Tuesday, August 14, 2018

A West End Story, Part 2: Daughters of a star-crossed couple persevere after being orphaned

By Jim Heffernan
This is the rest of the West End Story about the lives of my Swedish immigrant grandparents in Duluth 100 years ago, their six daughters and the couple’s early deaths, leaving their children to fend for themselves.

To reiterate a bit, it told the story of Charles and Anna Carlson, both of whom had emigrated from Sweden at a relatively young age and how they met and married in Duluth and started their family. Their first child was my mother, Ruth, born in 1899. Only 18 years later and with five more daughters added to the family, Anna died at age 38 in 1917. When they lost their mother, the Carlson girls ranged in age from 19 (Ruth, the eldest) to the youngest, Dagmar, just five years old. Only two years later, their father died at age 47. 

Bethany Lutheran Church, 2308 W. 3rd St.
The church of my youth and the church
that kept my mother's siblings together after their parents' death
Most of what I know about their early lives was told to me by my mother. I only witnessed the adult lives of the six daughters. In 1919, at the time of Charles’ death, Ruth was serving as organist at Bethany Swedish Lutheran Church in the West End, having been appointed to the position when the regular organist was killed on a battlefield in France during World War I. Innately talented, she also had studied piano and organ.

With the parents gone, Ruth became the head of the family along with her next sister, Lillette, who at 17 shared family responsibilities of caring for the younger children. Then came Elsa, just 12 when their mother died, followed by Mildred, who was at 7, Marion, 6, and Dagmar, almost two years younger. 

The Carlson girls stayed in the small frame home their parents had established at 1925 Piedmont Avenue, an address that no longer exists but is located near Piedmont and Fourth Street.

These orphaned youngsters were taken under the wing of the Bethany church congregation, with members and leaders offering charitable help and support as the older girls struggled to rear their younger sisters. Offers came to adopt two of the younger girls–Mildred and Dagmar–but Ruth said she could not bring herself to let them leave the family. Dagmar, the youngest of the brood, was taken in for a time by what was described as a “rich” family in East End seeking to adopt her, but her oldest sisters couldn’t let her go, and she returned to the Piedmont Avenue home. Rather than break up the family, Mildred and Dagmar for a time stayed during the week at Bethany Home, the orphanage on north 40th Avenue West, and came home on weekends.
Bethany Children's Home, 1922


That left the problem of Marion, and a problem it was. She was born developmentally disabled, severely retarded in the parlance of the day, as well as epileptic. Her condition couldn’t be dealt with at home without parents, Ruth told me, and the decision was made to send her to a state institution at Faribault, Minnesota, as was commonly done in that era. (She remained institutionalized for the rest of her life, with many visits to Duluth for “vacation” and regular visits to the institution by her sisters. She died in her mid-50s.)

Before too long in the 1920s, the second and third daughters reached an age where they were able to work. Lillette got a job at Freimuth’s Department Store in downtown Duluth, located for many years on the southwest corner of Lake Avenue and Superior Street. After a period of time staying at home tending the younger children while Ruth and Lillette worked, Elsa also went to work at Freimuth’s.

In addition to her paid position as Bethany organist and choir director, Ruth was self-employed as a piano instructor in West End homes. At first she went to students’ homes to give lessons, making daily rounds by city streetcar and walking when possible. Later she brought students into her home.

Thus their lives progressed in the 1920s, making ends meet, never wanting for nourishment or shelter, young women and girls growing into womanhood with each passing year. Soon Mildred too went to work, at a laundry. None of them were able to finish high school; all were confirmed at Bethany with formal portraits commemorating the occasion.

By the late 1920s, both Lillette and Elsa had married, each having a child in 1929. Ruth stayed in the family home with the remaining sisters, who eventually expanded their own horizons by following Elsa and her husband and young daughter in a move to Chicago in the early 1930s. Finally, when the others’ lives were settled, Ruth married my father, George, in 1932, starting a new life that brought into the world two sons, my older brother and me. Throughout, she remained minister of music at Bethany Lutheran, accompanying the transition from Swedish language worship to English. 
Ruth Carlson Heffernan, circa 1920's


All of her sisters preceded her in death in the 1960s and ‘70s and were laid to rest at Bethany Cemetery in Hermantown, three of them in the same plot where Charles and Anna were buried decades before, and two elsewhere in the same cemetery.

That left two empty gravesites in the original family plot, one of which welcomed my father in 1971. Ruth lived on, alone in our family home on 23rd Avenue West a few blocks up the hill from Bethany church, and continued her music duties at Bethany until 1976 when she retired.

Age was beginning to show, even as her younger sisters passed away, one by one. She lived until 1983, dying at the age of 84. The last six months of her life were difficult for her and she ended up at Lakeshore Lutheran Home, a place where over the years she had often been asked to provide music for Christmas programs and other events.

Unable to express herself well due to aphasia brought on by her medical condition, she seemed to resign herself to her inevitable fate. Several of us gathered with her in a recreation room at Lakeshore on Independence Day in her last year. By then she was in a wheelchair, but with a piano in the room she indicated she’d like to play. She was wheeled to the keyboard, and placing her age-gnarled fingers on the keys, she formed the familiar chords of the patriotic anthem, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” playing it beautifully, with the expression she had always demonstrated at the piano. It was the last time she played a piano, an instrument that, along with the pipe organ, had sustained her her entire life.

Three months later, she was lowered into the last grave in the family plot at Bethany Cemetery, alongside my father and down from star-crossed Charles and Anna, now with all of their daughters nearby. The original family had finally come together again. 

Thus ends this West End story, only one of so many involving the struggles of early settlers of that neighborhood and throughout Duluth around the turn of the last century, but the one I know best.  

This story of my mother's life growing up in Duluth's West End (now called Lincoln Park) first published in Zenith City Online in July, 2014

Thursday, August 2, 2018

A West End Story I: Saga beginning in Sweden ends tragically for one family

A note... Last month, I wrote about our family piano and its 88 year history (88 years for 88 keys). It was my mother's piano, purchased 88 years ago. It eventually landed in my homes and recently moved from my current home to yet another home in our family. This story of my mother's life growing up in Duluth's West End (now called Lincoln Park) first published in Zenith City Online in July, 2014 and now seems appropriate to re-print as a follow-up to Ruth's piano's history. The conclusion of her story (West End Story II ) will publish in my next post. Enjoy... Jim
Anna and Charles Carlson circa 1910–11
with the first four of their six daughters,
including Ruth, standing behind her mother.
(Image: Jim Heffernan)
By Jim Heffernan
This West End story begins in Sweden, the homeland of one set of my grandparents, and a sad story it is. 
I visited Sweden in June and found myself recalling what I’d been told of the fate of these two young Swedes who sought a better life in America —and in Duluth—more than a century ago 
While Charles Carlson and Anna Joranson both were born in Sweden, they didn’t meet there. Each emigrated to Duluth in the 1890s, when so many Scandinavians arrived here. Duluth’s West End had already drawn relatives of both, so that was the destination. Anna was about 16 when she arrived, I was told, and Charles about nine years older. 
They were my mother’s parents, but I never met them. Both had died two decades before I was born. All that I know about this young immigrant couple was told to me by my mother. 
Anna went to work as a domestic in Duluth’s East
End before meeting Charles. The couple met
through Bethany Swedish Lutheran Church in the
West End, the neighborhood and church where so many Swedish immigrants congregated. 
That church as an institution still exists at 23rd Avenue West and Third Street, long since shedding its early Swedish associations, but my grandparents met and were married in an earlier edifice of the congregation at 20th Avenue West and Third, a building since replaced by a multi-family dwelling. Anna was in her late teens when the couple wed, and their first daughter, my mother, Ruth, was born in 1899 when Anna was 20 years old. 
I’ve never been clear about Charles’ work history. At times he was a grocery clerk, and he had worked on the Duluth street railway system. For about three years when my mother was a young child, they moved to Ellsworth, Wisconsin, to operate a rented farm, but returned to the West End. Another daughter had been born in Ellsworth, and Anna wanted her daughters to be city dwellers, not farm dwellers, according to what I was told. 
Back in the West End, they settled in the neighborhood just east of Piedmont Avenue known as Goat Hill, where the terrain is exceptionally steep. Soon the family grew even larger, with another daughter, and another, and eventually two more daughters—bringing the total to six girls and no boys—all born between 1899 and 1913.
But far too soon after the birth of her youngest daughter, Anna became ill, probably with cancer. She died at home in 1917 at the age of 38, leaving her grieving husband and six young daughters. My mother had just turned 18 years old, her next sister about 15 and so on down the line. 
I was told that when she died, Anna’s casket was placed in their home for the period of mourning and reviewal leading up to a funeral at Bethany church, by then located in the building it occupies today. Following the service came the long uphill trek to Bethany Cemetery in Hermantown behind a horse-drawn hearse.
These events occurred during the dark years of World War I, a difficult time nationally but strangely beneficial in one way to the Carlsons. My mother was an accomplished pianist and organist (innately talented, she had managed to study with professionals in Duluth), and when the regular organist at Bethany Lutheran was called up for military service, she, just in her late teens, took over as the congregation’s organist, a paid position. When the regular organist died on a battlefield in France, Ruth became the regular organist and director of choirs. She stayed in that position for 57 years. 
I have written before about the Carlson family’s experience in the great 1918 fire that struck just a few months after Anna’s death. The devastating October fire, extending from Moose Lake and Cloquet through the rural areas surrounding Duluth and into Duluth’s eastern neighborhoods, also threatened the West End including the Carlson home just off Piedmont Avenue at about Fourth Street. While her younger sisters slept, Ruth and her father kept a vigil all night as they watched flaming refuse from the fire sweep past their home, driven by the strong winds fueling the conflagration atop the hill that eventually claimed nearly 500 lives and left thousands homeless. 
An early morning shift in the wind saved the West End and the Carlson home. Plans had been made for the family to be taken the short distance down to the bay if the fire had directly threatened the family. Charles, working for a grocery store at the time, had been asked to take the business’ truck to help evacuate people in the path of the fire, but he couldn’t leave his six young daughters. 
But he soon did leave them. Within a year, Charles was dead. He was just 47 years old, his daughters, all under 20, left to fend for themselves. The cause of death also was believed to be cancer, and not the rampant Spanish flu pandemic threatening lives in Duluth and throughout much of the world in those hard times. 
A noteworthy transformation in conducting funerals had occurred in the two years since Anna’s death: The funeral procession for Charles was led by a motor-driven hearse, horses having only recently been abandoned for that purpose. 
He too was taken to Bethany Cemetery just inside Hermantown—in the heart of where the fire had swept a short time earlier —to be buried alongside his wife. 
That’s what I know about the lives of these grandparents, who left Sweden at young ages to play out their relatively short lives in a distant land in a small frame home on a steep hillside in Duluth’s West End. 
Last month, visiting Sweden, I couldn’t help but reflect that I had come to the land where it all had started. Charles and Anna never saw their homeland again, nor did any of their daughters ever visit Sweden, although the older girls understood and spoke the Swedish language, having been reared by Swedish-speaking parents. Even their church services were conducted in Swedish in those days. 
There’s a lot more to this West End story—how the lives of the six orphaned Carlson daughters played out without parents to nurture and guide them. Inevitably, as the decades passed, they all eventually joined their parents at Bethany Cemetery, one by one, with Ruth, the first born but last to die, laid to rest there in the 1980s. 
Maybe I’ll tell the rest of that West End story—how they struggled to keep the family together—another time. 
Finally, it must be noted that there are many such stories from those difficult days in Duluth, as a largely immigrant population struggled to gain a foothold in their new land. This is just the one I know best.