Tag Archives: 1920s

The Young Musicians

At first, Leonard and Helen might have seemed like an unlikely pairing.

Leonard John Christian Wiese was a city boy through and through, born and raised in Chicago. Helena Margaret Nelson, on the other hand, was a farm girl from rural southeastern South Dakota. Chicago’s population in 1920 numbered over two and half million, while the largest town within the vicinity of Helen’s family’s farm had a population of only five thousand.

Leonard Wiese and Helen Nelson, South Dakota, circa 1922-23; digital image 2014, privately held by B.S., 2019.

Their heritages also differed. Leonard’s parents had immigrated to America from Germany as children, while Helen’s parents had immigrated to America from Denmark.1 However, despite different familial origins and native languages, Leonard and Helen had a surprising amount in common.

Both were born in the year 1900, and both were younger children in large families—Leonard the last of five, and Helen the sixth of nine.2

Leonard Wiese and Helen Nelson, South Dakota, circa 1922-23; digital image 2014, privately held by B.S., 2019.

Both lost their fathers as teenagers. Leonard’s father, Fred, died when Leonard was thirteen years old, and perhaps because of the need to help support his mother, Leonard entered the workforce after completing the eighth grade.3 Helen’s father, also named Fred, died when she was seventeen; shortly thereafter, she began teaching country school.4

Both saw older brothers serve in the First World War.5

Both lost older sisters to tragic circumstances in the year 1918.6

Both were raised as members of the Lutheran church.7

Perhaps their most significant commonality, however, was their shared love of music. Leonard was a talented violinist, while Helen played the piano, and their talents made them popular entertainers within their respective social circles.8

Leonard Wiese and Helen Nelson, South Dakota, circa 1922-23; digital image 2014, privately held by B.S., 2019.

As the story goes, as a young man, Leonard worked at the docks in Chicago while his older brother Oliver worked for the railroad. Oliver obtained tickets west so that he and Leonard could seek seasonal farm work, and the industrious brothers wound up in Yankton County, South Dakota.9 Leonard, of course, had brought along his violin, and it has been surmised that one way or another, word spread that a young man with musical talent was in the area. Wouldn’t he get along swell with a certain young pianist? Before long, the Wiese brothers had made the acquaintance of the Nelson sisters, among them Helen and her older sister Louise.10 

Oliver and Louise married in Yankton on 01 June 1922, and after a courtship documented in a few surviving snapshots, which offer a glimpse of light-hearted moments shared together, Leonard and Helen married in Chicago on 05 January 1924.11

Happily, music remained a shared passion throughout their twenty-three years of marriage, and it was their delight to engage their two daughters in their very own Wiese Family Band.12

Copyright © 2019 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved. Continue reading

George and Leota

No wedding portrait of George Hiram Thoma and Anna Leota Fenton is known to exist. When they married on 23 March 1902, George was twenty-one years old while Leota had just celebrated her twenty-second birthday.1

And in fact, while photographs of their children abound, the earliest photograph yet uncovered of George and Leota together was taken twenty-six years later.

Leota (Fenton) Thoma and George Thoma, Sioux City, Iowa, 1928; digital image 2014, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2019. Collection courtesy of David Adam.

Another, a sharper yet more serious snapshot, was taken perhaps a decade or more after that.

Leota (Fenton) Thoma and George Thoma, 3500 Block of Nebraska Street, Sioux City, Iowa; digital image 2014, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2019. Collection courtesy of David Adam.

George and Leota had spent their first few years of marriage together not as Mr. and Mrs. Thoma, but as Mr. and Mrs. Neilson, before abruptly discarding this mysterious alias.

They had moved no less than half a dozen times within their first quarter-century together, first as newlyweds from Ashton, Iowa to Center, Nebraska, then to Sioux City, Iowa, then to Bassett, Nebraska, then to Decatur, Nebraska, then to Scribner, Nebraska, and finally back to Sioux City.

They had taken risks and faced failure as aspiring homesteaders and entrepreneurs.

But they had succeeded in raising four children together: Fenton, Fern, Norma, and Betty.

After years of effort to find a place to call home, they settled into a comfortable life together in Sioux City surrounded by their children and grandchildren.

They are remembered as “super grandparents” and as good, kind, fun-loving people who celebrated more than sixty years of marriage together.2

(Just not all of them were spent as Mr. and Mrs. Thoma.)

Copyright © 2019 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved. Continue reading

Spring at Grandview Park

Not long before they married on 08 June 1929, Gerald Adam and Fern Thoma posed for a series of snapshots at Grandview Park in Sioux City, Woodbury County, Iowa.1

Gerald, known as Jerry, was twenty years old to Fern’s twenty-one at the time these photographs were likely taken; the prints are stamped with the date 19 March 1929. On what was perhaps the first day warm enough to shed their jackets that year, they clowned around with friends Dorothy Thompson, Irene Tasker, and Clifford Thompson, and snapped a number of photographs documenting their time together. Curly-haired Dorothy and Clifford were siblings; Clifford and Irene would later marry.2

Fern wears heels and stockings, and her on-trend long sleeved, drop-waist dress hits just below the knee. Its geometric pattern is indistinct in the photographs, but it features a sailor-esque tie at the v-neck and two rows of ruffles at the hem.3 Her long wool jacket, worn in all but one of the photographs, has a warm fur collar; her two female friends also wear fur-trimmed jackets. Fern’s bob is neatly concealed by her stylishly adorned cloche hat.4 Jerry is smartly dressed as well, wearing a wool suit with a bow tie and a straw hat, his outfit nearly identical to that of his friend’s. His pants, cuffed at the hems, are so wide and loose that they appear to almost skim the grass; they look much like the ready-made “Oxford Bags” that became popular in the mid-1920s. 

Whether the couple was celebrating something in particular—an engagement?—or simply enjoying the spring weather on an afternoon walk with friends, it is interesting to note that several photographs were taken at a memorial for one Mabel Allison More, a Sioux City resident who had died in 1924.5 Given the lighthearted nature of the photographs, it can be assumed that the young people did not know More, but were rather attracted to the charming tiled wall merely as a backdrop and convenient place to climb. Grandview Park was presented to the city of Sioux City in 1908, and soon became a popular gathering place known especially for its trellised rose garden, the beginnings of which may be visible in the photograph of Fern, Dorothy, and Irene, and later for its bandshell.6

A little less than three months after these photographs were printed, Fern and Jerry would marry, with one of their friends pictured here, Dorothy, serving as an attendant.7 Although no photographs of their wedding day, nor their honeymoon in the Black Hills, are known to exist, these snapshots give a glimpse into the relationship of this happy young couple who leaned comfortably into one another and smiled joyfully for the camera.8

Copyright © 2018 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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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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Fun on the Farm

Farm kids have long learned to make their own fun, and Frances Marie Noehl of Deerfield, Chickasaw County, Iowa was no exception. Pictured here circa 1920, Frances is grinning as she sits on a wooden cart pulled by her dog, Shep. If his expression can be interpreted, he appears to have been game to take part in the shenanigans of Frances and her siblings: Leo, Helen, Kathryn, Elinor, John, Al, Frank, and Joe. Frances, born in the spring of 1911, fell between Frank and Joe in age as the second-to-youngest of the nine children of German immigrants Mathias and Elizabeth (Hoffman) Noehl.

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Frances Marie Noehl with Shep, Chickasaw County, Iowa, circa 1920; digital image 2015, privately held by Valene Petersen, 2016.

Although the Noehls were not prosperous and bounced around from farm to farm while their children were young, the available recollections of their children indicate that plenty of fun was to be found in the country—after chores, of course. Following brief, unsuccessful stints in Canada and Minnesota around the turn of the century, the Noehls returned to Chickasaw County where they rented a farm near New Hampton.1 As a small child, Frances’s brother John, who was seven years her senior, could apparently often be found in the maple grove, contentedly sipping sweet sap from a tin cup under the watchful eye of another beloved dog, Sultan.2

Next, the family moved to an acreage in the town of North Washington, where the older children attended Catholic school and learned English for the first time.3 After three years there, the man who owned their property offered them a chance to rent out his farm in Deerfield, near the community of Alta Vista.4 John recalled his mother’s happiness as they prepared to resume farm life, teaching him to sing, “For to plow / For to mow / For to reap / For to sow / For to be a farmer’s boy.”5 It was now around 1910, and the family would remain on this farm for years to come. Aside from playtime with the family dog, rumor has it that Frances and her siblings also liked to have spitting contests while perched in the hayloft.6

With her bobbed haircut and loose-fitting, short-sleeved cotton dress, complete with a tie about the neck à la a sailor suit, Frances looks every bit an energetic 1920s tween.7 Her worn leather shoes appear to be barely staying on her feet and she sits relaxed with one bare (or stockinged) leg folded underneath. A massive barn with a stone foundation is visible behind her. This informal snapshot was likely taken by a family member, although since I have seen very few photographs of the Noehl family in general, I wonder if photography may have been only a passing hobby. In any case, it’s a pleasure to have a rare glimpse into a long-ago childhood.

Copyright © 2016 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.
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Brotherly Love

It might have been a late summer’s day when brothers Roy and James Walsted of Sioux City, Woodbury County, Iowa posed for this snapshot circa 1924. Six years apart in age, Roy was perhaps twelve and Jim perhaps six when this photograph was taken some ninety years ago.1 The park-like setting and the blanket at their feet suggest that the occasion may have been a picnic. Classic car aficionados could likely date the vehicle parked behind the boys.

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Roy Louis Christian Walsted (back) and James Herman Walsted (front), Sioux City, Iowa, ca. 1924; digital image 2015, privately held by Valene Petersen, 2015.

Roy suffered from polio as a child, which resulted in a limp as one leg was left shorter than the other. His younger brother was said to have come to his defense when Roy was bullied or was the last to be chosen for a neighborhood baseball team.2 Even in this photograph, it appears that Jim stands guard in front of his brother, his arms protectively curved back around Roy’s legs as Roy clasps his hands atop his brother’s head. Both boys wear short pants and newsboy caps; Jim is in a sailor suit, a style that remained popular for young boys in the post World War I era.3

I have to wonder who the man off to the side of the photograph could be. I have only seen two small snapshots of Roy and Jim’s father, both of which were taken late in his life. (I suppose there is a third if I count a postmortem photograph of him at his own funeral.) From those, I know that he was a man of slight build, but beyond that, I have no way of telling whether this gentleman in a straw boater hat and rolled shirtsleeves is in fact James Jacob Walsted or not. If this picnic was a family affair, perhaps the boys’ mother, Kathrine, was behind the camera.

This charming snapshot is one of a handful of photographs that I have in my digital collection of the Walsted brothers and their parents, both immigrants who came to Iowa from Denmark in the early twentieth century. For more photographs of the family of James Jacob Walsted (1886-1956) and Kathrine Christensen (1886-1971), check out my new Walsted Family Album

Copyright © 2015 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.

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