My great grandfather, Gaetano (Thomas) Fanelli, was born in Italy in 1856 and I believe he lived in or near Riccia, Campobasso Molise, or *Castelnuova della Daunia, Foggia, Italy. Gaetano was conscripted into the Italian Army at a very young age and allegedly became a Captain in the Cavalry. He was apparently discharged after breaking a leg, and immigrated to the United States in 1888:
My great grandfather, Gaetano (Thomas) Fanelli in 1919 with his 3-year-old grandson,William Dickson Errickson, Jr.
Like many Italians at that time, Gaetano apparently came to the Philadelphia area to work on the railroad system. After working on the railroad for a while he saved enough money to send home for his bride (he must have married 27-year-old Maria Panichella of Riccia before leaving Italy). Her ship sailed through a violent storm on the way but she finally arrived at the Castle Garden Port of Immigration in New York on March 9, 1889. How they finally got together is really not known. It is possible that their efforts to meet were coordinated through the St. Mary Magdalen De-Pazzi’s Italian Church on Montrose Street which seems to have been a sanctuary for Italians immigrating to the New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania areas. There is one rumor that Maria was not happy with her new husband; however, she bore him 9 children and she certainly looks happy in the below photograph! In any case, being a good Catholic – and now terribly afraid of the sea and sailing ships, she would never leave him or set foot on a boat again!
Maria Panichella Fanelli
Although Maria was not the youngest (she was 27 when she arrived) or prettiest woman in Riccia, she must have proved to have been a satisfactory wife. Gaetano was transferred to Ocean City, New Jersey and they moved there together, living in an apartment while he continued to work on the railroad. After living in Ocean City for a while, Gaetano was victimized by a fly-by-night real estate agent and suckered into buying a farm house about 9 miles inland, in English Creek, New Jersey, without ever having seen it. Gaetano quit the railroad after paying the sum of $300.00 U.S. dollars on July 21, 1892, to a Mr. Frambes Smith for the old Blackman House and a small tract of land on the West side of the River Road (now known as the Somers Point-Mays Landing Road) in English Creek. The house had been put together with wooden pegs or treenails as they were called in those days, and it was already over 50 years old and in pretty bad shape when they moved into it.
The original Fanelli Family Homestead (the old Blackman House) in English Creek, NJ. That’s William (Bill) Errickson, Sr., standing in front of it.
Gaetano allegedly knew nothing about farming, but the little piece of land that he bought was some of the richest and most fertile land in South Jersey. His wife, Maria – who was the real farmer in the family – and his neighbors helped him to establish a small vegetable farm and he became a good farmer. His Zucchini and Eggplant and peppers and onions soon became so popular with his neighbors that he was able to save a little more money and make repairs to the old house. While he added a big kitchen across the entire length of the back of the house and built an outhouse several yards away, at the edge of his field, covering both buildings with a matching red asphalt roof, Maria had babies.
The Fanelli Family Homestead as it appeared many years after Gaetano added the kitchen and red asphalt roof.
One hundred years would pass between the day she bore her first child and the day her last one passed away. Their first child was a boy. John Fennell, my grandfather, was born on the 12th of January in 1891, and baptized at St. Mary Magdalen De-Pazzi’s Italian Church in Philadelphia.
The earliest photograph I could find of my grandfather, John Fennell.
Somewhere between the port of immigration and English Creek, Gaetano Fanelli’s name became recorded as Thomas Fennell – and he would be known as such for the rest of his life. Thomas had great respect for America; as his family grew he insisted that his children learn the ways of his new country, and that they only speak English. Maria would give birth to 3 more boys and 5 girls between January 22, 1891, and December 20, 1908. One boy, Giosi, died during childbirth, and one son, Franco, who was born on June 25, 1899, died at the age of 17 in a motorcycle accident. A girl, Anna, was born in 1904, but she only lived for four years and passed away in 1908. Although our family albums contain hundreds of pictures – going back to tintypes – I have not been able to locate any baby pictures of John, or his brother Joseph, or of his sisters; nor can I even find pictures of them as young children.
John Fennell was a handsome young man. He eventually met Reba Carolyn Scull of Atlantic City while she was playing the piano at Silver’s 5 & 10 on the Westside of Atlantic City.
Reba Carolyn Scull is pictured here on the beach in Atlantic city, NJ. Atlantic City’s famous boardwalk can be seen in the background.
They fell in love and on a clear winter day in January of 1916, they got on John’s motorcycle and sped off to Elkton, Maryland, where they were married.
John & Reba Fennell on his Harley motorcycle
Seventeen months after John was born Maria had her first girl child. Mary (Marian) Fennell was born on May 15, 1892. Her birth was followed by the birth of Rose on August 25, 1894, and then, by Mildred on March 15, 1898. Another boy, Joseph Patrick (my great uncle Pat), was born on September 5, 1901, and finally, Agnes was born on December 20, 1905.
Top, Agnes Fennell; middle, left to right, Mildred, Mary and Rose. The young man is William (Bill) Errickson, Jr.
One of two pictures I have of my Uncle Pat (Joseph Patrick Fennell). This was taken in Miami Beach, Florida, around 1937 or 1938.
Three years and one month after they were married, John and Reba had a baby. My mother, Dorothy Lorraine Fennell, was born on February 20, 1919:
My mother, Dorothy Lorraine Fennell
In order to have more privacy, John – who had become an excellent carpenter, built this house for his family:
The house that John Fennell built for his family. Although it has been enlarged and is no longer in the family, it still stands at the corner of Lee’s Lane and the Somers Point-Mays Landing Road in English Creek today.
While John was busy tending to his family, fishing and hunting, and plying his trade as a carpenter his sisters were busy searching for husbands of their own. His older sisters, Mary, Mildred and Rose, often traveled to Atlantic City during the Jewish Holidays were there, they could earn extra money as food servers. During one of those trips Mary Fennell met and fell in love with a handsome young Scotsman by the name of Joseph Connors. Much to her dismay, “Joe” moved to California; however, she loved him enough to follow him out there and then she managed to convince him to marry her and to return with her to English Creek.
Joseph Connors served in the Canadian War. This photo of him was taken at the Valcartier Camp in Quebec in 1917
Not to be outdone, Rose moved to Atlantic City and took up residence overtop an Italian bakery. Although crippled at the age of 13 when her dress caught in the preacher’s wagon, she also managed to find a husband. She becameMrs. John Parker Voight.
John Parker Voight along with my grandmother, Reba Fennell, and my mother, Dorothy
Her husband was a dapper young man and rarely ever left their apartment before first donning a Chesterfield coat with a dark blue velvet collar, his spats, and a derby. It appears that their tumultuous marriage did not last very long. Rose divorced John Parker and moved back to English Creek; but not before having a baby girl of her own:
Rose Fennell Voight with her daughter, Ruth, standing in front of Maria’s old roadside vegetable stand after she enlarged it for the first time.
Mildred Fennell met her husband, William Dickson Errickson, Sr., when he rode into English Creek on a motorcycle along with his friend, Frank Grevatt. Frank would eventually become one of the early owners of Atlantic City’s famous Steel Pier. William became a fireman in Atlantic City a couple of years after they got married:
William (Bill) Dickson Errickson, Sr.
They had one son, William Dickson Errickson, Jr., (the little boy pictured with his grandfather, Gaetano Fanelli). Aunt Millie eventually divorced William Errickson and moved to Franklinville, New Jersey, where she established a large and profitable commercial chicken farm. She was very wealthy for a while and lived in a large home on many acres of ground that included quarters for her servants. Unfortunately, her chickens developed a disease called coccidiosis and perished. She lost a small fortune and eventually moved back into Atlantic County where she had just enough money left to buy a small grocery store on the west side of Park Avenue in Pleasantville, New Jersey.
Mildred Fennell Errickson in her grocery store in Pleasantville, NJ, circa 1953-1955
I worked for her after school during my 1953-1954 high school years, and again during the 1954-55 winter seasons. After Joseph Connors died in 1953 Mildred sold the her store in Pleasantville and moved back to English Creek where she shared a home with her sister, MaryAnn; she became an Egg Harbor Township school bus driver, and lived their for the rest of her life.
My Uncle Pat (Joseph Patrick) never married, and it would be many years before the baby of the family, Agnes did.
In the meanwhile my mother was growing up. She finished high school, having excelled in the fine arts of being a secretary; shorthand, typing, and dictation. Unfortunately there were no jobs for secretaries in English Creek; in fact, there weren’t even any offices in English Creek. It has been reported that my mother had a tendency to be a bit promiscuous as a teenager, and that her mother and father had to keep a tight reign on her. However, at the tender age of 16 she was invited to join her aunts, Mary, Mildred, Rosie and Agnes, when they went to work as food servers at the Ostend Hotel at Sovereign Avenue and the Boardwalk in Atlantic City during the Jewish Holidays in 1936.
Bill Errickson, Jr., and his cousin, Lilla Irwin, are pictured here standing on a bench in front of the Esplanade Hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey, around 1921 or 1922. The Esplanade was also known as the Ostend Hotel.
They could earn as much as $300.00 US dollars each; a great sum of money in those days, and they were able to save almost all of their earnings because the Ostend provided them with rooms to live in while they worked there. John and Reba gave Dorothy their permission to go and that is where she met the man who would become my father – salad chef Edward Irving Opshelor
Edward Irving Opshelor (front) is pictured here working at the Ostend Hotel in Atlantic City in 1936. The other man in this picture has not been identified.
of Philadelphia – the son of Charles Opshelor, a Jewish refugee from Odessa, Russia. They must have hit it off rather well (and rather quickly), because they were married on September 12, 1936.
Dorothy and Edward Irving Opshelor on their wedding day, September 12, 1936.
After living in the Ostend Hotel for a short while, an apparently pregnant Dorothy returned to English Creek with her new husband in tow, and they moved in with her parents, John and Reba Fennell. Forty weeks to the day after they got married, I was born!
That’s mom and me in my grandfather Fennell’s front yard.
Apparently Edward Irving did not like living with his in-laws because 3 years after they were married – just two years and one month after I was born – he took off for Miami. In fairness to him, there was probably nothing he could do to earn wages in English Creek. Edward Irving grew up in Philadelphia; then moved to Atlantic City; he knew little, if anything, about life in the country. The Fennell men hunted and fished and farmed while their women cooked and cleaned and canned. When it was time to slaughter a hog, the whole family pitched in and every part of the animal was used.
Mary & Joe Connors are pictured on the left side of the hog; Bill Errickson, Sr., and Mildred are on the right side of it. The woman on the far right is believed to be a family friend.
About 10 years after her sister divorced William D. Errickson, Sr., her baby sister Agnes married him and they moved to English Creek while Mildred was living in Franklinville, and they lived there for the rest of their lives.
The Fennell Family existed in English Creek, New Jersey, from about 1890 until 1991, or for a little over 100 years. However, since none of Maria’s sons had any male heirs, the Fennells of English Creek ceased to exist after the passing of her oldest living child, MaryAnn Fennell Connors, on December 1, 1991.
Although we do not carry the Fennell or Fanelli name, those of us who were born to the daughters and granddaughters of Maria and Gaetano will always remember them and remember our heritage.
*Thomas Fennell (Gaetano Fanelli) passed away in English Creek, New Jersey, on 14 October 1922. Three months after he died, his brother Antonio wrote a letter to him. That letter was dated on 12 January 1923. We have no idea how long it took that letter to find it’s way to the Fennell family home in English Creek, nor do we know if anyone ever replied to it. However, the return address on that letter was Sig.Antonio Fanelli, Via Setembrino, Castelnuova della Daunia, Foggia, Italy.