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Relative differences couldn’t break family ties

Robert Stanger

Lakeside Cemetery in Erie, which is located on the city’s East Side next to the site of the former Hammermill Paper Co., is justly renowned for its Gridley Circle, where Navy Capt. Charles V. Gridley is buried.

It was Gridley, when captain of the USS Olympia, who received the famous command from Commodore George Dewey. “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley,” in the Spanish American War’s Battle of Manila Bay.

Sadly, Gridley died in Kobe, Japan, probably from liver cancer not long after the U.S. defeated the Spanish at Manila Bay. He was just 53.

Gridley was actually born in Logansport, Ind., but married an Erie woman, Harriet Vincent, while serving on the Erie-based USS Michigan, in the early 1870s.

Gridley Circle, which is located on the bluff of Lake Erie where visitors can view just to the north the bulging, seriated tip of Presque Isle State Park, is also the site of artillery canon taken from the Spanish in 1898 at Manila Bay.

Just a short distance inland from the landmark Gridley site is a burial plot of much less significance. It is where several generations of Stangers are buried, including one of also some Navy prominence, my half-brother, Thomas Burke, who was a chief pharmacist’s mate, and died from the effects of the tuberculosis he contracted while serving as the medical officer for a portion of Guam in the late 1930s.

Prominent on the plot is a headstone several feet high on which the family name is carved in the center with “Mother” and “Father” carved on attached adjacent headstones with their respective names beneath.

I’m quite sure that it was my father, Christian Otto, who had that large headstone erected, and allowed its somewhat inaccuracy, as the “father” buried there. Rudolph Fritz Stanger, was not his real father but rather his stepfather.

Swedish genealogical records indicate that my father’s actual father was a Dane, Jens Christian Brun Lund. I do believe that it was almost happenstance that Rudolph came to immigrate to America, but he surely left his mark on his new country in the form of descendants.

I also doubt that Rudolph (who was born on the Danish island of Bornholm) would have immigrated had he not married my grandmother, Agneta Svensdottir, who was 13 years his senior. It is perhaps logical to reason that it was Agneta that led the way on immigration due to both their age difference and to Agneta’s obviously difficult life in Halsingborg, Sweden.

Agneta and Rudolph had two children … my father — who was 9 years old — and a daughter, Freda, who was 3, when they arrived in America and settled on the small 5-acre farm not far from Lakeside Cemetery on which they would live for the rest of their lives. A daughter, Sophia, was born not long after they arrived in the U.S.

Apparently due to a childhood illness (scarlet fever) that left her somewhat disabled, Sophia, who married an Erie carpenter, never had any children.

But Freda, who married John Sheridan, a Harborcreek Township Irish Catholic farmer had six children and thus Rudolph left many hybrid Irish-Danish-Swedish descendants when he passed away in 1945 at age 81.

Freda, who became a fervent Catholic after her conversion to that faith, raised six children as a widow on her dairy farm overlooking Lake Erie after her husband, John, died. Her son, John, continued in farming at the farm the family first owned in the township. But the others led far different lives. Patrick attended a seminary in nearby North East, became a priest in the Redemptorist Order and served as a missionary in Brazil’s Mato Grosso.

Joseph became an accountant for the federal government and served at a nuclear station in Washington state. Thomas became a teacher at Erie’s East High School. Robert served as an Erie policeman. Annette, the only daughter among the six children, became an Erie nurse.

Two others in our extended family also found home on Freda’s farm. They were Christine, a daughter from my father’s first marriage, and Burke, a son my half-brother’s wife gave up after her husband became seriously ill with TB. (My father helped support their care at the farm.)

Although his daughters assimilated well into life in America, such was apparently not the case with Rudolph, although he did do some railroad work in Erie

When we would visit the small Nagle Road farm where Rudolph lived as a widower for 13 years after his wife Agneta’s death in 1932. He and my father would converse in just Swedish, often while my father cut Rudolph’s hair.

He never owned a car or learned to drive, and Freda, who lived nearby would bring him food. I recall spending a day picking the blackberries that flourished on a former pasture on the farm, Rudolph called me in at midday for lunch, and served me two fried eggs. I can’t recall him saying a word of English during this visit.

But he could apparently read Swedish quite well, and he would become quite animated when discussing with my father topics cited in the Swedish language newspaper he enjoyed reading.

His other main diversion was his portable, battery-powered radio, and he could apparently understand what he heard from that source quite well. He acquired a regular plug-in radio when electricity reached his home not long prior to his death.

Stout, dour, and heavily mustachioed Rudolph may not have left much of a mark on American society, but his traits must be reflected today in the numerous descendants he left.

One wonders if he would have left a similar legacy in Sweden had he not met a woman who in all likelihood prompted him to quit an old society in favor of a new one in which he fared fairly well, but which apparently remained quite alien to him.

Robert Stanger has lived seasonally for over 40 years along the Allegheny River and has the stories to tell about it.

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