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Reading the 1940 Census; or, Whatever Happened to Old What’s-His-Name?

April 9th, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe · No Comments

I once wrote—somewhere else—about the rolling, Grant Wood–ness of Clinton County, Iowa. That’s where my dad’s people are from, where folks say “crik” instead of “creek,” and where you can spend all day watching a storm come in. I was thinking about Iowa this weekend because I read how the National Archives had just released a digitized edition of the 1940 census, and so many people immediately went looking for their relatives that the site crashed. Of course, I went looking for my relatives, too—the ones who farmed in those hills—and after a little digging managed to find my grandfather Ray, his wife Gladys, and their daughters Sara, Mary, and Margery. My dad was still a few months from being born, and if Sara were alive today, she would be outraged that the federal government had used its power to add an “h” to her name.

Maybe you’ve done research like this and know what I’m talking about: there’s something really powerful, and kind of mysterious, seeing your family’s names written down like that. Or the word “Iowa” written five times in a row, as if my two-year-old daughter were repeating it over and over, as she likes to do. Usually with food in her mouth, if you want to be perfectly honest. Anyway, for her it’s a magical place—where Iowa Poppy and Grandma Fran live—and these names seem to shimmer with that same power. They must, else why would I care to find them? They tell me nothing I didn’t already know.

Not that we worry all that much in my family about what we know and don’t know.

In 1911, my great-great uncle Patrick B. Wolfe, a politician and district court judge and the first Wolfe born in America, published two thick, solemn-looking volumes titled Wolfe’s History of Clinton County. In 1975, my dad carefully typed up and photocopied his own twelve-page treatise, “Origin of the Species, or Whatever Happened to Old What’s-His-Name?” Both documents, as far as I can tell, are heavily larded with lies, half-truths, and humorous untruths. In introducing his older brother, for instance, Judge Wolfe goes on about the “Emerald Isle, far-famed in song and story,” while my dad quips that one ought to “picture a choir of angels with trumpets blaring” when reading such prose. Dad then goes on to suggest that Judge Wolfe’s father was a horse thief and that Dad’s own grandfather was a Marxist who “attended his agrarian pursuits in spurts which he called ‘five year plans.’ His favorite tools were the hammer and sickle.”

About Ray he writes:

He joined the Navy in World War I. He caught no Germans, but he did catch the flu. In 1925 he caught Gladys McGinn of Petersville. (She was only twenty-two at the time, but that didn’t stop her from continually telling her own children that no one with a grain of sense marries under thirty. To gently remind her of her own age in 1925 only brought about a foot stomping and the response, “That was different.”)

I recently spent some time going through cardboard boxes to find a copy of this piece, which I’ve always loved and about which my dad, who typed it up for a family reunion, now feels embarrassed. “It was too flip,” he says. “I was reading a lot of Richard Armour back then. I don’t think everyone got the joke.” What I found instead was an old black-and-white family portrait of Gladys and Ray with her parents, John and Kathrine, and her innumerable siblings, in-laws, nieces, and nephews, all assembled on the front porch of the McGinn family home in Petersville. It was taken maybe a year or two, tops, before the 1940 census. Snot-nosed Mary K is right up front, picking her teeth, with Sara (no “h”!) right above her, and Gladys standing just to the right of her mother—mischievous-looking and pencil-shaped, with a V-neck dress and a severe part in her hair. Ray, meanwhile, is mostly hidden. He’s behind and to the right, his face round, his head mostly bald. I can see just enough of him to see my father. Any more, I think, and the resemblance would be lost.

They’re all standing there to be counted, and what you know is what you see—however little that may be sometimes.

IMAGE: The Crik by Grant Wood, 1934 (Minnesota Museum of American Art)

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