The Backstory

For Christmas, 1995, my Great Aunt Betty sent my father a family history that had been compiled by her cousin Hugh. It was a fascinating document, one that traced my father's mother's family in this country back to 1632, and before that in England to the mid 1500s.

But because of where the history came from, it necessarily didn't cover large segments of my genealogy.

I made fits and starts over the next five years trying to do more research, but didn't really put much effort into it or make much progress. I taped and interview with my grandmother on my mom's side, and my dad asked his father where Ralph Brandi Sr. had been born, but that was about it.

Forward to January, 2000. Both of my surviving grandparents passed away within eight days of each other (opposite sides of the family). My grandmother didn't exactly surprise us, but my grandfather's passing came totally out of the blue. I had been planning to call him and ask more questions, but first I wanted to finish some work I was doing on some photos of gravestones of ancestors mentioned in the history Aunt Betty had sent so I could send it to them.

I miss my grandparents very much. Working on this has been a way to keep them in my minds while doing something that helps me deal with their passings in a constructive way.

I've been doing much of my research so far on the Internet. This is a record of what I've found, and pointers to where I found it.

Ralph Brandi
March 1, 2000

Note: This archive page for the month of February was reconstructed by me in early March, after I started this weblog. I figured I ought to do this before I forgot where I found everything, since it didn't occur to me to start blogging this search until I had been at it for a month or so. So there may be one or two things missing from here. If I remember them, I'll add them later.

-- Ralph, March 5, 2000

January 31, 2000

I found the name of the town my great-grandfather (and namesake) was born in in Italy, and in the process, found a second-cousin, Carol. I was bored, and a friend at work had mentioned something about seeing my name all over the web (he was looking for stuff about shortwave radio) so I did a little ego-surfing (entering my name in a search engine to see what came up). Most of the pages had something to do with me. One or two were about some vice president at a semiconductor firm in California with the same name. And one page was a query on a page having to do with German genealogy, looking for information about Helen Prillwitz, who had been married to Ralph Brandi of San Potito, Italy. Bingo! I now had the name of the town, the name of one of Ralph Sr.'s wives, and an e-mail address for a relative I didn't even know I had.

I heard back from Carol that evening. She gave me a link to a map showing where San Potito was. She also gave me details on her family: "My name is Carol Strnad (typo?) My mothers maiden name was Jeanne Brandi, she has two sisters Virginia and Helen. My mother being the youngest. Their father was James Philip Brandi, born approx 1896, died in 1963, married to Lilian Anderson. His Father was Ralph Brandi, married to Helen Prillwitz." So James Philip Brandi would have been my grandfather's half-brother, and Carol is my half-second cousin.

Carol also said that her mom had just told her of a recent death of a Ralph Brandi in Gladwin, Michigan, and asked if it was someone I knew. Of course, that was my grandfather. She also asked if I knew of anyone in the family named Yolanda, a name her sister remembered. My Aunt Lonnie's given name is Yolanda, and she was named after her Aunt Yola, given name Yolanda.

Carol mentioned that various relatives said that Ralph Sr. had come from San Potito or San Marino; the latter seems unlikely to me, and I pointed out the fallibility of memory in my reply: "Two weeks ago at my grandfather's funeral, I asked his companion, my great aunt (my grandmother's sister, who my grandfather started keeping company with a couple of years after my grandmother died in 1979), if she knew anything about 'li'l Grandpa'. She mentioned that he came to America through Alcatraz. I sincerely hope that wasn't the case. :-)"

February 1, 2000

I heard back from Carol today: "You have so many Ralphs. My oldest sister Sharon said 'Well that must be little Ralphie's son.' 'Haha,' I said, 'well that's obvious but which Ralph?'" I replied that in my opinion, there were too many of us. :-) Carol said she had two sisters, Sharon and Nancy, and a brother, Gary, and that she was the youngest. She's actually only a few years older than me, which is interesting when you consider that there were 23 years between her grandfather, James, and my grandfather, Ralph Jr. Anyway, that helped fill in some blanks on that side of the family. I'm getting a better idea of who my relatives are.

Carol mentioned in a second note that her whole family had always called Ralph Sr. "li'l Grandpa" too. She was going to be getting together with her whole family on Saturday, so she was planning on asking questions then.

In a third note that day (can you tell we were excited about finding each other?), Carol pointed me toward a white pages web site for Italy. She mentioned that there were two San Potitos; this link points to San Potito Sannitico. I looked in the directory, and found several Brandis in San Potito Sannitico, but none in San Potito Ultra, the other San Potito near Naples. So I think I've found the exact town of my great-grandfather's birth. I also found a number of people in Naples named Raffaele Brandi [presumably male] and Raffaela Brandi [presumably female] listed in Napoli. It seems to be a common combination of names, perhaps all descended from the same person.

February 2, 2000

I talked to my dad today about Aunt Yola. He said he thought she was my grandfather's half-sister, so was presumably full sister to Carol's grandfather James. He suggested I e-mail Aunt Lonnie; she knew Aunt Yola well, and used to work for her in her dry cleaners business. I'm glad I asked her for her e-mail address at Grandpa's funeral.

My dad also explained to me why li'l Grandpa was called that; seems he was about 5 feet tall and weighed no more than 120 pounds, as opposed to his other grandfather, Grandpa Miller or "big Grandpa", who was a Detroit Police Officer stood more than 6 feet tall, and weighed over 225 pounds. I'm sure that was quite a contrast. :-) Dad tells me that li'l Grandpa didn't speak with an Italian accent, which I thought was interesting, and that he always had a twisted black "Dago" cigar (Dad says that was the brand name or something; I always knew that to be a derogatory term for Italians) in his mouth. He was pretty feisty, and used to stand on my dad's feet all them time; he claims that his grandfather broke his arches that way. Dad also says li'l Grandpa owned a dry cleaners and tailor shop in the 20s and 30s.

One interesting mystery as a result of mail from Carol today: my dad has always told us that Ralph Sr.'s first wife died in childbirth. But I mentioned that to Carol, and she says that her sister remembers sitting on her grandmother Helen's lap at holidays and that she was way too old to have children at the time. Weird. My mom suggests that that was just a story told to hide something else; divorce wasn't very acceptable back then, presumably.

February 3, 2000

I ordered some books and maps about Ukraine from Powell's today. I'm getting a map by Ravenstein in Germany, and another one from a Hungarian company. I also ordered Paul Magocsi's Ukraine, A Historical Atlas and a couple of used copies of Ukrainian histories, Soviet Ukraine Today (1934) by P.p. Postyshev, and History Of Ukraine by Isidore Nahayewsky.

February 4, 2000

I heard back from Aunt Lonnie today. Lots of information there. She said that she remembers seeing Ralph Sr.'s immigration papers when she was a child, and that there are picturs of him with his parents. Contrary to what my dad has told me, she doesn't think he came to this country alone. He had either a sister or a brother, because my grandfather used to talk to an Angelo Brandi, who he called his cousin. She also said that Ralph Sr. was married more than once and had "several girlfriends". Hmmm. The more I find out about him, the more interesting the story gets.

Interesting story about Aunt Yola: "My father was his youngest child from his last wife. For years my dad thought Aunt Yolanda (Yola), Aunt Vinzina (Zina), and himself were whole siblings. I heard that when Aunt Yola applied for her social security she learned she had a different mother than Zina and Dad." There's something strange going on here.

Aunt Lonnie confirms that Grandpa did have a half brother named James. They helped financially with Ralph Sr.'s support when he was old. His daughter Helen (who would be Carol's aunt) would come to the house on the bus drop off a check, and watch the clock so she could catch the bus to Hazel Park to play the ponies.

According to Aunt Lonnie, Ralph Sr. is buried in Saginaw next to his last wife, who died when Grandpa was seven years old (so that would be around 1926). I have her name as Antonia Wisniewski; don't remember where I got that. Ralph Sr. was working in Detroit while his wife, Grandpa, Aunt Zina and Aunt Yola were still in Saginaw. Aunt Yola was about 14 when Antonia got very sick. Aunt Yola asked their priest for help. I gather he wasn't much help, though, because her death apparently resulted in my family basically leaving the Roman Catholic Church.

She also told a story about Great Grandpa, when he was in his 80s, coming back from a stay with another part of the family all bruised up. I'm getting a lot of different stories there, though, from her and Dad. Dad says he went to Florida with them while my grandfather's family was vacationing and that he got mugged there. Aunt Lonnie says something else. As a result of whatever caused all those bruises, he was apparently paralyzed on one side for a while. I don't know what the story is here, and I'm very confused.

February 5, 2000

I went out to Borders today and bought a road map atlas of Italy. I found the two San Potitos on it, San Potito Ultra and San Potito Sannitico.

February 7, 2000

I got e-mail from Powell's today. They couldn't find two of the books I ordered in their stacks. Unfortunately, they were both the used Ukrainian histories, Soviet Ukraine Today and History Of Ukraine. I was looking forward to reading them.

February 10, 2000

[ Lechkiwchi/Laskivci, Ukraine, on a 
current day map ]

The book and maps from Powell's arrived today. Only one of the two maps was detailed enough to show Grandma's village on it. It's spelled Laskivci now. You can see in the picture how it's spelled in Cyrillic.

Ukraine, A Historical Atlas, by Paul Robert Magocsi (who also wrote one of the basic histories of Ukraine) is a pretty neat book, although pretty small for the price. Map 20, "Western Ukraine, 1772-1914", shows that "after 1809, the Russian Empire also ruled the Ternopil' region (from the Zbruch River just to the west of the Seret River), which was returned to Austrian Galicia in 1815." So even within the borderlands ("Ukraine" means "borderland"), the area Grandma came from was a borderland, and not necessarily the best place to come from if you want a peaceful life.

February 18, 2000

Macomb County has placed their database of Death Records online. It's very up-to-date; they already have Grandma Horbal listed, just four weeks after her death. In fact, they list Grandma and Grandpa Horbal, Great Uncle Paul, and Mom's cousin Bobby.

February 19, 2000

I found my great-grandfather's obituary online today! The Saginaw Public Library has a database of obits that have appeared in Saginaw newspapers, and the entries go back into the 19th century. Wow!

Monday, December 28, 1959 (B7)

Name:           BRANDI, RALPH A. SR.
Age:            88
Date of Birth:  Wednesday, September 6, 1871
Place of Birth: ITALY
Date of Death:  Saturday, December 26, 1959 
Place of Death: DETROIT, MI

Cemetery:       CALVARY
Misc:           LEAVES 5 CHILDREN

So now I know the name of the cemetery where he's buried, and his birthday and the day of his death, none of which I knew before. This is so cool! I sent copies of this to Mom and Dad, Aunt Lonnie, and Carol.

I also found the obituary for Helen Brandi, Ralph Sr.'s first wife. She died in September, 1951, at the age of 77, so she definitely didn't die in childbirth. I also passed that obit along to Carol.

There was also a Ralph P. Brandi who died in 1961 days before his 31st birthday. He owned a gas station in Saginaw. I don't know how he might be related, or if he is, but I don't imagine there are too many Brandis in Saginaw that aren't related to me in some way or another.

No mention of the other Ralph Brandi that I've been told died very young (stillborn? as an infant? as a young child? I don't know anything about this person other than that he was my great-grandfather's child and that he died.

Mom pointed out to me that Ralph Sr. and Ralph Jr. had the same birthday. D'oh! I thought the date looked familiar, but I didn't make the connection. Dad was surprised at how old he was; he had told me that Great Grandpa was 84 when he died.

The obit mentions that he left five children. I know about James, Yolanda, Vinzina, and Grandpa (Ralph Jr.). Who's the fifth?

February 20, 2000

I don't see a Calvary Cemetery in Saginaw. I looked on Switchboard and Maps On Us, and I see a Calvary Cemetery in Midland, and another one near Bay City (in Kawkawklin), and an Episcopal church called Calvary in Saginaw that may have a cemetery. It would be interesting if Ralph Sr. and Antonia were buried in an Episcopal cemetery.

February 21, 2000

I heard back from Carol today about her talk with her mother. She says her mother told her that her grandfather, James, had a half-sister named Yola. So if Aunt Yola was half-sister to James and was also half-sister to Ralph Jr., my grandfather, then that means that my great-grandfather had children by three women. And that would explain the family legend that great-grandpa's earlier wife had died in childbirth; that apparently refers to his second wife, whose name I don't know, not to Helen Prillwitz. So apparently it wasn't a lie to cover something up, it just referred to a different woman.

Carol said that James had a full sister named Melvina. There's the fifth child. Melvina married Warren Hooten, then her second husband was Clyde Davis. Who named these people? My great grandfather had horrible taste in names. Melvina?

She also says that Yola married Harold Ghetshoff (but she's sure this is not the correct spelling). They had children named Donna Jean and Francis Ann.

I found a bunch of people listed in the Social Security Death Index, including Grandpa Horbal, Great-Grandpa Horbal, and Great-Grandma Miller. This is great! I should be able to find out where Great-Grandpa Horbal was born this way, which I currently don't know any more specifically than "Poland". Maybe I can find more information about Great-Grandma Miller's Schmitt side of the family here, too.

Birth: 14 Apr 1914
Death: Feb 1987

Birth: 24 Sep 1891
Death: Nov 1970

Birth: 12 Aug 1902
Death: 29 Jul 1990

Uncle Paul, Uncle Ray, and Aunt Alice are also listed on the page.

February 22, 2000

I sent away for Social Security records for Grandpa Horbal, Great-Grandpa Horbal, and Great-Grandma Miller today. If you've got the SSN, it costs $7 per record. I've read that it takes up to six months to get; I'll have to wait and see, I guess.

I put up scans of the pictures I found in Grandma Horbal's basement, along with scans of the captions in Ukrainian. Vince says Linda has a friend at work who speaks Ukrainian who could probably translate the captions.

The first picture is of Vincent Sobol, my great great uncle and the man who brought Grandma over to North America from Ukraine. He's in uniform with a friend of his. I wish I knew what uniform it was. The place he's from was part of Austria-Hungary in the First World War.

The strangest picture in the bunch is one of three people taken in 1947. There's a young woman, a little boy, and an older man. It's not clear if he's the boy's father and the woman's husband, or if he's the boy's grandfather and the woman's father. The older man is holding a framed photograph. The picture is quite small to start with, only about 2 inches by 3, but looking closely at the picture, I thought that the people in the photograph he was holding looked very familiar. So I scanned just that portion of the photo in at about 800%. It sure looks like my mother, my Aunt Nancy, Grandma, Grandpa, and the Sobols. I've asked Mom to take a look.

February 25, 2000

Mom confirms that the picture within the picture is indeed who I thought it was. As for the other people in the picture, she helpfully adds: "I think they're peasants."

February 26, 2000

I bought copies of Everton's Genealogical Helper and Heritage Quest magazines at Borders down in south Jersey while I was on my monthly trek to Pennsylvania. The Helper is focused on African-American genealogy this issue; interesting, but not really relevant to me. Heritage Quest, on the other hand, has lots of articles about getting Vital Records. Looks pretty useful. I also got a book, The Genealogy Sourcebook by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack. It looks pretty good. I'll be reading for the next few days. I also got another history of Ukraine, Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine, by Anna Reid.

February 27, 2000

I sent mail to Aunt Lonnie asking what Aunt Zina and Aunt Yola's married names were so I can look them up in the Social Security Death Index. If Aunt Yola didn't find out who her mother was until she applied for Social Security, that implies that she's in the database and that her mother's name must be part of the record.

February 28, 2000

I've done a little more digging, and I think I've found the cemetery where my great grandfather is buried. It's not listed in phone books, which is where I was looking originally, but a web site of cemeteries in Saginaw county gives the location of Calvary Catholic Cemetery in terms of two other landmarks, both of which I can find on the map, and both of which are very close to each other. So I know roughly where it is, and it appears to be a couple of blocks from the river in downtown Saginaw. Unfortunately, the topographical maps of that area of Michigan cut off just west of there, so when I try to look it up on those maps, I get the key for the map, rather than the map itself, so I can't tell if there are any hills or water towers the way Aunt Lonnie described the location. On other maps, I can see that there are a bunch of railroad tracks there, though.

The Saginaw cemeteries web site says "Calvary Catholic Cemetery was established in 1868 south of Brady Hill Cemetery and east of Hoyt Park. The cemetry is owned by the Diocese of Saginaw and records are held at the Catholic Cemetery Commission, Mt. Olivet office." And I looked up the commission in the phone book, so they still exist.

Aunt Lonnie gave me Aunt Yola's and Aunt Zina's married names: "Aunt Yola was married twice; her first husband's last name was Ketchoff. I'm not sure if the spelling is right. She was married to her second husband, Joseph McGuire, on Feb. 14, 1944. Her date of birth was March 6, 1910. Aunt Zina was married a couple of times also. The husband I knew was Stanley Kleinstein. She was living in Ludington when she died."

With this information, I found both of them in the Social Security Death Index:

Birth: 06 Mar 1910
Death: 26 Apr 1995, Mt. Clemens, MI (last benefit)

Birth: 08 Apr 1918
Death: 10 Oct 1989, Ludington, MI (last benefit)

We had Aunt Zina's name wrong, apparently. I was told it was "Vinzina". The index said that her last Social Security check had gone to Ludington, so that matches. And since Aunt Yola's birthday matches, that must be her. I couldn't find either Stanley Kleinstein or Joseph McGuire listed in the index.

February 29, 2000

I sent away today for Aunt Zina's and Aunt Yola's SS-5 forms, the form that they filled out to apply for Social Security. I also sent away for Grandpa Sobol's form.

I also sent away for a copy of Grandpa Horbal's birth certificate. There's a nice site,, that tells you how to get "Vital Records" for people. The state of Pennsylvania has a PDF form that you can fill out, and there's a link to it from I asked for the certificate of Theofil August Florbal, since, thanks to a misspelling, that's how he was originally registered. I remember him showing me the official order legally changing his name to Horbal, what it should have been all along.

A number of years ago, I got e-mail from someone in Australia wondering if we were related. So I went to Telstra's White Pages web site to see if I could find any Brandis in Australia. There were one or two in Brisbane, Queensland, and in the outlying part of South Australia, but there was a cluster of them in Melbourne.

I finished reading Borderland. It's not as good, in general, as the Magocsi or Subtelny books, but it's a little clearer than those two on a couple of points. The switching between history and the author's current-day experiences is a little disconcerting. It certainly has its length to recommend it; it's less than half the size of either of the other two books. In short, it's okay as a primer on the subject.

Heritage Quest is putting images of censuses on CD-ROM and selling them as "Digital Microfilm". I ordered a copy of the 1920 census for Tuscola County, Michigan, where Grandpa Horbal moved after leaving Altoona, PA, but it's not clear from their web site if it's available yet. They accepted the order, but other places on the site say that only microfilms up to 1900 are available. If it's not available yet, they shouldn't accept the order. Oh well, we'll see. The software looks like it's Windows only. Hopefully it'll run acceptably well under SoftWindows.

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