This is a piece about our connection to ancestors, their way of life in the Midwest, and these discoveries through one little old lady.
My Aunt Olive Hendrickson was born in South Dakota and now lives in South Saint Paul. I’m 31; so guess what year she was born: 1970? Back to 1958?
How about way back in 1935?
How about before WWI.
June 9th, 1914. (I know. It was kind of a trick question. Aunt Olive is my great, great aunt. –I think that’s how it works out.)
I didn’t even know she existed until just three months ago. I got an out-of-the-blue email from a woman named Beverly Klein. I knew the name Klein, but not Beverly Klein. Saying she was my Grandpa’s cousin, she said she’d read a couple articles I wrote in her newspaper: the Bemidji Pioneer. She also added to that she sends the pieces down to her mother, Olive Hendrickson, who lives nearer to me in South Saint Paul.
Hmm, so this Olive is my grandpa’s cousin’s mother. Beverly then put it in another way, writing: she’s your great-grandfather’s 97-year-old sister. Wow. My great-grandpa Ferdig was alive when I was little, passing away when I was 6 or so. Then after my great-grandmother—his wife—died, I assumed that all that generation was gone and that my grandparents were now the eldest family alive. For me, it was as if this eldest generation came back from beyond to reclaim its place in my world, a time capsule digging in another twenty rings into the family tree. A couple weeks later, I arranged to visit my great-great aunt Olive.
It was a twenty minute drive from Minneapolis to South St. Paul. Her rockin’ digs are in a senior housing complex. Living alone, her apartment was the kind of place you’d expect: off-white walls, soft beige carpet, a TV a few models behind the times. Grandma Ollie, as her family call her, had the expected short curly hair, glasses, and loose-fitting button-up shirt and pants. She was short, too. When I stood next to her, I could have rested my arm atop hear head. Indeed, she’d later say she was but 4’11” even in her young-adult years.
She was 97 but as mobile and communicative as someone 20 years younger.
So let’s go back to those young adult years. Actually, let’s go back to 1914. Olive Hendrickson told me her story…
She was born Olive Mae Ferdig in Trent, South Dakota on June 9th. Trent is a tiny, tiny town (pop. 232, 2010 census) near the border of Minnesota, a bit north of Sioux Falls, SD. Olive was the 8th of 11 children of William and Rose Ferdig, and with few modern conveniences in rural America in those days, you can pretty much picture “Little House on the Prairie”-type conditions. In fact, these lands weren’t geographically too far from the settings of those books.
Here’s Olive as a baby with her siblings:
I asked many questions about her father William because it was such a treat to have this woman before me who could tell me first-hand what my great, great grandfather was like. Though he looked large in photos, he was better described as stocky:
William was an unsettled man. A jumpy German who moved about continuously. With a load of children you wouldn’t think that would be an easy thing to do, but despite protestations from family and obvious logistical issues of moving in those days, his will found a way to bounce from Iowa to South Dakota to northern Minnesota back to Iowa back to northern Minnesota to north-eastern Minnesota and so forth.
William grew up in Sioux City, Iowa—almost straight south of Trent, as a matter of fact, and not too far from Sioux Falls. Here’s a map for ya:
Rose Scofield also grew up in Sioux City, and this wasn’t the only pairing of these two sibling sets. There were three. William and two of his sisters married Rose and two of her Scofield brothers.
I have more questions than answers about the life of William and Rose, but what I gathered from Olive is that soon after marriage, they were off. And that her father’s restlessness was vivid. One time they left their home in such a hurry that they, “left a nice organ in the house”, she said. Later on, Olive was just one week shy of graduating the 8th grade, but her dad had the family up and leave anyway. Later at her new school that fall, she had to repeat the 8th grade all over again.
“When he got ready to move, he wouldn’t listen to nobody,” Olive said.
According to other relatives, there’s a story from my great-grandfather (Olive’s older brother), Clarence Ferdig, that their father came home late one night and had all the children hurriedly gather into their horse-drawn wagon. He ordered them to cover their heads under a blanket. Clarence said his father got into a fight at a saloon, injured a man, and was now wanted. Tough to hold down a job that way. To make a buck William did some logging and farm work.
This was America in the 1920’s. Men in cities during that era started to dabble in modern luxury—automobiles, electricity, indoor plumbing, phonographs. They went to work and wore a suit, had a routine, perhaps a small business. On the weekend they’d play golf, mingle with others, and have a cocktail.
And then there was my great-great-grandfather, William. What a clash!
He did do a nice job of cleaning up for this shot, though:
Asked about their personal habits, Aunt Ollie said that neither of her parents smoked. William did like to get a bottle “when he could afford it”. They hardly went to church–perhaps because there were no churches around at times–though missionaries would visit. She said the family got along and that they “never fought or nothing”.
Naturally, Olive had even fewer answers about her parents’ parents. Her one story about interacting with her grandparents was when her family made one of their many moves back down to Sioux City to care for her father’s bed-ridden diabetic mother. (That’d be Olive’s Grandma Ferdig, or my great-grandfather’s Grandma Ferdig, or my own great-great-great Grandma Ferdig—whew!) Olive remembers her brothers shucking corn for area farmers down there in Iowa to make a couple bucks.
Interestingly, and sadly, she never even saw as much as a picture of her Grandpa and Grandma Scofield.
After caring for their grandma, they skedaddled out of Iowa (the week before her 8th grade graduation) and moved back up to northern Minnesota to a place called Quiring Township about 35 miles north of Bemidji. This place is so remote that I grew up 15 miles from there, and I hadn’t even heard of it until Olive mentioned it.
Her school was a one-room schoolhouse; all the roads were dirt; and a trip to the bathroom meant going outside. They were always poor. “We didn’t have nothing”, Olive asserted, recalling a lack of a bicycle or ice-skates for the kids. They’d keep their milk cool by putting in a bucket and lowering it into a well and heat their modest home via a wood-burning furnace. They needed it, too. Because back then winters were winters, and you didn’t get to escape the conditions at will. On those frigid February nights, Aunt Ollie told me she remembers waking up in the morning and seeing ice on the dish next to her bed.
Reminiscing in the comforts of her present-day home, she said, “I often wonder how we got by.”
As a token of remembrance, though, Ollie recently purchased a model replica of the same kind of stove used by her mother:
Ollie would be free of that fleeing-family living when she met Roy Hendrickson. Roy’s little brother, Louie, who was Olive’s age, handed her a Valentine’s Day card (guess that tradition goes back a while) when they were teenagers in school. He played Cupid, though, not Casanova and signed it with his brother’s name. “He was full of heck, that Louie,” Olive said with an adoring laugh. Louie’s alive today–across the border in Wisconsin, racing Olive to 100.
Unfortunately, Roy isn’t. But little did Louie know, that 80+ years ago, he was helping set up a marriage that would last almost 70. Today, Olive’s husband, Roy, has been gone only 10 years. And him being 6 years Olive’s senior means he was 94 himself when he passed. She was 18; he was 24 when they married, and they shared 69 years in marriage.
Roy and Olive’s life began up in northern Minnesota and took a turn for the west out to North Dakota where Roy’s two brothers had farms. Later, in Grand Forks, Roy got a job at a meat-packing plant, and later yet–the 1950′s–they moved to South St Paul where he worked meat-packing until his company closed. After a day of digging out kidneys, he’d come home and have to soak his hands, Olive said.
South Saint Paul would be their home up until the end.
Here’s a bit of video of our interview:
We met for only an hour and a half, but spanned a lifetime. And her life isn’t done yet. In fact, in celebration of it, a mini-reunion of distant relatives all came together three weeks later for her 98th birthday on June 9th.
The community room at her living facility was the place for this event. Walking in, I saw the usual cake and gifts and snack trays along with tables with people sitting around.
The center of it all of course was the birthday princess:
Interesting was how spread out the relation was between all the attendees. I knew less than half of the people there—such a branching out can occur in four generations. Actually five now. Olive has two great, great grandchildren.
Also there were a few people that I knew were related, but I never bothered figuring out how. Beverly Klein’s (the women who originally wrote me the email) grandson, Tim, was there. Also growing up in Blackduck, I always thought of Tim as friend of my younger brother, not a relative. (It seems a sort of either/or thing: family or friends.) Yet, there were Tim and I, tied together by William and Rose Ferdig and Olive Hendrickson, his great grandma and my great, great aunt.
Another young fella, Kyle, and I took our branching to paper and diagrammed our tree of life:
What would you guess by looking?
What I do know is that in a paternalistic society, I tend to put more weight into the ancestors who share my name. But my mom’s mother’s mother’s father has the same amount of genetic similarity as do William and I. (Well, the fraction is the same, but maybe there’s significance to Y chromosome down through the generations? Any geneticist or biologist out there?)
How about some musicians?:
After some cake and commingling, we stepped outside. It was a gorgeous afternoon and one of Ollie’s children brought the old car that her and Roy bought back in the 50′s.
This was no jalopy, either. She was cherry. Car show ready, it was, reflecting those sunbeams like it was the source of the glow. Ollie stepped into the driver’s seat like the clock was turned back 50 years and waved like a beauty pageant like the clock was turned back 80:
When seeing a shot like this, with all the family in the background, I always wonder if an elderly person like Olive ever thinks about all the beautiful life they are responsible for.
This shot puts some perspective on this as well:
And here’s a bit of footage for ya from the party: )
Reflecting on her life, Olive said back in her apartment, “I don’t know how we lived.” It’s incredible how different things are today than how they were when she was a girl. All the inventions (she said of my digital camera’s screen image, “If that ain’t something!”), all the luxuries and comforts.
She must think to herself, “Wait, did all this really happen right here in Minnesota in one lifetime?” The 20th century was an exciting era to experience. Now 12.5 years in, the 21st is treating her pretty good, too.