Monday, July 22, 2019

A Winnebago County story: "Henry Dodge and Sister"

I'm going to shift the scene this morning from Lucas County in the far south of Iowa to Winnebago County, in the north, in order to tell you a poignant story of the immigrant experience and loss involving Henry Dodge, "Sister" and a Norwegian farmer and carpenter named Tonnes Mortenson.

Long before there was a "Lucas Countyan," called after my native land, I was by adoption a Winnebago Countyan. And while living in that magnificent landscape --- vast swells and flatlands of corn and soybeans occupying what once was tallgrass prairie and marshland punctuated by occasional islands of native timber --- I absorbed by osmosis a degree of Norwegian. To the point that when startled today, rather than cuss I still say "uff da!"

My first job after Vietnam was as a reporter and advertising salesman for The Forest City Summit, then I moved to the small town of Thompson where for quite a few years I edited two small weeklies, The Thompson Courier and The Rake Register. My associates were a distinguished spinster with a formidable memory and considerable story-telling talent named LaVae Lillebo, Ellen Olson, who sold advertising, and the remarkable Rosella Erdahl, our Rake correspondent. Rosella's mother had been a Rake, so she was part of the fabric of that small town almost on the Minnesota line.

My favorite exercise route during the years I lived in Thompson included Rose Hill Cemetery, something of an island rising from a sea of corn and beans in the southwest corner of town. Naturally, I examined tombstones and took an interest in those who rested there, many of whom were immigrants from Norway and their descendants.

It was on one of those walks that I first noticed the small bronze plaque inscribed "Henry Dodge and Sister" mounted on a concrete base on the bluff at the south end of the original cemetery. Intrigued, I decided to find out more and chased both Henry and "sister" down in back files of The Courier.

At the time, I was living in a big old house in Thompson that had been built near the turn of the 20th century by Tonnes Mortenson, a farmer and carpenter, and his wife, Sarah Gerhardine Rebekka Osmundsdatter Sviland.

Tonnes was born during 1865 in Norway, had immigrated to the United States in 1885, when he was 20, and settled in Winnebago County some years later. He married Sarah, also a native of Norway, during November of 1890 and they prospered at Thompson --- but had no children. 

Sarah died during 1937 and, in old age, Tonnes moved from Thompson to Minot, North Dakota, where nieces and nephews lived. He died there in 1961 at the age of 96. My associate, LaVae, remembered Tonnes --- she had gone to work for the Thompson newspaper not long after graduating from high school --- and enjoyed telling tales of his frugality.

As the years passed and Tonnes advanced into his 90s, he continued to subscribe to The Courier and enjoyed reading about the happenings in his former hometown --- but began to fear that he might expire before his subscription did. Therefore, it became his practice to subscribe for only six months at a time --- just in case.

Henry Dodge was born in England during 1864 and, like Tonnes, immigrated to the United States when he was about 20, ca. 1886. He arrived in the Thompson vicinity about 1895, but never married and seems never to have prospered either. He farmed for a time, then went to work as a farm hand, some of the time for Tonnes, and as a teamster.

During 1902, Henry decided to sent for his younger sister, Clara, then 22 and still living in England. It was thought that she could serve as his housekeeper at Thompson, then perhaps marry and start a new life in the land of promise. Sadly, she didn't make it. The circumstances were reported upon in The Thompson Courier of March 13, 1902:

"One death which we must record this week occurred under particularly unhappy circumstances. Three thousand miles from home and two thousand miles from her brother for whom she was expecting to make her home, with no friend or relative at her side, Clara Dodge closed her eyes to the sorrows of life and passed into the unknown beyond. She was coming from England to join her brother, Harry Dodge, who lived north of Thompson. She was taken sick on shipboard with spinal meningitis and died in a New York hospital on Friday, March 7th, a few days after having been removed from the vessel. The remains were brought to Thompson for interment and the funeral service was held at the M.E. church yesterday. The deceased was about twenty-two years of age and was born and reared in Devonshire, England."

So that was how Clara Dodge came to be buried in Thompson, Iowa, a place she had never seen, half a continent away from her place of death and an ocean removed from where she was born and raised. Tonnes Mortenson reportedly was among Henry's Iowa neighbors who contributed to the fund that paid for her final journey to Iowa.

Henry continued to live and work in or near Thompson until his death at the age of 74 during January of 1939. In sifting through the records, I discovered that Tonnes Mortenson also had assumed responsibility for arranging his burial alongside his sister's grave overlooking the prairie at Rose Hill. And it was the frugal Tonnes, too, who placed the modest grave marker that ensures some degree of immortality for these siblings who died so far from home in a new land.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Such a good read. Thank you for sharing.