Great-Grandma Lillie: A Midwestern Pioneer

I was thinking recently about my great-grandmothers. It dawned on me that they all probably had very interesting lives—or at least interesting from the perspective of the 21st Century.

I never met any of the four women, and only one was alive during my childhood. That great-grandmother was Lillie Evelena Smith Claudson. She’s the great-grandmother I heard the most stories about, and yet I don’t feel I know much about her.

Lillie was born in Assumption, Illinois, on January 22, 1884. Her parents were Andrew Jackson Smith (an Ohio-born man who was the son of German immigrants, Jacob and Mary Schmidt) and Elizabeth Gertrude Ernst Smith (whose parents were George Jacob & Eva Elizabeth Ernst, probably also of German extraction).

This might be a picture of Lillie’s family when she was a child. But I have no idea which child might be her.

When Lillie was very young, her family moved to Nebraska. Other family obituaries state that the Smiths moved in June 1884, when Lillie would have been just a few months old. That’s consistent with the family stories I was told. The Smiths were one of the first families to settle on the Garfield Table in Nebraska. They farmed there for many years.

On October 3, 1901, Lillie married Luther Monroe Claudson, the son of a Danish immigrant Charles N. Claudson and his wife Elvira Sophronia Vaught Claudson (I know nothing about her background). My father always told me that Lillie and Luther were married in 1900 when Lillie was fifteen, but if the dates I found online are correct, the marriage was in 1901, and she was seventeen at the time.

Family lore also has it that Lillie and Luther moved into a sod hut when they started their married life on their farm and that the first two of her four children were born in that hut. (My grandfather Laverne Ernst Claudson was her second child.) But I can’t substantiate how long she lived in the sod hut, so I can’t verify where they lived when my grandfather was born.

As a child, when I read the Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, I thought of Grandma Claudson’s life story. Wilder wrote about covered wagon trips from one Midwestern locale to another, and I pictured Lillie and her family traveling from Illinois to Nebraska. When I read Wilder’s accounts of moving into a sod hut on the banks of Plum Creek in Minnesota, I imagined Lillie as a new bride moving into a similar soddie on the Garfield Plain.

Lille and Luther moved into “town”—the tiny community of Arnold, Nebraska—in 1923. She would have been thirty-nine at the time—still young.

My father talked about his childhood trips to visit his grandparents in Arnold. He played with cousins and helped Grandma Claudson—as Lillie was known by then—in the kitchen, including watching her wring a chicken’s neck for Sunday supper. I got the clear sense from him that she took no nonsense from anyone—including a young grandson—but that he loved her and knew she loved him. I think he needed some discipline in his early life, and she provided it in healthy doses.

Luther died in 1947, and Grandma Claudson lived alone in her little house in Arnold until her death on November 21, 1973, at age 89. I’m told she mowed her own lawn until she died.

My father rarely visited Arnold after my parents were married, and my mother never met Grandma Claudson. Not meeting my dad’s grandmother was one of my mother’s regrets, since she hadn’t known her own grandmothers. Some of my father’s cousins told me that Grandma Claudson always appreciated my mother’s letters. My mother did write numerous newsy letters to relatives and friends. I was glad to learn Grandma Claudson was one of her correspondents.

My father and several of his cousins were Grandma Claudson’s pallbearers at her funeral in 1973. I remember my father going to her funeral, though no one else in our family went with him. At the time, I had just started college, and I didn’t think twice about missing the funeral of a great-grandmother I had never met. But now, like my mother, I wish I’d had the opportunity to meet her at some point while she was alive.

Lillie and Luther Claudson’s tombstone, Arnold, Nebraska

I couldn’t even find a picture of Lille to post, though I bet there’s one somewhere in my father’s papers. My siblings and I kept some older photos with no identification of who is depicted—perhaps one of them is of Lillie.

The reason I find Lillie’s story so compelling now is that she was a pioneer. She connects me to settlers in the Midwest. I consider myself a Westerner, though I have now lived in the Midwest for two-thirds of my life. Remembering Lillie—Grandma Claudson, as I think of her, even if I never knew her—reminds me that I have roots in this part of the country as well.

And I can picture her as I write about pioneers to the West in my novels about the settlement of Oregon almost forty years before Lillie and her family moved to Nebraska. It’s still a surprise that the West Coast was settled before some of the Midwest.

What connections does your family have to pioneer days?

ADDENDUM: I found Lillie and Luther Claudson’s wedding picture in some files I took after my father died:

Luther & Lillie Claudson on their wedding day

And here’s a close-up of Lillie:

Lillie Evelena Smith Claudson on her wedding day, October 3, 1901. I don’t see much resemblance to my grandfather, but I do to Lillie’s daughter Effie Claudson Coleman, my great-aunt.

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3 Comments

  1. Great-grandfather and great-grandmother Deering moved from Missouri to the Oklahoma Territory in 1889. I turned his one-lie-a-day diary into “The Late Sooner.”

    Another great-grandmother and great-grandfather Edmiston married in KY and hopped in a covered wagon to settle in Nevada, MO in about 1885. He became a real estate agent there. They’ve not appeared in a book . . . yet.

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