Women’s History Month – Just like Me

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This is Women’s History Month and many of the Geneablogers will be posting various stories on fabulous women in their families. It is also the end of the series “Face in America” on PBS and the start of a new series ‘Who Do You Think You Are?” on prime time television. Unlike many of the people in the two series airing, I have a pretty good idea of who I am and where I came from and a lot about the fabulous women that came before me.


I often wonder who I most take after from all of the grandmother’s before me and if I had to pick one that I would be most like, just from research I would have to pick my Mary Zuver West. From the very start, long before beginning research, the first connection I felt with Grandma Mary was her creative skills. Mary was a photographer, and from all accounts a very good one. She was well known for her portraits of children, including her beloved grandchildren. We share that creative spirit that allows us to see things in a different way and we have both followed that creativity with jobs that support us.


I believe that Mary learned her craft from her husband’s family. Her husband’s uncle, Francis Eyth, on his mother’s side was a photographer who made ambrotypes and daguerreotypes in Butler Pennsylvania, along with running a hotel. And if you believe the tall tales, a great fisherman too. Not only would Mary learn the craft but two of her brothers would also take up the trade. Mary and Jacob West would run their photography business for the most part in store fronts in Bradford, Pennsylvania starting in the mid 1800s, moving from Butler and Perry, Pennsylvania.


Jacob and Mary would have four children, three boys and a girl during this time. In 1896 their youngest son, Roland, would die at the age of six from pneumonia. It was around this same time that the family fell apart. Jacob seemed determined to become an oil producer; I would guess that Mary wasn’t thrilled with his choice of professions after operating a photography shop that kept the family fed. Mary had watched her father, George Emery Zuver’s wealth grow and then shrink during the oil boom of the early to mid 1800s. Although he always listed himself as a carpenter or farmer, the main portion of his income was in the oil fields. When big business squeezed the independent oil producers out, George’s income would deplete severely.


By 1896 the oil business was way past booming. Jacob and Mary would separate, Mary remaining in the family home and running her own photography business called “Mrs. West’s”  in a second floor store front on Main Street. Jacob would take a room in a boarding house downtown and run up debts for clothing and food that would remain past his death. It seemed that Grandfather Jacob liked living the lifestyle of the wealthy oil producer from the debts left behind. By 1906 Jacob had died from heart problems.


Mary buried her estranged husband in a simple ceremony, no obituary could be found in the papers, just a simple statement of the funeral services. Jacob was buried alongside his first two grandchildren from his daughter Jessica in a plot that Mary had purchased. The debts left behind would take mary three years to pay off using proceeds from the waning oil business. Mary sold her photography business, packed her bags and household goods, bundled up her youngest son of nine and headed back to the Butler, Pennsylvania family home, at the age of 56. It wouldn’t be long before more tragedy would enter Mary’s life.


Mary’s father’s house was cross the street from Mary’s brother, Thomas’ house. Thomas had eleven children in 1907, the last still being a baby in 1907. November 21 1907 would be a night that Mary would never forget. Thomas’ house caught on fire in the early morning with nine of the children sleeping in their beds. The dog barking woke Thomas and he managed to get the baby and his wife out of the house. His oldest son Wilbert ran across the street for the family home yelling for his Aunt Mary, Nelson, the second oldest escaped with burns. Five of the children would die that day, trapped in their beds.


Mary remained living with her father through 1908 but by 1910 had moved in with her daughter Jessica. Research materials fall off after this time and it would seem that as Mary grew old to her 85th birthday her life would settle into a peaceful existence. She was the middle child of all of her siblings and out survived all but one sister. During her lifetime she would see her brother die in the Civil War, live through WWI and pass just before the start of WWII.


I only know the facts on Mary and I remember that my grandfather mentioned going to her studio to have his picture taken when he showed me the glass negatives he had carefully stored away. But even with just all of this research information I can relate to her tenacity. She learned a craft and went to work when working outside of the home wasn’t a thing that women did at that time. My instruction came from college, a trade I have loved and enjoyed now for thirty years. When her marriage fell apart she took a stand and did what was best for herself and her children. I did the same, moving to a new state and starting over, alone. I like to believe that we could have been great friends and that I got a bit of her backbone.


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