52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks. Week 9: Disaster

52 Ancestors in 52 weeks:  Week 9 Disaster

I am taking part in the 52 ancestors in 52 weeks challenge By Amy Crow Johnson. After a couple of weeks where I was unable to take part, I am jumping back in with this week’s topic, disaster. Many of my ancestors experienced disasters of varying degrees during their lifetimes.

I chose a small-scale disaster in the grand scheme of the world but one that had a profound effect on people near and dear to me. The death of my paternal grandfather. His name was Jay D. Fulkerson. I never met him. He died 3 years to the day before I was born.

Jay photo

Jay died of an accidental death at the age of 47. It was May 11, 1976. Jay was working his job operating a street sweeping machine for the city of Flint. He stopped to check to do a check of the machine and while trying to remove a jam the machine malfunctioned. The machine slammed shut on the neck and shoulders of my grandfather and killed him.

When he died, he left a wife, 3 sons aged 23, 21, 18, and a 9 year old daughter.

The life of Jay

Like so many kids born during the same time period, my grandfather didn’t have an easy early life. He was born 11 February 1929 just months before the stock market crash and start of the great depression. Even prior to the collapse of the economy he didn’t come from a privileged family. On his Father’s side, his dad was an orphan. Both of paternal grandparents died within 4 months of each other while his father was a teen. On his mother’s side, the level of dysfunction was high with his maternal grandparents divorced and the extended family at the center of a strange murder plot. It was into this world that Jay Dee Baker was born. The only child of Willie Baker and Lily Weatherspoon.

Life only got rockier for Jay from his rocky beginning. His father was a mean drunk. The marriage of his parents devolved. Lily and Jay left Willie and the next several years are a mystery. One sparse clue about his life during the time is this photo labeled Jay 1935. A few photos appear from during the time period with no date. The only clue to who the photo holds in several cases being my grandfather’s distinct ears.

Jay Fulkerson as child
Jay with unknown girls

In 1937 Lily shows back up in records. Using an alias, she married a second time. I am not sure the circumstances which led to my great grandmother meeting her second husband. He was a widower living in Flint, Michigan and several years her senior. They married in Indiana and built a life together in Flint. From that point on Jay seems to have a vastly improved lot in life. His stepfather was glad to take on the role of Father and the two were close. Eventually, Jay was adopted by his stepfather, Moman Fulkerson, and his surnamed was legally changed to Fulkerson.

Lily and Jay

From his humble beginnings, Jay seemed to have lucked out into a charmed life. He went onto graduate high school and meet and marry a local girl, my grandmother. Pictures of the two of them together show a couple very much in love.

At the time of his death Jay and Loree had been married for almost 27 years. The arrival of grandchildren was blessing the family with a new generation and Jay looks every bit the excited grandpa in photos. It was all cut short with the tragedy that struck that spring day in May 1976.

Jay and Loree

For the world it was just one small tragedy. A moment in the newspapers quickly forgotten as the world went on. For my family it was a disaster that it would never recover from. Perhaps it was something simmering under the surface bound to happen, or maybe it was just the stress of the events, but from that point on there would be fractures in my family that could never be repaired.

I grew up being very aware of the fact that my birth was a day of distinction in my family, and not just because it was my birthday. It was the day of my grandfather’s death. The day disaster struck.

I cannot recall my grandmother and great-grandmother ever being in the same place at the same time in my lifetime. They both lived until I was an adult. Holiday gatherings were spent not together in one place remembering times gone by but instead separated. It was as if in death the two women who were the most momentous in my grandfather’s life battled over his memory. They have both been gone for years and years now. The family they left behind is distant and frayed as the result of battles none of us even had a part in.

The death of my paternal grandfather was not a disaster on the global scale. It was just a small tragedy easily forgotten by most but for my family it proved to be a disaster.

When Disaster Strikes

Today I was dabbling around in records on yet another free genealogy research source  The Digital Public Library of America

One of the things I noticed about the records I was finding for the time and area I was searching was that many of the records had a note at the bottom indicating “the records survived the 1911 State Capitol fire.”

That sent me off to research the 1911 State Capitol fire in Missouri, which led me to, yet another free resource.  GenDisasters  is a free database of information that allows researchers to learn what events may have affected ancestor’s lives.

After a quick look at GenDisasters.com, I locate an article about a lightning strike in February 1911. Lightning struck the Capitol building in Jefferson City, Missouri about 8 pm on February 5, 1911 and a fiery inferno burned down the entire Capitol building including a great deal of the historical records held in the building.

My own ancestors passed through this region but briefly. They arrived around from Tennessee sometime during the 1880’s and most of my own line left the region for other areas by the 1930’s. Living in a distant part of the country local disasters such as this fire were not a part of my general knowledge. I have to concede that it is possible that some of the records I need and cannot find may have burned in that fire and consider that in my research going forward.