THE MINNESOTA OFFSHOOT
Some sixty or so years after John Jose set out to try his luck on the other side of the Atlantic from his home on the Lizard, another teenager from the Jose clan was planning to follow in his footsteps. And for much the same reason, as he tried to explain to his hapless mother.
‘But Ma, life here is so depressing,’ whinged young Percy Nicholas as he helped his mother in the kitchen of the solid grey-washed four-square Green Cottage facing the windswept village green at Landewednack. ‘It’s all death and gloom.’
Green Cottage, Landewednack, The Lizard
‘Learn your books and get a trade,’ she chided him. ‘You’re young, things will get better.’
‘How can you of all people say that?’
His mother didn’t need to ask what he meant.
Sidonia Jose, as she was before marrying lighthouse-keeper Charles Nicholas, had found life to be a tough struggle since those heady, happy days of courtship and the grand wedding. There had been three births, two boys and a girl, in three years and the daughter had died after nine months. She produced two more sons but they, too, died within months before she at last gave birth to a healthy daughter. And for much of this time her husband’s job meant he was often absent on distant postings, usually when he was most needed.
But the crunch had come when he decided to join the newly-formed lighthouse service in faraway Hong Kong. ‘It’s for the better,’ he tried to convince her. ‘Better money and I’ll get long leave breaks, so it won’t be much different from if I was being posted to lights around England.’
Sidonia reluctantly agreed. She had once tried accompanying her husband on one of his postings – to the lighthouse on the shingled shore of the windswept Romney Marshes at Dungeness but had soon scuttled back home, depressed by the remote and barren location. At least she had her family and a strong community on the Lizard, no matter how isolated it might be from the rest of Cornwall.
With her husband far away in Hong Kong, Sidonia and her children, Francis, Percy and Elaine, now lived in her parents’ home, Green Cottage, recovering from yet another infant death, her fifth son, and bemoaning the absence of Charles. She knew well enough what young Percy meant, and could understand his unhappiness, some of which stemmed from being a reluctant boarder at the nascent Hayle Grammar School several miles away on the north Cornwall coast at Phillack.
There Percy lived in the home of an Irish couple, the school’s headmaster William Wagner and his wife Elizabeth. Living under the same roof were the Wagners’ three teenage children, assistant teacher William James Griff and three fellow ‘scholars’ who came from Ireland, Yorkshire and Wales. It was situation of ‘them and us’, with the four students very much on the downside of a rigorous routine and harsh living conditions.
‘I’ve got to get away, there’s nothing here for me,’ Percy insisted. ‘It’s cutting and polishing the stone, or fishing or farming.’
Sidonia sighed. Her family were all stone-cutters, spending hours at the wheel to shape and polish the unique local blue-grey Serpentine rock. It was all they ever knew.
But her eldest son, Francis, had already rejected such a future and decided he would be better off elsewhere. He had made his way to London and soon settled into regular employment as an instrument maker. Now it was happening all over again. She knew there was little she could say to persuade Percy to stay.
‘But why so far? Why America?’ It was the playing of a last desperate card. If he had to go, perhaps he could at least remain in England.
But he was not to be persuaded. Eventually, Sidonia faced the inevitable and, in 1906, at the age of 19, my cousin Percy boarded the SS Baltic in Liverpool and joined hundreds of other hopefuls making the trans-Atlantic crossing to the USA and thus grafted another branch on to my family tree.
Percy didn’t hang about. Within a few years he had taken on the role of father to Victor Wilbur Runyon, born on 14 January 1909 to unmarried Dollie Gladys Runyon. Dollie was working as a servant in the household of a widowed farmer deep in Amish country in the farming community of West Union, Minnesota.
In the 1910 US Census, Victor Walter is recorded as “son of Miss Dolly [sic] Runyon” and that his father’s home state was North Dakota. Although Dollie was born in North Dakota, her parents were from Minnesota and the family had returned there some time before the birth of Victor Wilbur.
How and where she and Percy met remains a mystery as that same US census makes no mention of Percy. He was then in Canada, working sixty hours a week as a carpenter while living in a boarding house in Strathcona, Alberta, run by Fred and Elizabeth Archer and crammed with migrant workers.
But at some stage love eventually triumphed and Dollie and Victor Wilbur travelled from Minnesota – the verdant border state of 10,000 lakes ¬ to share Percy’s rugged lifestyle on Canada’s frontier land.
Strathcona was a rough and newly-settled town. It had grown rapidly thanks to a sudden influx of land speculators, fur traders, pioneer farmers, hunters, general hangers-on and hopeful contractors such as Percy. Its polyglot community consisted mainly of immigrants from Britain (especially the Orkney Isles), almost every European country, the USA and other parts of Canada.
Residents lived in hastily-built primitive shacks and log cabins which were gradually replaced by more substantial two-storey wood or even brick buildings, many of which exist today.
Ever in pursuit of work, Percy soon moved a few miles from Strathcona to lakeside Le Duc, a similar but even younger township, which saw its first settlers in the 1890s. It was here, in November 1913, that Dollie gave birth to their first daughter, who they significantly named Sidonia.
It was here, too, that they were for the first time recorded as a family unit, all bearing the surname Nicholas and with Percy and Dollie listed as “married”. So far, no record has been found of where or when this union took place. Or even if there was a marriage and the unifying of names was done to ease the path of cross-border travel.
Adding further intrigue to support this theory of naming convenience, all are also stated to be of Canadian nationality and of English birth. The document where these details are listed – recording a US border crossing in November 1913 – has all the signs of being hastily completed by a less than scrupulous official; a far cry from today’s rigorous procedures.
Conditions in Canada’s pioneering backwoods were all too much for Dollie. Too parched and dry in summer, too cold and windswept in winter, more brown than green despite the forests edging the wide plains. But most of all, she was homesick.
‘Can we go back home?’ pleaded Dollie. ‘Back to Mom and Pop. They haven’t seen Sidonia.’
‘But there’s work here,’ countered Percy.
He was keenly aware that Canada, especially out here in Alberta, was a young and growing country. As venturers pushed ever further into remoter territory there was a guarantee of plentiful work for tradesmen such as carpenters, and especially for those prepared to tolerate the pioneering lifestyle.
But Dollie prevailed. Together with Victor, Sidonia and Percy she was back in Minnesota in time to give birth to Douglas F Nicholas on Boxing Day 1916.
From then on, Percy Nicholas, the Cornish son of a serpentine cutter’s daughter and a keeper of the Lizard lighthouse, made his life among the communities settled around Minnesota’s multitude of lakes. My Celtic roots had again crossed the Atlantic, this time to flourish in the fertile lands of rural north-eastern America.
Records indicate Percy and Dollie went on to have eight children, including Dollie’s illegitimate first-born, Victor. There was, however, a lengthy gap between the birth of Douglas in 1915 and the arrival of Valleere in 1921 which, in view of the large families usual in those pre-Pill days, suggests they may have suffered a run of stillborn and infant deaths similar to that experienced by Percy’s mother.
Percy’s only absence during this period was during the final stages of the First World War when he belatedly answered the call to arms and went to the recruiting office in Minneapolis on 18 June 1918 to enlist in the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force.
A year later, he returned unscathed into Toronto on the Mauretania and when he crossed back into the States he told the US Border Force he intended taking out American citizenship, although this was not compulsory. Naturalisation was a two-step process and by the time of the 1930 census Percy had obtained his “first papers” by filing a declaration of intent to become a US citizen.
Ten years later, however, he had progressed no further and was still noted as “having first papers”. Once again, the picture is of a man who told the authorities what they wanted to know rather than state the reality of the situation.
His most pressing need was to remain employed. At various times Percy is officially described as a carpenter, a bridge carpenter, a house carpenter and, for a while, as a painter. He chases work and adapts to suit employers’ needs.
These were the turbulent years of the Depression and Prohibition, with high unemployment, rampant poverty and poor living conditions for the millions of have-nots. Like many other struggling families, the Nicholas brood were doing it tough, a situation not helped by the death on 1 December 1926, of son Douglas at the age of 10, nor by subsequent events.
By the time of the 1930 US census, which coincided with the death of his father back in England, Percy is living in rented accommodation at 1702, 6th Street North, Hennepin County, Minneapolis, with no trace anywhere of Dollie. Sharing the house with him are children Sidonia, Vallerie, Gerald and Audrey plus eldest son Victor and his new wife Beulah.
Precisely nine months later, Dollie gives birth to daughter Patricia Ann, an event likely responsible for her disappearance and leading to her divorce from Percy a couple of years later.
Throughout the 1930s, Dollie and Patricia frequently changed address – sometimes renting a place of their own, sometimes reduced to “rooming”. They were never far from Percy or the rest of the family, including youngest son John, a cook, who lived and worked at the East Hennepin Café on 12th Avenue South.
Victor, a shipper of paint and glass, and Beulah found their own place to live, also nearby but were having troubles of their own. By the time of the 1940 US census, Victor was an inmate of the St Cloud Reformatory and a couple of years later Beulah filed for divorce and married Harold August Schoeben, from the tight-knit Scandinavian Lutheran community of her parents.
There are still the lives of the other children of my Cornish cousin, Percy Nicholas, to explore but suffice to say our Celtic roots are now settled deep into the Minnesota landscape.