Grandad and Walter Brennan

As I was sitting up late one night tucked into our family room couch with my computer, I was multi-tasking as I usually do by doing some “light” genealogy while I watched TV.  A movie came on called  “Bad Day at Black Rock” from 1955 starring Spencer Tracy.

Walter Brennan. 1958. Photo used from Wikipedia

I’m a pretty big fan of Spencer Tracy so I was surprised I hadn’t seen this one before. To my delight, the supporting cast included Walter Brennan. Walter was a big deal back in the day. He is the only actor in history to receive three Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor.  He became known to television audiences when he played in The Real McCoys from 1957-1963, but Walter worked with all the biggies in Hollywood’s heyday. He rubbed shoulders with Gary Cooper, Fred Astaire, Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne and Henry Fonda, just to name a few. Not bad for a kid from New England whose father wanted him to be an engineer.

A random fact many in our family don’t know is that Walter and my grandfather, Harold Willett, were friends growing up in Swampscott, Massachusetts in the early 1900’s. My grandmother, Jenny, actually dated Walter Brennan. That’s another story for another time. Who knew I would have so much to say about Walter Brennan?

But I digress…

My grandad, Harold Potter Willett, in the 1950’s

Grandad was born in Boston in 1894, but by 1910 his parents had moved to a brand new house in the beach town of Swampscott, just to the north of Boston.  Walter was born in Lynn, also in 1894,  but city directories show that his family had moved across the town line to Swampscott sometime between 1906 and 1908.

I love using Google maps to see if the houses where my ancestors lived still exist. So I decided to look for Grandad’s house as well as Walter’s since I knew they lived very near to each other.

The 1910 census for both of them listed their house number and street name in the left margin. You don’t always get that lucky! Google maps gave me some wonderful street views. They lived just .08 of mile from each other.  Just for kicks I googled the addresses and turned out to be a goldmine.  Both houses are still standing and both have been listed for sale in the last few years. So, not only did I get to see what the outside of each house looked like – I got a grand tour of them both inside. Very cool!

The Willett House

Harold, along with his brother Jack, his sister Jeanette and his parents John and Fannie, lived at 15 Hardy Road in 1910. They were the first owners. They didn’t live here long. By 1912, when Harold graduated from Swampscott High School, the family moved to Lynn. The house sold in 2016 for $563,000.

Harold Willett’s home from about 1910 to 1912


The Brennan House

Walter, along with his parents William and Margaret and Walter’s older brother, William Jr.,  lived at 29 Franklin Avenue in Swampscott. The house was built in 1905. City directories show Walter’s parents still lived there in 1920, but that he and his brother William, Jr. had moved to California. The house sold in 2017 for $367,000.

Walter Brennan’s home from about 1907 until he joined World War I

I vaguely recall my grandmother saying that even though Walter moved away and made it big in Hollywood, she and Grandad kept in touch with Walter and his wife throughout the years.

Oh, and about Bad Day at Black Rock. It is an intense movie. Critics loved it. Audiences liked it. It is kind of a film noir western. Give it a watch sometime.


I have joined an online challenge by Amy Johnson Crow to write about 52 ancestors in 52 weeks. I’m so far behind it is not even funny. But Amy says its not about how much you write, but that you just keep writing. So here I still am.  I’m writing about the prompt “Random Fact.” You can join any time and find all the details here: 

Click here to sign up for the 52 Ancestors Challenge 

copyright 2018 Jenny Hawran

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