“Now there’s all these names alive and sort of flickering in my imagination.”
Cheers and Frasier star Kelsey Grammer grew up with his mother, sister, and mother’s parents: Grandpa Gordon and “Gam,” as he called his grandmother Evangeline. He feels his grandmother’s influence to this day, but he knows little about her—Gam never spoke about her mother, and Kelsey doesn’t even know his great-grandparents’ first names.
A search of census records reveals that Kelsey and Gam shared something in common: in 1910, Evangeline is living with her mother and grandparents, with no father in the home. And for the first time, he learns his great-grandmother’s name: Genevieve Geddes.
Kelsey turns to newspaper accounts to find more of the story. Genevieve married Ellis L. Dimmick in Oakland in 1905 and filed for divorce in 1913, charging neglect and desertion. Her death certificate shows that she remarried but died relatively young of cirrhosis of the liver—a clue to a possible hard life. But why did Ellis abandon his wife and child?
With a name, Kelsey can now search for Ellis, who enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1908 at age 29. His record includes the statement “authorized to enlist waiving marriage.” In other words, Ellis is claiming that he has no dependents. A year and half later, he’s discharged as “undesirable” for excessive drinking and being AOL. His character is assessed in a single word: “Bad.”
But Kelsey surmises that maybe he wasn’t all bad. On Ellis’s 1918 WWI draft registration card. By then he is living at the Hotel Shattuck, working as a night porter. On the line for next of kin he has listed his daughter, Evangeline, address unknown. Ellis at least acknowledged that his daughter existed.
Ellis’s death certificate leaves Kelsey another question to answer. Ellis’s parents, Joseph and Mary Dimmick, were born in Iowa and Ohio, respectively. So how did the family end up in California?
The 1850 census yields a clue: Joseph Dimmick as one of 12 children with his parents, Joseph Sr. and Comfort, in Rushville, Illinois. The family arrived in Oregon in 1852—which means they were among the thousands of pioneers who crossed the continent on the Oregon Trail looking for land and a new start. Kelsey travels to eastern Oregon to walk a section of the trail his ancestors traveled and read from a remarkable find: a journal Joseph Sr.’s nephew kept while he traveled with the Dimmick’s company. It tells the story of Joseph and Comfort’s oldest son, Thomas, dying of cholera and being “buried alone on the plains,” while his family continued on.
Only one question remains—did the Dimmicks get the land they came west for?
Land records show that Joseph and Comfort received their rights to 311 acres in 1858, just two years before Joseph died. Kelsey’s final stop is a visit to the land where he can stand where his family stood and see what they saw.
Reflecting on what he’s discovered about his past, Kelsey says, “Some succeeded and some didn’t. Genevieve and Ellis, my great-grandparents, just couldn’t do it. The others, boy, they stand tall.”