Labor Day: Celebrating the Labors of Our Ancestors

First Labor Day Parade in the US, 5 Sep 1882 in New York City. Via Wikimedia.
First Labor Day Parade in the US, 5 Sep 1882 in New York City. Via Wikimedia. (Click to enlarge.)


Labor Day officially became a federal holiday in the United States in 1894. “The Gilded Age” included the rise of big business, like the railroads and oil companies, but laborers fought- sometimes literally- for their rights in the workplace. Grover Cleveland signed the law to honor the work and contributions, both economic and for society, of the American laborer. Celebrated on the first Monday in September, ironically the holiday was a concession to appease the American worker after the government tried to break up a railroad strike but failed.

The Labor Day weekend is a good time to think about our ancestors and the work they did to help move our country and their own family forward.

Jefferson Springsteen was a mail carrier through the wilds of early Indiana, traveling for miles on horseback through spring freshets (full or flooding streams from snow melt), forest, and Indian villages. Samuel T. Beerbower, who would be a some-number-great uncle depending on your generation, was the Postmaster in Marion, Ohio, for many years. “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

Edward B. Payne, circa 1874. Image courtesy of Second Congregational Church, Wakeman, Ohio.
Edward B. Payne, Pastor, circa 1874. Image courtesy of Second Congregational Church, Wakeman, Ohio.

Bad weather, gloom of night, ocean crossings in the mid 1800s, and the threat of disease or injury did not stay our minister, deacon, and missionary ancestors from their appointed rounds either- especially since the felt they were appointed by a higher power. We have quite a number of very spiritual men in the family. Henry Horn became a Methodist circuit rider after coming to America as a Hessian soldier, being captured by George Washington’s troops in Trenton, NJ, then taking an Oath of Allegiance to the United States, and serving in the Revolutionary Army. The family migrated from Virginia to the wilds of western Pennsylvania sometime between 1782 and 1786. A story is told of how he was riding home from a church meeting in the snow. The drifts piled up to the body of the horse, and they could barely proceed on, but Henry did, and was able to preach another day. He founded a church Pleasantville, Bedford Co., Pennsylvania that still stands, and has a congregation, even today. Edward B. Payne and his father, Joseph H. Payne, Kingsley A. Burnell and his brother Thomas Scott Burnell were all ministers, some with formal schooling, some without. Edward B. Payne gave up a lucrative pastorate because he thought the church members were wealthy and educated enough that they did not need him. He moved to a poor church in an industrial town, where he was needed much more, however, he may have acquired his tuberculosis there. He also risked his life, and that of his family, by sheltering a woman from the domestic violence of her husband, and he testified on her behalf.

Abraham Green was one of the best tailors in St. Louis, Missouri in the early 1900s, and many in the Broida family, such as John Broida and his son Phillip Broida, plus Phillip’s daughter Gertrude Broida Cooper, worked in the fine clothing industry.

Edgar Springsteen worked for the railroad, and was often gone from the family. Eleazer John “E.J.” Beerbower worked for the railroads making upholstered cars- he had been a buggy finisher previously, both highly skilled jobs.

Sheet music cover for "Bless Your Ever Loving Little Heart," from "The Slim Princess."
Sheet music cover for “Bless Your Ever Loving Little Heart,” from “The Slim Princess.” (Click to enlarge.)

The theater called a number of our collateral kin (not direct lines, but siblings to one of our ancestors): Max Broida was in vaudeville, and known in films as “Buster Brodie.” Elsie Janis, born Elsie Beerbower, was a comedienne, singer, child star in vaudeville, “Sweetheart of the A.E.F” as she entertained the troops overseas in World War I, and then she went on to write for films. Max Broida also did a stint in the circus, as did Jefferson Springsteen, who ran away from home as “a very small boy” to join the circus (per his obituary).

Collateral Lee family from Irthlingborough, England, included shoemakers, as that was the specialty of the town. They brought those skills to Illinois, and some of those tools have been handed down in the family- strange, unknown tools in an inherited tool chest turned out to be over 100 years old!

Will McMurray and his wife Lynette Payne McMurray owned a grocery store in Newton, Iowa. Ella V. Daniels Roberts sold eggs from her chickens, the butter she made from the cows she milked, and her delicious pies at the McMurray store. Franz Xavier Helbling and some of his brothers and sons were butchers in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, and had their own stores.

Some of our ancestors kept hotels or taverns. Joseph Parsons (a Burnell ancestor) was issued a license to operate an ‘ordinary’ or “house of entertainment” in 1661 in Massachusetts, and Samuel Lenton Lee was listed as “Keeps hotel” and later as a saloon keeper in US Federal censuses. Jefferson Springsteen had a restaurant at the famous Fulton Market in Brooklyn, NY in the late 1840s.

From left: Edgar B. Helbling, (Anna) "May" Helbling, Vi Helbling, and Gerard William Helbling, on Flag Day 1914.
From left: Edgar B. Helbling, (Anna) “May” Helbling, Vi Helbling, and Gerard William Helbling, on Flag Day 1914. Note ‘Undertaker’ sign- yes, it was all done in his home. (Click to enlarge.)

Many of our family had multiple jobs. William Gerard Helbling (AKA Gerard William Helbling or “G.W.”) listed himself as working for a theater company, was an artist, then an undertaker, and finally a sign painter. George H. Alexander was artistic as well- he created paintings but also worked as a lighting designer to pay the bills.

Sometimes health problems forced a job change. Edward B. Payne was a Union soldier, librarian, and then a pastor until he was about 44 when his respiratory problems from tuberculosis forced him to resign the pulpit. For the rest of his life he did a little preaching, lecturing, and writing. He also became an editor for a number of publications including, “The Overland Monthly,” where he handed money over from his own pocket (per family story) to pay the young writer Jack London for his first published story. Edward B. Payne even founded a Utopian colony called Altruria in California! He and his second wife, Ninetta Wiley Eames Payne, later owned and conducted adult ‘summer camps’ that were intellectual as well as healthy physically while camping in the wild and wonderful northern California outdoors.

Other times, health problems- those of other people- are what gave our ancestors jobs:  Edward A. McMurray and his brother Herbert C. McMurray were both physicians, as was John H. O’Brien (a Helbling ancestor), who graduated from medical school in Dublin, Ireland, and came to America in 1832. He settled in western Pennsylvania, still wild and in the midst of a cholera epidemic that was also sweeping the nation; he had his work cut out for him. (It appears he did not get the same respect as other doctors because he was Irish, and this was pre-potato famine.) Lloyd Eugene “Gene” Lee and his father Samuel J. Lee owned a drugstore in St. Louis, as did Gene’s brother-in-law, Claude Aiken. Edith Roberts McMurray Luck worked as a nurse since she received a degree in biology in 1923.

We have had many soldiers who have helped protect our freedom, and we will honor some of those persons on Veterans Day.

We cannot forget the farmers, but they are too numerous to name them all! Even an urban family often had a large garden to supplement purchased groceries, but those who farmed on a larger scale included George Anthony Roberts, Robert Woodson Daniel, David Huston Hemphill, Amos Thomas, etc., etc. We even have a pecan farmer in the Lee family- William Hanford Aiken, in Waltham County, Mississippi, in the 1930s-40s.

Lynette Payne, December 1909, wearing a purple and lavender silk dress.
Lynette Payne, December 1909, wearing a purple and lavender silk dress. (Click to enlarge.)

We must also, “Remember the ladies” as Abigail Adams entreated her husband John Adams as he helped form our new nation. He/they did not, so 51% of the population-women- were not considered citizens except through their fathers or husbands. Many of these women, such as Lynette Payne McMurray, labored to get women the right to vote, equal pay, etc. (Lynette ‘walked the talk’ too- she was the first woman to ride a bicycle in Newton, Iowa! Not so easy when one thinks about the clothing involved.) Some men, like her father, Edward B. Payne, put their energy into the women’s suffrage movement as well. Many of our ancestors worked for the abolition movement too, including the Payne and Burnell families.

A woman worked beside her husband in many families, although she would get little credit for it. Who cooked the meals and cleaned the rooms for the Lee and Parsons innkeepers? Likely their wives, who also had to keep their own home clean, laundry washed, manage a garden and often livestock- many families kept chickens even if they didn’t have a farm. They raised and educated their many children too, sometimes 13 or more. Oh yes, let’s not forget that women truly ‘labored’ to bring all those children into the world that they had made from scratch. (Building a human from just two cells makes building a barn seem somewhat less impressive, doesn’t it?) Some of them even died from that labor.

June 1942- Claude Frank Aiken and his wife Mildred Paul in their drugstore.
June 1942- Claude Frank Aiken and his wife Mildred Paul Aiken in their drugstore in St. Louis, Missouri.

Working alongside one’s husband could be frightening due to the dangers of the job. A noise in the Aiken family drugstore in St. Louis, Missouri in 1936 awoke Claude and Mildred Aiken since they lived in the back of the store. Claude look a gun and went into the store while Mildred called the police. Claude fired the gun high to frighten the intruder- Mildred must have been very scared if she was in the back, wondering who had fired the shot and if her husband was still alive. Thankfully he was, and the police were able to arrest the thief, who wanted to steal money to pay a lawyer to defend him in his three previous arrests for armed burglary and assault.


We applaud all of our ancestors who worked hard to support their family. Their work helped to make the US the largest economic power in the world, and a place immigrants would come to achieve their ‘American dream.’ We hope our generation, and the next, can labor to keep our country prosperous and strong.


Notes, Sources, and References: 

  1. There are too many folks listed here to add references, but using the search box on the blog page can get you to any of the stories that have been posted about many of these persons. Of course, there is always more to come, so stay tuned!


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Tombstone Tuesday- Dr. John H. O’Brien

John H. O'Brien- Headstone. (Used with permission of photographer.)
John H. O’Brien- Headstone. (Used with permission of photographer.)

My mother always thought that her family were most probably just poor Irish or German immigrants, with little education and only blue collar jobs. Little education did not mean little intellect, however- as an example, her father was brilliant and read everything. With the publication of the 1940 census last year I was surprised to learn that her father had only completed 8th grade, and her mother completed 2 years of high school. Education was very valued within the family, and that has been passed on through subsequent generations.

I wish my mother had been able to know about her family- by the time I found the early information on the family, it was too late. She would have been very happy to know about Dr. John H. O’Brien, who was the maternal grandfather of G. W. Helbling.

John H. O’Brien was born in June, 1808 in Carrick on Suir, Ireland. His parent’s names are as yet unknown- there are a lot of John O’Brien’s in Ireland!

Dr. John H. O'Brien- headstone detail
Dr. John H. O’Brien- headstone detail

John O’Brien graduated from the University of Dublin with a medical degree sometime before 21 Jun 1831 when he immigrated to the United States. Western Pennsylvania was in the midst of a cholera outbreak around that time, so his medical skills were put to good use right away. The inscription on the monument is appropriate for his calling, and states:

Blessed is he that understandeth concerning

the needy and the poor, the Lord will deliver

him in the evil day. -XL Psalm 

Dr. John H. O’Brien married Jane Neel who descended from early pioneers, and they lived in Allegheny Co., Pennsylvania, in various places such as Baldwin, Scott, and Pittsburgh. It has not been as easy to find information about John’s life and career as with other doctors- possibly because he was Irish, and they were looked down upon? Or because he initially practiced out on the frontier of Western Pennsylvania?

O'Brien Headstone- Anna Bell O'Brien and Eleanor O'Brien detail. Possibly daughters of John O'Brien and Jane Neel?
O’Brien Headstone- Anna Bell O’Brien and Eleanor O’Brien detail.

John and Jane had at least 10 children, and possibly two more who are listed on the O’Brien monument in Saint Mary Catholic Cemetery, Lawrenceville, Allegheny Co., PA, Section H.

Nothing is known about Jane Neel O’Brien’s death as yet, and she does not appear to be buried in the same cemetery, at least, not with this same name. She did survive him, and one researcher states she died 06 Dec 1895. More to come about the children and Jane Neel and her family in upcoming posts.

A grandchild of John and Jane is also buried in this plot, and listed on the monument:

O'Brien Headstone- Charlie O'Brien detail
O’Brien Headstone- Charlie O’Brien detail


Notes, Sources, and References:

1) The 1940 census was a goldmine for family historians, if you can find how they were indexed- Gerard W. Helbling is listed on as “Gerhart W. Hebling.” I found the family by looking for their daughter and her husband- they lived in the same house.

2) 1940 US Federal Census for Gerard W. Helbling: Source Citation: Year: 1940; Census Place: St Louis, St Louis City, Missouri; Roll: T627_2208; Page: 2B; Enumeration District: 96-670. Source Information: 1940 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2012. Original data: United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1940. T627, 4,643 rolls. Accessed 12 Jan 2014.

3) I have been unsuccessful as yet getting information from the University of Dublin re: John O’Brien’s attendance there.

4) A John O’Brien’s immigration is listed in 1840 in Allegheny Co., Pennsylvania, at Source Information: U.S. and Canada, Passenger and Immigration Lists Index, 1500s-1900s [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc, 2010. WESTERN PENNSYLVANIA GENEALOGICAL SOCIETY, Pittsburgh, compilers. A List of Immigrants Who Applied for Naturalization Papers in the District Courts of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh: the society. Vol. 2, 1841-1855. 1978. 139p. 7,800 names, p. 82. Original data: Filby, P. William, ed. Passenger and Immigration Lists Index, 1500s-1900s. Farmington Hills, MI, USA: Gale Research, 2012. I believe this may be another John O’Brien, or maybe when his papers were filed. More investigation is needed. Accessed 12 Jan 2014.

5) Find a Grave Memorial # 55460843 at Accessed 14 Jan 2014.


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Stories- A Family Legacy, Part 1

Edith Roberts McMurray with Son, about 1924.
Edith Roberts McMurray with Son, about 1924.

Family historians have a saying:

Genealogy without sources is just ‘mythology.’

We really should go a step further and say:

Genealogy without stories is just… well, BORING!

A recent New York Times article, “This Life. The Stories That Bind Us,” discusses developing a “strong family narrative.” The article (and book) is based on research by the Emory University psychologist Marshall Duke and his colleague Robyn Fivush. Their studies showed that children who had a strong sense of their family history had a higher sense of control of their life and greater self esteem. They also found these children were more resilient when faced with challenges.  This research hit home with me- at tough times in my life, my grandmother would tell me, “You come from strong pioneer stock- you can do anything you set your mind to.” Knowing those pioneer stories, and knowing the family support I had, helped me get through those tough times and use it as a lesson in my own life, and helped some of those times become a story for our own family.

When I started doing genealogy back in the 1960s (I really was a teen then, so not quite THAT old now), pedigree charts, family group sheets, and Ahnantafel and Register reports full of names and dates and places were what genealogy was all about. What really hooked me, though, was a trip to the county library where I found a book that actually told a story about my ancestors. I had family bible, obituary, and other information that my grandmother helped me find, but they were just cold, hard facts (mostly). When I saw the Benjamin name in a book I was browsing in the library stacks, however, my heart skipped a beat. I didn’t think it could possibly be my ancestors in a library book. Then I saw the name Brown, and because of the place and dates, knew it had to be my ancestors! The book was a reference book, so I could not check it out. I couldn’t stop reading, even though I knew my mother would be sitting out in the car waiting to pick me up. (See, I really wasn’t that old- couldn’t drive yet.) The story was about an Indian massacre of the Brown and Benjamin families in Loyalsock, Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, in May of 1778. Many family members were killed, others taken captive and later released. (More in an upcoming post.) I copied the information by hand- copiers were still new-fangled  machines back then and not readily available- and rushed breathlessly to the car. My mother was not happy she was kept waiting, but thrilled when I told her what I had found about my father’s family. She was somewhat disappointed that it was not her family, and felt that since her ancestors were probably poor immigrants from Ireland and Germany, we would not find much about them. Little did she know what wonderful stories were to come about her family- one of her “poor immigrant” ancestors was actually a physician, John H. O’Brien (1808-1887). Dr. O’Brien came to America shortly after receiving his medical degree at the University of  Dublin, Ireland, around 1830, in the midst of a cholera epidemic in Pennsylvania. He survived and married Jane Neel (1823-1895) who came from a family of early pioneers in this country. (More about them in another post too.)

Social History

Telling the stories of the common people is a part of ‘social history.’ Scholarly historians have long looked down on genealogy as a mythology of name seekers who want to be related to someone famous, but are finally realizing that the everyday life of everyday people has as much importance as famous generals, battles, and political figures. (I think even more important.) This movement began with books such as Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812, and continues with the hundreds of books more recently published by both scholarly and family historians. Some of the books are biographies, but others are scholarly studies on events or places. These books can help us place family in the context of the times. Tip: Check the index to see if your family is listed. Indexes do not always pick up every individual, however, so skim through the book and you may find a treasure. Even if your family member is not listed, other information in the book may apply to your family. I had ancestors in northern New England in the late 1600s-early 1700s, so another Ulrich book, Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750, had much information to help me gain a sense of what their daily lives would have been like.

 To be continued…

Notes, Sources, and References:

1) New York Times article “This Life. The Stories That Bind Us” published online 15 Mar 2013 at “Bruce Feiler’s recently published book, “The Secrets of Happy Families: How to Improve Your Morning, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smart, Go Out and Play, and Much More.”

2) Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812  (Knopf, New York, 1990)

3) Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750  (Knopf, New York, 1980.)