family secrets

A book on the new arrivals shelf at our local library caught my eye. I snatched it quickly, as if I feared someone else might have been around to grab it before I did. The Rooster House: My Ukrainian Family Story, is a deeply moving memoir by Victoria Belim, who was born in Ukraine and then emigrated to America with her mother and stepfather when she was 15 years old. Many years later, after Russia seized Crimea in 2014, she felt pulled to return to Ukraine for a lengthy visit with her aging grandmother Valentina, who was still living in the village of Krutyy Bereh.

The book started with two of my favorite things, a family tree diagram and a map of the villages in Ukraine where the stories of the lives of the author’s ancestors and relatives unfolded. Central to the story was the Rooster House, an attractive mansion in the city of Poltava, with two red roosters flanking the door. But to her late great-grandmother Asya it had been a sinister place to be avoided, the home of the secret police.

Back in February 2022 I wrote a short post about Russia invading Ukraine and the vague memories that event stirred up for my sister and me. See post here. Ever since I have been wondering about those possible genetic memories.

My father once told me that when he was 4 years old, in 1926, his father was finally able to send for his 18 year-old sister, who grew up in Ukraine with their grandparents. When she came to live with her family in America she brought with her some notions that were puzzling to the rest of her siblings. Once, my father went up into the attic to play with a couple of his friends. When his sister heard them having fun up there she came up the stairs and scolded him severely. Didn’t he know that attics are where families keep their secrets?

While visiting her grandmother Valentina, Victoria Belim found and started reading her great-grandfather’s journal about their family. In it was a short underlined sentence mentioning one of his brothers: “Brother Nikodim, vanished in the 1930s fighting for a free Ukraine.” And so began a very long and frustrating search for Belim’s great-granduncle Nikodim’s story, which very sadly, finally led her to the guarded archives at the Rooster House.

Reading about Nikodim reminded me that I also have a mystery in my Ukrainian family. In 1999, when my aunt was 91 years old, I had a chance to interview her about the grandparents, aunts and uncles she left behind, but kept in touch with, in Ukraine. She was very reluctant to share anything and only met with me after being somewhat persuaded to by another aunt. One thing she did reveal was that her uncle had served in the Austrian army and later studied to be a teacher in the Soviet Union. At some point he went to Czechia. He is thought to have been killed by Stalin when he returned to Ukraine. I wondered what ‘being killed by Stalin’ involved. This book gave me some ideas about what life was probably like for my father’s aunts and uncles during those years.

My portrait of Ukraine is personal, tracing my own story against the tidal wave of Ukrainian history. At the same time the book reveals the complicated nature of Ukrainian identity and the country’s difficult relationship with its Soviet past. As such, The Rooster House explains the context in which the current war takes place.
~ Victoria Belim
(The Rooster House: My Ukrainian Family Story)

What I appreciated so much in this book was those personal details, how her family made the best of things in the midst of so much turmoil, over many years and several generations. I loved reading about how much their gardens meant to them, how they cared for their cherry orchard. I was surprised to learn about how culturally important Ukrainian embroidery is, not just used for clothing, but also for ritual cloths used in weddings and funerals. Some patterns had hidden meanings, handed down in families. They hung on to their scant possessions, they were students and teachers, all while suffering through famine and random arrests and interrogations, and adapting to never-ending changes in circumstances, including the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl.

They had no jewels passed down from illustrious forebears and no books of family trees. They knew of their distant ancestors only by virtue of their own existence. They left few traces. It was hard to accumulate belongings and uninterrupted history when one lived in a place referred to as ‘the bloodlands’, ‘the borderland’, or ‘the frontier’. Asya and Sergiy lived through many upheavals in the twentieth century and their way of life was swept away by one tsunami of events after another. In the end, anything that survived was valued simply because it had emerged out of the chaos. My mother and aunt disputed ownership of Asya’s chipped cups from the 1930s with the passion of Greeks talking about the repatriation of the Parthenon marbles.
~ Victoria Belim
(The Rooster House: My Ukrainian Family Story)

How the author finally encouraged her reluctant grandmother and cousin to talk about the past was heartwarming. It took multiple extended visits to Ukraine for her to connect all the dots, but thanks to her persistence and research skills Victoria Belim’s family now has this beautifully written book to treasure, a record of the lives of their ancestors and relatives, and what she went through to find some of their stories.

Superintendent of the New York State School for the Blind

seated: Charles Amos Hamilton & Gertrude Mabel Hubbard
standing: Karl Freeman Rodgers, Sr. & Allegra Estelle Hamilton
children: Karl Freeman Rodgers, Jr. and Delorma Hamilton Rodgers

Tim’s great-grandfather, Charles Amos Hamilton, the son of Charles Munson and Eliza Ann (Devoe) Hamilton, was born 19 March 1866 in Hinsdale (Cattaraugus) New York, and died 28 October 1943 in Batavia (Genesee) New York. He married on 30 June 1897 at Albion (Orleans) New York, Gertrude Mabel Hubbard, who was born 9 December 1874 in Albion and died 31 May 1965 in Marlboro (Monmouth) New Jersey, the daughter of Delorma Brown and Emma (Pridmore) Hubbard.

Charles’ mother was 47 years old when she gave birth to him, and so he was born into a family with an 18-year-old sister and a 26-year-old brother. He was named after his father, Charles Munson Hamilton and his uncle, Amos Gardner Hamilton. Sadly, his mother died when he was only three weeks old and his father remarried two years later. His stepmother died when he was 9 years old. However, Charles adored his older sister Addie, who was like a mother to him. In 1885 Charles graduated from Cuba [NY] High School, and from the University of Rochester first on 19 June 1889, and again in 1892 with a Master of Arts.

From 1889-1907 he worked as a teacher and then a principal at the Albion High School, where he may have met his future fiancée, Mamie Estelle Hubbard. Mamie was a grammar school teacher who died tragically of a serious illness at age 23 on 22 May 1892. Charles spent much time grieving with Mamie’s mother, Emma (Pridmore) Hubbard, and eventually fell in love with Mamie’s younger sister, Gertrude.

Charles & Gertrude’s marriage was performed by Charles’ old college friend, Rev. Christian A. Clausen, in the presence of a few friends and nearest relatives. Charles was baptized, at the age of 37, on 26 April 1903 at the Newark Baptist Church. In 1923 he joined the Sons of the American Revolution through his ancestor, William Hamilton. In 1924 he sold the family farm in Hinsdale to Guy W. King for $9000. And in December of 1936, Charles retired and bought a house at 26 Richmond Ave. in Batavia, New York.

He was honored on 28 October 1939, when Hamilton Hall was opened and dedicated at the New York State School for the Blind, where he had served as superintendent for many years.

October 1911
Emma Pridmore,
Gertrude Mabel Hubbard,
Allegra Estelle Hamilton

Gertrude graduated from Albion High School and Elmira College, where she had been a special music student. On 17 August 1900 she gave birth to her daughter, and only child, Allegra. It was a very difficult delivery, the baby weighed 11 lbs., and two subsequent perineal operations were required. Gertrude loved family history and gave her research notes to her daughter, Allegra, who passed them on to me, happy and relieved to find someone who cared about genealogy as much as her mother did. Gertrude & Charles did go to England and visited the graves of her Pridmore ancestors in Leicestershire. Gertrude was a member of the Deo-on-go-wa Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the First Baptist Church in Batavia. Charles & Gertrude are buried together, along with some of Gertrude’s Hubbard ancestors in Mt. Albion Cemetery, Albion, New York. She was named after her great-grandmother, Mabel (Sutleif) Hubbard.

The following is from: Charles Amos Hamilton, An Autobiography, “The Memory of the Just is Blessed”, (Batavia, New York: Privately printed, 1941):

After a month’s honeymoon trip through Albany, New York, Boston, White Mountains and Canada, we returned to Albion and completed preparations for our new, more responsible and fuller life. I am going to add right here, that, after nearly half a century of wedded life, I can truthfully say that I have never regretted either the step or my choice. As soon as we began housekeeping, we adopted a tentative budget. I left to Gertrude the running of the house, purchase of supplies, etc. For this, we set aside a certain amount, which usually proved sufficient. In addition, I gave Gertrude every month one sixth of my salary for her own personal use. This plan and this ratio I continued until my retirement from active work. I never called this her allowance, but called it her share. I could never have been elected to the Newark position had I not been married, and I considered her services as wife and helpmate worthy of some compensation beyond mere support. This as a business proposition, entirely outside of considerations of sentiment or duty. The plan has worked out very satisfactorily with us, and we recommend it to other married couples. It must be rather humiliating for a wife to beg a few dollars, or even a dollar, from her husband every time she needs it.

The following is from Buffalo Courier Express, Sunday, July 31, 1932:

Men You Ought to Know by H. Katherine Smith: Charles A. Hamilton, superintendent of the New York State School for the Blind at Batavia, was elected in June to the presidency of the American Association of Instructors of the Blind. This honor was conferred upon him in recognition of his work in preparing young people without sight to cope with the problems of daily life and, in many cases, of earning a living.

For 25 years Mr. Hamilton has served in his present position; and during the entire period his aim for the school has been to achieve the mental, physical, social and spiritual development of its pupils, and to fit them to become useful and contented men and women.

Native of Cattaraugus County: Mr. Hamilton was born at Hinsdale, Cattaraugus County, in 1866. Following his graduation from the high school of Cuba, NY, where his boyhood was passed, he entered the University of Rochester. He earned all of the expenses of his college education, turning his hand to whatever job came his way. For a time he lighted and extinguished street lamps in Rochester, rising every morning at 4:30 o’clock to turn out the gas before the sun was up. Later he found work more congenial to his tastes on the college newspaper. He worked on farms of the vicinity during his summer vacations with one exception. That was the summer he toured the Middle West as a book agent, deciding, once for all, that salesmanship was not his forte.

After his graduation from the University in 1889, Mr. Hamilton became identified with the Albion High School. During the eight years of that connection, the subjects he taught ranged from classic Greek to bookkeeping, and included Latin, physical geography, geometry, ancient history and civics.

At Albion he met Gertrude M Hubbard, who became Mrs. Hamilton. Mr. and Mrs. Hamilton are the parents of a daughter, Mrs. Karl Rodgers of New York City, a graduate of Vassar College. Her two-year-old son is the chief delight of his proud grandfather, who finds the number of miles between Batavia and New York no small trial. In 1897, Mr. Hamilton became principal of the high school of Newark, NY, in which capacity he continued for ten years. Twenty-five years ago, he assumed the superintendency of the State School for the Blind at Batavia. Two of his most prized possessions are the portable typewriter and loving cup presented to him in June by graduates of the school in gratitude for his years of service to the blind.

“I thoroughly enjoy the work because I realize the great benefit of a school of this kind to its pupils,” Mr. Hamilton declared. “Our educational standards are identical with those of high schools throughout the state; for our pupils are required to pass regents examinations. Physical exercise, so essential to growing children, is included in our curriculum. Some form of it is obligatory twice daily, and our students attend gymnasium classes nearly every day. Every boy above the third grade is taught to swim, and the girls most of whom swim and dive, clamor for their turn at the pool. There are weekly dances and parties at the school, for the faculty and I deem the social development of the blind an important factor in their education. Nor is their religious training neglected: Every Sunday, they receive instruction in accordance with their respective religious denominations, and the Christian Endeavor Society, which they themselves conduct, is well attended.”

On Obtaining Positions: Mr. Hamilton’s answer to the present difficult situation regarding the obtaining of positions for his graduates is, “Teach them to be useful in their own homes.” For this purpose, greater attention has been given recently to the girls’ instruction in home economics. They become proficient in such domestic arts as cooking, sewing, and cleaning. At Mr. Hamilton’s suggestion, a suite of rooms has been fitted up as a housekeeping apartment, in which two blind girls live alone for as long as two weeks. Although a teacher is always within calling distance, she is rarely summoned; and the students take pride in the fact that they can prepare their meals and keep their apartment in order entirely unassisted.

With regret, Mr. Hamilton mentioned that the scope of economic activities for his boys is not broadening rapidly. At present, an effort is being made to introduce poultry-raising into his school. Chair caning and mattress making are, in Mr. Hamilton’s opinion, the industrial occupations best adapted to the boys without sight.

Besides speaking on his work with the blind before many organizations of Western New York, Mr. Hamilton has written on it for magazines of national circulation. A born teacher, he never misses an opportunity to conduct a class. He readily assumes the duties of any absent teacher, whether of a primary or high school grade, and through the contact of the classroom gains an insight into the thoughts and hopes of his pupils.

Mr. Hamilton has traveled from the Atlantic to the Pacific Coast and has made two trips abroad. His knowledge of the French and German language is sufficient to make him understood in any foreign city. He reads the periodicals and newspapers that keep him abreast of current issues and problems and the numerous modern discoveries and inventions, and is familiar with the best of contemporary fiction.

Mr. Hamilton, who has been active in the Batavia Rotary for thirteen years, was the third president of the organization. He is also affiliated with the Masonic fraternity and the Holland Club of Batavia. He is a past chairman of the Batavia Boy Scout organization, and a former chairman of the board of trustees of the Baptist Church of that city.

Helen Keller

On 21 June 2008, this undated, signed photograph of Helen Keller was found in the Webster house at 180 Bradford St. in Provincetown, Massachusetts. It was originally given to Gertrude & Charles. Their daughter Allegra must have brought it to the Provincetown house where a lot of family treasures were found. The inscription reads: “To Mr. and Mrs. Hamilton, With happy thoughts of their kindness and helpfulness in my work for the blind of America. Very sincerely, Helen Keller”

Charles & Gertrude were the parents of a daughter:

1. Allegra Estelle Hamilton (Tim’s grandmother), born 17 August 1900 in Newark (Wayne) New York, died 16 January 1992 in Keene (Cheshire) New Hampshire. She married (as her first husband) 18 September 1928 in Batavia (Genesee) New York, Karl Freeman Rodgers, who was born 22 October 1895 in Provincetown (Barnstable) Massachusetts, and died 27 March 1971 in Boston (Suffolk) Massachusetts, son of George Lincoln and Mary Jane (Rodgers) Rodgers. Allegra & Karl were the parents of two children. Allegra married (as her second husband and as his second wife) 26 July 1975 in San Antonio (Bexar) Texas, Lester Dean Lloyd, who was born 5 October 1903 in Red Oak (Montgomery) Iowa, and died 23 September 1988 in Schertz (Guadalupe) Texas, son of Noah R. and Mary Alma (McGimpsey) Lloyd.

humble genealogist

“Young Peasant Woman with Three Children at the Window” by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller (1793-1865) Austrian Painter
“Young Peasant Woman with Three Children at the Window”
by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller

I don’t mean to belittle the accomplishments of those whose names we memorize for tests and whose statues we admire. I just think it’s time to make a little room for the rest of our ancestors — and I’m happy to report that this is already happening. You never had to be famous, rich, or educated to leave a trace, but unless you were, you tended to be overlooked. But now, that’s all beginning to change, and at the vanguard of this democratization of history is the humble genealogist.
~ Megan Smolenyak
(Hey, America, Your Roots Are Showing)