A Shadowy Narrative

The Story Of Great-Grandmother Ida Hendrickson Johnson

The Hendrickson farm Backanas, in Jonkoping, Smaland, Sweden. Photo credits by Gosta Hedstrom, family archives and Sandy Robison

Many of us have unfinished histories of our families who came from other lands. That is true for my family, particularly on the Johnson side. I know little about my paternal great grandmother, and it troubles me. It’s no surprise my Johnson aunts kept the family stories close; that was their nature. But my father, on the other hand, was the story teller, the family narrator. He told us all the family stories rich with details of scent, sound, light and shadow.

But he told us no stories of Ida Hendrickson Johnson, not one. What I know from my own genealogical digging is that her name was Ida Charlotta Hendrickson, born Oct. 10, 1858, in Backanas, Kolingared parish in South Sweden, and died in Jamestown 1934. This city of 120,000 sits on the southern shore of Lake Vattern. The photo I have of the house and barn tells me the Hendricksons were farmers and proud ones. The architecture and beauty of family home in Smaland, Southern Sweden, remains today. It has stayed in the family this long, 150 years or more. The beautiful barn burned down last month, cousin Gosta wrote to say.

I can see from the family tree information that Ida loses her father when she is but six. She was born into a family of five brothers and one sister. Some years later, many of her siblings would emigrate to America at the same time. We have few photographs of her or of the family, but this is customary for the mid-1800s.

Cousin Gosta Hedstrom, who has Johnson relatives in Lakewood, lives in Jonkoping, Sweden. He visited family in Jamestown and Lakewood several times during the years 1970-2000. Now we see him on Facebook. Gosta is the great grandson of our great grandmother’s sister. He often stayed with my Aunt Marian Lager on Superior Street. She loved the family stories and enjoyed his company. About 20 years ago, our Swedish cousin compiled a 10-page genealogy about our families. On page eight, we see that my great grandmother Ida “had a daughter Helga Vilhelmina,” and was married to Johan Alfred Johansson in 1877. Early in their marriage, they lived with Ida’s mother in Olafsdal, so the mother must have left the farm at Backanas by this point. Ida and J. Alfred’s second child, a boy named Fritz, was born there in 1879.

From that, I can infer Ida and her little ones had a rocky start. It raises questions too about why her mother moved away from the farm. Poverty? Despair? Here was a widow with five sons and two daughters to care for somehow. Who knows what troubles they endured and challenges they faced?

The Johnson family circa 1890 with five of 10 children who lived to adulthood. Great-grandmother Ida Hendrickson Johnson is on the right with a baby on her lap.

Within the same year, with what would become his integral drive to success, J. Alfred moved his little family to Jonkoping where they lived at Lilla Limugnen until they emigrated to America in 1888. A son Ernest, born 1880, died at the age of four. In Jonkoping, Ida bore two more sons, my grandfather Bernard Nils called Ben by all of us, and Carl Johan called Charlie. Sons Oskar, Arthur and Clarence were born after the young couple reached the states followed by three sisters, Bertha and Alfrida whom we knew as “Dolla,” all born in Moline, Indiana. On a page of white paper in type, it reads Brother, 1896, dead. Sister, 1897, dead. Jamestown. The final child was Gladys, born August, 1902. Ida would have been 46. She had borne 13 children, 10 who lived to be adults in the world. The baby Gladys died in 1933. Ida died shortly thereafter. J. Alfred followed within the year.

Gosta writes that my aunt told him that “J. Alfred had worked for Ida’s sister and brothers on the farm. Briefly, Ida’s husband worked at a match factory there too as he is listed as a worker.” But in the United States, J. Alfred, whose name became Americanized as John Alfred Johnson, made a fine living as a building contractor here in Jamestown. He leased and sold buildings; he built them too, one of them the big brick building at the corner of Newland and Forest. His signature is etched in concrete and brick there. He built several houses on upper Newland, including all houses on the 700 block, and upper Barrett too. One house on Newland he built for my grandfather Ben and his Finnish bride Martha.

Ultimately, the family and friends called him the King of Barrett Avenue, a title he seems to have enjoyed. He owned land in Florida which he sold at a profit. When the stock market crashed, J. Alfred was fine. His money was in property. He owed no bills. We know this as fact because our grandfather, son Ben, kept the family books.

The point is, J. Alfred was in charge of everything. He was tall and dressed in a suit and hat. His wooden cane tapped out his walk. There was no brooking him. His daughters did not marry or leave home until he died in 1935, two years after their sister Gladys died. Nearby, he built every house on the 700 block, among others throughout Jamestown but particularly on the South side where he felt most at home. He lived in some of them at different times. He gave them to his children, one by one, as they married and wanted to move away.

We are not sure why he chose Jamestown, New York. We know J. Alfred and his wife Ida first moved to Moline, Illinois, because several of her brothers were there. They did not stay long in Moline though her brothers did. In Jamestown, ultimately, the family moved to upper Barrett Avenue, on the top of the hill. He liked the top of that hill on Jamestown’s South side. Ben and Martha lived in the house next door, so their children — my father Ray, his sisters Helen, Marian and Jane — must have seen their grandparents daily. Yet we have no stories of this time period. We have no beautiful stories of visiting grandma Ida or eating at her table, of sitting on grandpa J. Alfred’s knee. No. We know only that Ida, once a blond beauty, grew sore and crippled by arthritis, moved her bed downstairs to the dining room, and stayed there. The only direct image I have of my great grandmother is one conveyed by my Aunt Jane Larson. She said, in late life Ida spent her days sitting in a chair, looking out the dining room window. Perhaps she was too ill to move. We do not know.

Jonkoping, Smaland, Sweden, circa 1870. Photo courtesy of Jonkoping website.

And so my thoughts turn to my great grandmother Ida, who endured 13 births and raised 10 children. Generations of women endured the same, before and after. I empathize with her lost beauty as time took its toll. She faded into the shadows of family history. We shall never know what kind of cake she liked or how she baked her chicken, what her expressions were, how she used language. Her children grew up kind and strong, if Ben is any indication. That says something.

Now she rests in the Southwest corner, first plot, of the Lake View Cemetery next to her husband in line with most of her children all in a row. My cousin Martha and I like to visit them from time to time. We trim the evergreen shrub. When people have lots of stories about them, they’re interesting; when people have none, it’s tragic. Something was missing; something was amiss. So great grandma Ida, I sing your song now, as much as I know of it.

And so like so many others, my great grandmother’s story is unfinished and incomplete. Her sorrows and her joys remain in the shadows. As we do with our immigrant forebearers, we know something drove them from their homelands to the dream of America. Maybe they found it, that dream. We can’t know more about Ida. Everyone who knew the details is gone. We must gather up what we have and hold it in our hearts.

Jonkoping, Smaland, Sweden.

Johnson cemetery plot at Lakeview Cemetery.