Tag Archives: Hoffman

The Best (Early) Christmas Surprise

Christmas came early for me this year in the form of a long-lost antique photograph – thanks to the efforts of a state historical society and a random act of kindness by a fellow genealogist. It was early on a Saturday morning when I sleepily picked up my phone to check the time, only to see a notification that someone had sent me a message via this blog. The first line read, “I thought you might be interested to know that there is a photograph in the online archives of the Kansas Historical Society that I believe shows members of your Fenton family.”1

Interested? INTERESTED? I was up in an instant. The message included a link to a photograph digitized and made available online courtesy of Kansas Memory and the Kansas Historical Society, and while the description has since been updated, on that Saturday morning it was simply titled “Family in Gypsum, Kansas.”

Well, I did have family in Gypsum, Kansas, a small community in rural Saline County. Pioneers George W. Fenton and his wife Sarah Ellen Hall married there in 1873 and had three daughters – Minnie Belle, Alpha Doretta, and Anna Leota – before George was accidentally shot and killed by his brother-in-law in 1880.2 Sarah later had a son, Charles Alfred, with her second husband, John Hoffman, whom she married in 1883.3 According to the original caption, based on a handwritten notation on the back of the photograph, the individuals were identified as Charlie, Belle, Alpha, and Ota, but their last name was unknown. Could it be…?

Hoffman_Charles_Fenton_Belle_Alpha_Leota_c_1890

Charles Alfred Hoffman with half-sisters, from left to right, Belle, Alpha, and Ota Fenton, Gypsum, Saline County, Kansas, ca. 1890-1892; digital image 2015, courtesy of KansasMemory.org, Kansas State Historical Society. Used with permission.

It was. Pictured circa 1890-92, half-siblings Belle, Alpha, and Ota Fenton and Charlie Hoffman posed for this cabinet card photograph at Kassebaum’s in Gypsum City, Kansas. I have found little information about the photographer, but local newspapers place him in the county at the appropriate time. A J.A. Kassebaum was a resident of Saline County, Kansas as early as 1890 when a newspaper announced his marriage; in 1893, it was reported in the column “Gypsum City News” that “Kassebaum is kept busy taking pictures of our citizens and residences.”4

Apparently, these four siblings were some of the very citizens he photographed. Minnie Belle Fenton, likely between sixteen and eighteen at the time, is dressed fashionably, and, as the eldest, is the central subject of the photograph. The bodice of her dress is very finely detailed, featuring a high collar and a double row of large, decorative buttons. Her sleeves, as commonly seen between 1890-92, are fitted, but looser at the upper arm and with a modest puff at the top of the shoulder, and she wears a bracelet on her right wrist.5 There are two decorative velvet bands at the cuffs of her sleeves and three at the bottom of her skirt. Belle would marry Joseph Anthony Hoffman, the younger brother of her stepfather, in 1893, at the age of eighteen.6

Alpha Doretta Fenton, reclining against her older sister, was likely between fourteen and sixteen in this photograph. The dark-eyed teenager wears a fitted dress of a much more simple design than Belle, but it is still flattering with attention to detail. There is a bunch of ruffled lace pinned at the bodice and a brooch at her throat, adorning the folded collar. Her hands are curled in her lap, and like Belle she appears to hide her fingertips; perhaps these country girls did not want to call attention to unmanicured nails. Alpha would marry Clare Eugene Gibson in 1895, at the age of nineteen.7

Anna Leota Fenton, standing behind her sisters, was perhaps ten or twelve at the oldest when this photograph was taken, and she stands straight with a direct gaze. Small and slim, she was not yet corseted like her older sisters, although like them her bangs were frizzled in the latest fashion.8 Her dark dress – which features a row of buttons and a lace collar – is almost surely a hand-me-down, perhaps made over to be suitable for her. Ota would marry George Hiram Thoma in 1902 at the age of twenty-two.9

Charles Alfred Hoffman, the little blond half-brother of the Fenton sisters, was likely around six or eight in this photograph. His resigned expression seems to bear evidence of the burden of having three older sisters; his mouth is clamped shut, his eyes fixed purposefully on the photographer, and his small hand is a blur as he was unable to keep completely still. He wears a jacket and his buttoned shoes are polished to shine. Charlie would marry late in life, and unlike his sisters, had no children of his own.10

All of the children bear a strong resemblance to photographs in my collection that picture them as adults, but this is by far the oldest photograph I have seen of any member of this family. In fact, I had previously seen no photographs whatsoever from their years in Kansas, so this window into their lives is priceless. Gypsum was a rural community of just over 500 residents in 1890; for a photographer to be numbered among its businessmen must have been somewhat significant.11 Kassebaum’s studio featured a somewhat amateur painted backdrop of a parlor setting, a carpeted floor, and animal skin rugs, which created a rather rustic yet elegant setting for the Fenton and Hoffman siblings. It seems possible that this might have been the first studio the children had ever visited.

I am grateful to Kansas Memory and the Kansas Historical Society for preserving and sharing this image in their digital repository and for generously allowing me to display it here. If you have Kansas ancestors, this database is well worth a thorough look. Beyond numerous photographs of people and places, I spotted transcribed nineteenth-century journals (how fun would it be to find a mention of your ancestor?), correspondence, advertisements, and a host of other primary source material fascinating to the historian and genealogist. And if an unidentified photograph happens to pique your interest, consider running a search on the information available as a fellow genealogist did for me – you never know when you might run into a descendant seeking those very ancestors!

Copyright © 2015 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.

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Wedding Wednesday: Puffed Sleeves

On a late September day in 1896, Elizabeth Hoffman of North Washington, Chickasaw County, Iowa affixed a gauzy, floor-length veil to her hair. It may have been crowned with flowers, although the faded photograph does not make this clear. Flowers or foliage of some kind – perhaps even autumn leaves? – were indeed attached to the front of her dress, although she wore no white gown. Her best dress was likely black or another dark color and fashionably made with a gathered bodice, narrow waist, and sleeves generously puffed to the elbow. (Anne Shirley would have been envious.)

Elizabeth’s attire is evidence that, at this time, even recent immigrants living in rural areas of the United States were aware of the latest fashion trends. Corsets were not worn by all women in the 1890s, and Elizabeth, already slim, was not dramatically corseted if she was at all.1 The gathered bodice was of a style worn throughout the decade, and while the care of these full leg o’ mutton sleeves was time-consuming, they were at the height of popularity in the middle of the decade.2

MathiasElizabethWedding

Mathias Noehl and Elizabeth Hoffman, wedding, North Washington, Iowa, 1896; digital image 2001, original held by J.H., 2015.

At the age of twenty-seven – her birthday had been just the week before – Elizabeth was to marry a fellow immigrant, Mathias Noehl.3 As it so happened, he hailed from the village of Holsthum, Bitburg-Prum, Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany, which neighbored her own home village of Prümzurlay.4 By all accounts, however, their first meeting took place in northeastern Iowa, where Mathias encountered Elizabeth, whom he called Lizzie, at the Immaculate Conception Church in North Washington. She lived there as the housekeeper of Father Probst and the Sisters of Charity.5 The couple was married there on 22 September 1896 and may have celebrated with Elizabeth’s mother and siblings, who had also made Chickasaw County their home.6

A copy of Mathias and Elizabeth’s wedding portrait was shared with me by a relative; I suspect the original is a cabinet card photograph, popular at the turn of the century. I can’t make out much of the setting (is it grass or a rug at their feet?), but Mathias sits in a wicker chair while Elizabeth stands to the side, her right hand on his shoulder. In her left hand is clutched a small book, perhaps a prayerbook. As was typical of the time, neither of the newlyweds smile, and their faces are so faded in the copy that it’s difficult to see the direction of their gazes. Mathias has short hair; in his memoirs, he wrote that that, upon meeting Elizabeth, his blond hair was “unkempt like dried up flowers of the cemetery,” so a haircut may have been in order!7 He has a tidy mustache and wears a wool suit and white shirt. At twenty-eight, having recovered from an earlier heartbreak during his first years in America, he was prepared to settle down and start a family.8 Mathias and Elizabeth would go on to raise nine children on their farm.

This wedding portrait is one of several photographs that I have in my digital collection of the family of Mathias and Elizabeth (Hoffman) Noehl, both immigrants who came to Iowa from Germany in the late nineteenth century. For more photographs of the family of Mathias Noehl (1868-1950) and Elizabeth Hoffman (1869-1957), check out my new Noehl Family Album

Copyright © 2015 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.

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The Proud Owners of a New Piano

You never know what might have made the news a century ago. In Iowa, for example, news might have been made when someone acquired a piano. Although mail-order catalogues like Sears, Roebuck & Company made owning a piano more affordable than ever thanks to convenient financing options,1 such a substantial purchase was still of great interest to those in rural communities and small towns across America.

These were the years before Victrolas became widespread.2 Pianos were a ready source of music and entertainment, and people of all ages might have enjoyed gathering at the home of a friend or family member with a piano for an evening of playing and singing.

pianoloc

“A Pleasant Evening at Home,” Prints & Photographs Online Catalog, Prints & Photographs Reading Room, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/90709337 : accessed 5 August 2015).

In the northwestern corner of Iowa, The Sibley Gazette reported on 24 May 1900:

John Hoffman and family are the proud owners of a new piano.3

And in the northeastern corner of the state, The Guttenberg Press reported on 25 June 1909:

Miss Roselyn Thoma is the happy and proud possessor of a new piano.4

John Hoffman was the second husband of Sarah Ellen Hall; married since 1883, they would undergo a tumultuous divorce in 1902. At the turn of the century, however, they were still married with a twenty-year-old daughter and a sixteen-year-old son at home.5 Their acquisition of a piano adds a bit of brightness to what was painted in their divorce proceedings as a rather dim time. Although Sarah led a difficult life, her granddaughter remembered that she had loved fine things; this piano was likely a prized possession.6 As she was said to be a religious woman, perhaps she enjoyed hymns played on the piano either by herself or her children.

Roselyn Thoma was the daughter of Fred and Matilda (Hammond) Thoma and was seventeen years of age in 1909.7 She was the last of four surviving children still at home, her younger sister having been lost to a diphtheria outbreak three years prior.8 Perhaps it was with a newfound appreciation to seize the moment that her parents supported such an extravagance for their daughter, or perhaps the same inheritance that had recently spurred them to purchase a farm made the purchase of a piano possible as well.9 Roselyn would marry two years later, and one can imagine that her piano might have accompanied her to her new home.10

Whether the Hoffman and Thoma families enjoyed idyllic moments crowded around their pianos à la Little Women or not, it is clear that the addition of a piano to a household in their humble Midwestern communities was worthy of note – and pride. However, even in these rural areas, it would be only a matter of time before new forms of entertainment overtook the novelty of owning a piano.

Copyright © 2015 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.

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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

Mathias_Noehl_Grave

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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Drunkenness, Death Threats, and a Divorce Petition

On the 5th of February 1902, Sarah Ellen (Hall) Hoffman of Ashton, Osceola County, Iowa, who was then forty-four years old, signed her name to a petition that she sincerely hoped would grant her a divorce. John Hoffman was her second husband; her first husband had died of an accidental gunshot wound, and it was now eighteen years since she had remarried. As detailed in the statement of facts prepared for the court by her attorney, O. J. Clark, this marriage was now in shambles.1

It was established that the plaintiff and the defendant had lived together since the time of their marriage – except recently, as “the defendant has been away from home considerable.”2 It was added, “At times he will work and earn money, but will not use any of his earnings to or for the support of the family, but will stay at home most of the time helping to eat up what the plaintiff and children earn.”3 Then, the chilling details of their marriage spilled forth:

“That the plaintiff has always conducted herself toward the defendant as a loving and dutiful wife, but that the defendant, disregarding his duties towards your petitioner, has always been abusive and ugly towards her, and of late years has become brutally coarse, violent and vulgar towards your petitioner, often calling her the most vile names in the presence of her children and so does without any cause therefore, often striking, kicking and otherwise abusing your petitioner, without cause, often leaving black and blue marks on the person of your petitioner for weeks at a time as the result thereof. That at times the defendant, without cause, threatens to kill your petitioner, threatens to put a hole through your petitioner’s body, threatens to cut her heart out and to kill your petitioner with a knife. That on one occasion said defendant attempted to carry out his threat of killing your petitioner with a butcher knife, and attacked her therewith, when her daughter in attempting to prevent defendant’s harming your petitioner, received the blow with the knife herself on the hand, cutting the cord to one of her fingers off and otherwise injuring her hand, so that she has very little use of said finger, and thus, to that extent has made her a cripple for life. That the threats thus made, the kicking and striking are of very frequent occurrence when he is at home, that he sleeps with his clothes on, and at times in the night will begin his abuse of your petitioner without cause, and threaten to kill her with his knife, and will begin to open and shut his knife so that the plaintiff can hear it click and thus frighten her and worry her all night at a time.”4

OsceolaCountyIowaDivorce1902

Osceola County, Iowa, Circuit Court File 3036, Sarah E. Hoffman v. John Hoffman, for “Petition in Equity,” 20 March 1902; Clerk of District Court, Sibley. The surname Hoffman appeared in this text as Huffman, but in some instances the “u” was overwritten with an “o.” Thus, I have transcribed the name as Hoffman.

In recent years, the defendant had become “addicted to the use of intoxicating liquors, and is an habitual drunkard, which habit he has acquired since their said marriage.”5 The statement continued, “That the plaintiff’s health has become undermined and broken, and if this treatment continues her health will give out entirely and she fears she will die there from – if the defendant does not in fact kill her outright.”6 It’s truly appalling to think what my third great-grandmother must have endured, and it’s to her credit that she had the strength to initiate a divorce at this time.

It would be interesting to learn what grounds for divorce were required in Iowa in 1902; apparently, in this case, habitual drunkenness, horrific abuse, and failure to provide support were sufficient. The divorce was granted in March of that year, at which time Sarah received custody of the couple’s teenage son, possession of the kitchen and household furniture, a return to her former name, and, most importantly, a chance for a better life.7

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The Twenties by Day

LeotaAlphaBellFenton

Leota (Fenton) Thoma, Alpha (Fenton) Gibson, and Belle (Fenton) Hoffman, ca. 1920s; digital image 2013, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2014.

As seen in this photograph, the trends of the Roaring Twenties were not just for flappers – although daytime fashions were significantly less flashy than what one tends to associate with the era. Here, sisters Leota, Alpha, and Belle, from left to right, pose together sporting bobs and simple patterned dresses. Although the sisters were likely in their late forties or early fifties when this photograph was taken, they clearly made an effort to keep up with the times.

Alpha Doretta, Minnie Belle, and Anna Leota Fenton were born in Saline County, Kansas, the daughters of George W. and Sarah Ellen (Hall) Fenton.1 After their father’s death, their mother remarried, and eventually, the family relocated to northwestern Iowa.2 At the time that this photograph was taken, Alpha, the wife of Clare Gibson, lived in Colorado,3 whereas Belle, the wife of Joseph Hoffman, and Leota, the wife of George Thoma, lived in different counties in Iowa.4 It was likely a rare occasion that the sisters were able to be together.

Leota, Alpha, and Belle wear popular styles of what would have been considered day dresses or house dresses in this decade, as seen on Vintage Dancer: 1920s Day / House Dresses and Aprons. Likely made of cotton, their dresses feature lively prints and straight, comfortable cuts. Both Belle, right, and Alpha, center, wear dresses made of fabric printed with spirals or swirls. Both have sleeves cuffed above the elbow, and have belted, dropped waists. Leota wears a standard long apron with patch pockets over her dress, but it can be seen that her floral-patterned dress hits, appropriately, just below the knee. Her dress has contrasting fabric sewn at the hem and the cuffs, and she clutches a striped cloche hat in her hand.

This look was quite a change from the romantic, Gibson Girl-esque styles of just a quarter century before, as seen in an earlier photograph of Leota. However, it looks like these ladies might have had quite a bit of fun with their makeovers during this decade, before more conservative styles returned with the Great Depression.

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