Thursday, May 4, 2023

Gifts Come In All Forms

Recently my cousin Deb moved into a new space. She had a lot of photos she had acquired from cleaning out her parents home. Since she doesn't have the time to go through them or the space to store them, she asked if I wanted to look through them. Of course I jumped at the opportunity. I was sure there were some treasures in there. We put them in one of my spare rooms because I admit I was a little surprised at the amount. I'm anxious to dive in although it may take a while.

I have only just begun, but it renewed my interest in family history. I have been gathering information for many years, but I haven't done much with it. I'm still not sure how to handle all this information, but I may post some stories on this blog to document a few of them.

My mother had an Aunt named Ella. She was her mother’s sister, and they were very close. My grandmother died when my mom was 13. Besides her older sisters, Aunt Ella was the closest thing my mom had to a mother.  Ella had some tragedy in her life also. Her husband went fishing one day in November and never came home. I never knew any details, but he fell out of the boat and drowned.  He was 51 years old. They didn't find his body until spring. It was 1938, the same year her sister Martha died. 

Ella was also very close to my mom's oldest sister Agnes. Agnes never married and took being the oldest of ten children very seriously. At the age of 73 Ella moved to Madison, Wisconsin and into the same apartment building as Agnes. I worked a short distance from their apartment and visited them often.  During that time Agnes had Ella record her story as she remembered it. This is a transcription of that story. It ends with Ella still in her apartment. She was an amazing woman full of grit and gumption. I guess she had to be to survive all she had been through. Eventually she moved to Neenah, Wisconsin to be near her daughter Audrey. Ella died in 1983 at age 91. Sadly her daughter only survived her by one year and her son by two years. This is Ella and her son in 1977. She was 86 and he was 65.

The story is interesting because it mentions how both her parents came from Schleswig-Holstein Germany. I knew this area was close to Denmark because my paternal grandfather immigrated from Denmark in 1900. We lived in Stoughton, Wisconsin which was a very Norwegian community at the time we lived there. Grandpa made sure that everyone knew his name was spelled JEPSEN and not SON. He always said that is how you tell a Norwegian from a Dane. Norwegian names have ON and Danes are EN. Ella's father's name was PETERSEN. I was curious, so I looked it up. I found out that this area was under Danish control during the Viking age. There was confusion over the years as to who this area should be ruled by. In the 19th century both Germans and Danes believed they had claim to Schleswig-Holstein even though most of the population were ethnic Germans. The dispute was known as the Schleswig-Holstein Question. In 1848 Denmark tried to annex the area. There was a war and Denmark was victorious, but a fight broke out again in 1864. This time Prussia and Austria won and the area was absorbed into Prussia. After WW I some of the territory went back to Denmark. In her story Ella says her parents were born in 1852 and 1855. That was the time when Denmark had control. Were they Danish or German? The E in Great grandpa's last name tells me he was Danish, but I guess it doesn't matter anymore. Enough of this speculation. This photo is Henning Petersen and Christine Matson's wedding pictures. These are not normal photos they look like chalk drawings. I am not sure how that was done, but they are in very good condition. These photos are 140 years old unless they were done at a later date from this existing photo which is 140 years old. I think it is amazing it survived all the trials and tribulations that this couple endured.

Here is Ella's story in her own words. 

The Memoirs of Ella Petersen Belter

I will try my best to think back 73 years or so, to recall the experiences of the Petersen family.

My father and mother, Henning Petersen and Christine Matson, were both born in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany. Mother, March 23, 1852 and dad March 25, 1855. They had met in Germany and become engaged before coming to America, in 1882. The traveled with two of mother's sisters and their husbands. Mother worked for a year before they were married as a cook in the Mandel Brothers store. Dad worked as a cabinet maker, a trade he had learned in Germany. They were married August 25, 1883 and had six children, 3 boys and then 3 girls. Every other child died in infancy. The three children were Chris the oldest, Martha and myself, the youngest born in 1891. Dad continued his work as a carpenter and mother took in boarders. They then moved to a farm in Indiana where they lived a short time and then moved back to Chicago where they bought a China Store on Milwaukee Avenue across from Coons Park. I was born after they returned to Chicago. Dad worked and mother had the store and three children to care for.

One day as dad was going to work on an open street car, he was pushed off by the crowded number of people on the car. His left leg was run over by an oncoming street car. He was rushed to the hospital before mother was notified. They operated three times removing more each time. The last surgery removed the leg just below the knee. They were going to operate again and remove the leg above the knee when dad said "I will go home and die first".  So he went home and they got a different doctor who made one clean cut below the knee and saved the rest of his leg. He then got an artificial leg. He was never able to return to work but did help with the store. They carried butter, eggs, tea and coffee, in addition to a lovely selection of fine china.

I had just started school and was in the first grade when dad decided to sell the store and move to a farm in Oblong, Illinois. Mother did not want to do this as they were doing very well in the store and had just gotten a start. Again dad had his way and soon found that he did not like it in Oblong, so we moved to Tilton Arkansas. The land which he had bought unsight unseen turned out to be under water and the house was a shack built on stilts, as were all the houses in the area. The sidewalks and the railroad tracks were built above the water. In the spring they moved in with a man who had been divorced and drank a lot. We had two rooms in his house. This man was always singing "the water is cold and chilly and I am called to die". One day, when his horse returned without him, they found him drowned. He had fallen off the horse. We were all sick most of the time from fever and chills, so much so that again dad decided to move while we all were still alive. They settled for a team of horses and a covered wagon, and we started north like a band of gypsies...and there were gypsies ahead or behind us most of the way. They wanted to tell our fortune but we did not let them as we were afraid of them. When we crossed the Missouri River we lost them. We were stuck often in the red Missouri clay, and the poor horses had to pull so hard to get us out. We would cook over a campfire, and buy milk and eggs from farmers along the way. Mother said that she never had it so good. We slept in the wagon and had the little furniture we had shipped by freight to Clinton, Iowa. After 6 weeks we arrived in Clinton, Iowa where dad had a brother. Dad got work in Kelly's furniture factory, 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, about 2 miles from home. We bought a horse and buggy and mom drove dad to work in the morning and got him at night besides taking care of the three of us and caring for a cow, pig and chicken. I went to school and Martha went to Chancy School with Libby Moody, about 2 miles. They carried their lunches. Chris got a job in the wagon factory, 10 hours a day, l6 days a week. We rented a small house. I remember the teacher asked me where I lived, and I said "the $5.00 house". That was the rent we paid. When I told the folks what I told the teacher, they laughed-later I realized why they laughed. Later we bought a very nice house, 7 rooms, 2 bedrooms upstairs, a fenced in yard, a barn and of course a two seater outhouse which everyone had at the time. Our dog Bismark went with us from Chicago to Arkansas, then to Clinton and died of old age in Wisconsin Rapids.

We stayed in Clinton about 3 years and had just gotten a nice start and a feeling of security and settled, when dad again got the wanderlust, and he and his brother Hans heard of the wild land in Wisconsin, so they went there and each bought 80 acres. There was no road leading to the land and no bridge over the river.

Dismal as the sight was, dad moved his family, and uncle Hans also. We all moved into a shanty type house with 2 rooms upstairs, and 2 downstairs. The five of us lived downstairs, and Uncle Hans and family, six of them lived upstairs. This was about six miles from the land and each morning, in the cold winter, the three men, dad, uncle Hans and Chris would go out to the land and cut the logs and haul them to a sawmill two miles away, where the logs were sawed into lumber and hauled the two miles back. Each family built a house across the road from each other. One part of the house was for the cow and horses. We had one room downstairs, and one very low room upstairs. We could only stand upright in the middle of the room. We had not any stairs, we stood on a trunk and then a couple boards nailed to the two by fours to help us climb up. The men did all this without any heat when they got there and a frozen lunch, and dad with only one leg.

I went to school near Pittsville and then was told it was not my district, so I went to Veedum, both schools were at least 2 miles from home, which I walked. The roads were not plowed in the winter, so I had to make my own path in the winter. I went from October to January to the first school, and January thru February in the Veedum school. I lied about my grade, said that I was in the second grade, as we had no report cards. Then in March we moved on to the wild land and there was no more school for at least two years. The closest grocery store and post office was Veedum five miles away. The fellow who owned the store was Stumph, a good name for anyone in that country. We got a weekly newspaper, The Minneapolis Tribune, which was old news when we got it, but I did not know the difference. We lived on this isolated place for about two years, dad and Chris had cleared some land, but the money had run out, so the folks moved to Wisconsin Rapids where dad and Chris found work in Overbeck's furniture factory. Martha, Mother and I stayed until they found a house for us. Mother took in boarders, and had as many as 9 men for $3.00 a week, which included washing and ironing, and two good hot meals a day. Breakfast included pancakes, fried potatoes, meat and eggs.

I again started school, and this time said that I was in the 5th grade. One month in the 6th grade, we returned to the farm in October. This time we stayed three years, during which time Martha was married and was living at City Point, and the rest of us moved back to Wisconsin Rapids. After two years the folks moved back to New Dam and I stayed in the Rapids. I worked in a box factory, did house work, and worked in the paper mill for $1.00 a day. I worked 10 hours a day, 6 days a week. I boarded with Mrs. Jensen, and during this time I met Herman. We went together three years and we married in Merrill, December 30, 1911, in his mother's home, with only his sister and three friends as witnesses. It was a very snowy Saturday. We had pictures taken Sunday morning and then Herman left for Menominee where he worked and I left for the farm until he got a place for us. The end of January, I went to Menominee and we stayed in the hotel until we found a two room furnished apartment and heated. Later we got a house and the folks gave up the farm and came and lived with us. Orby was born here October 12, 1912. We were not in Menominee very long when Herman got an offer to work in a piano factory in Milwaukee. It was better pay so we all moved there and dad got a job too, Shortly thereafter, the Menominee Piano Factory asked him back again, so we repacked and headed back for Menominee, hardly got settled when Herman received a letter from Stang & Ellis sash and door factory where he had worked before, offering him a better job, so again we repacked and moved to Wisconsin Rapids-the folks came later and lived with us. Herman was superintendent of the factory, and we built a nice home there. Dad helped with the finishing of it. Audrey was born in this home October 16, 1917, We sold the home and rented for a year, then we bought our old home back, trading in 80 acres of wild land in City Point across from Martha's place. The former owners had improved the home, and had put in a furnace. About 8 years later, we again sold the home, as the factory was moving out West. I did not like to go that far away, as the folks were now quite old and dad with only one leg and mother on crutches. Herman was transferred to Merrill to run the sash and door factory. We were there a year when he was offered a job in Wausau running Silbernagel's Sash and Door factory. We rented a house on Third Ave. on the West side. Agnes stayed with us for two years, when she went to high school and normal school. We built a home on Young Street in 1929 and the folks came and lived with us during the winter and went to Martha's in the summer. Dad died in December 1935 while living in Pray, Martha in January 1938, Herman drowned in November 1938 and his body was not found until April 29, 1939. Mother died July 13, 1943 and Chris died April 1967 leaving me the "last leaf on the tree".  I went to work in the grocery department at the Fair Store and worked there for twelve years. I was 64 when I quit. Audrey got married November 28th, 1947 and lived with me for 9 years. Russell was born while they lived with me. Later they moved to Oshkosh and I lived alone for five years. I sold the home in June 1961 and moved to Neenah and lived with Audrey for three years. August 2, 1964, I moved to Madison at the age of 73, and worked at the girls's dorm for four school terms. Ten months, half day and no Saturday or Sunday work. I haven't done anything for five years now. January 30, 1972, I fell down and broke my hip. I was 80 years and 6 months when it happened. I was in the hospital for a month, at Audreys for 4 months. July 8th I came back to my apartment and I am getting along fine. I take the bus to various shopping centers, but get tired after walking 10 or 12 blocks. 

This is a picture of the three Petersen children. Ella is the little one on the left. Chris in the middle and my grandmother on the right. I am assuming this picture was taken before they moved from the good life in Chicago.

Ella was an amazing resilient woman. I am so happy I had the pleasure to know her. She talked quickly as you can probably sense from her story. She would say "honest to God kid".  One time she used lye to clean something and got some on her leg. It ate her flesh down to the bone, but somehow she healed it herself. I bet she didn't want to stay in the hospital a month when she broke her hip. My favorite part of her story was the last sentence and it said everything about her personality. At 81 and recovering from a broken hip she got tired when she walked 10-12 blocks. 

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