Sunday, June 30, 2013

John R Thornally (1882 - 1955) - my Grandfather on my Mother's side

John Roger Thornally was the third son of William Gilliat and Mary Thornalley.  John also had a younger brother Samuel and two sisters, Charlotte and Rosemary.  His older brothers were Will and Harry.  John was born when Chester Arthur was President of the United States, on October 18, 1882 – the same year Franklin D. Roosevelt was born. John was born in Sacramento, California, which is curious.  His parents William and Mary emigrated from England to San Francisco in 1868.  They moved to Oakland in 1871 and remained in Oakland until their deaths.  Their first three children were born in San Francisco.  Sam and Rosemary, the two youngest were born in Oakland.  So why was John born in Sacramento? In all of my research there are no other references to an event occurring in Sacramento in the William and Mary Thornally family, so I may never find an answer.

The family settled in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland and John attended Fruitvale elementary school. Fruitvale had merged with Oakland in the 1870s.  John left school after completing the 7th grade. At this time his family lived on Bray Street (now 34th Avenue) between 14th Street and Old County Road (probably International Boulevard), near what is now the Fruitvale BART station. 
John with grandson Terry by the greenhouse and pond
in his Sybil Avenue backyard
On the 1900 Oakland census John, now 17 was working as a painter.  A 1901 Oakland Tribune  article reported that he was elected steward for the Fruitvale Fire Department, and at the same time his brother Will was elected as a trustee.  This does not mean they were firemen by trade – in those days men of various trades were expected to serve as volunteer firemen. 

When John was 20 he started working for Oakland Iron Works and he continued working there until 1938 when he was 56 years old.  The building that housed the business was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.  It is also a City of Oakland landmark.  The building was constructed in 1882 – the same year John was born.  The founder of the business, Ives Scoville patented the Climax Side Hill Plow in 1878.  The business manufactured all kinds of cast iron machinery and was considered a pioneering operation in the East Bay.  They built steam engines, hoisting gear, and machinery used in mining. An 1884 drawing of the building complex notes that they made marine engines and boilers, sheet and wrought iron products, shafting pulleys and hangers, brass and iron castings, and boiler, ice and refrigeration machinery for breweries, packing houses, cold storage, etc. In 1904 – shortly after John started working there – the name of the company was changed to the United Iron Works.  The business continued under that name until 1955, which interestingly coincides with the year that John died. 
United Iron Works Christmas 1938 - John 2nd row, right with hat and milk bottle

United Iron Works - John in middle of the shop sitting on equipment with a black hat
When John was 23 he married Emma Louise Menge on June 19, 1906 in San Rafael, California.  A few days later the Oakland Tribune ran an announcement of their wedding.  The announcement reads: 
Emma & John with granddaughter Chris


The marriage of John Thornalley and Miss Emma Menge, which took place June 19 at San Rafael, has just been announced, and comes as a great surprise to the friends of the popular couple. Mr. & Mrs. Thornalley have been residents of Fruitvale, but will in future occupy a pretty home on Bay Street, Alameda.   

Note the spelling of Thornalley in the newspaper article.  This is how John’s father and older brother spelled their last name.  John and his other brothers dropped the “e” but it still appears on some documents.  

By 1908 John and Emma had moved to 3517 Elm (now 17th Street) and in 1910 they were living at 1665 35th Avenue – about a block away. Both of these addresses were within the Thornalley Tract in Brooklyn Township, owned by his father. Brooklyn too had been a separate town but merged with Oakland in 1872. They remained on 35th Avenue until 1922 when they had their home built on Sybil Avenue in San Leandro.  Until 1927 that house was located at 604 Sybil Avenue, but in 1927 the city required them to move the house to 636 Sybil – to accommodate the widening of Bancroft Avenue. The city took the house and Grandpa had to buy it back.  He paid $1165 for the property and made a 10% down payment on June 6, 1927. On the 1930 census the home was valued at $4000. In 1940, the value was recorded as $2500. Today, according to it is worth $323,717.
Ed, John, Emma, Lottie & Kathy, Lewis Pattillo
In 1910, when John was 27 the The Oakland Tribune reported on an event that was organized to raise funds so that the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West (NSGW) of Alameda County could participate in the upcoming Admissions Day celebration in San Francisco.  The article described a theater party and vaudeville program, and it mentioned the Athens, Aloha and Fruitvale parlors, as all participating in planning the fund raising events.  A parlor is what they called a chapter of the organization. John and his brother Samuel were both involved – Sam was part of a group who made arrangements for the event and John was on the reception committee.  They were both members of the Fruitvale parlor No. 252 which had 84 members in 1910.  For the event they planned a grand ball which was to be held at the new Eagles Hall on 14th Street near Fruitvale Avenue. According to the article “The proceeds will be used to purchase a banner that will head the Fruitvale “delegation” during the big parade.”  The parade took place on September 8, 1910. 

Below is a photo of Grandpa riding on a horse-drawn wagon in a different parade.  In the photo there is a banner promoting the United Iron Works Local 284 at 2nd and Jefferson Streets, where he worked. It says “Hydraulic and Refrigerating Engineers”. I imagine the banner for the Fruitvale parlor of the Sons and Daughters of the Golden West was similar.
United Iron Works float in parade - John up front in the white hat
The Native Sons of the Golden West was founded July 11, 1875. Its purpose was to preserve pre-Gold Rush California history.  When the Gold Rush began in 1848 the state was overrun by a massive influx of gold seekers.  Native Californians recognized the need to preserve the history of the state.  Some of their first efforts were to raise money to preserve the California missions, Sutter’s Fort and the Customs House in Monterey.  They continue to exist today and continue to install monuments and historical plaques featuring California’s history.  From the beginning, the NSGW was a progressive organization accepting membership from a broad spectrum of California’s diverse population.  Earl Warren, California State Attorney and Governor was a member of the Fruitvale Chapter of the NSGW, and Joseph Knowland, Legislator, Congressman and publisher of the Oakland Tribune was a Grand President of the NSGW. 
John Thornally in Service for America during WWII

John’s mother Mary McGowan Thornally died in 1912 the same year that the Titanic sank, and his father died about year later.  That’s the year that his son John Earnest was born on June 22, 1913.  John Earnest was baptized on June 29th but sadly died July 12, 1913.  Unlike all the other Thornallys John Earnest is buried in Saint Mary’s cemetery adjacent to Mountain View Cemetery.  This is because Emma and her baby were catholic and she believed they had to be buried in a Catholic cemetery. It was another seven years before his daughter Lottie Gertrude was born on Christmas Day in 1919.
John with grandson Terry
While working at Union Iron Works, part of John’s job involved traveling to places where the machinery he built was to be installed.  My collection of family photos includes several pictures from these trips. Most have few or no labels to explain where he was or what kind of equipment he was installing, but I have two post cards he wrote to his shop mates on April 15, 1934 that provide information about his work.  His notes read: “Just a line to tell you that I’m OK and will be home soon, crossed this bridge today.  It’s the highest in the world.  The wind never stops blowing here.  Had 2 snow storms, but it is warm now.  Job is going fine. We had an earthquake yesterday.” And the second card says, “I had to send 2 cards so you could see all the bridge and the rest of Idaho.  Well, this is a great state.  We in California hardly know it. There is a little of everything here, even sage brush and sheep, but no Indians as you fellows told me.

The post cards depict the “Twin Falls-Jerome Bridge-Rim to Rim Snake River Gorge, Idaho. 476 feet – the highest bridge in the world, 1400 feet long.”  It was mailed from Declo, Idaho, and he signed it “Jack” – so at least at work he had a nickname.  Declo is in Cassia County on the southern boundary of Idaho.  In 1940 the population was 238 and in 2010 it had grown to a whopping 343 people.  Declo’s claim to fame is that it has the world’s largest potato processing company. It seems highly likely that Grandpa delivered some equipment needed at the processing plant. According to the 1940 census he was working 40 hours a week and earned $1440 a year.   
Post card written from Declo, Idaho to John's shop mates, April 16, 1934
Another aspect of John’s work that cannot be omitted is the time he spent out of work while on strike. His was an era when labor unions were forming and fighting for better wages and working conditions.  As a result John was often not earning a regular salary, which was a hardship for him and his family. 
John working on an unknown site
About this time is when he bought his cabin in Brookdale, near Santa Cruz, California. The Cabin was on Highway 9 across the street from Brookdale Lodge – so named because it had a stream or “brook” flowing through the restaurant.  He purchased the cabin in 1935 and tried to rent it out at a profit without much success. The family enjoyed several visits there before he sold it in 1946.  The cabin was demolished a few years later to expand Brookdale lodge.  His older brother Henry and his wife Blanch also owned property in the same area, and I suspect that may have influenced John to buy his cabin.

John lived to experience the births of three grandchildren.  After retiring he spent much of his time nurturing his orchids, which he grew in a small greenhouse in the backyard of his Sybil Avenue property.  He sold his orchids to a wholesaler for resale.  John was an amateur plantsman who also hybridized camellias.  

John with Terry as an infant
He died on January 26, 1955, two days after my fifth birthday, from a heart attack, and is buried with his wife in Mountain View Cemetery in plot No. 64.
Ed, Lottie & John


John's signature on his draft registration

1900 to 1940 censuses, WWI and WWII draft registrations, death notice, Oakland Tribune newspaper articles, city directories, family stories and personal knowledge.


  1. Great article - I really enjoyed reading it! I love reading about families and their history and you did a great job!

    Catherine (@OshawaJournal)

  2. Welcome to Geneabloggers!!

    Regards, Grant

  3. Congratulations for starting up a new blog, Chris! Great story and you write so well. I plan to follow along.

    Lisa Gorrell

  4. What is the possibility that John's parents had to go to Sacramento for a legal matter? Or maybe his father had work there or they were visiting relatives/friends when the baby decided to be born? Good luck with your research on this.

    I found you through the Geneabloggers site and am following you via the Feedly Reader. Have a great weekend.