Stuff I Learned Lately and How I Learned It

Woodrow Wilson's Princeton Home

Woodrow Wilson’s house in Princeton cost about $35,000 to build and is now—rough-guessing here—worth about 100 times that — I learned this at a library benefit dinner at the actual house, featuring a talk by U-Mich professor Patricia O’Toole, who has a new Wilson biography: The Moralist. (Wilson promoted  the neo-Tudor architectural style, and you see it all over town)

Just because an online course is about a subject I’m deeply interested in doesn’t mean the course itself will be interesting — learned during sessions 1 & 2 of a 3-part online course about genetics in genealogy

How to tell llamas and alpacas apart – at Jersey Shore Alpacas (e.g., llamas are bigger and have perkier ears)

There was a founding father before the Founding Fathers and, though the British called him “the greatest incendiary in all America,” he’s practically forgotten – a lecture at the fantastic David Library of the American Revolution by Christian di Spigna, author of Founding Martyr: The Life and Death of Dr.Joseph Warren

Not all NYC crime writers sport sleeve tattoos – disabused of this impression at the December Noir at the Bar readathon

It took about 1300 years for medical science to reacquire the knowledge lost when the Alexandria library complex was destroyed – adult ed course on Egypt

Ron Chernow (and thus the musical Hamilton) probably got a couple of the more risqué situations in his book wrong – also at the David Library, in a talk by Tilar Mazzeo, author of the new book, Eliza Hamilton

 I may be exhibiting early manifestations of that old person’s “no filter” problem – you don’t want to know

The black stockings and tights I’ve been wearing since Thanksgiving are navy – daylight.

The Rouge Shadow

I see my grandfather in the background in Diego Rivera’s North Wall mural at the Detroit Institute of Art, (here’s a link; these famous works aren’t free for reproduction), dwarfed by the scale of the machinery and the enterprise around him. For decades, he worked at the legendary Ford Rouge plant, where Great Lakes freighters brought sand (for glassmaking), iron ore, and coal to the mile-long factory, and, every 49 seconds, out rolled an automobile.

Ford Rouge plant, Dearborn

Ford Rouge plant, Dearborn, Michigan (photo: wikimedia)

Today, a tour of an auto plant suggests a relatively clean job. Robots do the heavy lifting, with just-in-time sourcing of parts. In the 1920s to 1940s, when my grandfather worked there, the Rouge was the country’s only auto factory with its own steel mill, and clouds of sulphurous smoke and grit filled the air. It had a tire-making plant, a glass furnace, plants for making transmissions and radiators, its own railroad, and even a paper mill. As I understand it, one of my uncles was in charge of keeping the steel mill’s fires stoked, which explains why he always had to work Christmas Day.

My grandfather was born in 1888, and I could not find his immigration record until I realized the Hungarian spelling of Frank is Ferencz. Even then I had to search using all the spellings of the family’s last name my various uncles used: Hadde, Hedge, Hegyi, and Heddi. By the process of elimination, my best candidate is Ferencz Hegyi, who immigrated from Fiatfalva, Transylvania, Hungary, in 1906 and arriving at Ellis Island aboard the S.S. Kaiser Wilhelm II. (Alfred Stieglitz’s photo “The Steerage,”—called “one of the greatest photographs of all time,” was taken aboard that ship.)

(2017 research unearthed my grandfather’s naturalization papers, which reveal a quite different story. It was hard for me to give up this Transylvania connection!)

Coming to Amerika

In a historical irony, both of my paternal grandparents listed their country of origin as Hungary when they immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s and continued to do so in census records up through 1940, yet both their towns of origin were lost to Hungary after World War I. The treaty of Trianon punished Hungary for siding with Germany in that war, and gave vast areas of its territory (see map) to surrounding countries. Hungary once comprised all the pink areas, but today is just the red-outlined middle portion of the map that includes Budapest.

Dissolution of Austria-Hungary

Dissolution of Austria-Hungary (source:

The town I believe with some confidence was the original home of my grandmother—Maria Krausz—is now part of Slovakia. What on the map is labeled “Czechoslovakia” was split in 1993 into the prosperous Czech Republic and the proud but impecunious Slovakia (on the map, the pink part of “Czechoslovakia”). Similarly, the small town in Transylvania that I believe my grandfather—Ferencz Hegyi—emigrated from is now part of Romania. This remarkable territorial loss helps explain the running street battles between the Hungarian and Romanian boys in the Dearborn, Michigan, immigrant neighborhood where my father and his brothers and sisters grew up in the 1920s.

The history of middle Europe is long and complex and generally unknown to Americans, unless they’ve made a special study of it. I learned a tiny portion when we took our 2013 Danube cruise from Budapest to Bucharest, as I did some pre-cruise reading. I hadn’t known, remembered, or thought about the many years in which that part of the world was under Ottoman rule. Centuries before that, the Roman empire had a significant presence there (some remnants of which are still visible). That influence explains why the Romanian language is more similar to Italian than to the Slavic languages (at least in appearance; the pronunciation is different), and the fact that the Hungarian Parliament conducted its business in Latin until the mid-1800s, so I was told.

One tantalizing possibility is that the Mongolian hordes that repeatedly crossed middle Europe from the East, doing what invading hordes do—raping and pillaging—left a legacy for my family, too. Estimates are that one in every 200 males on earth is related to Genghis Khan. In part that’s because Khan’s forces killed off most of the men where they rampaged, which meant his own genetic heritage had less competition from the existing population. Khan, his son, and his grandsons had dozens of legitimate—and who knows how many illegitimate—sons who spread his genetic code far and wide.

In 1241, Mongol forces conquered medieval Hungary at the Battle of Mohi. An idea regarding how this distant episode might relate to our family—if it does—was unexpectedly sparked by an experience I had in the dentist’s chair. The endodontist required a large number of visits to finish my root canal (don’t ask), and finally said, “No wonder it’s taking so long! You have an extra root on this tooth. I hardly ever see that, except among my Chinese patients.” Thanks, Great Khan.

Gizella, Queen of Hungary

(photo: author)

History also explains the tantalizing bit of information from aunts Gizella and Clara that their mother was actually German, which was always a little confusing. It turns out that the immigration of German-speaking peoples into Hungary was widespread and began in approximately 1000, when German knights came into the country in the company of Giselle of Bavaria (Gizella in Hungarian), the German-born Queen of Hungary’s first king, Stephen I. (Boldog Gizella, in the stained glass panel means “Blessed Giselle”). Hungary by the 1800s had numerous German settlements, which is how Maria could be both Hungarian and German.

According to the manifest of the ship Amerika, which by a process of elimination I believe included my grandmother among its passengers, Maria traveled to the United States from Dobšiná (German: Dobschau) Hungary (photo below). Dobšiná is located in the Carpathian Mountains, “to the south of the beautiful Stratená valley,” near the Hnilec (Slana) River, and enclosed on all sides by mountains.The historic postcard below is of a hotel built near the town’s famous Ice Cave.

In the town’s heyday, local tilt hammers produced high-quality steel, and so it was no accident that during the anti-Habsburg uprisings of the 18th century, it was Dobšiná that supplied swords, cannonballs, and rifle barrels to the rebel armies of Ferenc Rákóczi II. When peace was established between the Habsburgs and the rebels, army workshops in the town had to be torn down. With the lengthy history of steel-making in her home town, Mary’s ultimate residence in the shadow of the Ford Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan, and the patina of fine steel grit on every surface must have felt very familiar.

Dobsina Slovakia Ice Cave hotel


Loose Ends and Dead Ends

Last spring my cousins Jola and Calva emailed pictures of their pilgrimage to the Edwards family plot at Osage Cemetery, Coryell County, Texas. The Edwardses are my mother’s father’s family, and as a child visiting my grandparents in Lubbock, I felt lost in a forest of legs. Tall men, my many uncles and great-uncles were made taller by their sweat-stained Stetsons.

Seeing the cemetery pictures, I started thinking about these men and their wives, where they came from, and what their lives were like. All much too late to ask my mother, who would eagerly have recounted stories about her family and her own childhood, riding a horse to school and helping as all kids did then to farm the flat, uncongenial land.

In August Jola and I picked up the thread, visiting Wilson County, Tennessee, just east of Nashville, where we knew our great-grandfather had lived before resettling in Central Texas in the late 1860s. Central Tennessee was devastated by the Civil War, and thousands of families picked up and moved, leaving little more than “GTT” painted on their front doors—Gone To Texas. For me to write up our findings and follow the few new leads we uncovered would take a week or two, I thought. The task has consumed me all fall. And I still have a bulging e-file named “loose ends and dead ends.”

One of my first challenges was to disentangle our family from much spurious genealogical information about the “Edwards family fortune.” In the 1700’s, the legend goes, a Welsh sea captain named Robert Edwards leased 77 acres of land in New York to a church, which was to return it to his heirs after 99 years. By the time the lease expired in 1877, much about New York had changed. The church was Trinity Church in lower Manhattan and the acreage included Wall Street and (now) World Trade. A multi-billion dollar trust fund is supposedly attached to the property, with the convincing detail that it is housed in the Chase Manhattan Bank. Periodic efforts to claim this land—the most recent only a dozen years ago—have accomplished little more than bilk money from gullible Edwards family members. The claim has been unsuccessfully brought before the courts numerous times and the families’ documentary “evidence” shown to be forgeries. Yet, misinformation persists, along with fake family trees connecting this or that Edwards branch to the Robert Edwards.

A few years ago, I met a doctor whose last name was Edwards at a social function, and I mentioned my mother was an Edwards. He immediately said, “I’m not one of the rich ones!”  And, if my researchers are correct, we aren’t either.