Tombstone Tuesday: Fred and Matilda (Hammond) Thoma

Fred and Matilda (Hammond) Thoma, or Fritz and Tillie as they were known in their community, spent their childhoods and the entirety of their married lives in the same rural county in northeastern Iowa. Fred Thoma was born to Bavarians William Henry and Anna Margaretta (Poesch) Thoma on 4 December 1857 in Garnavillo, Clayton County, Iowa.1 Matilda Hammond was born to Hiram H. and Eva Margaret (Stoehr) Hammond on 4 May 1859 in Volga, Clayton County, Iowa.2 While Matilda’s father was a native of Ohio and an early settler in Iowa, her mother hailed from the same Bavarian village of Weißenstadt as Matilda’s in-laws.3

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Grave of Mathilda Thoma (1857-1947) and Fred Thoma (1857-1924), Garnavillo Old Town Cemetery, Garnavillo, Clayton County, Iowa; image date unknown, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2015.

It seems likely that the couple crossed paths as children, although they lived in separate communities; the Weißenstadt immigrants were surely a close-knit bunch. Fred and Matilda married on 29 December 1879 at the Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Clayton Center.4 The next year found them living in Garnavillo, where Fred was a clerk in his late father’s country store.5 That autumn, the couple became parents to the first of their eventual five children: George Hiram, Leonard Christopher Julius, Ludelia Maria, Roselyn Anna, and Norma Evaline.6 All but Norma survived to adulthood; sadly, she died in a diphtheria outbreak when she was ten years old.7

What few details are known of Fred and Matilda’s lives come from recollections of their granddaughters.8 The first thirty years of their marriage were spent in the town of Garnavillo, where Fred later had a restaurant and then worked as a laborer.9 Matilda was said to have been a midwife who delivered many children in Clayton County, although such skills were not recorded in the census. Fred allegedly had a fondness for drink, so when Matilda received an inheritance, she bought a farm away from town – and the saloons.10 The empty nesters enjoyed life in the countryside for the next fifteen years until Fred’s death in Clayton on 10 January 1925.11

As a widow, Matilda spent time in the homes of her daughter and granddaughter. In 1930, she experienced a different climate in Houston, Texas; by 1940, she had returned to the Midwest and resided in Wisconsin.12 It was there in Bridgeport, Crawford County, Wisconsin that she died on 21 August 1947 when she was approaching ninety years of age. She is buried beside her husband at the Garnavillo Old Town Cemetery.13

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Searching for Marguerite

There is both good and bad news about this photograph:

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Unidentified photograph, ca. 1860-1866; digital image 2015, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2015. Image courtesy of D.B.

Twenty-seven years ago, my parents traveled to Massachusetts and made a stop in the community of Indian Orchard, where, my father knew, his ancestors had lived for a time in the latter half of the nineteenth century. As it turned out, these French Canadian immigrants had descendants who still lived in the area, and thanks to the staff at Saint Aloysius Parish, he was able to connect with one such descendant. Later, he began corresponding with two more cousins, both of whom were kind enough to share their research about our shared French Canadian and Acadian ancestors. Family lore and even a few photographs were also exchanged – including this photocopied image thought to be a photograph of Marguerite (Chicoine) Adam (1816-1878).1

Marguerite Chicoine is one of the first ancestral names I learned as a child and amateur family historian. I loved hearing that she was said to be Native American – a bit of family lore since (mostly) disproven, but it did work quite effectively to capture my attention at the time. I had always hoped to see the original of this photograph that was sent to us by our late cousin, but learned two years ago that an original may no longer exist. Apparently, when she was moved to a nursing home, her family history materials were thrown out.2 This serves as an important reminder to make an estate plan for the preservation of your own family history materials.

While I can’t rule out that somewhere out there, a cousin might hold another copy of this same photograph – that fortunate scenario has happened before – it’s also possible that this is the only version of this photograph that I will ever see. In any case, let’s take a look. Could this realistically be a photograph of Marguerite Chicoine?

Marguerite died in Massachusetts in 1878 at the age of 62.3 Thus, this photograph would have to predate 1878. As the photocopy indicates that this was a carte de visite – most popular between approximately 1860 and 1866 – that is entirely possible.4 All of Marguerite’s fifteen known children were born before 1862, with the exception of her youngest, who was born five years later. As Marguerite relocated with her family from Quebec to Massachusetts circa 1864-65, it seems plausible that she may have had her picture taken during this time period as a memento to share with relatives at home.5

Marguerite was fifty years old when her youngest child was born at the tail end of the most likely timeframe for this photograph; in order to have had a healthy pregnancy so late, perhaps she had a more youthful appearance than one might otherwise imagine for a mother of fifteen. The woman appears to have dark hair without noticeable graying, and her dark complexion and strong nose make it easy to see how rumors of significant Native American ancestry could have gotten started. However, I find it difficult to get a sense for her age, due in part to the poor quality of the image. Could she be over forty-five, or is this woman in fact decades younger?

Marguerite did have three daughters who would have reached adulthood by the 1860s: Marguerite Adam, Marie Adam, and Julienne Adam.6 While I do have a photograph of Marguerite, who does not appear to be a match, could this photograph show instead either Marie or Julienne as a young woman in her early to mid-twenties?

The woman wears a buttoned shirtwaist with a windowpane pattern, the sleeves neither significantly fitted nor puffed, and a high linen band collar is visible.7 Her belted skirt is of a straightforward design. Notably, it is not worn with a fashionable hoop as one would typically expect in the 1860s; this more unassuming skirt would perhaps have been in line with what a woman in rural Quebec or an immigrant in a New England mill town might wear.8 The backdrop is similarly domestic in style with a practical wooden chair and what looks to be a fireplace.

The good news? This could be a photograph of Marguerite Chicoine. It depicts a dark-complected woman of evidently simple means who was photographed in the 1860s, a physical description, socioeconomic background, and timeline that fit with what is known about Marguerite.

The bad news? We may never know for sure. It seems equally plausible that could be a photograph of one of Marguerite’s daughters or a close relative. Lacking an original for closer examination, it can still be hoped that another copy of this photograph might exist in different branch of the family, and that it may hold additional clues regarding the true identification of the mysterious dark-haired Québécois.

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A Fatal Scratch: The Death of a Pioneer Woman

Anna_Margaretha_Poesch_Thoma_Obituary“After almost a week of extreme suffering, caused from blood poisoning, Mrs. Margaretha Thoma, one of Garnavillo’s oldest residents, passed away at 4:00 o’clock last Saturday afternoon. About two weeks ago the lady accidentally scratched the back of one of her hands with a pin. The scratch at the time was a mere trifle and was given no further thought by her until a few days after when the hand began to swell and cause more or less pain. A physician was called and found it necessary to lance the hand, but desired results did not follow and twice later the lance was employed, and still no relief came to her sufferings, but instead the wound continued to grow worse and the swelling commenced extending into the arm. Everything possible was done to allay the pain and comfort her in her unendurable suffering, but nothing could be administered that would combat with the situation and the result was death came as a relief after nearly a week of incessant torture.”1

Anna Margaretha (Poesch) Thoma was born in Weißenstadt, Wunsiedel, Bavaria, the daughter of Wolfgang and Barbara Poesch.2 She came to Iowa with her family at a young age, and was later deemed “one of the venerable and loved pioneer women of Clayton County.”3 Margaretha married William Henry Thoma, a local merchant, in 1857, when she was still in her teens.4 They had eleven children before his death in 1876; Margaretha never remarried, and in fact continued to operate his mercantile in the years following his death.5 Perhaps it was this role in her community that brought her the recognition to be remembered so fondly in the years following her death from blood poisoning on 9 November 1907.6

Margaretha’s unfortunate plight might remind some of Caroline Ingalls’ encounter with a rusty nail in a particularly drama-filled episode of Little House on the Prairie. Indeed, albeit tragically, little could have been done to relieve Margaretha’s suffering at this time and place. Her age, estimated at near seventy, might also have contributed to her susceptibility to infection, whether she in fact suffered from sepsis or tetanus. Although not soon enough for Margaretha, it would be just a matter of time before the use of penicillin – and the tetanus vaccine – would become widespread. 

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A Paper Moon

When I began researching the topic of paper moon photography, I was surprised to find that these crescent moon photo booth props are making a comeback by way of trendy, vintage-style wedding decor. In case you didn’t know, flappers are big these days, and the popularity of this era has influenced a new generation to pose for classic shots with a smiling man in the moon. However, paper moon photo booths got their start even before the days of Gatsby, likely around the turn of the twentieth century.1

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Melanie (Lutz) and son Gerald Adam, Sioux City, Iowa, ca. 1912; digital image 2014, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2015. Collection courtesy of David Adam.

This particular paper moon photograph was printed on a real photo postcard circa 1912. The moon backdrop itself is not one of the more elaborate, with an obvious break in the night sky for seating purposes. In fact, what looks like a wheel to roll the seat into place is also visible, and a small “magic carpet” conceals the primary seating area. The crescent moon smiles, and the stars, as is typical among paper moon photography, are present even within the crescent – where, realistically, they would be blocked by the moon in shadow. A shooting star can be spotted at the upper tip of the crescent, and a planet appears below the moon.

The mother and son posed here are Melanie (Lutz) and Gerald “Jerry” Adam of Sioux City, Woodbury County, Iowa. Both are dressed in long fur coats, Melanie’s of a fashionable collared design while Jerry’s is fastened simply with three large buttons. A glimpse of Melanie’s leather gloves is visible, and a stylish plumed hat is atop her head. Jerry wears a practical stocking cap and high button boots. His curls are long, to his shoulders, which was not atypical among young boys of the era.

Given their attire, it is obvious that this photograph was taken on a cold winter’s day. Perhaps the paper moon photo booth was set up outdoors or in an unheated (or under-heated) space as a temporary attraction; this mother and son may have simply stumbled upon it and decided to surprise Jerry’s father with their fun souvenir. As Jerry was born in the summer of 1908,2 it seems most likely that this photograph dates to the winter of 1911-1912, or, at the latest, the winter of 1912-1913. January 1912 in particular was a cold month, with Sioux City registering a record low of −35°F on 12 January.3 However, even beyond such extremes, Sioux City was no stranger to weather that would have required one’s warmest winter coats for a visit to the moon!

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Remembering the Children’s Blizzard

Even seventeen Dakota winters could not have prepared the Danish immigrant family of Jens Madsen and Anna (Bramsen) Schmidt for what they faced in 1888.

January 12 dawned bright and clear in southeastern Dakota Territory. The weather was so pleasant that many children set off to school wearing only light jackets and wraps.1 In the Schmidt family, just twelve-year-old Mads was still in school; while he settled in with his classmates, his mother and older sisters, Mary and Christine, tinkered eagerly with the new sewing machine that had been delivered to them just that morning.2

Within a few hours, however, a dark cloud appeared on the horizon, bringing with it a wind so powerful that it roared as it whirled snow and ice into the air. The temperature dropped abruptly, and the snow and ice, said to be as fine as flour, made it impossible to see. Those unfortunate enough to be caught on the open prairie – or even in their barnyards – had little hope of making it to shelter.3

Through the remainder of the day and into the night, the Schmidt family waited in agony, a lantern burning in their window. They had no way of knowing whether Mads had taken shelter at school, or whether he had tried, in vain, to run for home. To search for him would be futile until the storm had ceased.

The next morning, which dawned bright and beautiful, Mads trudged home over the sparkling drifts of snow. The joy and relief that he, his sisters, and his parents must have felt at this reunion can only be imagined. As it turned out, the schoolteacher at the Breezy Hill School had managed to convince all of the children to stay in the shelter of the schoolhouse overnight, which, thankfully, had been sturdy enough to withstand the winds and had had enough fuel to keep them from freezing.4

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Schmidt Family Homestead, near Tabor, Bon Homme County, South Dakota, ca. 1888-1889; digital image 2013, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2015. From left: Inger Marie “Mary,” Mads, Christine, Jens Madsen, and Anna (Bramsen) Schmidt.

Others had not been so lucky. Remembered as the “Children’s Blizzard” for the high number of school-aged victims, the storm tore apart some of the flimsier schoolhouses, forcing the teachers and children to flee into the storm, often in insufficient clothing due to the balmy weather of the morning.5 Others thought that they could beat the worst of it home, but on the open prairie where some children walked miles to reach school, many became disoriented in the storm or were forced by the wind in different directions. It became impossible for them to spot familiar landmarks either because of the fine and blinding snow or because their eyes had frozen shut.6

Later, two sewing machine salesmen, who had made their last stop at the Schmidt family homestead in Bon Homme County, were found huddled in the box of their bobsled just three miles to the west. They had frozen to death; their horses, tied in a grove of trees, survived. For years, locals referred to the area as Dead Man’s Grove.7

The Children’s Blizzard claimed an estimated two hundred fifty to five hundred lives across the Midwestern prairie, with the majority of the casualties in southeastern Dakota Territory.
8 As reported by historian David Laskin, “The pioneers were by and large a taciturn lot, reserved and sober Germans and Scandinavians […]. Even those who never wrote another word about themselves put down on paper everything they could remember about the great blizzard of 1888. Indeed, it was the storm that has preserved these lives from oblivion.”9

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…and a Happy New Year!

George Fenton Thoma, the son of George Hiram and Anna Leota (Fenton) Thoma, was eight years old when he scrawled these holiday greetings to his cousin, Glen Hoffman.1 Glen, the son of Joseph and Minnie Bell (Fenton) Hoffman, was one year Fenton’s senior.2 Whether the boys – Fenton in Nebraska, Glen in Iowa – had actually met or were merely pen pals at their mothers’ urging is unknown, as the sentiments expressed on the postcard are not of a particularly personal nature:

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George Fenton Thoma school postcard, Decatur, Nebraska, 1911; digital image 2014, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2014. Collection courtesy of David Adam.

This postcard is another piece of the puzzle of the Thoma family. A decade prior, Fenton’s father, George Hiram Thoma, had married under the alias of George A. Neilson, and he proceeded to use the Neilson surname along with his wife and children at least until 1909. The family moved frequently throughout Iowa and Nebraska; according to the postmark here, they may have resided in or near Decatur, Burt, Nebraska, as of late 1911. It is also possible that they were guests in the home of Leota’s mother during the holiday season and in fact lived elsewhere.3 Unfortunately, Fenton did not sign his full name – so it is up for debate whether he was a Neilson or a Thoma at the time!

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George Fenton Thoma school postcard, Decatur, Nebraska, 1911; digital image 2014, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2014. Collection courtesy of David Adam.

The reverse of this postcard shows a school photograph. Fenton can be spotted in the first row of students, third from left, in a collared striped shirt and dark trousers. The gathering of students is casual – there are untucked shirts, fidgeting hands, smiles and scowls. Fenton, his expression eager, has his eyes directly on the camera and seems to edge forward as his head partially obscures that of the boy behind him.

While I have in my collection many postcard-style photographs, this may be the only one that was actually addressed and mailed as a postcard. At some point thereafter, it was apparently returned to the Thoma family, as it was found in the collection of Fenton’s younger sister. Perhaps it was returned after Fenton’s unexpected death at the age of forty-four, as it is likely one of only a few photographs of him as a child.4 The cost of the one cent postage was likely well worth it to Fenton in exchange for the chance to show off his class picture and his painstaking penmanship as he wrote to his cousin, “I wish you a Merry Xmas and happy new years.”

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Tombstone Tuesday: Mathias and Elizabeth (Hoffman) Noehl

At the tail end of the nineteenth century, two German immigrants made the decision to forge their lives together in America. Mathias Noehl was born to Michel and Magdelena (Hoffman) Noehl on 22 April 1868 in the village of Holsthum, Germany,1 and Elizabeth Hoffman was born to Mathias and Anna (Marbach) Hoffman on 16 September 1869 in the neighboring village of Prümzurlay.2 They never met as children, and both made their own ways to America, Mathias in 1886 and Elizabeth in 1890.3

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Grave of Mathias Noehl (1868-1950) and Elizabeth Noehl (1869-1957), St. Aloysius Cemetery, Calmar, Winneshiek County, Iowa; digital image date unknown, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2014.

Elizabeth soon found a place for herself in North Washington, Chickasaw, Iowa, where she kept house for a local priest, Father Probst. According to her husband’s memoirs, it was during this time that Mathias, who had recently made his way from unfruitful ventures in Minnesota in search for new opportunities in Iowa, happened to pass by Elizabeth’s home. He wrote:

“I was in a neglected condition: My suit of clothes appeared to have seen better days. A hailstorm seemed to have come over my hat. My blond hair lay around my temples unkempt like dried up flowers of the cemetery. When she heard that I had come from her neighborhood village, Holsthum, she said to herself, ‘That is a disgrace to the whole valley of Prüm. He must be hidden from the streets of North Washington, even if I have to marry him.'”4

Marry they did on 22 September 1896, by the same Father Probst who had been Elizabeth’s employer.5 Mathias later wrote of the “joyless” early years of their marriage, during which time the couple struggled to make a living in Alberta and Minnesota before finally returning, poverty stricken, to Iowa. He wrote, “Although children are not always a blessing for parents, they help to lead many a marriage through the inevitable storms between two persons, whose different characters must be adjusted to each other.”6 Whether his statements were sincere or tongue-in-cheek is unknown, but the couple would, indeed, go on to celebrate the births of nine children: Leo, Helen, Kathryn, Elinor, John, Aloysius, Francis “Frank,” Frances, and Joseph Noehl.

Although Mathias once dreamed of relocating with his family to Oregon, in the end they farmed for many years near New Hampton, Chickasaw, Iowa. In 1946, a year after their retirement from farm life, Mathias and Elizabeth celebrated fifty years of marriage surrounded by their children and grandchildren.7 Mathias died in Calmar, Winnishiek, Iowa, on 31 January 1950; Elizabeth died seven years later on 9 February 1957. Both are buried at St. Aloysius Cemetery in Calmar.8

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