On this holiday we celebrate the American worker and his or her contribution to our American life, but the holiday was actually born as a way to appease workers after a brutal crackdown on the workers and the union during the Pullman strike of 1894.

The people who made the Pullman railroad cars lived in a company town. They were paid by the Pullman Company, lived in company housing and had their rent automatically deducted from their paychecks. When the economy crashed in 1893 there were layoffs, and wage cuts, but no decrease in rents.

The workers walked out.  They were soon joined by railroad workers led by the young Socialist leader Eugene Debs. Train service was disrupted.  The mail could not get through. There was rioting and destruction of railroad equipment, sometimes by mobs of non-union workers. 80 million dollars of damage was done and thirty people died.

The strike became a national issue.  Unable to resolve the labor dispute President Grover Cleveland declared the strike a federal crime and sent troops to disband the strike.

Pullman Strikers Confronting the National Guard

Eventually the workers were overpowered and forced to sign a pledge never to unionize again.  Eugene Debs, defended by Clarence Darrow, saw the charge of obstructing the mail dropped, but spent six months in prison for violating a federal injunction.  He continued to organize. When he ran for President in 1920 on a Socialist ticket he won a million votes.

Labor had long pressed Congress for a Labor Day holiday.  The bill was passed by both houses and hit Cleveland’s desk six days after the end of the strike.  The bill was signed into law as a means of appeasing the labor movement.   The new holiday was seen by labor not just as a holiday, but as a day for organizing.

Today we see Labor Day as the holiday that marks the end of summer.  Kids go back to school, parents breathe a sigh of relief, we grill things and try not to think about cold weather and heating bills.

Of course, genealogists think about their ancestors and I am no exception.  Here are some of our great-grandparents, grandparents, parents and their labors.

Samuel Bublick opened a candy store, what we might consider a convenience store in New York City.

Joseph Mason


Joseph Mason worked as a leather cutter making ladies handbags.  He was a wiry little man with arms of steel.

Morris Silverman was a capmaker in New York City.

Morris Silverman










His son Alex would organize for the capmakers union.

Alex Silver

Alex’s son, Stanley would work for the Signal Corp and then as a salesman.  He would be a union steward.

Stanley Silver














I am Stanley’s daughter.


John and Annie Costello homesteaded a farm in Sprague, Washington.

James and Sophie Cole

James and Sophie Cole homesteaded a farm in Primrose, Nebraska.

Edwin Cole





Their son Edwin would cook in a lumber camp, pour cement for the WPA and work as a janitor in a hotel.







Edwin’s son Merwin would become a union organizer, a carpenter and a contractor.

Marian and Merwin Cole


My husband is Merwin’s son






Stanley’s daughter and Merwin’s son got to go to college and now work at jobs that leave them trying to figure out how to get enough exercise. Wow!

Merwin’s son and Stanley’s daughter post exercise




This is the second part of  a series of the memories of Uncle Jack Costello about life on a farm in eastern Washington in the early twentieth century. You can read the first part here.

Jack Costello

Family farm diet ran heavily to pork because it was easier to preserve. Due to the lack of refrigeration, beef and poultry had to be fresh. Hog butchering was scheduled for cold weather when the natural cold helped prevent spoilage. Ultimately, the hams, shoulders and bacon were hung in the smokehouse to be cured by smoke and salt. Nothing was wasted. Feet were pickled and head cheese made from the boiled head. The family kitchen became a sausage factory as freshly ground meat was mixed with spices and forced into its casing (intestines). Meanwhile, a battery of large utensils filled the oven for the purpose of rendering fat. This project netted white lard which was stored in 5-gallon cans for the year’s supply “Crisco”, or the necessary ingredients for homemade soap. Overall, while butchering was hard work, it often took on an air of socializing. There was “more the merrier” attitude about numbers required, and neighbors worked on an exchange basis.

After many high priority chores were completed and the weather permitted “the man” hitched a team to a wagon and headed to the creek four miles away for firewood. These mid-winter forays produced the year’s main supply of heat, sometimes supplemented with a chunk of coal in the family room space heater. The wood was cut into usable lengths, split, and thrown into a large pile. If thoughtfully placed, this pile was passed on the way back from the outhouse, and cooperative family members helped keep the box on the back porch filled.

When the weather was bad, the farmer could take either harness or grain sacks into the sheltered area for mending. Thousands of burlap sacks were needed for the harvest. Used ones could be checked over in this off-season and those worth mending, attended to. Approximately 30 sets of harnesses required at least annual inspection. When sacks and harness were finished, attention might be directed to the potatoes in storage. A potato that had started to spoil, like a bad apple, needed to be discarded. So the stored potatoes needed to be inspected occasionally to reduce the number of rotten spuds. A bit of country humor is generated through the job requisite. One sorting potatoes must be able to make a decision. Another seasonal task for this time of year was orchard pruning. Taking a day or two, the 20 or so fruit trees would furnish the wood for use in the smoke house to cure the recently butchered pork.

Jobs that had to be squeezed in when time and weather permitted, were building maintenance and fencing. A quarter section of land has a circumference of two miles. Fencing generally consisted of three strands of barbed wire with cedar posts spaced approximately 15 feet apart. Keeping miles of fence in good repair was no small task, but still easier than retrieving stock that could easily trot over the hill. Especially in the spring, both horses and cows were wont to break out and take off for anywhere, maybe just for the sake of running.

Now came a time to await some serious cold. With no refrigeration, a good store of ice was essential to keeping some types of food during the next season. For this operation horses were hooked to a sled and driven to a lake where ice was cut into cakes of approximately 80 to 100 pounds, loaded onto a sled, and brought back to the farm to be stored. In the shed known as the ice house, the big cakes were carefully layered and covered with sawdust. Insulating qualities of sawdust made this ideal for this purpose but not easily removed from the ice cake that was on its way to the swamp cooler. This was an item developed through a little local carpentry, with some semblance to a modern refrigerator in size and shape, but without the cooling capacity. Ice and evaporating moisture on a burlap frame was the best available. This thing was usually located with ready access to the kitchen.

Did the outbuildings on a farm always take precedence over the dwelling, or did it just seem that the barn always got its coat of paint before the house? And in the house, probably the most important room was the kitchen. At mealtimes the numbers varied from family members plus one hired hand to the family plus seven or eight. Harvest time, especially, called for three big meals a day, all prepared on a wood stove. No electric appliance of any sort. Needless to say, on the successful farm the “lady of the house” didn’t lead the life of a lady. Besides the vegetable garden which needed tending because it produced a good portion of the family’s summer food, the orchard supplied fruit in great quantity, everything from the first cherries to late apples and pears, with crabapples and prunes between. Canned fruits, jellies and preserves were important for the winter menu and rhubarb, currants and berries of all sorts were canned in sufficient quantities, hopefully, to carry through to the next season. The root vegetables, such as carrots, turnips, and parsnips were dug late and stored in boxes covered with dry soil. Cabbage was a big ticket item because it was served frequently as slaw, and every family had a large crock, usually 20-gallon, for a store of sauerkraut. Not a gourmet item for everyone, but inexpensive and an easy keeper.

These foodstuffs had to be stored in a so-called root cellar because few farm homes had basements or storage areas under their living quarters. The root cellar provided both protection from freezing in winter and a cool, even temperature for year round. The floor of the building was poured concrete about six feet below ground level. Ten inch thick walls, also of concrete, rose about a foot above ground level. The frame ceiling had to be strong enough to support a healthy level of earth, the insulating agent. Double doors kept heat loss to a minimum, and a conventional pitched roof over all protected from rain and snow. Although the root cellar wasn’t ideal, it worked.

An unhappy feature of putting all these good things away was the timing factor. Most of the picking, canning and preserving coincided with harvest, or crush time. A harvest crew consisted of five men, and because half of the acreage was in crop and the other half fallow, teenage boys were sometimes hired to hoe weeds in the summer fallow. There was always a roustabout, and with mother and children, numbers at the table, if all together, would be 10 to 15. Since tables usually couldn’t accommodate that number, two settings were required. The harvest crew had priority, and since the meals were 6 a.m., noon, and generally around 7:30 to 8:00, hard work, fresh air, long hours developed the voracious appetites for which the harvest hands became renowned. The cookstove, fueled with wood and an occasional chunk of coal, boosted the temperature in this hottest part of the year. And natural ventilation, windows open, was the only air conditioning.

During harvest the evening meat was invariably served after dark. Some farmers had electrical generators but they were primitive, with insufficient juice to illuminate a room. The principal light at the evening meal was usually a kerosene lantern, suspended over the dinner table. The typical lantern had two very delicate cloth mantles wherein kerosene mixed with air under pressure was ignited to form a very bright but fragile light. While everyone was busy eating, cooking, and serving, the dull but elusive miller moth made the scene. Like many other flying insects, this thing has a strong affinity to light. The brilliance of the mantles turned the moth into a kamikaze character, with folks in the kitchen becoming spellbound over the impending disaster. After circling for a few short seconds, the moth would hit, and the mantle disintegrate. A small ash and dead moth were some place on the table. The meal continued after the kerosene lamp was replaced with either candles or a coal oil lamp. While this was not a daily occurrence, it did happen several times during a harvest season. While adults undoubtedly found it an unwelcome event, for the kids it really pepped up the meal.

The farm family was big on pork because pigs were raised on home grown food and pork was comparatively easy to cure. If the weather was bad enough to justify stopping field work, a very rare occasion, the crew went fishing. The Friday fish requirement was usually met by the man who weekly peddled fish. North Sprague was predominantly Catholic and church law at this time forbade meat on Fridays. There was a strong demand for fish and beef. Scriptures might have read, “Man does not live on pork alone.” due to the lack of refrigeration, purchases could last no more than a couple of days. After that was gone, it was back to pork, chicken, or whatever.

An interesting aside is found in the merchants. One was an Irish phenomenon who served his customers weekly, extended credit, and kept no written records. He was never found in error. The other, not identified as Irish but could have been, at least on his mother’s side. The second merchant sold meat, fish and sly grog. The nature of this business and the personality required records. By modern standards this would not be considered a convenience, but it was in those days. Although Sprague had a small dry-goods store, the Sears Roebuck catalogue was heavily relied upon, for everything from hats and shoes to all manner of household and outdoor equipment. Catalogue shopping, now an option for specialized taste, was then a family necessity. The Sears catalogue, used by the whole community, reflects the culture of the period. For the farm family it was one of the strongest contacts with the larger world.

Without the “blessings” of our present day technology, farm life must appear to have been the ultimate in isolation. In a time preceding radio and TV, written communication must indeed have been more valuable. Mail delivery to the boxes a mile away, where county and state roads met, was at best three times a week. Because volume of mail influenced service, farmers were anxious to add their names to mailing lists.

For voice communication there was the telephone, probably on the kitchen wall. The telephone was in a hardwood box with a mouthpiece extending from its lower front center. On the left side was a handheld receiver to be lifted from its bracket when one wanted to use the telephone. Not unlike a modern phone, a dial tone could be heard. On the right side of the hardwood box was the “crank”. With this the caller identified the callee. Each member on a party line had their own sequence of short and long rings that alerted the seven other members on that line that an incoming call was in process, that someone was trying to reach a neighbor.

For calls beyond the neighborhood, the one on the crank rang for the switchboard in town. The switchboard operator, an institution of many years, was never addressed by anything other than the title of her office. On the street or at church, she was Alice Vent, but on the telephone “Central”. The system was owned and maintained by the farmers. While it involved many miles of smooth wire, the poles were ten foot 2×4’s attached to fence posts, nothing sophisticated but it usually worked.

An occasional humorous situation developed when reception was weak. The user, making a natural assumption that the same was true at the other end, turned up the volume a couple of hundred decibels, and a comment usually followed that the phone was very incidental to the communication.

On the country phone line news traveled fast. “Rubbering”, listening to the neighbors, was rampant, but never acknowledged. For confidentiality, postcards were better.

They said it would never last.  They really did say that forty years ago when Norman and I were married and they had good reason.  We are very different people, different interests, different religions, and raised in very different circumstances by very different people. It hasn’t always been an easy marriage and never a simple one, but it has never, not even for a single day, been boring.  We were both heavily influenced by our mothers; I’m sure we were also influenced by our fathers, but it is our mothers’ ways that we remember most.

We lost both of these women in the last few months and I’d like to tell you a little bit about them and about us.

Both of our moms left their jobs to care for their families.  In this these two rather different women were quite similar.  They were devoted to their children and to their children’s future.  Norman and I both remember knowing we would attend college for all of our lives.  We probably knew this in the womb.  The only allowable question was which college we would attend.  Our mothers worked tirelessly for our schools.  They were presidents of the Parent Teacher Organizations; always available to help in the classroom or with any extracurricular activities we might be involved with.

I remember a basement full of Girl Scout cookies when my mother was cookie chairman.  Norman remembers hutches full of rabbits for his brother’s Boy Scout merit badge project and chickens for his sister’s 4H project.  His mother dispatched them as necessary.  We both remember the many hours they listened to us read or helped us learn to write.

How did the children of such different backgrounds meet?  We met at college in Ohio.  It was the farthest west I had ever been.  It was the farthest east he had ever been. We both yearned for the experiences that were second nature for the other.  He took me camping, fishing, and boating.  I took him to New York and showed him how to master the subway.  We met each other’s families.  He took me to the northwest where I thought he would kill us both when he stopped to eat wild berries.  My people knew that things that grew in the woods were dangerous.  Norman knew what wild blackberries looked like.  I found out what delicious means.  I took him to Philadelphia and taught him about lox and bagels.  He learned the proper protocol for ordering in a Jewish deli.  When we moved to New Haven years later he went to the local Jewish deli for the first time with our two young children in tow. He was obviously a stranger.  Half an hour later, having ordered properly, one thing at a time, and having schmoozed about our history with the owners, he belonged.  The children each left with a cookie in hand.  He says with pleasure that he can pass.  He can, his black Irish looks fit in and his manners are impeccable.  I have learned to fit with his family.  I do my best not to interrupt the speaker with varying degrees of success.  They seem to love me anyway.

We are grown now, both sixty, but all this recent loss has made us feel slightly adrift.  I think we will eventually be fine. We have each other and we were raised right.

Here is  a timeline for the life of Anna Donahue Costello, our Carnival of Genealogy entry for March 2010.  Annie’s life is on the left and major historical events that affected her life are on the right.  Please take the time to read Annie’s story .

Annie Donahue Costello   A Life

I bought my daughter a sheep for Christmas.  No, we don’t actually have a four legged baaing creature tethered in the back yard, but we do have an entire fleece from one sheep.  It arrived in a large box in all its multicolored, lanolin rich, greasy, smelly glory.

One snowy New England day Sara and I stayed home together and did women’s work.  Sara has been spinning and knitting and generally working with wool for years.  Now she is taking the process of turning a sheep into sweater one step further back. As Sara washed some of the wool and carded it I made several loaves of dark rye bread that we have come to call the tar baby.  Never have I worked with such sticky dough.  I added flour and kneaded and prodded and scrapped dough off of my hands and every surface it had been in contact with and then did it again and again and again.  Ultimately a shower, a complete change of clothing and a load of laundry were required and I won’t even tell you about the kitchen clean up.

At the end of a pleasant day together we had a fluffy pile of snow white wool ready to be spun into yarn, perhaps enough to make one sock, two delicious loaves of slightly sweet, chewy dark bread, and the certain knowledge that if we had been responsible for caring for a family on a farm in the 1880’s we would all be both naked and hungry.

The sheer volume of work those women did is staggering and our relaxed day of craftiness in our centrally heated home complete with stand mixer, dish washer and washing machine certainly made me appreciate it.

If you are still reading by now you are probably saying to yourself, “I thought this was a genealogy blog.”  It is, and all this domestic bliss put me in mind of our ancestor, Annie Costello, and her story. Credit for the research for much of this story goes to our cousin Dick who has worked on the family genealogy for years.

Follow the link to see a timeline of Annie’s life and the events that surrounded and informed it.

Anna Donahue Costello was born in 1841 in Belfast, Ireland, the daughter of Felix Donahue and Kate McCrystal.  Family lore says that she emigrated to the U.S. with her brother Felix about 1850, stopping in Boston or New York and then coming “round the horn” to San Francisco as a teenager.  The family stories tell us that Annie worked as a domestic for a survivor of the infamous Donner Party.  I have no direct evidence of Annie’s arrived in San Francisco or of her employment there, but somehow she met John Costello and married him in San Jose in 1867.

Annie Costello and her husband John D homesteaded 160 acres of land in the farming community of Sprague in Washington Territory in 1880.  By 1880 they had 5 children under the age of 10.  Between 1880 and 1883 another child was born and died in infancy; their seven-year-old son Joseph died as well. Through all of this they moved north from California to Washington Territory and started and nearly lost their little farm.  Annie did it all, everything that was necessary to keep a family going through all those difficult years and through it all she was either pregnant or nursing or both and caring for her young children. Gardening, canning, sewing, knitting, cooking, keeping the wood stove going for heat and food, and helping with everything that needed doing to sustain a farm in its infancy.  Between 1880 and 1883 they survived a plague of grasshoppers, unusually cold winters, birth, death, and all the harsh realities of this new and growing territory.

But 1883 brought Annie what were perhaps her most difficult moments.  On February 22, 1883 John D relinquished his homestead claim, selling his land to J.D. Irvine.

In the words of the commissioner of the Colfax Land Office here is Annie’s story.

“ In support of said application it is alleged that John Costello is a confirmed and habitual drunkard and sold and relinquished said homestead while in a state of intoxication; that the improvements upon the premises where procured with her earnings and that the support of the family, embracing several minor children, devolves entirely upon her.  It is also alleged that J.D. Irvine to whom Costello sold, filed DS2993 for said tract March 26 alleging settlement February 24, 1883, but had not improved or established his residence upon the land prior to filing. …If Mrs. Costello however desires to make an entry in her own right as the head of the family, the filing of Irvine is not a bar to her application.”

Mrs. Costello did indeed wish to make an entry in her own name and was successful in doing so, retaining her land and her 12 by 20 foot home for herself and her children.

Annie and John were divorced in 1898, but continued to live together until his death.  I believe she pursued the divorce to protect her land and her family, not to abandon her husband of 31 years.

Annie found work wherever she could, while her son John T and perhaps her husband managed the farm. On Dec. 5, 1890 Annie received her Final Certificate fulfilling the requirements of the homestead grant and allowing her to receive a final patent for the land from the federal government in 1891.  She had saved her farm and her home and secured her children’s futures. But Annie wasn’t finished pursuing her dream of a prosperous farm.  In 1893 she bought an adjacent 160 acres from a neighbor.  Then in 1901 she obtained another 160 acres from the Northern Pacific Railroad.

John D died in 1903, his obituary states, “Mr. Costello was one of the pioneers of that section and had the reputation of being the best farmer in that country.”

John T and his wife Elizabeth took over the farm.  Eventually they expanded the farm to 480 acres and built a solid two-story house for their growing family.  Annie lived in Sprague until 1923 surrounded by and cared for by a loving family.

Annie and John D.’s descendants have multiplied and prospered.  The original farm outside of Sprague remains in family hands to this day.  Members of this family live in many states and countries around the world.  They all owe their success to the strength and perseverance of one remarkable woman who refused to give up her dream.