Katherine Ann Rooney: A Grandma for All
“Grandma McKanna: now there was a woman!” Whenever he spoke of her, my father, Judge Willis, inevitably came around to this glowing phrase of praise. Others who knew her echoed those sentiments: Katherine Willis, named for her; Mickey McKanna, son of Phillip and Kathleen Doyle McKanna, her grandson; Frances Penglase Barnhill, “Panky,” lifelong friend of Elizabeth McKanna Willis, her daughter. What electrified them about this woman?
Patrick Rooney and Ellen Tracy gave life to Katherine on April 2, 1852. Patrick had emigrated from Ireland to Quebec Province, Canada, in 1835; Ellen had done likewise in time to marry him in 1837 in a small farming and logging community in Upper Wakefield Township. There Patrick farmed while Ellen gave birth to, cared for, and raised her ever-growing family. Katherine made child number eight; she would in two more years welcome her youngest sibling, Elizabeth, the ninth and last child. The family being Catholic, Katherine was baptized at St. Camillus Catholic Church in Farellton–a rural town now called La Peche and existing to this day alongside the Gatineau River. As always, the gothic steeple dominates the surrounding landscape.
In 1862 the United States Congress passed the Homestead Act. It offered 160 acres of unused public lands in the Northwest Territories to anyone who wished to settle on, and improve their homestead. Much of the Rooney clan–Patrick and Ellen, and his married brothers and sisters–immigrated to Minnesota to claim its deliciously rich farming soil. They settled in Stearns County in a place they named “Rooney’s Settlement,” eventually renamed Padua in honor of St. Anthony of Padua, its patron saint and title of its Catholic parish.
Katherine, fifteen at the time of the move, finished her schooling in her new home. When she evidenced a mature twenty years, the community leaders judged her sufficiently educated to become the first employed school teacher of Raymond Township. A small, wooden-shingled, one-room schoolhouse where she taught, though no longer in use, still exists.
I treasure a picture of her from that period of her life:
A Young Woman
I once described this picture thus: “Although of medium height, here she appears tall, almost statuesque. Dark-brown curly hair encircles her head and curves gracefully over her forehead toward the outside of her eyes, setting off her alabaster-smooth face and neck. Deep-set eyes gaze directly at the camera, showing interest and intensity. A slight smile indicates kindness and self-possession. She is wearing a pleated white blouse with a white collar softly framing her neck. Though the blouse has long sleeves, they are turned back, exposing her lower arms. A black/brown dress with an openwork bodice emphasizes both her whiteness and maidenly fullness as its falls from her shoulders over her breasts to her waist. From there it cascades with deep folds in a bell shape to the floor. She holds her hands clasped behind her in an attitude at once direct and controlled. She told her grandaughter Katherine Willis that as teenagers the Rooney girls created quite a stir among the young men thereabouts. If the others looked like her, one need not wonder why.”
The young schoolteacher did spark ardent male attention. One suitor, Hugh McFarland, pursued her assidiously enough to gain a promise of marriage. When she told her parents her happy news, and produced his ring, she hit a wall of displeasure. The Rooneys professed a strong Irish Catholicism; the McFarlands did not belong to either of these beknighted clans. They said no to any unblessed alliance with him.
Subsequently Katherine, in tears, handed back the engagement ring. In exasperation Hugh snatched it and hurled it far out into a grassy field. He accompanied it with these words: “Here’s to the ring and here’s to the girl who cannot keep a promise.” Clearly she had failed him. Yet, how could she simply oppose the traditions that bound her family?
Years later she related this episode to her granddaughter Katherine. She held Hugh as her first and probably only true love. She shared this, not to complain, but rather to reflect with her on what might have been.
By the spring of 1874 Hugh and the pain of this rejection faded. Michael McCanna, a young farmer from adjacent Pope County, courted her. Both Irish and Catholic, plus being a hard-working young fellow, satisfied her parents. The marriage could proceed:
Church Certificate of Marriage, April 9, 1874
The couple began their family on Michael’s farm in Grove Lake. They conceived and bore a daughter there, Elizabeth Elinor McCanna (my eventual grandmother), on May 13, 1875. Katherine became pregnant with their second child nine months later.
A locust plague devastated the crops of the Upper Midwest in the summers of 1875 and 1876. A number of the combined McCanna and Rooney families decided to sell their farms and to head west for more congenial conditions. Though pregnant and with a two-year-old child, Katherine joined her husband on this new adventure. On the way her second-born arrived, James Adelbert, in Fargo, Dakota Territory, on December 16, 1876.
The family settled down in Miles City in the Montana Territory. Over the next nine years, Michael labored at construction and hired-out as a teamster; Katherine, meanwhile, was busy raising her two youngsters and giving birth to three more: Emmett Joseph on June 8, 1879, John on June 7, 1882, and Phillip Francis on May 17, 1884. A studio picture taken between 1880-1882 shows the parents with their first three children:
Elizabeth, Katherine Ann, Emmett, Michael Bernard, and Jim
A few incidents give a flavor of their daily affairs in Miles City. I take them from the Yellowstone Journal of 1864, the months leading up to the birth of Phillip on May 17th. At that time Katherine had four children, ages eight to one.
“Mr. McCanna, living on Main Street west of the postoffice, and the residents of the other houses in that block moved out Sunday night and had barely time to do so before the water backed up by the gorge came hurriedly into their houses and covered the lower floor to the depths of a foot and more.” (February 26, 1884)
“Mr. McCanna, will shortly grade the street at the corner of the postoffice building, running at right angles to Main.” (March 1, 1884)
“Quite a lively scrap occurred last night between Contractor McCanna and a gentleman who had been under his employ. The latter, it seems had a bone to pick with the contractor and led him on an exciting scrimmage, in which Mc took a tumble and was assisted home by one of his numerous friends.” (April 10, 1884)
“The illness of Lizzie McCanna, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. M.B. McCanna, is greatly regretted by their friends. She is afflicted with St. Vitus dance but there are some hopes of her recovery.” (April 16, 1884)
“Furnished rooms to rent at my house corner of Fourth and Main streets. Mrs. McCanna.” (April 20, 1884)
The Sioux Uprising of 1862 in Minnesota resulted in summary executions, the breaking of treaties, and the driving of these savages out of Minnesota, westward into the Dakota Territory. Mickey McKanna, son of the Phillip soon to be born to Michael and Katherine, related to me an incident told him by his father.
According to Phillip, just hours before his birth his pregnant mother was walking alone on the edge of town. Suddenly, a band of Sioux on horseback came hurtling down the hills toward her. She darted into a nearby cattle corral. She ducked down among the steers in order not to be seen. The rampaging riders opened the gates for the penned cattle and drove them out. Katherine ran along in their midst and, somehow, avoided detection. She returned home safely. She delivered Phillip the next day.
I do not know how much truth hides in this account. It does offer a dramatic and startling coda to a momentous spring in frontier Miles City. True or somewhat so, it also underlines how her family saw her.
The United States bought the Alaska Territory from Russia in 1867. By 1882 it began offering homesteads to American pioneers willing to settle in that frigid, faraway land. The attraction of free property, plus the finding of gold deposits that very year around Juneau, drew many hardy folk northward.
In 1886 Michael bundled his wife and five young children into a wagon and headed for Seattle. We can only imagine the hardships of that journey, including the accidental death of three-year-old John. By August the pioneering family arrived by boat in Juneau. They settled down on Douglas Island, across the Gastineau Channel. Michael secured a job as a hardrock miner for the Alaska-Treadwell Goldmining Company, begun in 1881, the largest stamp-mining operation anywhere. Its main activities were located in Treadwell, a half mile down-island from Douglas. The family purchased a house on Second Street in Douglas. There Katherine gave birth to her last two children, Robert John on May 21, 1889, and Hilary on June 11, 1892.
News of gold discoveries in the Yukon began filtering into Juneau and environs in the fall of 1896. The possible treasures proved irresistible to the McKannas. The Alaska Searchlight for March 20, 1897 briefly reports: “M.B. McKanna and son James left on the steamer Rustler on Tuesday, bound for the Yukon gold fields.” Son Emmett would quickly follow. Katherine stayed home in Douglas, taking care of it and her three young boys. At this juncture her oldest child, twenty-one-year-old Elizabeth, though living at home had a job outside. She served the government and her community as postmistress for Douglas.
The McKanna men reached Dawson that summer. They staked and worked claims for two years until Michael became ill. He came down with “Bright’s Disease,” a kidney ailment that is now called acute or chronic nephritis. In the summer of 1899 with Jim’s help he headed back up the Yukon River, retracing their steps in the hope of reaching home. The sickness overcame him. He died near Lake Bennett at the top of the infamously treacherous Chilkoot Pass. When word reached Douglas, his daughter Elizabeth left straightway by boat to Skagway, and then took a recently completed railway line up the Pass. She met her brother at Lake Bennett. The two buried their father’s remains in a small miners’ cemetery nearby. His wife could only grieve at a distance.
Mourning Picture, McKanna Family, 1899
A family photograph starkly records this tragic event in their lives. Katherine is seated to the right. Next to her and a bit forward, with his hand on her right knee, stands her youngest, Hilary. Robert is standing just off of his little brother’s right shoulder. Phillip comes next, sitting where his father should have been. In back, Elizabeth has placed herself between Phillip and Robert, James talll and erect between Hilary and his mother. Absent is Emmett, still prospecting for gold, and Michael, finally at rest. Katherine is dressed in a full-length, long-sleeved black dress buttoned at the neck. She has her hair tightly curled and pulled back from her face. Her eyes express a depth born of pain. Her mouth and jaw appear rounder now, less tense. A quiet dignity adds to her beauty.
Soon thereafter the family began a process of dispersal. On November 7, 1903 Elizabeth married Robert Willis. By July 1907 they will uproot to Goldendale, Washington. Jim traveled back into the Yukon; he hunted for gold there until 1904. On returning he earned a living as wharfinger and general manager of the Juneau Ferry and Navigation Company’s wharf in Douglas until his marriage to Frances Gaines Morrisette in 1915. The couple crossed over to Juneau. Tragically, on a future stopover in Portland, Oregon, Jim would succumb to the flu epidemic of 1918.
Phillip married Alma Gribble on March 25, 1905. They located for a time in Rossland, British Columbia, and then retraced a path back to Juneau. Alma contracted tuberculosis; she died on May 4, 1909; she was twenty-two years old, and the mother of three small children. Elizabeth and Robert Willis welcomed two-year-old Frances into their family in Goldendale. Katherine became both mother and grandmother to three-year-old Hugh and one-year-old Phillip. They grew up in the McKanna family home in Douglas until Katherine’s youngest son, Hilary, sought new fields in Eagle River about fifteen miles northeast of Anchorage. He farmed; she kept house for him and the boys.
She dwelt there between 1915 into the early 1920’s. At that time she transported the two teenagers to Goldendale. Her son-in-law Robert Willis had built a house for her and Phillip’s children. Their sister Frances rejoined her brothers. The three lived with Katherine in these new surroundings until Phillip remarried in 1925. Katherine transplanted them again, now to Yakima, just seventy-five miles to the northeast. The family united with Phillip’s second wife and their next mother, Kathleen Marguerite Doyle.
Phillip and Kathleen headed back north to Juneau by 1929. Katherine returned to Robert and Elizabeth Willis in Goldendale. Early in the spring of 1930 tragedy struck this family. Elizabeth suffered a stroke which left her paralysed and unable to speak. Then young James Willis, recently graduated from Goldendale High School, drowned on a school outing on the Columbia River, near Maryhill. He died on July 6th; his mother followed him on August 10th. As might be expected, Katherine stayed on in Goldendale, keeping house for, and helping as she uniquely could, her son-in-law Robert, until he too died, of pneumonia, on February 16, 1935, two months before I was born.
I have a number of photographs taken in Washington State of Katherine as an old woman. My favorite shows her standing with Frances Barnhill, her daughter’s lifelong friend, and my godmother. She is celebrating her eighty-sixth birthday with her son, Emmett, and family in Yakima. Being not quite three at the time I don’t remember her, though we obviously met.
Katherine’s Eighty-Sixth Birthday In Yakima
Katherine Ann Rooney McKanna died at her granddaughter Frances’s home in Los Angeles on May 1, 1939. She is buried in the Willis family plot at Holy Trinity Cemetery in Goldendale, Washington, with her daughter, Elizabeth, her son Phillip, her son-in-law Robert, and her grandson, James Emmett.
I began this essay with the desire to draw for myself and for you my portrait of a great grandmother I never personally knew. My words stand as they are. But in the end what finer measure of her exists than these lyrical lines of Proverbs. I leave you with an inspired writer’s words of tribute. He perhaps did not know it, but I think he was speaking about Grandma McKanna:
Who shall find a valiant woman? Far and from the uttermost coasts is the price of her. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he shall have no need of spoils. She will render him good all the days of her life.