Dunbar Real Estate Moguls

Let’s dispel the notion that Adriano and Custode were poor Italian immigrants, once and for all. True – they may not have come over with much but once they settled in Dunbar PA in the early 1900s they were buying and selling property like you wouldn’t believe!

Last July Rick and I stopped at the Uniontown Courthouse to check a few of the Deed Books to get more information on the properties that were mentioned in the 1912 lawsuit. As so often happens with our genealogy research efforts we arrived when the clerk who could help with the copier was on her one hour lunch break and we were only planning to be there about an hour.

Rick took pictures of some but not all of the relevant documents.

This deed is from February 24, 1912 when Adriano forced Custode to sign over all of the property that had been in her name or in both of their names to him. Her testimony about that event is transcribed below. This comes from a transcript of her testimony given in Case #671 in Equity in the Court of Common Pleas of Fayette County, Pennsylvania, which began in June 1912.

Preceding the quoted testimony below, there are a series of questions posed by John Duggan, Jr., Custode’s attorney, to describe her circumstances. With Adriano gone and the creditors of the store pursuing legal action to be paid their due, the ability to collect rental income from the properties was likely to be Custode’s only way to support her family.

In the testimony leading up to this, Custode describes living above the store and renting out the three properties. I think one of these properties is the house on Connellsville Avenue that she moved to and another is probably the one that Philomena lived in, but at the time of this testimony, she did not live in any of the three houses.

Q. Who has that property now?

A. Andy George

Q. How long has he owned it?

A. Three or four months ago.

Q. State the circumstances under which you deeded your interest in the property to Andy George.

A. That was the way he wanted it.

Q. Did you agree to do it?

A. No, by force.

Q. What, if anything, did he do?

A. He kept after me for a long time and threatened to kill me if I did not transfer the property to him.

Q. Is that true of both properties?

A. Yes sir.

Q. And are all the properties now in the name of your husband, Andy George?

A. Yes sir.

Q. And you have no interest in them at all?

A. No sir.

Q. How long before he deserted you did you sign the deeds for the transfer of the property if you remember.

A. The latter part of April.

Q. And were you actually afraid that he was going to do you some harm in case you did not sign the deeds?

A. Yes sir.

Q. And that was the reason you signed them?

A. Yes sir.

Q. Do you live in one of the properties, Mrs. George?

A. No sir.

Q.. Are they all rented?

A. Yes sir.

The testimony reveals that they collected about $31 a month in rent from the three houses and that they got the money to buy the houses from the store which they had operated since 1904. It looks like Custode continued to run the store, at least through the summer but at that point the creditors must have shut things down. This testimony was given in the morning session of court on September 7, 1912.

Q. What means of support have you for yourself and your children at present?

A. Until a few days ago I was running a store, now I have no means at all.

Q. Was that the same store that she and Mr. George were running prior to his desertion?

A. Yes sir.

It sounds like a horrible story of neglect and abandonment, and it probably is, but there is one little detail from the Deed Book copied above that somehow did not make it into the court testimony. If you can zoom in on the deed book on the left hand page, in the last indented line before it returns to a full page, you will see that Andy George paid Custode George $3,500 for the properties he “forced” her to sign over to him.

It is true that in real estate documents “consideration” is always referenced, even if no money changes hands, but that is usually a nominal amount, $1 or maybe $10 – but to reference payment of $3,500 for three lots (which amount is very close to the amounts Custode mentioned in her testimony as what she paid for them in 1909) strongly suggests that real money changed hands.

Things just get more and more curious with every document I re-examine. I’ve got all sorts of theories about this but I need to read a few more deeds to follow the money trail.



Tuesday Tidbit

It’s hard to believe that a week ago Rick and I were at breakfast with Dominic Renzi and his friend Diana. After breakfast we went back to his apartment and he shared enough stories to inspire Tuesday and Thursday tidbits for a long, long time.


Grandmother Renzi in front of the farmhouse on Limestone Hill

As a “self-taught” genealogist, one thing I’ve read over and over, is that you should  start with your oldest living relative and get his or her stories before it’s too late. Yes Dominic, by my calculation, you are the oldest living relative but thankfully I don’t think you’re going anywhere too soon. I hope that I will have half the energy (physical and mental) that you do when I’m your age.

Just to update anyone who isn’t familiar with the family tree, Dominic is part of the George family because Lena George was his step-mother. His mother Julia Giordano  died in May 1939 after what should have been a simple operation to remove a goiter. Apparently the surgeon did not properly suture the incision and she bled to death the night before she was supposed to come home. According to Dominic, the doctor responsible was never seen again, perhaps hurrying out of town because of the reputation of the Giordano brothers who were none too happy with the tragic death of their sister.

The Renzi family lived on a farm on Limestone Hill but Nick Renzi had a full time job on the railroad. Although his sisters took care of the boys immediately after Julia died, Nick needed a wife to be with the boys since he was often gone for days at a time. Dominic remembers that his father visited a few other ladies before he chose Lena as his wife. Although he didn’t come right out and say it,  I think one of the earlier candidates would have been Dominic’s choice (he even remembered her name!) Thankfully for us, we get the benefit of Dominic’s memory because, for whatever reason, his father chose Lena.

Carole Ann has mentioned the story of Dominic and his younger brother Gene sitting in the parlor while his father and Custode negotiated the terms of Nick’s marriage to Lena – in Italian. When the negotiations were over, Nick and the boys left and on the way home, he told them, “I think you just met your new mother.” This was only three months after Julia died.

A few things stand out from what Dominic told me about his father’s marriage to Lena. First of all, Lena did not participate in the negotiations. She was in the room but never said a word. She sat in silence and never expressed any affection or warmth when Nick and the boys left.

Secondly, even though Lena was an accomplished pianist, Custode refused to let her take the piano to the farm. Apparently this was out of spite because from what Dominic remembers, Custode did not play the piano, she just didn’t want Lena to have it. In her view, such a refined item had no place in a farm house.

Finally, and perhaps most shocking of all, (although at this point, nothing I hear about Custode surprises me) Custode insisted that  Nick and Lena take her grandson, Harold Galand on their honeymoon. Harold was 12 (just two years older than Dominic) when he got to visit Canada and the New York World’s Fair.  A great opportunity for Harold, but what a damper on any chance for romance between Lena and Nick.

Even though Lena was not a good mother to Dominic and Eugene, the combination of her brother Gene and Aunt Rosie made up for it. According to Dominic, Lena was mean to Aunt Rosie and often made her cry but Rosie did her best to shield the boys from Lena’s fury. Many times during our visit last week, Dominic shared a story of Uncle Gene’s kindness and generosity. Uncle Gene loved the farm and would often stop by to visit Aunt Rosie and to soak in the fresh smell of newly plowed earth. On leaving he would always admonish his sister to be good to the boys.

Nick Renzi died in 1949, ten years after he married Lena. Although he left the farm to Lena and the two boys in equal shares, Lena refused to leave and also refused to let the boys live there (not that they wanted to.) Eventually, Gene arranged for the boys to “buy out” Lena. He got Lena a job at the hospital in Connellsville and convinced her to move to an apartment there.

Dominic lived on the farm and was making repairs to the house which had fallen into disrepair while Lena lived there. On one visit when Gene saw that Dominic had converted the back seat of his car to carry loads of materials needed for the repairs, he commented that Dominic needed a pick-up truck.  A few days later, Gene called and asked Dominic to meet him in town.  When he got there Gene was parked near a truck and as the two men talked, Gene asked what Dominic thought about the truck. Dominic thought it was nice and Gene said – “Good – because it is yours.”When he asked what he owed him, Gene said nothing – it was a gift. Dominic needed a truck and Gene got it for him.

Just one example of Uncle Gene’s many acts of kindness, which are perhaps a big part of  why Dominic is not unhappy about his father’s choice of his replacement mother.


Nick Renzi on a visit to Canada (probably before his honeymoon)



52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks – Custode Iacobucci George

I continued to be surprised at how many people are into genealogy and the number of creative and informative blogs available for people trying to capture their family history.  This post is in response to an idea posted on a blog entitled “No Story Too Small” that encourages other bloggers to post a story each week about an ancestor. In my case it might only be 37 ancestors since I’m not starting until April 21st but that’s still a good start.

Custode Iacobucci, my husband’s great grandmother, seems like a good person to start with. She was born in Italy on May 27, 1880 and immigrated to western Pennsylvania in 1886 or 1887. She lived in Pittsburgh with a guardian named Vincenzo Iacobucci, but exactly what relation she was to him is unclear. He signed the consent to marriage form when she married Adriano Giorgio on February 14, 1899 and identified her as his ward. My guess is that he was her uncle or older brother.

Wedding Photo 1899

Wedding Photo 1899

Sometime before December 1901, Custode and Adrian moved to Dunbar PA with their young son Frederick William George, where their second son, Luigino Anthony George, “Gene” was born on December 19, 1901. They had six more children and all but one of them, Lucia Lydia, lived to adulthood. Lydia died of scarlet fever in 1916 when she was 7 years old and is buried in the St. Aloysius church cemetery in Dunbar.

After the 1910 US Census when Adrian was listed as head of household in Dunbar with Custode, their children and Custode’s sister Rose Buzzella, Adrian, who sometimes went by Andy, disappeared. Custode George shows up in Dunbar in the 1920, 1930 and 1940 US Census reports but Adrian is not on the list. To make it more complicated, in the 1920 and 1940 Census Reports, Custode is identified as widowed, but in the 1930 census she is listed as married.

In May 2013, my husband found a third cousin when he had his DNA tested (her great grandfather was Adrian’s brother, Pasquale). We visited her in July 2013 and met other relatives, including one of Custode’s granddaughters who remembers visiting her in Dunbar although she knew her as Christine. We knew we were on the right track but there were still so many mysteries.

The last stop on our week-long ancestry trip to western PA was the courthouse in Uniontown, county seat for Fayette County, the county where Dunbar is located. Since two of Custode’s and Adrian’s daughters lived to adulthood and married, we were able to find their marriage licenses and that was how we finally discovered Custode’s maiden name – Iacobucci. All references to Custode before these used the last name of George. We also found Custode’s will, which provided information about the property she owned and the names of her children. The will was made in 1966, just one year before she died.

Perhaps the most interesting find was the record of a 1912 lawsuit that Custode brought against Adrian in an effort to keep their house after he abandoned her. Adrian and Custode ran a grocery/general store in Dunbar. They also owned property, one piece in her name, one piece in his name and one piece in both their names. According to Custode’s testimony, in February 1912 Adrian forced her to sign over her interest in the properties to him so that he was the sole owner. He threatened to kill her if she refused. In May 1912, Adrian left Dunbar and went to New Castle, PA where his brother Pasquale lived. The court in New Castle entered a judgment note in favor of Pasquale to collect $3,000 that Adrian “owed” him. (Coincidentally the value of the three properties just happened to be $3,000.) The court issued an order to the sheriff in Fayette County to force the sale of Adrian’s properties to satisfy the note. This would have forced Custode and her children out of their home but Custode brought a law suit to stop the forced sale. She claimed the note that Adrian issued Pasquale was fraudulent. Although she lost the case on a technical point (the court in one county doesn’t have the right to second guess another court’s decision) she got some help from an unexpected source when Adrian filed for bankruptcy.

In the bankruptcy action, Adrian’s creditors tried to foreclose on the properties he owned in Dunbar. Since this action was in the county where Custode lived she was finally able to have her day in court and got to keep two of the three properties. As far as the records go, Adrian never returned to Dunbar. Family stories suggest that he may have gone to Argentina and started a new family there. Other accounts indicate that he returned to Italy and died there around 1950. Custode stayed in Dunbar and provides a good example of what one determined woman can accomplish when she’s willing to fight for what is rightfully hers.