Armed with dozens of century-old letters, documents and postcards, Daryl Lawrence ran smack-dab into some roadblocks when he set out to write his family's history five years ago.
Not only had his great-grandmother, Effie Schwartz, married guys named Johnson and Olson, she had carefully snipped or scratched out names of ex-husbands and other suitors.
To wit: Effie saved her divorce papers from 1925, but clipped out both Hank Johnson's name and her own.
"The one thing Effie didn't … anticipate whenever she did her selective censoring was computerized databases," Lawrence, 36, writes in his new self-published book, "On The Go All The Time: The Unusually Usual Lives of Two Midwestern Women."
Effie's divorce file number, luckily, eluded her scissors. A clerk at the Hennepin County vital statistics desk, with a few computer keystrokes, quickly located and copied the divorce file for Lawrence. Roadblock skirted.
Lawrence, who lives in East Bethel and works as the Bell Museum's facility manager, came up with an edgier account than most family historians who spent part of the COVID-19 pandemic digging into genealogy.
Lawrence's warts-and-all dual biography zeroes in on Effie and her mother, Annie Wendell. Running from the late 1800s to the 1980s, it chronicles a teenage pregnancy out of wedlock, two generations of domestic abuse and nasty divorces.
"The messiness surprised me," Lawrence said. "I could have written a rosy picture and said my great-great grandmother, Annie, was a good mom. But she wasn't, and I had to stick with the truth or I'd be writing fiction."
Unlike many family histories that simply string together events, Lawrence weaves in a second layer of research to place Effie and Annie in the context of their times. He was surprised that Annie and Effie had divorced in 1915 and 1925 respectively, until he learned from several history books that the U.S. divorce rate swelled in the 1890s and went from one in nine marriages in 1916 to one in six by 1928.
"I thought a divorce in the 1910s was weird, but that came from looking through a Eisenhower-era lens when it became taboo," Lawrence said. "Their divorces were actually pretty common; their lives were unusually usual."
Annie Wendell's parents emigrated from Germany in 1873 to Mower County in southern Minnesota. Her pregnancy at 15 in 1894 "was the first indication of the streak of independence that would become very pronounced in the decades to come," Lawrence writes.
He intersperses five "Interludes" in his family history to allow readers "to know what you have to go through" in navigating the twists and turns of genealogy research. One day, that meant sifting through 10 boxes of dust-caked Mower County divorce records during four hours at the Minnesota History Center.
That's where he discovered that his great-great-grandfather, Jake Schwartz, had once thrown scalding tea at Annie's face. When she screamed, he hit her head with a heavy bucket and knocked her unconscious.
Effie, the oldest of Jake and Annie's four children, was conceived out of wedlock — prompting their 1894 marriage when he was 26 and she was 15.
Lawrence's genealogical challenges grew as Annie's married names went from Schwartz (divorced) to Hopfe (widowed). She died in 1956, her last two decades spent as a happy wife to farmer Ben Livgard.
Perhaps the family's most tender love story came when Effie forged a strong bond with an Omaha man named Jim Halbrook as her first marriage fizzled into abandonment. She planned to marry Halbrook, but he died during the 1918 flu pandemic with Effie at his side.
Lawrence said the haunting similarities to today's pandemic made that chapter the most difficult to write.
"I lived through Effie's experiences to process my own very complicated feelings about the pandemic," he writes, adding: "In a way, it was as cathartic as it was horrifying."
Lawrence's book isn't all dire. We follow Effie from the farms of southern Minnesota to jobs as a laundress and then the linen sales counter at the downtown Minneapolis Dayton's. With Annie walking away from raising her youngest child, Lloyd, Effie — who was 13 when her little brother was born — served as his surrogate mother throughout his life.
In 1965, Lloyd and Effie traveled to Europe, going from Paris to Pisa. She died in 1982 at 87, having raised two daughters with second husband Adolph Olson near Anoka. Their younger daughter, Joyce, was Lawrence's grandmother.
Annie and Effie "weren't rich or famous," Lawrence writes. "They didn't hold political office. They did nothing but live their lives … However, by examining their lives, we are able to see history through their eyes and develop an understanding of what life was like over the course of a century of America's history."
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.