The birth of a family falsehood

Special to The TribuneAugust 16, 2012 

I always thought my mother was born in 1899. She told me several times she was born Feb. 12, 1899. That’s also the birth date listed on her death certificate.

But I learned this week that the U.S. census of 1900 didn’t list her. I went on the Internet and read a photocopy of the census page that listed her family. There, in graceful handwriting, I read the names of my mother’s mother, father, older sister and older brother, but not her name.

The census taker dated that page June 4, 1900. He specifically reported that my grandmother had two children, both of whom still lived. If my mother was really born Feb. 12, 1899, there should have been three children.

The census taker also reported my mother’s brother was born in July 1898. It seems unlikely that my mother would have been born seven months later.

She was, however, listed in the 1910 census. It said she was 10 years old. That year’s census didn’t list the month or year of anybody’s birth, just their ages. But, if she was 10 in 1910, she must have been born in 1900, not 1899.

Why did she say she was born in 1899? Was there a mix-up over whether 1900 ended the old century or began the new one? I’ll never know, but I wasn’t hurt. I was just reminded that some things we firmly believe can turn out to be wrong.

I also learned other things from the old censuses. I learned my grandfather was a laborer at the gas house. A gas house was a smelly, dirty place where gas was made from coal. The gas was piped around the city for cooking, heating and fueling gas lights.

“Gas house” was a common term then. In 1934, the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team was called the Gas House Gang. It included Leo Durocher and Dizzy Dean. That Gas House Gang won the 1934 World Series.

If a person was born outside the United States, the 1900 census listed his or her immigration date. My grandfather immigrated to America in 1880, and my grandmother in 1885. Procedures were looser then. The famous immigrant processing center on Ellis Island didn’t open until 1892.

The census form also said my grandfather was a naturalized American citizen but my grandmother wasn’t. None of the immigrant women on that page were naturalized citizens. Only immigrant men were. Women couldn’t vote then anyhow.

We’ve come a long way since then. Women can now vote. I hope all voters will realize they’ll hear many untrue statements that aren’t as harmless as my mother’s, and that many people who say they want to help us really want to help themselves.

Phil Dirkx’s column is special to The Tribune. He has lived in Paso Robles for more than four decades; his column appears here every week. Reach Dirkx at 238-2372 or

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