Monday, March 31, 2008

Even Unto Death

If the term "hearty pioneer stock" were used to describe anyone, it would be my husband's grandfather Mearl. Mearl's first vehicle was a bike, a bike he rode from Michigan to North Dakota to work his sister's homestead. When his work was done in North Dakota he traveled to a homestead of his own at Shotgun Gulch, Bainville, Montana. A homestead much like those photographed by Evelyn Cameron. The homestead pictured was his, hardly more than a chicken coop.

Shortly after starting to homestead Mearl suffered a ruptured appendix forcing him to travel to Salem, Oregon, where he would recuperate with his parents. While in Salem he met Olive, a slight young girl. He spoke to her parents, he wanted to marry her and take her to homestead with him in Montana. He was a handsome man with property, but Olive had other ideas, so the family story goes. She was in love with another man. Her family forced the marriage and Mearl would pay for that all his life. She was a hardworking wife, a dutiful wife, but not a loving wife.

She came from a wealthy family, a family related to presidents and senators. I'm sure the sight of Merle's homestead was a very difficult reality for her. Not to mention the fact that her first baby turned out to be twins, twin boys, born on this bleak desolate homestead. The twins were followed soon after by another son. Olive was clearly out numbered by the men of her family.

Olive, Mearl, The Twins

Baby number four was the answer to Olive's prayers, a beautiful little girl named Elenor. Full of life, she was her mother's unabashed favorite.


Mearl and the boys clearly loved her as well. The boys played with her and minded her while their parents worked the farm. Play was not the product of store bought toys, but of imagination. There were horses and pigs to ride, and then the twins found the best entertainment yet.

In a field on the homestead was a rusting rotting corpse of a car, a wreck that had gone to the grass. It was the perfect vehicle for hours of entertainment for the children. The twins took a rope and fashioned a swing inside the car. They had to improvise, there were no trees on this homestead on the Great Plains.

It provided the four children with hours of enjoyment - until. Until Elenor, the baby, decided to venture out to the car alone. She must have thought she was a big girl, big enough to swing on her own without her brothers' help.

Her absence was soon noticed. The search began. They found Elenor hanging by her neck from the rope swing. Their precious little girl had accidentally hung herself.

In her grief Olive blamed the twins for Elenor's death. It was the twins who had fashioned the rope swing in the car and it was the twins who should have been minding the baby. The boys were only children and it had been an accident, but she blamed them. She was a hard hearted woman. How difficult it must have been for the boys to carry their Mother's blame and their own childhood guilt. To this day it has never been spoken of by my father-in-law.

Olive exacted her last measure of revenge in her will. She left her half of the family dairy farm to her third son, three real estate properties and a sum of money in excess of $300,000 to the youngest child (another daughter), and she left the only surviving twin (my father-in-law) the chair she sat in every day of her life. Every day since I had known her. A chair. To look at that chair was to see Olive. A constant reminder of her presence, of her unjustified blame, of her final slight, even unto death.

Note: In the family album Elenor's photograph is identified as "Elenor just before she was killed." Not died, was killed. I think this says it all.

This article is my contribution to the Carnival of Genealogy - Cars As Stars,
in this case the villain of the piece - or was it.


Homestead. Photograph. ca. 1916. Digital image. Privately held by the footnoteMaven, [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE,] Preston, Washington. 2007

Olive and The Twins. Photograph. ca. 1918. Digital image. Privately held by the footnoteMaven, [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE,] Preston, Washington. 2007

Mearl and The Twins. Photograph. ca. 1918. Digital image. Privately held by the footnoteMaven, [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE,] Preston, Washington. 2007

Elenor. Photograph. ca. 1927. Digital image. Privately held by the footnoteMaven, [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE,] Preston, Washington. 2007.



Blogger Miriam Robbins said...

What a heart-breaking story. That this woman played favorites with her children and that she could not forgive them (even though they were not to blame) is to me more a tragedy than the accidental death of her little girl. Life is too, too short for this.

fM, I applaud you for the courage it takes to tell an ancestor's story that may not be the "happy ever after" that we look for in our family history. The ghosts and demons of our family's past shape us as much as--if not more than-- the angels do.

March 31, 2008 at 4:43 PM  
Blogger Lidian said...

You know, I want to write a comment but - I am speechless (wordless?)...what a story, and brilliantly told - just heartrending. And the photos too - how terrible for your FIL to carry that inside him.

You let the story tell itself, which made it really effective.

Thank you so much for sharing this.

March 31, 2008 at 4:57 PM  
Blogger Nikki - Notes of Life said...

Such a sad story. I don't know what to say. The note with the photograph is a real stinger... It must have been such a difficult life your your FIL to have carried that.

April 1, 2008 at 11:27 AM  
Blogger Chery Kinnick said...


What a gut-wrenching story, and even more so for the family members who had to live it. You have written it beautifully. Though most families do not have as dark a memory as this, if the truth be known, there are far more heartbreaks and injustices than we would care to know about. Unhappiness and revenge is usually squelched in memory and family folklore. I am sure that Elenor would not have wanted her mother to behave that way in her memory...

April 1, 2008 at 2:22 PM  
Blogger Janice said...

Your story was heart-wrenching to be sure. What a sad legacy. Perhaps a bonfire is in order.


April 6, 2008 at 11:27 AM  

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