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Shirley Valentine's Family Has Lived in Swansea More Than a Century -- and She Plans to Stay

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Shirley Valentine's grandparents came to the United States over a century ago. Their journey here involved no coyotes or cartels, but it was hard just the same.

In 1904, Thomas Valentine and Catherine Madden were married in Oxfordshire, England -- or at least that's what they told people. "I never saw a marriage license," says Shirley. By 1905, Catherine was pregnant. The couple wanted a better life, so Thomas emigrated to the United States. Lured by advertisements for carpentry jobs at the steel mills, he headed for Pueblo, Colorado, but failed to find work.

Back in England, Francis "Frank" Walter Frederick Valentine was born, and Catherine had him baptized in the Catholic Church. Later, his father would have him baptized in the Episcopalian Church. "Frank would always say he would go right to heaven because he was so well covered," says his daughter.

In 1906, Catherine and baby Frank traveled by ship to the United States. "All the people with children were at the bottom of the ship, like it was with the Titanic," Shirley remembers her grandmother telling her. Catherine and the other mothers would take turns staying up all night on the twelve-day journey, forming a circle around their sleeping children. "The rats were so plentiful on the ship that they would eat the babies' fingers and toes," Shirley says. "Catherine always said, 'A ship with that many rats will never sink.'"

When Catherine and Frank landed at Ellis Island, Frank was covered with sores. Mother and baby were quarantined for two months while he healed. When he finally did, they traveled to Pueblo -- only to find Thomas hospitalized with pneumonia. It took three months for him to recover.

When Thomas couldn't find work in Pueblo, the family left for Sidney, Nebraska, to help manage a hotel and restaurant owned by Thomas's brother. But their time in Sidney was short-lived, too. They lived in a duplex, and their neighbor would trap muskrats, beavers and skunks. When he skinned the animals for fur, blood would run from his kitchen into Catherine's. She was already stuck with most of the tasks at the restaurant, and between the animal blood and the unfair workload, she wanted out.

So they moved to Denver and bought a home at 47th and Josephine Street in Swansea, a working-class community of immigrants. Catherine put down $300 that she'd saved from working; they paid off the other $450 they owed at a rate of $8 each month. For years, Catherine held it against Thomas that she'd had to pay for their house.

While the neighborhood parents, who often spoke different languages, were too busy working at the nearby smelters, packinghouses, stockyards and factories to socialize, their children built friendships that united the community. They played Kick the Can, hopscotch and jacks. Young Frank enjoyed shooting marbles; when he won, he'd put his trophies in a bucket, and he saved those marbles into adulthood. When he got older, he played baseball for a team owned by Joe Ciancio, owner of Ciancio's Groceries -- one of the small markets that used to dot the neighborhood -- and eventually a city councilman. Ciancio's Swansea team competed with players from Elyria and Globeville, holding games in abandoned lots. Although those communities are often lumped together today, tension bubbled among them a century ago.

Neighborhood feuds turned into fights. Although the gangs of today didn't exist, there were definitely turf wars. Swansea would beat up Elyria. Elyria would beat up Globeville. Then Elyria and Globeville would unite and come after Swansea. One of the biggest battles took place every summer, when Swansea and Elyria kids would show up at Globeville's much-coveted community swimming pool. If the Globeville kids weren't successful in fighting them off, the interlopers would be kicked out anyway; sharing was not an option. As kids got older, swimming-pool wars turned into liquor-fueled fights at dance halls and taverns and then at job sites, where some belonged to unions and others were scabs.

For the Valentines, the fights weren't limited to school and the streets. Frank's dad, like all the Valentine men, had a terrible temper. One day, Swansea Elementary called because Frank and his brother, Tom, had been fighting other kids. Thomas Sr. went to the school for a conference, and when he returned with his sons expecting supper on the table at 5 p.m., it wasn't there. "So Grandpa Valentine beat Grandma," Shirley says. "She picked herself up and told him, 'We are in America, and if I get supper on the table or not, you will not beat me.'" While he never beat his wife again, Thomas's children inherited his drunken, violent tendencies.

The Valentine family owned a tavern in the neighborhood, at 39th Avenue and High Street, across from a dye factory. Workers would eat there during the day and drink 3.2 beer at night. Catherine hung a sign on her back gate so that train-hoppers coming into Denver would know that they could get a hot meal at her place. "The bums ate on the back porch," Shirley remembers. If they came without shoes, Catherine would find a pair of her husband's and hand them out. She quit serving the train-hoppers when she realized some of them were dumping out her food.

Continue for more about Shirley Valentine and Swansea, including additional photos.
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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris