A Riches to Rags Story

by Debbie on August 22, 2012

I started researching my family history about 6 months ago, and it quickly became an obsession. Thankfully, several of my ancestors spent a good deal of time scratching their genealogical itches, as it were, and left me quite a paper trail to follow. I’ve quickly accumulated over 800 grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins on my ever-expanding tree. And slowly, a theme has emerged.

These people were rich!

And yet, I’m not. Not even close. My parents weren’t rich, and their parents weren’t rich. The 20th century members of my family tree were middle class, at best.    My grandparents were truck drivers, milk men, fishermen, factory workers, and welders. My great grandparents, on the other hand – or at least my great, great, great grandparents – were featured on the society pages of newspapers in Philadelphia, New York City, Boston, and Providence, RI. These folks achieved the American Dream before people called it the American Dream. 

My 6th great grandfather, Adam Klampffer, arrived in Penn’s Woods in the early 1700’s, set up shop (literally – he was a shopkeeper), and amassed an impressive portfolio of land holdings and rental properties around colonial Philadelphia. That golden touch passed from father to son for generations. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, my great grandfather, William Lund Clampffer, ran a coal shipping business in the 1890’s. But that’s where the Clampffer wealth seemed to end.

Several ancestors took hits during the Panic of 1873, from what I can tell. My 3rd great grandfather, Allan Hay, arrived from his native Scotland in 1834, and within three decades had established a successful soap and candle manufacturing business in New York City. His company headquarters was said to be one of the largest buildings in the U.S. in the 1860’s. And although Allan Hay’s soap company seems to have folded during the economic downturn of the 1870’s, he continued to prove himself a successful businessman for decades more. He became President of the West Shore Railroad, and served on the boards of several major banks. Another 3rd great grandfather, Ralph Wilcox Booth, moved to Cincinnati as a young man, and established a hugely successful hardware company in the mid-1800’s. That business, too, was lost soon after the 1873 Panic.

Captain Daniel Demmons Dailey, my 4th great grandfather, was the last of a long line of Capt. Daileys who sailed the world and brought gold coins, spices, and animal skins home to America. His son, Albert, chose to do business on land, and established a lumber company in his hometown of Providence, RI. Captain Oliver Lund, another 4th great grandfather from New England, owned considerable acreage in New Hampshire in the early 1800’s. His sons and grandsons left the family farm to establish businesses in North Carolina, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. Several were involved in politics as well. Frederick Wiseman, a 4th great grandfather who made his way to NJ from Newfoundland in the mid-1800’s, used his skill as a silversmith to establish a successful jewelry business in Asbury Park.

I’ve poured over census records going back to 1790 for these ancestors of mine, and I’ve been astonished to find so many of them had household servants and valuable properties. Passport records and passenger lists prove my ancestors had enough expendable income to vacation in Europe. One of my Clampffer ancestors even rubbed elbows with John Jacob Astor, according to a letter I found in my uncle Bill’s family history files.

So what the heck happened? Only one of my seven grandparents* is alive today, and my living relatives don’t seem to know what happened to all this collective ancestral wealth. To the best of everyone’s recollection, our family was pretty poor even before the Great Depression, so that’s not the answer. This is mystery that needs solving, in my mind. I had no idea when I started digging around on Ancestry.com that it would lead to me researching things like 19th century economic history. As it turns out, understanding your family history requires a pretty thorough understanding of the time in which they lived.

…to be continued.

* – Yes, I had seven grandparents, six of whom were living until quite recently, actually. To keep a long story short, my mom’s father died when she was young, and her mother remarried. So that’s one grandfather (the only grandparent I never met) and one stepgrandfather. There’s my mom’s mom, my maternal grandmother. My own biological father died when I was young, too, but my paternal grandparents died just 5 years ago. So now we’re up to 5 grandparents. And finally, my mom remarried when I was 7 years old, and my stepfather adopted me (and my name was changed from Salerno to Hadley). So I got a new dad and another set of grandparents to boot. Lucky me.


Sallie August 22, 2012 at 10:17 pm

Very well written! I had no idea about the jeweler in Asbury Park! Do you know where the shop was? Just to be clear, I do not nor did I ever have any of that money. No one even had an idea it was ever in our family. I’m kind of glad I didn’t know. I think I would rather have looked at life from the side I was on. Hard knocks isn’t an easy way to learn, but I think we raised two pretty good kids without all the money. (I would like to know if we have a claim on anything anywhere though) We can all do good things with it. Good research and I like the blog instead of dry facts. You always make me laugh anyway.

Debbie August 22, 2012 at 10:24 pm

The store was located at 645 Cookman Avenue in the 1890’s. How about that?!

Sallie March 5, 2013 at 9:43 pm

We really need to go there and see where that is located. It sounds very close to where my Uncle Ted had his Architect office!

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