One Hundred and thirty four years ago two 14 or 15 year old girls got on a ship in Ireland and sailed to America. They found their way to Racine, Wisconsin where they may, or may not have, had relatives waiting for their arrival. They were brave souls.
At the time of the girls immigration, Racine was well on its way to becoming a thriving urban center. With the number of industries in place and more to come, there was most likely a good job market for residents and immigrants alike.
One of the two girls was my great Grandmother Duffy. She was born in County Mayo, Ireland to the Costello family in 1870. She and her friend came to Racine in 1887 and got jobs working on a farm outside of Racine. The story goes that the job was less than desirable so my great grandmother left and found a job at a hotel, most likely as a chamber maid.
Five years later she married a man named Thomas Devine. In 1901 Thomas died leaving Catherine with their 3 children to take care of on her own. It is no surprise then that she married swiftly again in 1902 to my great grandfather Martin Duffy. They subsequently had 5 children, one of them was my grandmother. Recently I found a Racine 1908 business directory that lists a Catherine Duffy as a grocer. I deduced that the business possibly belonged to her and Thomas and after he died she kept the running of the store even after she married Martin. All of this took place within a few city blocks.
I found several other business listings for relatives of Catherines, all were saloons. With this in mind, I can’t help but think that my Irish family was a good help in making the St. Patricks day celebration what it is today.
When I was younger, we had a tradition of gathering for St. Patricks day with the family. We ate the usual fair of Corn beef and cabbage with potatoes and carrots boiled in the juices. It was always tender and delicious.
That tradition followed me to some of the restaurants I worked in and it felt as though I was helping to pass on some Irish family goodness, plus or minus the beer and whisky.
But the last few years we have neglected our heritage. There were many reasons, all valid. Last year my parents were away and it was the beginning of the pandemic. This year, we are on the verge of the return to family gatherings. We cannot yet have our Corn Beef dinner together, but we can plan one to make up for the loss.
During the research I did for this post, I discovered a lot of coincidences with the path of my historical family and my own. The meaning of the name Racine, from the French word for Root, is not lost on me.
For 3 years I lived on the same block as the location of a saloon owned by Anthony Duffy in 1908. This was only a few blocks from where my great grandmother lived all of her adult life and where my grandmother was born. For a short time I lived in a house a block from where my mother was born and where her family lived until she was three.
I moved into my new house a year ago last month. I learned that my mother had an aunt and uncle who lived in the same town and I can imagine my mother and her sisters running around on the same sidewalks where I’ve walked much this past year.
During one of my biking explorations around the area I found an interesting place called Botting Road. I was fascinated by the land because it was once thriving farm land, now bought out by our power company, the houses demolished, and much of the land is now being recovered by nature. But you can still see where each lost farm was located. In the family history that one of my aunts wrote, I discovered an uncle of my mothers on the Duffy side who married one of the Botting girls. I could only wonder if there was a connection between the Botting family and my great grandmothers first career in America.
In this year, we are being given a new adventure. I akin the gift of a vaccine to the same feeling I had when I got my drivers license. The overwhelming sense of freedom and possibility may over load my senses at first, but I will settle in well. The research for this post has given me a new found interest in the history of those who paved the way for us, the current residents of this planet.
All coincidences aside, I found so much of the city of Racine that I never noticed in the years visiting my grandparents, let alone as an adult living in the city! I have a new found respect for those who built the city of Racine. Its rich history is found in the many immigrants and their families who carved out a future for their children and their children’s children. Yes, there are bad sides to the city and it’s history, but I tried to look in the crevices that hold the remnants of lives past to see the fascinating parts.
The city of Racine, like all great cities, is a sum of its parts. There is progress and in between there remains so much, so many buildings and neighborhoods that still delight the mind of a historian.
Happy St. Patricks Day!