Saturday, February 1, 2014

#52Ancestors (5) Rena Blanchard Riley

Rena BLANCHARD RILEY was my great-grandmother. I was only a baby when she passed away, but I feel that I know a lot about her life without ever speaking to her.

Irene Clara, as she was known formally, was baptized Clara Regina BLANCHETTE in Chippewa Falls, Chippewa County, Wisconsin. She was known as Grandma Rena to most. Some of BLANCHETTE children anglicized their name to BLANCHARD.

The untamed woods of northern Wisconsin must have been difficult in the 1880's. Living is a hand-hewn home with your father and many siblings and no mother must have been extremely difficult. Rena was born 23 February 1882. Her French-speaking immigrant parents, Louis BLANCHETTE and Mary Virginia RICHARD, wed and started their large family in Wisconsin. Shortly after the birth of their 14th child, Mary Virginia died from complications in childbirth. Rena, the 11th born, and 8th surviving child, was only six years old and motherless. Louis worked hard as a lumberman, but when the closest homestead was over a mile away, and the closest village several more, raising eight children alone was nearly impossible.

Rena was sent to Illinois to live with Louis' sister, Julia BLANCHETTE RICHARDS HOUGH and her second husband, Solomon HOUGH. Julia helped raise and shelter Louis as a teenager after they left Quebec, and now she would become a surrogate mother to his daughter as well. Julia and Solomon lived most of their lives in Saugatuck, Allegan County, Michigan, but after her children were grown, they moved to Illinois to be closer to his children in Chicago. Solomon worked as a shoemaker in Lockport, Will County, Illinois, a bustling canal town.

Rena was sent to the Hough's about 1890. In Lockport, she took music lessons and graduated high school in 1900. She lived an idyllic life with her Aunt and Uncle. In 1902, at age 20, she married John Patrick RILEY. Now that Rena was off and settled, the Hough's moved back to Michigan.

photograph of a painting of the Riley family home, circa 1900

John and Rena Riley, circa 1935

Rena and John lived in Chicago for several years, but by 1915 they were back in Lockport where they lived the rest of their lives. No strangers to large families, Rena and John had 11 children of their own: John, Andrew, Virginia, Edward, Elizabeth, Irene, Joseph, Bernice (my grandmother), James, Joan and George. They had many grandchildren and often hosted family holidays and get-togethers on the large lot surrounding their home.

Easter 1946
Rena at far right, my dad at bottom right

In every photo I have of Grandma Rena she is smiling. If the photos are evidence, she lived a very happy life. She died on 7 February 1967, just a few days shy of her 85th birthday. She is buried with Grandpa John and several unmarried children in South Lockport Cemetery (a/k/a Saint Dennis Cemetery) in Lockport, Illinois.

The circumstances of Rena's early life were hard. If not for the selfless choice of her father to send her to live with her Aunt and Uncle for those childhood years, Rena would not have met John. The Blanchette's had no other connection to Illinois, and Rena was the only one of her siblings sent there. That little window in time that grew out of a difficult beginning was the twist of fate that begat my paternal family. Ah, coincidences.

Irene 'Rena' Clara Blanchard Riley was a paternal great-grandmother

Rena's page in my database

(c) 2014 Sally Knudsen