometime in the early to mid twenties, and Maurice died toward the end of that decade.

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Dimby and the Kerryman

This is a family story. It involves a royally bred horse, a famous wager, a pitched battle, married cousins, and, like all Wolfe tales, someone named Maurice. It begins, however, with someone not named Maurice, someone who has just died.

Richard J. Wolfe—the brother of Maurice, the nephew of both Edmund Maurice and (my favorite) Maurice Morris, the grandson of Maurice James, and the great-grandson of James Maurice—met his reward near Streator, Illinois, on May 25, 1927. Mr. Wolfe had been born near Ballybunion,* a small town in County Kerry, Ireland, and to mark his passing, the Kerryman newspaper, on December 10, published a story noting that the deceased had been “a very large farmer and breeder of horses.”

There’s more to the story than that, of course, but in order to get there, the Kerryman must first plow through some pretty dense genealogy. As it happens, the dead Mr. Wolfe and his widow, Catherine “Kate” Maher, were cousins. Her maternal great grandfather, like her husband named Richard James, was the brother of her husband’s paternal grandfather, the aforementioned Maurice James. (For those keeping score at home, her great grandfather is my great-great-great grandfather.)

I know. Nobody cares. But the Kerryman needs to at least acknowledge this stuff because it’s Kate Wolfe Maher Wolfe’s grandfather (which is to say, the deceased’s father’s first cousin) who’s really important here. And his name is … wait for it … Maurice Richard.

According to the paper, he “emigrated from Knockanasig** after he had made a lasting reputation as owner of Dimby, a racehorse whose name is still fresh in the traditions of the once famous Ballyeigh racecourse.” The Kerryman continues:

Dimby was bred by William the Fourth, King of England. In the possession of Maurice Wolfe, his most notable performance was the winning of a challenge at the then goodly sum of one hundred pounds aside. The match was decided at Ballyeigh in or about 1840. The defeated horse was Roller, owned by a Mr. Gunn, a connection of the Roehes of Athea. Dimby became the sire of The Rambler, also owned by Maurice Woulfe, and a good winner in the forties of last century. But it was perhaps the best of Dimby’s progeny that met a fatal misadventure and died without being tested on a racecourse. It was from the dam of May Morning, Victory and Tally Ho, and was bred by “Johnny Connell, of Rathmorrell,” whose memory as a sportsman is still so affectionately treasured in Kerry and Limerick.

If you’re like me, this needs some unpacking—but it’s worth the effort, because this is where the pitched battle comes in. The Listowel Races are a big deal in Ireland, but their origins actually trace to a location nine miles away: just south of the deceased’s hometown of Ballybunion. There, where the River Cashen meets the River Feale and flows into the sea, was the Ballyeigh racetrack. According to a more recent article in the Kerryman, “Each year thousands converged on this picturesque setting to enjoy the festivities associated with this event, i.e. a variety of games, horse-racing and a pre-arranged faction fight which concluded the event.”

Wait, a pre-arranged what?

A pre-arranged faction fight. The term “faction fight” refers to “pitched battles between feuding bands at fairs and other public gatherings.” They were especially prevalent in Ireland from 1760 until 1845, and while they began as battles over territory, they “often reflected more modern tensions, such as power conflicts between kinship-based mafias led by ambitious members of the middle class.”

At Ballyeigh, the combatants were, traditionally, the Cooleens and the Iraght O’Connors (the latter comprised of the Lawlor and Mulvihill families). In June 1834, for instance, twenty people died when 1,200 Cooleens crossed the Cashen and attempted to surprise 2,000 Iraghts. According to the Kerryman, the Cooleens’ attack failed and, driven back into the river, they attempted to swim or boat to the far bank. “The contingent who were pursuing them had lost all reason in the heat of battle and pursued them into the water,” writes the Kerryman. “One boat was caught and upended and the occupants who could not escape by swimming were battered under the water until they drowned.”

This gives you a sense of the way passions might have flared at Ballyeigh and why winning a hundred-pound bet there a few years later might have been a big deal.

Anyway, various safety-minded adjustments to the Ballyeigh races were implemented, but then, in 1856, violence erupted again. The particular race that set things off was won by none other than Johnny O’Connell, mentioned above, who rode May Morning—a relative of our renowned Dimby—to victory over Timekeeper. That horse’s owner, George Sandes, accused O’Connell of cheating, a fight broke out, and O’Connell ended up in the Ballybunion jail. In October 1858, the races moved to Listowel.

At this point, that original Kerryman article, the one mourning the death of Richard J. Wolfe, returns to its subject, noting that a legion of Wolfes had sailed for the States and one even “kept a high-class stud of Norman horses.” What it doesn’t mention is that once the Wolfes reached the rolling fields of eastern Iowa their interest in horse flesh may have taken a different turn. According to the History of Clinton County (1879), a “Horse-Thief Protection Society” was founded in the years immediately following the Wolfes’ arrival, its mission to protect the people from what it called illegal “horse-raising.” Its officers’ names tended away from the Irish.

As my dad once wrote:

The motivation for the Society is unknown to the writer, but in a land heavily populated with English and Germans, as well as with the Irish, it must have been distressing indeed to see so much evidence of what Sir Walter Raleigh unflatteringly called the “Wilde Irish” so dangerously near them. Prudence alone would have dictated such a move.

All of which is to say, lo, how far the Wolfes did fall … from horse-racing to illegal horse-raising in but one generation!

You can read the entire Kerryman article from 1927 after the jump.

images: Maurice Richard Wolfe, of Dimby fame (Knockanure Library) and a Google Maps Street View shot of Ballyeigh, where the Cashen meets the River Feale and flows into the sea; “Eyes of the Races,” Listowel Races, September 16, 2008, by Barry Delaney (Flickr)


* Yes, I know. What a painful name! Actually, in Irish it looks like Baile an Bhuinneánaigh and derives from the Bonyon family, who claimed a castle there in 1582. You can see its lovely remains here.

** Cnoc an Fhásaig, or hill of the wilderness

 Baile ui Fhiaigh, or O’Fay’s town

 Listowel (Lios Tuathail, or Tuathal’s fort) being the hometown of my own great-great grandfather, or Kate Maher’s great uncle …

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