Wednesday, September 11, 2013

"Try to Forget Me and Be Happy"

Ella Pederson Drews

"When you're down and out, nobody likes you"

Ella Mathilda Pederson, ca. 1894/95;
 a serious looking young girl 
Saved between the pages of an old Pederson family Bible are a couple of letters written by a woman on the west coast to an older brother in the Midwest--a brother she had probably not seen for years.  Alfred (Fred) Pederson resided on the family farm in Northland Township, where they had both lived with their parents while growing up.  Fred kept two letters from his younger sister, Ella, and placed them inside the Bible for safe keeping.  Many years later, they were still in the possession of one of Fred's grandsons, in the exact same place.  It was through the loaning of that Bible from cousin to cousin that I eventually learned a little about Ella, who, unarguably, was a child of misfortune.

Ella's mother, Karin (Larson) Pederson, was an older sister to my maternal great grandmother, Malla (Larson) Johnson.  Karen and her husband, Erik Stallen Pederson, became farmers in Northland Township (East Grand Forks area), Polk County, Minnesota during the late 1870s.  They had four children:  Fred, Klara, Ed William "Willie", and Ella.  The Pedersons are a branch of the family I have known little about, until now.  What is now realized about Ella's experiences, though told in her own words. is just the tip of the iceberg and does not fully represent the trials she began to face at a very early age.

As a young girl in the cropped photo above, Ella Pederson looks older than her tender years.  But, it is unmistakably Ella, with her uniquely crooked nose and mouth--both slightly pulled downward on the left side of her face--and her prominent, knobby chin.  She appears quite the same as in the photographs of her as a younger girl (see below).

This is probably the early Pederson farm in Northland Township, Polk County, Minnesota.  The photo belonged to Malla (Larson) Johnson, a sister of Karen (Larson) Pederson.  On the verso is Malla's handwriting in Norwegian:  "Denn farm var Karen dem er dode" (Loosely translated:  "The farm where Karen had died").

Ella and her siblings dealt with a double tragedy in 1892, when their parents died within months of each other.  Both contracted tuberculosis (consumption), probably at around the same time.  "TB" was a common disease among young adults, and was often spread by drinking raw cow's milk--a dietary staple of farming folk.  The children's mother, Karin, died on January 9, 1892, and their father, Erik, on May 17 the same year.  Ella, their youngest, was nearly 5 years old at the time.

The untimely deaths of both parents left the eldest sister, Klara, with much of the responsibility to care for her sister and brothers. Klara was only 13 when she was suddenly laden with this heavy responsibility.  Unfortunately for all, Klara also contracted tuberculosis and passed away three years later, on June 8, 1895.  The Minnesota Territorial census for Northland Township during the summer of 1895 lists Ella as living alone with her brother, Fred.  One can imagine that as the only remaining female in the household, though just 8 years old, Ella must have had a daily round of chores that taxed her well beyond her years and capabilities.  As for her brother, Fred, it was undoubtedly a lot for him to assume the role of "man of the house" as a youth, and he deserves credit for keeping the rest of the family together for as long as possible after the deaths of his parents and sister.  Relatives local to the area must have helped the children, but it is unknown just how much assistance was offered, and/or how much of presence they really had in the household.  The children may also have taken turns living with other family members or friends in order to attend school, or just for security reasons.

The children of Erik and Karin Pederson of Northland Township, Polk County, Minnesota, ca. 1890.  Left to right:  William ("Willie"), Ella, Alfred ("Fred"), and Klara Pederson.
Ella Pederson (left) with her sister, Klara Pederson,
 ca. 1892.

Ella must have continued to live with her eldest brother, Fred, on their parents' Minnesota farm until close to the date of her marriage.  At age 23, she married Adolph Karl Drews in Seattle, King County, Washington, on October 23, 1910.  It is possible that she eloped to the west coast with Adolph, and in doing so, may have been judged in a negative light by some friends and family back home.  Witnesses for the couple's wedding in Seattle were E. Johnson and Jennie (?) Peterson.  Adolph, the groom, was 12 years Ella's senior.  He was born to a German couple on March 21, 1875, in Poland, and arrived in the United States in 1900.  If Ella had married a foreign national a few years earlier, she would have been required by law to renounce her U. S. citizenship according the to Expatriation Act of 1868.  Happily, she was not required to make the difficult choice between marriage for love versus keeping her native-born citizenship, for the law was altered in 1907.

A son, Arthur, was born to Adolph and Ella on April 22, 1911, just six months after their wedding.  Their address in the 1912 Seattle City Directory was  listed as 127 Victoria Avenue, but they moved to 1737 Victoria the following year.  Work was difficult to find at that time in Seattle, and even more difficult to keep.  The United States was in a recession just prior to World War I.   Many Midwesterners headed for the west coast in hope of finding work, but economic difficulty was widespread.  For the average unskilled laborer, job hunting would not improve until a few years later.  Once the war began, Europeans began purchasing U. S. goods for war and American manufacturing jobs became more numerous.  Also, when the U. S. became involved in the war in 1917, the military draft helped to lower the unemployment rate.

By 1914, Adolph had moved on to Portland, Oregon in hope of finding work.  Between 1914-1916, the family seemed to change addresses in Portland at least once a year, living first at 288 Jefferson, then 201-1st St., followed by 285 Hall Street.  The frequent change in address may have been due to difficulties with meeting the rent, which Ella alludes to in her letters.  One challenge her husband faced while seeking employment was the negative reaction he may have received as a German immigrant in the United States during World War I.  It was a time when many Germans were viewed with suspicion, and sometimes with downright hatred.  An example is the war propaganda of a Liberty Bonds poster (now in the public domain) depicting the German soldier as an evil "Hun."

"Beat back the HUN with LIBERTY BONDS." - NARA - 512638

"Beat back the HUN with LIBERTY BONDS"- NARA - 512638.jpg 

In 1914, Ella wrote a lengthy letter to her elder brother, Fred, who was still living on the family farm in Northland Township, Polk County, Minnesota.  Dated November 30, the envelope displayed a return address of "Mrs. A. Drews - 301 1/2 First Street, Portland, Oregon."  She was responding to a letter she had just received from Fred, announcing the birth of his son.

Thanks for your letter which I received last Saturday. I am so glad to hear that you are getting along so well, no doubt you work hard but then you are working for yourself and have your own home, and don’t have to pay rent and be afraid to talk for fear of making too much noise.
And surely that little fellow will brighten your home so much more. Well Fred I did not want to write much about myself because I have had some pretty rough roads to travel for some time. I have worked hard all the time, and when I didn’t work I was sick. 

She explains further about her unfortunate circumstances while living in Seattle:
 ...My husband [Adolph] had gone to Portland [Oregon] in hopes of finding work, and I didn’t have the money to go along. He was going to send for me when he had made enough to do so, but instead he didn’t have any luck and I took sick and Arthur [her baby] got the measles and no money nor nothing when Pete happened to come and help me get on my feet again. I took in sewing and then my husband got work. [Pete Mattson was the widower of Ella's first cousin, Emma Basgaard Mattson, who lived north of Seattle near Mount Vernon, Washington.]

I went to Portland and we done pretty well for a while, but it seems like it’s going to be worse than ever this winter. Here are thousands of families destitute; you couldn’t get work if you beg for it. Adolph has wore out a pair of shoes running around looking for work but in vain. He is big and strong and will do most anything. He is well liked by those he worked for but they have nothing for him to do it seems, everything is shut down.

I am living in a small back room in a Jap [sic] dump, I haven’t paid rent for two weeks and I expect he will kick me out, unless we get some work soon. We have been looking for farm work. I mean where we can go out and take care of some farm, but they are not to be gotten either. They say Seattle is worse than this.

In her letter, Ella painted a picture of life in a big city as less than desirable.  She commented on a cousin's move from the farm to town living back in the Midwest, saying it was a foolish decision.  With World War I having created shortages everywhere, she claimed her cousin would at least have been able to find food on the farm, whereas in the city it would be hard to get.  "...These rich buggers is what makes it so miserable for the working man. They expect a man to work for 50¢ a day and pay food and rent out of that when the rent is from 50 to 75 cents a day and there is no heat or any conveniences at all."

Ella continued to get part-time or piece work whenever and wherever she could, wanting desperately to provide a good home situation for her son, Arthur.  During the family's last two summers in the Portland area she did some seasonal labor in a hops field, and described what happened to a family that had worked alongside her:  "There was a family of 6. The mother and father worked like slaves and the mother was not well. [Three] days after we came back from the fields she died. The city would not bury her so they burned the remains and drove the family out of the house to shift for themselves when some poor people picked them up and took care of them. It makes me wonder if that is the way I will go someday."

She had not wanted to say much about her circumstances to her brother, though she put up a brave front while writing.  "You know the reason why I didn’t write, it is because I did not want you to know how poorly I am living and what we don’t know don’t hurt us [...] but when I come to think about it, I should not be ashamed to tell anybody, as we have both done our share--both Adolph and I, when there was any work to be gotten."  Ella still could not help but wonder why she had not heard from her other brother for so long.  "I did not hear from Willie at all for a whole year now. I don’t understand it, as every letter I write is returned to me unopened."

...It seems I never will get out of these stuffy rooming houses. ...Here [in Portland] I don’t know nobody and am lonesome sometimes. But am glad too, sometimes, for when you’re down and out nobody likes you. It’s that almighty dollar that people like. If you haven’t got that they have no use for you. So I’m satisfied to know that my husband and little boy is with me and if we should have to part I would not want to live no more. So I would only be in the way with no one to love or to love me, of course I think of my brothers Fred and Willie. But I am satisfied to know that you are both happy with your little families and got a little home of your own and I have no right to but in-- [sic].  ...And I shall always wish you good luck and hope your days to come will be just as bright as they are now.  As for me I don't worry any more as what's the use I guess I'm no good anyway.  ...So don't mention anything to the folks around there and don't worry yourself.  But try to forget me and be happy yourself, that is my wish.  --With love and best wishes from Adolph and myself and little Arthur.  Your sister, Ella.

Even with the depressed dismissal of her life and circumstances at the end of her letter, Ella could not help but add a postscript that pleaded for her brother to "write again soon and tell [her] all about the folks around there."  Underneath the apparent acceptance of her grim lot in life, she still held a desire to connect with the friends and family of her childhood, though she had previously labeled some of them as "gossipy old hags."

Adolph Drews relocated the family from Portland to San Francisco in about 1918, where they lived at 805 Golden Gate Avenue.  He registered for the draft on September 12, 1918, while he was working as a warehouseman on Main and Folsom.  On the registration card he is described as a man of medium height and build, with blue eyes and brown hair.

Years go by before we have any further statements from Ella herself.  In 1930, she was living in Los Angeles and although she was still legally married, she was listed as the head of the household, pressing clothing for a dress manufacturer to make ends meet.  Her son Arthur, 17, was driving a truck and delivering lamp shades.  Adolph and Ella were divorced by 1940, with Adolph living on Towne Avenue by 1935.

The second letter written by Ella and tucked inside the Pederson Family bible is dated June 16, 1941.  It was postmarked with a 3 cent stamp and addressed to "Alfred Pederson, RR #2, East Grand Forks, Minnesota," from "Mrs. Ella Drews, 1130 E 42nd Street, Los Angeles, Calif."  Many years following her letter of 1914, Ella's attitude of bitter acceptance had not altered, and her situation had become decidedly worse.  In an ironic twist of fate, she, too, had contracted tuberculosis--the same ailment that killed her parents and elder sister so many years earlier.
I have been very sick, oh yes T.B.  – had fleuroscope [sic] and X-ray showing everything. Oh well, I am old enough, but why do I have to suffer so long. I just had a nurse here a few minutes ago suggesting I go to the Sanatorium, but from what I know that means, Goodbye.  ...I do not want to be killed, although it would be better than to suffer the way I do.  ...I am writing this letter in jumps but doing my best. I haven’t heard or seen anything of Arthur [her son] since about September, last.  He was such a good pal but has forgotten his mother completely, I do not know why but all the children are that way nowadays.  ...So you see I am all alone. I do not make friends as here in California friends are dollars and I do not happen to have any. It is very lonely.
Ella's opinion of her (then divorced) husband, Adolph, had also changed, not withstanding the complications of his being German at the onset of yet another World War involving Germany:  "It so happens my husband is a German. I do not know where he is right now. Nor do I want to know. He was a lazy no good – although he had lots of opportunities, his own son kicked him out so I am not to blame."  In closing, Ella included no salutations, but wrote that she hoped her brother would write again soon before it was too late.

Ella Pederson Drews passed away on October 19, 1941, four months after the last letter was written.  Her ex-husband, Adolph Karl Drews, became a naturalized American citizen on October 8, 1943.  He died in Los Angeles on November 4, 1964, and was buried in Glendale.  The couple's only child, Arthur E. Drews, continued to live in Los Angeles until his death on April 9, 1972.

The location of Ella's remains is unknown, and we can only assume that, sadly, her end may have been as unceremonious as that of the mother who met her demise while struggling in the hops fields near Portland, years earlier.

Wherever you are resting, Ella--we hope you are at peace now.

Special Acknowledgment:
Ella Pederson Drews' letters were made available thanks to Robert, the grandson of Alfred Pederson of the East Grand Forks area, Minnesota, and Nancy Larson of Warren, Minnesota.



--California Death Index, "Ella M. Drews," "Adolph K. Drews," and "Arthur E. Drews."
--City Directories:
    Seattle, Washington: 1912, 1913
    Portland, Oregon: 1914, 1915, 1916
    Oakland, California: 1918
    San Francisco, California, 1920
--Drews, Ella Pederson, letter, 30 November 1914 from Portland, Oregon to Alfred Pederson, Northland Township, Polk County, Minnesota.  Held in 2013 by the Pederson family in Polk County, Minnesota.
--Drews, Ella Pederson, letter, 16 June 1941 from Los Angeles, California to Alfred Pederson, Northland Township, Polk County, Minnesota.  Held in 2013 by the Pederson family in Polk County, Minnesota.
--"The Economics of World War I."  National Bureau of Economic Research, (; accessed 9/10/2013.
--Minnesota State and Territorial Census, Polk County, 1895.
--U. S. Federal Censuses, Los Angeles, California, 1930, 1940.
--U.S. Naturalization Records: Declaration of Intention for "Adolf K. Drews," issued 26 July 1921 in Los Angeles District Court, California; naturalized on 8 October 1943.
--Washington Marriage Records, King County:  "Adolph Drews" and "Ella Mathilda Peterson," 23 October 1910.
--World War I Draft Registration Cards, San Francisco, Adolf K. Drews (9/12/1918).

1 comment:

Anne said...

Chery, what an incredible and heart-breaking life Ella had. You honor her by putting together her story. It makes me more aware of the horrible poverty that so many faced and how they just went on trying-! Even though things are rough for many people today, I know that in this country, things were much worse for many more people then. Her story shows how their terrible struggle paved the way for us to have much easier lives. Interesting that more than once she brings up the lack of money as a barrier to any friendship. I think of technology as a factor in creating more isolation today, but it sounds like she and others who were poor suffered from similar challenges. Thank you for sharing her story!