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The Grandpa Joe Generation

Grandpa Joe

Grandma Dorothy’s father was Joseph John Berger. He was born in Carlyle, Illinois, on March 15, 1880. (Carlyle is today a 1-hour or so drive East of St. Louis.) Joseph Berger was a religious Catholic in heritage and by personal conviction; he was also a carpenter by trade, a loyal member of his carpenter union, and a dedicated employee at a St. Louis furniture factory for many years.

I am going to take the liberty of calling my/our Great-Grandfather “Grandpa Joe” for discussion’s sake. This makes sense to me because:

(a) “Joe” is the nickname of “Joseph”, which was his baptism name;

(b) “Joe” is more of a down-home 20th Century American name than “Joseph”;

(c) I would think our unionized blue collar furniture factory ancestor would have preferred the standard American name of “Joe” over “Joseph” (yes, I am being presumptuous); and,

(d) besides, apparently no one alive today can personally swear to have witnessed which name he preferred, so we should take the less-formal one.

Grandpa Joe was 100% German, with all four of his grandparents being German immigrants.


Joseph John Berger 1880 - 1942_2 fixed

Grandpa Joe Berger (1880-1942): here, I am guessing late 1890’s. Joe came from a broken family upbringing, but appears to have led a hardworking, sober and simple life.


Joe’s occupation was listed as a cabinet maker in the city directory, and he apparently worked at the same furniture company for years. He first shared a tiny house near Downtown St. Louis with Grandma Anna, and then the two of them moved to a larger house and had a bunch of kids. I can’t tell how religious they were, but this was a Catholic household: Grandpa Joe was himself raised in a 100% German Catholic family, and Grandma Anna was raised in a 100% Irish Catholic family. And the Catholic Church records of baptisms, marriages and deaths have been vital to our research.

I asked both Sally and Grandma Dorothy to tell me about Grandpa Joe. But apparently he led such a normal life that they had nothing special to share. Grandma Dorothy shared some fairly detailed stories about domestic life, but that I can recall only that and none of the specifics. Sally could only remember him from her childhood, and did not tell me anything memorable – although I got the sense that she didn’t harbor many pleasant memories of being around him (although they lived in the same city). Therefore, I can’t say much about Grandpa Joe, since so few stories have been passed on to us. I can recall being told was he was passionate about some electric sawing machinery in the factory he worked at. I also vaguely recall Grandma Dorothy telling me he went with the whole family to church on Sundays, and was involved in one or more social groups. Exactly what type I cannot recall.


Grandpa Joe’s Siblings: An American Tale of Not Moving Up

As was common for many Catholic families of their era, Grandpa Joe’s parents had many children. It was essential for me to study their stories in order to find out the full, true story of Grandpa Joe. I’ve found a few things. Let’s take a look:

Willie/ George William:  Born in 1873, Willie was the oldest child born to Henry Berger and Louise Krebs. This must be the same Willie identified in a photo found in the things of his grandfather Adam Krebs, sent to me by our distant cousin. (I believe Willie was also next to Grandpa Joe in a photo in Grandma Dorothy’s album, not included here.) Willie moved to St. Louis as an adult and spent a life in various occupations including “order clerk” for a furniture company and roofing salesman.

willie and sadie berger - Copy


“Sadie & Willie Berger”, the oldest son and daughter of the family. Here is a snapshot of a photograph found in the old photo albums belonging to the family of Willie and Sadie Berger’s cousins, the Krebs. (The photo was kindly sent to me by our Missouri cousin John Krebs.)

“M.A.”: The oldest daughter of the family. I can’t even figure out her full name, as both she and Willie do not show up in the local St. Mary’s Church baptism rolls, leading me to suspect that they were born outside of Carlyle, possibly in St. Louis. “M.A.” may have moved out of the Carlyle/ St. Louis area by marrying a farmer by the name of Simon. But I cannot find out any other facts about her.

Aunt Sadie: Born in 1877, a young version of her is in the Krebs family photo above next to Willie. I expect Sadie had a financially rocky time in life. It’s important for us to remember that, back in those days, a woman had to choose between a marriage she might not want, or a life of being a social outcast doomed to abject poverty. But she lost both husbands and their incomes. First time I find Sadie as an adult she was married to a Sol Bernstein in Chicago in 1910; I cannot confirm his story, but he must have either died or up and left her, as she was married again to a Mr. George Johns as soon as 1914. But George then also disappeared – I cannot find any facts for him, but he was apparently himself dead before 1920. At that point, Sadie is found a single mom in St. Louis with a child named “Irene Bernstein”. Both the census and the St. Louis residential directory as a “demonstrator of ladies apparel”. I can’t really tell what this was, as it could have been a nice little job working at an upscale fashion dress shop, or it could have been just a degrading occupation when young women used to stand in clothing shop windows to be observed by potential shoppers walking on the sidewalk — imagine having to stand in a shop window, modeling dresses in front of complete strangers.

This was not a job for any woman of the upper classes, and Sadie must have been dealing with hard times in order to take this work. Thus, I think we can conclude Sadie was a single mom and struggling worker. She died in 1942 – about the same time as Grandpa Joe.

Agnes: There was also an Agnes in the Third American Berger generation, and she was born the year after Joe. I have no information about her, except that she went on to marry a Mr. Ditmeyer. I hope she had a good life.

unidd next to other tin

This is an un-labeled tin-type found in Grandma Dorothy’s album. Judging from the other family photos, this could be any of Grandpa Joe’s three sisters M.A., Sadie, or Agnes.


Berger Boys Tin-Type.jpg - fixattempt1

Un-labeled tin-type photograph found in Grandma Dorothy’s albums. Grandpa Joe is in the back middle, and I based on how he looks in other photos of him from different years, I am going to date this circa 1908 – 1912 or so.  My best guess is that the men beside him were  brothers and, based on their relative appearances of age, his youngest brother George Edward Berger is on the left and other younger brother Lee Dominic Berger is on the right.

Lee Dominic:  Perhaps the saddest story of the Third Generation of Bergers may be found in Grandma Dorothy’s Uncle Lee (Lee Dominic Berger). I will take the cheesy liberty of calling him “Uncle Lee” for discussion sake.

Uncle Lee, who was born in Carlyle in 1884, did not choose to create a life for himself in St. Louis. Instead, he chose Chicago, which of course had many jobs for laborers. I believe Lee was the same Lee Berger the 1910 US Census lists as a boarder in a Chicago family household, but he also completed a draft registration form for World War I in 1918. He married a lady named Christine, a Norwegian immigrant who was 10 years his senior, and they moved into an apartment together. At some point, she was no longer living with him because, by the 1940 US Census, Lee had moved into single room in a rooming house. And the census takers reported that he had lived in this rooming house since at least 1935.

But this wasn’t just any rooming house. This was the infamous McCoy Hotel, on Chicago’s infamous Skid Row – – a “strip of West Madison Street”, a “12-block stretch of flophouses, gin joints and battered dreams.”[1]

It seems every very large city in America has had its own a “skid row” of one kind or another.  Chicago’s was among the most notorious of the 20th Century and, if I am not mistaken, the “original” one from which others took their names . Try to picture: a crowded street of filthy grimy sidewalks and buildings, covered in litter of all kinds, occasional piles of debris and a pervasive stench from garbage. In this setting are lots and lots of societal outcasts including homeless people, prostitutes, mentally disabled people, and severe alcoholics and drug addicts. As described in one article, reporting on extensive coverage that Time Magazine gave to the area:

Land of the Living Dead,” as Time magazine described it in 1949. From the onset of the Great Depression until the late 1980s, the area centered on Madison Street, loosely reaching from Lake Street to Van Buren and Clinton west to Damen, was largely an unchecked haven for alcoholism, poverty, crime and down-and-outers from all walks of life. In its heyday, if you walked four blocks down Madison Street, you would wade through a sea of garbage and broken glass and have to step over at least twenty men lying prone on the sidewalk or passed out in the gutter. On warm summer and cold winter nights, the wind blew the stench and filth from vomit and urine up from the gutters and into your face.[2]

The Chicago Tribune has published a series of photographs their reporters took of that city’s famous Skid Row. I encourage readers to visit that website to see the images: the photos span c.1910s- c.1970s and reveal great detail.   [2.5]

West Madison Street was packed with “hotels” that had either originally been legitimate “hotels” or rooming houses for the masses that moved into Chicago in the late 1800s and early 20th century for work in the dockyards and railroads. But the onset of the depression changed everything for this area, and the streets became occupied by an entire population and culture of street-living “hobos”. Those rooming houses developed into havens for chronic alcoholics, drug addicts, mentally disabled and other down-and-outers – and largely single men. Other buildings on this strip were just apartment or commercial buildings that had been divided up into tiny rooms – in some cases separated only by boards and chicken wire. It became big business to cater to the down-and-out crowd – even Chicago’s political bosses invested in some of the rooming houses. This condition lasted for over four decades, from the Great Depression and well into the 1970s.[3]

mccoy hotel

A postcard I found online, showing the McCoy Hotel as advertised. Image gratefully lifted from the website “Chicago History in Postcards”. This must have been in it’s hey-day, before Madison Street turned into Skid Row.


The McCoy Hotel in the early 20th century appears at one point to have been just a nice big rooming house facility for the blue collar worker bee population. But by the time Uncle Lee moved in during the 1930s, West Madison Street had already turned into a social cesspool. The area was already Skid Row. With each passing year and decade, the social situation deteriorated further – or some might argue, only got stronger from the perspective of the underworld. By the time in 1942 when Lee reported his address on his WWII draft registration card, it had already become an infamous pit. I suspect any person with high or even middle class social standing would not have willingly shared their locale of residence.

The McCoy Hotel was featured in a song by the folksong writer and performer Jack Warshaw; here are the opening lyrics, which seem fitting and say a lot about the scene:

In downtown Chicago bright steel glass and concrete

Rise over the city and people below

The McCoy Hotel stands on a dirty grey back street

Where winos and dropouts can come down and flop out

The tired and lonely get a room for one only

The old and the lame and you don’t need no name

When you come to Skid Row [4]

197302 Room for Lee Berger at the McCoy Hotel

This image is of the inside of a room in the McCoy Hotel.c. 1960s. It’s from a negative I purchased years ago. I also saw (but I regret for some reason did not buy), an image from the 1950s showing several elderly men lounging around in the lobby of the Hotel.

In his Skid Row residency, Uncle Lee was like most everyone else living there: a loner. In his WWII draft registration form, in response to the US Army’s question: “Name and Address of Person Who Will Always Know Your Address”, Lee put down Grandpa Joe’s name. However, the address he listed was one that Joe had not lived in since 1899. In addition, Joe died on January 9, 1942; Lee did not complete the form until later in the year, because the form itself was dated April.

Other than his 1944 social security application, the only later record I find for Lee is a Cook County (Chicago) death index entry from 1957. He was not in a city directory or phone book I can find, and the 1950 US census won’t be published until 2022 (under federal law). So we don’t really know how he escaped Skid Row. I note 1957 would put Lee in his early 70s. This was surprisingly a longer life than his siblings Willie, Sadie, and Grandpa Joe, because one would expect a life on Skid Row would make a person die sooner than the general population. I think it just goes to illustrate how people can live on for many years in a miserable, squalid setting. I guess none of us can really know how Lee spent the 1940s and 1950s. I want to be believe he was there because he was a preacher of the gospel and caring for the residents there. But my cynical side paints a grey-to-dark existence. My expectation is he stayed in the Skid Row area — or at least not far from it — for most if not all of his remaining years, and kept separated from all friends and family. If he had a serious alcohol or drug or mental illness problem, it’s even possible he ended up either homeless and on the streets, or in a horrid 20th Century state sanitorium. He most likely died alone. And without further information, I can only guess his body was discovered only when the flophouse operator came to collect overdue rent or a nurse came by to check on him. I expect he ended up in the Chicago morgue, his body disposed of in the same way as any other unattached single homeless person (whatever that may have been).

Now, with the foregoing facts in mind, take another look at that photo of the Hotel McCoy room. The old residential hotel wall plaster has been damaged, and badly needs a paint job. Perhaps that was caused by a cigarette not put out, or just long-term rainwater. And that bed was probably a cheaper replacement for a since-broken but nicer woodframe horsehair bed from the early-20th century that might have been provided to the original Hotel tenants back in the day.

Oh, and that room would have been nasty freezing on cold Chicago winter mornings.

Did George Edward Berger Have a Trip to Hell and Back?

The youngest son of Henry Berger and Louise Krebs, George Edward Berger, was born in 1890. Unfortunately, even if he had showed up on the US Census that year as an infant, none of that record survived Federal government warehouse fires. And, I cannot find the family at all – parents or children – in census reports or directories in 1900.

Beyond his baptism record, the only solid evidence I can find of George Edward is that he had moved to Denver, CO by the early 1940s. This was evidenced as such in a 1944 social security application and 1942 World War II draft registration card naming his Henry and Louise as his parents. So, then, what about between 1890 and 1940s?

Well, the possibilities, based on what I have found, are few and they are not perfect. That said, it’s entirely possible our George Edward is the same George Berger who crossed the law and ended up imprisoned for some time.  The 1910 Census for St. Louis includes an entry for one “George Berger”, living as a prisoner at the “St. Louis Workhouse”.

This needs more evidence for verification, but I am willing to wager that this was our George Berger, for several reasons:

(1)   First, there is the same name; George technically was his legal first name and others in his family were alternately recorded by first and middle names in different records.

(2)   Second, they were the same age. The 1910 Census form that year asked respondents to answer “Age at last birthday”; for George, the person who filled out the form put “19” as the response. We know from the records from St. Mary’s Church that George was born in October 1890. The census form was dated April, 1910 – so, it was indeed the case George had still had six months to go before he would turned 20.

(3)   Third, his own birth state is listed accurately as Illinois.

(4)   Fourth, his mother’s birth state is accurately stated as Ohio. This it would have been slightly less common of a fact because Ohio is separated from St. Louis by two states.[5]

True, you will find other George Bergers from that era, and they may share some personal facts such as age and state of birth. But I would be really surprised if they were not the same person: based on my own personal experience researching old ancestor records, it would be highly unusual to share all of those same facts. For further verification, I would be curious to know if a library in St. Louis, or state archives, have access to detailed 1910 prison records. Was it really our George? And what was he in for?

About the Workhouse:  Anyway, I could not stop myself from looking up the St. Louis Workhouse, and I feel a need to share what I found, because it sounds like it was a horrible place. This story also serves as a reminder of the Jim Crow era and society’s attitudes towards the mentally disabled and African Americans. So, recognizing some level of risk of digressing on a tale regarding a different George Berger, I will share as follows.

The “workhouse” concept was described in a piece published on the St. Louis Public Radio website:

The name dates to 1843. The city’s ordinance at the time said those committed to a similar institution would work off a fine or forfeiture before he or she could be released. In the early 1900s, the Workhouse was on St. Louis’ south side and inmates worked in nearby quarries, according to the St. Louis Public Library.”[6]

So, basically, they forced the prisoners to work in the quarry. I have not done formal research on this, but from what I have found, many times the prisoners were incarcerated for infractions that middle or upper-class persons might also commit, but avoid imprisonment, because they could afford to pay the fines. Also, basically all bad public behavior or drunkenness. And I would expect that, this being St. Louis in the era of Jim Crow, it would have been African Americans who disproportionately bore the brunt of this system of punishment. But there is no question but that poor white folk were locked into the Workhouse in large numbers. I expect many of those were mentally disabled or had other reasons to cross the law. In those days, society did not have the benefit of 20th Century law and policy restricting excessive punishment, and debtors prisons.  (But this is not the place to debate the morality of private, for-profit prisons, okay? 🙂 )

Not surprisingly, the 1910 Census listing has George listed with the occupation of “Laborer”, with a place of employment at a “Quarry”.

Only two years after the 1910 Census, the St. Louis Star and Times broke a massive story that exposed deep corruption and brutality at the St. Louis Workhouse. It became a massive scandal that resulted in the overhaul of all Workhouse management. The facility was exposed as a dangerous, corrupt operation in 1912. Widespread vice and brutality were reported.

The_St__Louis_Star_and_Times_Thu__Oct_17__1912_Shake Down

Front page to the St. Louis Star and Times (Thursday, October 17, 1912).


The St. Louis Workhouse was the subject of a 1914 article on municipally owned prisons published in a nationally circulated contemporary professional trade journal, The Municipal Journal of Public Works. It’s an interesting read. Municipal governance journals include articles written by city officials that explain how cities try to save money in their operations. The Assistant to the St. Louis Mayor was reporting on the Workhouse, and expounds on how it was being operated for efficiency. He opened his article with the following:

The problem of furnishing proper employment for the human derelicts constituting the greater part of the population of a city’s penal institutions is one which confronts practically all  American municipalities. The average inmate of the workhouse is not efficient in any branch of work. If he were, he probably would not be there. The prisoners are not of the wage earning type and are, as a rule, defective mentally, physically, or both.

While not claiming to have solved the convict labor problem, the city of St. Louis operates a system whereby the workhouse prisoners are kept busily employed and the municipality receives a substantial return from their labor. The prisoners are required to labor in the municipal rock  quarry which adjoins the workhouse grounds in the southern part of the city. The quarrying of rock by prisoners is nothing new, but the methods employed in St. Louis in “working” the quarry will doubtless be of interest.”

The article included an image of the quarry.

Photo from Quarrying With the Prisoners in St. Louis Pages from Municipal_Journal_Public_Works_ 1914 - Google Books

An image of the Workhouse quarry in operation, in an article by St. Louis Mayor’s Assistant Harry Crutcher, Municipal Journal of Public Works, 1914 (available on Google Books).}

According to the article, the quarry workforce was segregated. Black prisoners were assigned to what sounds like the hardest work – the work of “hand drilling” and “sledging” to remove the rock from the ground and break it into little pieces (spawls). The rock was loaded on to steel push carts that were then sent over to the white workers, who would transfer the chipped rock to the buckets to be lifted up out of the quarry bed. (And now, with that description in mind, take a closer look at the article photograph.)

If this was our George Berger, we know he did end up having a life after his release. Three decades later, in 1942, his draft registration form reported him resident in Denver. I have not had success identifying what kind of life he led after leaving St. Louis.

Generational Progress?  Their stories were by and large ones of the working class. Basically none of them owned or operate successful businesses, and seem never to have reached anything beyond the laboring class. As with most Americans of their time, they were by and large not educated beyond the 8th grade. This is by no means an exciting or unusual story. Individuals who immigrate are sometimes highly motivated and successful; they might inspire their own children to find their own greatness and succeed – but by the second or third generation, a willingness or energy to excel has worn off. But it’s a real one about a real, troubled American family. They were symbolic of a problem that has plagued so many immigrant families: the first generation is energetic and brings great hope of personal prosperity, or, at least a good life. By the time the third generation happens, some members of the family are struggling and destitute.

How much better off were they than their immigrant ancestor from the old country?



[1]     Skid Row: A last resort, a place to disappear — or, for many, home   Ron Grossman, Chicago Tribune, Jun 15, 2014

Check out the old photos at:

[2]     Bummed Out: How Skid Row went from “The Land of the Living Dead” to cappuccinos and condos, Brian Hieggelke, New City Magazine, August 11, 2010, recounting the story set out in a 1949 Time Magazine article that was actually just summarizing a series produced the same year by the Chicago Daily News.  (


[3]   In addition to the above, see


[5]    I note also true his father’s birth place is listed as Ohio, but upon further research we may be able to write that off as a probable misreporting, since  both he *and* siblings reported inconsistently on Henry’s birth state, and other facts, and the he rest of his facts are so strongly aligned with the biography of our George Edward.


[vi]    What’s the Workhouse? Here’s what you need to know about St. Louis’ Medium Security Institution, By Durrie Bouscaren • Jul 26, 2017




Me (on the phone): "That's "C-r-e-s-a-p".

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