Lee Frank Harrison
That’s the name of my maternal grandfather. According to Social Security and Montana death records, he passed away in August, 1978, in Browning, Montana.
Let’s start at the beginning. Lee Frank Harrison was born in Green Prairie, Morrison County, Minnesota, to Henry and May (Edden) Harrison on December 15, 1896. For some reason I have yet to discover, the family move west and landed in Montana in 1902. Grandfather was about five, and Henry Harrison (great-grandfather) was about 40. Grandfather had a brother, Henry George Harrison, who would have been about three in 1902. There was a sister, but I don’t have good information on her.
Something happened in Montana. Evidently, great-grandfather and Henry George continued west to Leavenworth, Washington. For some reason, Lee Frank Harrison stayed in Montana and the trail for May Edden vanished. I suspect there may have been relatives in Montana that took grandfather and his mother in.
As of this writing, I have no good information about grandfather until 1921. This is in part because I haven’t known where to look. I got a windfall recently when I stumbled across a prison admission form for the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge, Montana, for one Lee Harrison (aka L. Frank Harrison, Frank L. Harrison, Frank Harrison, Lee F. Harrison). The photo here is the mug shot for the 1931 admission form. This form included information on a previous sentence.
In September 1921, grandfather went to Montana State Prison sentenced to two to four years for a burglary in Phillips County (located north of Fort Peck Lake in north central Montana). Lee Frank was about 25. He earned parole a year later and probation until November 1924. He would be 28 that December.
Between 1924 and September 20, 1928, he met and fell in love with my grandmother, Opal B. Russell. He was 32 and grandmother was 19, and a judge in Butte, Montana, performed the marriage. After they married, Lee Frank got a tattoo on his upper left arm of a horse, with a scroll and flower. On the scroll: “O. B. + L. F. H.” The horse likely representative of Opal’s love of horses and her skill as a rider. Grandfather was a ranch hand as I understand it.
My aunt, Nancy Ellen, was born on May 26, 1929. Of course, the stock market crash was coming and things would get desperate for everyone. The family lived in Wise River, Montana (south and west of Butte), in a log cabin that is no longer there. Grandfather was working for a rancher in that valley. My mother, Verna Jeanne, was born on December 18, 1930. The economy continued to decline and weather hammered the little village of Wise River.
Things got desperate. Grandfather, with an associate named Pietila, committed highway robbery (armed robbery) for the sum of $7.80 on the streets of Butte. They were caught and grandfather pled guilty. Montana State Prison admitted him on June, 3, 1931, to serve a six-year term. The image here details his eye and hair color, shoe size, education, and religious preference.
This left grandmother and her two children without a breadwinner. She moved the family to Butte.
During this term in prison, Lee Frank took advantage of the craft and art resources provided to prisoners. The prison encouraged the arts and crafts and often the prisoners earned money making horsehair tack and other items. He made and sent home moccasins for his daughters. My mother kept a pair in her cedar chest for many years and I think one of the grandchildren has them now. One of my sister’s children also has a charcoal drawing he made. We don’t know if he did this in prison or another time, but grandfather evidently had some artistic talent.
From here, we have information mostly based on my mother’s memory. She remembered that he moved the family back to Wise River some short time later. I may get further information on Lee Frank’s second term in prison from prison records. He may have paroled in a couple of years so my mother would not know why he was gone. This lasted until my mother was about six, and in first grade. Then, grandmother took the girls to Helena, Montana, and left them at the Catholic orphanage. She evidently divorced Lee Frank, but I can’t find records. Opal ran off with a rich man, Bert Dolbeer, who didn’t like or want children around.
My mother and aunt stayed in the orphanage until about eighth grade when they went to Great Falls for high school. Grandmother would visit periodically. My mother didn’t have a regular relationship with her until after graduation.
Lee Frank may have ended up in Spokane, Washington, with his sister, but there is nothing to verify that. Yet.
We as a family dug around looking for information about grandfather for years. It just turned out that we weren’t looking in the right places. My mother always wanted to find out more about him, even reconnect if that were possible. Opal, though, cast a lot of misinformation on the waters while she was alive, making it difficult for my mother. Still, persistence pays off.
My father, in his effort to find my mother’s birthplace so we could scatter her ashes this spring, came across some folks in the Wise River area who knew of Lee Frank and the little family in the cabin. This led him to a death record online.
The death record was the key to finding other information about Lee Frank, including the prison record. The prison record led to information about his brother, and possibly his father (I’m still working on that). Believe me when I tell you there are many Lee, Henry, and Frank Harrisons in the genealogy, census, and other records. Grandfather made some of the search a little more difficult by using aliases (L. Frank, Lee F., Frank L., etc.).
The information is out there, and likely linked to relatives I don’t know. I’ll find it eventually.
Research like this is slow and difficult. Records are not always accurate or available. Genealogy records are often fraught with misspelled names and incorrect birth, marriage, and death dates. US Census data is excellent, when you can figure out where ancestors were living during one of them.
But, what comes out as a result of all this effort is a story of a person’s life. I have much more to learn about Lee Frank Harrison and I intend to continue digging. I want to know more about this man, his life, and what happened to him.
He was, after all, my grandfather.