Lemont Illinois

A Day in the Life

Almost a decade ago in 2005 Joan’s father, Donald Theodore Nelson, died from the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. Although in the end he wandered lost in a labyrinth of his own evaporating memories, we remember him as he was: intelligent, well-read, curious, incomparably meticulous, and, above all, a man with a deep sense of responsibility— to country, to work, and to family. (See our earlier blog “Donald T. Nelson, Hero https://sixtysixtyblog.wordpress.com/2014/04/14/donald-t-nelson-hero/)

He was a modest man with a keen awareness of the passage of time, of how the legacies of our past shape the contours of our present. He knew, instinctually, how a well-planned present could bring about a desired future. He had, consequently, an abiding and serious interest in family history and his Swedish ancestry—but also an unswerving commitment to ensuring the well-being of his descendants.

Since his death, the two of us have chosen to honor his memory by making an annual pilgrimage on Memorial Day to a small cemetery in Lemont, Illinois—the Bethany Lutheran Cemetery, known for many years by old-timers in the town as the “Old Swedish Cemetery.”  Donald and his wife Ruth, Joan’s mother, are buried in this peaceful small-town preserve about 27 miles south of Chicago. Indeed, almost the whole of Joan’s Swedish ancestry for several generations is interred here, including paternal grandparents, great grandparents and great-great grandparents—along with a plethora of great aunts, great uncles, and cousins of all sorts. The quiet hilltop is filled with memorials to those 19th century Swedish families who came to Lemont from the old country to build their futures in a promising new land.

On this Memorial Day, May 25, 2015,  the two of us are not alone in the Old Swedish Cemetery. We are joined by a small group of Joan’s extended family—all of us gathered to remember our forebears, as well as departed fathers, mothers, children, brothers, sisters, wives, and husbands. We sit on benches and in lawn chairs underneath the trees for a short service; we take a solemn walk to a loved one’s grave; we stop and think about times past but not nearly forgotten. Then, like our Swedish families before us, we gather together for a meal afterwards, where more is served up than food. There is an abundant portion of reminiscence, nostalgia, old stories, and the unspoken but deeply satisfying comfort of shared history and long familiarity.

Axel and Annette Nelson Family Circa 1891

The members of this hardy band meeting once a year under the trees at the cemetery are descendants of two immigrant Swedish-American families formed in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some are descendants of Axel and Annette Nelson (born Axel Nilsson and Annette Andreassdotter), while others are descendants of James Ahlberg (born Johannes Ahlberg) and Christine Sandberg.  A few, like Joan, are descendants of both couples. But this post is about Axel and Annette.

It is quite likely that the Memorial Day tradition at the Old Swedish Cemetery began over a hundred or more years ago. A first cousin of Joan’s father, who was born in 1919, remembers that her parents had brought her to the cemetery on Memorial Day when she was just a small child.

Annette and Axel Nelson had eleven children, seven of whom have living descendants. During the nine years we have been attending the gathering, we have met with descendants of six of those seven Nelson children. But, who, really, was this family? What was it about them and their character that they could give birth to a tradition strong enough to survive year after year after year for over a century? Maybe if we understood a little more about this family, we could fathom the tidal pull, the familial forces that could hold their descendants together in the face of time and the inevitable dissolution of shared memory.

Thus, after returning to our home in Ohio, we pored over the many painstakingly recorded memories of the Nelson family that have been preserved.  We diligently studied Illinois census records from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One census entry, recorded on a single summer day in 1900, was striking in its detail and transported us back in time to Lemont, to the ancestral home of Joan’s great grandparents, Axel and Annette Nelson.

Axel and Annette Nelson Family 1900 Illinois Census

Axel and Annette Nelson Family’s Entry in the 1900 Illinois Census

It is Monday, June 18, 1900. Axel, age forty-three, and Annette, thirty-eight years old, have been married nineteen years, and Annette has already given birth to nine children. Of these, eight are still living.

A baby daughter, Anna Selma, only one month old has not survived. She died tragically in February 1886. Her cradle was near the small stove used to heat the house, mayhap moved there to keep her little body warm on a chilly winter day. Axel’s coat accidentally caught on the handle of a kettle heating on the stovetop, spilling boiling hot water over Anna’s small body. She didn’t survive. Anna would be the first member of the Nelson family to be buried in the Old Swedish Cemetery.

By 1900 the two oldest children, Minnie and Al, have already left home. There are six children now remaining in the too small, two-bedroom home. Anna Selma (named for her deceased sister) is thirteen; Emma is eleven years old; Ted (Joan’s grandfather) is eight; Esther is six; Emil is four; and the youngest, Sigfried, is but two.

It is morning, and Axel has already left for his job as quarryman at the Lemont limestone quarries. The work is dangerous and difficult, paying only about $30 a month, but Axel has managed, somehow, to acquire enough money to buy a small homestead for the family. It is a modest house and a barn located in a Swedish neighborhood about a half-mile from the Lemont city limits—a neighborhood known as Hazel Dell. It was also referred to by the somewhat mysterious name “Stray 80” for many years.

Annette keeps the home clean and tidy.  The Nelson home has only a kitchen, dining room, and two small bedrooms.  Although a bedroom and living room would be added later, the family never will have the luxury of an indoor bathroom.  When Annette first saw the home she and Axel had purchased, she broke out in tears, “because it was so full of bugs!”

Anna Feeding Chickens In Lemont

Anna Feeding Chickens in Hazel Dell

The kids are out of school for the summer. Annette sends Ted out to feed the pigs and milk the cow, affectionately named “Lillaboy” by the family. She tells Anna to tend to the chickens. Emma is taking care of the smaller children, so that Annette can get her work for the day done.

Annette is spending her Monday morning washing clothes by putting them in a boiler on the stove. Her boiler is a large cauldron in which the family clothes and soapy water are heated together. Axel’s extra set of work clothes are particularly soiled, so she removes them from the boiler and hands them to Anna to scrub the stubborn dirt out with a washboard. After washing, rinsing, and wringing the clothes, Annette and Anna hang the clothes outside on the line to dry. Of course, ironing will come later.

Like many other women at the time, Annette follows a strict schedule: washing is done on Monday, ironing on Tuesday, mending on Wednesday. Friday is the children’s favorite day because that would be the day Annette bakes fresh bread.  Yesterday, a Sunday, had been a relative day of rest for Axel and Annette because it was a day strictly set aside for attending services and activities at Swedish Bethany Church. Yesterday Axel had taught Sunday school, and the children who were old enough attended classes. Being short on cash, Axel quietly pilfered a few pennies from Annette’s yeast jar to give as a heartfelt church offering.

Annette speaks only Swedish to her children.  Although Axel learned English through his work, and some of the children English through school, Annette has still has not learned her adopted country’s tongue. She has little incentive to. The Swedish Bethany Church that the family attends holds all of its services in Swedish. She purchases her goods from Swedish-speaking merchants in town.  Her social life revolves around the Swedish prayer meetings that she and her neighbors hold in their homes. But she is nevertheless uncomfortable that she does not understand what her children are saying to one another. She tries to pick up English words and phrases. Sometimes she hears the children laughing while they’re playing outside, their voices, sing-song, imitating Swedish in a made-up language the Nelson kids called “Skonic,” probably so-named because the children had been told that the Nelson family had come from Skäne in southern Sweden.

Afternoon comes quickly this busy Monday in 1900. After a mid-day meal, Annette, Anna, and Ted go out to tend the vegetable garden planted in the family’s front yard. The family grows almost all of its own vegetables. While toiling in the afternoon sun, Annette thinks to herself that she is glad it is summer. The children are home from school and can help out. There is less coal for her to gather, less water to carry, maybe a few chores less in a chore-filled day. And she is glad, above all, that Axel is at home living with the family. During the winter months the quarries don’t operate, and last winter Axel tried to make ends meet by cutting down trees to sell as firewood. When that didn’t bring in enough money to live on, he had to leave Lemont in order to find work in another town.

Today Annette feels a little dizzy working in the afternoon sun; her stomach is a bit queasy. It dawns on her that she might be pregnant again. Except for her oldest daughter Minnie, all of her children have been born in the bedroom of their little home in Hazel Dell. If she is carrying another child, her tenth baby will be arriving early next year in 1901.

A census taker arrives while Annette is still working in the garden with the children. She tells the children that they can stop for a break and play for a while.  Emma has already put Emil and Sigfried down for their naps. Emma and Esther then go outside for some welcome free time with their siblings.

The census taker is Nels Anderson, a man in his late twenties, himself a Swedish immigrant. Annette offers him coffee and cardamom rolls, which he gladly accepts.  As they sit at the table, Annette answers all his questions quietly so as not to wake the younger children napping in the nearby bedroom. It is with pride that she tells him that she and Axel own their home, that it isn’t rented or mortgaged.

Axel had come alone to America in 1881; this is, coincidentally, the same year as Mr. Anderson himself had come over. After Axel managed to scrape together enough money for their tickets, Annette and her oldest daughter Minnie joined him, immigrating in 1883. She tells Mr. Anderson the story of her arduous journey—a story she would come to repeat many times in the years to come. With a little one not yet three years old, Annette endured a miserable voyage across the ocean. She had to furnish her own food and bedding and sleep on the deck with the baby. She vowed, after this experience, to never make the return trip to Sweden. And she kept that vow. Like so many before and after her, she would never again see those left behind—parents, siblings, friends.  While a new family was budding in a new land, an earlier one had to be left behind, abandoned to cherished memories and the fitful exchange of letters.

Nels Anderson thanks Annette for the refreshment and her time and moves on to his next household, coincidentally another Nelson family—but no relation to Annette and Axel, who had no other family in Illinois. Joan’s Great Aunt Ruth had once remarked that the lack of extended family was probably why Axel and Annette’s brood became so close-knit.

By the time Mr. Anderson leaves, Annette realizes she needs to get busy preparing for the evening meal. Anna and Emma will help while Ted is sent outside to do more chores. Esther will try to keep Emil and Sigfried occupied and out of the kitchen.

Axel returns home from a long, sweltering hot day in the quarries. The house he comes home to is filled with the noise of children chattering in both English and Swedish. One of Ted’s friends stops over, and Annette invites him to dinner. Axel and Annette are strict parents. Their children do what they are told. No playing games outside on the Sabbath. (See Ted’s experience in our blog here: https://sixtysixtyblog.wordpress.com/2014/06/17/grandpa-baseball-and-ebay/). Card playing is never allowed! But Annette and Axel always welcome their children’s friends into their small but comfortable home.

It isn’t dark yet, so there is no need to light the oil lamps. The Nelson household won’t get electricity for another twenty-three years. Dinner is at last on the table, and the children quickly take their places. A hush falls over the family. Bowing their heads, they begin to say grace:

“I Jesu nam till bords vi gå,
välsigna, Gud, den mat vi få”

(Translation: “In Jesus’ name we come to the table
God bless the food we receive”)

Axel and Annette Nelson in Front of their Home Early 1900s

Axel and Annette Nelson in Front of their Home Early 1900s

The day comes to a close, and we fast forward one hundred and fifteen years, to June 2015. In the years that followed that summer day in 1900, change, always inevitable, visited the Nelson family.  Two more children were born, Ruth in 1901 and Lee in 1904. Axel and Annette saw the untimely passing of two more children, Siegfried and Anna. About 1911 when work at the stone quarries slackened off and finally petered out, Axel found new employment with the Corn Products Refining Company at Argo, the company well-known for its Karo syrup, Mazola corn oil, and corn starch products. In 1928 at the age of seventy-two, he finally retired. When Annette died on April 3, 1949 at the age of eighty-seven, the couple had been married for over sixty-eight years.  Axel was ninety-four years old when he passed away on May 29, 1951. The last of their eleven children, Joan’s Great Aunt Ruth, died at the age of ninety-seven in 1999.

Yet, here we are on Memorial Day each year, gathered together in their name and to honor their legacy. What holds a family together when so much time has passed? What brings us second and third and how many times removed cousins together? Those of us who do genealogy trace nuclear families—parents and their children. When we locate a census record or a Swedish Household Examination Record, we pause at a moment in time when that nuclear family existed. We halt at that singular moment when the bonds are real and strong: mothers and fathers are with their children, a child is with his or her brothers and sisters. But we know it doesn’t last. Nuclear families are fleeting, ephemeral, as substantial as gossamer against the relentless sweep of time. Family members pass away, children become adults, move away, marry, start families of their own. New family units are formed in a constant ferment of nucleation and new beginning.

As genealogists and family historians we trace nuclear families down through the generations, watching with great interest as their histories play out in front of us. We watch family ties inevitably loosen, break, and then dissolve.

Yet, here, somehow, gathered in the Old Swedish Cemetery we’ve resisted, fought back against the entropy, tried to preserve something that Axel and Annette built and fought to keep so many years ago. Maybe, like Don Nelson, we understood, we understand that to build a better future we have to embrace our own past, preserving the detail and nuance of our family’s history in a shared chronicle of memory and emotion.

On June 13, 1976 a powerful tornado ripped through Lemont, destroying the beloved Nelson home in Hazel Dell at 211 4th Street on the west side of McCarthy Road. The nuclear family has passed, the home is gone. But the Axel and Annette Nelson legacy of family continues.  Because Donald remembered.  Because Joan remembers. Because we all take care to remember.

Memorial Day 2014

Memorial Day 2014, Bethany Lutheran Cemetery

Grandpa, Baseball, and eBay


Ted Nelson, Third Baseman, in Uniform

Ted Nelson, Third Baseman, in Uniform

We found Grandpa on eBay a few years ago. How we found him is a tall tale of serendipity, born out of a fortuitous confluence of our love of personal computing (do we call it that anymore?) and our passion for collecting old treasures, especially ones that relate to our family history.

During our lifetime advances made in personal computing have been, to use the Sixties phrase, “mind-blowing.” We both wrote our first computer programs in COBOL, a hoary old dinosaur of a programming language if there ever was one. We harnessed extinct beasts like DEC KL-10 mainframes, keypunch cards, card readers, and line printers to prepare, compile, and revise them.

Then, in the early 1980s things began to change. We were “early adopters” and purchased our first personal computer in 1983, a NEC (Nippon Electric Company) system running the CPM-86 operating system. We had a COBOL compiler, WordStar word processing, 256K of memory, and an 8” floppy drive. We were in digital heaven. Not soon after we acquired a first-generation IBM-PC with two (count them! two!) floppy drives. We were awash in computing wealth!

Today we pull out our smart phones, IPads, and MacBook Pros to perform the many tasks we know they are capable of, from searching for nearby ethnic restaurants to seeing if it was Gary Cooper who starred with Barbara Stanwyck in the wonderful 1941 classic film, Ball of Fire. Joan and I think, as a couple of a “certain age” with a long history of interaction with computers, that only those of us who’ve lived the personal computer revolution from its inception can appreciate exactly how far we have come. We certainly don’t take our IPhones and IPads for granted.

Before we ever laid hands on a computer, indeed from the time we first started dating, we have been “collectors” of old treasures. Back in the late Sixties we started visiting thrifts, Salvation Army stores, Goodwills, and, of course, antique shops on a regular basis. It was, and remains, a passion of ours.

We pretty much buy only bargains, at first because we didn’t have the money to do anything else, and now because that habit is ingrained. Also, to be honest, we have a bit of the treasure seeker in us, and maybe more than just a little hunger for the hunt. Nothing is quite as satisfying as spotting an unappreciated treasure in the midden heap and plucking it up, researching it, and saving it for posterity. Should you be thinking certain thoughts as you read this…we are not hoarders. We are collectors. Like minds will readily recognize the distinction.

When eBay first debuted in 1995, we found a new way to find hidden treasure at (sometimes) bargain prices. Finally, two of our lifelong passions had intersected. We could use our computers (and the whole massive infrastructure of the internet and the WWW) to help us sniff out our historical, antique, and collectible prey.

One of the greatest treasures we have ever found online, on eBay, was a photo postcard (RPC or “real photo postcard” in eBay parlance) of Joan’s paternal grandfather, Theodore Nelson. EBay lets you set what they call an “email alert” using keywords describing items that you might be interested in purchasing. An email alert set for “Lemont, Illinois” is how we came to discover Grandpa for sale online.

Theodore (“Ted”) Leonard Nelson was born on August 12, 1891 in Lemont, Illinois, the son of Swedish immigrants. Leaving wife and daughter behind in Sweden, Ted’s father first looked for work in Brooklyn, New York and then moved on to Lemont, now a southern suburb of Chicago, where he heard that men were being hired to work in the local limestone quarries. He worked for $30.00 a month, scraping enough money together to pay the passage from Sweden for Ted’s mother and oldest sister. Ted was the sixth of eleven children to be born into this solidly Swedish family.

Ted worked hard at everything he did. He had a long and successful career at US Steel. But both as child and as adult, it was clear Ted loved baseball with a passion and not just as a spectator. He wasn’t just a fan, he was a player.

He played pick-up games with the neighborhood kids as a young boy, developing his skills and taking his game to the next level at every given opportunity. He played as often as he could, including Sundays.

This didn’t sit well with Mom and Dad Nelson, devout Swedish Lutherans. They forbade Ted from playing on Sundays. An old Nelson family story has it that when Ted’s mother found out he was playing baseball on the Sabbath, she buried his uniform in their chicken yard. Undaunted, Ted somehow discovered its underground hiding place, retrieved it, and continued to “play ball” behind her back. He must truly have loved the game to cross Mom Nelson!

Joan inherited from her grandfather Ted a book entitled LEMONT Illinois. Its History In Commemoration Of The Centennial Of Its Incorporation 1873 1973. On page 154 is featured a photo of her grandfather with a neighbor and friend named Alfred Anderson; the photograph was taken in 1911.


Baseball player from the “Lemont Blues” with friend, on the “flats.”

On one of our visits to Gary, Indiana where Joan’s grandparents lived, Joan learned from her Grandma Nelson that her grandfather had played third baseman for the team in 1909 and then three years later joined another team in nearby Lockport, Illinois. Then, early in 1916 he took a job with US Steel in Gary, Indiana. He was offered a position in the Time Department, but there is great suspicion that he was hired (and took the job) primarily to play baseball for the US Steel team.

Joan has fond memories, too, of seeing her grandfather sitting in his favorite living room chair, smoking a Dutch Masters cigar, and watching Chicago Cubs games on television.  He loved baseball all his life. Joan didn’t realize as a young girl how involved he had actually been with the game. The sedentary Cubs fan had, in fact, had a serious relationship with baseball.

Sometime in the late 1990’s Greg was sitting at his computer (no laptop yet!) checking email when he noticed that the “Lemont” keyword had generated a message from eBay that something was available for sale.  The item up for auction was a postcard picturing the “Lemont Blues” baseball team as they were in 1909. It had been sent from a Lawrence Sandberg of Lemont to his uncle in Ritzville, Washington, eventually finding its way to eBay.

Joan was busy upstairs when Greg called her to come down to his study where he asked, “Would you recognize your Grandpa Nelson if there was a photo of him as a young man?”

Joan was pretty certain she would recognize her grandfather. Sure enough, it was Joan’s grandpa in the back row of the photo, dressed in a light shirt, dark vest, and hat but not wearing a baseball uniform. He would have been about seventeen years old when the photo was taken. Joan had never seen the photo before, but it was clearly Ted Nelson.

After a successful bid to win the auction, Joan showed the postcard to her father, Don. He said that he remembered seeing this particular shot in a Lemont newspaper article some years before. He said that the picture was taken the first day Joan’s grandfather had joined the Lemont Blues. That’s why Ted is wearing street clothes and not a uniform.

The postcard is stamped “12 M 1909   Lemont ILL” with a one cent stamp attached. The card is addressed to Mr. Wm. Olson Box 85 Ritzville, Wash and reads:

Dear Uncle,

This is the Base Ball team I play with. X is were I stand and the mascot is Brother Emil. All in very good health and hope you are too.

Lawrence Sandberg

What a circuitous path this postcard must have taken. The miles it must have traveled to find its way from Lawrence, Ted’s old teammate and neighbor, back to Joan, Ted’s granddaughter! It is certainly a tall tale of happenstance and circumstance. How many chances there must have been to miss the opportunity to recognize and buy this small but meaningful treasure.

As we digitize our lives, our possessions, and present them for view through Google and maybe for purchase via eBay and Etsy and the like, we increase the chances of moments of such serendipity as “finding Grandpa” represents. But, even so, it is both a minor miracle and a testimony to one of the true advantages of modern life: to be able to discover what was hidden, to see what was previously unseen, to find that which was well and truly lost.