Photo of Agnes Gregoire “Nana” with me as a child
“Did I ever tell you the story about…”
At some point in every conversation with my grandmother, Agnes Gregoire, she would pose this rhetorical question. I have many happy memories of sitting on a barstool in “Nana’s” kitchen and listening to tales about her childhood in Montana. Her stories never bored me, but one day out of curiosity I answered her question by saying that I had indeed heard the story about her meeting Franklin D. Roosevelt (probably at least a dozen times…although I didn’t add that.) As expected she launched right into the story without hesitation, undaunted by my response.
When challenged, this week, to blog about my start in family storytelling, I realized that most of my curiosity about our family tree was passed down from my grandma. In honor of her love for telling tales, here are a few of her stories…as remembered by me. I don’t have a perfect memory, so if you heard them differently feel free to comment and let me know.
growing up in Montana
Agnes was born in Poplar, Montana in 1917. Her parents, George and Ida (Ove) Conlin, homesteaded their property and her father worked in the hardware department of Lundeen’s Department store. As the oldest of four girls, (Agnes, Mary, Kay, and Peggy) she loved to plan dances and plays for her sisters and friends to perform.
Agnes, Mary, and Kay Conlin with friends. Nana told me that she directed the dance and they all made their own costumes.
the nurse with the diamond tooth saved my life
One of Nana’s favorite tales was about the Polio epidemic that swept Poplar when she was a child. In the early to mid-1900’s Polio was one of America’s most feared diseases, paralyzing or killing thousands each year. President Franklin D. Roosevelt contracted Polio in 1921 leaving him wheelchair-bound for the remainder of his life. As a result, FDR started the March of Dimes, asking everyone to give a little bit in hopes of finding a cure.
According to Nana, when she was a young girl, the town mercantile owners took a trip to China and upon their return, everyone who had contact with them contracted polio. Nana’s best friend throughout childhood was Helen Dale. Helen’s mom, Florence, a nurse at the Agency Hospital, quarantined Nana and provided daily care which saved her life. One of her most vivid memories about Florence is that she had a diamond studded tooth. During her recovery, the doctor told Nana she would never walk again, but if you knew Agnes Conlin, she had a stubborn Irish side passed down from her father. Although it took a full year to regain use of her legs, not only did she walk again, but as an adult, she loved to dance! Of all the people who contracted Polio in Poplar, Nana said she was the only one who survived.
the time I met president Roosevelt
As she got older, Nana took an interest in nursing, probably because of the great care provided by Nurse Florence during her bout with Polio. She and her friend Helen began to volunteer at the Hospital where Helen’s mom worked. (Nurse Florence would eventually open her own facility, the Dale Hospital, in 1939.)
As part of his New Deal policies, Franklin D. Roosevelt, backed several hydro-electric projects, one of which was the Fort Peck Dam near Poplar. On one of FDR’s trips to visit the dam (likely in 1937) local nurses were honored by being part of a small group selected to greet the President on arrival. Due to their volunteer work, Nana and Helen were included in the group. Nana had a headful of red curls, which turned heads wherever she went, and the President also took notice saying a personal hello and commenting on her lovely locks. A moment that she would talk about for the rest of her life.
In 1935, Nana left for Great Falls, Montana to attend nurses training and where she would eventually meet her husband, Marvin Gregoire, in 1939.
My Grandfather was a rhodes scholar
Nana had a way of adding a positive spin to any story. One of the most compelling characters, who I asked about over and over, was her mysterious Grandpa Ove. “I never met my Grandpa Ove because he was a Rhodes Scholar.” she would reply. “He left my grandma Mary and her children to go on the road.”
Who was this scholarly fellow and why would she never tell me more? I couldn’t imagine why our family wouldn’t be heralding this type of accomplishment, even if it meant absence from his wife and children? No matter how much I prodded for more information…that was where the story ended.
When I began ancestry research, about 10 years ago, Grandpa Jacob Ove was my first puzzle to solve. To my disappointment, his name was nowhere to be found on lists of Rhodes Scholarship winners. Although I am still searching for answers about Jacob, I now believe that Nana gave him the generous title of “road scholar” (which I misinterpreted) rather than say he abandoned his wife and daughters. One day I hope to tell his story in full, but according to US Census records, after Jacob left the family he spent the rest of his days drifting across the western US working as a cook in hotel restaurants. At the age of 67, in 1930, Jacob was living on Second Street in the “Little Tokyo” area of Los Angelos, which is the last record I have been able to locate for him.
more family stories to share
Nana passed down a Conlin Family Genealogy book that is full of many more family stories, beginning with the tale of her Irish ancestors who came to the US during the potato famine in the mid-1800’s. I have scanned the Conlin book to create a shareable digital version. Drop me a line if you are interested in a copy.
Nana’s mother’s family was Norwegian. The story of her great-grandfather, Lars Haselhaugen’s, journey to America was retold in a book called “The Husmand”, written by one of his granddaughters, Esther Hagen MacPherson. I also have a digital copy of this book and the copyright allows sharing with Lars’ descendants for genealogical purposes. It would be a fun book to read to your grade-school aged kids. The stories recount the family’s day-to-day adventures, much like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” series.
The Montana Memory Project contains a searchable database of books and newspapers. One book, “Roosevelt County’s Treasured Years” contains several Conlin references, including a baseball story written by Nana’s father, George. (Search “Conlin” to find stories and photos of the family)