Tag Archives: Thoma

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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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 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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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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The Relinquished Homestead

Not all homesteaders made it. As far as I know, George Hiram Thoma was the last of my direct ancestors to stake a claim, which he did in western Nebraska on a February day in 1909. George and his brother-in-law Clare Eugene Gibson arrived together at the land office in Valentine in order to pay their respective filing fees; each was granted about six hundred acres of land on adjoining claims in the desolate Sandhills of nearby Rock County, Nebraska.1 While earlier claims under the Homestead Act of 1862 allowed each individual only one hundred and sixty acres, later amendments granted settlers more land in certain areas where, for example, the soil and climate might be less conducive to raising crops. The Kincaid Act of 1904 applied specifically to thirty-seven counties in northwestern Nebraska that contained non-irrigable land.2

Screen Shot 2016-02-29 at 1.12.48 PM

Google Earth certainly doesn’t make this part of the country look particularly inviting, and life there may have been even more difficult than expected. The homesteads were located more than twenty miles from the nearest town of Bassett, and the families had likely never experienced such isolation. However, Clare Gibson, along with his wife, Alpha, and their four children, Bernice, Pauline, James, and Florence, stuck it out; his homestead was patented in February 1913,3 and the Gibson family remained there for years to come.4

George Thoma and his wife Leota, on the other hand, lasted only a little more than a year. On 4 May 1910, George relinquished his homestead,5 acknowledging defeat and, apparently, accommodating his wife’s wishes to leave an area that his daughter later described as “all sand, horrible, no trees.”6 To make matters worse, there were rattlesnakes, and with a rambunctious six-year-old son, Fenton, and a two-year-old daughter, Fern, to keep safe, this was perhaps more than the couple had bargained for. They cut their losses, bade farewell to Clare and Alpha—sisters Alpha and Leota would never again have the opportunity to live as neighbors—and moved to town.7

Thoma_George_Homestead_01

George H. Thoma (Rock County) homestead file, case no. 1383, Valentine, Nebraska, Land Office; Serialized Land Entry Case Files That Were Canceled, Relinquished, or Rejected, ca. 1909-ca. 1918; Records of the Bureau of Land Management, Record Group 49; National Archives at Kansas City.

I may never have come across this record had I not attended the course “Advanced Research Tools: Land Records” at the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy. [Read about my experience HERE.] It was there that I learned about tract books, bound volumes maintained by the Bureau of Land Management that faithfully recorded the filing of all land transactions—including claims that were later canceled, relinquished, or rejected. These claims cannot be found indexed at the Bureau of Land Management, typically my go-to resource for locating land records. Fortunately, however, the United States Bureau of Land Management Tract Books are available online at FamilySearch, and a handy Tract Books Coverage Table makes it possible to navigate the unindexed record images.

While I knew my great-grandmother had said that her father had homesteaded near Bassett, Nebraska, when no final patent could be found on the Bureau of Land Management’s database, I initially came to the conclusion that he must not have actually homesteaded there. Perhaps the family had lived with relatives or rented a farm during their brief time in Bassett, I thought. After all, my grandmother was only a toddler at the time, so her recollections might well have been dim. Well, as it turns out, George Hiram Thoma did indeed have his very own homestead, albeit briefly, and as a bit of a research bonus, the federal records that this homestead created mark the conclusion of his mysterious use of an alias.

Copyright © 2016 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: Fred and Matilda (Hammond) Thoma

Fred and Matilda (Hammond) Thoma, or Fritz and Tillie as they were known in their community, spent their childhoods and the entirety of their married lives in the same rural county in northeastern Iowa. Fred Thoma was born to Bavarians Wilhelm Heinrich and Anna Margaretha (Poesch) Thoma on 4 December 1857 in Garnavillo, Clayton County, Iowa.1 Matilda Hammond was born to Hiram H. and Eva Margaret (Stoehr) Hammond on 4 May 1859 in Volga, Clayton County, Iowa.2 While Matilda’s father was a native of Ohio and an early settler in Iowa, her mother hailed from the same Bavarian village of Weißenstadt as Matilda’s in-laws.3

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Grave of Mathilda Thoma (1857-1947) and Fred Thoma (1857-1924), Garnavillo Community Cemetery, Garnavillo, Clayton County, Iowa; image date unknown, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2015.

It seems likely that the couple crossed paths as children, although they lived in separate communities; the Weißenstadt immigrants were surely a close-knit bunch. Fred and Matilda married on 29 December 1879 at the Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Clayton Center.4 The next year found them living in Garnavillo, where Fred was a clerk in his late father’s country store.5 That autumn, the couple became parents to the first of their eventual five children: George Hiram, Leonard Christopher Julius, Ludelia Maria, Roselyn Anna, and Norma Evaline.6 All but Norma survived to adulthood; sadly, she died in a diphtheria outbreak when she was ten years old.7

What few details are known of Fred and Matilda’s lives come from recollections of their granddaughters.8 The first thirty years of their marriage were spent in the town of Garnavillo, where Fred later had a restaurant and then worked as a laborer.9 Matilda was said to have been a midwife who delivered many children in Clayton County, although such skills were not recorded in the census. Fred allegedly had a fondness for drink, so when Matilda received an inheritance, she bought a farm away from town – and the saloons.10 The empty nesters enjoyed life in the countryside for the next fifteen years until Fred’s death in Clayton on 10 January 1925.11

As a widow, Matilda spent time in the homes of her daughter and granddaughter. In 1930, she experienced a different climate in Houston, Texas; by 1940, she had returned to the Midwest and resided in Wisconsin.12 It was there in Bridgeport, Crawford County, Wisconsin that she died on 21 August 1947 when she was approaching ninety years of age. She is buried beside her husband at the Garnavillo Community Cemetery.13

Copyright © 2015 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.

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