My Storybook journey is taking me backwards, through decades of family history. I haven’t traveled a single mile since my search began and yet my Storybook is taking me around the world. Of course that won’t be the case for long. The more research I do, the more interesting stories I read about my kin, about the places they have lived, breathed and died, I find myself “chomping at the bit” to go to there.
My ancestry puzzle has many twists and turns with generations of a very cool cast of characters on both sides of the gene pool.
In the 1970’s my paternal grandfather, William A. McKenna wrote that he had wished his forebears had left some notes so he/we would know about them. He wrote about his father’s life and some of the other relatives to give some history on the McKenna family origins. This was purely from his and his sisters’ recollection. Back then there was no Ancestry.com, no Internet to make the search global. He did however do a fine job with his typewriter and white out, and I will be forever grateful that I have this precious information. My grandfather’s writing has lit a spark in me, created a yearning to know more about who I am and it has given my wanderlust purpose and meaning.
My grandfather wrote” We hope that you will continue, and build upon this little history so that your great grandchildren will have some knowledge of their forbears, their successes, failures, joys and disappointments.”
So, I am doing just that.
The McKenna’s … part one
I don’t have to look too far to see where I got my love of travel and adventure. My parents sold all their worldly possessions when they were in their early forties, downsized into a motor home and we traveled throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico living their version of the American Dream. Kind of like the Partridge family but without the singing and on a much nicer bus.
My grandparents William and Florence McKenna were always off traveling the world. I have fond memories of us picking them up from JFK airport in New York or at the Pier where they returned from a cruise aboard a cargo steamer, something they often did. I loved looking at their photos and I remember how elegant my grandmother always looked posing onboard the ship. I couldn’t wait until the day when I could do the very same thing.
And then, there was my great-grandfather P.J. (Pack) McKenna. He was the first generation of the McKenna family born in the U.S., both his mother and father emigrated here from Ireland.
P.J. too traveled the world but for ‘business’. You see, great grandpa was known as the “original handicapper”. He was a veteran horse race handicapper who was widely known at tracks throughout the U.S., Canada, Cuba and Mexico. When my grandfather was a boy one of the highlights of the year would be when his dad P.J. would take his family for the August trek to Saratoga Springs, N.Y. where the cream of the thoroughbreds competed. They lived in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn and would make the trip to Saratoga on board the Albany “Night Boat” where they would have staterooms. Once they got to Albany, they would travel the remaining 39 miles north to Saratoga on the railroad and they would stay at a country hotel/spa not far from the track.
P.J. was a really likable and popular guy. While he listed his business as ‘real estate’ he attended upwards of 100,000 horse races in his lifetime. Before 1900 there were no past performance charts and solid information on the ‘entries’ was hard to come by but P.J. overcame this by posting men at the start and finish lines, as well as the quarter poles. From this information, he could reconstruct the race and prepare his own charts. According to my grandfather who chronicled this back in the 70’s, the charts were substantially the same as the ones appearing in modern day newspapers.
P.J. was very successful at picking winners and in spite of sharing his horse knowledge and ideas with friends (driving down the odds) he still was able to amass a small fortune. He also had a pretty influential group of cronies that included Clark Griffith, owner of the Washington Senators who hosted a dinner at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. to celebrate P.J.’s perfect “7 for 7” day at Bowie. Also in attendance was Tom Brahany, personal secretary to two U.S. presidents.
One of P.J.’s grandsons, writer Mike Matthews describes him in a 1998 newspaper article:
”Grandpa had become a wealthy man. In the 20’s he bought lots and lots of land in his native Brooklyn, eventually becoming the largest individual landowner in Kings County. Not surprisingly, he had for a number of years proposed membership in the snooty Crescent Club in Bay Ridge, and for the same number of years he had been black balled – because wagering on horse flesh was not considered an honorable undertaking. Meanwhile, however, he had become a very rich man, something the honorable members of the Crescent Club could identify with. So finally he was admitted to their number. Nonetheless, his sense of propriety, and I suspect his Irish sense of humor, compelled him as his first official act upon investiture, to resign.”
This is only one of many stories to tell.
While my grandfather spoke about his father in detail, he really said almost nothing about his mother, who was the second of his three wives. So, I’ve got some digging to do.
So there you have it, a sneak peek behind the McKenna curtain.
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