Tracing Their Steps: A Rhodes Story

I had a tiny bit of excitement this past week.  While I was away on travel (again), I received a letter from the Government.  Since I do some work for the Government, my husband, thinking it very important (it was, but he just had the wrong “kind” of important) called me immediately to tell me something official came and what did I want him to do with it? (He’s always cognizant of time-sensitive correspondence.)

He reported that it came from the National Personnel Records Center.  I admit I was a little confused as to what it was since my mind was focused on my job.  But…Personnel Records?  I had no reason to expect anything on my own military records and my current job doesn’t use the National Personnel Records Center!

Then it hit me…my record request was finally fulfilled!!!  I had ordered Ken’s service records in January 2020…yes, over two years ago.  Thank you, COVID-19 lockdown.

“Open it! Open it!” I said.  And he did, to confirm it was what I thought it was.  My blessed husband scanned it and emailed it to me so that I didn’t have to wait.  It gave me time to consider whether I wanted to write a blog post about it and how.  So here goes.

Through family knowledge, I know who Ken Rhoades Sr was. I know who his parents were. I know he served in WWI on the U.S.S. Kingfisher and that it was a minesweeper in the North Sea. I know when and where he was born, when and where he died, and where he is buried.  What more could a genealogist need? Even though I know quite a bit about my great-grandfather, Ken, I still seem to want more.  And then, occasionally I am asked to track down a detail that encourages me to dig a little deeper.

I went ahead and “collected” his evidence for birth, marriage, death, and burial.   Among this collection of record evidence was a military application for his headstone. But I never focused on where Ken Sr. was buried when I began my genealogy journey because it was too recent in our family history. And, therefore, I didn’t pay attention to the small stamp that read “suspended” on his headstone application. A fellow Find-A-Grave volunteer was transferring several profiles to me and asked me why we never placed a headstone for Ken? That was news to me. He pointed out that little blue stamp on the headstone application and I told him I had never noticed this discrepancy.

It did cause brief anxiety for me. I wondered if his military service truly was without incident.

So I asked my Uncle what he knew. And he got the story from Grandma. It turned out to be just a simple mix-up that the family never resolved involving the spelling of his surname.  You see, it was my great-grandfather Ken (or rather, his brother) who changed the spelling to “Rhoades” late in his own life.  

The details of the confusion and what was necessary for Eleanor to resolve it all are a blur to us today, we no longer really know for sure what the issue was and only the Social Security Administration used the spelling “Rhoades”.  His service records and death certificate spelled it “Rhodes” and Eleanor used “Rhodes” on the headstone application.  And so I requested his service records to get the paperwork needed for us to re-order his headstone.

This little exercise in name spelling then kicked off the above-mentioned validation of which records used which spelling and when.  This, of course, sent me down a rabbit hole of signatures and timelines.  Timelines fascinate me.  I am such a nerd.

When Ken was born in Indiana, his father, Daniel, spelled the family name “Rhoads” in most records, as did Daniel’s siblings and their descendants.  By 1910, Daniel, Rosetta, and seventeen-year-old Ken were living in Michigan where they are recorded for the first time as “Rhodes” in the census.  Ken must still be in high school in 1910, or just graduated, as he is not employed.

Sometime after his graduation, Ken moved in with his half-sister, Sadie Truman Gill (daughter of Rosetta) in Chicago, Illinois.  Her husband is a purchaser for a prominent Chicago retail store called Carson Pirie Scott and helps Ken get a job as a sales clerk.  

World War I breaks out in Europe in 1914 and the U.S. attempts to remain neutral.  But the sinking of the Lusitania followed by continued aggression in international waters leads to the U.S.’s formal entry into the conflict in April 1917.  Ken files his draft registration on 5 June 1917 and on 26 June enlists in the U.S. Navy.  In his draft registration and enlistment papers, he uses “Rhodes”.  

Before he enlists, Ken and Eleanor meet in Chicago, maybe she came to Carson to buy something for her employer.  Was she a co-worker of Ken’s, working as a saleslady for Carson? Or perhaps her employer was in the same social circle as Ken’s brother-in-law.  Somewhere in Chicago, their paths crossed and they become engaged.

Perhaps it’s his imminent departure for his two years in the Navy that prompts them to get engaged, or maybe it’s the uncertainty that he will come back that causes them to postpone their marriage.  Regardless of what steered their decisions, their relationship had progressed enough by 1917 that Eleanor is included in family communications regarding Ken’s whereabouts and well-being.  And it’s Eleanor’s name addressed on a portrait that Carson Pirie Scott gifts to the family after Ken departs for training.   But Eleanor doesn’t stay in Chicago.  She goes back to Harbor Springs and continues her dream to be a teacher while Ken is out to sea.

Meanwhile, Dee Jay (Ken’s older brother) had moved to Stromsburg, Polk County, Nebraska where he was married in 1910 under the name “Rhoades”. Dee Jay is still in Stromsburg in 1917 where he starts the short-lived Rhoades Investment Company.  In 1918, Dee Jay pens an affidavit to request a pension increase for Daniel under his Civil War service.  In the affidavit, he describes how Ken had been Daniel and Rosetta’s financial support in Michigan before enlisting in the Navy and that “financial support” has now fallen to Dee Jay in Nebraska who “has his wife and child to support”. 

This 1918 affidavit is the first known record spelling Ken’s surname as “Rhoades”.

Ken is shipped off to R.I.S. Norfolk, VA. (I have not been able to figure out what “RIS” stands for, I assume Receiving Station, but the ‘I’ is a mystery – maybe Receiving/Recruit In-processing/Indoctrination Station?) The Navy base in Norfork, VA was newly acquired in April 1917 for the purpose of logistics and Navy training. Ken was likely among some of the earliest recruits to train at Norfolk. He arrived the day after his enlistment in June as a Shipwright (a carpenter skilled in the trade of shipbuilding or repair). By the end of his one-year of training, he was promoted to Carpenters Mate 3rd Class and transferred to the U.S.S. Kingfisher on 26 July 2018. While clearing mines in the North Sea, he achieved two more promotions, obtaining the rating (or rank) Carpenters Mate 1st Class on 21 February 2019. The Kingfisher sailed home in October 2019, with Ken on board. Upon arrival stateside, Ken was transferred to the U.S.S. Hartford to begin his out processing.

Ken returned from service in December of 1919 but waited about eight months before marrying Eleanor in 1920 in Grand Rapids, Michigan – keeping the spelling “Rhodes”.  By 1921, Dee Jay recruited Ken for a sales job and both families moved to Omaha.  Dee Jay set up a real estate office in the Brandies Theater Building on Douglas Avenue (across N 17th Street the street from the Brandies Department Store).  When grandpa Kenney is born this same year, his birth certificate records the name “Rhodes”.

The family lore is that Dee Jay wanted to differentiate himself from another “Rhodes” family in the area.  And indeed, in 1921 Ken uses the spelling “Rhodes” for the last time and adopts the “Rhoades” spelling.  Dee Jay is even using “Rhodes” in 1921.  This same year there is a business in Omaha called Rhodes & Rhodes, a real estate insurance and collections business run by brothers (or father-son team) AJ and Arthur.  No relation to us.  So not only was there another Rhodes family in Omaha, they ran in the same business circles.  This other Rhodes venture doesn’t last long, AJ is soon employed by US Fidelity Bank followed by Omaha National Bank, and Arthur becomes a grocer.

In the four years when Rhodes & Rhodes dissolves, Dee Jay has formed American Mortgage & Finance Company (offices at the Courtney Building) employing his second wife, Adaline Bertha, as the secretary, Ken as a salesman, and Eleanor as a clerk.  Also occurring in these four years is the appearance of Wm E Rhoades as the Vice-President of The United States National Bank (he came from Chicago or New York).  Dee Jay and Ken don’t seem to mind this name association.  Ken eventually has an office in the same building as Wm E Rhoades (the Patterson Building at 17th and Farnam).  

Ken is heavily involved with the Veterans of Foreign War (VFW) and probably the American Legion (newspapers sometimes refer to Ken in “Legion” news, though this is never really all spelled out).  He rises to the post of Commander in the VFW where both his sons are members of the youth branch, holding high offices themselves.  It’s the closest thing to politics the Rhoades family has ever been.

In 1927, Daniel and Rosetta start off on a family visit circuit.  Family letters show they went to Chicago to visit Sadie (Rosetta’s daughter), then to visit Rosetta’s widowed sisters-in-law in Corunna, Michigan where her sister, Mary, is also visiting.  Their last stop is the family farm in Ft. Wayne, Indiana where Daniel’s oldest son, Clarence “Rhoads” is still running John Rhodes’ old farmstead.  During this sojourn, a horse bites Rosetta and she succumbs to infection and passes away at the family farmstead at the age of 77.  Daniel (aged 87) is packed up and moved to Omaha to live with Ken, Eleanor, and their two children.  Apparently, Ken having a wife and TWO children doesn’t prevent him from taking in his aged father.

By the time 1931 rolls around, Dee Jay has promoted Ken to Vice-President of American Mortgage & Finance Company (sometimes Corporation in directories).  Eleanor has left the family business to take a position as a saleslady for J.L. Brandies and Sons.  She remains employed with Brandies moving her way up into the position of Assistant Buyer by 1949.  This long stint with Omaha’s major retail business makes me wonder, did she work for Carson Pirie Scott for the summer with Ken back in Chicago?

Daniel’s death prompted a nice big family reunion back in Ft. Wayne where his body is returned for burial.  All of Ken and Dee Jay’s aunts and uncles come together to record Daniel’s familial relations.  And surprisingly, they record the family name as “Rhoades” even though Daniel’s brothers, and Clarence, were actively using “Rhoads”.

Daniel’s generation didn’t really take much stock in exact spelling.  This was the generation before the social security administration, birth and death certificates, and retirement funds.  So I suspect Dee Jay had a hand in the spelling used on the funeral cards.  The family, however, engraved Daniel’s headstone with “Rhoads”, probably because that was the spelling Daniel (or Clarence) applied to Rosetta’s headstone in 1927.

The Patterson Building in 1929. This is the same building where Ken leased an office space between 1940 and 1957. It was torn down in 1970 to make room for a new 10-story building. The Omaha World-Herald Historical Archive, March 3, 1929 page 50; accessed 7 March 2020.

The brothers return to Omaha and life resumes for a few years. Around 1940, Ken and Dee Jay have a brotherly spat and they dissolve their business relationship.  A Second World War is brewing and Kenny joins the Navy like his dad and ships out for training, making a vague reference to this brotherly split in one of his letters. Dee Jay continues to run American Mortgage & Finance Co. from Farnam Street.  Ken Sr. starts Kenneth W. Rhoades Co (a real estate business) and moves his office to 203 Patterson Building which is located at 305 S 17th Street and Farnam. (see a neat map of historic Omaha buildings here.)

Curiously, during the past two decades, W.E. Rhoades was routinely reported on in the social and business columns of the Omaha Evening Bee, Omaha Daily Bee, and Omaha Daily News.  While Dee Jay and Ken opted to advertise exclusively with the Omaha World-Herald, which also kept up with Ken Sr’s VFW and Legion activities.  It is as if each Rhoades family had their own newspaper turf.

I don’t find it a far stretch in believing there could be a second part to Dee Jay’s (and perhaps Ken’s) motivations to use “Rhoades”, such as capitalizing on name recognition to the more prominent “Rhoades” family. I base my superficial opinion of Dee Jay on several things – mostly family lore. And then there is this curious mystery envelope in the family treasure trove.  It’s a short bio on a man named Daniel “Rhodes” who was a wealthy coal and iron man from Cleveland, Ohio.  I have validated this man actually did exist, and was a generational peer of Daniel’s father, but that we are, without a doubt, NOT (directly) related to him. I can’t tell who wrote it or why Eleanor kept it.  Was this an attempt to associate with a more prominent “Rhodes” family?  Were they trying to decide which spelling would get them farther?  Were they trying to say their grandfather was the same man from Cleveland? Was Ken in on the name association game?  Or was this an earlier attempt to conduct honest genealogy?  I assume American Holding Company was another company of Dee Jay’s, perhaps the predecessor to American Mortgage & Finance Co. Who knows?  Onward…

Mystery envelop. The people named here did exist, but to my knowledge, we are no relation to them.

Dee Jay passed away in 1951 and Ken in 1957.  Upon his death, Eleanor briefly reverts back to Rhodes for his death certificate and military headstone application, probably an attempt to rectify the name spelling issue – to no avail.  She stayed on at 4011 No. 30th Street and watched the once blue-collar neighborhood decline into a high-crime depressed neighborhood.  Kenney and Betty tried numerous times to convince her to move, but she remained stubborn until her own home was broken into.  Rattled, she moved closer to Kenney and her grandchildren with her brother, Richard Cobe, in tow.

So, why was his headstone application suspended?  The mystery remains.  Only his Social Security records the name “Rhoades”.  His military service records, birth, marriage, and death certificate all record “Rhodes”.  In speaking with my Uncle, we decided that should we re-order his military headstone, we will engrave it with “Rhodes” to match his service record.