Ken Hartke

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I'm retired and living solo "out west" in the New Mexico desert. I've been an observer and blogger for years and usually have four or five blogs going but wrote for myself or for friends. A lot of it was travel stories or daily random postings -- but it was a good experience. Red Room allowed me to share things on a wider scale and with its demise, I (maybe) found a more public voice.

Erin Go Bragh!


So, the Priest came to the house. They were fearful that he would be too late but he made it. The babe had been born in the night and was fading quickly away. She was not expected to make it through the day. Can you christen an infant and give the last rites all at once? He christened her Sara and made a side note in his book that the parents, Miles McSweeney and Ellen Scollard were, in fact, married. Little Sara made it through the day and the next night. She hung on for the next day and picked up some color. The first week was touch and go but things looked a little better by then. Sara had a older sister, Mary, who was eight…old enough to help her mother. The two older brothers, Edward and Michael, were three and seven and into everything. Another baby, Miles, had died at nine months. There were others in the cemetery and more to come.


Copyright-St_-Louis-Patina-7246-stBridgetfeb16aThe McSweeney’s lived in Kerry Patch, an Irish 'ghetto' on the north side of St. Louis clustered around St. Bridget of Erin, the Roman Catholic parish church. The place was known for two things, mostly: Irish gangs and tuberculosis. It was an unhealthy place; no wonder the babies died. But the McSweeney children had the benefit of grandparents….it was a growing and shrinking extended family that sometimes all lived under one roof.


Ellen McSweeney, the matriarch, ran a small grocery store left to her by her sainted husband, Edmund, who had died of pneumonia back in 1869. Both she and Edmund came over from Ireland but met and married in St. Louis at St. Francis Xavier…the university church, don't you know.  Ellen had been a Moran up until that time she married and she liked spelling “McSweeney” as “MacSweeney” -- there was a little money there, somewhere.  Her son, Miles, was the only surviving child…the others succumbed to the smallpox epidemic in 1870, just a few months after their father. Ellen was a strong willed woman and protective -- nothing bad was going to happen to her son, Miles, who she called Jerry on occasion.


The Scollards, Michael and Mary, came to St. Louis from Tralee in Kerry in 1876. They were married in Kerry and Mary was born a Moran…probable kin to Ellen McSweeney. They came with three mostly grown children, Ellen, Jeremiah and Thomas. They left another three – older and with families of their own – back in Tralee. Thomas was the youngest but he could work. Jeremiah had a trade…he was a blacksmith. Michael, the father was a day laborer at 70 and died in 1881. Thomas followed him in 1887, both buried in the same unmarked grave in Calvary Cemetery. They were in good company and not far from Father DeSmet and Dred Scott. General Sherman and Kate Chopin would soon be there too, and still later (for the love of God!) Tennessee Williams. There were other Scollards there as well. Tuberculosis was the family affliction.


Baby Sara came to be known as Sadie and Sadie she stayed. There was another brother, Myles, born in 1892 to the delight of six year old Sadie. The father, Miles, was unpredictable and unreliable and a mother’s boy. Some years he lived separately with his mother while the rest lived at the grocery store. He had a “thing” for his cousin, Nellie Moran, who worked as a housekeeper for the old lady. Sometimes Miles would go to New York City for a while and then come back.


The family – Ellen and her five children – lived on in Kerry Patch. Ellen developed a cough and grew weaker, finally dying in 1894. Miles was nowhere to be found. Mary, the eldest girl, was sixteen and took on the parenting role as best she could. Eventually little Sadie, now eight, went to a convent but her older brothers would liberate her every time and so then she went to a orphanage in Little Falls, New York. Young Myles went along. The brothers couldn’t reach them there. Why New York? The father, Miles, had a hand in that decision.


Years passed. The brothers became minor gang members in Eagan’s Rats who were always at war with The Hogans. Edward served time in the workhouse but later married and tried to become semi-respectable by becoming a constable in Mike Kinney’s magistrate court. Politics and Irish gangs were closely related. It didn’t last long as he died at age 26 “after a lingering illness”. (Mike Kinney went on to become the longest serving state senator in Missouri history). Brother Michael never married and was sometimes the only one arrested when the other gang members got away. He would make a court appearance in Judge Kinney’s court. Michael died at 27 of the family affliction and shares a grave with Edward at Calvary Cemetery.



Sadie was back in St. Louis around the time of the World’s Fair in 1904 and worked as a house maid, Downton Abbey style, in the great homes of the rich and famous. Being an “Irish” maid came naturally. St. Louis was the fourth largest city in the country at the time and there were opportunities for domestic servants. Two years later she met a man, Charles Miller, who was a shoe worker in one of the many shoe factories in town. He was a strong union man – they boarded a trolley car and made an excursion to the little town of St. Charles, across the Missouri River, and were married on Labor Day of 1906. He got her away from Kerry Patch and mostly away from domestic work – although she took in washing and ironing when times were tough. His family, in upstate New York, was staunch Protestants and descended from Huguenot stock. The idea of marrying an Irish Catholic was unthinkable. The two of them were left to themselves for the most part and they seemed to thrive on that. They acquired a house on the western edge of St. Louis. Babies arrived, four in all, including my mom in 1910. They all survived. 


I never met my grandfather as he died on Christmas Day in 1941. That's him on the left at the World's Fair. Sadie worked in various hotels as a cook during the 1940s. She had a fiery Irish temper and would quit a job in the morning, walk down the street and be hired at another hotel, quit that job after lunch and go back to the first place and be welcomed with open arms. She later took in ironing at home. I remember she had a huge (to me) ironing steam press with rollers in the dining room of the family house. She died when I was four but I have many memories of her. We lived together in the old house for a few years. My older brother would sneak in and out the upstairs bedroom window….a nine year old with things to do and people to see. She met him one day coming across the roof and nailed the window shut with him on the outside. I recall another day when Senator Kinney came to call. He was a dapper man and they greeted as old Kerry Patch friends. I was under foot and was sent away. Her temper was always there and she would leave home in a snit and no one knew where she went until she would eventually turn up at my aunt’s house and stay for a few days. All would be forgiven and she would be back home again as usual.


Kerry Patch is gone and they are tearing down St. Bridget of Erin church as I write this. Almost nothing is left.  So what the's Erin go Bragh – Ireland Forever – on this St. Patrick’s Day. No time for tears. I will soon raise a glass (a toast to Sadie!) and taste some corned beef and cabbage before this day is out.






Recent Comments
Katherine Gregor
What a fascinating family history, Ken. Thank you for sharing it. So you're of Irish stock :–)
Sunday, 20 March 2016 08:59
Ken Hartke
Thanks for commenting... I'm actually much more German/Pomeranian than Irish but the Germans were not storytellers. It seems that ... Read More
Sunday, 20 March 2016 14:05
Very appealing stuff, Ken. My own history on both sides of the family begins in Ireland so many centuries ago it can only be trace... Read More
Thursday, 24 March 2016 01:57
1048 Hits

Earliest Memories

Rosy's essay on Mothering Day, happily found on Facebook this morning, brought back a conversation I've been having with my daughter about our earliest memories. She is a children's librarian and has several weekly sessions with very small children. Almost all of these children are preschoolers and some are toddlers and a few are crawlers. She does story time, crafts and a music and movement session a few times a week. Most of these kids are from a somewhat impoverished Hispanic community that is going through some economic changes due to new commercial development. Some speak Spanish at home. If you ever watched Breaking Bad you might recognize the place.

Her experience is that the kids have long term memory covering the span of several months or longer but the literature she has researched on the topic says that those memories are lost and that by the time the kids reach pre-teen or teen years they won't remember much, if anything, from the preschool or toddler years. Her experience is that they remember and soak up just about everything. As parents we see this as well.

As we talked, I was amazed at what she did not remember from her early childhood. That trip to Disneyworld was a total waste. Much of her time in daycare with friends her own age and a series of caregivers is lost. A few things she remembers only from seeing photographs.

Apparently there are cultural differences in early memory. Canadian kids remember earlier experiences than do kids in China. Researchers think that there seems to be a parenting factor involved. Parental and cultural priorities make a difference. I wonder if there are generational differences. My generation was the first to grow up with television so I recall some of that.

When we think back to our earliest memory it often turns out to be some innocuous happening that would hardly matter. We also might recall what clothes we were wearing or a specific location or room. In my case it is a summertime visit to a restaurant and I recall what I wore. It might have been the occasion of my third birthday (in August) but I don't recall that specifically. The restaurant had a lot of windows and was very bright. Apart from my parents, I don't recall anyone else that I knew (sorry, bro). Other early memories are pretty sparse and scattered. My last grandmother died before I was five but I have several memories of her.

As a children's librarian, my daughter works hard bringing stories and new experiences into the lives of her kids. She's very good at it and has as many as 30 kids and parents each week. She is fascinated at how they are developing (physically and socially) but seems disappointed that, in the long run, they might not have any lasting memories of their weekly visits. Maybe so...but I can't accept the notion that it isn't having an impact. They will have positive memory snippets of going to the library, maybe have a favorite story or song and possibly recall the hour they spent with the brightly colored parachute marching in a circle. When I was that age we did not have those kinds of experiences.

So think back...what do you remember? Don't lose it.


Recent Comments
Rosy Cole
Thank you for reading my Mothering Sunday post and for responding here, Ken. It's much appreciated. At the moment, there seems to... Read More
Monday, 07 March 2016 18:24
Ken Hartke
I'm the family historian but not everyone agrees with me. What one remembers and what the sources say are sometimes out of synch. ... Read More
Tuesday, 08 March 2016 01:12
Rosy Cole
That's what happens to history, too! There's an ongoing debate. Not just whether it was written by the victors, but how much is lo... Read More
Tuesday, 08 March 2016 13:56
907 Hits

The Fence






How did she get here?

She walked...walked toward the fence.

It's the one constant.









    There's always a fence.

    She came alone. Swept along

    with the refugees.









Maybe an orphan -

but no one knows for certain.

She stands by the fence.













    Waiting. She watches.

    Expecting someone to come

    from across the fence.













Little refugees

grow up waiting by the fence...

older and angry.









A Syrian refugee boy stands behind a fence




    They survived a lot.

    So now they stand by the fence.

    Waiting for something.
















Recent Comments
Amy Brook Palleson
Wonderful. And horrible. It is sometimes shocking to realize how the same distressing societal events can elicit such malice tow... Read More
Thursday, 03 March 2016 14:04
Ken Hartke
Sometimes you write something and it keeps coming back to haunt you. I wrote this a couple years ago for my Writer's Cramp blog bu... Read More
Thursday, 03 March 2016 17:18
Rosy Cole
It's a deplorable fact of our times that boundaries of every kind have been demolished and overrun with little respect for the fun... Read More
Friday, 04 March 2016 10:55
1072 Hits

To The Lady Who Put Roses Out


It was a quiet day on a quiet street.


It seems like it was one of those family holidays;


Maybe Father’s Day or Mother’s Day… I don’t recall.


It was a good day for a walk.




We took our time, talking along the way.


We were not walking for distance or speed.


The old sidewalk was cracked and uneven…


Sort of the way life is.




We watched our step.  You remember that


old saying about stepping on a crack?


There was a nice breeze off the river.


Birds were rejoicing in the trees.




We heard the wind in the big trees in


the old cemetery.  It was well kept.


People cared about cemeteries here.


So do the squirrels…policing the rows.




One block. Two blocks. Three…four.


The houses were perched high on each side


with sloping yards and low stone walls.


Middle-aged houses – nothing grand.




There ahead, on a low cobbled wall,


sat a small painted bucket of cut red roses.


“Please take one” the penciled sign said.


She took one. “How nice” he said.




We continued another few blocks…


Stopped for coffee and then doubled back.


The roses were still there but fewer, now.


Other walkers must have read the sign.




Like a pebble in a pond, this


simple act of sharing rippled through


the lives of people she never met


but cared about from a distance.


Recent Comments
Sue Martin Glasco
Such a pleasant walk I just took. And I loved the rose. It smells so sweet. I really liked this poem, Ken. It brought back mem... Read More
Saturday, 27 February 2016 05:02
Monika Schott
Lovely, gentle words, Ken. I'd love to chance upon a bucket of roses for sharing on a walk one day. M.
Saturday, 27 February 2016 07:28
Rosy Cole
This is beautiful, Ken. A poem...I want to say...that shares the oxygen of simplicity. Such instances, as Sue shows, too, are clea... Read More
Saturday, 27 February 2016 13:10
1113 Hits

Writing For Life

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