The Nelson Family at Home

The leaves had already fallen from the trees surrounding the modest two-story farmhouse belonging to Fred and Christina (Schmidt) Nelson when this photograph was taken in late 1904.1 Situated near the scenic bluffs along the Missouri River west of Yankton, Yankton County, South Dakota, the house was said to have had a creek running through the corner of the kitchen as a source of fresh water.2 Its simple, symmetric design featured a center door and four front windows on its clapboard walls, with a chimney appearing above the gable roof on one side. The house was likely painted white with a trim of a different color around the windows and door. Many trees surrounded the house, which was situated on an incline; the remote, wooded landscape seems to lend truth to family lore of the children fearing howling wolves (or coyotes?) as they walked to and from the nearest country school.3

Fred and Christina (Schmidt) Nelson and Family, Yankton County, South Dakota, 1904; digital image 2017, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2017.

Fred and Christina, both of whom immigrated from Denmark as children, married in 1890.4 Fred, at left, was forty years old in late 1904; he wears a loose-fitting sack suit and hat and sports a mustache.5 At center stands son Ole, ten, beside Christina, thirty-five.6 She holds baby Mary, who was born in February of that year.7 While Ole is clearly dressed for the outdoors in a coat and cap, Christina, like her daughters, wears no jacket or shawl. Her simple buttoned bodice and unadorned skirt appear comfortable for a nursing mother as well as household duties.

The open door behind Christina suggests that perhaps she and the girls had just stepped outside for the photograph. In a cluster at right stand Anna, thirteen; Helena, nearly or barely four; Louise, five; Julia, twelve; and Andrea, nearly eight.8 All of the girls wear their hair neatly parted and plaited down the back; it was said that the sisters would line up each morning, oldest to youngest, to braid each other’s hair.9 They wear dresses that, with the exception of the youngest’s, fall below the knees, and all wear dark stockings. Their dresses have high necks and full bishop sleeves; a few additional details can be distinguished, such as the plaid fabric of Andrea’s dress and the belt at Anna’s waist.10

The occasion for this photograph is not known, although perhaps it was taken by an itinerant photographer who made stops at rural homes throughout the Midwest. Unlike formal studio portraits of the era, this photograph is as much about the place as the people, allowing a glimpse into the lives of the Nelson family that would otherwise be missed.

Copyright © 2017 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.
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The Royal Neighbors of America

When Melanie (Lutz) Adam of Sioux City, Woodbury County, Iowa became a member of her local chapter of the Royal Neighbors of America as a newlywed in 1906,1 she could not have known how much her role as a Neighbor, as members called themselves, would define her adult life.

Founded in 1888 as a social organization, the Royal Neighbors of America incorporated as a fraternal benefit society in 1895 and became known as one of the nation’s first insurers of women.2 Following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the Royal Neighbors of America developed a disaster aid program,3 and perhaps it was hearing about these worthy efforts that encouraged twenty-two year old Melanie to join later that year.

Melanie (Lutz) Adam, in hat with dark sash seated center left, on a local outing with the Royal Neighbors of America, Sioux City, Woodbury County, Iowa, 1916; digital image 2010, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2017.

Melanie was first a member of the Evening Star Camp before transferring to Sioux City’s Twilight Camp #6674.4 In 1922, she began her first term as oracle (leader) of the Twilight Camp, a position she held for nine years, and in 1925 began work as a field representative.5 She traveled frequently throughout northwestern Iowa as a life insurance agent, which provided a welcome source of income—particularly when her husband was unable to find steady work as a carpenter and after his death in 1944.6 Melanie retired as District Deputy in 1959, having served a total of fifty-three years with the Royal Neighbors of America.7 Upon the occasion of her retirement, she was honored with a speech, special guests, and the presentation of a scrapbook, “This is Your Life,” assembled by her colleagues.8

Melanie (Lutz) Adam at Royal Neighbors of America retirement, Sioux City, Woodbury County, Iowa, 1959; digital image 2017, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2017.

From her earliest years with the organization, Melanie found a strong circle of female friends among her fellow Neighbors, and photographs showcase countless gatherings, both formal and informal. Called “Mala” by those closest to her,9 notes in her retirement scrapbook call up a number of lighthearted memories within the organization as well as glowing praise for her work:

“You are to be congratulated […] for having accomplished, in good measure, what every person who does much thinking so very much wants: That is, to be remembered for something good they have done. Could you ask for more than – At the end of a cold, snowy day of driving in Monona County, as you drove home late and tired, to know that it had been you who had guided and influenced a young family in the start of a plan that has materially helped to educate their fine children? […] And perhaps that same cold day you had been responsible for the protection that later was the means of keeping together in the home a young mother with her children; because you had urged the young father that night to protect his family with Royal Neighbor insurance.
“We could look into many homes in Sioux City and the counties around, where you find Neighbors to bless you for the little extra you urged them to save. This little, now added to their Social Security, makes the difference between a bare existence and many of the good things of life.
“Perhaps many remember the good times at meetings and conventions and Royal Neighbor trips together. All that has been enjoyable and a happy way of life. And when you can add to it the sure knowledge that you can be remembered in so many places for something truly good, that you have done, you can say with certainty that yours has been a most worthwhile life as a Royal Neighbor Deputy.”10 

The Royal Neighbors of America remains an organization with a rich tradition, and in addition to the scrapbook received upon her retirement, Melanie tucked away a number of other mementos of her time with the organization. One, a book, Rituals for Local Camps, details the many ceremonial aspects of the organization and also notes the tenets of faith, endurance, courage, modesty, and unselfishness upheld by its members.11 As a champion for women and children, the Royals Neighbors of America was known also for their support of the suffragette movement, and Melanie may well have taken part in local efforts to secure the right of women to vote.12

Although enrollment has dwindled in Sioux City, the Royal Neighbors of America remains active nationwide today, a fact that would certainly have pleased Melanie who had a profound appreciation for the friendships, leadership experience, and career opportunities she enjoyed during more than half a century as a Neighbor.

Copyright © 2017 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.
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Farm Girls

Sisters Helena, Louise, and Andrea Nelson donned overalls and posed on their family’s farm near Tabor, Yankton County, South Dakota in this candid photograph dated circa 1916. Andrea, nineteen in the summer of 1916, had recently completed her studies at the Southern State Normal School in Springfield.1 Both Helena, fifteen, and Louise, sixteen, would be students there in the fall, while Andrea would go on to her first term as a teacher at a one-room country school.2

Helena, Louise, and Andrea Nelson, Yankton County, South Dakota, ca. 1916-1918; digital image 2017, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2017.

Pitching in to help out on the farm would have been the norm for the Nelson girls, the three middle children in a family of nine. Helena’s daughter later recalled her mother’s stories of working in the fields in the summertime,3 and in a letter dated 1918, in response to a question from her cousin about taking summer courses, Andrea replied, “Oh, how I’d love to, but guess it’s chickens to tend etc. and overalls to wear. Suppose that too will be sport, but after all, is there anything like being a schoolgirl?”4 The Nelson girls would have been especially needed on the farm that summer, as their older brother, Ole, was in the service.

While many decades had yet to pass before women wearing pants would become truly mainstream, I can’t imagine that it would have been unusual at this time for young women to wear the clothing most suitable for farm labor while at home among family. The overalls and loose collared shirts worn by the Nelson girls might have been hand-me-downs from their father and brother (even Levi Strauss & Co. didn’t begin to make jeans especially for women until the 1930s!), and, positioned side-by-side in a field with wide-brimmed straw hats atop their heads, the sisters—or the photographer—clearly recognized that this was a photo op not to be missed.

Copyright © 2017 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.
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The Thoma Store: Scribner’s Favorite Trading Place

George Hiram Thoma was not the first in his family to open a general store. Decades before, his grandfather, a Bavarian immigrant, had operated a country store in northeastern Iowa, and perhaps it was stories of his success that inspired George to pursue this livelihood. In any case, George first entered the trade when he was about thirty years old, at which time he lived with his wife and children in Decatur, Burt County, Nebraska.1 This small community with a population under seven hundred was located near the border of the Omaha Reservation. It was likely here that George picked up the Omaha-Ponca language as well as Plains Indian Sign Language, with which he communicated with members of the local tribe.2

(Yet another interesting aside to the story of this ancestor with an alias!)

In 1922, after more than a decade in Decatur, George moved with his family some forty miles southwest to the town of Scribner, Dodge County, Nebraska.3 Scribner boasted a population of just over one thousand—several hundred more than in Decatur, perhaps making it a more promising location for a general store despite, or because, of its remote location. The local newspaper, The Rustler, announced the family’s impending arrival in February of 1922:

“George H. Thoma of Decatur, this state, was in Scribner this week and has leased the building which has been occupied by the People’s Co-Operative Store. He will open up about March 1 with a complete line of general merchandise. Mr. Thoma comes well recommended as an up-to-date merchant with a record of twelve years of successful business at Decatur and twenty in the mercantile business. He has a very pleasing personality and we learn he has always been a booster for his home town. He has an interesting family that will be a welcome addition to our church and school circles; a young daughter in high school and one son who assists his father in their business, who is a band man and a football player, who will find congenial associates here. Mr. and Mrs. Thoma and family will find a hearty welcome awaiting them in our little city.”4

“Scribner’s Favorite Trading Place” token, Scribner, Nebraska, 1922-24; privately held by Melanie Frick, 2017.

It did indeed appear that the people of Scribner welcomed the Thoma family into their fold without hesitation. Regular updates were printed in the local newspaper regarding the opening of the store and the enrollment of daughters Fern, Norma, and later Betty in school. George wasted little time in becoming an active member the community, taking on leadership positions in a new Business Men’s Club as well as the Boy Scouts and the American Red Cross,5 while his wife, Leota, made friends among the Royal Neighbors and the Ladies Aid Society at the local Congregational church.6 Their son, Fenton, was named in the newspaper numerous times as he took part in social and athletic activities; he eventually spent a period of time away from his family in Scribner as he traveled for a summer with the Redpath-Horner Chautauqua and then attended Dakota Wesleyan University, where he served as president of the freshman class.7 Fern, too, received frequent mentions in the newspaper as she engaged in high school activities and gathered with friends, and mentions were even made of young Norma and Betty as they took part in events with their elementary school classmates.8

It seems, however, that the Thoma store did not take off as well as the family’s social life, and although the family embraced life in Scribner, it must also have been a stressful time for them. Less than a year after opening shop, a full-page advertisement appeared in the local newspaper, declaring that “Scribner’s Favorite Trading Place” was being “FORCED BY CREDITORS” to “raise $10,000 cash at once or close up business.”9 The Northwestern Selling System was to be in charge of this cash-raising sale of the store’s stock of $25,000 of “clean seasonable merchandise, only a few months old, consisting of dry goods, notions, women’s and children’s shoes, hosiery, underwear, fancy goods, men’s and boys’ sheep-lined clothing, hats, caps, furnishings, groceries, and queensware.”10 All purchases were to be made in cash or, interestingly, produce.11

“Scribner’s Favorite Trading Place” token, Scribner, Nebraska, 1922-24; privately held by Melanie Frick, 2017.

Apparently, this sale merely bought time. Another cash-raising sale was held that August,12 and in February of 1924, just two years after The Rustler had announced the opening of Thoma’s Store, a two-page spread appeared, announcing, “We’ve Decided to Quit Business in Scribner,” adding, in all-caps, “THOMA’S $20,000 STOCK JUST GOTTA GO!”13 A personal note from the proprietor himself was central to the advertisement:

“Here Are The Cold-Blooded Facts: You’ve heard and read about merchandise sales and bargains until your faith in them has been shattered, but your idea and our idea of a sale and a bargain are the same: It has been the custom of some stores in announcing a sale to give it some fancy decoy name and attempt to justify it by some plausible excuse. We are BLUNT about it – the reason for this sale is that we are sick and tired of business, physically and mentally and we’re just a going to get out and do it quick, and if low prices were ever an inducement this stock will be sold in a jiffy. Please understand, WE ARE CLOSING OUT! THIS MEANS IT ALL GOES! Signed GEO. H. THOMA”14

In May of 1924, The Rustler reported:

“George H. Thoma last Saturday moved his family and household effects to Sioux City, where they will make their future home. Their daughter, Miss Fern, remained here to finish her school year. Mr. and Mrs. Thoma have made many warm friends during their residence here, who regret to see them leave this city, and wish them all the good luck in the world at their new location. Mr. Thoma is now on the road selling electrical appliances. Friday afternoon the ladies’ aid of the Congregational church held a farewell reception in honor of Mrs. Thoma in the church basement. The manner in which the ladies dressed and made-up for the affair caused much merriment and an enjoyable afternoon is reported.”15

Sioux City proved to be a more promising destination for the Thoma family, and despite the close friendships they left behind in Scribner, they thrived in this city of nearly eighty thousand. George put his experience as a merchant to good use and found success as a wholesale fruit salesman for the Haley-Neeley Company and, for many years, the Palmer Fruit Company. He remained in Sioux City for the rest of his life, never again returning to the general merchandise business.16

Copyright © 2017 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.
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From Germany to Chicago’s Old Town

Clara (Bach) Marbach was born in Luxembourg near the border of the district of Bitburg-Prüm, Rhineland-Pfalz, Germany, the daughter of Johannes and Anna Maria (Thiel) Bach.1 She married Mathias Marbach in June of 1835,2 and the couple had six known children in the decade that followed: Anna,3 Catharina,4 Elisabetha (I),5 Elisabetha (II),6 Adamus,7 and Elisabetha (III).8 The family is believed to have resided in the village of Prümzurlay, known for its castle ruins upon sandstone bluffs that overlook its scenic valley.

Photograph of Prümzurlay, Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany, as viewed from Prümerburg, 2009; privately held by Melanie Frick, 2017.

Following the death of her husband, Clara left Germany for America in the company of two of her daughters, Elisabetha (I) and Elisabetha (III), along with their husbands and children.9 A third daughter, Anna, would emigrate twenty years later.10 Clara traveled aboard the Holland and arrived in New York in June of 1871, thirty-four years after she had married.11 She and her daughters made their way to Chicago where they settled near St. Michael’s Catholic Church, located in what is today the heart of Chicago’s Old Town.

Sadly, within days of their arrival, Clara’s six-month-old grandson succumbed to pneumonia.12 It was a difficult year; the Great Chicago Fire tore through the city in October of 1871, a horrifying disaster that would almost certainly have left Clara and her daughters homeless alongside an estimated 90,000 of the city’s inhabitants,13 and another grandson passed away at twenty-one months the following June amidst a scourge of cholera upon their neighborhood.14 The years to come were difficult as well, as Clara saw numerous grandchildren born and die, including one who succumbed to smallpox in an outbreak that devastated their community.15

The family’s neighborhood was known in the nineteenth century as the “Cabbage Patch” due to the large number of German immigrants who had farmed there in Chicago’s earliest years.16 When Chicago burned, St. Michael’s Catholic Church, the cornerstone of this German American community, was one of only a handful of buildings in the city to survive, although it was badly damaged and had to be reconstructed.17 Perhaps Clara was among the parishioners who attempted to bury some of the church’s valuables in the church yard as the fire approached, and she and her daughters, son-in-laws, and grandchildren may have huddled in an open field or at Lincoln Park on the shores of Lake Michigan as the fire roared through the area.18

At the time of the 1880 U.S. census, nine years after her arrival, Clara lived at the home of her daughter Elisabetha (III), who, at thirty-five, had been twice widowed and once abandoned, a state that earned her the designation of “grass widow” by the census enumerator.19 Elisabetha supported herself and her stepchildren by sewing, while Clara, by then in her mid-seventies, kept house.20 Their neighborhood had been entirely rebuilt following the Great Chicago Fire, thanks to a flood of donations, including building materials, from relief societies.21

Cook County, Illinois, death certificate no. 66546, Clara Marbach; Cook County Clerk, Chicago.

Clara died five years later on 12 July 1885; she was reported to have reached the age of eighty-two and eleven months and her cause of death was attributed to heart failure after having been bedridden for the previous three months.22 Clara (Bach) Marbach was buried at St. Boniface Catholic Cemetery in Chicago’s North Side neighborhood.23 Today, her grave, which rests in the company of those of several of her children and grandchildren, is unmarked.24

Copyright © 2017 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.
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Five Years at the SCGS Jamboree

This was my fifth year attending the Southern California Genealogical Society’s Jamboree, which took place 9–11 June in Burbank, California. It was my fourth year hosting a meetup of the NextGen Genealogy Network, and my first year as a speaker.

“The Next Generation: Young Genealogists and Your Society” with Eric Wells, Deborah Sweeney, Lisa Medina, Melanie Frick, Randy Whited, and Paul Woodbury. Photograph courtesy of Victoria Wells.

On Saturday, 10 June, I moderated a panel discussion, “The Next Generation: Young Genealogists and Your Society,” with a stellar team of panelists: Lisa Medina, Deborah Sweeney, Eric Wells, Randy Whited, and Paul Woodbury. One hour flew by as we discussed how genealogy societies can welcome young genealogists, how societies can avoid making them feel out of place or undervalued, and what makes a young genealogist want to engage with a society. I was glad to see many society leaders in attendance, and there were a number of questions and comments from the audience which made for an interesting discussion.

“The Next Generation: Young Genealogists and Your Society.” Photograph courtesy of Victoria Wells.

Following the panel was the fifth annual meetup of the NextGen Genealogy Network, which I co-hosted with Eric Wells. We had a good turnout including several familiar as well as new faces! I was glad to have a chance to meet the recipient of the 2017 Suzanne Winsor Freeman Student Genealogy Grant, Mindy Jacox.

2017 NextGen Genealogy Network Meetup at the Southern California Genealogical Society Jamboree.

This was also my briefest year at Jamboree due to an unavoidable scheduling conflict. I only managed a quick peek at the exhibit hall and a few hellos with friends, and, unfortunately, was unable to stay for any other sessions. However, even in the short time I was there, I could tell that the conference organizers put on another fun and high-quality event. There were many sessions I would have loved to have seen, from DNA analysis to cluster research to dating fashion in old photographs. Next year!

The Danish Pioneers

Erik and Inger Marie (Hansen) Bramsen were in their sixties when they left their native Denmark to settle with their adult children in Dakota Territory.1 They had married on 1 September 1832 at Skrydstrup Kirke in Skrydstrup, Gram, Haderslev, Denmark, when Erik was twenty-eight and Inger Marie twenty-four.2 It was four decades later when they bade a final farewell to their farm, Hørløkkegaard, and their homeland.3

Erik Bramsen (1803-188–), circa 1870-1880; digital image 2010, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2017.

Inger Marie (Hansen) Bramsen (1808-1885), circa 1870-1880; digital image 2010, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2017.

These undated photographs, circa 1870-1880, may have been taken before or after the couple made their ocean voyage; as I have not seen the originals, only photocopies, I am unsure of their format or any other identifying information. Erik wears an unbuttoned double-breasted wool overcoat; while seated, it reaches his knees. Little detail can be discerned about the shirt he wears underneath, which has no visible buttons, but his trousers are of a straight, loose cut. He is clean-shaven, his hair is trimmed and combed to the side, and his eyes appear light in color. Seated in a chair with an arched back, Erik rests his left arm on a small table covered with an embroidered cloth. Tassels from a curtain are visible in the background.

Inger Marie sits before the same background, with the chair situated to the right of the table instead of the left and her right elbow resting on the table. It seems possible that she has suffered a stroke, as her mouth appears uneven and one eye droops. A bonnet with a white frilled trim frames her face and ties below her chin with a large bow. Her dress has fitted sleeves with ruched cuffs, and the bodice is of a darker color than the full skirt. The fabric has a sheen to it, and, while simple, the dress appears well-made and carefully fitted. Several elements of her attire support a date sometime in the 1870s, including the frilled trim on her bonnet and its substantial bow.4

The couple arrived in New York aboard the Cimbria on 14 August 1872, within weeks of their fortieth wedding anniversary.5 They appear in the 1880 U.S. census for Yankton County, Dakota Territory,6 and both passed away in the years thereafter, Erik circa 1880 and Inger Marie in the spring of 1885 when she succumbed to tuberculosis.7 Erik and Inger Marie (Hansen) Bramsen are said to be buried in unmarked graves at Elm Grove Cemetery (formerly Maple Grove Cemetery) near Tabor, Yankton County, South Dakota, alongside many of their children and grandchildren who, like them, were pioneers.8

Copyright © 2017 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.
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