The Country Store: Family Groceries, the Best of Brandy, and Excellent Beer

The Bavarian William Henry Thoma of Garnavillo, Clayton County, Iowa, was a businessman by the age of thirty.1 In 1859, the Clayton County Journal reported:

“William Thoma, Grocer, Main Street, Garnavillo, Iowa, keeps constantly on hand all kinds of family groceries, such as Coffee, Sugar, Tea, Milasses, ice, &c. The best of Brandy and excellent Beer is also always to be found at this establishment.”2

William must have found success as a grocer and purveyor of alcoholic beverages, as his business was apparently in operation for at least two decades. He was named a merchant in the 1860 census,3 and in the 1870 census it was noted that he was the keeper of a “country store.”4 This must have allowed him to provide a comfortable lifestyle for his wife and eleven children; in 1870, he owned real estate valued at $12,000 and personal estate valued at $3,000.5


1870 U.S. census, Clayton County, Iowa, population schedule, Garnavillo, p. 13 (penned), dwelling 87, family 86, Wm Toma; digital image, ( : accessed 16 April 2014), citing National Archives microfilm M593, roll 383.

After William’s death in the summer of 1876,6 his widow, Anna Margaretta (Poesch) Thoma, with a handful of young children still at home, took over as merchant. She maintained the business for a number of years, while her eldest son assisted as a clerk in the store.7

I like to wonder whether William’s store was anything like that featured at Iowa’s Living History Farms, which boasts the fictional 1875 Town of Walnut Hill. Images of the picturesque Greteman Brothers General Store can be seen here. It’s well worth a visit if you find yourself in central Iowa and have ever wondered what life was like for your Midwestern ancestors in the years following the Civil War. The impact of the Industrial Revolution on rural communities is visible, although, according to the Living History Farms, “The railroad will always be a few years away for Walnut Hill.”8

Of course, I also have to wonder whether William and Anna Margaretta (Poesch) Thoma were anything like Nels and Harriet Oleson of Little House on the Prairie. Let’s just hope that their children weren’t as spoiled as the infamous Nellie and Willie!

1 1860 U.S. census, Clayton County, Iowa, population schedule, Garnavillo, p. 4 (penned), dwelling 27, family 25, Wm Thoma; digital image, ( : accessed 16 April 2014), citing National Archives microfilm M653, roll 315.
2 “Iowa Old Press,” Iowa Old Press ( : accessed 16 April 2014), entry for Clayton County Journal, August 1859.
3 1860 U.S. census, Clayton Co., Ia., pop. sch., Garnavillo, p. 4, dwell. 27, fam. 25, Wm Thoma.
4 1870 U.S. census, Clayton County, Iowa, population schedule, Garnavillo, p. 13 (penned), dwelling 87, family 86, Wm Toma; digital image, ( : accessed 16 April 2014), citing National Archives microfilm M593, roll 383.
5 1870 U.S. census, Clayton Co., Ia., pop. sch., Garnavillo, p. 13, dwell. 87, fam. 86, Wm Toma.
6 “Local and Other Matters,” The Postville (Iowa) Review, 9 August 1876, p. 1, col. 2; digital images, Newspaper Archive ( : accessed 16 April 2014).
7 1880 U.S. census, Clayton County, Iowa, population schedule, Garnavillo, Enumeration District (ED) 133, p. 21 (penned), dwelling 178, family 188, Margaretta Thoma; digital image, ( : accessed 16 April 2014), citing National Archives microfilm T9, roll 333.
8 “1875 Town of Walnut Hill,” Living History Farms ( : accessed 16 April 2014).


A Little French Boy

An American by birth, Henry Joseph Adam spoke French until he started school.1 He was born in Indian Orchard, Hampden County, Massachusetts, on 5 August 1881, the son of Timothy and Odile (Millette) Adam, both of French Canadian heritage.2 His father had been born in Quebec, while his mother had been born in upstate New York.3 Regardless of their nationality, their roots ran deep, and the French language likely remained more familiar to them than English.


Henry Joseph Adam, Sioux City, Woodbury County, Iowa, ca. 1886-87; digital image 2013, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2014.

Pictured here circa 1886-87, when he was about five years old, Henry is simply but neatly dressed. He wears breeches with high patterned stockings, and a white or light-colored shirt with a contrasting bow-tie. His boots, perhaps hand-me-downs from an older brother, have been polished till they shine. He may hold a cap in his left hand, although it is indistinct due to the quality of this tintype. Despite the fact that cabinet cards grew in popularity during this decade, tintypes were still certainly not unusual. The faintest blush of pink is visible on Henry’s cheeks from a painted accent.

The studio setup is interesting and not particularly professional. Henry stands upon a small stool, and leans against a piece of furniture covered with heavy fabric. The painted backdrop behind him depicts a scene of a house, fields, and a tree, which doesn’t tie in well with the wood floor in the foreground. I suspect that this photograph may have been taken in Sioux City, Woodbury County, Iowa; the Adam family moved here sometime in the mid-1880s, perhaps because of its proximity to the large French Canadian community in nearby Jefferson, Union County, South Dakota.4 Thus, this little French boy remained in good company; he may have learned English at school, but he would not have forgotten his French!

1 Gerald and Fern (Thoma) Adam, conversation with Brian Adam, ca. 1984; notes in author’s files. Gerald Adam was the son of Henry Joseph Adam.
2 “Massachusetts, Birth Records, 1840-1915,” database and images, ( : accessed 13 April 2014), entry for Henry J. Adams, 5 August 1881, Indian Orchard; citing Massachusetts Vital Records, New England Historical and Genealogical Society, Boston.
3 “Massachusetts, Marriages, 1841-1915,” digital image, FamilySearch ( : accessed 13 April 2014), Timothy Adams and Julia Mellett, 22 September 1867, Springfield. Odile Millette used the name Julia early in her life.
4 1900 U.S. census, Woodbury County, Iowa, population schedule, Sioux City, enumeration district (ED) 170, sheet 15-B, p. 77 (stamped), dwelling 291, family 333, Timothy Adam; digital image, ( : accessed 13 April 2014), citing National Archives microfilm publication T623, roll 467. Henry Adam was born August 1881 in Massachusetts; his brother Theodore Adam was born June 1885 in South Dakota, and his sister Permelia Adam was born June 1887 in Iowa.

An Iowa Teacher’s Report to Parents, 1925

The first of June 1925 was an important day for Frances Marie Noehl of Deerfield, Chickasaw County, Iowa. She completed the eighth grade in District No. 11 with flying colors, even rallying over the course of the year to bring up her lagging grade in conduct.1 However, although she was a successful student, with high average marks equivalent to straight A’s, she would not go on to graduate from high school.2


Frances Noehl, Teacher’s Report to Parents, 1925, Deerfield, Iowa; digital image 2003, privately held by V. P. [personal information withheld], 2014.

Frances was the eighth of nine children born to Matthias and Elizabeth (Hoffman) Noehl, German immigrants who farmed in northeastern Iowa.3 Once her schooling was completed, Frances was needed at home, although her father did prize education. In his memoirs, he wrote of his schooldays in Germany, “I entered into the arena, and took it up not only with the alphabet, but with all my classmates. As at that time there was no special talent in our school of eighty-four pupils, I succeeded in taking the first place among all the boys.”4 His education concluded at the age of fourteen, but he was pleased to be allowed to keep his books, writing tablet, slate, and pencil.5 Perhaps he had once dreamed that his children would be fortunate enough to further their educations, but, at least in the case of his youngest daughter, that dream was unfulfilled.

During the course of her eighth grade year, Frances was instructed by Miss Beatrice Joebgen, a local teacher who was still a teenager herself.6 Frances was graded in Reading, Writing, Spelling, Arithmetic, Grammar, U.S. History, Music, Civics, Drawing, and Conduct, with all of her marks falling between 90 and 100 and her averages between 93 and 98. Her father’s signature was recorded on her report card at the end of each term.7


Frances Noehl, Teacher’s Report to Parents, 1925, Deerfield, Iowa; digital image 2003, privately held by V. P. [personal information withheld], 2014.

Attendance rules for the time indicate that Frances would not have been required to complete additional schooling, as she had fulfilled the educational qualifications of an eighth grade pupil. Other reasons for exemption from public schooling included being mentally or physically unfit, living more than two miles from the school house by the nearest traveled road, or attending a private or parochial school, receiving instruction from a competent teacher, court order, religious instruction, or regular employment for one over the age of fourteen.8 Although Frances may have liked very much to have had the opportunity to graduate from high school, duty to her family, it seems, kept her at home.

1 Frances Noehl, Teacher’s Report to Parents, 1925, Deerfield, Iowa; privately held by V. P. [personal information withheld], 2014.
2 1940 U.S. census, Woodbury County, Iowa, population schedule, Sioux City, Enumeration District (ED) 97-71, p. 473 (stamped), sheet 16-A, dwelling 111, family 426, Frances Walsted; digital image, ( : accessed 7 April 2014), citing National Archives microfilm T625, roll 482. Frances reported having attended high school through the second year, as her husband did, although her daughter Kay (Walsted) Adam recalls that her mother only attended school through eighth grade.
3 1920 U.S. census, Chickasaw County, Iowa, population schedule, Deerfield, Enumeration District (ED) 50, p. 2601 (penned), sheet 1-B, dwelling 8, family 8, Francis Noehl; digital image, ( : accessed 7 April 2014), citing National Archives microfilm T625, roll 482.
4 Noehl, Mathias. “Memoirs.” MS. New Hampton, Iowa, ca. 1938-1950. Privately held by Melanie Frick. Note: Excerpts from an unpaginated German to English translation. Information about the translator and date of translation to come at a future date.
5 Mathias Noehl, “Memoirs.”
6 1920 U.S. census, Chickasaw County, Iowa, population schedule, Washington, Enumeration District (ED) 59, p. 281 (stamped), sheet 2-A, dwelling 26, family 26, Beatrice Joebgen; digital image, ( : accessed 7 April 2014), citing National Archives microfilm T625, roll 482.
7 Frances Noehl, Teacher’s Report to Parents, 1925, Deerfield, Iowa.
8 Frances Noehl, Teacher’s Report to Parents, 1925, Deerfield, Iowa.

Photograph Analysis: The Three Amigos


Peter Jorgensen, Fred Nelson, and Chris Callesen, Seven Falls, South Cheyenne Canon, Colorado; digital image 2014, privately held by [personal information withheld], 2014.

This souvenir photograph features three mustachioed men in sombreros posing astride burros in front of a rugged western landscape. In 1911, Peter Jorgensen, Fred Nelson, and Chris Callesen of Yankton County, South Dakota, pictured here from left to right, ventured west to Seven Falls in the South Cheyenne Canon near Colorado Springs, El Paso County, Colorado. I can’t know for sure what brought them west; I do know that, decades earlier, brothers-in-law Fred and Chris had traveled at least as far as the Black Hills to sell eggs to the miners.1 It’s possible that this trip to Colorado, however, was purely an opportunity for sightseeing and adventure, rather than business.

Fred_Nelson_Seven_Falls_02The reverse side of the photograph, mounted on heavy card stock, provides printed detail about the South Cheyenne Canon, famed for its natural beauty and sites of historical interest. The Seven Falls Photo & Curio Co. was responsible for this photograph, which was “taken at the foot of the famous Seven Falls.” It was possible to order duplicates by referencing the number shown on the photograph. (The number on the mat came only recently.) Given the number 716, it seems that plenty of these souvenir photographs must exist; I spotted several on eBay and on The Henry Ford Online Collection.

Did the men ride to the Falls on the burros? As of 1911, there was, in fact, a Cheyenne Burro & Carriage Co. in operation,2 so if they weren’t part of the package when the men paid for their photograph, they may have opted to rent the burros independently to ease their exploration of the area – or just for fun. The same may go for their sombreros!

1 Harold W. Jorgensen, “Olsen, Niels,” in Ben Van Osdel and Don Binder, editors, History of Yankton County, South Dakota (Yankton, South Dakota: Curtis Media Corporation and the Yankton County Historical Society, 1987), 53.
2 “Colorado Springs City Directories: 1879-1922,” images, Pikes Peak Library District ( : accessed 26 March 2014); citing “Colorado Springs, Colorado City and Manitou City Directory, 1911 (Colorado Springs: The R. L. Polk Directory Company, 1911),” 224.

Friendship Clubs and Funny Quotes: Finding Family in Yearbooks

Several years before they would meet and marry, teenagers Fern and Jerry were unsuspecting students at Central High School in Sioux City, Woodbury County, Iowa.1 They were not in the same grade, and this was a large school; Fern moved to Sioux City only in time for her senior year, and as Jerry graduated two years later, it’s possible that they never crossed paths during their brief overlap as students at the imposing sandstone building dubbed “The Castle on the Hill.”2


The Maroon and White, Vol. XXI (Sioux City, Iowa: Central High School, 1925), 67; digital image, ( : accessed 24 March 2014).

Fern Lavonne Thoma graduated from Central High School in 1925. In her yearbook photo, she wore a long necklace and, true to the times, styled her hair in a fashionable, chin-length bob. The only club that Fern had joined was the “Friendship Club,” which, apparently, was mandatory for all female students.3 From what I remember her telling me, she enjoyed her time at this school, especially a banquet for the upperclassmen during which the school gymnasium was decorated like a boat. She thought this event was “just wonderful!”4


The Maroon and White, Vol. XXIII (Sioux City, Iowa: Central High School, 1927), 34; digital image, ( : accessed 24 March 2014).

Gerald “Jerry” Joseph Adam graduated from Central High School in 1927. According to the yearbook, he was in the general course of study and had been involved in Civics, no surprise given his penchant for writing to politicians later in his life, as well as the Spanish Club. His handsome photo was paired with the quote, “Who shows you your place when you go to the Princess?”5 As a teenager, Jerry earned money as an usher at the Princess Theatre in downtown Sioux City, surely a popular place among his movie-going peers.6

In fact, Fern and Jerry reportedly met while on their way to the movies. Fern and her friend Florence were walking downtown when two young men, who were known to Florence, drove up in their rental car and offered the girls a ride. Fern approached the front to sit next to the driver, when Jerry suggested that she sit in the back with him. Fern later claimed that Florence had set her up, while Jerry liked to say that when he first laid eyes on Fern, he proclaimed, “That’s the girl I’m going to marry!”7

If you would like to find yearbook photos of your ancestors (or even yourself), check out the yearbook collections on In my experience, yearbooks don’t always appear as strong “shaky leaf” matches, so I have found it helpful to search specifically within the category “Schools, Directories & Church Histories” in order to bring all relevant results to the top.

Also consider searching the yearbooks individually as your ancestor’s full name may not have been given for every appearance, particularly if he or she was an underclassman or appeared in additional club or athletic photographs. As a bonus, see if you can find his or her autograph scrawled in the back of the book. You never know what you might learn about the glory days of your ancestor’s youth!

1 “Iowa, Marriage Records, 1923-1937,” digital images, ( : accessed 24 March 2014), entry for Gerald Joseph Adam and Fern Lavone Thoma, 8 June 1929, Sioux City; citing Iowa State Archives, Des Moines.
2 “Central High School/Castle on the Hill,” Sioux City History ( : accessed 24 March 2014).
3 The Maroon and White, Vol. XXI (Sioux City, Iowa: Central High School, 1927), 67; digital image, ( : accessed 24 March 2014).
4 Fern Lavonne (Thoma) Adam, conversation with the author, 2001; notes in author’s files.
5 The Maroon and White, Vol. XXIII (Sioux City, Iowa: Central High School, 1927), 34; digital image, ( : accessed 24 March 2014).
6 “U.S, City Directories, 1821-1989,” database, ( : accessed 9 October 2013), entry for Gerald Adam; citing “Polk’s Sioux City Directory, 1926 (R.L. Polk & Co., 1926),” 147.
7 Fern Lavonne (Thoma) Adam, conversation with the author, 2001.

How to Research at the Los Angeles County Archives

It’s been a year since my husband and I moved to Southern California, and, slowly but surely, I’m becoming familiar with the various record repositories in the area. This isn’t without effort, as Los Angeles County, with an area of 4,752 square miles and a population of 10 million, is so overwhelming that it can be hard to know where to begin! When I needed to hunt down some probate records, however, I knew that I would have to visit the Los Angeles County Archives and Records Center.

In preparation, I referred to a blog post by The SoCal Genie. I found it so helpful that I thought I would share an updated version for anyone who might be planning to visit this facility, as the official website isn’t terribly informative. The Los Angeles County Archives and Records Center is the go-to place for probate, divorce, and civil court cases more than five years old. 

First, I would recommend accessing the facility via Metro, as it’s located immediately off the Civic Center/Grand Park Station on the Red Line. I would also recommend that you resign yourself to spending some quality time at the facility, which, to be honest, is not a particularly nice place to spend the day. It’s essentially an underground warehouse – think concrete floors and fluorescent lighting – in need of more than a little TLC. That said, the employees were as nice as can be, so I imagine they’re doing the best they can under the circumstances. Not all archives are created equal!

IMG_2134It can be difficult to find the entrance to the Archives. As you face the Civic Center from the sidewalk, look to the left until you spot the outdoor elevator structure. This will take you underground to the Archives. At the second lower level, follow the signs through the hallway, which, at least when I was there, was piled with boxes and wooden pallets and looked like a place that would be off-limits to the public. However, further down the hall, a line had formed in front of the information desk.

Continue reading

Photograph Analysis: A Deadwood Mystery

After years of wondering about an unidentified photograph from Deadwood in my family’s collection, a second photograph of the same couple turned up in the collection of an extended family member. In my mind, while just one might have come from, say, a neighbor who had gone off to the Wild West and wished to be remembered to those back in southeastern South Dakota, where this branch of my family lived, two suggest that this couple may actually have had a closer connection to my family. Were they friends, or were they relatives?


Unidentified couple, Deadwood or Lead City, Dakota Territory, ca. 1884-1890; digital image 2013, privately held by [personal information withheld], 2014.

Unidentified_Deadwood_Couple_02In the first photograph, a couple poses for what could be a wedding portrait, as the woman arranges her hands in such a way that a ring is visible along with two bracelets. The man has a distinctive high forehead, large ears, and a long beard. He wears a dark three-piece suit and a plaid tie. The woman has a broad face and light-colored eyes; her hair is curled at the temples and arranged in a looped braid at the back, a style that became popular in the 1870s.1 She is corseted and wears what looks to be a heavy gown, with a high collar and bustle. A single row of buttons adorns her bodice, and matching patterned material is visible at her collar, cuffs, and on a unique side panel of her skirt.

According to the information stamped on this cabinet card, it was made at Excelsior Studios, located either in Deadwood or Lead City, Dakota. Deadwood and Lead were founded in 1876 during the Black Hills Gold Rush, and the place name “Dakota” suggests that the portrait was made before (or immediately after) South Dakota achieved statehood in 1889. Thus, an initial time span for this photograph, as well as the one to follow, can be set at 1876-1890.

I’ve been unable to turn up anything about the Excelsior Studio online, although the small “K” emblem made me wonder whether any early photographers in Deadwood had the last initial “K.” As it turns out, a strikingly similar style of cabinet card can be attributed to Deadwood photographer Charles Kersting; perhaps he operated his business under the name Excelsior for a period of time. Online sources suggest that he may have arrived in Deadwood in 1884, at which time he joined forces with photographer George W. Scott.2


Unidentified family, Deadwood, Dakota Territory, ca. 1883-1887; digital image 2010, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2014.

The second photograph seems to feature the same couple, although at a different time; the woman appears more slender and has styled her hair differently, and, of course, she and her husband both wear different clothes. This time, a young girl joins them in the photograph, most certainly their daughter. She looks to be about five or six years old; while standing next to her seated father, she places her hand over her his and leans back against his shoulder. Her dropped waist dress falls to her knees with a pleated skirt, belt, and a fancy collar. Her mother again wears a row of buttons on her bodice, and her draped overskirt over knife pleats was of a style popular in the mid-1880s.3 In many ways, her dress is similar in style to that of the previous photograph.

This cabinet card, printed with a pink pattern, bears the name of the photographer Geo. W. Scott. Biographical information suggests that Scott was in operation in Deadwood for four years, beginning in 1883.4 It was in 1884 that Charles Kersting allegedly took over a branch of his business.5

Initially, I wanted to date the photograph of the couple alone before that of the couple with their child; however, the dates of operation of the Deadwood photography studios suggest that the reverse may also have been true. Perhaps it was not a wedding portrait after all! In any case, for a child of five or six to have been photographed by Scott in Deadwood between the years of 1883 and 1887, a birth date of somewhere between 1877 and 1881 can be assumed. This provides an essential clue.

The next step is to learn whether any of my direct ancestors had kin who lived in or near Deadwood. If a couple had a daughter between roughly 1877 and 1881, who happened to be the only child in their household at some point between 1883 and 1887, then that would make them strong contenders for the individuals featured in these photographs. Whoever they may be, I imagine that they must have had interesting stories to tell about life in Deadwood’s first decade!

1 Maureen Taylor, Fashionable Folks: Hairstyles 1840-1900 (United States: Picture Perfect Press, 2009), 85.
2 Deadwood Photographers ( : accessed 20 March 2014), entry for Charles L. Kersting.
3 Joan Severa, Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900 (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1997), 418.
4 “Biographies,” Fremont County, Wyoming Genealogy and History ( : accessed 20 March 2014), entry for George W. Scott.
5 Deadwood Photographers ( : accessed 20 March 2014), entry for George W. Scott.