Sunday, March 8, 2020

#60- Strong Woman - Catherine Barnwell Higgins

STRONG WOMAN - Catherine Barnwell 1911-1992

Showcasing a single woman who I find in my family tree as “strong” is a tough choice: Not because there are so few, but because there are so many. Perhaps they did not cross the prairie to build a farm, but their life was full of problems.
The woman I knew, and who, in retrospect, must have grown stronger with time as she went through their troubles would be my father's mother.

Catherine came from impoverished circumstances and never finished high school (which wasn't uncommon). She went through a plenty of belt-tightening and a lot of heartache. But there was a lot of love in her life.

Catherine Florence Barnwell was born 2 September 1911 in New York, New York in Harlem (Washington Heights)  (died 4 Jun 1992, Sullivan County, NY).
Her father, John Joseph Lawrence Barnwell (1881-1948) was born in Brooklyn, her mother was Agnes McCune (1886-1948 of NYC).
All of her grandparents were of Irish heritage, apart from one who was Scottish (her mother's father).
Her parents had 11 children (that I have record of).

Teen-age years: nonexistent. Catherine never had teen age years--she cut it short by getting married young. She married my grandfather Victor “Jack” Higgins (born in 1905) who was 6 years her senior. She was born in 1911 and married in 1927.
She was 16 when she wed, and her husband was an “old man” at 22 years old. Prior to turning 17 she had her first child, Alice, who died within a day. As it turned out, two of her children died within the first month of life, Alice and Edward.

By the time she turned 21 she had had 4 children, but only two were still alive: my father John, and his brother Thomas.

In the 1930s the family moved out of New York City for a job. This was good for the family (as they had money to live on), but it must have been difficult for her as she was no longer close to her family. In that era, driving the 100 miles from New York to the mountains Upstate was a long trip, not done in the winter. I imagine that being a Big City girl who's now living in the country, where you know almost no one, and are cooped up in the house most of year because you have to watch your children, etc.,  would have been a huge change as well as very boring and lonely.


In 1943, before she turned 32, they were a family with 8 children.
That year, another son Thomas died (cause unknown), leaving a 5 year gap between my father (1929) and the next child, Joseph (1934).
After Tommy died she had 3 more children.
In all, she had 14 children, 10 of them lived to adulthood.  


Burned House

My father entered college in the 1940s. His parents had no money to call him (and likely no free time, either.) They surprised one day with a phone call in 1948.
They called to tell him that when he returned home on his next break, that "home" wasn't there anymore. They'd been burned out.
A kerosene heater had been knocked over and causing a fire that raced through the house.
My uncle Joe and my grandfather raced back inside to make sure  all the kids out.
As a consequence both of them had to be treated in the hospital for their burns.
At the time the (rented) house burned my grandmother was only 37 years old.

Uncle Joe awarded for heroism
After the fire, the helpful community generously gave them blankets and such to help get the family restarted. Note that it was deep winter--the fire had occurred on February 14. That huge family needed to live somewhere--and it needed to be a large place. Someone offered them a house which was empty as their temporary shelter.
The problem was the house. It was in New York in the winter and the house had no insulation, it also lacked plumbing.  As the house had been vacant, I imagine it was in bad repair.  But they had no other option.
Catherine takes a break

I learned through family interviews that they had lost most of their photos. (Poor people usually had few because you had to pay for development of the film). Members of her extended family gave my grandmother the photos she had given to them. What photos we have now are those which were given back to the family.
I was going through my aunt's box of photos and dug into the paper scraps at the bottom. One often finds interesting pieces of a story in written documents, and this day I found a bit of information. There was a letter from a lawyer to my grandfather in 1948. The bank had engaged the law firm to make sure my grandfather was good for a mortgage to build a new house.
But apparently my grandfather had borrowed about $800 and had not yet paid it back. Why or when he borrowed the money wasn't stated. But, of course, before he could get a mortgage, the letter informed him he had to deal with the lien. Somehow they figured out how to build the house. 
They stayed in the old "loaner" of a house until their house was built, probably finished 1949/1950.
It was a modest affair, built by a local carpenter. They could not afford the finest.  But it suited their needs. My grandmother had a washing machine in the kitchen, next to the refrigerator.
There was a half bath downstairs. and one full upstairs. Upstairs were 4 bedrooms (mostly filled with beds), and one downstairs. The driveway was unpaved, I think, until I left for college in 1973.

But they did move in to the new house. And by then my grandfather had had steady work for over 10 years. I think they must have felt they were living like royalty by then.

Catherine's family lived in the greater New York City area, 100 miles away. But my grandfather had moved his own mother (who had married after he was grown) and his 2 half-brothers near them so he could look after his mother as she was often unwell, and couldn't work. She too lived on very little.
And for a short time his mother and half-brothers lived with Catherine & "Jack" but it was short-lived, as it "didn't work out."
Now that her mother-in-law and her husband's half brothers were settled nearby, there were more people to watch out for, to assist, to feed (if need be).
Of course, holidays huge with 12 in the family, plus the Higgins/Devaney (her in-laws), bringing the total to 15 people. Their new house was big but it wasn't huge.
Normally the family ate in shifts and they all learned how to be efficient.

One day "Hank" Monahan came into their lives-probably in the 1940s.  With all those people, the work and school hours, there was a lot of work to be done, and it seemed Hank was almost always around to help out. There was always movement in that household.
Hank would babysit the kids when needed, help with some of the tasks at the house, and peel potatoes to name a few. Hank remained a single man (I assume he never married) and worked, and babysat, and was a "part" of the Higgins family.

Hank holding 2 of the children
Always ready to lend a helping hand in exchange for a meal, a cup of tea, and a place to sit. He always had a place at the table, or a seat in the living room. I have a photo of him helping out when they went back to the burned house. Hank's gravestone is near my grandparents in Woodbourne. (So the Find-A-Grave people now know he was no blood relative.)

One by one the children moved away, went to college, got married.
It seemed each married child gave their parents several grandchildren (from 3 to 7 children a piece).

But then “Kitty”  Richard’s twin sister, wife and mother of four small boys died suddenly of diabetic shock. Her littlest boy found her still body. This was 1965, and Kitty was 29 years old.

My grandparents became substitute parents for the children, and my 54 year old grandmother was now the “mother” of these four boys. Their father could not give them the attention they needed.

In February 1969, one day my grandfather had been at work at the Correctional Facility where he was employed in Woodbourne. And the next day he was admitted to the hospital.
Within a week he was better and preparing to go home. The day he was to leave the hospital, he died, a complication brought on by his diabetes.

He had just celebrated his 64th birthday at the end of December. Her husband’s sudden death was 3 ½ years after her daughter’s death. When she became a widow, Catherine was 56, not yet 57 years old, she had survived two World Wars, the Great Depression, lost four children.

She lived for another 23 years after my grandfather died.
Catherine Barnwell & Victor “Jack” Higgins’ children. (highlighted children predeceased her)
1 Alice 1927-1927
2 John Victor 1929-2015
3 Thomas Patrick 1931–1943
4 Edward 1932–1932

5 Joseph Lawrence 1934–2000
6 Catherine F 1936–1965
7 Richard Michael 1936–2013
8   Girl 1 – B 1937
9   Girl 2 – B 1940
10 Girl 3 - B 1941
12 Patricia F 1944 -2022
13 Girl 5 - B 1945
14 Girl 6 - B 1947

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