Using old plat maps, Mom and I think we’ve found where the old Patterson ford used to be. A bridge crosses the South Beaver now. We try to imagine it with no gravel road. And water rising in the dark. Her beau probably urging his reluctant team into the water. It probably happened so quickly.
It’s a century-old May Day tragedy. It’s the poignant tale itself. . . but there’s also a beguiling link to my childhood.
“Just who was it that drowned in the Nishnabotna?” was my question that eventually lead to the soft red gravel of Guthrie County, Iowa’s back roads.
“Minnie Goff,” Mom replied. “My grandfather’s only sister.”
“What do you know about it?”
“Well, Minnie’s beau–as they called it back then–was taking her back to where she boarded while teaching country school. For some reason, her parents didn’t approve of this young man. When Minnie didn’t arrive, they began to search for them because there had been flooding. They found a horse’s leg sticking up out of the river that led to Minnie’s body, and I suppose the boyfriend’s, too. That’s all I remember my mother telling about it. I have Minnie’s autograph book around here somewhere.”
She brought out a small black leather book, with “Autographs” artfully swirled in silver on the cover.
“You can have it if you want it.”
That’s how I came to be the caretaker of Millie Bell Goff’s history, her tragedy from a long-ago May Day. 1892. She was almost 22.
I seem to be the one in the family who ends up with family tidbits that aren’t valuable. . . but sometimes are the only mementos validating a life here on earth. . . making the trinkets impossible to throw out.
Carefully I turn the pages. “Mom, listen. Here’s one written by Great Grandmother.”
“Monteith, Io[w]a, Sept. 29, ’88
Dear friend Minnie B-,
As the sunshine comes and goes,
And gives life to the blooming rose,
So may you through all your life
Pass with joy and as little strife
And when called from the world of woe
May you be prepared and willing to go.
Why did my great grandmother choose for a friend a poem with such a gloomy ending? Minnie would be “called from the world of woe” before either of them could have anticipated.
Another entry beginning “My Dear girl,” is signed, “Your Mother/Mrs. J.B. Goff.” Minnie’s mother. Florence Ione Goff, on my own genealogy chart–the one who said that if your initials spell a word, you’d be rich and famous, and she wondered why she wasn’t.
Florence Goff’s oldest son married Laura Jordan, friend and fellow teacher of his sister, Minnie. But just over two years later, Minnie was gone.
The story haunts me. I hunt through told newspapers on microfilm until I find where her 1892 drowning was reported. To my disappointment, the scene was Beaver Creek instead of the Nishnabotna, but now the young man of Minnie Belle’s affections has a name: Charles Van Harten. He was not from the area and, even according to the article, her family disapproved of their friendship.
In a drift along the creek, two men found a buggy cushion and a lady’s handbag. Downstream they found Van Harten’s body. Farther down, the lifeless young teacher lay in mud against the opposite bank. Still farther were the buggy and the team–one horse still alive, just its head sticking out of the stream.
Minnie was twenty.
When I thumb through Minnie’s autograph book again, I recognize another signature: CAVanHarten. Minnie’s beau.
Minnie’s mother would save the little black and silver book nearly four more decades. I wonder if she realized his signature was in it.
I also find my own autograph book from the 1950s. My great grandmother wrote on one of the pastel pages August 9, 1956:
“As the sunshine comes and goes,
And gives life to the blooming rose,”
. . . . I begin to recognize it. . . .
“So may you thru all your life,
Pass with love and as little strife.
Great Grandma, Laura A. Goff”
I reach for Minnie’s book again. I catch my breath. It’s the same poem–but without those haunting last two lines. Had Laura, at nearly 88 years of age, just forgotten them? Or was she afraid they had been a premonition of Minnie’s death six decades earlier, and decided not to include them in mine.
After Minnie’s mother died, her sister-in-law Laura Jordan Goff saved Minnie’s keepsakes. Then her daughter, then my mother.
But because I’m the one who wonders, who asks the questions, I became the caretaker of the bits and pieces of Minnie Goff‘s life. . . and of her over 100-year-old tragedy.
And the ponderer of that intriguing link between her autograph book and mine.
Published in The Des Moines Sunday Register, April 27, 1997.
Note: Teresa Scar Fuston, a cousin’s daughter, who is a school teacher, now owns Minnie’s autograph book, as well as her “teacher’s watch.”