Every researcher is familiar with genealogical brick walls: those ancestors who just refuse to be found. Some relatives claimed that my great-grandfather, John Gates, was adopted and grew up in Kentucky; others, that he changed the family surname and grew up in New York. John did not share details of his childhood with his family, and each relative’s story was inconsistent. In 2012, my dad and I decided to finally investigate John’s mysterious past; John had passed away when my dad was a year old, and we only had a few family legends to guide us.
After many hours of searching, I hit a brick wall: the earliest record I was able to find of my great-grandfather was his application for Social Security. It’s as if he just appeared on-the-scene on March 26, 1943. John applied for Social Security in the state of Ohio; according to the document, he was born John Gates (no middle name or middle initial) on January 10, 1924 in Charters, Kentucky. He was currently unemployed, and he had ommitted the “full name given to [him] at birth” in addition to both of his parents’ names. John had turned 19 years old on his last birthday.
The next record I was able to find was my great-grandparents’ marriage application. John and Marie (Getman) Gates were married on February 12, 1944 in Buffalo, New York in a local Roman Catholic church. John, according to the record, was living in Lockport, New York and working at a “tool plant.” He listed his parents as Glenn and Opal (Garrett) Gates, but his birth date and place of birth conflicted with the previous record; on the marriage application, John stated that he was born on January 10, 1923 in Maysville, Kentucky. I finally had his parents’ names, but an extensive search into Glenn and Opal Gates yielded no results, either.
In her memoir, Marie writes of that day, “I was married on Lincoln’s Birthday–during the war–in 1944. It was a terrible snowstorm and we ran into a streetcar in Herb Huntgam’s car. John and I walked thru deep snow to get a bus to go over Grand Island to the old Niagara Hotel at the Falls. I felt so sick on the bus and John was so proud as we sat on the back seat of the bus, ‘No one would ever guess we were just married.’ And I thought to myself no darn it they sure wouldn’t. I always regret not wearing a long white dress and veil but at the time I thought it a waste…We had a reception at home but very few people could get through the storm.”
The only stories I have of my great-grandfather are from my great-grandmother’s memoir: John passed away when my dad was too young to remember him, and my grandfather rarely shared stories of his own father. Marie continues John’s story, writing, “At first we lived in a two-room apartment–no kitchen, we shared the bath. Had all our meals out at Red’s diner on Walnut St. where our apartment was. I rode the greyhound bus back and forth to work in Buffalo. Then when John went into the army I went back to my folks to live. Joe was born Dec. 30, 1944–another terrible snow storm.”
Hotel Niagara in Niagara Falls, New York, 2018 // Source: The Buffalo News
The next record picks up at this point in the story. John enlisted in the United States Army on April 28, 1944 in Fort Dix, New Jersey for the duration of the war. His highest level of education was grammar school–elementary school today–and his “civil occupation” was listed as “farm hand, general farm.” My grandfather, Joseph John Gates, was born in December of that year, and he didn’t meet his father until he was a few years old.
After John returned from the war, the family moved from place-to-place and farm-to-farm throughout Western New York, and they briefly lived in Oregon before returning to Lockport a few weeks later. John and Marie had four more children–John (b. 1948), Patrick (b. 1949), Judith (b. 1953) and Peter (b. 1955)–and one of my favorite stories of John is from this period. “John always had a huge garden at the ‘grey house’ and he was a very good gardener. I spent the whole summer canning everything you can think of. When the boys were older they helped their father cut up the fruit and vegetables out on the picnic table in the yard.”
The last record I have for my great-grandfather is his death certificate. John was working as a heavy equipment operator at International Paper Co., in North Tonawanda, New York; on the morning of September 11, 1971, the heavy-lift truck John was driving flipped over and instantly crushed him to death. According to the official report, John “died of compound fractures of the skull and multiple fractures of the ribs;” he was only 47 years old. Marie listed his birthday as January 10, 1924 on his death certificate, and his parents’ names, as best she could find out, were likely Glenn and Opal (Garret) Latham.
Niagara Falls Gazette, 1971
Here’s what I knew: my great-grandfather, John Gates (no middle name), was either born in 1923 or 1924 in the state of Kentucky, likely in Mason or Lewis Co. In the early 1940s, he lived in Ohio, and he applied for Social Security there. John married Marie Getman in 1944, served in the U.S. Army during World War II and had five children: Joseph, John, Patrick, Judith and Peter. He died in a work accident in 1971 at the age of 47, almost a year after my father was born. Finally, his parents were named Glenn and Opal, and I now had a few potential surnames on the list: Gates, Garrett, Garret and Latham.
Acacia Park Cemetery in North Tonawanda, New York
Here’s what I didn’t know: was John Gates the “full name given to [my great-grandfather] at birth?” Where was John born, and in what year? What were his parents names? Was John adopted, as so many relatives speculated? When did he move to Ohio, and why? How did he end up in New York? With the help of a local librarian, my dad and I started searching Kentucky birth and census records for any clue into John’s past; we could’ve never guessed where we’d end up.