Life in Songs: Long Line of Losers (Part 1)

Long line of losers is a song written by Kevin Fower and Kim Trimble. It was recorded by Montgomery Gentre in 2009 and peaked at number 23 on the country music charts. I fell in love with this song the first time I heard it on the radio.There was an instant relationship. The details were different, but the overall story was my story.

I come from a long line of losers
Half outlaws; half boosers
I was born with a shot glass in my hand

I little hippy, a little red neck
I’m always a suspect
My bloodline made me who I am

 It’s that last line of the chorus that seems to be the point of the song for me: “My bloodline made me who I am.” Since “losers” is a derogatory term, I need to begin by pointing out that I am not meaning it in a disrespectful way. My family history is a history of struggles. We haven’t had the greatest luck, nor have we made the wisest decisions. For the most part, we are common people who have struggled financially, psychologically, intellectually,  and quite often morally.

Even though my parents are very different from each other and so are their families, both sides have shared in the hardships.  Some, especially on my mothers side, have managed to live more respectably  with higher paying jobs, better education and fewer legal or social problems.  But for most there is a constant struggle to get ahead while facing major setbacks that seem to wipe us out.

I don’t think my family is all that different from others, but I thought I would share some of my stories. I will begin with my great grandparents generation in this post. Part Two will be my grandparents, and part three will be my parents. This of course will not be a detailed account, but I do hope to refer to what has been some lasting impressions on the family.

Great Grandparents

I don’t think anybody in my family line can claim to be privileged. Some were dirt floor poor, while others owned some land and did pretty well.

My Father’s Paternal Side: Orrin J. Sayers & Frances Ellen Saxton

The Sayers family moved from England before the Civil war. For the most part they seddled in Nothern Ohio where most of the family still resides.The people that came over from England seem to be fairly well off. They owned small farms, but also made money by other means. Orrin was born on a very cold day (Jan. 31st). Jenny, his mother, died giving birth to him. His father kept a journal, but didn’t record any personal thoughts. He just mentions that the ground was so cold and hard that it was quite a while before arrangements could be made for a burrial. Orrin’s father moved houses for a living in addition to farming. Orrin was a machinist as a young man, and he eventually was trained as a dentist. He insisted upon being called Doc by everyone, including family.

I don’t know much about Orrin’s first wife, Frances, but they had three children together: Orrin, Robert (My grandfather), and Jean. The family enjoyed a respectable standard of living. Doc was a great dentist and was even working on having some inventions. Their oldest boy, Orrin, became one of the best football players in the state. But one event brought about the family’s downfall.

While my grandfather, Robert, was a young teenager, he was driving the family car during the winter. He was too young to be driving legally and he had an accident which killed one girl and severely injured another. The family became a spectacle in the local newspapers. It’s hard to know the details with any credibility, but the after effects on the family from this one event continue to this day. The children grew up with little parental structure, Robert was sent off to special school at the courts request. Orrin and Frances would soon divorce. I don’t think she ever recovered from the guilt and shame brought about by the accident.  Francis died in 1937 without so much as a grave marker to mark her burial spot.

Doc would serve as a dentist for many years and he had all sorts of wealthy friends, but he managed to die with very little to pass on and nobody is sure why. Doc married several times (I believe 5 times). There are all sorts of rumors about sexual lawsuits, but I could find no verification.  What I do know is Doc died broke, my grandfather would never speak of the accident, and his descendants would struggle for years to come without much to show for it.

My Father’s Maternal Side: Walter Hayward Barwick & Florence Clay King

Both of my grandmothers were orphaned as children. My grandmother on my father’s side was  born in Kentucky to Walter and Florence. I really don’t know that much about them, but I know they were very poor. Walter worked as a coal miner and also did some preaching from time to time. I know they had at least 3 children together: Eva, Omar, and  Millie Lou (my grandmother). The Barwick family line goes all the way back to earliest days in this country. John Barwick came to America in 1664, most likely as an indentured servant. Some lived well, but Walter was a laborer. Walter’s wife was Florence and about the only thing I know about her was that she was half Cherokee Indian.

The two married in 1918 and started having children. Eva in 1919, Omar in 1921, and my grandmother in 1923. Walter was murdered around 1927. According to strories handed down by various members of the family, Walter cheated  with another man’s wife. The woman’s husband was a fellow coal miner and I am really not sure what happened but I believe he was thrown under one of the coal mining carts and died. I think Florence tried to hold onto the children for as long as she could, but there was some sort of house fire and the authorities took the children. My grandmother was adopted by the Taggarts (Wallace & Elizabeth) officially on May 28, 1932, and grew up in northern Ohio which is where she met my grandfather probably in school. My grandmother did stay in touch with her biological family though. Omar and Eva both died in 1999 which was before I started researching the family line.

My Mother’s Paternal Side: Walter Foster and Lorenza Tarr

I believe the Foster family came to Iowa from Ohio when Iowa was still largely frontier land. Walter was born in St. Charles, IA. The family owned land in Madison County which is where John Wayne grew up. Walter was a teacher in a little one room school house as a young man. His wife Lorenza lived up by Ames, IA. Lorenza’s grandfather, Hamilton Jefferson Tarr,  fought and died in the Civil war. He was killed towards the end of the war in Georgia at a placed called Allatoona Pass. The battlefield is under a lake now days. This battle took place just after Atlanta fell. He was a private and died when he was 41. I am not sure how Walter and Lorenza met, but they married in Luther, IA in 1899, and started their family in that area just north of Des Moines. The family moved to Rock Island, IL before my grandfather, Paul, was born in 1915. There were at least 6 children: Margaret, Florence, Pauline, Paul (my grandfather), Walter (adopted), and Jack (who died in the flu epidemic in 1918).

They were a fairly typical family with a respectable family and home life. They weren’t wealthy, but they were not poor either. There was work to be found in Rock Island which was growing well at the time. I believe Walter found work at the arsenal which provided a decent living for his family. Walter would eventually start a business with my grandfather, Paul, building things out of iron. The business started after the war and eventually moved to a place on 25th Avenue and it would last until the late 1980’s.

I believe the family enjoyed a pretty decent status, so when Paul met Charlotte, my grandmother,  she wasn’t very well accepted especially by Lerenza who had a reputation for being rude to her. I believe the thought was that Paul wasn’t marrying up to his potential. However, it was largely Charlotte who took care of Lorenza during the later stage of her life. Perhaps that is when she realized Charlotte wasn’t so bad after all.

My Mother’s Paternal Side: Joseph Meissent and Mary Marchetti. 

I don’t think anybody in the family had rougher lives than Joseph and Mary. They migrated to the United States in the early 1900’s. Several people in the family came to the United States around the same time because there was a depression in Italy, and there was work available in the coal mines. Coal mines were offering passage to the U.S. along with job in order to get cheap labor. For those who were starving, I’m sure it offered hope for survival. However, coal mining jobs at that time were not much better than slavery. The work was hard, long, and very dangerous. They first migrated to Thomas, WV. I’m not sure when Joseph and Mary got married, but I believe it was in West Virginia.

The marriage I believe was a family scandal because Joseph was Mary’s uncle although they were close in age. They had their first child, Joseph, in West Virginia in 1907, and moved to norther Illinois sometime after that. Coal mining was big in Illinois with several mines offering better conditions then those in West Virginia which were deplorable.

Life only got harder in Illinois. The family moved to Cherry, IL at some point. The mining disaster in Cherry, IL is one of the worst and most famous in history. A couple hundred people died during the disaster which took place in the winter of 1909. It was national news. Some were trapped in the mine for several days before being rescued. The mine was closed for a while, but then reopened.

I do not know if Joseph was working in Cherry at the time of the disaster, but I believe he was. I do know that their child Anna was born  Dec. 21, 1909 only weeks after the disaster (Nov. 13, 1909), and she was born in that area. I also know that Joseph worked for that mine later. I just don’t know when he started there. I am practically certain that he was there at the time of the disaster. Things were hard enough just working as a coal miner during a hard time in history, but things would only get much worse for the couple until the day they died. Tragedy after tragedy hit this family with unrelenting devistation. I will just hit the highlights in this post. Hopefully some day I will go into greater detail.

  • After Anna, their second child, was born the couple had another child which died infancy. All I know about her was that her name was Lucy and she was born after Anna.
  • In January of 1915, Joseph and Mary were living in Cherry, IL when a fued broke out with a neighbor over the water pump that they had to share. The handle on the pump broke making it impossible to pump water. Neither family had the money to spare to buy the handle. Perhaps they could have shared the cost, but instead it became a fight with devastating results. It sounds like a story worthy of the Jerry Springer show. Joseph bought the handle, but he didn’t want the nieghbor using it. So the nieghbor took the pin from the pump so that Joseph couldn’t use it either. After this both families put up fences largely to prevent the other one from using the well. Eventually the tension climaxed with a big fight in the snow. The actual fight began between the two woman. I guess Mary was on the losing end and she called for Joseph. When Joseph showed up, the other woman called for her husband, and all were fighting in the yard. There was a visitor at the neighbor’s house, and he joined the fight largely to break it up. Somehow Mary got loose and headed in the house and got a gun. She was just trying to stop the fight, but Mary ended up shooting the neighbor’s friend by accident. He died the next day and Mary was arrested for murder. Mary could hardly speak English at the time. She had young children to care for and a husband hardly making enough money to survive. I cannot even imaging the grief they were going through, but there was more to come.
  • Even the judge who sentenced Mary to prison felt sorry for her, but he didn’t have much of a choice. She was given a life sentence, but there was a possibility of parole after a year since there were young children and Mary was hardly a hardened criminal. Mary was released after serving a year at the only women’s prison in the state located in Joliet, IL. But their troubles were not over. Not long after Mary was released from prison, Joseph, their oldest child was coming home from school and decided to go swimming in a pond by the coal mine. He was with several of the other children but Joseph somehow got stuck in the mud and began to sink. He cried out for help before going under. The mine was changing shifts so there were adults heading home and his father just happened to be heading home at that time. When his father heard the commotion he ran and jumped in the pond to rescue the downing boy without realizing the drowning child was in own son. It wasn’t until he had pulled to dead body to the shore that Joseph took the time to look at the child in his arms. It was their first born child and it was too late to save him. Again, I can’t imagine the grief. Joseph was buried in the cemetery in Cherry. I have been to the cemetery, but I don’t think the family could afford a grave marker.
  • Sometime later the family moved to Spring Valley, IL not far from Cherry. The coal mine in Cherry eventually shut down while the mines in Spring Valley continued to go strong. Sometime after the move, Joseph received word that his brother who lived some place in Iowa committed suicide. Joseph was listed as the next of kin, and if I am understanding the paperwork correctly, Joseph got stuck with his brother’s debt. Coming from a Catholic background, suicide was considered the ultimate tragedy. Joseph must have been devastated.
  • It was sometime after this, that Joseph would attempt suicide himself. I can’t imagine how this is possible, but according to the newspaper Joseph shot himself in the mouth and somehow managed to survive. However, Joseph was permanently damaged from the incident. His tongue became attached to the roof of his mouth and left him in a pitiful condition. Joseph would survive on a liquid diet from that point on.
  • In the midst of such hard times I can’t imagine a couple having any romantic intentions, but Mary  managed to conceive a child at some point. It was 1918 and WWI was in full swing. A devastating flu epidemic broke out in our country that killed a lot of people. Spring Valley was hit hard. Schools and churches became hospitals and every day the newspaper reported the fatalities. Mary was far along in her pregnancy at the height of the epidemic. Mary gave birth to a baby girl on October 4, 1918. The child was named Mary Teressa (my grandmother). Mary, the mother, strove to hang on, but the flue was too much in her delicate condition. My great grandmother died 10 days after giving birth. Joseph managed to get their only remaining child, Anna, to the hospital before he passed away himself on October 16th.

Joseph and Mary would basically fade from existence until I managed to learn about them by researching my family line with the libraries in the area. During my research, I came into contact with the Marchetti family, who helped me a great deal in my research, but nobody knew the struggles Mary and Joseph faced. My grandmother was an adult before she would meet her sister, Anna, and come into contact with her biological family. I don’t think my grandmother ever really knew much at all about her parents. Not even other relatives knew their story. My grandmother’s name was changed to Charlotte Miner by those who adopted her. She died June 21, 1995. I did my grandmother’s funeral. But I would not find out about her biological family for a number of years.

I’ve been to the cemetery where Mary and Joseph are buried. I could locate their section, but there is no stone to mark or remember my great grandparents. Had it not been for the libraries and old newspapers their story would never be known or told. It’s a story that haunts me like no other.

Life is full of devistating events. It’s not like a Hallmark movie where everything works out in the end. It’s tough. But sometimes in the midst of impossible darkness and inconceivable destruction comes a seed that somehow manages to flourish.  That seed was my grandmother. The story continues.

If you enjoy what I write please share, follow, like, and comment. Join me for the rest of the story.

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About Ken Sayers

I'm currently employed by a children's home where my wife and I care for a cottage of girls who have been displaced from their families. I'm a middle age man with two grown children of my own and one grandchild. I have worked as a United States Marine, a youth minister, a preacher, a childcare worker, and a truck driver. My hobbies include photography, horses, playing guitar, writing, and fitness.
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