Some of them were nurturing. Others tragic.
And then there were those just downright criminal.
For many of us, our own childhood experiences with our own father figures have shaped a perspectives on being a Dad and leading tiny humans through their childhood.
For better or worse.
Turns out, men in my family have been causing dad’mage to their kids in ways both good and troubling since about the 19th Century, and probably even before that.
Soldiers, sailors, a corrupt government agent, a preacher, and railroaders populate the roster of Dads going back all the way to the first decade of the 1800s. Funny to think of how a father-son relationship from the 19th century shaped could shape another one in the 20th Century, and the influence of that 20th Century father-son combo finds its way into how I interact with my two sons in 2018.
So grab a glass of Kentucky bourbon. Preferably Maker’s Mark (why will become clear later in this post).
And here for our mutual amusement and fascination I present one fact for each of five generations of Dads going waaaay back.
Michael Timothy Pidgeon (Father) — Worked as a track laborer/supervisor for 42 years
I cannot fathom what it would be like to work one job in one industry for 42 years. I’m not even 40 yet.
My father, on the other hand, retired from the railroad in 2016 after more than four decades of work. He began at the age of 17 in 1974 with the Penn Central in Cincinnati and followed a career building and maintaining track through Conrail and then Norfolk Southern.
He worked in Ohio, Indiana, New Jersey, New York, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and just about every place in between.
Heck, he’s still working, part time, for a rail safety services company out of southwestern Ohio. More often than not, when I get to feeling lazy, I remember how he defined hard work for me.
Ewell Gordon Pierce (Mother’s Father) — Died while performing maintenance on the family car
I never met my mother’s father. Been told I have a lot of his facial features. We’re apparently dopplegangers. But I never met him.
He died in a horrific way when my mother was just a toddler and about 19 years before I was born, as the article from the Cincinnati Enquirer reports below:
Stories about the accident even went across the Associated Press wire, appearing in newspapers across Ohio for two days.
He had worked as a mechanic for the Baltimore & Ohio, and his absence from my mother’s life is something she feels even 58 years later.
George Thomas “Bud” Pidgeon (Father’s Father) — sold sewing machines as a side hustle
A lot has been written about my Dad’s Dad, and a lot will be written. His light and shadow will forever run through our lives.
But one little fact which remains a mystery is why a 1958 city directory in Cincinnati lists his occupation as “slsm Branto Sewing Mach Co.” For all our lives, we’ve known Bud Pidgeon as two things — a Marine and a railroad conductor.
No memory, though, remains of him selling sewing machines. The city directory listing comes out of nowhere. I can’t even find an old newspaper story or advertisement about Branto. Google searches dig up a whole lotta nothing, too.
All I have is a photo from about that time over which I can only speculate because my grandfather kinda looks like a salesman here:
Bud, as he was known, and his entire life are shrouded in misdirection, mistruths, half truths, generosity, and downright cruelty. This no doubt is why he’s the subject of so much fascination and affection in my family, for better or worse.
beecher William pierce (mother’s grandfather) — has a connection to the great gatsby
Well, ol’ Beecher had quite a life. A teacher, farmer, storekeeper. He died in 1934 from “exhaustion” apparently brought on by manic depression, and he died in a place once officially called the “Central Kentucky Lunatic Asylum.”
A sad ending to what was otherwise a quiet life. Quiet that is until someone thought banning booze as a national public policy was a good idea.
My family has a loose understanding of Beecher’s bootlegging legend. Mainly that he was one. We just imagined he had a still to make Hillbilly Pop in an outhouse in some remote Kentucky field.
It was bigger than that.
A federal grand jury indicted Beecher on charges of conspiring to rob the Burks Spring Distillery in Loretto, Ky., during the early 1920s.
Beecher worked at the distillery (known today for making Maker’s Mark) as a “gauger,” a federal agent who’s job it was to make sure the plant manufactured the legal amount of whiskey (yes, a doctor prescribe whiskey for medicinal purposes).
However, during Beecher’s watch (and allegedly with his involvement), a gang led by a man named George Remus siphoned whiskey from the barrels and sold it on the black market. Remus was known not only as the “Millionaire Bootlegger” but also reportedly was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s inspiration for Jay Gatsby.
I’m still working to obtain court transcripts and other records to explain what happened to Beecher, a less-than-stellar example of a Dad, after his indictment.
Benjamin William Pidgeon Jr. (Father’s Grandfather) — Let his Friend Take The Fall For Stolen Money
Beecher wasn’t the only one with law enforcement troubles. Ben Pidgeon Jr. of Louisville had several run-ins, including helping set a house and field on fire during a drunken melee, which forced a neighborhood evacuation, just after his 18th birthday.
One of my favorite stories about Ben and fatherhood in general is this one from the Louisville Courier-Journal‘s January 13, 1911 edition:
What this means is that my great-grandfather stole $40 from his own father and gave the money to his friend for safekeeping. But while prosecutors let Ben go after leniency pleas from Ben Senior, the friend ended up serving a month in jail.
Friendship had a different value back then, I suppose. A bond between father and son, on the other hand …
joseph marion pierce (Mother’s Great-Grandfather) — The Travelin’ baptist preacher
Funny how the father of someone caught up in Kentucky’s criminal underworld during Prohibition worked as one of the more well-known preachers of southern Kentucky.
And preach he did.
After a short stint in 1865 with Union calvary, Joseph held Baptist revivals and preached sermons with titles like “The Devil’s Sunday School.” I have no idea what constituted “The Devil’s Sunday School.”
But what I wouldn’t give to hear him rhetorically rain down fire and light on his audiences.
His obituary in February 1916 covered more than three columns in the lower third of Page 8 of The Adair County News south of Louisville noted his 40 years of preaching. “Many souls were led to embrace religion under his teaching,” it said. “Surely many bright stars will be added to his crown because of the sacrifices he made for the cause of the Redeemer and the devotion and love he had for the work.”
Benjamin William Pidgeon Sr. (Father’s Great-Grandfather) — Married his boss’s daughter under, shall we say, interesting circumstances
Ben was an Irishman from County Tipperary who arrived in Louisville in 1890. He joined his father and brother there, and all three took railroad jobs with the Louisville & Nashville (L&N).
His job as a fireman, shoveling coal from a locomotive tender into the firebox, meant he was part of a train crew, and those crews were assigned trains and supervised by yardmasters.
Ben lived in a boarding house owned by an L&N yardmaster, which meant his landlord and one of his supervisors were the same man.
And in January 1892, 23-year-old Ben took his landlord/boss’s daughter, Mamie Newton, across the Ohio River and married the 18-year-old in an Indiana courthouse. Strangely, a few weeks later, Ben and Mamie married … again … this time in a Louisville-area Episcopalian church.
Three months later, their first child, Ben Jr., was born. I’m guessing conversations between Ben and his landlord/boss/father-in-law were fairly interesting.
John Morton Pierce (Mother’s Great-Great Grandfather) — Enlisted in the Union army at the age of 55
Talk about having some advanced age gusto. I hope at the age of 55 I have even half the energy it must’ve took for John to march off to war.
I’d just be happy to have enough caffeine when I’m 55 to make it to an afternoon nap.
John at the age of 55 and with a family of kids in Tennessee (including his teenage son who would become a preacher), decided in the summer of 1862 to join the Union army.
He first marched with the 7th Tennessee Infantry before transferring to Co. D of the 11th Tennessee Calvary. Much of that time was spent protecting Union supply lines from harassment by Confederate horsemen led by the likes of Nathan Bedford Forrest.
According to a family history, admittedly unconfirmed, John became disabled after contracting an unknown disease and received a discharge in January 1864. The disease apparently killed him six months later.
A side note, his widow, Mary, applied to the federal government for a pension, saying she’d “lost everything when Rebels forced her from her home and she could not recover it.”
THOMAS PIDGEON SR. (FATHER’S GREAT-GREAT GRANDFATHER) — JOINED THE RAILROAD AT THE AGE OF 75
Okay, so, the old men in my family have something to teach us all about perseverance and hard work.
Thomas, a tenant farmer from Templemore, Ireland, arrived in America a widower and half way through his seventh decade. Assuming he and the Pidgeons had little money, he joined the L&N railroad, just like his two sons, after moving to Louisville in 1890. Thomas became a locomotive engineer, one of the most dangerous and intense jobs of the 19th century.
He worked that job for at least a year, maybe more, according to city directories. He lived until he was 88, succumbing to pneumonia in the summer of 1903.
I know little about him. Except he made an extraordinary decision after disembarking from whatever steamship took him over the Atlantic. He had to work. He would work. And he became the first of six consecutive generations of fathers and sons to work for railroads.
Have you looked into the father’s of your past? What did you find? Any surprises or mysteries? Let me know in the comments below.
Dave Pidgeon is a Dad who’s solved some pretty serious family mysteries, including more than a few not listed above. He lives in Lancaster with his wife and their two sons. You can contact him at email@example.com