My Maternal Third Great Grandmother

Sophia Maria (Steffes) Koehn

Sophia Steffes

August 10, 1813 Germany – April 24th 1885 North Dakota

Sophia was another of the remarkable pioneering woman of my family. Born in Germany she was married at age 17 to Emmerich Kohn (Koehn) in 1830 in Müllenbach, Germany. She had 13 children, Six of which died before their second birthday, which was not that unusual for the time period.

In 1863, her husband died leaving her with three children still in the household (My 2nd great grandfather was married and living in a separate household). In 1866, the widowed Sophia departed for New York, with 2 young daughters and a 24 year old son named Anthony after selling everything they owned.

Landing in New York, the four rented a place to stay and young Anthony went out to see the city. Nothing was ever heard of him again. Unfortunately Anthony had been carrying the cash for the journey leaving the others penniless in New York. Luckily Sophia was able to gain employment as a housekeeper/laundress that provided food and a place to live.

Meanwhile back in Germany, Nicholas Koehn’s first wife passed away in 1869 leaving him with two small boys. Nicholas decided that he too would come to America. He set his path to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where he had heard there were good jobs to be had in the copper mines. He contacted his mother in New York and had her and her daughters join him in while he worked in the mine.

After a number of years, Nicholas heard of the opportunity to homestead in North Dakota and the entire family followed their dreams into the west.

Sophia passed away at the age of 72 in Hobart Township in Barnes County, North Dakota.


          – Clarence Holm
As we scroll through thoughts held dear,
Reliving dreams with well-worn veneers.
We dance with spirits who dwell in the posts,
Providing backgrounds to our playful boasts.

Like shoppers gazing through December windows,
Our words behave like dancing mind shadows.
Dreaming of a treasured Christmas morn
Thoughts lost all twisted, tossed, and shorn.

Solace we seek as we gaze on traditions,
In pursuit of reveries, some recalled ambitions.
Our stage is set inward, internally connecting,
Blindly defending, old wishes projecting.

Deeply we sip from our thoughts in this dream,
Quietly we ended our voyage midstream.
Flushing from memories, left out and stripped bare.
Waking from thoughts remembered and shared.

History of Accounting

Long ago there was a glen surrounded by a cool mountain stream that could only be accessed by crossing an ancient stone bridge. This bridge was the home of a family of trolls that derived their income from the sheep that were driven across the bridge to graze on the grass in the glen by shepherds that worked for surrounding small farms. For each sheep that crossed over the bridge the trolls collected a small fare.

Because the fare was so insignificant, the troll would have to keep records of each sheep and which farm owned it. At the end of each month they could collect for the number of times a farm’s sheep crossed the bridge.

For many years, the trolls kept track by placing small rocks for each sheep in piles that was assigned to particular farms. At the end of the month they would count the rocks and send each farm a bill for each of their sheep that crossed the bridge to graze on the lush grass.

This system worked very well for centuries until one day, the king of the country decided he wanted to build a new palace. His wife decided that she wanted the castle to be built of stone, so he proclaimed that henceforth all loose rocks were to be delivered to his property to be used for his new home.

The trolls were beside themselves! How would they ever be able to manage their business without rocks? Their business would go broke.

Luckily the trolls recalled hearing of a magician that kept track of all of the king’s subjects that passed through fences. (For that was how the King taxed his subjects, each time they went through a gate they were charged a fee!) So the trolls called on the magician to inquire on how he did it.

The mighty magician explained that he maintained a list of all peasants. Each time one went through a gate he would place a mark. These marks were tabulated once a month for each peasant. Then each peasant was handed a “Gate Bill”

The trolls were excited! They wanted lists that would work for them too. So the magician created lists for them and named them “Spread Sheeps”.

And that is how, even to this day, we keep track of sales and receipts.

1915 Canadian Land Opportunity

Talk On Western Canada

    Taking from the January 14, 1915 Weekly Valley Herald, Chaska, MN – Page 3

“You Don’t have to Lie About Canada – The Simple Truth Is Enough.

The Natural resources of the country are so vast that they cannot be told in mere figures. Man can only tell of what tine portions have done. He can only say, “I am more prosperous than I ever expected to be.” And yet, if a farmer expects to succeed on land the has been forced to pay $50 to $100 an acre for he ought to feel assured of attaining prosperity when he finds the richest prairie soil at his disposal absolutely free. If he has a little capital, let him invest it all in live stock and farm implements – he will find himself ten years ahead of the game. Some day such a chance will not be found anywhere on the face of the globe. But now the same opportunities await you as awaited the pioneer and not one hundredth part of the difficulties he encountered and overcame. Success in Canada is made up of two things, natural resources and human labor. Canada has the one and you the other. A postal card stands between you and the Canadian government agent. If you don’t hold these two forces and enjoy the fruits of the results it is your own fault.

Debt and Canada Will Not Stand Hitched.

You want a cozy home, a free life, and sufficient income. Your want education for your children, and some pleasure for your wife. You want independence. Your burden has been heavy, and your farm hasn’t paid, you worked hard and are discouraged.

You require a change. There is a goal within sight, where your children will have advantages. You can get a home in Western Canada, freedom, where your ambitions can be fulfilled. If the Prairie Province of Canada are full of Successful Farmers why should you prove the exception? Haven’t you got brains, experience, courage? Then prove what these are capable of when put on trial. It is encouraging to know that there is one country in the world where poverty is no barrier to wealth; own your own car; own yourself; be somebody.

For facts write to any Canadian government agent. Advertisement.”

Introduce Your Pooka

Over 60 year ago Elwood P. Dowd introduced the world to Harvey, an invisible 6’ 3.5” pooka. For those that are not fans of eclectic motion pictures, a pooka is an invisible mystical Celtic creature who is drawn to societal oddballs. Elwood P. Dowg spends his day shuffling through life with his constant companion, whom he introduces to all that will listen at every occasion.

Harvey Jimmy Stewart

While the film has many great lines and scenes, one of the best is when Elwood sister, Veta explains to her daughter how anyone could possibly believe in an invisible rabbit.

“Myrtle Mae, you have a lot to learn and I hope you never learn it”.

Many independent insurance agents operate much like Elwood P. Dowd. They plod along through their live with their own “pooka” (In the case of these insurance agents a “value” proposition) In order to stay in business, they must convince customers of the existence of the invisible benefits of service. To flourish, they need to find and identify prospects that can see value. As with Elwood, the insurance agent soon finds that the world is divided between those that can believe and those that can’t.

Service and value may not seem to be able to blow away the competition, but their irresistible attraction will serve you well. As Elwood explained to Dr. Chumley,

“Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, “In this world, Elwood, you must be” – she always called me Elwood – “In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.” Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.”

Never be afraid to introduce your pooka. If you don’t truly believe, no one else will either.

Johann Melchior Wahl

2012 – The Minneapolis Tribune recently ran a series on the 150th Anniversary of the Dakota Indian War.

Because my family had deep roots to that area, I have spent time researching their involvement in that action. Here is a little of what I found.

150 years ago – The Dakota Indian War

My grandmother’s 18 year old grand uncle, Johann Melchior Wahl arrived in Baltimore, Maryland from Württemberg, Germany in 1862. Less than three months after his arrival to the farm in Carver County, Minnesota, the first attack on the unsuspecting farmers in Acton, Meeker County, Minnesota signaled the start of the Dakota Indian War. Within days Melchior had enlisted and was marched to Hutchinson, MN along with other area farmers, to defend his new countrymen. During his time as a soldier he not only participated in notable battles with the Dakota, he also served as a witness to the hanging of the 38 Indians at Mankato. Later he spent time on post at Fort Abercrombie, Dakota Territory, where another relative of mine was killed by Indians in the second attack on the Fort

Before he could be released from service, his Company H of the 9th Minnesota was called to action in the Civil War and he was dispatched to Mississippi in the spring of 1864. After a long march with little in the way of provisions, he took part in the action at Brice’s Crossroads. Due to the Confederate’s superior knowledge of the terrain and the southern soldier’s fighting while being well rested and well fed, the Union Army was defeated. The week long retreat over the wet and muddy roads, combined with the lack of provisions and poor hygiene was too much for him and he died in a Memphis Hospital on July 24th 1864 of dysentery. It was doubtful he learned much English, but in his short time, here he gave his all to his new country.

Melchior was buried in Memphis, not more than 30 feet away from yet another of my Carver County Great Grand Uncles, who had also died of disease a year earlier in serving in the Union Army in Memphis.

The only records of their existence during the war was detailed in Army records and muster rolls. In Melchior’s case, a complete list of his possessions was documented at the time of his death… One shirt, a trouser with belt, socks and shoes.

Place in History

Recently, I was involved in a heated exchange with a reporter, her editor and finally their publisher concerning the distorted view of our families place in Valley City’s history. I will not burden you with a rehash of that confrontation, but it did bring up an interesting question. What is a place in history, who decides what is significant?

For nearly twenty years, I have been researching my family’s history. First it was just a task of identifying the living relatives with their parent and grandparents. Then it evolved into a search of birth records, death records, census reports and other pieces of information generated by an increasingly records conscience society.

One branch of my family eluded me though, my paternal grandmother, Victoria Scheele Schug Holm’s family. Her mother’s first husband was Anthony Scheele, who had 10 siblings and was born in Carver County, MN in 1863. He died in 1892 when my grandmother was about 5 years old and her mother quickly remarried. Anthony Scheele, his parents, brothers and sisters disappeared from my families records. No gravestones, no letters, no bibles and no pictures. They just seem to have vanished!

During the last three years I have began to unravel the Scheele family history. One of the first surprises was that the person we had thought was Anton’s mother turned out to be his stepmother. His real mother was Helena Wahl, who had come from Wurttemberg, Germany with her husband Anton Scheele and her brother, Melchior Wahl arriving in Baltimore on May 5th, 1862. They had come from Germany to take over the land of her brother, Franz Anton Wahl, who had arrived in America in 1852 and had started a farm in Carver County, MN. Franz was seriously ill and had prepared a will, leaving the land and possessions to his sister, her new husband and his brother, Melchoir. By the time they arrived in Minnesota, Franz had passed away, and their new lives had begun in a strange land, with no friends and relatives to help and support them.

Just months after his arrival Melchoir would soon be caught up in the Minnesota Indian War of 1862 and continued his service into the Civil War. He perished on July 24, 1864 of disease brought on by a five mile forced retreat through the muddy bogs of the Battle of Memphis. He end came at the Overton Military Hospital.

In an ironic twist, Melchoir  probably never became fluent in the English language before he died for his adopted country.

Dakota Dreaming

I read the review of Brenda Marshall’s “Dakota, or What’s A Heaven For” in the Star Tribune on Sunday. As usual it was a fine article and it inspired me to purchase her book. (I really enjoy books that contain recollections from other North Dakotans.

As a former North Dakotan, I wasn’t surprised that the author who “knows and loves the prairies” had chosen to leave and now live in Michigan. That is the true story of our home state. It is a breeding ground for talented individuals, who when push comes to shove, are compelled to move on to greater opportunities. The beauty of the prairie, memories of family, and the generous strangers (that willingly drag you out of a snowdrift at two in the morning) are no match for the long hours and desolate conditions that lead, all too often, many of those weaker individuals that stay into a collision course with alcoholism and depression.

Over the course of two decades I have traced my kith and kin on journeys that began in Europe and moved from one place to another in the United States in search of dreams that were probably unrealistic at best. Along the way, they were the fodder that our nation grew from. Many arrived from the long sea voyage too trusting and were victimized by hucksters, rail barons, mine operators, real estate agents and bankers who understood that the true value of land was its’ ability to be sold over and over and over again to the next tenant farmer.

My personal genealogy covers many individuals. All of them have stories worth telling or at the very least remembering. They include stories of woman whose men folk were killed and were left penniless, then were forced to search for another desperate immigrant male, whose unfortunate spouse had also recently died (probably in a prairie child birth). The stories cry out from these women and children who were dragged from place to place and still struggled to maintain a sense of home where ever they went. Some of these women appeared to be a little less willing to go on. In one case a woman who when she arrived on a train in Barnes County in 1881, saw from the train door a flat treeless land. She screamed that it looked like a “horrible hell” and refused to disembark. She was later dragged off the train and was escorted to a homestead just east of Valley City.

Actually the early immigrants were the lucky ones, those arriving late in the homesteading land rush had to console themselves with what has been described in some books, as the “homesteader’s booby prize” – northeastern Montana and southern Saskatchewan.

We, the displaced North Dakotan’s, inherited our “wanderlust” honestly from the blood and sweat of generations that could see across the vast empty prairie to the next piece of land, where the rain would fall as needed and the crops would rise from fertile soil in the early warm spring.

Privy Memories

Every farm had one, but not all were equal. There were “one holers” and “two holers”. There were wooden ones and tin ones. There were permanent ones and temporary ones. There were simple ones and fancy ones. About the only things they had in common was that outhouses were cold in the winter, stunk in the summer and were darn nice to have when you needed one.

The common outhouse, if there were such a thing, were two hole affairs. The seats were built into the structure with the opening cut with a hand saw and shaped expertly with a rasp to eliminate the sharp edges. A frequent upgrade was a store bought seat that could be lowered into place for the comfort of the ladies.

As a point of pride, the structures were built to last. The floorboards were made from good quality lumber and were attached to strong 2×6 joists that could take the yearly move. White pine was used for the walls and roof. A good sized one was 6 feet wide, 5 feet deep and about 8 feet high. The roof was a simple affair that tilted from front to back to shed the rain. Shingles were optional. Windows were rarely installed and the only source of light was the obligatory crescent moon which was cut high into the door to identify its true purpose. Outhouses, if painted at all, were normally white.

The structure itself was placed over a hole that was dug just for that purpose. The building was moved as needed and the old hole was covered with soil. The new holes were dug down to about a six foot depth, or to the point where the second or third oldest child refused to dig any further. The key to a successful outhouse hole was to locate it on a crown of the higher ground with soil that had good absorption. Nobody wanted to have the run off from a thunderstorm come roaring down a slope and flooding the hole, allowing the water to lift the contents out of the pit.

Another key consideration for location was privacy. A lot of farms placed the outhouse on the edge of tree line. This gave shade in the summer and cut down on the wind in the winter. However, distance from the house to the privy always had to be respected. When nature called, no one wanted it too far from the house.

The last concern that needed to be addressed was ventilation. How much was a matter of much contention and usually came down to the owner’s preference. Obviously the more ventilation used, the cooler (and less smelly) the building was in the summer. However, in winter, a draft cause by the ventilation could be very uncomfortable and with temperatures hovering at minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit, wind chill was a risk that had to be accounted for.

The most important accessory for the building was paper. Years before the environmentalists ever heard of it, farmers practiced recycling. The best source for outhouse paper was the pink wrappers from peaches. But, they were a seasonal item and were normally saved for guests.

In most cases it was the Sears Roebuck Catalog that made the best impression, as an educational reference used to clean up the farmer’s bottom line. For farmers, the time spent in the outhouse let them keep abreast of new implements for the farm. For the wife, her daytime constitutional gave her a window into the luxuries of the affluent people in town. For the children, their efforts were rewarded with their first introduction into the secrets of the opposite sex. Many a young male was driven to distraction by the lavish description of corsets and braziers displayed in the drawings on the black and white pages of that book.

All of this information was provided by an ingenious marketing idea; that was recycled page by page by page.

Many people thought the worst thing that could happen in an outhouse was to run out of paper. However, it was not paper which caused the near tragedy on a nearby farm. It all came down to ventilation.

The farm was located a half-mile down the road from ours and was only a quick walk across the field. During those last few years there, our family had taken to moving into the cities for the winter. Our mother was employed as a teacher and we had stopped milking, so there was no real need for us to remain on the farm year round. Our neighbor farmed year round, so winter preparation was much higher on their priority.

It was because of this that the two farms subscribed to different theories of outhouse ventilation. Ours was loosely built to eliminate the heat, while theirs was built near the trees and was tightly sealed to stop all but the most persistent drafts. In fact, to help stop cold air penetration, a much stronger foundation was used on theirs which almost sealed the lower chamber of the outhouse.

Now this design has performed flawlessly for years on my neighbor’s farm and when we came out to visit in the preceding winter, their outhouse seemed remarkably warm. But during the summer of 1964 things had changed. It was much hotter than normal and the wind did not seem to blow as much as usual. It made for an uncomfortable June and it appeared that July would be following the same weather pattern.

As bad as that year’s weather was, we youngsters still had one thing to look forward to. It was the holiday second only to Christmas for us. It was the 4th of July! The 4th was a time of county fairs, watermelons, cap guns, potato salad and fireworks.

Now this was the old time Forth of July, when the firecrackers had much more pop. When you set off a Baby Gorilla firecrackers, you knew you needed to get away. The older children played with Cherry Bombs and Silver Salutes. (The Silver Salute was spoken about almost reverently and it was always mentioned that they contained a quarter stick of dynamite.) When my older brother placed a Cherry Bomb under a can and set it off, the can was blown fifty or sixty feet in the air. Cherry Bombs and Baby Gorillas were way too powerful for the smaller children.

Little children were given Lady Fingers, while not as powerful as a Baby Gorilla; they still made a nice bang. If you placed them under a can, they could easily launch it about 5 feet into the air. It didn’t take the those same kids too long to find out that if you set Lady Fingers off in a more confined area, the noise produced was greatly enhanced. So it was common for children to blow up their fireworks between the out buildings, trying to get the loudest bang from the reverberation.

This particular Fourth of July seemed routine until nature called one of my neighbor’s younger daughters. Unlike her brothers, a little girl could not just stop and run to between the lilac bushes; she would have to use the outhouse. So off she went, carrying her lit punk and the package of Lady Fingers with her. It was hot in there, but being the proper lady she was, she closed and latched the door before dropping her trousers and plopping herself down on one of the two seats.

It didn’t take but a few seconds for her to put this spare time to use and imagine what a great sound it would make to drop a Lady Finger down the other hole. The noise would be sure to be deafening in this small of a place! She resolved to try it before telling the other children about her great idea.

Still seated with her pants down, she took her punk and lit a firecracker and threw it in the hole. Nothing! — It had been a dud. Something must have put it out as it descended into the pit. So, she lit another and waited to be sure it caught properly before dropping it down the shaft. Moments after the firecracker went into the outhouse pit, a tremendous explosion was heard across the farm.

It was a combination of the hot heavy air and the sealed foundation that trapped the methane gas down in that hole. When that little firecracker went off, it ignited that sour gas and blew that outhouse and the little girl right off that foundation, twisting it off to the side.

Luckily, she survived her physical injury but still shudders when attending our neighborly gatherings, knowing that someone will have to bring up the story of her launching the outhouse.

Restraint runs in the family

Most of my family is descended from Swedish, German and Polish Pioneers. These were the people that decided to settle on an open treeless prairie. A land which had temperature extremes that went from 110 degrees to -40 degrees Fahrenheit and thought “That’s not so bad!” My ancestor’s survived grasshoppers, draughts, prairie fires, Indian wars, blizzards, and diseases that weaned out all but the strongest. To say they were “hardened” was an understatement. These people were resigned to a tough life and did not waste energy on showing emotion.

Our particular combination of stoic skepticism was passed down through generations and was refined into a culture that was described as “restrained”. The mantra of my family was “We’ll see!” and my people did not appreciate foolish displays of sentiment. To this group “uff-da” was overkill.

For example, I can’t recall my maternal grandparents or even my parents displaying any overt signs of affection. It wasn’t that there was no kissing, hugging or hand holding allowed; it just wasn’t in the thought process. This did not mean we weren’t a functioning family! My “restrained” ancestors routinely produced families of 8-16 children (or whatever it took to man the farm.)

That restraint was evident in the females of the family too. I remember when I riding in the car with my mother and we passed a couple holding hands. My mother’s immediate response was “Yechh!” It was plain she thought any display of that sort should be kept hidden and was not for civic consumption. She believed we all knew we were loved and there was no sense in bragging about it to her children or the public.

This did not mean that there was no room for nurturing. If one of us came down with an illness, the combined knowledge of potions and cures were brought to bear on us. The family remedy for a cold was legendary. Grandma Holm’s formula involved water, chocolate, cinnamon, mustard, and pepper heated to just below boiling and served in a huge mug with clouds of steam rolling over the brim. I had seen it with my own eyes, that when faced with drinking that simmering brew a miraculous healing would occur. The stricken child would beg to return to chores or school before the drink hit their lips.

Grandma Holm’s knowledge of medicine was not limited to potions. Her understanding of the physical nature of pathogens was inspirational. For instance, when faced with the daunting task of lancing a boil, she would calmly explain that the “mean-ness” needed to be let out. When asked what caused the white spots on fingernails, she expertly replied that it was caused by lying. Grandma instinctively knew that disease was nature’s retribution for past acts.

Now combine this background with a Midwestern Catholic School upbringing and you had a system guaranteed to wring out ardor. The nuns patrolled their schools with a vengeance and looked to snuff out any type of emotional outbreak. When tending to the students who were occasionally injured, it was common to overhear the nuns say “Offer the pain up for the poor souls in purgatory!” or “Stop crying, this pain is nothing compared the burning fires of hell!” Now I didn’t know much about the pain of purgatory or the fires of hell, but I did know you didn’t go crying to a nun with an injury, unless your bleeding was messing up the school hallways. It was not surprising that one of the first religious lectures taught during the school year was based on the Stoics and their philosophy.

Once a year, our school took part in a religious retreat. It was a time of self examination and reflection. For some odd reason sex education was also incorporated with this experience. Because of that subject matter, the participants were divided by sex, with the boys’ lectures being led by the priests and the girls being lectured to by the nun’s.

I don’t pretend to imagine what experiences the nun’s had to share with the girls, but I can divulge some the thoughts shared by the priest on the subject of sex. We were exhorted to control impure thoughts that could consume our minds. We were to offer our personal struggle up to heaven. To help us, we were given blessed holy cards to focus our thoughts on. I’ve got to admit praying to a picture of the Sacred Heart with blood dripping from it did seem to have the same effect as a cold shower.

If a young Catholic boy were to select a saint to control our impure thoughts, if might have been appropriate to bend a knee to St. Christopher. St. Christopher was the patron saint of travelers and even more importantly, bachelors. Most Catholic had his image placed in their car to prevent accidents (even though, as we told by the nun’s, over 60 mph his intervention did not apply). If there ever was a need for a divine supplication, it would have been by a Catholic boy getting past first base in a car with a girl whose morals had been pledged to a life devoted to God by the Catholic Sisters and reinforced by the Sodality Club.

The last afternoon of the retreat, we were all brought back together with the boys on one side of the church and the girls with their heads covered with pieces of lace on the other. After being led through the Rosary, a special guest priest was brought in to conclude the event. I don’t recall the priest’s name or much of what he said, other than that the nuns were all aflutter. I do recall his last advice addressed to the girls concerning what to do if a boy offered them alcohol. “Drink! … Drink it all! Then, throw up all over them!” With that we were thrown back into the secular world, better prepared for any adversity.

With all that praying, chanting and drinking going on, it is no small wonder that most of us found happiness in mates who were from other religions. Restraint had its place, but now and again a little uff-da was nice.