Kenneth Westhues

Index of resources on Conran-Whitman-Oser family history

The family of origin of

John Henry Conran (1872-1955)

Kenneth Westhues
, Professor Emeritus, University of Waterloo, Canada
Published online in June 2021, as part of Conran-Whitman-Oser family history


Click here for a memoir of John and Lena, "Loving, being loved, and living well in poverty"

Reunion of five Conran siblings in Montgomery County, Missouri, about 1940. From left, seated: Lizzie Conran Keithly, James F. Conran, Lena Oser Conran (wife of John), John H. Conran. From left, standing: Mary Evelyn (Molly) Conran Tippett, Perry B. Tippett (husband of Molly), Thomas R. Conran, Mabel Kirk Conran (wife of Thomas), James Keithley (son of Lizzie). Loretta Conran Taylor, resident in Kansas City, was unable to attend the gathering. Two siblings, Michael and Annie, had died earlier. Charles may also have died by then, or he might possibly have been still living in China.




This webpage is about the family of origin of my grandfather, John Henry Conran (1872-1955). It is one of a cluster of webpages on the ancestry of my mother, John Conran's eldest child, Olive Conran Westhues (1902-2003). Click here for the webpage about the family of origin of John Conran's first wife, Olive's mother, Bertha Whitman Conran (1878-1915). Click here for the page about the family of origin of his second wife, Olive's stepmother, Lena Oser Conran (1882-1956). All these webpages draw both on public records and on personal recollections.


John Henry Conran's parents

John's parents were James Conran (1830-1922) and Ann Barden Conran (1837-1929). Click here for James's informative obituary. In 1850, at 20 years of age, he had migrated with his mother to St. Louis from Dunlavin, County Wicklow, Ireland. This was shortly after the death of his father. I have been unable to find information on James's arrival in America from ship's passenger lists or immigration records. According to oral history of his descendants, James and his mother arrived in New Orleans, and travelled upriver to St. Louis by steamboat. James Conran did not fight in the Civil War. He may have belonged to a home-guard militia for defense of St. Louis, which remained in Union hands throughout the war.

James met Ann Barden in St. Louis, and they married in 1860. Most evidence suggests that Ann was also an immigrant from Ireland, though she may have been born in the United States to Irish immigrants. Whatever the case, the Barden family was as deeply Irish Catholic as the Conran family. Some men in the Barden family had taken part in the Rebellion of 1798 against English rule, and at least one of Ann's direct ancestors was killed in the fighting. The important general point is that the family of James and Ann Conran was Irish through and through. The line in James's obituary is noteworthy, that he "was well pleased to live to see Ireland free" — the War of Independence having ended in December 1921, two months before his death, with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

James and Ann had the first four of their nine children by 1867, when they moved from St. Louis to High Hill, Montgomery County. They bought and settled on a 160-acre farm north of town and remained there until moving to a house in nearby Jonesburg in 1900. By available evidence, James and Ann Conran's level of living was a little above average in rural Missouri. They were not lace-curtain Irish, but their names and the names of their children appeared regularly in the Montgomery City weekly newspaper for social activities and community involvements. In 1909, my grandfather John made the news for winning "best brood mare with two colts" at a local fair.

Here are the only photos I have found of my grandfather John H. Conran's parents, Ann Barden Conran and her husband James. They look as Irish as they were in fact.



Two siblings died young

My grandfather's eldest brother, James and Ann's firstborn child, was Michael Conran (1861-1887). All I remember Grandpa telling me was, "Mike died young." Find-a-grave has a photo of his tombstone in the Jonesburg Catholic cemetery. It is large and imposing — from which I surmise that his parents were on the one hand relatively prosperous and on the other hand grief-stricken at losing him.

According to what Grandpa told me and online records, a second sibling also died young, his sister Annie (1865-1886). Find-a-grave has a photo of her tombstone, of similar size and design as Michael's.

My searches of online records have not revealed to me the cause of death for either Annie at the age of 21, or Michael a year later, at the age of 26. Their parents must have been devastated. So also the younger siblings like my grandfather John, who was just beginning his teenage years. I wish I had asked him more about these two siblings who died so young. Perhaps I did ask him, but now, these many years later, have forgotten what he said.


Inventor and adventurer

James and Ann's second child, ten years older than my grandfather, was Charles (1862-unknown). Grandpa told me Charlie ran away from home, disappeared for years, and eventually wrote home from China. Then, after an absence of a decade or more, he walked into his parents' farmhouse one day and said, "Hello, Ma," as casually as if he had never left home. He did not stay long, soon returned to China. According to his father James's obituary, Charles "has been in China the last fifteen years" — which would mean he kept in touch with his parents during his second sojourn overseas, and was still living in China in 1922, at the age of 60.

Why Charles fled the community of his birth and upbringing is anybody's guess. He was eight years old when the decade of the 1870s began, 18 when it ended. This was a period of mass migration, rapid change, and steady industrialization across the American Midwest. After the horrors of civil war, the country seemed open and full of opportunity. This was the heyday of novelist Horatio Alger, whose rags-to-riches stories (like Ragged Dick, Paul the Peddler, Struggling Upward, and Fame and Fortune) were hugely popular among young boys. The common theme was that a poor boy sets out on his own and makes good through hard work, frugality, honesty, and luck. That is essentially what Charles Conran did.

Trains and railroads were the single most burgeoning industry at the time, just as cars and highways would be after World War II, and digital technologies at the end of the twentieth century. The rails were where the action was, and Charles was drawn to it. Click here for a diagram and description of an invention he patented in 1903, a "tie dumping and turning mechanism for railway building." He was living at that time in Ogden, Utah, a major railway hub and junction point for lines running in all directions.

Charles was one of hundreds of young American men with technical expertise in railway construction who moved to China's Pearl River Delta around the turn of the century. The American China Development Company had gained concessions from China to build a railroad from Hankow to Canton (now Guangzhou). Charles probably worked for that company or a related one. A newspaper in San Francisco listed him among the passengers on the Pacific Mail steamship China that sailed for Hong Kong on March 17, 1908. Click here for the one other public record I have found for Charles, his application for a United States passport at the consulate in Canton on June 1, 1909. He listed his occupation as "Railway Construction." That is the last I know of him. At right is a photo he sent home about 1890.

By his absence, Charles had a big effect on the life of his younger brother John. Grandpa told me his parents, James and Ann, would scarcely let him out of their sight, for fear that he would run away as Charles had done. For that reason, so Grandpa recalled, he was not allowed to go to town by himself until he was 21 years old. Grandpa may have been stretching the truth a little, as he was wont to do, but it is easy to believe that after two children died and one ran away, James and Ann were overprotective toward the six remaining children.


Single mother, innkeeper in California

James and Ann's fourth child was Elizabeth (1866-1955), but I never heard her called anything but Lizzie. She married Lee Sherman Keithly (1864-1941) when she was about 30 years old. They had one son, James Keithly (1897-1963).

Sometime in their first ten years of marriage, Lizzie and Lee parted company. Lee remained in the St. Louis area. Lizzie headed west with little James. She was working as a dressmaker and running a rooming house in Colorado Springs when my grandparents John and Bertha moved their family to that city in 1910, hoping against hope to cure Bertha of TB.

Sometime later, probably in the 1920s, Lizzie and James moved to Redondo Beach, California, where Lizzie bought, operated, and gradually expanded a rooming house on Catalina Avenue, one block away from the attractions around the pier and harbor. She named her tourist establishment The Colorado Hotel. So far as I know from family stories, it was more like an inn, with a large dining room and about 40 rooms for mostly long-term guests. After service in World War I and a short-lived marriage, James Keithly returned to help his mother run the hotel. He stayed with her until her death, and remained in Redondo Beach for the rest of his life. He died suddenly of a heart attack in 1963, during a visit to his Aunt Loretta (see below) in Kansas City.

Only once did I encounter Aunt Lizzie in the flesh. It was 1954. She was 88 years old and I was 10. The photo at right shows how she looked that year, walking along the pier at Redondo Beach on the arm of her devoted son. That was not, however, where I met her. I did not get to California until 40 years later. Luckily for me, Aunt Lizzie decided in the fall of 1954 to travel one last time back to Missouri, where she still had four living siblings and other relatives. For a woman her age, this was a very big trip. Planes had not yet replaced long-distance trains. She would board the famous Union Pacific streamliner, The City of St. Louis, in Los Angeles, at noon one day, and without changing trains, arrive at her destination on the Mississippi River at noon two days later. Counting the two-hour time difference, that meant 46 hours of riding the rails by herself. Then, after visiting her St. Louis kin, she would begin her homeward journey, traveling west as far as Glasgow to visit my family, then on to Kansas City for more visiting, and to catch once again The City of St. Louis for the return to Los Angeles.

Problem was, Aunt Lizzie had become forgetful in her advanced old age, also fearful and suspicious even of her son. She had left on the trip without informing him beforehand, and she took with her for safekeeping the deeds to her properties in Redondo Beach. When she arrived at St. Louis Union Station, she rented one of the self-service luggage lockers that could be found in all major train stations of that era. She put the deeds in the locker and went off to visit her relatives. Days letter, when she departed St. Louis for Glasgow, she forgot to retrieve the deeds.

My grandparents, John and Lena, were by now no longer living on their farm, but instead in a small, two-room apartment in Glasgow. They had no room for Aunt Lizzie, and besides, Grandpa had himself become forgetful and frail. Aunt Lizzie therefore came to stay several days with us on the farm. She was a colorful, indeed overpowering presence. My sisters, single and in their twenties, asked Aunt Lizzie whether a girl should marry for love or for money. Aunt Lizzie replied without hesitation, "Money's pretty nice."

Dad brought Grandpa and Grandma out from town to visit with Aunt Lizzie in our home, but the visit did not go well. Grandpa insisted that he was older than Aunt Lizzie. She was in fact six years older than he. She corrected him in the manner of an older sibling toward a younger one. Grandpa took offense. The argument lasted a good while. I wanted to speak up for Grandpa's side of it, but even I knew he was in the wrong. This may have been the first big lesson in my young life about the horrifying ravages of age.

What was worse, so Aunt Lizzie told Mom, a man had watched her deposit her deeds in the locker in the St. Louis Union Station and then stolen the key from her, so that he could take the deeds and lay claim to her property. He would probably have done so by the time she got back to Redondo Beach, so that she would have no home or hotel to return to. Aunt Lizzie was therefore in a state of deep distress – "fit to be tied," as was said at that time.

In crisis situations, my mother could sometimes take charge with shocking decisiveness. "Aunt Lizzie," she commanded, "empty out your purse on the dining room table." Aunt Lizzie hesitated but then, seeing the look on Mom's face, meekly did as she was told. I watched the way a child does when Something Important is going on. Everything seemed to fall silent in our farmhouse. The purse seemed very large, with all kinds of things in it. Mom went through the items slowly, one by one. In that way she discovered, tied into a corner of a handkerchief, the key to the locker where Aunt Lizzie had put the deeds. "Is this the key?" Mom asked. Aunt Lizzie said it was.

I do not know exactly how Aunt Lizzie was reunited with her deeds. I remember that Mom made a long-distance telephone call to St. Louis Union Station. Such calls were expensive, never made except in emergencies. Somehow, by the time Aunt Lizzie left Kansas City for the long train journey back to California, she once again had the deeds in her possession and felt sure her property would still be there for her when she got back to Redondo Beach. She died there the next year, on November 14, 1955. Grandpa died in the little apartment in Glasgow six weeks later, on December 26, 1955.


Lawyer in St. Louis, Democrat

The sibling closest in age to my grandfather was his brother James F. Conran (1871-1946), just one year older. Possibly because he was crippled (by clubfoot is my best guess) and was thus ill-suited to farming, Uncle Jim graduated in law from the University of Missouri and practiced law his whole life from an office on Olive Street in St. Louis. Click here for the biographical essay about Uncle Jim that I wrote in 2012. It includes a splendid photo of him at work in 1906. Uncle Jim never married. On his death, his estate was divided among his siblings. Because Grandpa was so poor, the $1000 or $2000 he received meant a lot. I remember hearing him refer gratefully to "Jim's money."



Farmers in Montgomery County

Thomas Conran (1876-1949) stayed closest to home. He and his wife Mabel Kirk Conran (1882-1853) owned and operated a farm in Montgomery County. Uncle Tom and Aunt Mabel had three children: a son named Stanley who died young, and two daughters, Mary and Carolyn.

My memories of Uncle Tom and Aunt Mabel are dim, but it seemed to me as a boy that this was a very Irish family. Their daughter Mary married James Drimped, whose brother was a priest, Rev. William J. Drimped. About 1950, this priest was appointed pastor of my home parish, St. Mary's in Glasgow, where he remained until his death in 1961. Throughout this decade of my childhood, therefore, Mary and Jim Drimped always had two reasons to leave their home in the St. Louis suburb of Jennings for a drive to Glasgow: so that Mary could visit her first cousin Olive, my mother, and so that Jim could visit his brother, Father Bill. Further, Jim and Mary had one son, a year younger than I, named Billy after his uncle. Billy and I traded visits several times as we were growing up. Once, after I had spent a week at his home in Jennings, Billy and I got to ride The City of St. Louis to Moberly, where my parents met us and took us back to the farm, where Billy stayed for a week with me.

Also very Irish and devoutly Catholic was Mary's sister Carolyn, who married John Carroll. This couple, too, had one child, a boy named Tom, seven or eight years younger than Billy and me.

Many times a mother

Grandpa's two youngest siblings, the last two of James and Ann's nine children, were both girls. First came Aunt Molly, whose baptismal name was Mary Evelyn Conran (1879-1961). She married Perry Tippett (1879-1961) in Jonesburg in 1903, but so far as I know, they lived throughout their lives in St. Louis. Molly had ten children, more than all her siblings combined: George Bernard, Charles Norbert, John Glennon, James, Paul Gregory, Mary Rachel, Rebecca, James Stoddard, Francis Bardon, and Joseph Anthony.

I have only vague recollections of the Tippett family, drawn mainly from a few Conran reunions in St. Louis in the 1950s and early 1960s. I was struck by the contrast between these reunions and those of my father's German relatives. The Conran gatherings were less restrained. There was raucous laughter and a fair bit of drinking. The Westhues reunions were fun but more decorous, and rarely did anyone get even a little drunk.

Loretta, the youngest child

I know little about Grandpa's youngest sibling, Loretta (ca1880-ca1976), who lived most of her life in the Kansas City metropolitan area. She married William F. Taylor, and they had one child, a daughter named Ann Sue (1924-2008), who married John Patrick (Jack) Downs (1922-2009). I found an item in a California newspaper about a visit Aunt Loretta paid her older sister Lizzie in Redondo Beach in the 1930s. It is likely that Loretta and Bill visited her brother John in Glasgow (my grandafther), and her niece Olive (my mother), but I have no memory of those visits.