The Golden Wedding
By Callie & Edna Merritt, daughters of John Merritt and Mary Etta Merritt and granddaughters of Henry and Sarah Wheeler (c. 1975)
Containing Brief Biographies of
- Sarah Brewster Wheeler
- Henry Wheeler
- Martyn Wheeler
- Elizabeth E. Wheeler
- Mary Etta Wheeler
- Julia Augusta Wheeler
- John James Wheeler
- Little Baby Boy Wheeler<
- Susie Wheeler
- Harry Wheeler
- Carrie Louise Wheeler
- Bert Nathaniel Wheeler
And genealogies of the
On that late November day Grandpa and Grandma Wheeler’s house loomed up as big and enticing as ever. It was Thanksgiving Day in 1897 and we were on our way to the Golden Wedding—three little girls and Papa and Mama.
Their children and grandchildren and some dear friends—thirty in all—had been invited for the dinner, and invitations had gone out for others to attend the reception that evening.
Lights glimmered from the windows, for there were real electric lights at Grandpa and Grandma’s—a never-failing source of awe and delight to us.
I wish you could have gone with us into that enchanting house, with its delightful possibilities for young explorers. As we entered the hall from the front vestibule, we saw the hall tree at the foot of the stairway, already smothered in coats. Even on Grandma’s big bed in the downstairs bedroom, there was a thickening layer of coats, shawls, and “fascinators”.
In the sitting room, firelight sparkled on the china tiles in the fireplace and on the mirror above the mantel. How we’d have loved to have even one tile of that fireplace when years later, the house was demolished to make way for a gas station!
Tonight the big double door that usually guarded the parlor had been swallowed back into the partition. That parlor was opened only on very special occasions. But tonight we could spy the satin love seat with its oaken trim, the “three-corner chair, velvet cushioned,” and the square four-legged piano forming a delightful cove for small explorers.
The opalescent pink hanging lamp in the hall shone down on the wide staircase. At the top of the wide stairs was the bathroom. A real bathroom! No tin tub to be hauled into the kitchen for Saturday night bath and laboriously emptied pailful by pailful! But a real tub in which young grandchildren could slide hilariously down the steep end into the tubful of hot water. It’s a wonder Grandma ever endured it, but having brought up nine children of her own, she was probably undisturbed by shrieks and splashes.
Opposite the bathroom was Uncle Bert’s office with its window looking out into an enticing little porch. (It was there, that having procured an impressively high ladder, he mounted rung by rung and taught a small girl—me—how to clamber over the railing, clutching him around the neck and be carried to the ground in rescue from an imaginary fire.)
Then down the hall which branched to the right and left, with Aunt Mary Ingall’s bedroom at the left (above the parlor), a sewing room, Aunt Carrie and Aunt Gussie’s big bedroom directly ahead with its own tiled fireplace and a long closet leading mysteriously to the sewing room where the aunties with loving care constructed dresses for small fidgety nieces. Farther down the hall, to the right, was Uncle Bert’s bedroom; then a turn or two and a closet or two later, Uncle Johnnie’s room above the kitchen overlooking Grandpa’s big field (now known as the Wheeler Tract). We could watch circus tents being erected and gaily painted wagons being hauled into place. There we could hear the lions roaring and the elephants trumpeting. From Grandpa’s house, we could go to the circus (shepherded by Mama, or Aunt Gussie or Uncle Bert), clutching complimentary tickets given Grandpa for use of the Wheeler field, just the other side of the high board fence and adjoining Grandma’s chicken coop.
Oh, my! I almost forgot the attic, a huge place of nooks and gables, of old furniture, of trunks filled with old Youth’s Companions, of old fashioned bonnets, and dresses in which we could dress up and pretend. What a place of mystery and treasure trove that was!
We wonder if Grandma and Grandpa thought that night to contrast their gracious roomy house with that log cabin in which they made their home when the first came to Oneota—a one room log cabin so small that the trundle bed in which Marty Lizzie and Ettie could sleep at night, was rolled under the parent’s bed in the morning. No electric lights then, just candles before they had a kerosene lamp. No screens on the windows to bar the mosquitoes and “no see ums” which swarmed in. the children eating their mush and milk at the long table swinging their little bare legs over the smudge pots Grandpa had lighted under the table.
I wonder, too, if they thought to contrast this Thanksgiving Day feast with the frugal meals they’d had during the lean hard years when most families lived on fish and potatoes.
I don’t remember much about that dinner except going with Aunt Gussie to the kitchen, where she opened the oven door of the wood range, and basted the turkey and then down into the shadowy cellar to another wood stove, where I watched while she dipped a spoon in the gravy and ladled it gently over the golden brown bird in the roasting pan.
Thought I have no memory of the dinner, we have the menu in the little “Golden Wedding” Booklet that we have treasured through the years. On the menu were delectable items: turkey and cranberry sauce; mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes (once a luxury on the frontier); turnips (the good old stand-by of pioneers); raw oysters which must have been an item foreign to early Oneota settlers; celery; mince pie and pumpkin pie. This was a real celebration for usually there was no duplication of desserts at the Wheeler table. There one ate wholesome foods. There one ate wholesome foods with no frills.
All Grandpa’s and Grandma’s children were there: Marty, the ship captain and engineer; Lizzie, the wife of an explorer, discoverer of ore on the Range, and railroad builder, Lon Merritt; Etta, the wife of john E. Merritt, explorer, one of those who discovered iron on the Range, general manager of the railroad; Gussie, the quiet one who stayed at home taking care of those who needed her; Johnny, the adventurous explorer, who penetrated the wild reaches of Alaska; Harry, the quiet engineer who ran a steam shovel on the Iron Range; Duane, the civil engineer and surveyor who journeyed far and wide; Carrie, one of the first teachers on the Range; and Bert, the educator, businessman, and city official.
Grandma wore her wedding dress. As we recall it, a light gray taffeta with changeable glints of rose and robin’s egg blue. Still lithe and slender after her fifty years of toil, she wore that dress with dignity and composure. Grandpa, I am sure, was dressed for the occasion. (He loved family reunions) and was at his genial best with his assurance and ready wit.
Fifty years before, he (the descendant of exploring seafarers) and she (a descendant of the Mayflower’s Brewsters and Bradfords) had joined forces to make a home in the wilderness with fearlessness and resourcefulness, and a matter-of-fact acceptance of hardships.
We wonder if Grandma thought back over the years that night. (Probably not, for she was always practical. There was a meal to superintend and there would be guests to greet.) She was born on the banks of the Susquehanna River (Which the Brewsters called the “Sister Hannah River”) in New York State in 1828. Just when her family moved west, we do not know.
We do know that her sister and she attended school away from home, for we have seen a letter her mother wrote, asking about their welfare. We have seen some of the compositions Grandma wrote so painstakingly. (On one she wrote, “I spent two hours on this.”) In them she mentioned earnestly the necessity of a good education and the responsibility of those who can achieve one.)
We wish we could have known her when at nineteen she married Henry Wheeler. Slender, lithe, sprightly, yet with a quiet dignity, she must have been a beautiful girl. Grandpa once said that the first time he saw her she was wearing a bonnet with a pink rose on it. We don’t know whether she met Henry Wheeler in Galena, Illinois, and they were married at her home in New Diggings, Wisconsin, or whether they met when he went to work there as a carpenter in New Diggings. We do know that after their wedding in 1847, he worked there as a carpenter.
A year after their marriage Sarah Caroline went with her husband to the little settlement of Neenah, Wisconsin, where he invested in property. With patient fortitude and must have faced the worry and disappointment when he lost his money.
Marty and Lizzie were born at Neenah. Etta, the third child, was born after they moved to St. Paul. Grandma must have spent some lonely hours after Grandpa left to walk to Superior, Wisconsin in March or April, 1855. When he sent for her to join him, she took the three children and went fearlessly down the Mississippi River, transferred to a boat going up the Fox River, and then they must have gone overland to Grass Lake, Michigan to see Grandpa’s family. After her visit there, she journeyed to Green Bay, Wisconsin to bard the steamship The Planet bound for Madeline Island in the Apostles.
It must have required courage to marshall three small children—five-year-old Marty, three-year-old Lizzie, and eighteen-months-old Etta from the steamer’s point of debarkation to a mackinaw sailboat in November. Did they make the trip all in one day or did they camp on the Wisconsin shore along the way? How did she keep the little ones warm enough in Lake Superior’s November weather? I wish we knew. Grandma never told us. The journey had to be made and she made it in the matter-of-fact way in which she met all the pioneer hardships.
She was fearless. In the one-room log cabin under the shelter of the pines beside St. Louis Bay, she quietly faced what would have caused other women to quail. Going home from an errand one day, she found three squaws in the cabin. They laughed as she entered and pointed under the bed. Out from the shadows protruded three heads as black-haired Marty and two little red heads tried to hide from the Indians.
On one stormy night she stepped from the bedroom into the kitchen of their larger house to find a man asleep on the floor. “I’ll get you a quilt. You will be more comfortable,” she told him and then went quietly back to bed.
Even when she became old and blind, she insisted on having the doors unlocked.
Loyally, she had followed her husband into the wilderness and with pioneer dedication accepted her responsibility to her family, to her community, and to the service of her God. Briskly she went about her duties. She washed the clothing using the water her boys hauled by pailfuls from the Bay, baked the bread, made butter (for Grandpa had had some jersey cows shipped to the little settlement), knitted stockings and mittens, made the children’s clothes, and for a time cooked for eight or nine men who worked in the mill.
Staunch Presbyterian that she was, she organized and became superintendent of the Methodist Sunday School in Oneota. She influenced several young people to sign the pledge. She lived to see her son Bert lead a crusade to overcome the liquor interests and drive the saloons out, to leave Duluth a cleaner, safer city. With her husband she signed an application for a charter for the first Presbyterian Church of Superior. With her daughter Carrie she journeyed up the St. Louis River to Smithville, to organize the Ladies’ Aid.
Grandma and her friend Hephzibah Merritt, ushered many of Oneota’s new babies into the world and took her turn at nursing the sick neighbors.
She watched burning pieces of birch bark from a forest fire sail over the village, landing on Superior’s shores in a tornadic wind. And after the New Ulm massacre, watched frightened neighbors flocking to the fort in Superior.
When Marty was struck in the head by a flying piece of timber and was carried out of the mill supposedly dead, she helped Grandpa revive him. When Lizzie dived into the murky depths of the Bay and emerged with Harry’s apparently lifeless body, she helped Grandpa roll him on a barrel until he breathed again. She saw four-year-old Susie buried in the crumbling soil of the little cemetery on the banks of the Bay and later that year the nameless baby boy was placed in the same grave. In the Book she read so reverently, she was familiar with the words in Ecclesiastes 3:1, 2, “To everything there is a season… A time to be born”, and she welcomed new babies into the world. “And a time to die”—and she met with composure the death of those dear to her. After her children’s death she went quietly about her work with little outward indication of her grief but for many years she treasured Susie’s little yellow dress.
The years of hardship took their toll. When Grandpa became more affluent he sent her with Aunt Carrie and Aunt Gussie to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, famous as a health resort. Aunt Lizzie with her daughter, Ruth, and a neighbor girl went, too. Several of the group became so very ill from a fever that they had to send for gruff-speaking, tender-hearted Johnnie, and Grandpa, too, to help them. Uncle Johnnie’s voice which could bawl out orders to men in the woods was soft and soothing in the sick room and the hands which had wielded axe and saw and canoe paddles, were as tender as a woman’s. “A really good nurse,” all said. Some, who had gone to recover their health went home again nearly well, but Grandma and Aunt Carrie never completely recovered their strength.
As her strength dwindled and her usual vigor failed to return Grandma became increasingly concerned about her health. One day grandpa confided to Etta’s husband, “John, Ma is worried about herself, but I’m in a much more serious condition than she is.”
Alas for Grandpa! Grandma heard him, and with black eyes flashing, she darted out of the dining room to confront him.
“I’ll have you know, Henry Wheeler,” she snapped, “that I’m a lot sicker than you ever thought of being.”
Grandpa chuckled and led the way across the living room. “Ma really does think she’s pretty sick,” he said tolerantly.
One day as he prepared for his customary nap after lunch, he said, “I think I’m going, but I’m ready to go.” Instantly Grandma responded to the challenge that pioneer years without a doctor had taught her.
“I’ll just get some laudanum”, and she scurried into the pantry and back shaking a bottle poured out a teaspoonful. “Here, take this, Henry”, and he did. In three or four hours he was quite himself again. Did he recover because of Grandma’s medicine or in spite of it? We’ll never know.
Even before Grandpa’s death, Grandma’s health had continued to fail. Cataracts developed which in those days could not be removed by surgery because of the almost constant severe coughing that wracked her slender body.
As the light dimmed for her and the shadows deepened, she tried to keep busy. She knitted stockings, with Gussie picking up the dropped stitches, “turning a heal” or toeing off. Seated in the big willow rocking chair her shawl around her shoulders, she gallantly memorized poetry, “Crossing the Bar” was her favorite. She listened to books Gussie read to her, laughing at the funny parts and expressing disapproval of violence.
After years of “making do” in hard times, frugality had become a habit not easily shaken off.
“What are the directions for that new medicine?” she would ask.
“What! Two teaspoonfuls? That’s all nonsense. One will be enough.”
“Twice a day? That’s all nonsense. I’ll take it once a day!”
As her coughing worsened and her strength diminished and darkness closed in upon her, she grew despondent and often irritable. One or two practical nurses they employed when Gussie grew too tired, left, and the “hired girl” quiet. After Grandpa died, worried, exhausted Aunt Gussie and unhappy Grandma were usually alone in the big house. Bert and May came from across the street every day and Etta almost every day. Duane and Alta made trips from Minneapolis as often as they could, and for awhile after Grandpa’s death, Nellie and Johnnie were with them. Sometimes Harry and Jenny drove in from their farm twenty miles from Duluth. But most of the time it was gussie who carried the load. Small wonder that her nerves gave way when her mother no longer needed her.
After Grandma’s death Aunt Jennie wrote from Oregon, “So the dear little Ma is gone.” It might have been a comfort to Grandma’s children to remember the “Ma” they had known in the days when she had been brisk and alert, looking “well to the ways of her household”; times when her candle went “not out by night” and when she rose “while it was yet dark” to “give meat to her household.”
They could remember the days when she had turned the hardships of frontier life into fun, days when she had them play games between chores.
“I guess you didn’t know we had a candy pull,” Duane wrote to Etta.
She was tender and patient with children, yet never over-indulged them. When one played games with Grandma, she played happily, but according to the rules. Later, after they had grown older, she donned bonnet and calico dress and went gaily to chaperone a group of young people camping on Park point. College friends of Bert’s came home with him on vacation, called her “Mother”.
So at the end of her eighty-three years her children could “rise up and call her blessed.”
In praise of a virtuous woman, Solomon said, “Give her of the fruit of her hands and let her own works praise her in the gates.” (Proverbs 31:31).
Grandpa, Henry Wakeman Wheeler, was born in Oneida County, New York, in 1821. His paternal grandfather, William Wheeler, was engaged in the West Indies trade and operated a ship yard in Black Rock, Connecticut.
Henry’s father, John Wheeler, had, at the age of sixteen, enlisted in the Continental Army and served on guard duty during the last year of the American Revolution. We have seen a bill (Continental money) issued to him in payment. That family treasure has been handed down to the youngest son in each generation. We are sure that any of Henry Wheeler’s descendants would be eligible to join the Sons of the American Revolution, the Daughters of the American Revolution or the Society of the Mayflowers (the latter through Grandma’s descent from the Bradfords and the Brewsters.)
For a time after the war, John Wheeler worked in his father’s ship yard in Black Rock. There he married twice. Henry Wheeler, the youngest son of John’s second wife, Catherine Holburton, was born in Oneida County, New York, after the family had moved to a farm there.
In 1840, they moved to Michigan. Henry Wheeler helped to erect the farm buildings on the homestead and then in 1841 set out to earn his own living. He went to Chicago and then to Galena, Illinois, walking most of the four hundred miles. He wrote to his parents, “Chicago is a swampy little place with a few shacks and some Indian wigwams. I don’t think it will ever amount to anything.”
From his work in the Galena lead mines, he went to New Diggings, Wisconsin, where he worked as a carpenter. It was there that he married Sarah Caroline Brewster in 1847.
In 1848 when they moved to Neenah, Wisconsin, Henry invested in property and in a steam boat to use on the Fox River. He had to sacrifice his property though, and thus lost all of his money to pay the debts of his partner. He moved his little family to “Pig’s Eye” (now St. Paul), where he served as an engineer on a river boat plying between Galena and St. Paul. Most of the crews of river boats found it almost impossible to make headway against the rapids between St. Paul and Minneapolis. Henry Wheeler, fearless and self-confident tied down the pop valve, giving the little craft enough power to propel her up the swift current. Just before an explosion could occur, he loosened the valve, relieving the pressure. Yet he frowned upon his children’s taking unnecessary risks just as an experiment.
“When you steer dangerously close to those rocks,” he told them, “you are not being brave—you are just being foolhardy.”
Edmund F. Ely, a Presbyterian missionary to the Chippewa Indians in Fond du Lac, visited him in St. Paul and urged him to go to the Head of the Lakes to build and operate a saw mill there. Mr. Ely, seeing the pine forests along St. Louis Bay, realized the possibility of a thriving lumber industry there, but the land belonged to the Indians. After the signing of the treaty at La Pointe, Wisconsin in 1854, the land was opened to white men.
In March or April, 1855, Henry Wheeler, carrying a blanket roll on his back, walked along the old Military Road from St. Paul to Superior; and crossing to the Minnesota side, began the construction of a saw mill on the bank of St. Louis Bay near what is now 46th Avenue West. In preparation for the arrival of his little family, he also built a one-room cabin near what is now 45th Avenue West, north of the present Expressway.
In March, 1856, he platted the townsite of Oneota. An old settler said, “I have been told that, the proper instruments being unavailable, the town was laid out with a carpenter’s square and a level. H. W. Wheeler, serving as surveyor, ran the first lines on the Bay ice, where it was perfectly level. This work in later years was unchanged.”
There were hardships a-plenty in the one-room cabin, and disappointments, too; but his was an indomitable spirit. With the help of Sarah Caroline he made a livable home in the pioneer settlement of Oneota and watched it grow from a small cluster of buildings to a section of the city of Duluth. The family’s furniture was simple, the clothing home-made, the fare plain; but their home was one of the few that subscribed to The Northwestern Christian Advocate and The Youth’s Companion. Books were treasured and appreciatively read. Some of them have come down to us—essays, poetry, sermons. Some, of course, have disappeared, but we still have Whittier, Burns, Longfellow, and Ian McLaren.
Grandpa took an active interest in community affairs. As a member of the school board, he tried to hold down the cost of running the little frame Oneota School. He ran for Congress, setting out through the wilderness to campaign for voters. At the “Portage of Knives” near Sandy Lake early wintry weather forced him to return home. He lost the election but garnered eleven votes from the eleven voters he had interviewed.
In 1885 he helped organize the Republican Party in St. Paul. For four years he was the treasurer of the county, and, for a time, the treasurer of West Duluth.
He became interested in a broom factory, in flour mills, and in wheat elevators. For a time he was the treasurer and director of the Imperial Mill Company. He also bought and sold real estate, owning at one time most of the townsite. He sold part of the original townsite property at $1.25 per acre. At the time of his death he owned a farm of 125 acres with one of the principal streets running through it. A part of that, we are sure, was what we used to call the Fair Grounds and is now the Wheeler Tract.
Gradually, poverty gave way to comfortable living and then to a reasonable affluence. In the family home four kerosene lamps replaced the candles. A lean-to was added to the cabin; then more rooms and an upstairs—a structure that served them well until he planned and built the new eleven-room house in the shadow of the bustling ore docks. (In a crude forge he had tested, he melted samples of ore, the Merritt Brothers had brought from new prospectors near Mountain Iron and pronounced them portions of marketable iron.)
In a pioneer settlement where there were no doctors, Grandpa had studied medical books furnished him by his brother-in-law, a physician.
“I studied because my heart was in it,” he said. Many times through the years he had occasion to use this knowledge. When Nehemiah Hawlett’s foot was caught in some of the mill’s machinery it was Grandpa who gave first aid, finally having to amputate some of the injured toes.
Though Grandpa clung to some of the time-honored medical methods, he pioneered some new ones. “Sitting up” all night with a fever-stricken man, he reasoned, “Why shouldn’t he have water when he wants it—especially when there is so little chance of his living?” The patient, given the water he wanted, recovered.
With Wheeler resourcefulness, Grandpa figured things out, sometimes successfully, sometimes with surprising results. Having cold feet in the new electrically equipped house, he thrust a lighted electric bulb into his sock. Grandma, smelling smoke, turned back the quilt and rescued the smoldering sock. How he would have enjoyed a modern electrical heating pad on which a fellow could warm his feet without ruining a good home -knit sock!
Humorous and resourceful, Grandpa’s most outstanding trait was probably his integrity. There was a steadfast sureness in his character. In his home black was black—of the deepest, murkiest hue, and white was a spotless glowing white. Not even the slightest tinge of gray between the two extremes was ever considered. There was never a question of stepping from the absolute right to dally with the wrong!
Doubtless, the religious atmosphere of the Wheeler home strengthened and inspired all the children. We remember family worship held in that home. Seated in a circle in the living room, each in turn read a verse from the Bible, with uncles and aunts helping the little ones decipher the hard words. Then all of us listened reverently as Grandpa prayed—not long, dull prayers, but short, meaningful ones.
He was always faithful in carrying on the religious work in his community. Grandma had organized and superintended the little Methodist Sunday School. Later, he became its superintendent.
Thus he lived—a God-fearing, upright man—humorous, yet determined; resourceful, independent of thought, requiring strict obedience from his children; stern, yet just—giving his best efforts to God’s work and to the building of his community, and carefully instructing and requiring his children to do the same.
He became an example to his grandchildren. “Precept upon precept.” The little ones were admonished: “Grandpa said that” or “Grandpa said to do it this way.” Thus he became almost a legend in his family; his life influenced his children and even his grandchildren.
As he reached the age of eighty-four, he remained alert and interested in all about him. Except that his shoulders stooped a little under the weight of years and his once brisk step had slowed a bit; he seemed as well as ever until the accident that indirectly led to his death. On his way home from a call on an old neighbor in downtown Duluth, he was struck by a street car. He wasn’t killed. He was taken home in a cab (a luxury usually reserved only for riders in a funeral procession.) At home, he gradually “went down hill” ‘till one blustery March day (his eighty-fifth birthday) he fared forth again, unafraid, to that country unknown to him except through glimpses given in his Bible.
His family followed his wishes. “When I die,” he said, “I want to be placed in an oak casket put together with nails. I want to be wrapped in a blanket and I’ll sleep as I did so many nights on the trail.”
Martyn, born on May 13, 1849, was the eldest. On this day he had brought his wife, Mary, and their three daughters, Winnifred, our beloved kindergarten teacher, Ethel; and Mable who was to give one of the toasts at the dinner.
Responsibility had been placed on Marty’s shoulders while he was yet young. At the age of fourteen he worked in his father’s mill and at sixteen was head sawyer there.
While working there one day, a piece of lumber flew from the saw striking him in the head. He was thought to be dead, but after hours of unconsciousness, he revived.
Grandpa loved his children but was very stern and expected prompt obedience.
One day when Uncle Marty who had been in Superior was late getting home, Grandpa met him at the door with a razor strap. Uncle Marty displayed his badly blistered hands explaining that rowing the boat against strong headwinds and heavy seas, had caused the delay. He had had to quarter the waves to keep from swamping and thus landed a long distance from home.
“Well, I guess you’ve had punishment enough,” decided Grandpa.
Like all pioneer boys he was resourceful and fearless. As he grew to young manhood Grandfather placed more responsibility upon him.
Uncle Marty became chief engineer and later captain of Grandpa’s tug, the Amethyst.
In December, Capt. Burns of the tug Sisikiwitt, which was returning fishermen from Isle Royale, Grand Marais, and Little Marais, ran on a reef at Little Marais disabling the propeller. Capt. Burns headed back to Grand Marais and safe shelter.
Charles McManus, a tug engineer who accompanied Uncle Marty on the Amethyst, said, “Capt. Burns snowshoed the Shore Trail more than 100 miles through deep snow from Grand Marais to Duluth for aid and provisions for the stranded fishermen.”
The few tugs were laid up in Duluth for the winter. The owners of the disabled Sisikiwitt made arrangements for Grandpa’s tug, the Amethyst, to be made ready for the dangerous rescue mission.
Capt. McManus said, “Marty Wheeler was her Captain. I was Engineer. Capt. McLaren was also aboard as the new temporary captain of the Sisikiwitt.” They got a tow line to the Sisikiwitt and began the perilous journey to Duluth.
It began to snow. “We could not see anything”. The seas kept rising, lashed by howling wind. Soon the crew of the Sisikiwitt signaled they feared their tug would flounder because of the heavy layers of ice that sheathed her.
The tow line was severed and the crew and fishermen, some 25 men, were taken off under Uncle Marty’s supervision.
“This fellow, Capt. Wheeler, handled the Amethyst so nicely that not a man even got wet. But when the 25 men, in addition to our own, were aboard, the Amethyst was so heavily loaded that she couldn’t head up the lake without shipping ‘seas’.
“During the rescue the Sisikiwitt swung sideways, slamming into the Amethyst opening the seams along her sides.”
Uncle Marty ran into a small buoy near Beaver Bay up onto a sandy beach where the men made shore taking an axe with them. One man was lost. Some say he was struck by a piece of the smoke stack and some that a wave washed him overboard.
These men walked through deep snow until exhausted, built a lean-to, and with a fire roaring before them, kept alive.
Next spring, Grandpa and Uncle Marty brought the Amethyst home under her own steam.
Shortly after the opening of the canal when it was still a big ditch and the docks and breakwater were still on the lake side of Port Point, a terrible November storm of rain, sleet, snow and wind, tore across the reaches of the Lake piling huge waves against that insecure little harbor. A tug called the Bob Anderson tied up at the pier, was being battered against the dock. Uncle Marty, concerned about the storm, went to the dock. Seeing the Bob Anderson in trouble, he leaped aboard, found the engineer was there with steam up. Visibility was nil but Marty headed the tug out into the lake facing the thickening sleet of snow. he swung the tug in a great circle and headed for the canal. Now the storm was at his back. He took a sight on a tall pine tree, a-top the distant hills, and headed for it.
Grandpa took a lighted lantern tied to a pole and crawled out on the ditch top hoping it would help Marty see the canal wall. Once in a while the snow lifted and Marty would spot the pine.
He brought the Bob Anderson into the Bay and a safe harbor. People said that grandpa was so scared, he cried, but I agree with the old lady who stood in the crowd, “Shucks, now! Don’t you believe it, Mr. Wheeler ain’t the tearin’ kind.”
For that deed of bravery, Uncle Marty was given a gold watch by the citizens of Duluth inscribed, “For courageous conduct in the storm of 1872.”
Uncle Marty was a Captain on one of the passenger ships on the Lake. He later moved his family to Seattle, Washington, and ran a tug on the Sound.
Martyn Wheeler is one of the unsung heroes of our nation and the whole family can boast of his quiet bravery with great pride.
As the time for the Golden Wedding drew near, Lizzie, Carrie and Gussie hurried into their dresses. Lizzie chuckled. Her quiet sense of humor was infectious. Her red hair reflected the radiance of the fire in the fireplace.
Lizzie had been only three when she stepped from the mackinaw sailboat to the shores of the Bay below the one-room log cabin that Grandfather had built for his family.
Like other pioneer children she had faced hardships uncomplainingly and had learned to meet dangers of frontier life. She could sail a boat, paddle a canoe, swim, and skate. Quiet in demeanor, she could spring into quick decisive action. When little Susie fell from their boat on a trip back from Superior, Lizzie seized a pike pole and, catching the little sister’s dress, drew her back to safety.
It was Lizzie who dived from the sawmill dock into the brown waters of the Bay to bring up the body of little Harry.
Elizabeth was considered to be the best reader in Oneota. Whenever the Literary Society met, it was she who was asked to read the poetry accompanying the tableau.
When Lizzie wanted to marry Lon Merritt, Grandpa refused to give his consent. Lizzie made no protest but with Brewster-Wheeler determination, calmly made plans to marry the man she loved. And a happy marriage it was. Ettie said of her, “I used to protest and finally obey. Lizzie never stormed. She quietly did what she wanted to do.”
Elizabeth saw Leonidas Merritt go into the northern woods to emerge weary, only to try again. She saw the railroad built along the hills, which had once been covered by billows of green pines, as her husband, his brothers and nephews prepared to ship the iron they had found. She saw the years of toil and planning bring great fortune within the family’s grasp, and saw it wrested from them in spite of their diligent earnest efforts. Through it all, the years of hardship, heartbreak and frustration, she stood behind her husband courageously, comforting and stalwart. These men could not have faced their loss without the strength of their women.
Through all the years of their marriage she had faith in her husband’s timber cruising, in his dealings in pine lands, his exploration in Mexico, Canada and Minnesota.
She proudly welcomed him home from a term in the State Legislature.
Lizzie worked faithfully in her church. She was tender with young children, and many a big slice of her home-made bread topped by the raspberry jam she made from the berries her two sons picked along the road, she handed out patiently to hungry youngsters at Pike Lake.
She lived to see her daughter Ruth married to Alva Merritt, and her two sons Lucien and Harry grow into stalwart men.
But now on the night of the Golden Wedding, the Wheeler girls happy and secure, descended the broad hall stairs to help bring joy and laughter to the Wheeler family.
(b. April 3, 1854)
Laughing at Lizzie’s jokes, Etta sat on the floor like a little girl, putting on one of the white kid slippers she had worn at her own wedding ten years before. This evening she was going to wear the beautiful wedding gown she had made, an ivory-colored satin dress with its shimmering full skirt partially concealed by billows of lace, and a silken cord crossing between two rows of buttons closing the bodice. Etta had made the dress by hand to wear when she married John E. Merritt on her parent’s 40th anniversary—a simple wedding in her parent’s home, with lemonade and cake served as refreshments.
Now with her red hair in curls over her shoulders she must have looked much as she had ten years before.
Like the other Wheeler children, she was a true pioneer who grew up in frontier surroundings. When she was less than two, her mother had brought her, coming from Madeline Island in November in an open mackinaw boat.
As a child, she played in her father’s saw mill, the first steam saw mill at the head of the lakes. Early she learned to sail a boat and many times skimmed over the Bay with her brothers and sisters. With them she swam, dived, and skated. As a child she played with the children of Mr. Ely, who was an early missionary to the Indians. She had been caught and held by two squaws who rubber their hands over her head to see if the red color would rub off on their hands.
At another time, as she ran toward the mill, an Indian seized her, held her firmly, and flourished a tomahawk above her head. She landed a kick on his shin, wherat he released her and she ran to join her father.
“Heap Brave!” commented the Indian.
When Ettie was in her teens she went to St. Paul to stay with her Aunt Mary Ingalls and to go to school. There she began her training in music with Uncle Ingalls who was a musician and a piano tuner. From there she went to normal school in Ohio specializing in music and art—earning a certificate to teach kindergarten or elementary school.
Fearlessness was one of her outstanding characteristics. Uncle Duane said he saw her block the door of her school room, barring out an irate father who had come with a black snake whip to thrash his son.
“You cannot come into my school and touch one of my pupils,” she said.
Once on the ranch in New Mexico while the men were away, she faced a band of Apache Indians advancing toward the house. As we cringed behind her, she reached up to pat the hand of a papoose and offered to trade flour for a carved wooden knife.
Like all the other Wheelers, she was fearless in her thinking, too—determinedly independent in her opinions. Her favorite hymn was:
“Dare to be a Daniel
Dare to stand alone
Dare to have a purpose strong
Dare to make it known.”
She and Bert used to sing it joyfully for it was one of his favorites, too.
She grew up among those who were changing a wilderness into a city. Explorers, timber cruisers, and lumbermen came into Uncle Lon’s office where she worked recording their “minutes”, and making maps from the plats they left.
Here she met John E. Merritt, her husband, who always returned from his explorations to find her staunchly courageous, enthusiastic, believing steadfastly—the daughter of pioneers and the wife of a pioneer.
On the Las Tusas Ranch in New Mexico, she pioneered again, caring for her youngsters miles from a doctor, teaching them miles from a school, going to explore and gultches, the travelers who stopped at the ranch house.
There, far from a church, she played hymns at the organ while her family (John E., his brother Lewis and the children), sang, and Sunday afternoons at the ranch house became bright with music and enriched with bible stories.
The gift of laughter was hers and many a time she made the hardships of ranch life or farm life amusing adventures. Uncle Harry’s wife, Aunt Jenny, said of her, “Etta is the only woman I know who can laugh when the clothes line breaks and lets her newly washed sheets fall into the mud.”
How young she was always! Only two years before her death at 83 she joined her children Callie, Edna, John and James on a canoe trip into the wilderness enjoying the grandeur of the north woods and even doing some paddling.
The ideals of the pioneers were hers—honor, loyalty, courage, a quick sympathy for those needing help, and choosing always the best in life.
“A gallant lady,” Aunt Alta called her.
Julia Augusta Wheeler was born September 2, 1856, the first white child born in St. Louis County. Golden curls, blue eyes, a sweet little girl who devoted her life to caring for her sisters, brothers, father and mother. Her devotion was far beyond the call of duty, and I sometimes think her family accepted her sacrifice with not much appreciation.
When she became a young lady she and her cousin Bert Pugsley fell in love and wanted to be married but Grandpa put his foot down and Aunt Gussie accepted his will, never exhibiting her heartache. Service was her life. “Oh, I couldn’t get along without Gussie,” Grandma used to say.
Years later when we asked her, “Why didn’t you marry young Dr. Pugsley?” she replied, “Why, if I had, who would have taken care of Ma and Carrie?” We think of her when we read in Snow Bound, Whittier’s description of his sister, “Keeping with many a light side. The secret of self-sacrifice.”
When Grandma became too ill to carry on the little Sunday School she had organized in Hazelwood Presbyterian Church nearby, Aunt Gussie forced herself to overcome her shyness and take over as superintendent, treasurer, and secretary of the little group.
Aunt Gussie never seemed too busy or too tired to take care of small nieces and nephews, reading stories to them, playing games with them, knitting mittens or making dresses for them. As Uncle Bert’s son said when we were comparing memories lately, “I remember that she was always so kind.” At her funeral, her minister said of her, “She loved children and having none of her own, she mothered them all.” She, like Carrie and Etta, was an artist, though she had little time for oil painting or embroidery.
As Grandma grew weaker and more querulous, more of the responsibility fell on Gussie’s shoulders. When there were practical nurses to help, they didn’t stay long; and the few “hired girls” they’d depended on, quit. Many of the days and nights she cared for Grandma, there were only the two of them in that big house.
After Grandma’s death, Gussie spent many days and nights alone. Was it any wonder that her nerves gave way? Often she visited sisters or brothers, and whenever any of them needed help, she rose happily to the occasion. In the periods when she felt well, she worked diligently knitting or sewing for someone who needed help, but when the loneliness overtook her, she, who had spent most of her life in loving care of others, was overcome by a crushing sense of unworthiness.
None of her family knew until a few days before her death in what a serious condition her heart was. A victim of pneumonia she slipped away, as quietly as she had done everything else all her life.
Johnnie, the adventurous one, who sometimes managed to conceal his tenderheartedness under a gruff exterior, joined the little family July 19, 1858. He must have been the baby when obstetrical care was paid for by salt pork. Mrs. Hephzibah Merritt, who ushered so many of the Oneota babies into the world, had helped her friend and neighbor in the birth of this newest baby. Grandpa said to her, “Mrs. Merritt, I don’t have any money with which to pay you, but my brother sent me a barrel of salt pork. Would you accept a piece of salt pork?”
“Mr. Wheeler,” said Hephzibah, “I never take any pay for helping my neighbors but I’d rather have a piece of salt pork than a thousand dollars.”
Johnnie, always quick in thought and action, worked sometimes on a surveying crew on the newly discovered Missabe Iron Range and sometimes faring forth alone in explorations. He could work companionably with other men, but was never at a loss when he had to meet a crisis by himself.
His adventures began when he skated home one night from a day’s work in Superior. As he neared Oneota, the ice gave way, engulfing him in the frigid waters of St. Louis Bay. Resolutely he struggled to climb out, but the ice broke beneath his weight; and where it was strong enough to support him, his hands slipped from the glossy surface. He held his mittened hands still on the ice, hoping they would freeze fast and thus serve as a hand hold; when he put his weight on them, the thin film of frost gave way. He was growing so cold and stiff that he knew he must rescue himself soon. Realizing that there was no current at that place, he relinquished his hold on the ice edge, and let himself sink to the bottom.
There, because his fingers were cols, he opened the knife with his teeth and rose again to the surface where he chipped hand-holds in the solid ice; he drew himself up onto the surface. As he began skating again he felt the ice bending under him. He skated as fast as he could to shore. Johnnie knew that if he broke through again he would be too exhausted to climb out.
Once on an exploring trip in the north woods, he cut his knee with his axe. Feeling certain that the wound needed stitches, he sewed the edges together using a darning needle and twine.
“It was all I had,” he said, “and there was no one else to do it.”
His independence of thinking was so pronounced that one of his friends said, “Johnnie Wheeler is so contrary that even if you could convince him about something, you couldn’t make him believe it.”
We think that he, like Marty, was a tug boat captain. There was a superstition among sailors that it was unlucky to begin a journey on Friday. Consequently, whenever it was possible to do so, Uncle Johnnie planned every trip to begin on Friday.
When the Gold Rush to Alaska began, Johnnie joined the men swarming into incredible danger in search of gold. He took time out to return from the West Coast to attend the Golden Wedding and then was soon on his way again. He sent Grandma a pin made from a gold nugget, but we think he found no gold and had to buy the nugget. The only money he made on that trip came from his work as a packer. He carried prospectors’ pack sacks over the Chelicoat Pass and other steep, rough trails. At one time, tired and very hungry, he came upon a lone traveler hunched over his little fire. Johnnie took a ten-dollar gold piece out of his pocket. “Stranger,” he said, “I’ll give you this ten dollars if you’ll give me that pancake you are frying.”
“Stranger,” replied the man, “I can’t. this pancake is the only food I’ve got.” And John went on alone and hungry.
Once he made camp by a wild Alaskan river. Men near him set up tents or makeshift shelters on a flat at the river’s edge. Johnnie however, experienced in wilderness travel and weather signs, clambered to a ledge up the steep sides of the gorge. A wall of water burst out of the gorge, his shout of warning was drowned by the roaring waters that engulfed the men below him.
When he returned from Alaska, he settled in Tacoma and Seattle. We think he must have skippered a tug on Puget Sound before he and a cousin, Bert Ingalls, established a foundry somewhere along the Sound.
While he was young he had been engaged to John E. Merritt’s sister Alta who returned to her home in Pennsylvania for her wedding where she contracted Scarlet Fever and died. John concealed his grief behind a crusty shell and it was not until he was in his forties that he married pretty, brown-haired Ellen Brown, the daughter of early Oneota settlers. They had one son, Henry Wakeman Wheeler II, a friendly, gentle man, alert to the beauties about him and interested in science and history. (At one time he helped organize and care for a museum in his home town.)
Johnnie finally settled down on a farm near Port Orchard, Washington, with Henry and his little family, clearing the land in a woodsy place much as it was done in Oneota where he had been born. It was there he died, there in the woodlands that he loved.
Little Susie was born May 2, 1860, a gay elf-like child who lived long enough to make an important place in the lives of her family. Then suddenly she was stricken with some dread disease that took her quickly. The first great grief had come to the happy family.
The same year that Susie died (1864), a little baby boy was born dead, or lived only a few minutes. I have never known why he was not given a name.
Uncle Harry, the seventh child and the fourth son, was born March 2, 1862. Grandma adored him, lavishing much love and attention on him, for he was a fragile child.
The saw mill was running full tilt, lumber being loaded on skids at the dock by the mill.
When Harry was about three, he followed the older children to the dock and unnoticed, fell in. when he was missed, Lizzie and Ettie threw themselves flat on the dock and gazed into the brown waters of the Bay.
Lizzie spotted the little body, dived in and brought him up while Ettie hauled him onto the dock. Gussie ran for grandpa, who, when he came, threw the little boy over his shoulder and ran to the house where they rolled Harry over a barrel ‘till he breathed.
As Harry grew older, he exhibited the same talent for engineering and seamanship as the others. Even the girls could sail a boat and swim as well as the boys.
After his marriage to a beautiful young lady, Jean Clinch, our beloved Aunt Jenny, Uncle Harry moved to Biwabik, Minnesota and ran a steam shovel at one of the iron mines. He was a quiet loving man, tender with his family, yet firm.
In the year 1897 or ’98 Uncle Harry and Aunt Jenny, Reuben and Bruce, joined our family on a sheep ranch in the Las Tusas Valley, New Mexico.
Following the tradition of the Wheeler family, Aunt Jenny organized a Sunday School and taught all the children in the Valley.
I recall one episode—my mother had a large wooden washtub full of hot soapy water for her washing. The tub had a plug which fascinated Bruce who toddled up and gave it a yank, whe at the tub tilted. My mother held the tottering tub while Aunt Jenny snatched Bruce from in front of it.
About this time Reuben began to climb the steep path to the house, his short legs pumping away.
“Mother, come and help me up this hill,” he called.
Aunt Jenny, who sat with Bruce clutched in her arms, answered, “Mother can’t come and help. Her legs are too shaky.”
When Uncle Harry and Aunt Jennie moved back to Duluth shortly before Douglas was born, they lived in one of Grandpa’s apartment houses upstairs. The house was situated on the east side of the ore docks a few blocks from Grandpa’s big house.
Grandpa Wheeler “baby sat” for Reuben and Bruce on afternoon. At home later he said, “Ma, I’d rather raise one thousand girls than one boy. Bruce was determined to walk the railing of the upstairs porch. I had to pick him off of there.”
As the years passed, Uncle Harry’s health began to fail. In 1906 Aunt Jenny took him to a heart specialist in California or Colorado. Then later to Lexington, Nebraska.
After that he had typhoid fever. They were spending the winter in a cottage near the falls on Fortieth Avenue and Eighth Street, a few blocks from our house.
He moved his family to a homestead farm on Pine River, north of Duluth where a logging camp was just closing its operations.
There was a large swift bubbling spring not far from the river. Uncle Harry installed pipes and a pump after establishing a big tank inside, beside the kitchen stove, so that there was always plenty of hot water.
Later they moved from Pine River through the deep woods to the Johnson Place where there was a fair-sized hewed log house, large fields and a big garden spot.
Uncle Harry’s health, always precarious, was fading, so the family moved to The Dalles, Oregon to a milder climate. From there he wrote once, “When are you coming to see the famous five and the tiny two?” Myra was then a baby. When Myra was still very young, Uncle Harry died of T. B., leaving a family of seven for Aunt Jenny to raise. She, being a teacher, went back to her work of being an educator.
(b. July 15, 1866)
“Uncle Duane,” as we called him, was a quiet, loving man with a delightful sense of humor, “and a great head for business.”
His education began at the age of four-and-a-half in the one-room Oneota School, where his sister Etta was the teacher. Soon after he had learned to write, he composed a letter to Etta, who was visiting away from home. “Jeffrey’s calf got on the track and got killed. The train you was on ran over him. If you had of stayed at home, the calf would not have got killed.”
He continued his education by attending Duluth Central High School. After his graduation, he entered the University of Minnesota, where he studied civil engineering.
When Uncle Duane had completed his studied, he joined the Merritts on the Missabe Range, supervising for the railroad from the mines to Duluth. As a civil engineer, his specialty was locating railway right of ways.
After he had finished his work on the Range, Duane moved west, buying a ranch adjoining ours near Tres Piedras in the Las Tusas Valley of New Mexico. They lived with us till the log house on their ranch was made habitable.
One day while they were with us, our father, John E., came hurrying into the house.
“Cattle rustlers!” he said, “Judge Vandever, from the ranch six miles down the river, needs help to get his cattle back.”
John E., his brothers, and Uncle Duane loaded rifles and revolvers and made ready to go. Aunt Alta, watching John E. grimly packing bandages, was terrified. She sat in a rocker, holding her little son, James, and watched the men gallop away. Frightened though she was, she had made no protest, for she knew that Uncle Duane, a peace-loving man like the others, would risk danger when someone needed help. It was a relief when they rode back with the news that it had been a false alarm. The cattle were found peacefully grazing, no rustlers in sight.
Somewhere in the mountains nearby Uncle Duane found a soft, white stone that could be shaped by an axe when it was first exposed, and hardened later. From the pieces he had cut he fashioned a beautiful corner fireplace with a shelf at one side where Aunt Alta could set her bread to rise.
One day the families got together at Uncle Duane’s. we children wanted to swim in the Las Tusas River, an apparently safe trickle of water with scattered, quiet pools. It was fun, I remember, until as we splashed about I saw James, only a little boy, disappear under the water of an inviting pool. I grabbed him by his foot and began struggling to drag him out. Suddenly Uncle Duane was there, tipping James upside down, saying, “Thanks, Edna!” I still remember how solemn everyone was and how James looked later, held in his father’s arms with his hair wet and slicked down. Who would have believed the Tusas had such deep holes.
In addition to his ranching, Uncle Duane accepted some work as a surveyor riding away on old Knobs, to be gone several days at a time. Finally he sold the ranch and moved to Antonito, Colorado, where James’ little brother, Roger, was born.
“Wherever railroads were being built we went”, said Roger. They lived in Boise, Idaho for a while. From there Duane was called to Victoria, British Columbia, where a road was being built from Victoria to the north end of Vancouver Island. After several years, he moved his family north to Port Albany, which is about half-way up the coast of the Island. When the work on Vancouver Island ended, he returned to Duluth and stayed one year, after which he went to Minneapolis, where he worked in the engineering office of the Soo Line Railroad. It was an office job which Duane did not really enjoy. But he stayed there from 1916 to 1927.
When a part-time job in Duluth was offered to him, Duane, then sixty-five, accepted the job which soon developed into full-time work, where he remained employed until he was eighty-one and getting tired.
For the next three years, he worked part-time. He was the head engineer of the Duluth Sewer System. His death occurred three years after his retirement at eighty-four.
Duane and his wife, Alta Richardson Wheeler, were both blessed with the gift of laughter and wholesome, outgoing friendliness.
His son Roger said, “He was wonderful, and both Jim and I owe him a lot.”
(b. August 26, 1868.)
How beautiful she was! To small children she was the embodiment of beauty and magic. Carrie was an artist who created loveliness in oil paintings, humor in pen and ink sketches, and joy in music.
We think she was one of the early graduates of Duluth’s Central High School, though we have no definite information about that. Like the other Wheelers she was an avid reader, making use of the library of good books in the home. Her brother Bert said that when he returned from Hamline University, he found that although her health had not permitted her to attend college, her general reading had given her as broad an education as his.
She was a pioneer teacher on the Missabe Range. We have seen a picture of her standing poised, assured and gracious in the doorway of a one-room frame building amid scattered pines and stumps. When a forest fire swept through the region, she ran, shepherding her little flock to the flat car that carried them to safety. On that flight she sprained her ankle so severely that she found walking very difficult and painful for a long time. We’ve been told that she was never very well after that episode, quietly embroidering, sewing, painting, or practicing on the big, square piano, the first piano at the head of the lakes. It is now in the St. Louis County Historical Society museum in Duluth’s old Union Depot.
Perhaps the death of the young minister with whom she was in love may have shadowed her life, though she was not a gloomy person.
Probably none of the adults who knew of her talent in art, knew her charm as a story-teller. Lucky the child who could sleep in Aunt Carrie’s bed and listen to the thrilling tales after the lights were out—mostly made-up stories about Uncle Johnnie’s exploits. An eager little listener could learn how to meet such an emergency as a water spout approaching a ship. In most of the exciting stories, Uncle Johnnie was the hero.
In her early thirties, Carrie grew weaker, but not despondent. Every morning as Grandpa stopped at her door, they jestingly teased each other about which had been the first to hear Grandma grinding coffee for the breakfast. Harry’s wife Jennie, said of her, “Bert would carry her down stairs to the living room, where she would be the life of the party, and then when she was too tired he would carry her back to her room again.”
An osteopathic physician, a pleasant, friendly woman, came frequently to treat her, and the two had pleasant visits, but Carrie’s health did not seem to improve.
And then one day, she grew suddenly much worse. Etta and John E., going into help, urged that medical help be called in. when Carrie steadfastly refused to have a doctor, Grandma and Grandpa, probably influenced by their years of having to treat all ills with home remedies, acceded to her wishes.
Gussie told us years later, “I was so frightened. When I learned that they were not going to call a doctor, I had such a heavy weight here” and she placed her hand on her chest. But after her years of self-effacement, she made no further protest.
Suddenly, early in the evening, Carrie said, “Where is Ma? Get Ma!” As Grandma came to the bedside Carrie drew her down, kissed her—and was gone!
In the days that followed, the big house must have seemed very empty without Carrie’s gracious, charming presence.
Bert, born in Oneota in 1870, was the youngest of the Wheeler children. As a boy he had his share of work to do at the family home, he has told us that he had to milk the cows and do the barn chores each morning before he made the long trek to Duluth’s Central High School.
In one of his classes he had to give a speech. Shy and unsure in this first attempt at public speaking, he was embarrassed when he saw a girl in the front row trying in vain to keep from laughing.
“I made up my mind,” he said, “that I would speak every chance I had. I would keep trying until I could make a speech that nobody would laugh at.” He did become a forceful and effective speaker.
We are sure that while he was in Hamline University, he participated in athletics, for we have seen a photograph of him with a college baseball team in uniform. Aunt Jennie said that when he was in Oregon during Uncle Harry’s serious illness, their boys were made happy by the pointers he gave them on pitching.
Education was his field. He became the Superintendent of the St. Louis County schools. While he was serving as the principal of the Bryant School, he met May Whitmore, who was teaching in the elementary grades there.
After their marriage in 1905 they moved into the little house he had built just across the street from Grandpa’s.
By this time Grandpa needed help with his real estate business and Bert left his teaching to lift the burden from his father’s shoulders.
“I think it’s a pity,” said Aunt Jennie, “it seems like such a waste for a man with Bert’s gift of developing children’s minds to give it up and just sell land and houses.”
“Yes,” Etta reminded her, “but Pa needs help.”
There was a lot of property to oversee—the fair grounds, houses and lots on the hillside, and business projects to undertake. He also carried on an insurance business, the Wheeler Merritt Company. (Harry, Lizzie’s son, was the Merritt.) Bert was the executor of Grandpa’s estate—a task which involved much painstaking work.
With the same sense of responsibility that characterized Grandpa and Grandma, he became more and more involved in community affairs. He was a worker in the Prohibition Party and in 1918 ran for the U. S. Senate on the Prohibition ticket. He served as the Safety Commissioner of the City of Duluth from 1928-1932. He was a board member of the YMCA and chairman of the World Services Committee. While he was the superintendent of the Good Will Industries, he was interested in making it an efficiently managed business and, even more, a means of rehabilitation. Thus, he was financial advisor and—most of all—a friend of the workers there.
He spent hours of time raising money to send food to starving people in Europe. I saw him once, gray with fatigue after he had been packing boxes of clothing to be shipped to the needy overseas. He had a ready sympathy for anyone needing help and a practical way of giving that help.
He was an earnest worker in the church. He became the Superintendent of the Sunday School, of which first Grandma and then Grandpa had been superintendent. There, his training as an educator brought results. Once, when I was trying to teach a class of obstreperous boys, I sent for Uncle Bert to help me. In just a little while he had them straightened out and ready to pay attention. Edna had the same experience with her class. He was one of the strong, steady forces in that church. After he moved down-town, he served as the superintendent of the Endion Church Sunday School.
Wherever someone needed help, Uncle Bert went if it were at all possible. When Uncle Harry sent word from the little farm about twenty miles from Duluth that Bruce had broken his leg, it was Uncle Bert who took a doctor out there. He and Uncle Duane drove to Aitkin when Etta’s pneumonia became critical. A few years later, when she suffered a fractured hip, he met us at the hospital; and during the long illness that followed her accident, he came frequently to the house to give practical advice and bolster our courage.
“I’ll just hitch up the Whoa-Billy (his car)”, he would say, “and I’ll be there soon.” When she slipped away from us one April evening, he and Uncle Duane were there, sharing their love and their courage with us.
Perhaps it was from his pioneer parents that he inherited his love of the wilderness. I think it was Aunt May who told us that he used to play a “camping out” game with little Isabelle.
Seated on the couch with her, he would say, “Let’s play we are in a tent. A breeze is blowing gently and little waves are slapping on the shore. Sh! What was that? I think it was an owl. Hear that loon? He lives here in this Lake.” And the child joined happily in the game.
As soon as his children were old enough, he took them on canoe trips in the Border Lakes, teaching them some of the woods lore by which a voyager can live safely and comfortably in the forest.
We have been on several canoe trips with him. His keen enjoyment of the wilderness, his reverence for God’s handiwork, his cheerful helpfulness along the trail, and his calm assurance—all were an inspiration to us and made the trips memorable ones.
Tenderly, he cared for Aunt may in her long struggle with cancer. In the times when someone came to care for her and he was free to rest for an hour or two, he used to walk up 19th Avenue East to a little ravine, where he built a small fire, and there, in the peacefulness of the outdoors, he renewed his strength and built up fresh courage.
Some sixteen years after May’s death he married Mrs. Helene Everson, the principal of one of Duluth’s schools. They had only a short time together, however, before his death in 1948.
Bert Wheeler had a rare combination of strength and tenderness. With self-confidence he set his mind on his goals. Those who knew his fearlessness, his hospitality and his helpfulness, knew and trusted his utter fearlessness and determination. After he had decided a certain course was right, no argument or disapproval could sway him. Having set his hand to the plan he never looked back. Other Wheeler men had challenged the seas of Lake Superior, pitted their strength and cunning against the forces of Nature in the wilderness, or solved the intricate problems of machinery. Bert responded to the need for leadership in public affairs, the challenge to his keen mind and kind heart.
Like his pioneer ancestors, he forged ahead, unafraid. “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear, but of power and of love, and of a sound mind.” (II Tim. 1:7)
And So the Day Ended
The program of toasts had been given a prominent part in the festivities. Who planned the topics and the speakers, we don’t know—we’re sure Grandpa had a hand in it. Charles S. Christopher, Grandma’s “double cousin”, was the toastmaster. We know his droll wit would rise to the occasion. (“Double cousin” because a Christopher brother and sister married a Brewster sister and brother.)
This is the program of toasts:
C. S. Christopher—Toastmaster
Fifty Years of Wedded Life—H. W. Wheeler
Ten Years of Patience—J. E. Merritt
Golden Weddings—Lucien Merritt
Good Wishes of the Third Generation—Mable Wheeler
Our Family Tree—Duane Wheeler
The Merits of Matrimony—Lon Merritt
Hereditary Red Heads—Bert Wheeler
I wish we could have copies of those speeches. Knowing the speakers, though we know that the talks would be witty and thought-provoking. Grandpa’s, we are sure, would have been laugh-inspiring but would have contained a tribute to Grandma.
As a climax to the evening’s festivities, the two bridal couples stood in the receiving line. It was at this time that the gifts were to be presented: a gold watch for Grandma, with her initials SCW engraved on the lid and traceries of gold with tiny pearls on the face; and a gold headed cane for Grandpa, the wooden part made from the timbers of the wreck of the Algonquin, one of the early ships.
Edna and Callie had been carefully coached on the presentation speeches. Callie primly repeated her lines: “A present from your children and grandchildren” as she handed the precious watch to Grandma, standing so graciously and with such dignity. Edna (age about four-and-a-half) became so overwhelmed as she passed the line of on-lookers that the memorized words she had been coached to say vanished. Thrusting the gift at Grandpa, she blurted out, “Here, Grandpa! Here’s your cane.”
We don’t recall our departure. Probably sleep overcame us! But the memory of the dear folks who were there persists and with it a great pride in our heritage.
Those of you who have gone to the Oneota Cemetery on the hill above the old pioneer settlement have seen the Wheeler monument that Grandpa designed. Above the name Wheeler carved on the base, a huge wagon wheel stands out against the granite background. Spokes radiating out from the hub to the rim represent the members of the family.
Grandpa planned that as each member of the family died, a spoke should be cut out to indicate that it was broken, and in the space left the break, the name of the dead should stand out in granite letters. And so in the broken spokes we can read, “Father, Mother, Elizabeth, Susan, Carrie,” and possibly Harry but the other spokes remain unbroken though all of the original family are dead. The sculptor who carved the original wheel died and there was no one who could chisel out the names. It is a unique monument, attracting interest and attention of all who visit the cemetery. But the real memorial is not that block of granite. It is in the lives and achievements of Henry and Sarah Wheeler’s children, the grandchildren and their great-grandchildren, sturdy, courageous, God-fearing people who have faced life with a sense of responsibility with self-confidence and with tenderness toward those needing help.
The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Henry and Sarah are adding to the proud history of the Wheeler family. There are teachers, housewives, Social Service workers, business men, mining men, men in the dredge business, politicians, librarians, scientists, geologists, railroad men, engineers, seafarers, explorers, a doctor, a minister, members of the armed services, nurses, members of the Peace Corps, mill workers, insurance agents, athletic coaches, one captain of the University of Minnesota’s football team, exchange students (young diplomats).
Their influence has been felt around the world, for some have traveled to distant lands in the line of duty. Those who came in the Mayflower and those seafarers who built ships and sailed the high seas have left a family who have helped to build a nation and carried on the traditions of their forebears.
1. Thomas Wheeler. Born in Cransfield, Bedfordshire, England. He may have arrived in New England in 1635. Moved to Fairfield, Conn., in 1644. Settled at Black Rock, Conn.
2. John Wheeler. Had 14 children. Lived in Fairfield, inheriting his father’s land.
3. John Wheeler. Born in 1664. Two wives: Abigail Burr and Lydia Porter. Each gave birth to 6 children.
4. Ichabod Wheeler. Born in 1725. Married Deborah Burr. He was a shipbuilder in Black Rock, Conn.
5. John Wheeler. Born in 1765. First wife had 3 children: Deborah, George, Lydia. Second wife (Catherine Holburton) had 7 children, Monson, Catherine, John, Mary, Thomas, Susan, Henry Wakeman.
6. Henry Wakeman Wheeler. Married Sarah Caroline Brewster.
1.William Bradford (England)
2.William Bradford. Came to America on the Mayflower, Governor of Massachusetts
3.William Bradford. Major and Deputy Governor
5.Hannah Bradford. Married Joshua Ripley.
6. David Ripley. Married Lydia ___.
7. Faith Ripley. Married Capt. James Brewster.
8. David Brewster. Married Hannah Paine.
9. James Brewster. Married Chloe Palmer.
10. James Ripley Brewster. Married Hester Christopher.
11. Sarah Caroline Brewster. Married Henry. W. Wheeler.
1. William Brewster. Born about 1560 in Scrooby, England. Came in the Mayflower.
2. Love Brewster. Second son of William. Born in Holland. Also came in the Mayflower.
3. Wrestling Brewster. Son of Love and grandson of elder William Brewster.
4. Jonathon Brewster. Son of Wrestling. Married in 1710 and moved to Windham, Conn.
5. Capt. James Brewster. Son of Jonathon. Born in 1714. Married Faith Ripley.
6. David Brewster. Seventh child of Captain James Brewster and Faith Ripley. Born in 1753. Married Hannah Paine in 1775.
7. James Brewster. Son of David Brewster. Born in 1778. Married Chloe Palmer.
8. James Ripley Brewster. Oldest son of James. Born in 1804. Married Hester Christopher in 1826. They had four daughters:
Minerva Emmeline (married Dr. Pugsley)
Mary (married Mr. Ingalls)
Anne Augusta (married John Ogden)
9. Sarah Caroline Brewster. Born in 1828. Married Henry W. Wheeler in 1847.