Header: © Kate Mereand-Sinha
by Sharlene Cochrane
In my family, the men died first; the women carried on. Women in three consecutive generations faced the death of their husbands from early, unexpected illness. Necessity shaped their response as they became family matriarchs, resourceful, resilient, and alone.
I. Bina Rykena Voogd (1847-1924)
Abe O. Voogd (1847-1882)
Bina Rykena Voogd sat beside the bed where her husband of eleven years lay, his weak form covered with blankets and the multi-colored quilt they received at their wedding. Holding his hand tightly, she bowed her head, his faint, uneven breathing in her ear as she held back tears. It all happened so suddenly; this illness, the quick decline, and now, sitting in the bedroom, a cold wind blowing outside, her dear Abe, so close to death. This was not their plan, their vision for their life together. She kept up constant prayer, repeating fearfully, “Please don’t die; we’ve struggled so much, and have such happiness now with our young and growing family.”
Abe and Bina each experienced the long journey to the United States by ship. Abe traveled from the Ostfriesland region of northern Germany, and at nineteen, the oldest of five children, he helped his family make the overland trip by train to Illinois. There they lived for six years within the growing Ostfriesen community there, and journeyed by train to Cedar Falls and by wagon twenty miles further west, finding rich, rolling farm land near other German settlers in north central Iowa.
Bina remembered the ship that brought her and her parents from Hannover, Germany, and the train to Iowa as well. She often said she never wanted to take such a long, exhausting trip again. The Voogd and Rykena families each farmed land near Highway 20, between Parkersburg and Aplington, two tiny towns serving the growing number of Iowa farms.
Bina often thought about how much life improved once they settled in Iowa. The farm was hard work every day, but she loved the green fields, the wild prairies, and the beautiful flowers. They had many friends, and families helped each other with harvesting corn, building barns, and preparing and storing food. Through these events and gatherings she came to know Abe, a handsome man and hard worker. After a short courtship he asked her to marry him, and she eagerly agreed.
They began married life on a small farm near their families. They spent long hours working their farm, and Bina gave birth to four sons: Oltman, now ten, Richard eight, five year-old Dick, and Abe, carrying her husband’s name, recently turned one. The boys were a handful, especially the younger ones; still they would learn to do their farm chores, and promised to be a big help once they grew older.
Sitting at his bedside as she carefully watched her husband, Bina tried not to imagine what she would have to do to take care of her family without Abe. It was more than she could bear. Their four little boys, without a father. The family without Abe to farm the land, protect them, and help these boys grow up. Abe’s favorite brother John lived on the next farm, with a growing family of his own, and constantly talked about moving on to Minnesota. Abe’s other two living siblings were on the farm with their aging parents. There wasn’t room, and the boys weren’t old enough to help. She would have to stay and make their farm succeed; if not, what else could she do?
Despite Bina’s tears and prayers, Abe Voogd died March 10, 1882, at the age of 34. Bina, also 34, now faced all the realities she had not wanted to consider. Family members reached out to help, and neighbors were sympathetic to Bina’s plight. Within a few months, however, Bina accepted that her dream with Abe of a family farm where they would support themselves and raise their children was not possible. She made a decision that changed her life and the trajectory of her children’s own dreams.
Having expected to be a farm wife in a role she knew well, she sold their farm, left her familiar world, and settled in the nearby town of Aplington. She purchased a modest house, and rented rooms to boarders to make ends meet.
Bina, the sole support of her growing family, focused her time and energy on the lives of her four sons. She stayed connected to her Ostfriesen roots, continuing to speak German, and even listing the boys in the Iowa State census of 1885 with their Ostfriesen names: Oltman, Rike (Richard), Dirk (Dick), and Ebe (Abe). She also made sure the boys attended the small public school in Aplington. Each of the brothers took advantage of the opportunities for education and leadership in their small town, and developed a profession or a business, while maintaining a close relationship with their mother. As the brothers became productive town members, Bina left the demanding boarding house role, supported by her sons.
Oltman, the old est of the four Voogd brothers, managed The Aplington News, the weekly newspaper, while his brother Dick attended the University of Iowa Law School. When Dick graduated and began his law practice, Oltman stayed at the newspaper, eventually purchasing it. He married, and with his wife and four children lived next door to Bina.
Dick served as one of the two lawyers in Aplington, and also served as mayor for ten years. Both Dick and Abe, the youngest brother, continued to live with their mother at various times during these years. Abe managed the local grain elevator, and worked in other sales positions in the town.
At the age of 15, seven years after his father died, Richard started a merchandise business, a small store on Aplington’s block-long main street. Richard’s store expanded to a larger storefront, advertising general merchandise and millenary. He also bought and sold property, establishing with a colleague the Tiedens and Voogd Real Estate office. He married Bena Weiss when he was twenty, and they had three children. The family lived in a substantial home in town, near his mother.
In her later years, Bina lived with her son Abe and his wife. Called “Grandma Voogd” by all, she remained the head of the family, overseeing the activities and enterprises of her sons. She never married again and lived more than forty years without her husband Abe, before she died in 1924.
II. Bena Weiss Voogd (1874-1942)
Richard A. Voogd (1874-1921)
Bena Weiss Voogd, Bina’s daughter-in-law, sat with her desk full of papers, and tried to take in their message. The family real estate business lost money again. The lands that seemed so lucrative a few years ago produced less now, and the situation worsened each year. Somehow the death of her husband Richard had opened up a hornet’s nest of bad financial news. “We were doing so well! What are we going to do now?” she kept repeating to herself in disbelief.
Bena married Richard Voogd at a time of great promise for both of their families.
Like the Voogd’s, Bena’s parents came from Germany in the 1860’s, settled for a while in Illinois, where Bena was born, and then moved on to Iowa. After developing a successful farm, the family moved to town in 1889, where her father Fred Weiss ran a grain, coal and implement business. He also served on the city council and the township board of trustees and had a small real estate business. It was a happy time for Bena, including a wonderful trip with her father to the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. She treasured the two beautiful glass goblets they bought there, with dark red borders and their names painted on the glass. Bena and Richard’s marriage the year after that trip celebrated the coming together of two of the town’s leading families.
Not all was happy, however; difficult times arrived more than once. Their beautiful baby girl Beulah passed away when she was only two. With their son Fred only six, Bena’s parents living next door offered the young family support. Bena especially valued her father’s energetic and positive attitude. Then, seven years later, her father died of a heart attack, while on a real estate business trip in Minnesota. He seemed so vibrant, even at 62, and traveled regularly. Now a grieving Bena waited, while Richard and her uncle made the railroad trip north to retrieve the body. Those were the hardest years.
Bena’s attention wandered from the piles of financial documents on the desk to other memories of her married life. Their two-story, beautiful home provided space for their family and they often welcomed visitors. Sometimes Richard drank a little too much, like the time he was driving their new car and ran it right into their garage door. One Christmas, he caused a bit of a scene, and wrote a letter of apology to son Fred, away at business school, for ruining the holiday. But that didn’t happen very often, and he carefully monitored his financial affairs, so they continued to live comfortably.
Richard sold his general store in 1913, and concentrated on real estate, which continued to support them well; in fact, he was able to buy a farm in the name of each of their children, for future security. She laughed when he wrote to Fred at business school urging him to be careful with his spending, so typical of Richard’s attitude: “I hope you will…get the habit of taking care of your money as I told you before, every successful man absolutely has to learn this lesson. The sooner the better. Money is a man’s best friend.” (Richard to Fred, February 17, 1917)
Their three children, Fred, Beulah (named after little Beulah who died) and Edward, grew up strong, bright, and healthy. Fred succeeded at business school, and Richard’s connections with the owner of the bank in Austinville led to Fred’s job there as a bank clerk. That same summer Fred married Neva Stockdale, and they began life together, living with Neva’s brother on a farm at the southern edge of town. Beulah excelled in school, and eagerly planned on attending college, while Ed cared less for school, spending time with friends as a gregarious, busy young man.
Then, without warning, Richard became seriously ill and lay bedridden for a month. The doctor called his condition, “Embulis,” (likely pulmonary embolism, or a blood clot that lodged in his lung), and despite continuous medical care, Richard died on July 24, 1921, a steamy, hot, terrifying day. He was 47 years old.
Bena knew their son Fred, married and working, could be a great help. But Beulah was 16 and Edward only 13—so many financial needs, college expectations, and pressures to keep up the house and business. Like her mother-in-law before her, Bena looked for the way to support her children while facing new and unsettling challenges. Fortunately, Richard’s brother Dick became the legal counsel for the business, and her son Fred, as she had expected, took over many daily responsibilities. She hoped they could count on Richard’s business to continue to support her family. If so, they would manage.
The year after Richard died, however, the family’s fortunes began to change. Bena’s tax returns from 1922 and 1923 showed yearly losses of $2000. 1924 returns improved, yet still showed a loss, and again in 1925, the losses amounted to $2000. In addition, Richard’s estate remained unsettled, leaving questions about what taxes to pay. The lands managed by the business offered little security.
After many long discussions, Bena, Dick and Fred decided that a trip was necessary to see these lands in person and determine what recourse to follow-to sell, rent, or continue to own the farms. This would be a major undertaking, as the lands included farms in Minnesota, South and North Dakota, and even a farm in Saskatchewan. Fred arranged for his brother Edward to go along, and Uncle Dick went, bringing his legal experience. Fred’s best friend and brother-in-law, Bob Stockdale, who had his own farm, joined the travelers. They set out in August 1925, Fred driving his 1922 Buick, going all the way to Canada, in an effort to resolve several of the unsettled land transactions.
Bena faced this loss of income and status amidst the increasingly depressed national farm economy. The real estate business gradually closed. The only farmland still in the family were the local holdings Richard had purchased earlier for the children, which offered some financial security. Bena continued to live in the family home, in a modest fashion, staying active in church and maintaining a strong hold on her children as they became adults. Cared for by daughter Beulah, “Mother Voogd” remained in her home until she died in 1942, twenty-one years after Richard’s death.
III. Neva Stockdale Voogd (1893-1984)
Fred R. Voogd (1896- 1936)
Neva Stockdale and Fred Voogd became high school sweethearts. Neva, three years older, grew up on a large farm four miles west of Aplington, while Fred lived in town. They attended the same Presbyterian Church and new two-story high school. They socialized with a shared group of friends, attending occasional movies in near-by Parkersburg and band concerts in Aplington every Saturday night, when the farmers came to town. After she graduated in 1912, a member of the first high school graduating class in Aplington, Neva helped on her family’s farm, and remained a part of this social scene. During those years the two began to court.
Neva hoped that once some of her five younger siblings got old enough to work the farm, she could go to college. Fred enrolled at Iowa State Teachers College immediately following his graduation and quickly decided this school was not for him. In 1916, he enrolled at the Business School in Cedar Rapids; the same year Neva was finally able to start college. Fred advocated for her to attend Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, only twelve miles from his school, and Neva agreed. Their informal dating in Aplington became a more established courtship while they were at school, with Fred traveling by streetcar most Fridays to visit Neva.
Fred completed his schooling the next year and began his job at the Austinville Bank, two miles from the Stockdale farm. He saw no reason for Neva to continue with college, although Neva held back. Even though she admitted her grades needed improvement, she was having a great time at Cornell, making many friends, and she preferred to continue.
Late that same spring, however, Neva’s parents called her home. Gladys, her oldest brother’s wife, was bedridden with illness following the birth of their first child. Following weeks of suffering and uncertainty, Gladys died, and the family needed Neva to stay with brother Ray and the new baby. Once she was home, it was clear to Neva that she would not be returning to school, and on a brilliantly sunny, hot July 24, 1917 Fred and Neva married.
The couple spent their first two years of married life with Ray. Neva wrote in response to her sister-in-law’s death, “It certainly is a blessed thing that one doesn’t know what’s before them…It seems hard to think its for the best but we know it must be…I always think of Someday We’ll Understand.” (Neva to Fred, 3/31/17) This was a reference to the Bible verse from John 13:7: “Jesus answered and said unto him, what I do Thou knowest not now; But Thou shalt know hereafter.” This deep religious belief gave her reassurance in the midst of such losses.
After living at Ray’s for two years, Fred and Neva moved to their own home, a block from Fred’s mother, Bena. Neva focused on raising their sons Kenneth, born in 1921, and Richard, born three years later. Fred stopped each afternoon at his mother’s house on the way home from the bank. The family continued to attend Saturday night band concerts, family activities, and the Presbyterian Church. On alternate Sundays they would visit Neva’s mother on the farm and Fred’s mother a block away.
After 1921, when his father Richard died, Fred took on responsibility for the real estate business and its declining income. Probate issues continued, as well as discouraging financial losses each year. He took the road trip to Canada in 1925, assessing the land potential of various farms, time away from his young sons and Neva, who he addressed in his letters as “Dearie.” In 1934, while these probate and income issues continued, his Uncle Dick, legal counsel for his mother’s estate, died. Fred faced further financial and legal burdens.
Neva knew that Fred sometimes suffered from stomach pains or bowel problems. She remembered his reassurances, after the travelers left for Canada, that he bought “some magnesia and take a dose, my bowels are in better shape than before, so don’t worry.” (Fred to Neva, August 9, 1925) However, early in the summer of 1936, at the age of 40, Fred became suddenly and seriously ill, with painful abdominal cramps. Alarmed and fearful, Neva drove him to the hospital in Waverly, thirty miles away. The doctor insisted Fred stay for observation, and told Neva to go home, get some rest, and return the next day. She assumed that meant Fred would improve, and reluctantly left the hospital. Instead, she learned the next morning that Fred had died during the night: June 21, 1936. The death certificate read “perforated gastric ulcer, peritonitis and neutropenia”—a massive infection in his abdominal cavity.
Neva, with 15 and 12 year old sons, faced a broken heart and an unsure future. She built her life around Fred and the family they created together. Financial support for Neva came in part from her mother’s farm income, and from her mother-in-law’s help in erasing the mortgage she and Fred owed on their home. She and her sons could stay where they were and maintain much of their daily life among family and friends.
At the same time, the loss continued to take an emotional toll. Neva tried to hold on to her faith that there is a reason for each death, even if we don’t know what it is. As a poem she wrote at Christmas time that very hard year suggested, “Xmas 1936” reinforced her belief that there are reasons for the deaths that come and that Fred would want them to be happy:
But God Knows what is Best for All
And it’s not for us to say
Just who should be the ones to go
Or who the ones to stay!
So now ‘een tho we’re lonely
We Know that Daddy dear
Would want us to be Happy
And wish others Christmas Cheer!!
Two years later, near the anniversary of Fred’s death, Neva reflected with more subdued sadness. She questioned the belief that God determines who dies and always for some good reason. “Spring 1936,” described a yucca plant growing near the house, which the family watched throughout the spring for it’s first blooms. But as the flowers opened:
… how could we know
What their message was to be?
When the first white bell unfolded –
Daddy wasn’t there – to see!
But how could we have known
What their message was to be?
That tall stem pointing, up to Heaven
Was all that we could see!
April 29, 1938
Neva never fully said goodbye to Fred. She kept his coats and straw hats in the closet upstairs, and saved his bureau contents as they were when he died. She began to save other kinds of items, stacking church programs, magazines, and newspapers in piles in the living room and bedroom. Her sons married, served in the Army, and moved to new communities, while her saving practices expanded.
By the time Neva died, almost 50 years after Fred, each room overflowed with saved objects and papers. She no longer allowed anyone to come into her house; visitors could only join her on the screened-in front porch. She still took flowers from her garden to church every Sunday. She visited family living nearby, and volunteered with her sister Hazel at the town library. But no one went in the house, where Neva shuffled about through the pathways in each room, holding on to her Dearie, Fred.
Growing up, the only story I knew about these three generations was that my grandfather Fred died when my father was twelve. No details, no back story, and only a few hints about how strong “Grandma Voogd” was, raising four boys, and a photo of “Mother Voogd” at a holiday dinner in her home, surrounded by family members.
Whenever we visited Grandma Neva, we stayed with her younger sister, Hazel, who lived in a two-story frame house on Main Street. Hazel never married and was active in the library, and her home was the gathering place for the various family members. We always stopped in Des Moines on our family visits, where Fred’s sister Beulah lived. She was a teacher for many years, and having waited until her mother passed on to marry, became a widow a few short years later.
These women shaped my ideas about gender. They lived independently in their own houses. They traveled to visit us and took trips to several western states. Their lives included friends, work or volunteer activities, and few interactions with men, other than their brothers. I loved these women, admired them, and wanted to be like them. To find out that my great grandmother Bena and Great-great Grandmother Bina also had this experience, also lived independently and well, never remarrying and living close to their children, made my lived experience part of a constant thread. That strong character and commitment to carrying on came through generations, not only the generation I knew and loved.
I didn’t see the possible shadow sides of their life. Neva continued to function in the world after Fred died, volunteering at the small local library her sister Hazel and other members of the Women’s Club began, making floral arrangements from her garden for Sunday church services, and traveling to visit her sons’ families. After she died we finally went into Neva’s house. We found the pathways through the house, the piles of newspapers on every surface, Fred’s clothes in the closet, 50 years later. Her outward expression was independent, managing well. However her home became a lonely place, overflowing with saved “stuff” and she allowed no one to visit her. Her independence and individual life had its compromises.
At the same time, I slowly learned of troubling attitudes toward the earlier women’s life choices; a reminder of the way in which our choices may produce both strength and sorrow. Bina, “Grandmother Voogd,” raised four boys who became successful members of the community. The whispers criticized how demanding she was, perhaps how her strength to carry on meant pressure and expectations on her children that led them to do what they did, whether they wanted to or not. Her son Richard opened a store when he was 15—how did that come about? Perhaps he found satisfaction in that step; or did he want to go to school like his brother Dick, or farm nearby, rather than buy and sell farms? Was his occasional drinking connected to the pressure he experienced, his own unfulfilled dreams, or his loss of a father when he was only eight? Did his drinking contribute to a thread of alcohol abuse in future generations?
Bena, “Mother Voogd,” also required much from her children. Her son Fred stopped at her home every day after work, before returning home to his wife and children. Neva hinted more than once that she was unhappy about that. Beulah lived with and took care of her mother, delaying her own marriage until after she was forty. She never had children, and her husband (like her brother and father) died young, within a short time after their delayed marriage. Perhaps Beulah chose that delay, accepting the expectation that she should not marry while her mother needed her.
The place where these women lived, the land and farms of north central Iowa, played a role in their ability to survive. Bina had the resources to change her life because she and husband Abe had a farm that provided her with funds to move to town and establish a boarding house. Bena and her husband Richard started with a small store in town that served primarily farmers, and then a real estate business that provided well for them for many years, mostly by buying and selling farmland. Neva’s mother and the resources of her family’s farm supported her after Fred died. Each was in some way dependent on the land to provide their financial stability.
The network of families, especially women, that existed in each generation offered critical additional support. The Voogd’s came from Ostfreisland as an extended family, and interacted and traveled with others from their home country. They farmed in an area where many of their fellow immigrants settled. While they lived far from everything they had known, they were also part of a stream of immigrants from that area, and experienced a shared culture. While Bina moved to town and left the farm life she knew, she moved to Aplington, four miles away, and stayed in contact with those around her. She lived alone, yet had siblings and other women she knew and could depend on for support, advice, and understanding.
Bena also had friends and links to immigrant families of her mother and father, and was part of the Voogd extended family. Though her financial status declined in the years following Richard’s death, her links within the community and the church continued. Her children were older, too, so her needs for support differed from her mother-in-law with her young boys. Bena’s children, especially her daughter Beulah, became part of her support network.
Neva, the most fragile of these women, depended heavily on the women around her. Her sister Hazel was an important support, living two blocks away, and serving as the center of family gatherings and interactions. With five brothers, all married and with children of their own, the family connections and interconnections within the town and nearby farms provided childcare, travel companions, and help with typical auto and house problems. While her quirky ways tended toward isolation, the family as a whole served to keep her connected.
I tended to romanticize my grandmother Neva and grand-aunts Hazel, and Beulah, imagining them as happy, independent, and capable. While they were all of that, at some level, each of them, and I have no doubt Bena and Bina as well, had their share of loneliness, heartbreak, fear of the future, and challenges around children, finances, and managing in difficult circumstances.
Women became matriarchs in the Voogd family in three consecutive generations. While the details of their lives varied, critical factors led to this identity; most importantly, each faced the death of her husband from early, unexpected illness. Unlike many widowed women of their times, they each chose not to marry again. Their situations offered limited options, often disrupting the lives the family had known. They exhibited independence, resourcefulness, and, especially with Grandma Voogd and Mother Voogd, an unbending will. They also counted upon their children as they aged, and created expectations that shaped the children’s experiences as well. And sometimes grief and loneliness continued, as each woman carried on for her children, while holding on to what she could of an earlier time.
Sharlene Voogd Cochrane grew up in Nebraska, but “always felt I was from Iowa.” She teaches in the self-designed master’s degree at Lesley University, and is currently writing a series of stories based on a collection of her Iowa grandmother’s letters. She also facilitates Courage and Renewal retreats for educators and recently published “Courage in the Academy: Sustaining the Heart of College and University Faculty” in the Journal of Faculty Development.