Emma Merkt (1873-1937)

I once asked my dad to tell me what he remembered about his grandmother. He squinted his eyes, trying to resurrect a memory of her that would satisfy his inquisitive daughter. My father was only six when his grandmother died in Denver, Colorado, so I wouldn’t have blamed him if he had no mental image of her. I suspect he only saw her a time or two, if that. However, after a time, my father looked at me and said, “I recall her having black hair sprinkled with grey. Wore it short. I’d say she was about 5’2” and stout. And it seems like she was a good cook.” I’ve since wondered if he actually remembered these things about her, or he picked them up from a conversation he once heard. Regardless of the source, I’ve held onto these tidbits to help humanize a woman I know little about.

My great-grandmother, Emma Merkt, was born in Coffeyville, Kansas, on November 27, 1873, one of seven children born to German immigrant parents, John Georg (John) and Christina (Baier) Merkt, who had come to America when they were teenagers. Emma spent her first 13 years on a Kansas farm, like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.” Her father’s obituary states that he was a missionary for the Lutheran Church, so religion must have played an important role in their family life.

Emma Merkt, sepia

Emma Merkt (1873-1937)

Before medical research discovered the cause and cure of diseases like malaria and typhoid fever, these illnesses frequently swept through Midwestern communities at certain times of the year, taking the lives of young and old and devastating families. Such was the case when, in the fall of 1886, Emma’s mother succumbed to typhoid fever at age 44. It’s not difficult to imagine the loss a thirteen-year-old girl would have endured losing her mother at that critical time in her life. Emma had at least five siblings, two sisters who were 15 and seven when their mother died, and three brothers, aged 21, 19, and 15 at the time. Emma’s father may have felt the need to start afresh after his wife’s death and business opportunities elsewhere may have promised a better future for his family than farming. Whatever the reason, John abandoned the farm and departed for Colorado, where gold and silver mining and the booming railroad industry were attracting settlers from all over the country. Emma and two of her siblings accompanied their father in a covered wagon to Chaffee County in southern Colorado. It’s possible they may have lived in the wagon for a time until they could find a suitable place to live. John eventually became a patent medicine salesman, a popular and sometimes lucrative trade in that day, though considered more of a shady occupation as the medical profession and pharmaceutical industry developed. Continue reading

Ethel May (Nelson) Parrett, My Paternal Grandmother

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Ethel Nelson, Pueblo, Colorado, ca. 1919

My paternal grandmother was my age when she died. I was startled to discover this recently when I studied with fresh eyes the span of dates that comprised her life. Funny, she had seemed so old to me the last time I saw her when I was seventeen.

What wouldn’t I give to sit down with her now, two women the same age, and catch up on the events of each other’s lives? We’d sit at her green Formica table in her sunny yellow kitchen with the marble-patterned linoleum on the floor. As we chatted, we would look out the picture window to the tiny manicured yard edged in pansies she had planted on her hands and knees in her house dress, since women of her generation didn’t wear pants, even for gardening. We would share something good to eat, maybe a piece of her famous coconut cream pie, because she was a woman who went out of her way for company.

Ethel and her parents

Ethel flanked by parents, Paul and Ada (Johnson) Nelson, who emigrated from Sweden in the 1880s

I would be a better listener now than I was when she tried to tell me the story about her parents, Ada Johnson and Paul Nelson, who emigrated from Sweden when they were teenagers and met each other in Kentucky working in the same hotel. They married young, eventually parenting eleven children, of which Grandma was the eighth. The family was living in Pueblo, Colorado, in 1903 when my grandmother was born. Ada and Paul named her Ethel May.

About ten years ago, I found the 1910 census record that showed where the Nelson family lived in Pueblo. Later, on a vacation to Colorado, I drove to that address on Elm Street and parked my car at the curb. A small, white, wood-framed house stands on that property and could very well be the Nelson home, given its weathered, dilapidated state. I stood on the sidewalk in front of the house, taking pictures, my mind whirling with unanswered questions. A few blocks away, I found Pueblo Smelters where Paul Nelson worked, within walking distance of home. Large, grey, and rusty, the steel plant still stands, a silent, decaying remnant of the noisy thriving enterprise it must have been in its day when it employed most of the men in Pueblo.

Between bites of coconut pie, I’d ask my grandmother how a family so large managed to make a life in a house so small, how her father could earn a living for thirteen on the salary he earned as a steelworker. Continue reading