Tag Archives: Mary Frances (Owen) Charboneau

A holiday gift: My grandmother’s voice

My parents named me after my paternal grandmother Mary Frances (Owen) Charboneau, whose nickname was “Molly.” A large Welsh-Irish woman from Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Md., she stood over six feet tall — as did her many sisters.

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My Welsh-Irish paternal grandmother Mary Frances (Owen) Charboneau in the early years of her marriage (circa 1910). I met her in the 1950s when I was a toddler, but did not get to know her until I inherited her diary. Scan by: Molly Charboneau

According to my dad, she met my grandfather, William Raymond Charboneau — who went by “Ray” — while she was working as a nanny for a Baltimore family that spent summers in the Adirondacks.

In those days before supermarkets, my grandfather delivered groceries to their house. My grandmother answered the door — and before you know it she had turned her back on the hot, teeming city for the handsome young man from Forestport, Oneida County, N.Y.

My dad’s recollections

I met Grandma Charboneau when I was a toddler — and still retain a vague image of her towering figure descending the central staircase during a visit to our farm in Albany County, N.Y. To my great regret,  she died when I was just 4, so I never really go to know her except through my dad’s sporadic recollections.

“My mother used to say if she could operate a sewing machine, she ought to be able to drive a car,” Dad would declare out of the blue — a prelude to a tale about her frustration that she never did get behind the wheel.

I could sense her presence in these fleeting anecdotes — animated by my dad’s sense of humor, which he picked up from her. (How I wish I had jotted some of those anecdotes down!) But it was not until I inherited her diary that I first heard my paternal grandmother’s voice.

Grandma Charboneau’s diary

In 1933,  Grandma Charboneau received a leather-covered Five-Year Diary — complete with a lock and key — as a holiday gift from her middle son. “Hubert gave me this diary for Xmas. Wet & cold today,” she wrote on 1 January 1934.

Family photo of the Ray and Molly (Owen) Charboneau Christmas tree, in the cottage at Otter Lake, Oneida, N.Y. (1942). Scan: Molly Charboneau
December 1942: Christmas tree in the cottage of Ray and Mary Charboneau in Otter Lake, Oneida Co., N.Y. My grandparents and their sons lived in this small, lakeside cottage when the Otter Lake Hotel they owned and operated was closed for the winter. Photo by Norman J. Charboneau

Dad told me Grandma C. was a great storyteller. But like most diarists just starting out, she seemed unsure what to put down when faced with the blank page.

So her early entries pretty much catalog the weather — and some bitter cold weather it was up there in New York’s North Country.

But by the time the 1934 holiday season rolled around, my grandmother, 45, had warmed to the task of expressing herself and reflecting in small snippets on her life and her family members who still lived at home — my Uncles Hube, 19, and Fred, 16; my dad Norman, 9; and my grandfather Ray, 46.

Dec. 22, 1934:  Married 24 years today. Time flies, but we have lots to be thankful for.

Dec. 24, 1934:  Went to midnight mass at Forestport. Then to Desjardins. Had a nice party. Home at 4:30 am. Trimmed the tree before we left. [Her oldest son, my Uncle Owen, was married to Aline “Gig” Desjardins.]

Dec 25, 1934: Didn’t get much sleep. Boys were up at 5:30 am. Had a lovely Christmas. Was well remembered. Chair & clock from R & boys.

Dec. 26, 1934: Can’t hardly get around the place. Christmas tree and presents all over the place. Boys have their toys everywhere.

I particularly love that last entry because I can almost see Grandma Charboneau standing there — hands on her hips — surveying the post-holiday wreckage in the small, lakeside cabin where the family  lived when the Otter Lake Hotel they owned and operated was closed for the winter. And her expression “well remembered” to describe pleasure with her Christmas gifts seemed to hint at her heritage.

My grandmother closed out the old year with one last entry:

Dec. 31, 1934: Fred, Hubert, Norman, Ray and myself had a little New Year’s party. Toasted the New Year with a glass of wine and heard it on [the] radio.

So let’s raise a glass and join them! Happy Holidays to you and yours from Molly’s Canopy — and best wishes for the New Year!

© 2015 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

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My Dempsey ancestors in Civil War Baltimore

Last of three posts on my Dempsey ancestors in Civil War Baltimore.

During the U.S. Civil War, Baltimore, Maryland — home of my Irish immigrant great, great grandparents Katherine and William Patrick Dempsey and their family — experienced great political and social ferment.

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Massachusetts Militia passing through Baltimore. The city where my Dempsey ancestors lived was placed under federal martial law in 1861 after a pro-slavery mob attacked Massachusetts Militia members en route to federal service in Washington, D.C. Image: Wikipedia

At the start of the war, in 1861, Baltimore City was placed under federal martial law after a pro-slavery mob attacked the Massachusetts Militia as it passed through the city en route to federal service in Washington, D.C.

Known as the Pratt Street Riot, the confrontation resulted in the first bloodshed of the U.S. Civil War and led to the placement of Union soldiers all around Baltimore City — in hospitals, camps, and barracks — where they helped keep belligerent Southern sympathizers at bay.

Meanwhile — like my Dempsey ancestors before them — new waves of immigrants were arriving in the city to seek a better life. Free and formerly-enslaved African Americans were joining the newly-formed U.S. Colored Troops and heading to the front.

And in late 1864, Unionists in the Maryland legislature succeeded in passing a state constitution that abolished slavery — which was followed on 3 Feb. 1865 by Maryland’s ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

It was into this cauldron of rapid social change 150 years ago that my great grandmother Elizabeth and her twin sister Maggie were born to the Dempsey family on 28 Feb. 1865 — early arrivals in the first generation that would grow up after the U.S. Civil War.

Two generations would pass before a descendant of my Irish ancestors Katherine and William Patrick Dempsey (my paternal grandmother Mary Frances “Molly” Owen) would marry a descendant of my Union Army ancestor Arthur Bull and his wife  Mary (my paternal grandfather William Ray Charboneau).

How fascinating to discover that, before they were joined, these two branches of my family had a separate yet parallel experience of living through a defining period in U.S. history.

More on both families in future posts. For now, we return to my ancestor Union Pvt. Arthur Bull on duty at Bermuda Hundred, Va.

© 2015 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

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1865: The Dempsey twins are born

Second of three posts on my Dempsey ancestors in Civil War Baltimore.

During the final months of the U.S. Civil War, my Irish immigrant great, great grandparents William Patrick and Katherine Dempsey welcomed two additions to their large family in Baltimore, Maryland.

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Baltimore, Md. (1869). At the junction of Lanvale St. and Fremont Ave., shown above, my Irish great, great grandparents Katherine and William Patrick Dempsey, a blacksmith, lived at 2 Webster Alley in the wooded area to the right. Lafayette Square is shown at center. Image: Library of Congress.

On 28 Feb. 1865, Katherine gave birth to twin daughters — my great grandmother Elizabeth C. Dempsey and her sister Margaret M. “Maggie” Dempsey.

What was life like 150 years ago for my Irish ancestors in the city of more than 200,000?

The Dempsey family

According to Baltimore City Directories, from 1870 to 1886 William Dempsey, a blacksmith, lived at 2 Webster Alley — a typical location for working class housing behind the main-street buildings.

The list of Dempsey family members in the 1870 U.S. Census for Ward 8 of Baltimore City, Baltimore Co., Md., gives a rough idea of who might have lived in the household five years earlier — parents Katherine and William; sons Thomas, John and William; and a daughter Mary. The birth of the twins, Elizabeth and Maggie, would have brought that total to eight.

Unlike in the 1860 U.S. Census, when my great, great grandfather William declared a personal estate worth $40 (about $1,170 today), there is no dollar figure next to his name in 1870 — implying that the family was just making ends meet.

Oldest son Patrick, and younger sons James and Andrew — from the 1860 census — are not listed in the Dempsey household in 1870 . I can’t rule out a census-taking error. Yet their absence suggests an evolving family that may have weathered loss and heartbreak.

The wider community

When my Dempsey ancestors were first enumerated in the 1860 federal census, Maryland was a slavery state. But there were many free African Americans residing in Baltimore — some of whom also lived and worked in the city’s alleys.

German and Irish immigrants swelled the city in the pre-war years — with the Irish-born population peaking in 1860 at more than 15,500.  The Catholic Church and the Hibernian Society — formed in 1803 to aid Irish immigrants — provided a social framework and support system that likely benefited my Dempsey ancestors.

Lafayette Square near the Dempsey home became Camp Hoffman, the 3rd Maryland Infantry’s barracks during the Civil War — a Union Army encampment where Northern troops recuperated from such hard-fought battles as Antietam and Gettysburg.

My ancestors probably grew accustomed to the sounds of Union soldiers marching and drilling, and the clomp of military horses along the pavement.

Which makes me wonder: As a blacksmith, did my great, great grandfather William do metal work for the Union Army? Or shoe their mules and horses?

More on my Dempsey ancestors in Civil War Baltimore in the next post.

© 2015 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

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