Spanish-American War veteran, card shark, game-bird smuggler, booze runner, auto repairman, tenement manager: Ralph Sylvester Mayer sported all sorts of hats in his 70 years in St. Paul.
“He was a scallywag, but I sure adored my grandfather,” Paul Gerber said. “I remember sitting on his lap with his toothpick going at 100 miles per hour as he read us stories.”
Gerber was 5 when his grandfather died at 70 in 1949.
“He croaked from a heart attack carrying a porcelain toilet three stories up some cheap rental property he owned behind the State Capitol,” said Gerber, a retired Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agent. “It was really a tenement, a slum, and he was a hardheaded old Kraut.”
Gerber’s first cousin, also named Ralph Mayer, was 7 when they buried their grandfather. On a recent Sunday, the two cousins got together in Edina to comb over old photos, letters and documents that piece together Ralph Mayer’s life.
Born Dec. 27, 1878, in St. Paul, Mayer was the oldest of three children of an Austrian-born portrait painter named Ferdinand Mayer.
Ferdinand “married a 16-year-old farm girl at age 45,” said the second Ralph Mayer, a retired claims manager for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “By all accounts, he was a disagreeable person.”
Ferdinand’s son, the first Ralph, only made it through sixth grade, according to U.S. Census rolls. You’d swear he was highly educated when you read one of his letters, written in perfect penmanship to his sister, Grace, on Jan. 15, 1899. Writing from Cuba, he was serving as an unhappy private in the U.S. Army hospital corps.
“Earnestly speaking, it is a disgrace the way this Hospital Corps has been treated,” he wrote. “The food has been something fearful since our arrival and no one has received any money since July.”
Not yet 20 when he enlisted, Mayer was one of more than 5,300 Minnesota soldiers to sign up when the U.S. and Spain went to war in Cuba and the Philippines at the end of the 19th century.
He nursed soldiers with yellow fever and smallpox in Cuba, all the while longing for home.
“O how we would like to sit down to a real dinner. Just to think of putting one’s pedal extremities under a table that held napkins, butter and white dishes,” he wrote to Grace, with some misspellings. “It is wonderful how far one’s imaggination can travel.”
In that letter to his sister, Mayer shared one of his recent “dreams of assorted sizes” — about a girl who “coaxed and coaxed … until I finally consented to go in the kitchen to eat a piece of pie.” Just as the pie was pulled from the oven and a large piece was served up, “I was awakened only to find ‘Poor Ralphie’ had rolled off his blanket onto the ground — and the ants were playing ‘[you’re] it’ upon his face.”
He told Grace he wasn’t suffering because he had some “winning ways” — including stealing government paper and trading it for extra rations from the cook.
Gaming the system was how Mayer got through life, his grandsons said.
On the 1898 troop train from Rochester, to an Army camp in Georgia, “He took all the guys’ money in stud poker,” his grandson Ralph said. “At least that’s the story that’s been passed down through the family.”
Most of the oral history flinging around their visit, although seeming far-fetched at times, can be backed up in records available in places like ancestry.com. For example, Mayer’s 1918 World War I registration card lists him as a bagman for the Soo Line Railroad. And the 1910 Census shows him working as an express manager in the “steam railway” industry.
Family stories add a little color to that official record.
Poachers used to illegally hunt pheasants, geese and prairie chickens out in the Dakotas, the grandsons said, and Ralph would take them to the Twin Cities on the train. When the train slowed to a crawl in St. Paul, he’d toss bags of game birds off the train to his kids, who brought them home to their mother, Marie, for gutting and plucking before putting them up for sale.
Grandson Ralph said his grandfather smuggled booze from Canada during Prohibition, which got him fired from the Soo Line and sent him into a unique form of auto repair. Old city directories, the 1930 census and a 1942 draft registration form confirm Mayer worked at a garage, selling batteries and tweaking carburetors in St. Paul during the Depression.
“There used to be a still there where he’d make whiskey,” grandson Ralph said.
The first Ralph and Marie raised three girls and two boys, including Noel, father of the second Ralph, and Gerber’s mother Grace. To shelter his growing family, Mayer built a six-bedroom stone house at 1699 St. Clair Avenue in 1910. The green house still stands, west of Snelling Avenue.
The other concrete legacy of Ralph Sylvester Mayer stands in Section C-6 at Fort Snelling National Cemetery: A white headstone, etched with a shield and designating him as a veteran of the Spanish-American War.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His new book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: https://tinyurl.com/MN1918. Podcasts at www.onminnesotahistory.com.