Sunday Stories: Lessons from our history

The following story is an excerpt from the Sutherland History Book - 1891- 1991. It tells the story of my own great-grandparents Ray Alexander VanArsdall and Nellie Thurman Williams VanArsdall. Nellie was born in 1888 in St. Edward, Nebraska and died in the hospital in Ogallala in February of 1993. Her death was overshadowed by the death of my own father, Paul Eugene Seifer on February 12 of 1993.

My great-grandfather Ray died before I was born, but I knew Nellie "Grandma Van" as we called her, while was growing up. She was an extraordinary woman. Not only had she lived to travel by horse and buggy, then trains, then automobiles and finally airplanes and went from a quiet, dark world to a world with touch-of-a-button electricity, radio and television, but she was personally very accomplished. She had been valedictorian of her high school class, taught school, became a supervisor of the Goodall plant in Sutherland, and wove beautiful, highly sought-after rugs (of which I am the proud owner of two!). She could whistle amazing tunes and on a walk through the Sandhills could identify every plant, flower and weed in the pasture.

Unfortunately, the lesson I learned from her is a negative one. From the time she was in her 60's, she decided she was old and needed someone to take care of her. After her husband passed away in 1960, she decided that person was my grandmother, her daughter, Muriel. She didn't do anything on her own. When she walked down the street, she shuffled her steps and stopped every little while clutching her chest and catching her breath. She stopped making rugs. She stopped doing anything independently, to show that she had to live with Muriel.

I wonder, if she had known she had 30 more years to live, would she have done it differently? Sixty, seventy and even eighty doesn't seem that old any more. My mother will turn 80 this year, and my mother-in-law is 82. They are vibrant, active women. Mom still works nearly full time during the summer in Seifer Farms Chickens, owns her own business, the First Street Fitness Center in Sutherland, and an apartment building, and Vernadean volunteers one day a week at the hospital, considering it her job. I myself am 52 and certainly don't consider myself old and don't plan to for a long, long time. Grandma Van's wasted second half of her life has shown me not to waste any of the time we are given.

Here is her story from the History Book:
Ray and Nellie at their wedding, in 1908.
Ray VanArsdall was born in Missouri in 1804, but moved to Smithfield, Nebraska where, in 1908 he met and married Nellie Williams. They lived in Boone County, Nebraska, until 1910 or 1911, at which time they moved to Sutherland with their first born, Vance, who was born in 1910. Along with them came Ray’s parents, John and Hettie (Cunningham) VanArsdall.

Ray had a brother, Vance, who was married to a woman named Isobel. They had a baby that died within a year or two after birth, and both parents shortly after. Ray’s sister, Onie, married and lived in mid-Nebraska. Vance had a barbershop in Sutherland for several years.

The family lived on various farms south and southwest of Sutherland. At one time they lived south of Hauglands in the middle of what is now the reservoir. After they moved to the edge of Sutherland, Ray continued to farm a piece of ground south and east about 17 miles, which belonged to Hettie, whom we all called Teeny Grandma because of her small size.

John VanArsdall worked on the reservoir and he died in 1937. Teeny Grandma’s mother, Sarah “Carrie” Cunningham lived in the area also, and died in 1934. After Teeny Grandma died in 1956, Ray pretty well retired. He liked to walk up town every day and get the mail and gab with whoever he met. He would also kibitz the checker players although I don’t recall ever hearing that he played.
Ray and Nellie VanArsdall, with Irene Gamble Seifer, probably taken in 1935 (Irene was born in 1934 and appears to be around a year old in this photo.
Nellie, Grandma “Van”, worked several years for the Goodall plant, becoming a supervisor. During this period she bought a loom and weaved many beautiful rugs. She spent many long evenings tearing carpet rags and planning how she would put the colors together for the prettiest patterns. Some of her rugs were sold in Brandies in Omaha, and a souvenir store in Mitchell. I’ll bet there are still some of the rugs she made being used somewhere. She also pieced quilt tops and there are several still to be made into quilts.

Ray VanArsdall died in 1960 when his namesake Ray Seifer was six months old. Nellie passed away in 1993 at the age of 104 in Ogallala, Nebraska.

Vance was born in 1910. Muriel Luedke in 1912, Max in 1913, and Ruth Edwards in 1920.


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