No Fake Doors at Grandpa’s Funeral

I went to a family funeral recently. I had been working on family stories, and I was reminded of how much funeral customs had changed in the last century.

My grandfather, my mother’s dad, died in an accident in 1926. He died in a hospital and his body was removed to their home to be cared for. According to my mother, the women in the family washed and prepared the body for burial. Grandma called the undertaker, whose main business was cabinet making and ordered a coffin. A black wreath was placed on the front door as a notice for those who passed by that someone had died. All this was common in the mid 1920s

The body was laid out on the dining table until the coffin arrived. Although embalming was becoming common in the 1920s, it was still very expensive and grandpa was not embalmed.

As was the custom, Grandpa’s family and close friends sat with the body until the funeral. In the evening they played cards. Grandma, Mom and her sister served coffee and sandwiches. When the coffin arrived and it was time for the funeral, the body was moved outside. The funeral was held in the back yard.

When I was checking out some of the things mom told me, I found out something interesting about moving the body. At that time, in some parts of the country, it was considered improper to move the coffin out the regular door where living people would enter and exit. The parlor often had a fake door, with no steps from the outside, that was used to remove the casket and transport the body. It was called death’s door. In poor homes, they might have used a window.

I don’t believe this was common in the part of rural Minnesota, where Grandpa lived. There were no fake doors in their house, and the body went out the front door.

Since Grandpa was not embalmed, lots of flowers were brought in to cover the smell. Afterwards, Mom hated the smell of roses and lilies and requested that there be none at her funeral.

To further complicate things, the insurance company refused to pay death benefits without an autopsy, and so six or eight weeks later, Grandpa was exhumed. The timing depends on the storyteller and I can’t find the record. The whole family attended the exhumation and the service when they reburied the body which had greatly deteriorated.

About the time of my grandpa’s funeral, changes were starting to happen. Not in the small, rural communities where my grandparents lived, but in larger towns and more populated areas. It was during this time in the early 1900s that the professional undertaker came into being. He, it was always a he, “undertook” the job of caring and preparation of the body for the family. Over time, undertakers took on more and more of the roles that we consider part of today’s funeral service. And yes, one big change is the inclusion of women funeral directors in the profession.

Response to 52 Ancestors Weekly Challenge: Changes

Baking Involves Precise Steps

I learned to bake from my mother. She always used a recipe and her impressive collection of cookbooks proved it. If you used the required ingredients, measured correctly, and followed the steps in the recipe exactly, you were assured a consistent result. Of course, you never created anything new and delicious either. No one ever dared tell her that.

When the children were grown and on their own, mom decided to take cooking classes to learn how to make the wonderful Scandinavian cookies she remembered my grandmother making. The recipes were very precise and not following the steps exactly could result in disaster. Not a problem for mom as she always followed all the steps.

Cooking, however, was a different story. She sometimes had a recipe, but rarely followed it. Cooking allowed her to be creative. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. We did have some interesting meals. When it didn’t work, she always made it fun. If possible, we ate it, with the ketchup, mustard or butter ready to make it palatable.

As she got older, her sense of taste declined, and sometimes she couldn’t notice when food wasn’t quite right. Her famous tuna casserole declined with her sense of taste, until we all joked about how bad it was and tried to talk her out of making it. She was convinced we all loved it, and there was a time when we did.

No matter how old she got, her baking was always perfect. She always followed the recipe and all the steps exactly.

Response to 52 Ancestors Weekly Prompt: Steps

Tobacco Farming in Wisconsin

There are many farmers in my family and I was unsure what to write about. I finally picked this picture of my father-in-law and crew in front of the tobacco wagon around 1940. He’s the cheeky one in the middle.

A lot of people don’t realize there are tobacco farms in Wisconsin. Actually, the heavy clay soil in the southern part of Wisconsin is perfect for growing tobacco and there are, or at least there were a lot of tobacco farms in the Stoughton/Edgerton area where my husband grew up.

Most of them were full farms with animals and crops like corn and soybeans, with tobacco added as a kind of extra crop. My in=laws were dairy farmers with ducks and pigs and chickens. They also grew some corn and beans. When they retired, they kept a few acres of tobacco, just to give them something to do.

I’m a city girl and don’t know much about farming, but they were still farming in the 70s when we got married. I remember steaming equipment coming to warm the ground, which was then seeded and covered with tobacco canvas. When the seedlings were several inches high, they were planted in the field, and the steaming beds were left empty. They made the greatest garden. The kids helped us plant, and later harvest. The in-laws did all the hoeing and watering, and we got a lot of the produce. Later, when they moved off the farm, we shared produce from our garden with them. It was never as good.

When it was time for harvesting the tobacco, it was all hands on deck. Everyone available was recruited to help. The tobacco was strung on lats, loaded on a wagon, and hung in the shed to cure. It was dirty, messy and exhausting work. My in-laws traded work with friends and neighboring farms, so they didn’t have to pay a lot of extra help.

Later, after the tobacco had cured, the lats were stripped and bundled, ready to sell to the tobacco broker. It gave the farmers something to do during the long months of January and February.

I was glad to be a part of the tobacco saga, even if it was only on the sidelines. I learned how hard the farmers worked. Their wives worked just as hard. The women cooked dinner for all of the workers, then cleaned up the dishes, brought the workers a snack, and worked in the fields as needed.

Response to 52 Ancestors Weekly Prompt: On the Farm

Entertainment Choices Can Reflect Character

Two of my maternal great-grandfathers and two of my great-great grandfathers were men of great character. At least according to their obituaries. W. C. Alvord, Lysander Kateley and his son Franklin, and Solomon Holmes were among the earliest settlers of Martin County, Minnesota. Settling just after the Civil War, all of them were described as upright, honorable Christians. Lysander was also described as living a practical and helpful life. All were at various times officials in the small, rural communities they lived in. It seems they had no known vices.

I know from family stories that isn’t true, but apparently those vices didn’t affect their outstanding character. I wonder what such upright men did for entertainment. Did their upright character affect their entertainment choices? I know there were the usual local things – dances and fairs and carnivals, but what other things did people do for entertainment at the turn of the century? My grandfathers were all fun loving people. What would they do for fun and still keep their sterling reputations?

One thing that comes to mind are Opera Houses. Between 1880 and about 1925 opera houses were common in small towns all over the midwest. Opera was almost never performed there. They were more a variety hall that hosted traveling theater, minstrel shows and magicians along with all sorts of live entertainment. Vaudeville was especially popular between 1880 and 1920. Such entertainment was considered morally corrupt, so the theaters were called Opera Houses. Opera was considered a respectable form of entertainment, so the name protected the character of those who frequented them, even though the entertainment was the same as a variety hall. If my upright ancestors frequented such a place, they probably had to go to Fairmont, the nearest city with an opera house. I’m not sure if my greats liked vaudeville, but I know my grandparents did. They especially liked when the Fairmont Opera House started showing movies, silent movies at the end of the century and then talkies around 1920. All of my family loved the movies. In my parents generation movies and the other types of entertainment were not considered sinful and attending them would not tarnish a person’s reputation. My parents and other family members embraced them.

I think the type of entertainment available reflected the character of the times. After the civil war, people were more straitlaced and conscious of morality. Entertainment was more reserved. Later in the century, people had let loose and begun to enjoy vaudeville and movies and dancing and other things available at the Opera House. By the end of the 20’s with the more permissive society and talkies becoming more common, opera houses began to decline. Some opera houses converted to the movie theaters my parents and aunts and uncles frequented, others just simply disappeared, a tragedy since many were beautiful buildings.


Response to 52 Ancestors 2021: Character

Three Generations of Tragedy

Tragedy struck my mother’s family three generations in a row. They were all named Sam.

My mother’s father, Sam Alvord died in 1926 from complications when a piano fell on him during a moving accident. He was only 40 years old and left a wife and 5 children behind. His death had devastating effects on the family. My grandmother didn’t want to remarry and became a single, working mother in 1926. The oldest child was just 13 and the youngest only 8 months old. Her refusal to remarry angered some of her relatives and distanced her from family who could have helped her.

Luther “Sam” Alvord taken at Lakebelt Cemetery in Ceylon, Minnesota

Grandpa’s real name was Luther, but everyone called him Sam. There is a family story about him being called Sam because he was a postman and worked for Uncle Sam. His son, my uncle, was also called Sam. His real name was Elden, but he was called young Sam, later shortened to Sam.

Tragedy struck young Sam’s family in 1948, when he was 34 years old. He was killed in an accident, electrocuted when he was putting up pennants for a local Harvest Festival. The transformer he touched had been installed a few days earlier and was intended to be used for lighting the celebration. He fell off an 18 foot ladder and died instantly. He left behind a young wife and 2 young sons, 4 and 3. It was a tragedy for not just his family, but for my mother and grandmother. They had worried about him all of the time he was overseas during the war and for him die like this was a terrible blow.

Photo from Oakwood Cemetery, Pepin, Pepin Co., WI—www.findagrave.com
Taken by inactive Find A Grave contributor C.C.

Young Sam’s oldest son, who was really named Sam, was also the victim of an accident. He was killed when he was 36 in a car accident. It was a dark evening in December 1979 when his car left the highway and went into a ditch and overturned. This Sam was my cousin and I remember his passing. He left behind a wife and 10 year old son named, you guessed it, Samuel. There has been no tragic death for him. He is 62 and living in Wisconsin.

Photo from Tell Cemetery, Alma, Buffalo Co., WI—www.findagrave.com
Taken by inactive Find A Grave contributor C.C.

So much heartache for these families, three generations in a row. There are a lot of Samuels in my family tree, but these stand out.


Response to 52 Ancestors Weekly Prompt: Tragedy

Poodle Skirts and Saddle Shoes

I came across this picture from 1957 recently. It brings back memories of the 50’s and the circle “poodle” skirt worn with matching sweater set, bobby socks and saddle shoes. My older sister had a blue skirt with a white poodle on a silver leash and white sweater set. She was a teenager and the bobby socks had to be white and folded just so.

Although the poodle skirt originated in 1947, it really became popular with teens and young girls in the 1950’s. It was so simple, a circle cut from felt with appliqués sewed on. My mom loved them. She was always fashionable, but money was often tight and her sewing skills were notoriously poor. Even she could do this, and because the skirts were made of felt, there was no need for hemming.

The original skirts were appliquéd with a pink poodle on a silver leash, but as the trend caught on, the appliqué changed to just about anything. My skirt in the above picture had umbrellas on it, and I had matching green socks instead of the usual white bobby socks. Even though I wasn’t a teen, I thought I was so trendy. Of course I had saddle shoes to go with the outfit.

Developed in the 1900’s, the saddle shoe has always been in style. During the depression and war, materials were scarce. Traditional saddle shoes were expensive and use was limited to cardboard versions with cork soles. In the late 40’s after the war, leather saddle shoes with natural or black soles came popular again. They were worn by both men with business suits and women with everyday dresses. The trend was evident in 1947, when my great Nellie, came to visit from Colorado. Note her saddle shoes.

Saddle shoes reached movie star status in 1957 when Elvis Presley wore saddle shoes in Jailhouse Rock. Adoring teen girls just had to have them and they often paired them with poodle skirts. The white bobby socks they wore with them were iconic and had to be folded just so. I remember my sister, who was crazy for Elvis, spending hours polishing her shoes, and folding her socks so they looked just right.

Saddle shoes hung around until the ’70s, but they were never as trendy as those times during the ’50’s. They gave way to developing versions of todays Oxford.

So much nostalgia brought on by looking at an old picture of me in a poodle skirt and saddle shoes.


Response to 52 Ancestors Weekly Prompt: Fashion

Taking the Freeman’s Oath

In researching my ancestors in the Colonial America period, I occasionally came across references to being admitted as a freeman, especially ancestors from Plymouth Colony and the Boston area. Sometimes sources referred to taking the Freeman’s Oath. I thought that that meant being free from debt and owning land.

Not quite. Freeman is a term which reflected a person’s position in the church and community. In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a man had to be a member of the Church and free of all debts to be a freeman. The position of freeman had to be earned by the colonists and was followed by taking the freeman’s oath to defend the Commonwealth and not to conspire against the government.

A man must have taken the oath to be eligible for public office or even to vote in town meetings. As the name implies, the Freeman’s Oath was only available to free men and not slaves, indentured servants, apprentices, or women. In addition, a man had to demonstrate that he was of good character and be sponsored by other freemen.

This copy, represented as a rare fine in 1985, turned out to be a fake, by the infamous forger and murderer Mark Hoffman. Hoffman is currently serving a life sentence at the Utah State Prison.

The Freeman’s Oath is important to genealogists because by the early 19th century, much of the population of New England was descended from freemen. Since the courts recorded the Freeman’s Oaths, lists exist of freemen from across New England.

My ancestor, John Gallop (1593-1649), set sail from Dorset, England on March 22, 1630 aboard the Mary and John with 140 other passengers. His wife Cristobel was reluctant to come, so she stayed in England with their four children. It would be more than three years before he could convince her to come.

He was a skilled mariner, adept at piloting ships through the harbor and Channel Islands. In September 1633, he became famous for using a new channel to pilot the Griffin into Boston harbor. On board were the Rev. John Cotton, the Rev. Thomas Hooker, and other notable founding fathers. Gallop’s wife and children are thought to have been aboard. After safely arriving, Cristobel and the children embraced their new country and adjusted well. Cristobel’s arrival appears to have given new incentive to John, as after her arrival he appeared to be more assertive and contented with his businesses.

John was admitted to Old South Church, Boston on January 6, 1634 and was made a freeman in April of the same year. He was one of the earliest citizens to be granted land in the northern part of the town where he had a wharf-right and house. The area became known as Gallop’s point and was at the southeast part of the peninsula, north of the town. He also had a farm on Gallop’s Island (aka Gallup’s Island), one of the Boston Harbor Islands. Today it is part of the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreational Area.

Gallop’s Island

John Gallop died in Boston in January 1649/50 of a “great griping in his bowels” (from a letter of Adam Winthrop to John Winthrop, February 1649/50). Cristobel lived six more years. They were founders of a large family that continues today, including mine. The freemen’s oath helped me discover them.

Washington’s Life Guard

Standard for Washington’s Life Guard

Seth Alvord, my 1st cousin, six times removed, enlisted in the Revolutionary War, under the flag of George Washington.

Seth was a cabinet maker, living in Chatham, Connecticut. He was said to be intelligent and reliable, a large, muscular and handsome man, fearless in the line of duty. In 1776, when he was in his late teens, he gave up his business making furniture and coffins and and joined the Continental Army determined to battle for liberty to the end.

He enlisted, June 1776, to re-enforce Washington in New York and served throughout the war as a member of General Washington’s Life Guard. He was with Washington when he crossed the Delaware on Christmas night 1776 and was with him at the surrender of Cornwallis in Yorktown October 19, 1781.

It seems he may have enlisted more than once as he is listed as “time expired” at the end of December 1776 and he was with Washington at the end of the war. Also members the life guard were required to have already been drilled.

I was not familiar with Washington’s Life Guard. They were an elite unit officially called The Commander-in-Chief’s Guard and were authorized in 1776 and disbanded after the war in 1783. The unit was composed of up to 250 men, commissioned to protect General Washington and the money and important papers of the Continental Army. .

Washington’s general order on 11 March outlined the type of men he hoped to recruit:

The General being desirous of selecting a particular number of men, as a Guard for himself, and baggage, The Colonel, or commanding Officer, of each of the established Regiments, (the Artillery and Rifflemen excepted) will furnish him with four, that the number wanted may be chosen out of them. His Excellency depends upon the Colonels for good Men, such as they can recommend for their sobriety, honesty, and good behaviour; he wishes them to be from five feet, eight Inches high, to five feet, ten Inches; handsomely and well made, and as there is nothing in his eyes more desirable, than Cleanliness in a Soldier, he desires that particular attention may be made, in the choice of such men, as are neat, and spruce. They are all to be at Head Quarters to morrow precisely at twelve, at noon, when the Number wanted will be fixed upon. The General neither wants men with uniforms, or arms, nor does he desire any man to be sent to him, that is not perfectly willing, and desirous, of being of this guard. They should be drill’d men

It sounds like a great honor to belong to this unit, and family members are understandably proud. However like all family stories, this one may not be what it seems. Although I have authenticated that Seth belonged to the Life Guards, they may not have been as prestigious as imagined. According to some historians, it was really nothing more than what would be called a headquarters security detachment. Whether it was prestigious or not, family legends of the great honor of serving George Washington abound.

Risk Takers

Herb Sommers and his Harley Davidson (photo added to ancestry.com by khines1166)

This week’s 52 ancestors prompt and this picture reminded me of all the risk takers in my family. Those who risked everything to come to a new land, the ship captain pirates, those involved in the American Revolution, and those who moved to settle the American West. Then there were the stunt pilots, race car drivers and motorcycle enthusiasts. There is definitely an adventurous streak in my family.

The picture is of my mother’s cousin, Herbert Sommers crossing the Mendota Bridge over the Minnesota River on a motorcycle trip in the 1920’s. I don’t know if he belonged to a club or not, but family remember him being a motorcycle enthusiast. Motorcycle clubs were starting at the turn of the century and there were motorcycle shops in Northfield where groups gathered. Often they learned to work on their own bikes.

I’m not sure what Herb did for a living. In the 1910 census he listed odd jobs, so maybe he was mechanically inclined, but in 1930 he is listed as a salesman for a nursery. In 1940 he lists his occupation as a dairyman for the United States Indian Agency. I guess the bike was just a hobby.

Likely, Herb took less risks after he married in 1902 and after his daughter, Alice was born in 1925, but you never know. Adventure runs in the family.

Bridgeman’s Ice Cream Parlor

No favorite bridge this week. There were bridge builders in the family, but no one that makes a good story. No one plays bridge or has bridge in their name. The first thing that came to mind is Bridgeman’s ice cream.

Growing up in Minnesota, the summers were often hot. No one had air-conditioning. Sometimes, during streaks of heat and humidity, mom would give us a special treat and take us to Bridgeman’s Ice Cream Parlor. It was a place to cool off and get a delicious ice cream treat. For the rest of the family it was usually banana splits. For me it was a hot fudge sundae or an ice cream soda. It was such a great way to cool off, calm hot weather tempers and enjoy a sweet treat with my family.

When I was older, Bridgeman’s became a summer teenage hangout. Not quite as fun as the pizza place we frequented in the fall and winter, but still fun and air-conditioned. Later, when many of us had summer jobs, we went less often, but it was still a popular place to gather.

I did an internet search, and it’s still there, 50 years later. I wonder if today’s teens still like to gather there?


Response to 52 Ancestor’s Weekly Prompt: Bridge