Sunday, February 23, 2014

Sunday Stories: Grandma Van Part 1

From the memoir of Nellie Thurman Williams VanArsdall, 1888 - 1993.

My parents, Thomas C. Williams and Emma S. Williams immigrated from Van Wert, Ohio, in about 1875, to Boone County, Nebraska.

My father did not actually take a homestead, but bought a relinquishment from a man who decided not to stay in this brand new prairie country.

Our farm was about 3 miles northwest of St. Edward, up the Beaver Creek, which flowed along the west side of the town of St. Edward.

Our place was a level quarter section of rich bottom land along the Beaver Creek. This creek cut off a fraction of an acre on both the northeast and southeast corners of the quarter. Our building site was located almost in the middle of the quarter, so that in case neighbors built homes on bordering quarters, our chickens and other livestock would not be so apt to trespass on them.

On this farm seven children were born, Harry Ellsworth, Daisy Ann, Mary Elma, Jay LeRoy, Myrtle Johnson (My mother’s maiden name), Nellie Thurman and Thomas Corwin, Jr.
L-R Tom Williams, Daisy Williams, Nellie Williams
My father died on April 24, 1891 of pneumonia, after an illness of just three days. At the time of his death, he was serving a second term as sheriff of Boone County. Albion was the county seat, and my father drove a team, or rode a horse there, (a distance of about 10 miles) each day, except for an occasional day, now and then, when he would walk to the railroad (about ½ mile) and the morning train would stop for him and in the evening, he would ride the evening train back, and get off at the crossroad and walk home.

It had been a wet spring at the time of my father’s death. He had gotten off the train as usual, but had to cross the slough on his walk home. The water was high and he got soaked in the crossing. By the time he reached home, he was chilled, caught pneumonia and died just three days later.

On the day of my fathers’ funeral the U.P.R.R. ran a special train from Albion so that those who wished to, could attend his funeral.

At my father’s death the burden of being the head of the family fell upon the shoulders of my 14 year old brother, Harry. He told me he often lay awake at night, wondering what would become of us all.

At times, it was a bitter struggle, but we always seemed to have plenty to eat, though at times there wasn’t much of a variety. And, mother, in one way or another, always managed to keep us clothed. She had been raised by a Quaker mother so, of course, thrift was one of her virtues.

She was a good seamstress, and made most of our clothing – even our winter underwear, which were made of cotton flannel, the pants of which were made with a band at the ankles, much like the cuff of a man’s shirt.
The girls wore long black stockings over these and the boys wore wool knitted socks, which were knitted by mother. She also knitted all of our mittens and “wristlets”. These were made like a portion of a leg of a sock, were four or five inches long, and were worn on the wrist, just above the mitten top, probably, more often than not, to bridge the gap between the mittens and the too-short sleeves of out-grown coats.

I can remember that our wrists were often very sore and chapped from the exposure to the cold when we didn’t wear these wristlets. They were often made of a very bright colored yarn in a variety of designs, and often were edged with small scallops of a contrasting color. I can remember that the children always vied with each other as to who had the prettiest wristlets.

Shoes were always one of the largest expenses, even though they were made of heavy leather, and often out-grown before they were worn out. The girls wore high-topped button shoes, and the boys high-topped laced shoes, sometimes boots. The shoes were always a problem, as they had to be buttoned with a “button hook” which was often misplaced, and there was a scramble about every school day morning to find the hook, as everyone hurried to get ready for school. Whenever a new pair of shoes was purchased, a button hook always came with them.

My father carried a $2000 policy with the Modern Woodman Insurance Company, and after his death, my mother used this to build a 1 ½ story house, 5 rooms – 2 bedrooms upstairs, 1 bedroom, small parlor, and large kitchen downstairs.

The closed stairway was built slightly to the north of the center of the house, making the north room (the boys’ room) smaller than the south room which was the girls’ room. At the top of the stairs there was a small hall, from which the doors to the two rooms led. And at the end of the hall was a small closet. I can still remember seeing my father’s old Union Army soldier suit and cap hanging there.
Screen capture of the roster of the 118th Ohio Infantry, Company J showing Thomas C Corwin's service.
The insurance was adequate to also build a small barn. But this was later, as I can remember seeing the barn being built. The barn had stalls for 5 horses, and a small bin for grain, and there was a hay mow above.
A carpenter oversaw the construction of the barn, but neighbors contributed their help in every way they could, such as hauling the lumber, sawing, etc. They did this when the house was built, too.

We had lived in a sod house until the new house was built. I don’t remember living in it, but, I can remember playing around the ruins of it later. In those days neighbors were always good neighbors, always coming to the aid of anyone who needed help.

Our neighbors were the Dave and Harry Clarke (brothers) families, the Justin and Orrison Postles (brothers), Dave Shafers, “Hook” Long, Frank Waite, Farrels, Coyles, Williards and many others. Of course, all of these were not there at the time of my father’s death, but some of them settled there later.

Mother was often called to help at the birth of neighborhood babies, often delivering them without the help of a doctor, then cared for mother and baby until the mother was able to be up and about.

In this way she managed to repay many of the neighbors, who had helped so much at the time of my father’s death. I think one of the finest customs of that time was the spirit of helpfulness that seemed to be born in everybody. Anyone in trouble never needed to be afraid that he wouldn’t be taken care of – neighbors were always standing by, ready to do what needed to be done, and they always did just that. This is one of the very valuable assets of the human race, which has been lost along the way in this mad progress race – the spirit of neighborliness and brotherly love that pervaded the country at that time.


No doubt the loss of this spirit is partly the cause of so much poverty and suffering in the slum districts of cities and over the country at large. We just do not take care of our own. Besides the physical help, the strength and moral help and understanding and encouragement is often as important. But in this day and age, this help is too seldom offered. But, it seems, such is the price we pay for progress, moral values are submerged to make way for the acquisition of riches and personal fame.

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