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Personal History in Kansas

I decided that one of the best ways to follow Jack's trail was through the bank. Jerry Berkeley, who bought the State Bank of Downs from my relatives in the 1970's, had known nothing about my grandfather's criminal history, but I turned him into a fellow detective. He uncovered a lawsuit, filed in 1930, alleging that J. H. Kreamer had left the county in 1927 to avoid being served with a summons relating to large debts he owed the Central Kansas Cattle Loan Co. Jim Vandergiesen, a contemporary of my grandparents, suggested that the "gambling" Jack had indulged in might have been something that in the 1920's they'd called "bucking the board." Folks would go to the "elevator," the local grain storage depot and market, and place a bid speculating on crop futures. Jim also whispered that a local woman, another contemporary, said that she'd "heard Jack Kreamer had done time." The very language was a little thrilling: I pushed on with my quest.

I learned that my grandfather had grown up in Jewell, Kansas, another small town (population 483), about 30 miles from Downs. Lucy and I drove to Jewell knowing absolutely no one there. We stopped at the town library and looked through local burial records. There I found my Kreamer relatives. Jack Kreamer's parents—my great-grandparents—and his sister Edith are buried in the Jewell cemetery. The librarian suggested we might pick up more information if we went to the Scoop, a local ice cream shop where a group of older women gathered every afternoon to drink coffee and chat.

We went. Betty James, a 72-year-old widow, stunned Lucy and me—accustomed as we were to the New York mind-your-own-business M.O.—by opening her house to us, two unknown travelers, in the old and pure way of Midwestern hospitality. At the city office next door to the Scoop, Lucy plowed through a book listing every graduate of Jewell High School for the past century, and hit upon the real key to our family history: Charlotte Kreamer, class of 1941. By phone that night I tracked down Charlotte, now 79 years old and living 90 miles away in Council Grove, Kansas, and her 87-year-old sister, Katherine, who lives in Holton, yet another little Kansas town, about 100 miles away. They are nieces of my grandfather Jack. Katherine was a flower girl at Jack and Catherine's wedding in 1921; both women had known my grandfather and spoke freely about him. They were the first people I'd ever known who did. "I don't know why he turned out to be the black sheep," Katherine said.

Their half sister, Margaret Ann, told me more: "Jack had a charming personality. My father"—Jack's brother Fred—"said he could sell a refrigerator to an Eskimo, and that he'd give you the shirt off his back." Margaret Ann had inherited her Aunt Edith Kreamer's belongings,including a photograph of my grandfather in his twenties, an up-and-coming young member of the Commerce Club of Jewell. I had never seen a picture of him before. I found myself staring at the face, both strange and familiar, seeing in his features my father's and my own. From some old letters of Edith's, I learned that she had been the one to send my grandfather, her little brother, away from Kansas in 1927. "When the trouble was slowly killing Grandfather Kreamer, I begged him [Jack] to go away as far as he could." In other words, the shock expressed in that original small-town newspaper story was, perhaps, somewhat disingenuous.

And I also discovered, in my great-aunt's papers, that in 1943 my grandfather Jack Kreamer died, at age 48, penniless and alone, working in a lumber camp in northern California. His sister Edith paid $3.50 for his headstone in Shasta County.

As my grandfather's story came into focus, I found that it had been no romantic caper after all, but something more complicated, even tragic—more like Theodore Dreiser or John Steinbeck than The Sting—and compelling in ways I hadn't anticipated and that will take time for me to digest.

I intend to stay in touch with this family I never knew about. And I'll continue to dig into my grandfather's financial shadow life and exile, and track his path west a few years ahead of the great Grapes of Wrath emigration. For Lucy and me, the outlines of a trip to northern California are already taking shape.

ANNE KREAMER is a New York-based writer. This is her first piece for Travel + Leisure.

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