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

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