Here’s another snippet of family history from Mom, one that sent me on an unexpected genealogical journey.
When my mother was a little girl, she lived with her family in a shed behind a relative’s house. Her sister, Pauline, was born there.
When I asked Mom why Grandma’s family was living in a shed, she just shrugged and said, “That’s what I was told.” She didn’t know where the shed was or which relative had owned it. At first, I suspected that this story was another one of those crazy things Grandma had told her a long time ago, and which she simply took at face value. I imagined that my grandmother, who suffered at times from hallucinations and delusions due to schizophrenia, had exaggerated her living conditions. Perhaps it was small, rickety house, I thought, but surely not a shed! At the time, I hadn’t realized how poor Grandma’s family had been. But as I pieced together their story, the impoverished conditions under which they had lived became ever more evident. After a while, the story about Grandma Beatrice living in a shed didn’t seem so preposterous.
The Story Behind the Story
Grandma’s parents, Philippe and Graziella (Bonneau) Metthe, married in 1899, when they were in their early twenties. According to the 1900 U.S. Census, the couple lived on Furnace Street in Danielson, Connecticut. Like many French-Canadian immigrants of the time, they worked in a textile mill. Their occupations were listed as “spinner (cotton)” and “knitter (hosiery).”
In those days, the work in a mill was grueling and the pay was low. Mill workers were expected to work twelve to thirteen hour days, six days a week, spending most of these hours on their feet. A spinner like Philippe tended multiple machines, each with dozens of bobbins whirling about as they filled with thread. Whenever one filled up, he was expected to snatch it up and replace with an empty bobbin — while the machine was still running, risking injury to fingers. Graziella worked at a knitting machine hour after hour, turning out black socks. She may have been allowed to sit while doing this, but the work was still repetitive and stressful. Mills usually had poor ventilation, so lint floated in the air and into the workers’ lungs. The sound of the constantly running machinery was deafening. The wooden floors of the mill would soak up the oil that dripped from the machines. I shudder to think of what might have happened if there had been a fire.
After Graziella gave birth to her first child (my grandmother Beatrice, born in 1901), she probably quit work and stayed home with the baby. Philippe became the sole support of the family. More children came (Leonard in 1903; Dinorah in 1904), creating additional financial stress on the young Metthe family. They also had a son in 1905, named Joseph, but he only lived two months. In Mom’s story, their daughter Pauline was born in the shed (wherever it was), in 1907. I made an educated guess that the Metthe family moved there sometime after Joseph died, possibly in 1906. Graziella had begun to exhibit signs of a mental breakdown about that time. Philippe couldn’t leave his wife alone with the children, but he still needed to work. Leaving them in the care of a trusted relative was the obvious solution.
The more I learned about the Metthe family’s predicament, the more driven I was to find this mythical shed. A lot of this had to do with my need to understand my mother’s quirks. Her mother Beatrice had been raised, until she was seven, by a mentally ill mother. Twenty-odd years later, the same thing happened to Mom. Two generations of mental illness in the family was more than a little unusual. I’m no psychologist, but it seemed clear to me that knowing what Mom and Grandma had gone through while growing up might explain some of the difficulties between Mom and myself.
Searching for the Shed
But where could the shed have been, if it even existed? The first clue was something I found in my great-grandmother Graziella’s patient record from Norwich State Hospital. Included in it were copies of correspondence between the hospital Superintendent and Graziella’s family members. There were letters from Philippe inquiring about his wife’s well-being and progress. Graziella’s older sister, Alexandrine, wrote on behalf of her mother, Azilda, who may not have been able to write in English. In one of those letters, Alexandrine mentioned that her mother was taking care of all four of Graziella’s children. It seemed to me that if there was indeed a shed, it would have been on the property owned by Graziella’s parents, Pierre and Azilda Bonneau.
I wondered if I could prove whether the Bonneaus had a shed in the back yard of their house on Cottage Street. If they did, how likely would it have been that they allowed their daughter’s family to live in it? In the midst of strategizing on how to solve this riddle, I felt a tug in my heart as I considered the possibility that Grandma’s childhood might have been this bleak. Poverty was not something I had experienced in my own upbringing, but it was starting to dawn on me that it was an integral part of my family history.
I knew that I would have to look more closely at the genealogical data I had accumulated so far to see who was living in Pierre and Azilda Bonneau’s house on Cottage Street during this period. I found that in 1906, the Bonneaus — Graziella’s parents — still had six children of their own at home: Rose and Blanche, who were in their twenties; Vitalis, Elodia, and Corinne, who were in their teens; and a boy, Theobald, who was eleven. In addition, Pierre’s elderly mother, Sophie, was also living with them. In all, there were five adults, three teens, and a young boy. This seemed a lot of people to be living under one roof. I wondered what size and shape of house Pierre and Azilda had owned.
I learned that at the time of the 1900 U.S. Census, that Pierre and Azilda Bonneau lived at 32 Cottage Street in Danielson. I looked for that address in Google Maps, and found that it was a large house sitting right next to the railroad tracks. In the Google satellite image, it looked more like a small apartment building than a single-family home. With a house that big, I couldn’t imagine that they would have expected Philippe, Graziella, and their children to live in a shed.
When I searched that address on a real estate website, the record showed that the building had been erected in 1910. I knew from the land records I had viewed at the Killingly Historical and Genealogical Society (located in Danielson) that Pierre had bought the Cottage Street house in 1897. I also knew that the family lived there during both the 1910 and 1920 U.S. Census. I wondered why the house at 32 Cottage Street didn’t seem to match either the family lore or public records. Confused by this discrepancy, I went on a search for maps of the period when Pierre and his family would have lived on Cottage Street. Danielson, Connecticut was such a small town, and still is, even today. Would anyone have bothered to map it a hundred years ago, and would such a map still exist? These questions called for a visit to the map collections at the Library of Congress. There was a particularly interesting set I remembered from the days when I used to work at there, called the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps.
Using Maps to Resolve the Discrepancy
I paid a visit to the Library of Congress and made my way to the Geography and Map Reading Room in the basement of the Madison Building. They have the largest existing set of Sanborn maps, which number in the hundreds of thousands and go back to the nineteenth century. These maps cover twelve thousand cities and towns in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Their purpose was to document business and residential structures in populated areas to ascertain their risk for damage or destruction by fire. They include information on each structure such as how many stories there were, what material was used (i.e., brick, wood frame, etc.), what type of roof covered it, and whether there were any sprinklers installed. The Sanborn Map Company even gathered information such as how many people worked for the local fire department and how many pumping wagons they had. Although these maps were created for use by fire insurance companies and underwriters, over the years they have become a valuable resource for historians, preservationists, and genealogists.
I filled out a request slip for the town of Danielson, Connecticut, and after a short wait, a library employee brought out a large box made of acid-free cardboard. In it, I found dozens of 21 inch by 25 inch maps which covered the town of Danielson over several decades. There were maps made in 1903 and 1911, which would have been before and after the period that Grandma might have lived in the shed. I was surprised to learn that both of these maps showed 32 Cottage Street as being two blocks away from the railroad tracks, not next to them as I’d seen in Google Maps.
I felt that the only explanation for this discrepancy was that the houses in the town of Danielson must have been renumbered sometime after 1920 census, a fact that was later confirmed for me by the historical society. Armed with this new information, I opened up my laptop and went back to Google Maps, so that I could compare the satellite image of Cottage Street with the one on the Sanborn map. I learned that what had once been 32 Cottage Street was numbered differently. Further visual comparison of the two maps (Google and Sanborn; dated over a century apart) showed that the footprints of the structures on the property were almost the same, including the shed in the back yard.
Once I made this discovery, I returned to the real estate website and found a listing for the correct house on Cottage Street. It had been built in 1884, which fit my family history time-line. And not only was the Bonneau’s house still standing, it was currently on the market! Six months after learning this, I was back in Danielson. Since the property was still on the market, I contacted the real estate agent who had listed it. I was relieved to discover that she was the president of a local historical society. When I told her why I wanted to see the house, she had no problem showing it to me, even though I made it clear that I had no interest in buying it.
The house on Cottage Street was a little wood frame house that stood one and a half stories high. It had five bedrooms, but only one bath. All the rooms were tiny, especially the two bedrooms in the attic. I tried to imagine the house in 1906, when Pierre, Azilda, six of their children, and Pierre’s elderly mother Sophie lived there. I realized how crowded it must have been even before Philippe came looking for a place to live. It was indeed likely that Grandma had lived in a shed when she was a little girl. Where else could the Bonneaus have put her family?
After touring the house, I stood in the back yard, talking to the real estate agent. I asked if she could unlock the door to the shed and let me look around inside. It appeared to be about ten by twenty feet in area, not a lot of space in for two adults and four children. The real estate agent poked her head into the shed after I had gone in. “Wow,” she said pointing to the subflooring and the roof sheathing. “A lot of this wood is old, like from the 19th century.” I was standing on the same floorboards as had my ancestors Graziella, Philippe, and Beatrice.
As I stood inside the shed, my feelings turned to sympathy and sadness for Beatrice, my troubled grandmother. I’d had no idea that she’d grown up with such deprivation. In addition to the squalor in which she had lived as a child, she had a mother who was mentally unstable and emotionally unavailable to her. Beatrice may not have been able to depend on Graziella for basic care, much less love and affection. Her father, Philippe, may have spent a great deal of his time working at the mill during this time. I tried to imagine Beatrice as a child vying for her mother’s attention and getting little or nothing in return. I could only hope that her grandmother Azilda, in the house that was no more than a dozen steps from the shed, had been a dependable presence in Beatrice’s young life, busy though she must have been holding her own family together.
My visit to the former Bonneau house on Cottage Street confirmed for me the importance of going to the places where my family’s history took place. It allowed me to acknowledge and honor my grandmother’s childhood suffering. By doing so, I planted a seed of empathy in my heart for her — one that continued to grow as I reconstructed the story of her life.
This post is an adaptation of a chapter in the manuscript of Secrets of the Asylum. This research took place in 2013 and 2014. The house on Cottage Street has since been completely renovated.
Dunwell, Steve. The Run of the Mill: A Pictorial Narrative of the Expansion, Dominion, Decline and Enduring Impact of the New England Textile Industry. Boston: David R. Godine, Publisher; 1978.
Moran, William. The Belles of New England: The Women of the Textile Mills and the Families Whose Wealth They Wove. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, 2002.
Ristow, Walter. “Introduction to the Sanborn Map Collection,” excerpted from Fire Insurance Maps in the Library of Congress. http://www.loc.gov/rr/geogmap/sanborn/san4a1.html; accessed June 30, 2018.