In 1723, more than five decades before the 4th of July meant anything special, Samuel Durbin and Ann Logsdon were married on that date in Baltimore, Maryland. He was my great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather—my G6—and may have been one of the two brothers from Wales who, according to oral history, brought this line of Durbins to the new country by way of the Caribbean island of Nevis, the birthplace (half a century later) of Alexander Hamilton. Nobody can say for sure. But we know Samuel and Ann were married on that date and that he was a toll-road watchman near Owings Mill, a featureless exurb of Baltimore then and now.
Ann was the daughter of my G7 William Logsdon, a successful farmer who in 1705 or so met a ship full of women brought over for the boys toiling away in the colonies. One can presume he met the tall ship with more than a bit of manly anticipation, perhaps wearing his finest waistcoat, breeches and spatterdashes. How much of a say the women had in the matter is unknown. It may have been rather little, as the other fragment of oral history passed down from this era is that Honor O’Flynn was kidnapped off the coast of Ireland and taken across the Atlantic, where she would become William Logsdon’s wife and mother of his children.
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Samuel and Ann had a baker’s dozen kids. One of the 13 was G5 Christopher Durbin, born in 1741. He and his wife Margaret Brown Parkinson were themselves prolific in the procreation department, having 12 children. Their son John J. Durbin, my G4, was born in 1769.
Not long after the Revolution, when the colonists finally succeeded in making King George go pee up a rope, John Durbin (and presumably his parents) made their way from Maryland to the vicinity of Sunfish, Kentucky. They may have known another European in the very same area, John Houchin, who legend has it was hunting a bear in 1797 when the animal turned against him, forcing him to utter obscenities appropriate for the era as he retreated into a hole in the ground that turned out to be the entrance to the enormous Mammoth Cave.
The joining of the Logsdon and Durbin families did not end with the marriage of Ann and Samuel. Ann had a nephew Edward Logsdon (son of her brother Thomas) who married her granddaughter Mary Brown (daughter of Edward Brown and Margaret Durbin, Samuel and Ann’s daughter).
Is it okay to marry your cousin’s daughter? Okay or not, it happened again one generation down the same branch of the family tree when John J. Durbin, son of Christopher Durbin and hence grandson of Samuel and Ann, married Patience Logsdon, daughter of the aforementioned Mary Brown and Edward Logsdon.
One hopes John and Patience did not quiz their kids on their ability to classify blood relatives, as they had a mother who was also their second cousin twice removed, a grandfather who was also their first cousin thrice removed, and great grandparents were also—you get the picture.
Our John J. Durbin lost his eyesight somewhere along the way. Henceforth known as Uncle Blind Johnny (he could have also been known, correctly, as Second Cousin Once Removed Blind Johnny) this G4 of mine was also a slave owner—but a peculiar one.
The story goes how Johnny would punish his slaves by whipping. Unable to properly aim the wicked strap of coiled leather (I’m not making this up) master Durbin would order another slave to mete plantation justice while he listened. The slave so-ordered would crack the whip not on the other slave but on the tree to which the punished slave was pretending to be tied, his fake wails thus satisfying Uncle Blind Johnny that the job was done.
Curiously, this G4 of mine chose to be buried not in the Catholic cemetery for which he had donated land, where his family was buried, but among his slaves in a cemetery just next door. He apparently objected to the church forbidding the burying of slaves in the very cemetery he made possible, and wanted to record his objection in a rather permanent way. I say he succeeded.
I don’t know much about my G3 Robert A. Durbin, son of John J. Durbin, other than he was born in 1813 in Kentucky and that he and his first wife (he would go through four until getting the hang of it) Elizabeth Ann Hill were parents to one of nine children. One was my G2 Pius Anselm Durbin, also born in Kentucky, in 1847.
Robert was apparently feuding with his children when he died in 1892. But he got in the last word, pointedly, in his will, by giving each child the screw-you sum of a dollar. The rest of his cash went to an assortment of priests with instructions to pray for his soul.
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Pius Anselm took his wing of the Durbin line out of Kentucky. His first stop was Illinois. There he married Elizabeth Ellen Burtle of Sangamon County, and together in 1873 they crossed the Mississippi River they only way you could in those days, by ferry, to find their fortune in Kansas.
The slave-free state had disposed of most of its native American inhabitants by this time and was enticing settlers of European and African origin onto its wide open plains of opportunity. Its state motto was per aspera ad astra, Latin for “through hardship to the stars.” Elizabeth bore Pius six children before succumbing to some unknown ailment that took her life.
With a heavy heart and distraught beyond words, Pius rushed back to Illinois to deliver the tragic news, comfort his sister-in-law and ask how quickly she could pack a bag. Thus the widower returned to Kansas with Teresa Burtle who promptly married Pius and went on to produce another seven Durbin kids. One was my great grandfather William Oscar Durbin, born in 1881.
Even with his backup Burtle sister and brood of 13 children, the hardship to the stars got the best of Pius Anselm and his Durbins. They weren’t alone. The Midwest drought was of true biblical proportions, complete with dust bowls and grasshopper plagues, and gave rise to another popular motto of the era: “In God we Trusted, In Kansas We Busted.”
Pius Anselm cut his losses and tried again in Missouri. They didn’t do much better there and got spooked by the prospect of earthquakes after experiencing temblors on the massive New Madrid fault line that runs through the area. So Pius headed back to Illinois using the only mode of transportation he and his family could afford: their feet. And when they crossed the Mississippi this time, there was a bridge.
The masterpiece of engineer James Buchanan Eads was a jaw-dropping marvel when completed in 1874, and, as the longest arch bridge in the world and the first to employ all manner of technology, plenty of folks were afraid to step foot on it. As such, the first to cross the officially opened bridge was a giant elephant, borrowed from a circus to convince people it was safe. The first human to cross may have been some guy following with a broom.
Nine-year-old William Oscar Durbin entered East St. Louis for the first time in 1890. Lacking shoes, he would later recall for his grandchildren how walking on the metal grillwork of the Eads made his feet hurt. But he would never forget the sight of peering 88 feet below his callused feet at the brown water of the river known as the Big Muddy as he crossed the already legendary structure.
After crossing, the road-weary family of Pius Anselm and Teresa Durbin passed East St. Louis and didn’t stop until they reached Dahlgren, Illinois some hundred miles downstate. There, they would again put plow to soil in an effort to put food on the table.
Another family doing exactly the same thing in Dahlgren were the Gaul’s. They too had tried and failed to make a go of things in Kansas. We’re not sure if the families knew each other or not back in Kansas, but they were joined in 1902 when William Oscar married Margaret Gaul of Monmouth, Illinois.
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Margaret was the daughter of Billy Gaul, a Civil War veteran and Irish immigrant who came to the U.S. as an infant in 1845 with his parents, brother and sister. They were among the million or so Irish refugees of the great potato famine. Both of his parents, William Gaul and Bridget Leahy, their bodies no doubt weakened by poor nutrition and near-starvation, died soon after arriving. The orphaned Billy grew up a farmhand for William Massey, a prominent landowner who would later stand as witness when Billy married.
We don’t know what life was like for Billy on the Massey farm, but in November 1861 he eagerly answered President Abraham Lincoln’s call for volunteers to put down the insurrection by the southern states. Like many of the first enlistees of the Civil War, young Billy may have seen joining the Army as a golden opportunity to change his status from “immigrant American” to simply “American.” Or maybe he was just tired of pitching manure.
After mustering in at the fairgrounds of New Carrolton, Illinois in midwinter, and nearly freezing his onions off waiting for enough enlistees to arrive to fill a bus, Billy Gaul and the rest of his Company C of the Illinois Infantry Regiment 61 survived one of the first major battles of the war, in April 1862, at Shiloh in Tennessee. Although Billy left no written record of his experience, another member of Reg 61, Leander Stillwell, published a complete memoir so we have a good idea where our Billy was and when.
Billy’s Army experience, indeed his life, nearly came to an end in September that same year. The infantryman who dodged countless bullets on the battlefield wasn’t so lucky as he passed a stopped wagon train on a long march between battlefields and got himself kicked in the head by a mule. This is true. The bone-shattering injury was rather a doozy, according to field surgeon affidavits in his pension application years later, but he managed not only to fight on for the remainder of his three-year term but to re-enlist in 1864.
His patriotism did have its limits, however, and when, in August 1865, his superiors refused to let his regiment go home—this was four months after Lee’s surrender and end of the war—Billy Gaul deserted. His brazen act was duly recorded, as was his debt of “69 cents due the U.S.” for the waist belt, plate and cartridge box he took home with him. In 1884 the charge of desertion was removed from his record by an act of Congress, which realized that leaving a war well after it had ended wasn’t such a terrible thing, and changed the discharge status of scores of such veterans from dishonorable to honorable. We don’t know if they made Billy pay back the 69 cents or not.
In 1866 Billy Gaul took advantage of the Homestead Act by acquiring from Uncle Sam 160 acres of undeveloped land in Kansas in return for a $10 application fee and promise to live on the property for a minimum of five years. One year later he sold the place for $2,200—earning a nice 10,000% return on his investment. Honorability would never be one of Billy Gaul’s long suits. When I met with his granddaughter Margaret Petterson in the 1980s, she referred to her grandfather as a rounder.
“What’s a rounder?” I asked. “It’s a drunkard who leaves his family and only comes around to pick up his pension check,” she replied through pursed lips. And that’s the last she wanted to say about my G2 Billy Gaul.
* * *
William Oscar and Margaret Durbin had a tough time starting a family in Dahlgren. Their first child died at birth in 1902, and daughter Helen survived only a few months after her birth two years later. Things didn’t look so good for their son William Pius Durbin when he was born in 1906. Ill and frail, he was fed by an eyedropper and slept on a pillow. But my grandfather eventually strengthened and his parents could at last thank God for a healthy child.
They weren’t so thankful for their dismal financial condition, however, and had to give up farming for good around 1912 to keep from starving. That’s when they moved to East St. Louis where William Oscar got a job first as a streetcar operator, and later as a bus driver. His family would never go hungry again.
Margaret and William Oscar Durbin were known as Ma and Pa (pronounced “maw” and “paw”) to everyone in the family, no matter the relation. The tireless work ethic brought from the farm served them well. Pa didn’t make much money as a bus driver but he was thrifty, patient and resourceful.
Pa built a garage behind their house at 484 29th Street with his own hands, and once fashioned an electric fan out of scrap metal—it moved air brilliantly but had no guard of any kind so it scared the hell out of Ma. She raised chickens in the back yard until the city told her it was against municipal ordinances. Then she raised them in the basement until Pa told her either the chickens were leaving the house or he was, but only in jest. In reality, their marriage was “tight as the bark on a tree” to use one of Ma’s woodsy expressions.
Ma and Pa took full advantage of the farm-to-city transition. And they introduced the Durbin family passion for baseball that continues today. There was an unspoken rule that Pa was never to be interrupted listening to the St. Louis Cardinals on the radio, and the same for Ma, though her team was the St. Louis Browns, thank you very much.
Ma and Pa followed different teams but prayed in the same church. They went as a family to weekly mass at St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church, and Ma went every day, no matter the weather. As she kneeled in the pews, she no doubt thanked God for the bounty they found in East St. Louis that had delivered them from a life of hunger, and perhaps snuck in the occasional prayer for the pitching arm of Dixie Davis.
* * *
Grandpa Durbin was a model son to his Ma and Pa. Healthy and fit, good-looking and humble to a fault, this devout Catholic was a good student who knew his manners. He was a member of the Knights of Columbus Drum & Bugle Corp (we don’t know whether he played bugle or drum) and went to work in the early 1920s at the Pennsylvania Railroad as a stevedore, loading and unloading cargo.
During the first half of the twentieth century, if you weren’t working at a packinghouse in East St. Louis then chances were good you made a living on the railroads. The confluence of so many rail lines here is what drew packing houses in the first place. And what got the railroads here was the coal. There were mountains of it beneath the Illinois bluffs just east of the city, mined like mad in the decades after the Civil War.
My grandfather would make his career on the railroad, where his sharp mind got him off the tracks and into the office where he would advance to the coveted position of Chief Clerk for the New York Central. On a blind date in 1926 he met Ann Kutkin, a Lithuanian immigrant, and in 1928 he married her.
It was more like a rescue.
* * *
Grandma Durbin was born Ona Kutkite in Jurbarkis Lithuania, in 1909. In 1911 she emigrated to East St. Louis, where her name changed to Ann, by way of Baltimore, Maryland with her mother Marcela Sorockaite and half-brother Leo Davlanski.
Marcele had been running a tavern in Lithuania when her first husband died of TB. Fortunately he left her a fair amount of money, but very unfortunately she soon married a fella named Rokus who happily spent it all on booze before taking off to America where he used the name Robert Kutkin.
He got a job as a steel molder at the Durbin Foundry (the name is a weird coincidence) where he made good money that he handed over to saloon keepers as fast as he could earn it. His wife and kids lived above a tavern she ran, and she may have suffered from alcoholism as much as her husband.
“You have to understand I never really had a home,” Grandma Durbin would share decades later.
Her parents moved frequently from one place to another when she was a kid, one time failing to tell her. She came home from school to an empty house and sat alone, with only schoolbooks and tears of bewilderment, until her brother Leo came to fetch her.
Once Ann reached her teen years, her own house was no longer safe. Rokus would chase her into the street barefoot in the middle of the night, and she had to defend herself against drunken men who went after her at wild parties, apparently with her parents encouragement.
Ann was living with relatives when she met William Durbin. She must have latched onto the morally upstanding and handsome young man as to a lifeline. He was only too willing to extend one.
At their wedding in 1928, Ma and Pa were there to celebrate their son’s marriage. Ann’s parents were not. Nor were they to be in Ann’s life much longer. Her mother died mid-sentence of a heart attack in 1930 and Rokus was not welcome in his daughter’s home. At first he was, as the young couple tried to be cordial. But the troubled man, reeking of alcohol, would demand money of his son-in-law and once at an attempted family dinner got so out of control that his step-son Leo grabbed a tire iron from the garage and threatened to swing it.
Rokus took the challenge but was too drunk to be any good to himself. When Leo cracked him in the skull, Rokus found himself drenched in his own blood. As he staggered out of the house, the bull of a man helped himself to a generous handful of salt from a barrel in the kitchen. He smacked it onto his head to cauterize the wound and stem the flow of blood. That was the last anyone in the family saw of my great grandfather Rokus Kutkin.
Around 1947, Ann got a call from the city with news her father had died and would she please come down to claim the body. “I don’t have a father,” she said, before hanging up the phone.
* * *
My dad, William Pius Durbin, Jr., was born in 1929—just in time for the Great Depression. His first bed was a dresser drawer. Money was always tight but Billy and his brother Bob, born two years later, were lucky to have a father with a good job on the railroad and a mother who was as strong, smart and determined as any woman who ever stepped foot in East St. Louis. No economic downturn was going to defeat Ann Durbin.
Dad’s family moved a lot. They lived on 30th Street when he was born, then 33rd Street in St. Patrick’s parish, then Belleview Avenue near 29th. In 1936 they moved to 484 29th Street—next door to Ma and Pa at 486.
In less than a year they would move to a place on 41st Street, then a year later to 40th, then to a shotgun house on 33rd—so called because one could supposedly fire a shotgun from the front door and have it go clear out the back door without interference. This was across the street from the aptly named Acid Hills where ALCOA dumped its industrial waste into piles, favored by neighborhood boys on their bikes.
My dad and his brother were instructed to keep an eye out for huge clouds of chemical dust rolling across the street, then call for help in a rush to close all the windows.
In 1944, they moved back to 484 29th Street.
In 1937, Grandpa brought home for my dad a library card and a book on Roman mythology. The surprise gift made Billy Durbin a voracious reader and lifelong lover of books. This was the same year a traveling salesman convinced his parents to buy an accordion for next to nothing, in return for a commitment to take lessons. Dad mastered the complicated instrument and for decades thereafter could play any number of tunes by heart.
World War II was of course the defining event of dad’s childhood. Dad had a paper route and would read the East St. Louis Journal before delivering them. One afternoon he read that sugar was about to be rationed. On his way home he stopped at several stores and bought up as much as he could carry on his bike—nearly 30 pounds of it.
His mom gave him the 1940s equivalent of a high five and fist bump but his dad did not, pointing out that hoarding in wartime could get you in serious trouble with the law. Dad never did that again. One thing they never ran out of was eggs. Grandpa was in charge of the feed house at the New York Central and came home with an armful every day. My dad soon got hooked on fried egg sandwiches, and Grandma sold extras to neighbors.
In 1944, Bill and Bob Durbin got a little brother, Richard Joseph Durbin. Dick Durbin would one day be elected to the U.S. Congress, running in the district where Abraham Lincoln once served, and further advance to Assistant Majority Leader of the Senate where he would urge a reluctant first-term Senator from Illinois, whom he had befriended and mentored on the ways of Washington, to run for President. His name was Barack Obama.
* * *
My dad had a front-row seat to three of the great domestic battles of the 20th century, for women’s rights, union rights, and civil rights.
His mother was a staunch feminist before anyone used the word, demonstrating at every opportunity that she could do both a woman’s work and a man’s work. She wouldn’t hesitate to paint a room herself or repair a lamp, and took classes at business schools so she could go to work in an office. She eventually got a job as a clerk at the New York Central Railroad.
Not surprisingly, my dad’s first job was also at the New York Central. His dad had helped arrange it and also appointed a Black stevedore named Jesse to show his son the ropes. Not only did Jesse know those ropes as well as anyone, but Grandpa wanted his son to see first-hand, as he had, the absurdity of judging a person by skin color.
Grandpa Durbin was a union man to the core. He took a stand for the rights workers—of any skin color—as he rose through the ranks on the railroad, even after his promotion into management, when passions for worker rights are often put to test.
He navigated well the fine line between the interests of management and worker and decided at the age of 38 to apply his skills in the political arena. He was elected to the County Board of Supervisors in 1944 and within three years found himself chairman of the Finance Committee. He also found himself in a battle between personal ethics and government corruption.
My grandfather was offered bribes more than once, one time accepting a cigarette and noticing just before lighting it the tobacco had been replaced with a $50 bill—about a week’s pay.
We don’t know if he accepted the bribe but we do know he took an all-or-nothing stand in the 1949 election for Chairman of the County Board, when he refused to back a long-time family friend who apparently had no problem at all with the rampant corruption. Another bribe, for nearly a half a year’s pay, wouldn’t sway William Durbin but apparently it swayed others. His candidate lost, narrowly, and the very day after the election his former friend stripped William Durbin of his committee chairmanship.
His foray into politics was over.
* * *
Like many of the age, Grandpa was a smoker. Cigarettes gave him comfort from the stresses of life but they also gave him lung cancer. He died on Friday the 13th of November in 1959, at the age of 53, as the bells of St. Henry’s rang in the noon hour on the Angelus bells.
Over 500 mourners attended his wake. Among them was Maurice Tolden, a Black co-worker who came to pay his respects. Owing to strict racial customs of that time and place, Mr. Tolden remained on the State Street sidewalk outside the Burke Funeral Home. When my dad spotted the impeccably dressed man outside, he promptly escorted him in. I know that would have made Grandpa proud. It sure makes me proud.
* * *
My dad enlisted in the United States Navy in 1948. Grandma had always dreamed of having a priest for a son and for a time thought it would be her eldest son. After an unimpressive eight years of grade school at St. Elizabeth’s, Billy Durbin surprised the nuns there—he was not a straight-A student, although his composition, penmanship and oratory skills were impressive—by winning a scholarship to St. Henry’s Seminary in Belleville. For his mother it was an answering of her prayers. For Dad it was a big mistake.
He went through the motions for the first two years, but by the third, the irreconcilable conflict of trying to please a mother who expected him to become a priest, and his very much not wanting to be a priest, only made him ill. He spent weeks in the infirmary before screwing up the courage to deliver the news to his parents: he was leaving seminary.
Dad finished high school at Central Catholic then enrolled at Belleville Junior College, still not sure what he wanted to do with his life. His dad was ready to continue grooming him for a career at the New York Central railroad but Bill had an itch to do more.
With the euphoria of winning World War II still hanging in the national air, and the regret of having just missed the opportunity to serve in the Good War still nagging him, the idea of a career in the military crossed his mind more than once. So one day he went to the Navy enlistment office.
The officer greeted him with a warm smile, congratulatory handshake and an offer of coffee. As the steaming cup passed between their hands, the officer noticed the ends of Bill’s fingers. The nails were chewed down to the quick.
“You can’t join the Navy with fingers like that,” the officer explained. “It’s a bad sign. I’m sorry, son.”
Dad was crestfallen, but only until realizing the easy way around this obstacle. He grew those nails back, trimmed and buffed them until his hands were as handsome as any movie star’s, and within a few short weeks was using them to sign his enlistment papers.
* * *
Dad spent four years lugging his accordion back and forth across the Pacific as a radar operator on the USS Eversole. His brother Bob enlisted as well. Bill liked the work but got lonely, and homesick, which he treated with daily letters home. Letters to his mom were comforting, but what he really wanted was a girlfriend.
On his first leave home, in the spring of 1949, he was determined to find a date for an Easter dance where George Stoltz and His Orchestra would perform at the American Legion Hall. He went to his brother Bob for advice.
“Bill I know the perfect girl,” offered Bob. “Lorraine Kalish. Works at Jimmy’s Malt Shop and she’s a real doll.” A few days later my dad was on State Street.
“Are you Lorraine Kalish?” he asked, seeing the girl wiping the windows outside Jimmy’s.
“Oh you’re Bob Durbin’s brother,” answered Lorraine, catching the sharp-dressed sailor off guard.
Lorraine accepted the invitation, enjoyed the dance, and accompanied Bill afterward to a road-house called the Chatterbox with a crowd of other couples. She didn’t enjoy that part of the evening as much, because she had never been around so many people drinking alcohol, which is not a surprise given her age.
Bob had failed to tell his brother Lorraine was only fifteen, so Bill Durbin put her out of mind. He would find some other girl just as nice. Or so he thought.