The Tragedy of Lynn and Martha (Kennedy) Latta

Lynn Latta 2My great-grandfather, Lynn Latta, was born 26 June 1867,  the fourth of seven children in a large and settled family near Fulton County, Kentucky.  One day he walked away from his brothers and sisters and parents without telling anyone why or where he was going.  His niece, Mary Emma Pittman, the daughter of his brother, Thomas Benton Latta, suggested that he went away to avoid a fight with one of his brothers over money.  Her mother had once told her that Lynn “got tired of Uncle Guy borrowing his money and never paying back.”

“I never did hear my Father speak of him very often,” Mary wrote,

and I asked my mother one day why.  And she said it hurt him so much as he was so good a person, but he didn’t like his brother treating him the way he did, as he was a good person who liked to save his money.

So, rather than confront his brother about the debt, and, presumably, shame him in front of his family, Lynn decided to take the shame upon himself and leave.  This, at least, is the story given by his niece, Mary, who stayed on the “Old Home Place” that Lynn’s parents, Benjamin Franklin and Mattie (Mitchell Morris) Latta, built.

Years later, Lynn’s daughter Edith noted, “Dad left his childhood home when in his teens, and how he ever went so far north to find a wife, I’ll never guess.”

Lynn was not the only peripatetic member of the family.  All of his brothers and sisters left Kentucky except for Mary’s father, “TB,” Thomas Benton Latta, who stayed on at the Old Home Place and then passed it on to Mary.

Courtship and Marriage

No one knows why, when, how, or where Lynn met Martha Matilda Kennedy,

Martha Matilda Kennedy, circa 1890

a headstrong, Protestant Canadian of Irish and German heritage.  One of my grand aunts,  it might have been Ruth, told me that her parents met in Detroit or Chicago, where her mother was working as a milliner, but I have not found any census records to prove it.

We know that Martha, at least, was in Arkansas on January 14, 1899, giving birth to Ruth.   Twelve days later–and this seems incredible–Martha and Lynn got married 1,000 miles away, in Huron, Ontario.  A little more than a year after that,  the little family had moved to an apartment building at 507 Ninth Street, in Des Moines Idaho.

At some point during this year Martha traveled back to Canada.  The official documenting her crossing at Rockport, Ontario, wrote that she and her daughter intended to visit her husband, who was in the country for six months.


Perhaps Lynn had found and especially lucrative job up in Ontario.  Shortly after he returned he purchases six and a half acres on Indiana Road in Des Moines, built a house on top of a hill and opened the  “White House Cafe,” a small restaurant on West Fourth Street that catered to passengers heading to and from the Rock Island Railway.

View of the Country near the Latta house on Indiana Street, Des Moines, circa 1920
View of the Country near the Latta house on Indiana Street, Des Moines, circa 1920

Martha cooked and bore ten more children: Lynn Howard, John, Frederick, Edith May, Elsie, Evelyn, Edward, Albert, and Dorothy. The third child, John, died in infancy.  Lynn and Martha owned two horses, Nellie and her son, Ben, cows, and chickens.  They farmed hay, vegetables, walnuts, plums, cherries, and berries.  They bought an upright piano and hired a teacher to give lessons to the older children.

Edith May, Elsie, and Evelyn Latta, circa 1920, near their house on Indiana Road, Des Moines, Iowa










Lynn’s second daughter Edith recalled that her father

was a very kind, hard-working man.  He never had enough sleep that I can remember.  He went to his restaurant after doing a lot of jobs around the house in the mornings and early afternoon.  He went to the restaurant in plenty of time to prepare the evening meal, keeping the place open late in the evenings and letting his horse bring him home.  Old Nellie knew the way, so Dad could sleep.  He built our home, little, by little, with the help of a handyman.  He was so good to all us kids.

Ed’s wife Wilma also observed,

the children all remember their father as a kind, loving man.  There is a snapshot of him somewhere with a bunch of kids on a wagonload of hay.  So apparently they played with him while he worked at home.

Martha, on the other hand, was not as much fun.  Edith recalled that her mother

was always busy raising children and working in the fields and gardens.  She was not demonstrative, but she must have had a good business sense, continuing to keep the household going after Dad left, with no monies except what we older ones who were working could give her.  I don’t think she ever had time to do what she might have liked to do; she was just too busy doing what was necessary to keep the family going.

In the margins of this typed letter Edith has written by hand,” she did enjoy her flower gardens.”

Martha Matilda Kennedy, circa 1885, before she married Lynn Latta, Sr.

On the other hand, he was difficult.  Ed remembered his parents arguing often, which bothered him.  His wife Wilma, who told me this, also recalled that  Martha’s neighbors

tried to help her when she had problems, asking her why she took him back when she knew it meant trouble. She resented their ‘helpful’ interference, and told them so.  So apparently he left more than once, although Ed doesn’t remember.

During the delivery of one child (Elsie, I think), she hemorrhaged so badly that they feared for her life.  (All deliveries were at home, of course.) They sent for the father, but couldn’t find him.  He had left the restaurant to go to a movie.  She never forgave him for that.  She probably was afraid of each of the four pregnancies after that, and felt trapped and resentful.

He must have been charming, to persuade her to bear more children under these circumstances.

My only purpose in telling these details is to help you understand what a hard life she had, and to see why she became a bitter old woman.  It also helped me to understand why Ed refused ever to argue with me; he would walk out instead.

Culture and Traditions

Lynn Latta and Martha Matilda Kennedy  came from completely different cultural backgrounds.  Lynn’s Scotch-Irish folk settled in North Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia and Kentucky–Protestant middling people who distinguished themselves for their extraordinary fierceness, stubborn pride, and cheerfulness, which neither poverty nor hardship could suppress.  These out-spoken, hard-scrabbling folk brought their rich and colorful music, dance, and cultural rituals with them, elaborate weddings, wakes, festivals, and celebrations.  The greater freedom they allowed their children fostered independence and self-confidence, but it also caused outsiders to think of them as somewhat wild. The object of their child-rearing practices was not will-breaking, but rather will-enhancing.  Great men and women came from this stock–the brilliant orators and statesmen John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, and Andrew Jackson.

Martha Kennedy had more than a streak of stubbornness in her, having grown up on the western frontier of what was then known as “Upper Canada.” The Six Nations who lived on the land did not surrender it to the crown until 1844, and white people-most of whom were German– did not officially begin to settle in Haldiman County, where Martha was born in 1873,  until 1832.  Her mother’s people were puritanical, staunch, upstanding, orderly, and strict Free Will Baptists, who believed that once a person had renounced his or her faith, that there was no returning to God.

Martha Matilda Kennedy’s grandparents, James Burch Nelles and Martha Matilda Nelles, circa 1870. The children are most likely Alexia Matilda and James Joseph Nelles

Martha Matilda’s maternal grandparents were Nelles family cousins who who traced their lineage back to Andrew Nelles and the United Empire Loyalists, German mercenaries fought against the Americans during the war of Independence.   Passionately devoted to the English Crown, the Nelles family moved north from New York State after the Revolutionary War.  Many German loyalists were given free land, as British crown  wanted to bring in more Protestants, whom they regarded as more tractable than the Catholic French-speaking settlers who had intermixed with the native peoples.

These Germans regarded the women and men who fought for the independence of the United States as radicals and anarchists. In her obituary, Martha’s grandmother’s is remembered for her piety and “splendidly furnished residence,” as well as for her “untiring efforts to make home attractive as well as her skill and good taste.”

Much less is known about Martha’s father, John Kennedy, a Church of England (see the 1881 census) Protestant..  He is listed as a general laborer in Huron in the 1881 census, but Evelyn said that her mother grew up on a farm. Perhaps Delilah Nelles married outside her ethnicity to escape their narrowness when she took up with the first Canadian-born Northern Irishman.  She certainly doesn’t look as dour as her mother:

Delilah Nelles Kennedy, circa 1900
Martha Matilda Kennedy’s mother, Delilah Nelles Kennedy, circa 1900

And what about Martha Mathilda, this half-Irish, half German girl from London?  One of her daughters said she once fell in love with a Catholic but was forbidden to marry him, and that she met Lynn while working in Detroit, Michigan, as a nurse’s aid.  One of her other daughters said she had been a milliner.  I can imagine the first rush of romance, the affable Southern boy sweeping the beautiful, Irish-eyed Northern maid away with dreams of cooking together in their own business. 


 In response to my query, “Did [Lynn and Martha] love one another?” Edith responded:

That is a good question.  I never saw any affection between them; I remember one time when Dad put his arm around Mother standing in a doorway, and she shrugged away.” Obviously there was some affection, or at least, a strong physical attraction to one another–they brought ten [sic] children into the world.

The Children

Lattas at the creek near their house in Des Moines, circa 1915
Lattas at the creek near their house in Des Moines, circa 1915

These children had a great deal of merry freedom, much more than they might have enjoyed had they grown up in the stern, well-furnished rooms of Germanic Upper Canada.

Evelyn, Dorothy, and Elsie
Evelyn, Dorothy, and Elsie, circa 1920

a mound of latta
Edith recounted that her brothers Lynn and Fred “were very good to us, …making all kinds of play equipment–a merry-go-round out of an old wagon wheel, a trolley slide across the field that sloped, a greased wood slide from the hay mow to the ground.  That had to be taken down in short order, because we got grease on our clothes.  I remember once daring those who would follow me to jump from the hayloft, turning a somersault before landing on a stack of hay on the ground.  I didn’t do very well, landing mostly on my neck, so no one followed, and I didn’t try again.  How crazy can kids get!! We really had fun, though.…I really don’t believe any child these days can have as much fun as we did, o so many years ago.”

Ed, in front of the barn, House on Indiana St., Des Moines, circa 1920
Ed, in front of the barn, House on Indiana St., Des Moines, circa 1920
Latta kids having fun, circa 1927

Hard Times

When the train service to Des Moines dropped back, business at the White House Cafe began to fail.  Lynn had to sell his restaurant and began working as a chef under another man.  Edith  wrote,

As I remember, he didn’t like his job at that time, we felt that he had been his own boss for so long that it wasn’t easy for him to work for someone else.  The incident that precipitated the argument with Mother, as told to me, was Dad was coming to Mother, wanting to mortgage the house to get money enough to buy a smaller restaurant in a different location in downtown Des Moines.

Martha Matilda with Dorothy, the youngest, circa 1920, just before Lynn left
Martha Matilda with Dorothy, the youngest, circa 1920

According to Edith, Elsie was there during the argument, and  Martha Matilda threatened Lynn with a butcher knife.  Evelyn discounted this story, but Edith thought it was true.  Edith wrote,

Evelyn told me that Elsie was not there when Mother was confronted with the proposal to mortgage the house.  It was Evelyn and Ruth, and there was no butcher knife.  Mother had something in her hand, probably a spoon, but Evelyn can’t remember what it was.  And all Mother said was, “You old fool.”  Then Dad sat down on a kitchen chair, probably feeling he was at ‘the end of a rope.’  How soon he left home after that, she doesn’t know, but I imagine it might have been the next day.  That’s a relief to me, as he would have had time to get his clothes, and all these years I have believed he left with nothing.”

Edith had more sympathy for her father than Evelyn, who flatly stated, “he deserted us when I was about nine years old.” In a different letter she wrote, “I never could forgive him.  Guess I’m stubborn, but mother had so little.” She remembered her mother rising early every morning to light the fire, and toiling in gardens, raising vegetables and fruit for food.

Lynn Howard Latta with Edith May and Martha Matilda Latta, circa 1920
Lynn Howard Latta with Edith May and Martha Matilda Latta, circa 1920

Lynn’s oldest son, named for his father, also got up before dawn  to milk the cows and take care of other chores around the farm to keep it going while he simultaneously put his younger siblings through school paid for his own law education.  He started working as a lawyer in the 1920s, and gave his brothers and sisters jobs in his offices.

Shortly after the argument in which Martha did or did not wield a butcher knife at him, Lynn left the family and moved north, looking for other work. Edith wrote that “he never intended to leave the family for good.”   Edith wondered if he had “wanderlust in his system.” I remember Ruth telling me once that after that third baby [John, 1902-lived three months and 20 days] was born and died, [Mother] told Dad that she was not going to travel any more.”

Lattas, 1920s 9

At any rate, Lynn left his home after 1920, already in his mid-fifties, intending somehow to come back.  Sore feelings, frustration, a short temper, pride, and all the other little factors that lead people who love one another to storm out when they ought to stay, brought him to say goodbye.


Lynn Latta, Sr., circa 1925The story he tells of the years that followed, of his successive attempts to find work and of repeated disappointments and increasingly degrading jobs, is a familiar one these days, when people who have borrowed tens of thousands of dollars for college degrees, only to find themselves out of work and passed over in favor of cheaper and younger applicants for jobs that are scarcer and scarcer.  In June 1928, on stationary from “Renahan Manor: A High-Class Residential Community” at Round Lake, Illinois, Lynn complained to Edith, who had tracked him town and phoned him:

I have been here two months and it had to be the only time I went to town, 1 1/2 miles, to get my hair cut, that you called…If only you had given…a number, I would have called at once. And now I want to know how you knew I was in Chicago, and how you found out my address. I suppose some one that I have met then must have told you for I have met several that know me in Des Moines…If only you could know how much it hurt me to think what a mess or failure I have been since I sold my restaurant.  But I had been [illeg] with it so long that I had no home, just a place to sleep for a few hours, then go again.  Then when I sold out card [?] to trick to stay home nobody wanted me.  Then that fall and four [?] attempts to work for others, which [ended?] in disaster on account of my foot, which still hurts me in the night, although a little less each year.

It is hard to know what to make of these lines–was he feeling especially sorry for himself or did he really feel unloved and pushed out?  Had he become alienated from his wife because they were both working so hard that they never saw one another?  Was he tricked into selling his restaurant?  How did that happen?  And what about the fall he mentions here, the one from which never obviously never recovered?  In those days working people had little or no health insurance.  There also was absolutely no safety net, no social security, and no disability assistance, which exacerbated the Great Depression that descended on the country after the crash of ’29. These factors certainly contributed to the demise of Lynn Latta, Sr., who was by all accounts an extremely hard worker and devoted father.

It appears Lynn had traveled away from home before to find work, for his letter continues, in a story that many today would find familiar, with the earnings adjusted.

Now when I left the last time I had a chance to get a small room for my old time sandwich business and also a job at Florant City, up near Colfant[?], Minn., at $30 per week on the same day.  Having no money left (just enough to get to [?]); I had to take it.  I did not intend to do as I have done but [meant to] keep silent and save ($300 in 15 weeks and [had] started just trying to find some flour for myself and get in Dubuque 4 weeks in the Spring and find outside work, but my foot hampered me and I came into Chicago, where cooks were in demand.  Went to Flint Mich as 2nd cook in a Hotel at $50 a month, came back, worked in the Mug [?] hospital 3 weeks at $40 a month, three in a steel plant 18 miles south of the Lake…, 5 months at $150 and 7 months at $163; then when good times had passed I lost out for a younger man.

Lynn Latta, working as a chef, probably at Renehan Manor, on Round Lake, IL
Lynn Latta, working as a chef, probably at Renehan Manor, on Round Lake, IL

Then I tried business again, but it takes a lot of money to buck the grade in Chicago.  So five years ago when I was hoping to let you all know where I was I found myself down and out again, but I never gave up, nor asked anything of anyone.  But I found it a lighter burden going until I caught the Light House Lodge the 18th of June with no argument as to wages.  When it was over 2 months and 18 days they gave me $365 and my RR Hay [?] asking me to come the next year, then to get $14 a month and last year a little less, for I had stopped here a week before I went up there, and that 1 week as 2nd cook got me the chef’s job this year, and Mr. Renehan wants me to run a Restaurant (that he owns in Round Lake) next winter after he closes here in Oct.   If I come through successfully here and take it I will let you know about it.  Then you may tell your mother and the other children, for I would sure love to see Ruth’s babies.

Lynn’s agonized concern for his reputation and image in his daughter’s eyes is palpable in the last lines of the letter, where he instructs her to travel to the Light House Lodge, where she should “show them” his picture and

Lynn Latta cooking outdoors, perhaps at Renehan Manor on the shore of Round Lake, IL, circa 1929
Lynn Latta cooking outdoors, perhaps at Renehan Manor on the shore of Round Lake, IL, circa 1929

see what they say about me.  You remember I had to get glasses before the War.  Well, my eyes got better and now at 61 last June 26, I can read the Chicago Tribune without them, and then …I finally lost them.  And I weigh 137: one pound more than I weighed before and 10 pounds more than I weighed 2 to 5 years ago. Your old broken-hearted Dad.

Unfortunately, things did not turn out as hoped for at Renehan Manor.  The Great Depression must have had something to do with that, and his family lost touch with him again.

Lee and Elisabeth Smith Latta, circa 1915
Lee and Elisabeth Smith Latta, circa 1915

In January, 1930, Lynn’s brother Lee, a well-to-do and pious banker living in Minnesota, wrote to one of his daughters, Ruth or Edith:

Just keep on trying, dear, to locate him if possible…make an extra effort to find him, and if he is not well, for brother Tom [Thomas Benton] to take him home with him for a rest, as TB lives on the Old homestead where your Dad was borne.  Then we his brothers and sisters could come, and see him there, if your mother still felt toward him as she now thinks she does.  But I believe for the fact that he has a sense of duty toward her dear children, who love both she and he [sic], may enable her to forgive to a degree the past unfortunate mistakes, which we all are subject to as none of us are perfect, but only human.  One was perfect that that was that we might be saved from sin.

This discovery of your Dad seems like a dream to your Uncle Lee, for had I almost given up hopes of ever finding him and now that I have positive proof of his being alive a year ago, I shall never be satisfied until we locate him, and we can let him learn from us all that we love him as we have always.

Now you do what you can to trace him as you suggest through his lodger affiliation, and we will see what action your Uncle t.B. takes after receipt of my last letter with Lynn’s enclosed.  T.B. is well able to go to Chicago, and put forth this effort and care for him, should he succeed in finding him.  When we get hold of him then we can plan the future, and if it is God’s Will that he should be restored to you children it shall be so.  Because he belongs to your, his blood courses through your body temple, and no matter what his shortcomings may be, you must in no way deny him, for his brother the Christ never will, Your loving uncle, Lee

Thomas Benton Latta and his sons at the "Old Home Place" near, KY, circa 1920? The area where the farm lay is now called "Latta Bottom"
Thomas Benton Latta and his sons at the “Old Home Place” in Latta Bottom, near Fulton, KY, circa 1940?

At some point in 1930 or shortly afterwards someone contacted Lynn Latta’s oldest son, Lynn Howard Latta (my grandfather), to tell him that his father was in a county hospital in Chicago.  My grandfather then packed his mother, his sister Edith, and himself off to Chicago to see him.  Martha told her husband that he could return, but later instructed her daughter Elsie to write to him not to come home.

“So, he was lost again,” Edith lamented.  “He probably died in or around Chicago, but that is only guessing.”

Martha Matilda Latta, circa 1920
Martha Matilda Latta, circa 1920