Tag Archives: South Dakota

Prairie Teacher

“Oh, what a work we teachers have in the molding of the lives of those little ones,” wrote Andrea Nelson in her diary on an autumn evening in 1918.1 At the age of twenty-one, she had just begun her third term as a teacher in southeastern South Dakota.2 She took great delight in her fourteen students, who, she noted, were “in general a bright talkative set.”3 This was her first term at Prairie School District 9, located in Mission Hill, a rural community near the town of Yankton.4

Andrea Mathilda Nelson was born on 31 December 1896, the daughter of Danish immigrants Fred and Christina (Schmidt) Nelson.5 Raised on a farm just west of Yankton, Andrea was the fourth child of nine.6 After completing her grammar school education at a one-room schoolhouse, Andrea, along with her sisters, succeeded in receiving teaching certification from the Southern State Normal School located in nearby Springfield, South Dakota.7 Andrea taught first in Turkey Valley, then at the Dewey School near Lesterville, and finally in Mission Hill, where she was conveniently able to board with her elder sister, Anna, and her husband, Jim.8

With the freedom provided by a small class size and a rural school district, Andrea enjoyed and recorded many memorable moments with her students: she took them on noontime walks to the nearby molasses mill, joined in on games at recess (“Pump Pump Pull Away” and “Ruth and Jacob”), and received invitations to visit them at their homes.9 One evening, she wrote, “Shortly before recess I excused Tim and Royal in order that they might go chase Ficke’s cows out of the nearby cornfield. They came back at recess with two watermelons which Royal brought from home and which we feasted on together.”10

Andrea Nelson at a schoolhouse with her students, Yankton County, South Dakota, ca. 1916-1918; digital image 2012, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2018.

Fond of the outdoors herself, she also recognized its importance to children, even offering an early dismissal one “very fine day.”11 On another occasion, she wrote, “A very beautiful calm autumnal day. But nine at school. We had our drawing lesson outside. At recess the children earnestly requested me to permit them to recite and study outside the remaining hour and fifteen minutes. I consented after which they gleefully clapped their hands. The shade of one tree served as study room while that of another nearby took the place of recitation room. The children did not abuse their privilege. As a result we all fully enjoyed school in the fine October out of doors.”12

The next day, still taking advantage of the autumn weather, she wrote, “After school I hied me to the open. There I helped Jim pick potatoes for about half an hour. He said that I broke a schoolmam’s reputation in taking up such work after a day at school. I replied that he could count on me for doing things out of the ordinary for those in our profession.”13

In late September, Andrea wrote, “Think Spanish Influenza is going about the neighborhood. Only eleven at school.”14 Before long, the number of students in her class dwindled still further as the influenza continued to spread. In early October, just a month into the school year, Andrea recorded in her diary, “Only six at school again. […] I hardly feel that I’m earning my $4.25 per day these days.”15

Tragically, it would be only a matter of time before Andrea was struck with influenza herself, and the final pages of her diary are left blank. Exactly one month after the unexpected death of her father, Andrea died on 28 November 1918 while a patient at St. Bernard’s Hospital in Council Bluffs, Pottawattamie County, Iowa.16 Her younger sister, Helena, a student at Springfield Normal School, took over her teaching position at Prairie School District 9 and completed the sorrow-filled school term with Andrea’s students.17

Copyright © 2018 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.
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Finding Homes for Two Orphan Photographs

On a recent visit to western South Dakota, I flipped through a stack of nineteenth century photographs at an antique shop in scenic Hill City. I had my eye out for any with names inscribed on the backs so that I might have a chance to reunite them with their families of origin, but unfortunately, only two in a stack of a dozen or more were fortunate enough to have been labeled.

“May Durkee” read a photograph of a young woman pictured by heaping bouquets of flowers, while the other inscription on a photograph of a young girl caused me to do a double-take: “Emily J. Frick.” Frick is my married name and not terribly common—and although my husband is the immigrant in his family and we know of no Frick relations in the United States, there was no way I could pass up the opportunity to research Emily. Young May made it out of the shop with me as well.

Emily J. Frick, Brookings, Dakota Territory, ca. 1889-90; privately held by K.F., 2018.

The photograph of Emily J. Frick held several clues to assist with determining its date. While cabinet cards such as this were popular throughout the late nineteenth century, the location of the studio was stamped “Brookings, Dak.” As South Dakota achieved statehood on 02 November 1889, the reference to Dakota Territory suggests that the photograph was likely taken no later than 1890, should the photographer have held onto any outdated stock.1 The name of the photographer, O.G. Oyloe, is also revealing, as They Captured the Moment: Dakota’s Photographers 1853-1920 indicates that Oyloe began practicing his trade in Brookings in 1889.2

Emily appears to be in her early teens in this photograph, with fashionably frizzled bangs and her hair pulled back into a braid. Her dress features a high, pleated neckline and sleeves that puff above the shoulders, a popular look in 1890 fashion plates.3

Ultimately, it did not take long to identify Emily J. Frick thanks to online records. Young Emily was, as it turned out, Emily Josephine Frick (1876-1918), the daughter of Thomas and Barbara (Fisher) Frick.4 Born in Pennsylvania, Emily spent spent a number of years in Brookings, Dakota Territory when she was a child.5 Emily studied to become a teacher—records show that she taught a kindergarten class at Chicago’s Calhoun School as of 1899—and in 1909 she married Clarence Estes.6 Emily died of Spanish influenza at the age of forty-two, a victim of the Influenza Epidemic of 1918.7 She left no children.8

Emily did, however, have a number of nieces and nephews, and I was able to connect with one of these descendants via a Public Member Tree on Ancestry.com.9 Then, her photograph made its way into an envelope and was sent to its new home in Minnesota.

Mary “May” Durkee, Alexandria, South Dakota, ca. 1892-93; privately held by S.B., 2018.

May Durkee’s photograph held a number of clues as to its origins as well. Stamped with the location Alexandria, South Dakota, this photograph was most definitely taken after 1889, once Dakota Territory was no more. According to the Collector’s Guide to 19th Century Traveling  Photographers, the photographer, M.B. Barton, was believed to have operated in Alexandria circa 1887-94.10 A record search soon turned up Mary “May” Durkee (1877-1972) of Alexandria, the daughter of Franklin and Mary (Wakeman) Durkee, as the most likely candidate for this photograph.11

Although at first glance it seemed to me as though May was posing by a memorial of some kind, the words on the apparent certificate propped among the flowers at her feet read “To Whom It May Concern,” with the header labeled “City of Alexandria,” which does not give the feeling of a tribute. Could this have been an educational certificate?

According to a biography held in the South Dakota State Archive’s Pioneer Daughters files, May, who was born in Wisconsin and came to Dakota Territory at the age of two, completed the one-year high school course offered at Alexandria’s brick schoolhouse in 1892 when she was fifteen years old.12 She had to wait until her sixteenth birthday before she was eligible to begin teaching in the local country schools.13 This photograph might have been taken in honor of one of these occasions. May, a young woman with a fair complexion, wears what was likely a white dress with puffed sleeves that rise above the shoulder and are gathered above the elbow. A corsage is at the center of her chest and what appears to be a small book dangles along the side of her skirt, held in place by a sash affixed at her waist.

May taught school for five years until her marriage to John H. Dobson in 1898.14 The couple remained in Alexandria and had four children: Burdette James, Merrial Bertha, who died as an infant, Henry Bird, and Florence Louise Dobson.15 They enjoyed seventy years of marriage; John died in 1968, and May in 1972.16 A number of years before her death, she was celebrated as Alexandria’s longest continuous resident and was even crowned “queen” during a local anniversary event.17

After tracing May’s descendants through obituaries, I contacted a surviving granddaughter who remembered her well and was glad to have May’s photograph mailed to her home in Oregon.18 Thus, happy endings were found for both orphan photographs of these young Dakota pioneers.

Copyright © 2018 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.
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A South Dakota Marriage

Fred Nielson was twenty-six years old and Christina Marie Schmidt was twenty-one when they married on 08 March 1890 before the Justice of the Peace in Yankton, Yankton County, South Dakota.1 Both Fred and Christina had emigrated from Denmark as children, and for more than fifteen years their families had been neighbors as they farmed less than a mile from each other in eastern Bon Homme and western Yankton counties in southeastern South Dakota.2 Whether the couple first became acquainted as children or young adults is not known, but their first known photograph together, their wedding portrait, survives today.

In the photograph, Christina stands in a heavy skirt and bodice, perhaps wool, with contrasting velvet panels on the high collar, cuffs, and bodice. Her hair is styled without the frizzled bangs that she wore a few years prior, and is instead swept smoothly off her forehead. A horizontal pin at her throat appears to match the pin worn in the earlier photograph. She rests one hand on the shoulder of her husband, who is seated. Fred wears a three-piece suit that is rather tightly fitted, as well as a white collared shirt and tie. A watch chain affixed to his vest is also visible. Fred’s hair has been combed and parted neatly, and he sports a small mustache.

Fred and Christina (Schmidt) Nielsen, South Dakota, 1890; digital image 2010, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2018.

Posed before a painted backdrop of a pastoral scene that doesn’t quite reach the floor, the husband and wife look directly at the camera. Both sturdy, fair-haired Scandinavians, their expressions are serious as was typical in portraits of this era. Although this image is a photocopy, it can be assumed that the original portrait was a cabinet card, a style of photograph mounted on card stock emblazoned with the photographer’s emblem that was popular at the end of the nineteenth century.

Fred and Christina (Schmidt) Nielson would go on to welcome nine children into their family and would live to celebrate twenty-eight years of marriage together.3

Copyright © 2018 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.
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The Adam Brothers

When five of the six living sons of Timothée and Marguerite (Chicoine) Adam gathered in the Midwest circa 1913, it was deemed an occasion worthy of a photograph.1 From left are pictured brothers Louis (1848-1927), Peter (1852-1936), Joseph (1850-1926), Prosper (1867-1943), and Timothy Adam (1846-1919). Although the twenty-one year span in age of these brothers is impressive, in fact, twenty-seven years passed between the births of their eldest sibling and the youngest, who arrived when his mother was fifty years old. At least fourteen children were born in total, with all but the youngest born in Quebec. All got their start in life in the cotton mills of Indian Orchard, Hampden County, Massachusetts, which had lured the Adam family from rural Quebec to America.2

Brothers Louis, Peter, Joseph, Prosper, and Timothy Adam(s), ca. 1913; digital image 2010, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2018. Image courtesy of Dorothy Bouchard.

Timothy, at right, likely resided in Jefferson, Union County, South Dakota at the time this picture was taken,3 not far from Peter, second from left, and Prosper, second from right, who had both settled in Sioux City, Woodbury County, Iowa.4 Joseph, at center, had apparently traveled from his home in Ponca City, Kay County, Oklahoma to reunite with his brothers, as well as, undoubtedly, his twin sister, who lived in Jefferson.5 Louis, the one brother to have remained in Hampden County, Massachusetts, traveled the greatest distance for this reunion.6 The only living Adam brother not pictured here was Euclid John (1856-1940), who spent his adult life in Southbridge, Worcester County, Massachusetts.7 Whether he lost touch with his brothers or was simply unable to make the trip to visit them at the time that this photograph was taken is not known.

The Adam brothers, some of whom adopted the surname Adams in addition to Anglicized versions of their given names, held a variety of trades between them. Census records indicate that after leaving the cotton mills, some went on to become carpenters, barbers, homesteaders, clerks, pool hall operators, and hotel-keepers, among other occupations. All married, and all but Joseph had children of their own.

This photograph is a photocopy of what was said to be a real photo postcard, a format designed to be easily sent by mail to friends or relatives. Like the only known (or suspected) photograph of the mother of the Adam brothers, the original is believed to have been lost.8 Despite the poor quality of this photocopy, it is apparent that the brothers have dressed sharply, with their hair neatly combed and several in ties, although this was apparently not such a formal occasion that they opted to wear jackets. It is also plausible that it was quite hot, if their reunion took place in the summer months, and the gentlemen may well have opted to be as comfortable as possible. Several appear to wear sleeve garters, arm bands that helped to adjust the length of one’s sleeves.9 While the men’s appearances are distinct from one another, particularly given their disparate ages, similarly prominent noses—and, when visible, even hands—help to link them convincingly as brothers.

Copyright © 2018 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.
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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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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 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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