A May Day Tragedy in 1892


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.

Autograph Book

“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.
Laura Jordan.”


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.

minnie4 (3)

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.

CA VanHarten autograph

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.”








  1. Such a sad story, and eerie that your great grandmother used the same poem in your autograph book. How appropriate that you were the one to piece Minnie Belle’s story together.

    • I was amazed at it, too, the way that the autograph books and the old stories and clippings came together with a genealogy chart. Minnie Belle Goff isn’t forgotten.

  2. Such a moving story and lasting tribute to your lost relative Minnie Goff. Makes you wonder whether Charles Van Harten underestimated the river’s power because he was not from the area. I inherited a similar autograph book that was my maternal great-grandmother’s, and you have inspired me to take another look at the entries in it to see what stories they tell. Look forward to reading more posts in a future Genealogy Blog Party.

  3. What a sad story! Her death came way too soon. I’m so glad that you have some mementos of her life, and that you’ve remembered her so dearly in this post. I also have an autograph book from my great-aunt, who didn’t have any children. I’m encouraged to take a closer look at the autographs in her little book!

    • Thank you, EvaAnne. Someone else answered that she’s going to take another look at her great grandmother’s autograph book. At least Minnie Belle Goff won’t be forgotten.

  4. Oh, such a sad end to her life. It’s wonderful that you are keeping her memory alive this way.

    • A younger brother also died of pneumonia after riding a horse home after a winter dance where he’d become overheated. Out of six children, only the two older brothers survived. And only Sherd Goff married and had a family.

  5. What a wonderful tribute to Minnie Belle. I agree with your thought that repeating the poem with the omission of the last lines might well have been done on purpose.

  6. Such a beautifully-written tribute to a young life cut short by tragedy. It’s so good that you’re able to keep Minnie’s memory alive.

  7. Good detective work. So much of genealogy for me is detective work, or completing a jigsaw puzzle that has lots of missing pieces.

    • It was such fun to be able to do this with my mother. While she was still living, we spent time at the Iowa State Historical Building, going through microfilm of old newspaper clippings, puttering around the gravel roads of Guthrie County, and poring over old photos of her mother and her grandmother. Poignant days.

  8. Such a tragic end and poignantly related in your fine storytelling style. That really is interesting about the nearly matching autographs. Very woo woo indeed. I think she deliberately left off those last lines.

  9. What a sad family story told beautifully! Her photograph is really wonderful – so many details in the dress itself. The autograph book really tells her story too. What a wonderful detailed newspaper article to round out all the information, I am so glad you found it!

    • Minnie’s second brother, Sherd Goff, was the only one of the six children to marry and have children! I’m a descendant of Sherd, who was my mother’s grandfather.

  10. Thank you for reading my post. What a tragic story. Minnie was so young to lose her life by drowning. To actually have the autograph book and newspaper account must have brought the sad tale even closer.

    • Her brother Sherd (Milton Sheridan) was the only one of the six siblings to marry and have a family. So thankful that Minnie is being remembered!

  11. She was such a lovely young lady! I have the autograph books of two aunts Roberta and Mary Kennedy and I love them! Now with all the social media it’s hard to believe that there was a time when your autograph book was sometimes all you had to remember your friends!

  12. Oh, how very sad. According to the news clipping she was heading to the T (Thomas) Coleman school. I know it was located on his farm, through which Beaver Creek also flowed. This farm & former school were in our family for over a century. I had never heard this story.

    • Thank you for adding this information. Only the two oldest Goff sons lived into old age, although Sherd died in 1930. He was the only one to marry and have children. At least that’s what I believed until recently. Turns out that the oldest brother, Ed Goff, fathered a daughter.

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