Rebecca Florence Smith is my maternal grandmother, known in my family as “Nan.” She was the second of thirteen children born to Albert Campbell Smith and Mary Susan Mallow, in Randolph County, West Virginia.
I didn’t know her well. She died when I was fifteen, and by the time I was old enough to really appreciate her, dementia had begun its horrid attack on her mind. In my younger years, she was very intimidating. This photo from her genealogy page is from 1947, almost twenty years before I was born. Yet in my memories, she looked just the same when my mother and I visited in the 70s.
For much of my life, the story was that Nan’s parents had died when she was young, and there were no siblings. As early as 1945, she wrote to an insurance company that “my father and my mother died approximately 32 years ago when I was in school….I was born March 6, 1897.” Her father was still alive when she wrote that letter, though she’d had no contact with her parents or siblings for twenty years by then.
Nan married Edward Bleike Baldinger Sr. in 1921, in Orange, New Jersey. Soon after, they resided in New Orleans, where Edward was in the lumber business. In fact, Edward had been in New Orleans since at least 1920, partnering with James A Kirby in Kirby & Baldinger, a “Yellow Pine Service,” according to the New Orleans city directories. But Baldinger is listed in the 1919 City Directory in Houston, working for Trinity River Lumber. So how and why did Edward and Rebecca end up getting married in New Jersey? I assume it was something of a private event, given that I’ve found no articles about it. The Baldinger family was somewhat prominent in the Galveston area, as evidenced by this piece in Galveston, History Of The Island And City about Andrew Baldinger, Edward Bleike Baldinger’s grandfather.
My uncle Edward Bleike Baldinger Jr, Nan and Edward’s firstborn, was born in November 1922, about thirteen months after they were married. Family legend shares that not long after Uncle Ed was born, Nan wrote the family back in West Virginia, saying that she was married and had a child, and didn’t want to speak with them again, cutting off contact forever, as far as anyone knew.
My father, along with my mother’s sister (Gayle Baldinger Cahal) worked on my grandmother’s genealogy for years. As I recall, it started in earnest in the mid-1970s when, as Nan was recovering from surgery for a broken hip, she began speaking names that no one in the family had ever heard before. Gayle was sitting with her and wrote the names down, then asked Nan about them later. She denied knowing anything about any of the names. Throughout 1975, Dad and Gayle contacted several offices in West Virginia. Two years later, Gayle made a research trip to Salt Lake City and the Mormon archives.
Sometime in the next three years, Gayle found the correct date of birth and Nan’s parents’ names, although when and how she found them we no longer know.
In 1984, while working at the National Archives, Gayle reviewed the 1910 U. S. Census and discovered the names and dates of birth of Nan’s surviving siblings. My dad planned a visit to Randolph County the following year. In preparation for the trip, he wrote the postmaster of Harman, West Virginia, asking for information on the family. The postmaster passed the letter on to a friend of Hazel Smith Hedrick, a sister of Rebecca Florence, who quickly responded, thus reestablishing contact after some sixty years.
In 1985, after Nan had died, Dad contacted the Randolph County Clerk for a birth certificate, this time with the correct date and parents, but they had no record of her birth. As far as anyone knows, her birth was never recorded at the county or state level.
The Smith family still holds a family reunion each summer at the Albert Smith farm. The last one I attended was in 1993; I hope to make it for 2020.
I’ve had access to Newspapers.com recently, and have found disturbingly few articles about the Baldingers in New Orleans. Most what I’ve found are about my uncle Ed Baldinger. I did figure out that the Times-Picayune archives at Newspapers.com end in 1919. Even so, searching the Times-Picayune archives directly doesn’t give me much about my grandparents. I assume that’s mostly because she was just a very private person, although I do occasionally wonder if she was still trying to hide from her West Virginia family.
Baring a miraculous discovery of letters or a diary, we’re probably never going to know exactly why Nan cut herself off from her family. I would like to track down her travels a bit better though. I know she was in New Jersey in 1921, however briefly. There was some speculation from her siblings at one point that she’d ended up in New York “to work for a lumber man.” That makes some bit of sense, as her birthplace in West Virginia was something of a hub for the lumber business in the area. I doubt that I’m going to have much success there though, given my luck so far with newspaper archives. I know there are plenty of Smith cousins out there, given the number of siblings Nan had. Please feel free to share information about your branch of the family tree. You can use the Contact form here, or the Suggest tab on any of the Smith family member pages at my genealogy site.
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