By Max R. Weller
1880 U.S. Census data from Little Blue Township in Washington County, Kansas shows my great-grandfather (Nils) Daniel Nielssen age 38, his wife Anna (Christine) Nielssen age 38, daughter Anna age 11, son Ramus age 5, and daughter Katie age 3. Daniel’s occupation is listed as Farmer, naturally. Anna’s occupation is shown as Keeping House. His birthplace was at Store-Heddinge, Denmark circa 1842. Apparently, he came to America as a young man shortly before North and South went to war. This was at a time when neither restrictive quotas nor Ellis Island-style bureaucratic barriers existed to discourage immigrants who sought a better life for themselves here. (Thanks to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for making the 1880 U.S. Census data available online).
The earliest stories my mother passed on to me were about Daniel Nielssen’s service in the Union Army during the Civil War. At the time of his enlistment in a Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment circa 1862, we believe he was actually living near Cadillac, MI. His first battle was at Shiloh in Tennessee, a very rude awakening indeed. He told the story himself of sitting in camp one night when a Confederate cannonball came bounding into a group of Union soldiers there, and actually struck off the lower leg of the poor boy seated right next to him. (Solid shot intended for use against fortifications would do this by all accounts, although canister shot was more typically used against massed formations of soldiers). Later on Daniel Nielssen served under General William Tecumseh Sherman on the famous March to the Sea which effectively destroyed the South’s capacity to wage further rebellion.
Photo of “Uncle Billy” by Matthew Brady
We always presumed that Daniel met and married Anna after the war ended, and settled in Kansas along with so many other Danes. They spoke Danish in the home, their children were bilingual, and even my mother (Daniel’s granddaughter) retained the ability to recite the numbers one through ten in Danish.
I believe the Nielssen family was living on the 160 acres they homesteaded in Kansas at the time of the 1880 Census. Before that, they had lived briefly in a sod house a short distance north of what became the Nelson family farm in rural Greenleaf. Interestingly, the name Nielssen was later Americanized to Nelson and Ramus C. Nielssen (my maternal grandfather) became Robert C. Nelson a.k.a. R.C. Nelson.
A map of Washington County, KS circa 1880 — http://www.kancoll.org/graphics/maps/washington.htm
R.C. Nelson married his cousin, Annie Nelson, circa 1902. My uncle Leslie Nelson was born that year, and it’s a minor family scandal that Annie was pregnant when she married R.C. They had four more kids: Merl born 1906, Neil born 1909, Alvin born 1913, and Mildred (my mother) born 1922.
R.C. Nelson loved to go on road and rail trips around the country, and visited the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. Annie was a homebody, and with the help of other family members was able to get along well enough during his absences. Over the years, R.C. visited Pike’s Peak in Colorado, the Black Hills in South Dakota, the Grand Canyon in Arizona, etc. Obviously, he loved the American West.
R.C. took over the family farm operation when Daniel Nielssen passed on in 1908. Anna Nielssen passed on in 1914, and now rests beside husband Daniel in the pastoral setting of Maplewood Cemetery near Barnes, KS. Back then, draft horses were used in preparing the soil for row crops, planting, weeding, and harvesting. Later on, steam engines would be used in threshing the wheat produced by the Nelson farm, and threshing crews were always treated to a huge feast after their day’s work was completed. It was likely the occasion for slaughtering a hog, to go along with fresh garden vegetables and fruit from the homestead’s orchard, mountains of mashed potatoes and fresh-churned butter, fresh-baked bread from the old woodstove (I remember seeing it as a kid — it was massive), homemade jams and jellies, homemade pickles, pies and cakes, fresh whole milk, cider, etc.
R.C. Nelson was a highly skilled mechanic, blacksmith, and carpenter as well as a farmer and local pioneer in new agricultural techniques. Part of Nelson family oral history has R.C. teaching in some capacity at Kansas State, but I’ve been unable to document this. It seems plausible to me, however; the man had a steamer trunk full of college textbooks on many subjects and taught himself everything he wished to learn. As if all of this wasn’t enough, R.C. Nelson was also an amateur photographer of local note and he played the violin in what little spare time he could find. Although I never saw his albums of photos, which by necessity he developed himself in a darkroom attached to the farm’s workshop, my mother always said they were first-rate studies of people, buildings, and landscapes.
R.C. Nelson was highly amused by the 1920s revival of the Ku Klux Klan in Kansas and other states. Grown men parading around in sheets and pointy hoods! See –
By the 1920s, when my mother was born on the Nelson farm, things were changing in rural America . . .
Model T pickup of the type driven by R.C. Nelson
My uncle Leslie, the oldest child of R.C. and Annie Nelson, became fascinated with airplanes. Obviously, the family wasn’t wealthy enough to buy one — so Leslie built his own from the ground up. He was very gifted as a mechanic; even so, he always said that getting the wooden propeller just right was a real challenge and the most difficult part of the building process. I doubt that airplanes in kit form existed circa 1925, but there were other aviation buffs around who shared their knowledge of airplane design and engineering with my uncle. When he completed it, it was towed out to a level stretch of pasture, and it flew! After several successful flights, unfortunately, Leslie had a crash-landing in the pasture and suffered a broken leg. Although he recovered completely, his flying days were ended. The wooden propellor he’d worked so hard to perfect was kept as a souvenir and hung on the wall of the farm’s workshop, where it remained until the farm was sold at auction in 1990.
The photo above shows a similar biplane design to that built by Leslie Nelson in 1925
In 1927, inspired by the solo transatlantic flight of Charles Lindbergh, 14-year-old Alvin Nelson carved a detailed wooden model of the Spirit of St. Louis. He preferred to keep both feet firmly planted on the ground, however.
Also in 1927, Leslie Nelson decided to venture into the wider world to seek his fortune. He left the farm in his Model T Ford and headed east to Detroit, MI hoping to find a job in that automaker’s factory near there. His letters home (which I was privileged to have in my possession for several years after 1990) recount a tiring journey over terribly muddy roads almost all the way to his destination. He applied for work at the Ford River Rouge Complex which would begin producing the new Model A that year. To support himself while waiting word from Ford Motor Co., Leslie solicited jobs washing and waxing cars and doing minor repairs and maintenance. Apparently, a farm kid from Kansas didn’t make a big impression on those doing the hiring — despite his great mechanical skills and experience.
Leslie decided to visit a U.S. Army recruiting station in Detroit and enlisted shortly thereafter. After basic training, he was sent to Hawaii and served the rest of his two-year enlistment there. His weekly letters back home to R.C. Nelson were fascinating reading for me; his trip on a ship through the Panama Canal, and his accounts which detail a Hawaii that was undeveloped beyond military installations and plantations — it was not a tourist destination in the late 1920s. One thing he always despised were the afternoon rains almost every day, or “liquid sunshine” as he termed it. The Army appreciated Leslie’s skills and assigned him to the motor pool; in a short time he rose to the rank of sergeant, supervising several other mechanics.
My uncle bought a used motorcycle, an Indian, to enable him to sightsee everywhere in the Islands accessible by roads (poor as many of them were back then). He did have one minor wreck and suffered a bad case of “road rash” which he complained of in a letter to home. That motorcycle was shipped back to Kansas when Leslie was discharged, and he rode it frequently around rural Greenleaf for many years.
He came home to Kansas on a thirty-day leave at one point, a trip which required taking a train from San Francisco and later returning by the same route. Certainly, he enjoyed the opportunity to view the countryside along the way.
After returning to Hawaii, Leslie’s letters home began revealing his plans for the future: He would go into business with younger brother Neil as automotive mechanics in Greenleaf, KS. After his discharge, that’s what Leslie and Neil did in the early 1930s, as well as becoming the authorized Ford dealership in that little town. Their business became Nelson Bros. Motor Co. and they drew customers from all over the area for decades thereafter. The Greenleaf tornado of 1973 destroyed their showroom and garage, and they decided to take the insurance settlement and retire at that point. Leslie passed on in 1974, shortly after I graduated from high school.
In 1931, Leslie Nelson married a Greenleaf girl, Lillian S. The S. family could accurately be described as “po’ white trash”, but Lillian herself was a teacher and not like her ne’er-do-well father, Walt S. They had only one child, a daughter, also named Lillian.
Also in 1931, Alvin Nelson developed colon cancer. As the story was told to me by my mother, Alvin could possibly have been saved by surgical removal of the affected portion of his colon, but he declined the procedure. First, he was just an 18-year-old kid and scared, and second a zealous member of the Church of Christ, Scientist influenced Alvin by convincing him that he’d be healed by prayer alone. (I’ve often wondered what sort of a religious nut would hang out at a hospital and prey on vulnerable patients with life-threatening illnesses). Of course, after much suffering, Alvin passed on. He was engaged to a nice girl from a neighboring farm family when this tragedy befell him.
Merl Nelson was a musician who played in several bands at most of the dances held in the area. The guitar was his specialty, but he apparently played other instruments, too. Mom never came right out and said so, but I’ve often thought that Merl might have been a ladies’ man. Merl stayed on the farm and never married; he passed on in 1953, also from cancer.
I heard many stories about the Dust Bowl years as well as the terrible heat wave in 1936. Here’s a photo of an approaching dust storm –
Apparently, the Great Depression didn’t harm the Nelson family as much as others. Not only were they largely self-sufficient on the farm itself, Leslie’s and Neil’s Ford dealership and garage was profitable.
R.C. and Annie Nelson had a lot of discussion regarding the 1932 presidential election. They had always voted Republican; this time, however, they decided to vote for the Democratic candidate, Franklin Roosevelt.
Neil Nelson was an avid ham radio operator, who even broadcast a few dances in Greenleaf over shortwave in the early 1930s. He built a radio shack on the farm along with a 50′ tall antenna, which made it possible to talk to other amateur radio buffs all over the Western Hemisphere. Neil would also stay on the farm and never marry; his illness in the late 1980s led to the sale of the Nelson family farm (of which I owned a 1/3 undivided interest) in 1990.
Obviously, bachelorhood runs in my family; I also had a paternal uncle who didn’t marry until he was past 50 years of age.
This is a good place to mention one of the most colorful characters in Kansas history, who provided much entertainment over radio to the Nelson family in those days –
Doc Brinkley’s Mexican radio transmitter was so powerful, probably 500,000 watts (clear channel AM stations operated on 50,000 watts), that when atmospheric conditions were just right the signal would go over the North Pole and into the Soviet Union. The Reds used Brinkley’s broadcasts to help train their intelligence agents in the English language.
More of 1930s radio here — http://xroads.virginia.edu/~1930s/RADIO/radiofr.html
And the Nelson family enjoyed The Saturday Evening Post magazine, as did all of America:
R.C. Nelson almost never missed seeing a Saturday movie in town. I’m not sure if Greenleaf had a movie theater, but the county seat of Washington (city) certainly did. I understand he was greatly enamored of comedies.
My mother told few stories about herself in a starring role. A couple she did relate to me several times:
1) About the time Mom was 10 years old, she had a favorite calico cat. This cat had kittens, and caught a rabbit for herself and them for dinner. Unfortunately, one of the barnyard tomcats took the rabbit away from calico mama. Mom saw this, grabbed a handy broom, chased down the tomcat, gave him several whacks, and retrieved the rabbit for calico mama and kittens. She told me that particular tom didn’t show himself again for about a week, and then he was on his best behavior.
2) Mom told about her sadness, to the point of tears, on the day that old Barney the draft horse foundered in harness out in the field. R.C. Nelson still used this animal for plowing and other work into the 1930s, but Barney’s time ran out. R.C. had to shoot him, of course, since he’d apparently suffered a heart attack. Mom watched this at her insistence, loving the old horse as she did, and it caused her much heartache. After that, it was modern farm equipment for the Nelson farm exclusively; I would guess that R.C. Nelson couldn’t bear to replace Barney.
Mom also told me about her unsuccessful matchmaking efforts between her teacher at North Dane School, Alice H., and my uncle Neil. Neil wasn’t ever interested in marriage, however, and Alice married another local farmer who owned land just south of the Nelson farm.
By the time WWII came along, R.C. Nelson was no longer able to work the farm. Thus, my uncles Neil and Merl were left to do so rather than join the military. Leslie Nelson had previously served in the Army, and was left to run Nelson Bros. Motor Co. with Neil in Greenleaf. Leslie lived in town with his wife and daughter, of course, and by the time I knew him they had the largest two-story house there. This was a period of rationing of gasoline and various food items, and real sacrifices made by the civilian population in support of the war effort against Japan and Germany. There was a German POW camp established in nearby Concordia, KS.
My mother often expressed her sadness at the death of a neighbor boy who joined the U.S. Navy, and was killed during the Battle of the Coral Sea in May, 1942.
Mom graduated from Greenleaf High School in 1942, after having taken off a year to care for her father at home on the farm. R.C. Nelson lingered on until 1948, very ill and mostly confined to bed. He was unable to walk my mother down the aisle at her marriage to Brad Weller in 1946; my uncle Leslie performed in his stead.
I think this is as good a place to end as any. Growing up as I did and hearing all of these interesting family stories confirmed for me that my mother was truly part of “America’s Greatest Generation” — one to which we all owe a huge debt that cannot be repaid.