Wednesday, December 29, 2010

“K” is for Karen

Although not a man to be obsessed with material things, my grandfather’s 1952 Kaiser Deluxe was one of his most treasured possessions. In the last 30 years he owned it, it typically sat in one half of the garage, covered with a soft blanket, taken out once a year to be cleaned and waxed. It had been retired from active service about 1965 or so, but from the time he bought the car in 1952 until then, it was used daily.
The Kaiser-Frazer company churned out its first model with the Kaiser Special, a 4-door sedan, in 1947, and continued to produce automobiles in the United States until 1955.  Midway through 1952, Bill Knutz, in Huron, South Dakota, purchased what would be his only brand-new car, at the age of 41.  Typically a thrifty man by necessity, this seemed to be a very uncharacteristic thing for him to do, but he was moving his family from the farm to Gardena, California, had just sold his entire herd of cattle, and needed reliable transportation.  Knowing these facts, It seems like a sensible and practical thing to do.  But knowing his lifelong love of cars, I’m sure he was secretly and thoroughly thrilled about it.
Kaiser Steering Wheel5
Grandpa and I spent much time in that car, as it was his job to entertain me while my Grandma was shopping or getting groceries.  He told me many stories during those hours, and he had me convinced that the “K” in the center of the steering wheel was for “Karen.”  I bought it, hook, line and sinker, well past the point that I should have known better.  There’s still a part of me that loves to think that if Grandpa had his way, that K would truly stand for “Karen.”
An uncle inherited the Kaiser after Grandpa’s death in 1996, and sold it, as I understand, to a collector.  I’d love to know where it ended up, or even some day to see it again.  Wherever it is, I just hope that its new owner knows what very special memories are embedded in that vehicle.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Up In Flames

In the early morning hours on May 8, 1957, a bolt of lightening changed the lives of the Bill and Lillian Knutz family of Beadle county, South Dakota.  They were my grandparents.
Below, left: the newspaper account, as it appeared in the May 8, 1957 edition of the Huronite and Daily Plainsman (Huron, South Dakota).  Right, the incident as related by Bill’s mother, Elvirta Knutz, in her diary:
Fire“Tuesday night an electrical storm came up and a bolt of lightening struck Bill’s house; they knew it struck but didn’t know it set a fire so they went to bed. It struck about 12 and about 1:30 they all woke up smelling smoke.  Bill went out for a look, Betty did too they saw the kitchen-roof was a blaze; Betty opened the stair door, it was full of smoke and 1 wall was on fire. It just happened the kids and all slept down stairs because of the storm which was a good thing; for they would have been trapped up stairs. Bill was going to phone for the fire department but the phone was burnt out also the electricity. Lillian and the kids carried out things; Bill did too when he got back. Mrs. Ted Walters phoned to us about a quarter till 2 so we went over. They run out of water and so they couldn’t save the house, they broke out windows and carried out things. Everything up-stairs burnt, so did everything in the kitchen and bathroom; some things were saved in the (living) room, some burned. The kids’ clothing all burned except what they had on; Betty was without shoes and Donny had his pajamas on, no shoes. Before we left the scene of the fire some neighbors came with clothing. Every one were helping with donations of clothing, canned goods, cooking utencils [sic], towels, and wash-cloths.”
My mother, who was a teenager at the time of the fire, said the house was actually struck by lightening twice; the first bolt took out the electricity, and the second started the fire.  She also related that her father ran to the neighbor’s house rather than drove, a distance of over a mile away, to use their phone.  When it became apparent that the house could not be saved, the firemen broke out windows and threw whatever of the family’s belongings they could grab, out into the yard. 
The two older girls stayed with Bill’s sister in Huron, and the rest of the family stayed with Bill’s parents.  In the meantime, they began looking for a house that they could move to the farm:
housetobuy (from the Thursday, May16 edition of the Huronite and Daily Plainsman, Huron, South Dakota)


However, the plans changed when they found a house in town, pictured at right, and purchased it on May 20.  Bill made daily trips to the farm to do his chores.  The new house was just a half block from the home of Maurice and Loretta Sloan, their farm friends who had recently moved to town.  My grandmother and Mrs. Sloan maintained their close friendship for the rest of their lives.  My grandfather continued making daily trips to the farm until he sold it about 1972.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Terror and Glory

Our cold, South Dakota Christmases were always warmed up by the excitement of gathering with our large family of cousins at my grandmother’s house on Christmas eve.  Besides a multitude of squirrely children of all ages, there were wonderful Norwegian treats such as krumkake and lefse, and a dinner consisting of lutefisk smothered with melted butter.  And every year, after dinner and before opening presents, one of the granddaughters would be selected to read the story of Christ’s birth from Luke, Chapter 2.
There was a cluster of granddaughters within four of five years of age of each other, of which I was the youngest, and then a few more younger than I.  And every year I watched as one of the older ones was hand-picked by Grandma to read the Bible story.  What an honor!  I watched in awe as Sheila flawlessly read the verses; and the following year it was Julie’s turn, and again, I was so struck by what a beautiful job she did, and how “grown up” they both were.  Then, it was Cheryl’s turn; Cheryl was a little closer to my own age.  Cheryl did a wonderful job too, but I was a little miffed that I hadn’t been selected myself.  The following year, Cindy was the chosen one.  Of all my cousins, I was closest to Cheryl and Cindy.  So I was mad.  Really mad.  I’m sure they both managed to shine beautifully in their moments of glory, but I never noticed, because I Was Mad.  Of course, I didn’t realize at the time that Grandma had started this tradition with the oldest granddaughter, and was working her way down.  But I suspect I would have been mad anyway.
After Cindy finished her reading, Grandma approached me and gave me the honor for the following year.  I went from mad to terrified almost instantly!  I fretted for a few weeks, then put it out of my mind until the following Thanksgiving, when my anxiety began anew.   And, a few weeks before Christmas, when I took a look at the passage in the Bible, and saw words like Cyrenius, Judea, and a lot of others I couldn’t pronounce, I was ready to leave the country and come back after the holidays were over!
But my moment of honor came, and I did fine.  I really don’t remember who got The Nod for the following year, or the year after that.  Once my feelings of adoration, anger, terror, and glory came and went, who did the reading didn’t seem all that important anymore.
Despite the mix of emotions I had over this tradition, two years ago I decided to revive it within my own granddaughters.  I’m up to three of them now, although only two can read.  And I sincerely hope that as the years go on, none of them get jealous or angry or stressed about it.  Because this is the unparalleled story of hope and redemption for all people, and that, after all, is something to celebrate. 
Have a Blessed Christmas! 

Graphic courtesy of Atlantic Fish

Friday, December 17, 2010

Future Friday

First, I’d like to thank Jenn at Your Growing Tree for the idea of Future Friday.  The idea is to get us thinking about helping future generations to know *us*.  I’ve taken some time to evaluate all of my current genealogical “goodies” and have picked one particular area of focus: family stories and biographies.
More and more, genealogy-related documents and transcriptions are making their way online.  Twenty years from now, finding facts about individuals in our family trees will probably be easier than ever.  But finding personal information about these people – likes, dislikes, habits, hobbies, personality traits, life experiences, etc. – will be equally as hard without someone recording this information now.  To address this in my own family, I have set a few of goals for 2011:
1) Take the time to jot down a few notes about my more “recent” ancestors, those whom I knew personally, or knew through family stories.  To keep this goal a realistic one, I am not going to write formal biographies, but instead will concentrate on recording as much as I can about as many people as possible.  I (or someone else) can always take the time to write a more “polished” biography in the future.
2) Complete a personal biography.  No amount of documents can help you get to know an ancestor like an autobiography.   I had resisted doing this for my own life, primarily because I don’t think I’m that interesting.   However, several of the personal biographies I have begin with, “I’m only writing this because my daughter insists,” or “I don’t understand why anyone would ever want to read this, but...” so perhaps it will be the same with my story and my descendants.  I was inspired by, a free site that allows collaboration among people in getting stories and timelines recorded.  (I have no affiliation whatsoever with this site, nor its creators.)  While I don’t feel compelled to put my stories online, they do offer a number of “question sets” that were easy to use and were very effective in reviving old memories.  I started writing my story several years ago, and set it aside when life got busy.  This coming year, I’m going to attempt to get it up to date, or at least make some significant progress.
This would also be a great “group activity” if you’re getting together with siblings, cousins, etc., for the holidays.  What great fun it would be to get a bunch of them together, with a pot of coffee, a digital recorder, and one of these question sets!  The result would be a priceless gift for our descendants.
There are many other ways in which a family historian could assist future generations, but with a limited amount of time available, this is what I will be tackling.  Did I just make a New Year’s Resolution??

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Wedding Wednesday – 47 years later

In her diary entry of Saturday, March 30, 1957, my great grandmother Virta Knutz recalled the day she married her husband Will:
“47 years ago today we were married and such a day as it was; it rained, hailed, wind blew hard and it blizzarded all before noon but that did not stop me; Delbert [her brother] took me to the depot and waited with me till the train came; I had to go to Huron (from Esmond) to meet Will. Henry Thompson and his girl Stella were there to be married at the same time we were; we were witnesses for each other. We ate our dinner in a hotel which is now torn down and there is a gas station and truck parking lot there now. After dinner we were married and did some shopping and drove home; we used horse and buggy those days, had to drive about 7 miles; got home I got my first meal for us; which was (as I remember) bacon and eggs and potatoes.”
Above: Their marriage certificate
They would celebrate eight more anniversaries together before Will’s death in 1966.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The End of an Era, Rapidly Approaching

Tonight I’m feeling a bit wistful at the thought of finally completing my grandmother’s quilt.  It’s been a project that on one hand, I have treasured, but on the other hand, has had me terrified – terrified that the finished product would not be something that my grandmother would have liked, or that I would not be up to completing the task correctly.
There have been some major hurdles – trying to decipher the pattern for the blocks by trial and error - coming up with a design that incorporated both my grandmother’s blocks, and my aunt’s dark gold border around them - finding era-appropriate fabric - and making that fabric look “old” so that it would blend in with the 1940s feed sacks my grandmother used.  These problems solved, I was making good progress reproducing the blocks until I figured out a way to “improve” them, and ultimately rendering most of them unusable in the process.  Frustrated, I set the project aside for more than two months.  I finally got inspired again last night and salvaged four of the blocks, to complete the corners.   I was able to keep the dark gold border done by my aunt, thereby making this a “three generation quilt.”
This evening, as I pin-basted the quilt to the batting and backing, listening to the howling wind and snow outside, I thought of the first quilt I ever made – a Dresden plate made from another grandmother’s blouses.  It, too, was basted on what was (up until tonight) the worst blizzard we’ve had since moving here, twenty-some years ago.  It seems I do my  most significant work while the snow piles up outside.
Basting completed, it will next be hand-quilted, once I come up with a design.   I’ve jumped the most difficult hurdles with the quilt and it should be easy enough from this point on, which almost makes me a little sad.  After 70 years, and three generations, the quilt is nearly complete.  It will be the end of an era.