Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Farm That Became a Church

Recently I’ve been doing some research on the Erickson side of my family tree, working with my cousin Gene.  We’ve found some good stories, including a real “black sheep” of a great-great-grandfather who I’ll write about soon.  But today, the story of my great-grandfather Karl Erickson’s farm, and how it became a church.

Karl (a/k/a Charlie) Erickson came to America from Mecklenburg, Germany with his parents, Johann and Caroline, and his brother Johann Jr., when he was nine years old—that would have been 1868.  The family settled in Will County, Illinois, where his mother soon died and his father Johann Sr. made a living as a farmer (although not a very good one), and later as a laborer.   

Karl and his brother left home (or were turned out of the house, some stories say) to make their way through the world in their mid-teens, and both brothers managed to do so.  By the 1880 census, Karl (by then known as Charlie) was a farm laborer on the farm of John Leppert, where a young lady named Lena Schmidt worked as housekeeper.  Carl and Lena married later that year and settled down to farm on rented land in Wheatland Township, Will County, Illinois.  Eventually they had ten children, nine of whom survived. 

Some years later (1903 to be exact) they bought their own farm, 160 acres in Will County which lay on both sides of Boughton Road in what is now Bolingbrook, Illinois.  They lived and farmed there until they retired around 1920 and “bought a house in town” (that town being Naperville).

But it’s the story of what happened to their Boughton Road farm sixty years later that is my main theme today. 

In the 1980s, a young congregation called Independent Baptist Church was looking for a property.  They purchased 18 acres of the old Erickson farm on the north side of Boughton Road—and instead of tearing down the 120-year-old barn, they remodeled it into a wonderful “barn church” in 1985, putting nearly 10,000 man-hours of volunteer labor into the remodeling.  The pastor of the church, David Shoaf, provided me with these old photos of the barn church—with the silo still standing proud.

about 1985

But the barn church didn’t last long...  On March 17, 1989 an arsonist burned the building to the ground.  Suspicion fell on a land developer who wanted the property to expand one of his projects, but nothing was ever proven.

Down but not out, the church rallied and built a new colonial-style church building on the site of the old barn.  Today they continue to meet and thrive at their church building on the old Erickson farm, 380 West Boughton Road in Bolingbrook.

One further note:
The old farmhouse, built in two sections (the older and plainer section visible on the right side, the newer and fancier section on the left) still stands on the church property.  The first photo below shows my great-grandparents, Karl and Lena Erickson, with four of their children, around 1910.  The second photo show the house in more modern times, nearly 100 years later—still standing.

Photos courtesy of Pastor David Shoaf and Independent Baptist Church of Bolingbrook, Illinois (  Old farmhouse photo courtesy of Gene Erickson.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Client Testimonial

I got this email from a recent client - it made my day!...

"My husband got the big surprise present on his birthday. He absolutely loves it. You’ve done such a marvelous job! There is so much information for him to process but each page gives him such thrills! He was impressed with those old records counting each animal they owned, where they lived and how much property they owned, those newspaper articles of mishaps etc. He got a real kick out of the “original” American ancestor having had a brewery. We will surely visit some of those places when we visit the area next time."

A photo I found online for the client's tree

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Liz, Arthur, and Amy

My mom once sat down and told me about her mother and father’s siblings, and most of it wasn’t pretty!  I wrote down what she said about each one, and lately, I’ve been trying to sort out fact from fancy. 

My grandfather, Robert Johann Erickson, had five sisters, and one was named Mary Elizabeth (pictured)—but she was always called “Liz.”  Two of Liz’ sisters died of tuberculosis—I’ve written about them previously.  Here is what my mother said about her Aunt Liz:
“Liz had seven children and died in childbirth with the seventh. Their ages ranged from 12, 10, 8, 6, 4, 2, down to the baby. My grandmother (Liz’ mother) raised the baby. The father hired a neighbor girl, 18 years old, to be housekeeper, and a year later she married him. They had four children, making 11 in all. He was kind of lazy...”
I’ll never know about the “lazy” part, but I wanted to find out more about this great-aunt and uncle that I never met.  Besides that, when someone dies young, there’s often a story there.

Mary Elizabeth Erickson was born in 1884, the second of nine surviving children of Charlie and Lena Schmidt Erickson.  Liz, as she was called, married Arthur Stafford in March 1901, when she was just sixteen years old.  They had their first child, Mabel, a few months later—and more children came along in 1903, 1905, 1906, 1908, 1910, and 1913.

The 1910 census shows Arthur and Mary living on a farm in Will County, Illinois, next door to Arthur’s parents.  They had five children by then, and a sixth on the way.  But Liz’ luck ran out with child number seven…  Records on show that baby Earl was born on the 29th of January,1913 and Liz died a week later, on the 6th of February.  She was buried at Alexander Cemetery in Romeoville.

But what was Arthur to do?  The census records back up my mother’s assertion that the baby was raised by his grandparents.  The 1920 census shows young Earl Stafford living with Charlie and Lena Erickson.  He was still there for 1930 census, when he was seventeen.

It is very possible that Arthur brought in a young unmarried neighbor girl to help with the children and the housework—that would have been very common.  And when I checked the 1910 census, Arthur and his family live in the same census district in DuPage Township as 12-year-old Amy Shepherd and her parents.  By 1913, Amy would have been old enough to be “hired out”—and we know that she was Arthur’s wife probably by 1916, when their first child was born.

The 1920 census shows Arthur (age 39) living with new wife Amy (age 23).   They already have three young children (the oldest is three), and five of Arthur’s children live with them.  Arthur’s oldest child, Mabel, is only five years younger than her stepmother, and Mabel’s occupation is listed as “servant—at home.”  I can only imagine how dreary poor Mabel’s life was.  (Later census records show that within the year, young Mabel had ‘escaped’ her home via marriage—but by the 1930 census, she had five children of her own!)

The 1930 census shows Arthur (50) and Amy (32) living with two of his children and four of theirs.  So Arthur did indeed have eleven children.

Arthur outlived his young wife by eleven years.  They were buried together at Woodlawn Memorial Park in Joliet.

So, my mom was right about the seven children, the death in childbirth, the baby being raised by grandparents, the young second wife, and the four additional children…  But I’ll never know about the “lazy” part.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Gypsies

The other day I was looking over some family records, and I came across something my mother said years ago, in an interview with her cousin Gene, who was collecting the Erickson family history.  Mom said this about her childhood in the 1930s:

“Gypsies would come through the area every summer in their horse-drawn wagons during the Barbers Corner years.  They would steal the clothes off the clothesline, and steal chickens, turkeys, eggs, vegetables, bicycles, and everything else they could.  Everything had to be hidden or watched when the gypsies were passing through.  Sometimes they would come to the door and ask for food.” 

The whole topic of the Gypsies has always intrigued me, ever since I saw the wagons of the “Travellers” when I was in England and Ireland.  Could there really have been Gypsies in rural areas of America like Barbers Corner, Illinois in the 1930s?

So I did a little digging…  and it turns out there were. 

The website says that the Gypsies, more commonly known today as the “Roma,” came to the U.S. from Russia and the Balkan countries in the late 1800s.  Although their origins were in northwestern India, they were nicknamed “Gypsies” because it was mistakenly believed that they were Egyptians due to their dark skin, hair, and eyes.  They were persecuted almost everywhere they went; Hitler hated them like he hated the Jews, and he killed between half a million and a million of them.

The Gypsies were always a roving people (their name, Roma, means “wanderer”) and that held true in the United States during the Great Depression.  In those days they often traveled in caravans of covered wagons pulled by horses.  Elroy Hoffman remembers them from his Nebraska childhood.  “They’d park somewhere to feed the horses, eat there along the road…  They’d come up to our place to get food.”  Another Nebraskan, Mildred Opitz, remembers being afraid of them—they dressed differently than the locals, spoke a different language, and looked different.  She said the men were often horse traders, and the women made jewelry and baskets to sell or told fortunes.  She said they traveled in clans and had brightly painted wooden wagons.

The website had a post on April 14, 2013, recalling the days of the Gypsies in western New York State during the Depression.  The article says that bands of Gypsies traveled in covered wagons and camped on the outskirts of town each spring from the early 1900s into the 1950s and beyond.  (In later years they favored Cadillacs over wagons!)  The women would work as healers or fortune tellers.  The police would warn local residents to stay away from them, and at times, if the Gypsies fleeced too many locals out of their money, they would either be arrested or told to leave the area.

And are there still ethnic Gypsies (Roma) in America today?  The Website says that there are probably as few as 100,000 or as many as a million, from several different ethnic subgroups.  They came to the United states from Russia or Eastern Europe (the Rom); Great Britain (the Romnichals); Sloviakia (the Baschalde); and Hungary (the Romungre); and another half dozen places in Europe.   The article says, “It is uncertain how many Gypsies are in the United States because many Gypsies’ entry was undocumented, and others were recorded by their country of origin and not as Gypsies.”  Also, “Many Roma themselves do not admit to their true ethic origins for economic and social reasons.”

Today many of them still travel, but others are settled in northern urban areas like Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, and Dallas, mostly in trailer parks.  Some more conservative groups have settled in rural Texas and Arkansas.  They still have a powerful group identity and don’t often socialize or intermarry with outsiders.  They have their own language, cuisine, clothing, marriage customs, music, and traditions about health, religion, and family dynamics.  Today they are often used car dealers and repairmen or sell watches and jewelry—along with the traditional trade of fortune-telling, which is alive and well.
Image:  Andrew Rowland via