My Mother’s Side, Part 1: The Nicholas Family in Carmarthen and Chicago

With Some Exceptions

I’ve been tracing my genealogy for several years now. At first, I focused on my father’s side. I did fine with mapping things back as far as my great-grandparents. They were the ones who had immigrated to Chicago from what was then called Bohemia (and is now called the Czech Republic or Czechia). However, going back further — back to Europe — proved difficult because my grasp of the Czech language goes only slightly beyond ordering a beer.

Then I switched to my mother’s side. Now, we’re dealing with folks from the UK and Ireland! Even though their records are mostly in English, I’ve still struggled with those on the other side of the Atlantic. There are some exceptions. For example, I’ve uncovered a few things about the Nicholas family from Carmarthen, Wales. As I’ve learned bits and pieces about this family, the storyteller in me has felt an urge to recount their lives. This, then, is where I’ll begin a short series of posts about the maternal line of my ancestry.

A King Street Romance — and Trouble with the Numbers

According to the 1871 census, a 12-yearold girl named Ida Mary Andrews lived at 56 King Street in Carmarthen, Wales. Ida Mary’s father, Jacob, was a confectioner from Trowbridge, England. I’ll share my discoveries about the Andrews family in Part 3 of this blog series. For now, let’s stick with Ida Mary and a boy up the street — the man she would marry — John Nicholas.

The Andrews family, including Ida Mary, lived at 56 King Street, according to the 1871 UK census.

Ida Mary and John had been married by the time the 1881 census was taken. This time, folks appear with their current locations along with the ones where they were born. While it looks like it says Ida Mary Nicholas had been born at 36, not 56, King Street, I put my trust in the census of the previous decade, since it’s followed by “55 King Street” and then “54 King Street.” It also says John Nicholas was born at 14 King Street, just up the way.

The 1881 UK census shows that John had been born at 14 King Street, Carmarthen.

Regardless of street numbers, Ida Mary and John met each other, one might presume crossing paths somewhere along King Street. Had it been at the candy shop of Ida Mary’s father? Who knows? What we can say is they were married at St. Peter’s Church, which is an easy walk away. The happy event was on January 4, 1880.

The marriage certificate of John and Ida Mary. Here, we see that John was a cabinet maker, and the Andrews had since moved to Queen Street (specifically 15 Queen Street, according to their entry on the 1881 census).

A Baby — and Trouble with the Numbers

John and Ida Mary’s first born was named Leo George. I wasn’t able to find a birth certificate to confirm the date, but his baptism record is dated September 3, 1880. That’s almost exactly eight full months after the wedding day. Let’s just say John and Ida Mary wasted no time starting their family.

Leo George’s baptism record is dated September 3rd, 1880. Can we safely say he was born in, oh, July or August, 1880?

Or should we say that? This genealogy stuff often raises sticky questions, such as why Leo George’s 1918 World War I registration card puts his birthdate at July 18, 1879. This would be about a half a year before his parents got married and well over a year before he was baptized. Is there a family scandal here, or was Leo adding a year to his age when enlisting? I could understand why he might claim to be a year older if that was needed to pursue a teenager’s dreams of being a soldier. But, no, he was in his late 30s.

Document E: Leo’s WWI registration card says he was born in 1879, not 1880. Hmmmm.

Here’s something I didn’t know before working on this post. Though there were plenty of Americans who volunteered to fight in WWI, the War Department still recommended a draft. According to the U.S. Army website, “The Selective Service Act passed on May 18, 1917, and all men age 21 to 30 were required to register with local draft boards. As the war continued, the age for registration went up to 45.” Was Leo claiming to be a year older with the hope of making himself a less desirable draftee? I’d be surprised by this because, at the bottom of that card, his occupation is given, and Leo was working as a guard for the Cook County Sheriff’s Office. Something tells me that a man brave enough to serve as a prison guard in Chicago wouldn’t try to sidestep military service.

I’m going assume that Leo was born in the summer of 1880, as suggested by his baptism record. The 1881 census lends support to this, too, since it puts him at “8 months” that year.

From Carmarthen to Chicago

The same census also puts little Leo and his parents at 14 St. Peter’s Street in 1881. The distance between King and St. Peter’s Streets isn’t much at all. However, in 1882, John, Ida Mary, and Leo journeyed from Carmarthen, Carmarthenshire, Wales, all the way to Chicago, Illinois, USA. Eighteen years later, the US census reveals that the family had grown by three daughters and one daughter-in-law. They lived on West Madison Street.

The 1900 US census indicates that Ida Mary, John, and Leo immigrated to Chicago in 1882. Along with a quartet of daughters, Ida Mary and John have a granddaughter named Lottie.

See that third daughter, the one named Ida M.? That’s my grandmother!

Kindly also note that May Nicholas, Leo’s wife, is the daughter of a man born in Maryland and a mother born in Bohemia! The Welsh and the Czechs were mixing already! Was it their mutual disdain for the English language’s limitations on vowels? (For instance, drws means door in Welsh and hrst means handful in Czech.) Or was it an understanding born of being subjugated by a neighboring empire, be it British or Habsburg? Or is it just a Chicago melting-pot thing? Maybe all of the above and quite a bit more.

Here’s another interesting — or should I say pretty darned astounding? — discovery I made as I was writing this post. That 1900 census says John and Leo worked in the “grille” business, the father as a manufacturer and the son as a maker. I wanted to find out was a “grille” was. Turns out, it’s a fairly large piece of decorative woodwork that one might use to cover a radiator or frame a window or you name it. While looking for this information, though, one of the first sources I found was a short article titled “20th Century Grille Works,” run in a 1900 issue of The National Builder. Seriously, I grabbed both sides of my head when I read:

There are a number of manufacturers of grille work in Chicago, and prominent among them is Twentieth Century Grille Works, of which Mr. John Nicolas is manager. This establishment is located at No. 853 Madison street.... This enterprise was established by Mr. Nicholas about eight years ago, and he is still manager for this firm. He has been identified with this branch of manufacture for some eighteen years. Mr. Nicholas was born and reared in Wales and came to Chicago eighteen years ago.

Until now, I hadn’t known the company name and work address of my Welsh-immigrant ancestor. This has to be him, right? I imagine there have been several men named John Nicholas in Chicago, but this one worked in the grille-manufacture business and immigrated from Wales in 1882. And guess what. The address in the advertisement below is the same as on the 1900 census. (I’m curious if he did this work at home — or if the Nicholases lived in a woodworking shop!) Calling it: that guy in the article is my great-grandfather!

A 1900 advertisement printed in The National Builder, the same Chicago-based journal that ran a short piece about John Nicholas, my great-grandfather. And, yes, I’m sending for that illustrated catalogue!

Let’s review. My great-grandparents lived on the same street in Carmarthen, Wales. I even know the street numbers and could stroll past those spots should I ever visit Wales (and I should). And now I could also stroll past their home/workplace in Chicago (and might have, since I spent a few years in that city).

Sadly, tragedy was looming for the Nicholas family. I’ll post about that next weekend.

— Tim

Go to “My Mother’s Side, Part 2”

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