Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Queering the family tree: Part 2

I got to thinking this morning about my grandmother's uncle, George Chynoweth (1866-1938), one of those "confirmed bachelors" that those of us who are both gay and interested in family history tend to identify with as we sort through the generations. That's Uncle George at far right in the photo above, holding his nephew and namesake, George E. Rosa. My maternal grandmother, Ethel (Dent) Myers, is standing in the middle of the back row.

The adult women in the back row are my great-grandmother, Susan Elizabeth (Dunlap) Dent, at left and dying of tuberculosis when this portrait was taken; and George's sister, Sarah Minerva (Chynoweth) Rosa, at right. Great-grandfather, Cassius M.C. Dent, is seated at left holding his son, Frank, with older son, Homer, in the foreground. The matriarch of the family, Eliza Jane (Brown) Dent/Chynoweth, is seated in the middle holding granddaughter Dorothy (Rosa) Elson.

Uncle George was born in Lucas County, educated here and at Simpson College, worked as a school teacher for a time, and then in 1893 homesteaded in Lyman County, South Dakota --- seven miles northwest of Kennebec --- and lived on that homestead until his death 45 years later. He became widely respected in his community, holding a variety of public offices; always supported local churches while keeping all of them at arm's length; and, as his obituary puts it, "never married but kept a nice neat home all those years."

He's kind of a classic gay uncle, although of course his sexual orientation can't be documented, always living at a distance from his extended family but bound to it by bonds of affection, often recalled fondly by my grandmother, who shared in his modest estate when he died. And there's no indication that he lived anything other than a fulfilled life --- without a wife or (so far as we know) a partner. Whether heterosexual or homosexual, he would not have understood the term "gay," nor would social inhibitions of that time allowed him to engage publicly in same-sex relationships.


It would be a mistake to assume that because someone on the family tree lived and died single he or she was gay --- there were and remain other reasons not to marry. But for those interested in such things, this kinfolk category is a place to begin looking.


Uncle George in effect ran away from home and seems to have defined himself rather than staying close to home and allowing himself to be defined by where he was from and who he was related to. Others didn't, and sometimes that didn't end well.

I'm thinking of Lee Veirs, a generation younger than Uncle George and not related in any way to him or to me. But I wrote about him here a year ago. Most likely Lee would have been entirely forgotten had not a battered scrapbook detailing some aspects of his life turned up in the basement of a building up on the square when it was being cleaned up for a new owner.

Because of that scrapbook, we know that Lee was born during 1901 in Chariton --- an only child; and graduated from Chariton High School during 1920. He then launched a career as a professional musician, traveling widely, perhaps romantically involved with a fellow musician, but gave all that up and came home some time after 1935, perhaps at the behest of his mother. The family was relatively affluent, so there was property to manage and generate income.

He worked in an ordnance plant in Des Moines during World War II --- and loved the theater (we know that because he saved the programs from performances he attended in Des Moines). Then, in 1965 at the age of 63, he put a gun to his head and killed himself in the Brown Block apartment just off the southwest corner of the square, located in a building he had inherited from his mother.


Stepping back in Chariton a generation from Uncle George, I came across Napoleon Bonaparte "Bone" Branner, pioneer Chariton attorney and newspaperman, one of the "almighty Branners," also in no way related to me.

N.B. was born 1843 in East Tennessee, but came to Chariton with his father, John Branner --- Lucas County's first major entrepreneur --- when he was 10. He returned to Tennessee when the Civil War broke out to fight for the Confederacy --- his only brother died in that war.

Returning to Chariton immediately after the war, N.B. lived here until death. Described as handsome, athletic, witty --- and self-effacing --- he lived single until age 72 when, somewhat unexpectedly during 1915, he married Cinda Hawk, age 57.

Cinda was a classic spinster daughter, always living at home, caring for and nursing her parents until their deaths. She married N.B. soon after her mother's death, then nursed him until his death eight years later at age 80. It seems to have been an amicable arrangement and N.B. left Cinda well provided for, something her parents had not been able to do.

If N.B. were linked to anyone by bonds of romantically inspired affection, it may have been to his lifelong friend, fellow Tennessean and most intimate associate, George W. Alexander, also a veteran of the Confederacy, an attorney, popular mayor of Chariton --- and notable drunk. George did marry, a widow with one child who predeceased him by some 10 years, and located in Chariton at N.B.'s behest. When George died at age 70 during 1916 after falling, most likely drunk, down his office stairs he was buried near N.B. on the Branner lot in the Chariton Cemetery.


All of this is highly speculative, of course, but then LGBT history is called "hidden history" for good reason. One more installment another day, then I'll move on.

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