A 1952 Christmas

 This photo is from my mother’s Christmas in 1952. That’s her in the middle with the beautiful smile. She was so fond of her family and I can just tell from the photo that they are all really happy to be together. It was taken in the family home in Floodwood, Minnesota. It’s easy to imagine that their celebration included peppernuts and lots of cheerful chattering in the kitchen. Her parents, John and Eva Schroeder sit behind her. Older sisters, (Olivia is on the left and Wanda is on the right) surround her. Peeking from behind is her young brother, LeRoy. He would have been 22 and was likely a college student. The family was large and scattered. Missing from the photo is older sister Emma and her family who were missionaries in Ecuador and younger brother Loyd and his family who were also missionaries in Ecuador. Older brother Ed was married with young children and lived in Omaha. At the time Mom would have been visiting from her job at Grace Children’s Home in Henderson, Nebraska and Wanda would have been visiting from northern Montana. Olivia may have still lived in the area. Wanda (34) was newly married (her husband was there but not in the photo), but Grandma (Lillian, 28), Olivia (31) and LeRoy were not. 

Wanda with her new husband, Jake 
John and Eva Schroeder were both first generation Americans. Their parents were all children when they immigrated to the United States in the mid 1870s, likely from Mennonite communities in Prussia or Russia. They grew up speaking German and although at some point they learned English, I think they continued to speak German in their home even after they married in 1913.  Eventually they made the switch to English. The last and hardest thing to give up was praying in German. I think it was Grandma who said that that too needed to change.

I did not know my grandfather well. He was born November 21, 1890 exactly 97 years before our son Shawn was born and he died in 1961 when I was six. Because they lived so far from Kansas we didn’t see them often. And I was one of many grandchildren. Family members said that he was brilliant, an inventor of a musical instrument and a “rock picker”. But mostly, he was a struggling farmer and, in Minnesota, a lumberman. I think he preferred that to working in the employ of someone else but it did not give him the opportunity to pursue his inventions. A failed homestead in Montana and the Great Depression made things difficult economically but he was a very hard worker and devout Christian. They moved many times and always started a Sunday School or church wherever they went. I understand he was responsible for the very “unMennonite” names of their seven children - Emma Johana, Edward John, Wanda Evangeline, Olivia Marie, Lillian Rose, Loyd Oliver and LeRoy Donald.

Our sons remember Grandma Schroeder fondly. She was old for such a long time, passing away at the ripe old age of 102 in 1996. She too was a hard worker and Mom, who was her caregiver for many years, scrambled to find things to keep her hands occupied. Her spirit was sweet; she was quiet and never intrusive. Steadfast would be a good word to describe her. For the rest of her life she looked pretty much the same as you see in the photo. 

The children - Olivia, LeRoy, Wanda, Lillian, Jake

It is interesting to me that mom and her two sisters pictured were all in their thirties when they married. I think that was quite unusual for that time. And they married younger men. Wonderful families were established. Wanda had six children (one died in infancy), Olivia had four daughters and of course, there are four Epp siblings. Since we lived so far apart we cousins only saw each other on rare occasions but there is something about being raised by these sisters that gives us a common bond and understanding. Dear Aunt Olivia is the last remaining family member. She celebrated her 102nd birthday in October. 

It always seemed to me from my mother’s stories that LeRoy was the shining star of the family. He excelled with a variety of talents. He was a skilled musician and must have been very bright academically. At the time of his death (the result of a car accident) at the way too young age of 31 he was already a college professor and left a wife and two young sons. An unusual ability that he had was to sleep a precise amount of time. He would say, “I’m going to nap for 20 minutes (or any other amount of time)” and exactly 20 minutes later (or any other amount of time) he would wake up. 

This photograph captures a moment in time. None of them could anticipate the joys or the sorrows to follow. It is unlikely that this group reunited for another Christmas celebration together. By the next Christmas Wanda was a mother and Olivia was planning a June wedding. In two years the Schroeder parents were stuffing their car with pine branches to take down to Nebraska for my parent’s wedding. 

The Land Remains

The sandhills in winter are shades of brown. Tawny tufts of dry grass studded with spikes of rust surround a grassy path wandering through this pasture. One side follows a barbed wire fence with a hayfield stretching beyond. In the other direction the prairie spreads wild and free. Shrubs are stark sticks devoid of leaves. Further down the trail tall trees bravely lift their bare branches toward a sky of brilliant blue. For a late December day the temperature is chilly but not bitter. Beautiful? Perhaps you wouldn’t think so. But this is the land that my father loves. He grew up on this land, working cattle and baling hay and when his parents grew old and moved to town he returned and worked cattle and baled hay. He has grown old but he has not moved to town. We are walking, my father and I, down this path that he has walked a thousand times.

My father has not been himself lately. He is just a few days out of a hospital stay where he received IVs and was not a particularly good patient. This morning I took him to the clinic for a follow-up appointment and labs. He is not eating or drinking well. At lunch I scooped up a few bites of cottage cheese into a spoon and fed him. My slight father is now gaunt and thin. Here on this path walking he is more himself. His walk is steady and firm. We talk little. “I don’t want to go to the nursing home,” he says. I know. But I can’t promise. Our path winds around a tall cottonwood tree with a rugged trunk. Nearby a fallen limb melds into the soil. We have entered a hidden meadow surrounded by trees.There are remnants here of happy times, of picnics and bonfires. At the far end of the clearing we come to the spot where we often turn around. Surely he is tired. We are a long way from the house. My father acts as if he is going to continue on. But when I ask him he turns and returns to the house with me.

At the house the light on the answering machine is blinking. Just as I am trying to listen, the phone rings. It is the clinic. Lab tests showed that he needs another IV but they are closing soon. Can we come right away? We hustle to the car and return to the clinic. Lying on the bed receiving the IV he seems so small and weak. His PA, a pleasant, compassionate young woman comes by to check on him. “He’s always been so strong,” I murmur. She pauses and her voice catches a bit, “Ninety sucks.” 

There’s an errand I need to do before we go home. We stop at the store and Dad stays in the car. At the checkout I notice some grape pop in the cooler. The bottle looks frosty and cold. Good. So I grab a couple of bottles and purchase them. My father is a child of the Depression. He is not given to self-indulgence. Ever. His current condition has highlighted this propensity with cloudy thinking. Just today as we were preparing for our walk he said, “We mustn't waste our coats.” So when I show him the pop, he shakes his head. But I remove the lid and place the bottle in his hand.

Driving home I watch him out of the corner of my eye. He shifts the bottle in his hands. Then lifts it to his mouth. “Um, tangy,” he says. He takes another sip. By the time we return home almost half is gone. A bit of encouragement. 


On that day, my father had less than a month to live. We had always told each other that our healthy, active father would live to be a hundred. I was only beginning to understand and I was certainly not ready to accept that he would not recover. 

Old Grandpa John Schroeder


John Schroeder
born August 28, 1835
died October 1921
We have to call him Old Grandpa John Schroeder to differentiate him from all the other John Schroeders in the family tree. Years ago when families were large and biblical names were the way to go, there was usually a son named John. My grandfather's name was also John Schroeder and he had an uncle and grandson (although he always used his middle name, Carl) with the same name. Old Grandpa John Schroeder was my grandfather's grandfather, my great-great-grandfather.  He was the patriarch of the family and the one who brought his family from Prussia to America. His decedents owe him a debt of gratitude. 

With a birth date of August 28, 1835 this John Schroeder certainly qualifies as old. It is quite amazing that we have any information about this ancestor but we do, thanks to family members writing down memories, a grainy photocopied photograph and a newspaper article featuring this esteemed gentleman.  The article is a valuable resource and is included at the end of this post. 

At the time of his birth Prussia was a militaristic kingdom comprised of portions of modern-day Germany, Poland and Lithuania. Its boundaries tended to expand and contract in response to military exploits until its demise in the 20th century. Peace loving Mennonites living in Prussia were in cultural conflict with their pacifist beliefs.   In previous generations (1760's) many Mennonites had emigrated from Prussia to the Russian (now Ukraine) steppes at the invitation of Katherine the Great with the promise of military exemption. However, some remained mostly in the West Prussia area living among the Lutherans and Catholics. Among them must have been the Schroeder family. Mennonites who remained in Prussia adjusted to requirements in some form of military service, perhaps as non-combatants.      

Of the bits of information there is this: "His father was born in Danzig, Germany and died when John was a child. He was then brought up by a stepfather named Rosenfeld."  Danzig is now GdaƄsk, Poland. It is also possible that it refers to a region by that name rather than a specific city.  
Old Grandpa John was a skilled carpenter. After finishing school at age 17 he served three years as a carpenter apprentice. Once proficient he worked in several large European cities, Hamburg, Berlin and Vienna, Austria.  He married Sarah Tiahrt on August 28, 1862 in Prussia, Germany. They would eventually have six children: Mary, William (my great-grandfather), Leonard, Pauline, John T., and Jacob. Three were born before their move to the United Sates and three after. 

In 1871 at age 36 John came to America alone. It may not be a coincidence that his departure from Prussia coincides with the beginning of the Franco-Prussian War.  He found work first in Utica and then in Detroit where he worked for about three years. He was then able to have his family join him. They went to Dakota territory in 1874 and arrived at the newly established town of Yankton where he worked for several years as a carpenter. In 1879 he established a homestead in Turner county. I believe that he and his family spoke German, possibly a low-German dialect, but likely learned English after arriving in the United States.   

The newspaper article records his accomplishments, "In connection with his agricultural pursuits Mr. Schroeder had also engaged quite extensively since locating on his farm in contracting and building. He built the first dwelling in Freeman ... also the first schoolhouse in the same county, and has since erected as many as sixty-two good buildings there, besides the school-house, churches and bank. Turner county has also many monuments of his skills in the shape of twelve school-houses, four churches and various other structures, and his own property has been embellished with every building which will add to the comfort and convenience of the occupants."  The Schroeders were active in the Mennonite Church where he served as choirmaster. He also served on the school board and as a road overseer. The article states: "Politically he affiliates with the Republicans, staunchly supporting that party's doctrines, and he is esteemed by his fellow-citizens in general as his intelligence, fine character and general usefulness merits."

Back row: John, Pauline, Leonard, William, Mary
Front row: Sarah Tiahrt Schroeder, Jacob, John Schroeder Sr. 
Photo was taken before 1895, probably closer to 1890

My grandmother, Eva Becker Schroeder (1894-1996), remembered Old Grandpa John Schroeder, her husband's grandfather. She wrote, "I learned to know the old grandpa John Schroeder when I was a teenager. His wife had passed away by then and he took turns living with his children. He was very hard of hearing. He had a horn shaped like the Edison phonograph which he would hold to his ear to listen to the sermons during the church service. He was a carpenter ... and built houses and churches. I have a table he made. It is made without nails. It is 40 by 28 inches and is still a very sturdy table. I use it in my kitchen. It was the William Schroeder family table until the family were too many to sit around it."  That table remained in Grandma's mobile home at the Epp farm until the mobile home was torn down. It had been refinished probably by Grandma in the 1970's and didn't seem to be anything special. A family member now has the table at her home in New Mexico. 

Family Facts 

  • John Schroeder, Sr. (8/24/1835 in Prussiamarried Sarah Tiahrt on August 28, 1862 in Prussia, Germany. He died in October, 1921 at the home of his son, John T., in Dolton South Dakota. Buried in Rose Hill Cemetery, Lot 24, no marker. 
  • Sarah Tiahrt Schroeder died in April 12, 1909 in Canada
  • Mary (1867?  in Prussia) married Henry Schmidt. She died at the age of 73 in June 1940. I believe she lived in Canada. 
  • William (12/11/1867 in Prussia) (my great-grandfather) married Kathrina Vogt (9/13/1865-10/7/1945) on January 3, 1889. He died 10/17/1945.  Both are buried in Tieszen (Bethesda) Cemetery, Marion, South Dakota. 
  • Leonard (9/15/1870 (in Prussia), He died 1/4/1952. No information on marriage. 
  • Pauline (1876? in USA) married Frank Vogt. She died January 1905 at the age of 29. 
  • John T. (1879? in USA) married Helen Schulz.  He died at age 55 June 1934. 
  • Jacob (11/28/1890 in USA) only lived to be 15 and died 12/19/1895. Buried in Rose-Hill Cemetery. 

Newspaper Article (TOTC)

The following appears to be a newspaper article (which I retyped from a photocopy) about John Schroeder (the author and newspaper name are unknown to me) probably written around 1895: 

    John Schroeder. The name is borne by a prominent citizen of Dalton township, Turner county, who has spent the last fifteen years of his life on the farm whereon he now resides. During this time he has been found standing on the side of truth and justice, and manifesting much interest in his business affairs, and his connection with the advance of civilization. he is engaged in general stock-raising and is well-versed in the peculiarities of various breeds of domestic animals, and, therefore, well able to care for them.

Our subject was born in Prussia, Germany, August 28, 1835, and grew to sturdy manhood in his native place, attending school until he was seventeen years of age. He served three years as an apprentice at the carpenter's trade, and after becoming proficient, went to the large cities--Hamburg, Berlin, and Vienna, Austria--to work, and in 1871 started for America. He landed in New York city, February 19th, and from there went to Utica, where he found employment for eight months at his trade, leaving there to go to Detroit. In 1874 Mr. Schroeder arrived in Dakota territory and located at Yankton. The town had but recently been started, and he readily found employment as carpenter and builder, which occupation he followed for five years. May 20, 1879, he entered as a homestead 160 acres in section 10, of Dolton township, Turner county, on which he erected a 10 x 12 foot shanty, and then bought another quarter section in section 11: this constitutes his present estate. In connection with his agricultural pursuits Mr. Schroeder had also engaged quite extensively since locating on his farm in contracting and building. he built the first dwelling in Freeman, Hutchinson Col, S. Dak., also the first schoolhouse in the same county, and has since erected as many as sixty-two good buildings there, besides the school-house, churches and bank. Turner county has also many monuments of his skills in the shape of twelve school-houses, four churches and various other structures, and his own property has been embellished with every building which will add to the comfort and convenience of the occupants.

The marriage of Mr. Schroeder and Miss Sarah Tihart, who was born in West Prussia, Germany, was celebrated August 28, 1862, and six children have come to bless their happy married life, five of whom survive. Mary is the wife of Henry Smith, and now resides in northwestern Canada; William farms in Rosefield township; Leonard, Paulina and John T., are at home; and Jacob, is deceased. Both himself and wife belong to the Mennonite church, and have high standing in that religious society, Mr. Schroeder being the choirmaster. He has been director in the school board for eight years, three years was chairman of that body, and has served as road overseer for ten years. Politically he affiliates with the Republicans, staunchly supporting that party's doctrines, and he is esteemed by his fellow-citizens in general as his intelligence, fine character and general usefulness merits. 



William and Kathrine Schroeder Family Record, 1945 compiled by John and Gustav Schroeder. 1979 compiled by David J. Becker

The Roots of our Heritage, notes from a talk given by G.W. Schroeder, June 1988

TOTC Newspaper article on John Schroeder author and newspaper name unknown, written around 1895

West Prussian Mennonite Villages Compiled by Glenn Penner Mennonite genealogy.com  

A Guide to the Genealogy of Prussian Mennonites Glenn H Penner Mennonite Genealogy.com 

I Want to Grow Old Like Rose

On their wedding day May 31, 2003
Dad and Rose were both in their 70s when they met and married and began their new life together. So I only really knew Rose as an older person. But as I learned to know this delightful lady I would often think, I want to grow old like Rose.

By observing Rose's life I've learned several keys to  vibrant and joyful aging. 

Be open to love

Found: A Letter to Cherish

Can we all agree that being a mother of young children is exhausting? Especially if the dad has to be away for an extended period of time? That the saying "The days are long but the years are short" is a truth that stands the test of time? I present for evidence a letter written by my grandmother to my grandfather dated July 22, 1935. The children is question were my father (Harold) and my aunt (Maryann) who as long I have known them have been nothing but dignified and upright but were nevertheless quite a handful as they approached their fifth and third birthdays.  And, of course, in 1935 their parents weren't Grandma and Grandpa but Esther and Abe, a young married couple.