Tag Archives: Neilson

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

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An Ancestor with an Alias Revisited

In the past, I’ve touched upon the mystery surrounding George Hiram Thoma, who used an alias for a number of years before reverting back to the use of his original name. Born on 29 September 1880 in Clayton County, Iowa to Fred and Matilda (Hammond) Thoma, census records indicate that George remained in his home county at least until 1895.1 Family lore states that he left home as a teenager due to a poor relationship with his father;2 he was said to have bicycled from northeast to northwest Iowa where the next definitive record of his existence shows him marrying Anna Leota Fenton in the spring of 1902.3 However, he married under the assumed name of George A. Neilson, and later affidavits attest that this was one and the same person.4 George continued to use this assumed name for a number of years before finally reverting to the Thoma surname.

Now, a century has passed, and none of his living descendants, including his youngest daughter, seem to have even heard of the Neilson alias! In an effort to learn more about the potential cause of George’s name-change, a closer look was taken at his movements during his late teens and early twenties:

Did George leave home as a teenager? It was said that George had a poor relationship with his father, and recently uncovered evidence shows that he did, in fact, leave home as a teenager. However, at least at first, he didn’t go far. At the time of the 1895 Iowa State Census, George was fourteen and lived at home in the community of Garnavillo.5 Two years later, sixteen-year-old George attended high school in Postville, a town about twenty-five miles away.6 As George’s maternal grandmother also resided there, it’s certainly possible that he may have lived with her while completing his education.

“Postville Firemen Of 1897 On Dress Parade,” 28 January 1940, Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Gazette; clipping privately held by David Adam, 2016. George Thoma is seated second from right; text reads, “George Thoma, clerk in Waters and Nicol[a]y hardware store, left in early 1900’s for Sioux City where he has represented wholesale hardware firm on road for many years.”

Also in 1897, George served with the Postville Fire Department.As reported in a local newspaper decades later, “Back in 1897 […] the Postville fire department members wore white duck trousers, red sweaters and blue military caps when on dress parade, and on dress parade they often were, for that was the period when firemen in Iowa towns met regularly for field days and what a time they had, with contests, feasts, and dances.”8 George, slim and clean-shaven, sits cross-legged in the front row of the group of twenty men, among whom he may have counted both former classmates and kin. At this time, after having dabbled previously with the idea of becoming a tinner,9 he was a clerk at a local hardware store.10

Did George really ride a bicycle across Iowa? Although family lore states that George left home as a teenager and bicycled across Iowa, I’ve always questioned whether this particular tale was entirely true or, indeed, even possible. As it turns out, George did, in fact, have access to a bicycle, and according to a blurb in the Postville Review in the summer of 1898, he “took an overland trip by bicycle to Farmersburg last Saturday, returning on Sunday.”11 From Postville to Farmersburg was a distance of more than fifteen miles—more than thirty miles roundtrip—which, with an eye to both the quality of bicycles of the era as well as the condition of the roads, frankly impressed me. Maybe he did bicycle across Iowa, or at least part of it, but from this clipping we are able to learn that he did not make the journey before he was eighteen; he remained close to home and was known as George Hiram Thoma at least until 1899. In January of that year, the Postville Review shared that he had spent several days visiting his parents in Garnavillo.12

How long did George use an alias? Thanks to the record of his daughter’s birth as well as the discovery of the record of his relinquished homestead, a fairly concrete date can be determined for the conclusion of George’s alias. His eldest daughter was born Fern Neilson in September of 1907;13 George A. Neilson appeared in a city directory printed in late 1908;14 and in February 1909, George H. Thoma made application for a homestead in western Nebraska.15 Perhaps the need to sign a record at the federal level inspired George to embrace his true identity once again! As for when George first used his alias, however, I have as of yet discovered no definitive records of his life between February of 1899, when he was known locally as George Thoma, and March of 1902, when he was married as George A. Neilson.16

What could have happened in those three years to give George reason to change his name? His experiences between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one remain a mystery to me. While I don’t yet know why George Hiram Thoma used an alias throughout a seven to ten year period of his early adulthood, however, I do have a more complete picture of his life during his late teens: he was a high school student, clerk, and fireman who lived apart from his immediate family but maintained a relationship with them, and he was apparently known well enough in his community to be mentioned routinely in the local newspapers.

Further complicating matters, however, is the fact that, in December 1905, during the midst of his documented use of an alias, a newspaper in his home county noted that “George Thoma, from Nebraska, is visiting with home folks since Friday.” This suggests both a continued relationship with his parents as well as the fact that his alias was either unknown or unacknowledged by those in northeastern Iowa. In any case, further information gleaned from historic newspapers could ultimately narrow the search for answers as to why, exactly, George Hiram Thoma was known as George A. Neilson.

Copyright © 2016 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.
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Photographing an Edwardian Toddler

These charming studio portraits are the nearest thing to baby pictures that exist for Fern Lavonne Thoma, whose birth was celebrated one hundred and seven years ago today. Born to George Hiram and Anna Leota (Fenton) Thoma on 30 September 1907 in Sioux City, Woodbury, Iowa, she was named Fern Neilson in her birth record;1 for reasons yet unknown, her father used an alias for a period of time. By the time these photographs were taken, however, Fern was about two years old, and may well have had no recollection of ever being named anything but Fern Thoma.

Fern Thoma 01

Fern Thoma, Iowa or Nebraska, circa 1909; digital image 2013, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2014.

In the first photograph, Fern poses with a rustic iron piece that looks like a rather uncomfortable type of corner chair. Her head barely reaches the top of the frame as she stands beside it, and she clutches something small in her hand, perhaps a treat to entice her to stand still. The second child and first daughter born to her parents, Fern is dressed beautifully in an immaculate white dress complete with ruffles and eyelet trim. Whites and creams in soft fabrics were popular choices for small girls at the tail end of the Edwardian era.2 Fern’s dress falls above the knees, revealing  black stockings and shiny black shoes. The golden curls about her face evidently took some care, and she peers at the camera with an impish grin and bright blue eyes.

Fern Thoma 02

Fern Thoma, Iowa or Nebraska, circa 1909; digital image 2013, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2014.

Fern’s expression is more demure in the second photograph, in which she is perched atop the iron chair and gazes away from the camera. She has evidently tried her best to keep her small hands still in her lap, as a gold bracelet, clamped around one chubby forearm, is more visible in this photograph. So, too, is the lovely floral eyelet trim of her dress. This photograph has a softer focus, likely unintentional but rather caused by Fern’s motion.

A photographer by the name of Phelps penciled his name below these photographs on their original cream-colored mats. An inscription by Fern’s mother on the back of one suggests that the family was living in Basset, Rock, Nebraska, at this time, although it’s also possible that the photographs were taken in Sioux City before the family moved west.

These are darling portraits of an Edwardian toddler, and provide evidence that even an average Midwestern family would have known how to fashionably style a little girl for a photograph. However, one can easily imagine the off-screen coaxing by both photographer and mother that certainly must have taken place in order to convince this active toddler to be still!

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All Aboard Mr. Laughlin’s Palace Photo Car

Not all photograph studios were stationary. Your ancestors may have had their photographs taken aboard a boat or even a specially outfitted railroad car, as did this group of gentlemen around the turn of the last century.

GeorgeHiramThoma

George Hiram Thoma a.k.a. George A. Neilson, top right, Iowa or Nebraska, ca. 1900; digital image 2010, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2014.

George Hiram Thoma, also known as George A. Neilson, is the slim, fair-haired young man pictured at top right in this photograph taken aboard Mr. Laughlin’s Palace Photo Car.1 George, born in 1880,2 was raised in Clayton County, Iowa,3 but his exact whereabouts during his late teenage years and early manhood are up for debate. He may have spent some time in Cedar County, Nebraska,6 before winding up in Osceola County, Iowa, where he married in 1902.5 This photograph was likely taken at a train station somewhere in northwestern Iowa or northeastern Nebraska circa 1900.

The men all wear dapper hats, jackets, and ties. The man next to George seems to be the trendsetter of the group with a check or plaid jacket, striped bow tie, eyeglasses, and his soft felt bowler or derby hat at a jaunty angle. The man at front right is the only one who is not clean shaven; he also appears to be somewhat older than the others.

Who were these men, and what were their relationships to one another? None bear a remarkable resemblance to George, with the exception, perhaps, of the man next to him. Perhaps the men were friends or business associates, although thanks to George’s elusive lifestyle prior to his marriage and his use of an alias, much is left to the imagination as to with whom, exactly, he may have associated.

Perhaps somewhere there exists another copy – or three – of this very photograph, taken long ago aboard Mr. Laughlin’s Palace Photo Car.

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