by David Johnson
Carl Wilson was born 8 February 1885 in or near Creighton, Nebraska to W.D.Wilson and his wife Lucinda Blanche Davis Wilson. I believe it is fair to say that his childhood may not have been an easy one. At the time of his birth, his father W.D. was still struggling to establish himself financially and his mother Lucinda died in 1894 when Carl was only eight years old. Carl’s son, Ozzie, remembers his father telling him about working for a rather mean-spirited farmer when only 9-10 years of age. A young Carl was helping stretch barbed wire with the farmer who kept yelling at the youngster to pull harder, and keep wire taut. The old man surprised and angered Carl by actually hitting him from behind. That Carl was being “hired out” at this early age is perhaps indicative of the financial situation of the family and the rigorous childhood he endured. The fact that Carl is not living with his father in the 1900 census indicates that he was then either living with another relative or already out on his own at the age of fifteen. At this time we are unsure as to which of these two options is the case.
Sophie was born to Anders Roberg and Agnette Lien Roberg near Newman Grove in Boone county Nebraska on 5 November 1881. It is impossible to say much more regarding her early life except that she may well have been born in a sodhouse. When Anders Roberg arrived in Boone county with his family in 1879, a “dugout” was their first home. Depending on how soon he was able to build the frame house (pictured in this history) on their property, Sophie may have spent her earliest years in a soddie.
By 1900 Sophie was living and working in the home of Mons Knudson as a “housekeeper” according to the census. This rather traditional transition occupation bridging from the home of one’s parents to one’s own household is none too surprising to us now if we have read this history in its entirety. Sophie Roberg is merely another example of this bygone practice. As for Carl Wilson…? We have no other record for him until his 1907 marriage to Sophie. The fact that he was born in next door Knox county, was not living with his father in South Dakota in 1900, and married Sophie in Madison county, Nebraska indicates that he may well have never left the region after his father’s departure for Sisseton, South Dakota in1894.
Their early married life may have been a struggle. At least briefly after their marriage Carl and Sophie lived on the farm directly to the north of her parents. In fact, Anders Roberg owned this farm property and allegedly offered to sell or give the property to the young newlyweds. In 1997, Carl’s son Ozzie dismissed the notion that the property was ever offered as anything other than a straight sale to his father. In Ozzie’s words, “that old man (Anders) didn’t give anything away.” Ozzie’s adamant assertion of this, however, may be more reflective of Carl’s not always comfortable relationship with his father-in-law. Whatever the reason, it seems Carl did not buy the land though in 1910 Carl was listed as a “farmer” but he, his wife and daughter Blanche were “boarders” in the home of James Darsh in Boone county. The loss of a son, Anders Clarence, in 1909 surely did little to boost spirits.
Whatever the motivation, by 1915 the family had moved to Mellette county, South Dakota. Perhaps it was the chance to work some of the government’s “free” land in South Dakota that beckoned? Based upon the reminiscences of Henry Elmer Dickman whose family homesteaded that same region, one has to wonder about the nature and quality of much of this land. Success at farming and/or ranching in that area seemed difficult at best for some. Regardless, in 1918 Carl purchased a 160 acre tract from Olaf Abrahamson for $1600. He obtained another 319 acres from the government the next year and another 159 acres in 1920. The latter from the Rosebud Real Estate Company of Omaha for “one dollar and other valuable considerations.” Just what the other considerations were was not stated. All of these land transactions were for the area in and around Wood in Mellette county.
The family’s 1915 arrival in Winner before heading forty miles out to the homestead made quite an impression on Carl and Sophie’s oldest son, Ozzie. He recalls riding the train to the end of the line (Winner) and then having to wait nearly a week for his father’s arrival to take them to their claim. Evidently, the combination of snow melt and spring rain left the area’s creeks flooded and the countryside a virtual quagmire of mud. It was many days before Carl could make his way into Winner to retrieve his wife and children before loading them onto a wagon, hitched to four horses. Ozzie remembers that a family friend accompanied them on this journey to help Carl establish their homestead. The week in Winner gave young Ozzie plenty of time to explore the town thoroughly while attempting to convince his mother of the need to invest in a pair of boots for him. Apparently, the family friend convinced Ozzie that there were so many rattlesnakes in the region that a pair of boots was an absolute necessity After spotting just the right pair and pleading his best case to Sophie, Ozzie was left with the oft-repeated answer that so many children grow up hearing, “We’ll let your father decide!” The boots made such an impression that Ozzie remembered them many years later, related the story on more than one occasion to his own children and must have laughed aloud when one of his kids finally bought a child-sized pair of cowboy boots for him!
Once in South Dakota, Carl tried to make a go of it financially by raising corn and hogs but Ozzie has stated that, knowing what he does now of the land in that area, his father probably would have been better off to forget the plow and just raise cattle. This region of South Dakota certainly maintained a frontier feel for many years into this century. Ozzie remembers working for a rancher in the area as a teenager and witnessing some of the rough and tumble nature of the area in person. An argument over land led one former property owner to confront the new owner as they moved cattle through the area. Ozzie was along to help and recalled never having seen the disgruntled former owner go about unarmed with either a rifle or shotgun. This time was no different. A blast from the disgruntled man’s shotgun killed the new owner’s horse and peppered the man himself with lead pellets. It is easy to understand why Ozzie remembered this incident so well many years later.
As for the rest of the family… Sophie continued to have and raise more children on a fairly regular basis. Between 1908-1925 nine children were born: Blanche, Ozro, Pearl, Clarence, Woodrow, Mildred, Irene, Maude and Lester. However, sometime after 1925 Carl lived apart from his wife and most of the children. Their separation seems to have been mutually (?) agreed upon. A niece of Sophie’s, Martha Anderson, remembers her aunt coming to visit friends and family back near Newman Grove, Nebraska for several weeks in the fall of each year. One time, however, she received a letter from South Dakota telling her that if she wished to keep her husband she had better get back home. I suppose one might characterize Carl Wilson as our “black sheep” considering that Sophie was left to raise all of these children during the worst of the Great Depression with scanty resources. One can only marvel at how she was able to do so.
As for Carl, his obituary states that he moved into Wood in 1929 to operate a restaurant. One month prior to his death in 1939 at the age of 54, he became the first manager of the municipal liquor store in Wood. A newspaper obituary described him as possessing a “jovial disposition” and with a “faculty of acquiring friends.” One can read as much or as little from these newspaper comments as desired. His son Ozzie remembered him as a physically tough man as well who was quite adept at the informal wrestling matches men engaged in years ago when friends and family gathered.
And Sophie? She simply worked, raised kids and lived her long life as best she could in this area of South Dakota. In 1939-40 Sophie moved from Witten to Winner, South Dakota. She worked for many years by taking in wash (done on a scrub board) and ironing (using a gas iron). For much of the 1940’s and into the 1950’s she continued to hire herself out to cook and clean for others. At one time she worked in Holmes Cafe in Winner as a dishwasher. Much of this work was twofold in purpose: to make enough to support herself and to increase her earnings to qualify for more Social Security. She lived in rental property in Winner and elsewhere, finally in the Rosebud Motel after her youngest son, Les, no longer lived at home.
Mildred Wilson Johnson remembers her mother as a hard worker and a devout church goer (Lutheran). As long as she lived on her own, Sophie never had either a telephone or radio. She did, however, keep a parakeet. When one died, she would quickly replace it with another. Mildred remembers that one had been trained to say “Goin’ to church?” As Sophie’s children grew she developed the habit of taking the bus to visit family and friends back in Newman Grove, Nebraska. Invariably, she would stay with her brother Severin or her niece Martha Anderson during these visits. Her daughter Mildred felt that Sophie was lonesome at times for her relatives during the many years in South Dakota. In fact, she thought that her mother “never quite got over not living in Nebraska” with her family and her “dear friends” as she liked to refer to them.
Another interesting anecdote concerning Sophie, one offering a hint of mystery and romance to those of us so inclined, involves her prayer book. Sophie’s granddaughter Monica Johnson Zuerlein has the prayer book in her possession and cannot help but wonder about the obituary taped inside. A February 1946 newspaper obituary for Otto Gygax was scotch-taped into this prayer book years earlier and then retaped again much later when the original tape had turned yellow and brittle. We have no idea who Otto Gygax was, where he lived, or his relationship to Sophie. (The clipping includes a photo of Mr. Gygax but does not state where he died or include the name of the newspaper from which the item was taken.) Perhaps this man was nothing more than a good friend from Sophie’s childhood in Nebraska or a close friend from her many years in the Wood-Witten-Winner area of South Dakota. Still, it is curious that Sophie thought enough of this person to tape his obituary into her prayer book, keeping it intact there through the many years, and then retaped it again years later lest it fall out.
Finally, one of the images her grandson Monte Johnson retains of this strong-willed woman is accompanying her to the cemetery to visit the grave site of little Woodrow who died in 1917 at the age of only two days. Interestingly enough, when Sophie died in 1979, just two weeks shy of her 98th birthday, she was buried next to little Woodrow and Carl Wilson, the long-dead husband whom she had not lived with for nearly fifty years!