Family History

Darling We Miss Thee

John Lester Kelley, Fincham Cemetery, Randolph County, WV

Addie Fincham, Greg’s paternal great aunt, was born at the turn of the 20th century deep in the West Virginia hills, near a sleepy little bend in the road called Adolph in Randolph County.  Her father, John W. Fincham, owned a modest farm in the bottom land along the clear, cold Middle Fork River. On this farm, which Greg knows well from his childhood, Addie lived and played for a short time with her seven brothers and sisters.

Childhood was cut short when Addie lost her mother Lena before she had even turned seven years old. It was a hardscrabble life in this part of Appalachia, and as a very young woman Addie had to work in other people’s homes for room, board, and some meager wages. She would sometimes earn money as a seamstress, making dresses and other items of clothing for the families of the poor farmers, miners, and lumberjacks that lived in the area. Four months after her nineteenth birthday in 1921, she married Adnigh David Kelly from the nearby town of Mabie. Adnigh was a coal miner for A. Spates Brady Mines.

After they were married Addie and her husband moved north from Randolph County to the little town of Century in Barbour County so that Adnigh could begin work for the Century Coal Company. There, on August 1, 1923, Addie’s first child, John Lester, was born. “Lester,” as he was affectionately called by the family, was a treasured addition. Today’s new parents, posting endless photos of their first babies on Facebook, chronicling every cute smile and every new milestone reached, certainly are no more joyous in their firstborns than Addie and Adnigh were.

In a devastating loss six months later, precious Lester died from influenza. His still little body was carried from Century by plodding horse cart to the train station at Ellamore and then put on a lumber train to be delivered to the quiet, pastoral Fincham Chapel Cemetery adjacent to John W.’s farm. An old railroad line, owned by the Moore-Keppel Lumber Company, used to run along the Middle Fork down to near Adolph. The Chapel cemetery, nestled between the wooded hills on a small slope, holds many of Addie’s ancestors and family.

If you visit the cemetery, hidden along the narrow road between Mill Creek and Adolph, you can find Lester’s poignant tombstone: a lamb reposing on a decorative headstone. The time worn inscription reads:

John Lester

Son of A. D. & Addie Kelley

Aug. 1, 1923

Feb. 1, 1924

At the bottom of the tombstone are the heartbreaking last words of Addie and Adnigh to their dead son:

Darling We Miss Thee

Like her mother and her first child, Addie herself died young. She succumbed in her early thirties to stomach cancer while pregnant with her sixth child. She too is buried in Fincham Chapel Cemetery. Greg’s grandparents, Cora (Fincham) and Jesse Shreve, who lived across the creek from John Fincham’s farm, took the surviving Kelley children into their home for a time and cared for them, even though they were raising eight children of their own. Adnigh David later moved into his father-in-law John’s home with his large family. There Addie’s unmarried sister, Lorena (“Aunt Lixie”), helped care for the children.

Some years after Addie’s death, Cora and Jesse Shreve’s children (Greg’s dad and his siblings) were playing one day at their grandfather John Fincham’s house. In the living room of that home was an old chest of drawers near the door to the back porch. The Shreve boys (Dick, Charlie, Paul, Montgomery, and later, Neal) knew that Lucky Strikes “Greens,” a brand of cigarette popular in the 1930’s and early 1940’s, were kept in that drawer, and they decided to try to pilfer a cigarette. (Their mother Cora frowned on smoking, and her children never, even as adults, smoked in her presence!)

In the drawer next to the cigarettes, the boys found a dried up, shriveled orange.  Their sister Arlene, who had accompanied them on this adolescent foray, picked it up reverently, knowing what it signified. That orange had been their small cousin Lester’s favorite toy. He had played with the orange as any modern infant might play with a small ball or little stuffed animal. When Lester died, his parents couldn’t bear to part with it, and it was kept by the family for years, eventually finding a final resting place in that chest of drawers. The orange, dried and shriveled to half of its former size, remained as a tangible and emotionally charged connection to Addie and Adnigh’s departed son.

As we grow older and begin to lose grandparents, parents, siblings, and friends many of us also accumulate physical reminders of people we have loved but who are no longer with us. Many of us have inherited Grandmother’s dishes, Grandfather’s fishing pole, Mom’s crystal, or Dad’s uniform. We have houses where this piece of furniture has come from Uncle and that knick-knack from Aunt. However, sometimes small, ostensibly insignificant items like Lester’s orange, although outwardly trivial and mundane, are nevertheless especially meaningful. Their value as mementos of our beloved dead derives from something beyond their intrinsic value, great age, or rarity. Their value derives from the emotion we, sometimes inexplicably, invest in them.

For Joan it is a little marble she keeps in her bed stand drawer. She found it among her dad’s things after he died. Looking at it, she remembered how he once told her that he loved playing marbles as a child. Into that small, round object, even smaller than Lester’s orange, she transferred a lifetime’s accumulation of emotion.

We know, of course, these treasured mementos can never replace the person that we love and miss. But when we slide open our drawer and see and touch our own “Lester’s orange,” we smile, perhaps shed a small tear, and then whisper under our breath a tender message to our loved one, “darling we miss thee.”

The John Johnson Cot


My name is Yohn Yohnson

I come from Visconsin

I vork in the lumber mills there

Every girl that I meet

As I valk down the street

Says “Hello, what’s your name?”

And I say

My name is Yohn Yohnson

I come from Visconsin…

(Continue repeating first verse. This song never ends!)

Back when Joan was growing up, her family often took road trips. She and her two brothers, in the back seat of the family Chevy, would sing this song to pass the time. They would sing as long as they could keep it up—or as long as their dad could tolerate listening!

This wasn’t just any John Johnson that Joan and her brothers were singing about, but a special John Johnson who was a relative through her maternal grandfather’s family. Or so Joan believed growing up, because of what her grandfather had once told her. She only later learned that this particular ditty was just a song about some generic Scandinavian immigrant named John Johnson from Wisconsin! Joan learned the song and heard about the “real” John Johnson from her maternal grandfather, Martin Cornelius, who lived in Gary, Indiana when Joan was a child.

Joan’s grandfather had been born with the name Kornelius Kaspersen in Norway and came to America as an infant with his parents. Norwegians derived their last names by taking their father’s first name and adding sen (son) or datter (daughter). This meant that Norwegian surnames changed with each generation. Joan’s great grandfather’s name was Kasper Korneliussen (his father’s first name had been Kornelius) but Americanized his name to Casper Cornelius when the family emigrated from Norway.  That left Joan’s grandfather, however, with the name Kornelius Cornelius! Since that wouldn’t do, and they were good Lutherans, Joan’s great-grandparents decided to call him Martin Cornelius instead.

The name John Johnson came up whenever Joan’s family would visit her Cornelius grandparents because of a sturdy sleeping cot that bore his name. In order to accommodate Joan’s family of five, the “John Johnson cot” would be brought out for one of the kids to sleep on. It was a large cot with a metal frame made sometime in the early twentieth century. It was purchased about 1926 in La Grange, Illinois, when a relative named John Johnson first came to visit Joan’s grandparents and was thereafter always known to the family as the “John Johnson cot.” Curiosity about this John Johnson led Joan to try to find out more about him over the years.

John Johnson was born Johan Michal Johansen on December 29, 1865, in Lysøya, Vikna, Nord-Trøndelag, Norway. Vikna is an archipelago on the mid-Norwegian coast, the same place Joan’s grandfather was born. He was a second cousin, once removed of Joan’s grandfather. Joan learned from her grandfather that John had a special place in the family’s heart because he had helped arrange the passage of Joan’s grandfather and his parents to America.

John had immigrated in 1884, settling in Wisconsin. He wrote back to the Cornelius family (to quote Joan’s mother) that “life is such easier here”. John had procured a job with the Omaha Railroad in a little village named Roberts, Wisconsin. Today, by car you could drive to Minneapolis from Roberts in about 45 minutes. The Cornelius family, however, didn’t have enough money to make the voyage to America. John wrote them again, saying that he would loan them the money they needed. Each ticket cost $40.00, and John purchased enough steamship tickets to bring not just Joan’s great-grandparents and grandfather but also several other members of the Cornelius family. With John Johnson’s help Joan’s Cornelius family was able to make the long and exhausting trip from Norway in 1887.

John Johnson was unmarried. When Joan’s great-grandparents arrived in Wisconsin, John gave up his position on Nils Nordby’s railway section crew of the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Omaha Railway in Roberts for Casper. He said that Casper had a wife and baby to feed, and it was more important for Casper to have the job than him. John went to work on a railway section crew for the Great Northern Railway out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. According to Joan’s grandfather, John lost the sight of one of his eyes in a fist fight while working there.

John had another special bond with Joan’s grandfather as well. On December 14, 1865, just 15 days before John was born, John’s father and Joan’s great-great grandfather drowned together at sea. Her great-great grandfather, Kornelius Hallesen, had arranged to purchase Christmas goods at a small village named Austafjord with John’s father, Johan Fredrik Gunbjørnsen. Johan Fredrik was first cousin to Kornelius Hallesen’s wife, Anna Johanna Paulsdatter, so the men had family ties as well as a business relationship. Both perished at sea in the frigid waters that fateful day in December.

These bonds carried on through the years with the entire Cornelius family, including both Joan’s great-grandfather Casper and grandfather Martin. In 1913 John, while living in Baldwin, Wisconsin, wrote a letter to the Decorah-Posten, a Norwegian language newspaper published in Decorah, Iowa, that was read by Norwegian immigrants throughout the United States. In his letter he exhorted his fellow emigrants from Vikna to contribute to a memorial that led to the purchase of a minnetavle or plaque that still hangs today in the Garstad church in Vikna.

Minnetavla i Garstad Kirke – 100 år

Out of this call to fellow Vikna immigrants grew an organization called the Viknalaget, a society of immigrants from Vikna. John and Casper were founding members, and, in fact, the organization’s first meeting was held in Casper’s home in Minneapolis. In May 1932 John joined Joan’s great-grandparents on a memorable trip back to Norway, a trip that held great importance in Joan’s family and was one she heard about as a child.

John Johnson would also visit the Martin Cornelius household from time to time. Joan’s grandfather was a faithful letter-writer, and there probably was correspondence between them up until John’s death. About four months after John returned from Norway with Joan’s great-grandparents, he underwent gastrointestinal surgery and died on January 20, 1933, in Minneapolis. He was 67. Gone was Casper’s childhood friend, a man whose father had drowned in the cold Norwegian waters with Casper’s own father some 67 years before–a man to whom his life-long friend Casper was indebted and to whom Casper’s descendants remain indebted.

The “John Johnson cot” is long gone, probably discarded or given away when Joan’s grandparents moved from Gary to Minneapolis in their later years. John Johnson, however, is certainly not forgotten. If it hadn’t been for his kindness and generosity, Joan’s great-grandparents may never have made the trip to America. The (not so) simple act of giving up his job to Joan’s great-grandfather may have made the difference between failure and success in building a new life in a strange and foreign land.

As far as Joan is concerned, John Johnson IS the “Yohn Yohnson from Visconsin” in the song she learned from her grandfather and taught her own children to sing.