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John Lake Overturf (1850-1911) & Alzina Mehetabel Sheldon (1853-1928)
John Lake Overturf tells about his early life
John Lake Overturf was born in Bennington Township, Licking County, Ohio, within a half mile of where his father, Simon Fuller Overturf, had been born, two and a half miles southwest of Appleton and three and a half miles northeast of Johnstown, on 25 Sep 1850, on his father's farm in sight of his maternal grandfather Jesse Lake's farm to the east. Their cabin stood up from the road to the east on the highest ground on the farm; there was a good well nearby, a log stable, and a shed down by the road.
In the picture at the right, John Lake Overturf (left) sits with his younger brother, James Milton (right). There were only three brothers in the family, but George (the third brother) died at the age of 18. John and James had four sisters; they were thirteen years apart in age.
John Lake wrote about his early childhood in 1909, two years before his death:
I was born in Northwest Licking County Ohio...on my grandfather's farm where we resided until I was 13 years old.
I attended school first in an old log house on the west bank of a sluggish stream called Bold Run. We had slabs for seats. A board laid on pins driven in the wall served as a desk, and when the pupils wanted to write they would have to swing around with their faces to the wall.
I attended school in this old house two or three terms. I think it was in 1856 or 1857 that our new frame house was built. It was late in the season when the house was finished plastering as much as possible. A man by the name of Nathan Duke was our teacher. On account of the dampness of the room and the intense cold on the outside, the teacher and all the pupils caught very bad colds, which retarded the progress of the school considerably and finally the teacher was taken down with lung fever and had to give up school.
At that time and for several years after, and in fact as long as I went to school, teachers were 'boarded around.' That is, they would board a week at one place and then on to the next, and if they got once around before the school was out they would start on the second round. These were great times for us children when the teacher would come to our house to board."
A Change: The Family Heads West and Ends up in Illinois
At the age of 16, John left Ohio with his parents, Simon Fuller and Minerva Lake Overturf and moved to Knox County, Illinois. (Map courtesy of Wikipedia.)
Again, John Lake tells of his experience in his own words:
In the spring of 1862, father sold out and on the 22nd of September, 1863, we moved onto a rented place about four miles from there. A man by the name of Jacob Van Fassen owned the place. It was just one mile from Hartford, Ohio. My brother, Jim, was born there on December 5, 1863.
We lived there until September 22, 1866, when we started for Keokuk County, Iowa, where father's brother Jim had gone six years before. We landed in Knox County, Illinois, on the 14th of October, 1866, having been on the road three weeks, when we met my mother's half-sister, Aunt Mary Ann Kelso, 'Grandpa Corbin', and Dr. Sheldon [future father-in-law]. Of course, they wanted us to stop there. Father didn't want to but finally they prevailed upon him enough that he agreed to leave his teams and family there until he could go on up to Iowa, and see if the opportunity for a poor man was any better than Illinois, and if not, he and Mother had made up their minds to stop there. (Map of Knox County, Illinois, courtesy of Wikipedia.)
Father took the train at Knoxville, Illinois, and went to Burlington, where he still had to ferry the river, and found that he could not get to Sigourney, Iowa, by rail. The nearest point was at Washington about 30 miles east of there, and the only way he could get that near was to go up the river to some point and then west to Washington. The connections were very poor so he gave it up and came back.”
Trying to make a go of it
John “rented Grandpa Sheldon's farm for the ensuing year, and they gave up part of their house [for us] to live in. We had the kitchen and [the] upstairs, and they had the balance of the house. Everything went along nicely that fall and winter, but the inevitable came as it always does and always will when two families try to live in one house, and sometime in April we moved into a little house 3/4 of a mile from there which belonged to a man named Eldridge.
“In the meantime, father had bought 80 acres of land, but there were no improvements on it. He built a house and we moved into it in the same fall, 1867. We broke out some [of the land] and fenced it in the spring of 1868 and father and mother lived there until the fall of 1887 when they moved to Johnson County, Nebraska, where they resided until mother's death in 1904."
John marries Alzina Sheldon on 19 Jan 1869
John Lake Overturf and Alzina Mehetabel Sheldon were married on 19 Jan 1869 in Knoxville, Knox County, Illinois. John was 19 and Alzina was just 16. The photograph at the left may not have been taken at the time of their marriage.
Alzina was born on 10 July 1853, in Appleton, Licking County, Ohio. She was the only surviving child of her parents, Dr. and Mrs. Lewis W. Sheldon, who were from Vermont and Virginia. When Alzina was ill, her parents had emigrated by wagon to Knoxville County, Illinois.
For four years, John and Alzina tried to make a living in Illinois. John wrote his own account of their struggles:
"When we were married I did not have enough to 'set up' housekeeping, so I worked for Grandpa Sheldon [his father-in-law] until the fall of 1869. By that time I had earned $60.00. I rented land from a man by the name of Wyman for the next year but there wasn't any house on it, but he said if I would furnish my own house and dig a well, when I left the place I could remove the house or he would pay me first cost for it, at my discretion.
"So I bought an old log house of Jerry Wallack's for $50.00 per annum to pay for it. I got a bunch of the neighbors one day and tore it down and moved it. When I got things ready, the neighbors came one day and 'raised' it for me. And then it took two or three weeks to 'chuck and daub' it. Father helped me in this a great deal but we finally got it done.”
Determined to make it, they keep trying
"I went to town with what I had left of my $60.00 and bought a cook stove for $29.00 and the few things we had to have. By the way, I waited my chance and bought at sales, a table for 50 cents, a bedstead for 50 cents, and at last the great day came when we 'moved in' and started housekeeping. We talk of the present high prices. The things we had to eat and buy to wear at that time were very high too, and labor much cheaper than now.
“To give you an idea, I took a job in the winter of 1869 and 1870 of making 1000 rails at $1.00 per hundred and he paid me in wheat at $1.10 per bushel. So, you see, I had to make 110 rails for a bushel of wheat. Hogs were $9.00 per cwt., corn 75 cents per bushel. Groceries: we got 9 lbs. of sugar for a $1.00 and other things in about the same proportion. Grandpa Sheldon had given me a horse and Wyman said he would let me have a horse to work for a year if I would winter it. So I cut some hay on shares and cut 12 acres of corn and husked it for 3/4ths of the fodder. And that is the way we got our first team to work.
"I put in my first crop in the spring of 1870, consisting of 16 acres of corn (which I tended with a double shovel and a single horse) and 7 acres of oats, which were so poor when harvest came I could not afford to hire them cut with a reaper, so I bought a cardle for $3.00 and cut them myself and father bound them for me, and my landlord took 1/3rd of them in the stack instead of in the bushel.
"We lived on that place until the fall of 1872 when I bought 40 acres of Grandpa Sheldon's farm for $750 on contract with a bond for a deed. I put in a cellar under the house, built a good wagon shed, put a picket fence around the garden, and built considerable other new fences, cleared and broke considerable of the land; but I was never able to pay more than the interest and taxes (I was paying 10% interest).
"In the spring of 1877 Grandpa [Sheldon] took the land off my hands and paid me $250 for the improvements I had made. In the meantime, or to be more exact, on January 20th, I bought 80 acres of land that adjoined the 40. I paid $1,000 for it at 10% and borrowed all the money from Jake Ackerman to pay for it. I gave him my note for $800 due in five years, secured by a mortgage on the land. I also gave him my note with personal security for $200 during the first three years.
"I made 5,000 rails and fenced it the first spring I had it. I used it for pasture the first year, and the second year I broke 16 acres of it and put in corn. That same fall, 1877, I sold out for $1300. The fellow gave me $500 in cash and assumed the mortgage.”
Onward to Nebraska!
"We made all possible haste and on October 3, 1877, we started for Nebraska. Our worldly belongings amounted to four horses, one wagon and harness, our bedding, and $160. We drove overland, arriving in Johnson County, Nebraska, on October 24, 1877. I rented a farm but could not get possession until spring. We rented a house to winter in and I went to work. We managed to exist until we raised a crop. Three and a half years from that time we had 160 acres of land and had it paid for besides building a shanty on it."
It is difficult to know what John meant about the shanty. There is some dispute among family members about when the big farmhouse was actually built, ranging from 1890 to 1893. It is possible that it was begun in 1890 and not finished until 1893. In any event, the "shanty" mentioned in John's biography is probably a preliminary structure they built prior to 1893 and can be seen as a smaller house in some pictures. Those who visited the family in the early years admitted that they were very crowded in the shanty. In 1887, John's parents, Simon Fuller and Minerva Lake Overturf, joined the family in Nemaha County. They purchased and worked a farm "down the road" from John and Alzina's place.
For a period of four or five years, from about 1893 to 1898, the family circle was the largest and the home was big enough for all of them. "During those years Father and Mother and nine children usually sat down to a well-loaded table in the spacious dining room; and holiday time was a great joy. In addition to the family regularly at home during these particular days, the older ones would return with their children, and the grandparents would come, making a total often times of 25 to 30."
A large, loving family
John and Alzina had fourteen children born to them, three who died at birth. They were:
- Etta Minerva b. 11 July 1869 in Knoxville, Knox County, Illinois d. 1959
- Ida Dell b. 23 Apr 1871 in Knoxville, Knox County, Illinois d. 1953
- William Fuller b. 14 Feb 1874 in Knoxville, Knox County, Illinois d. 1936
- John Horton b. 7 Nov 1875 in Knoxville, Knox County, Illinois d. 1957
- Emma Tryphena b. 19 Feb 1878 in Elk Creek, Nemaha, Nebraska d. 1901
- Charles Elmus b. 12 May 1880 in Elk Creek, Nemaha, Nebraska d. 1966
- Harley James b. 16 Apr 1882 in Elk Creek, Nemaha, Nebraska d. 1974
- Jesse Ray b. 9 Apr 1884 in Elk Creek, Nemaha, Nebraska
- Tress Jay b. 9 Apr 1884 in Elk Creek, Nemaha, Nebraska (died in infancy)
- George Edwin b. 20 Apr 1886 in Elk Creek, Nemaha, Nebraska d. 1949 2
- Elbert Franklin b. 25 Mar 1888 in Elk Creek, Nemaha, Nebraska d. 1969
- Mrytle Tamson b. 19 Jan 1891 in Elk Creek, Nemaha, Nebraska d. 1977
- Ellen Merle b. 10 Mar 1893 (died in infancy) in Elk Creek, Nemaha, Nebraska d. 1894
- baby boy b. 17 Mar 1896 in Elk Creek, Nemaha, Nebraska d. 1896
Alzina was only 16 years old when her first child, Etta Minerva, was born in 1869. Over the next six years, while still in Illinois, she gave birth to Ida, William, and John. These four children were only eight, six, three, and two when they travelled overland to Nebraska, and Alzina was also five months pregnant. After arriving in October of 1877, Alzina gave birth roughly every two years for the next twenty years: Emma when she was 25, Charles when she was 27, Harley when she was 29, Jesse and Tress when she was 31, George when she was 33, Elbert when she was 35, Mrytle when she was 38. By then the family home was built and in her 40th and 43rd year, she lost two children in childbirth, Ellen in 1893 and an infant son in 1896.
Twice, the brothers got together and had their photograph taken.
In the photograph above, taken in 1896, they are, left to right:
- Charles Elmus (Charley)
- Elbert Franklin (Frank)
- John Horton
- Jesse Ray
- Harley James (Jim)
- George Edwin
- William Fuller (Will)
Emma’s Death devastated the Family
Despite the loss of three children in infancy, eleven children reached adulthood. Emma was lost to them at the age of 23 (in 1901), however, of typhoid fever.
Recently, cousins of George Edwin Overturf Jr. [grandson of John and Alzina], gave him a daytime record book which had belonged to John Lake Overturf. It measures 4” x 7” x 3/4” and covers 1900 to 1904. The book was given to him by his daughter, Emma, and his wife.
Below are his entries during the time of Emma’s illness and subsequent death:
At this time, Emma was staying with her oldest sister, Etta, and her husband, Charley Smith, on a farm near a town called Nora in Nebraska in Nuckolls County (about five counties west of Elk Creek). The first hint of a problem comes in the August 18th entry:
- August 18th: No word from Em.
- Aug 21, 1901: Got telegram at 9:15 PM. Started for Nuckoll Co. at 11:15 PM. Drifting rain.
- Aug 22 Thurs. Arrived at Superior 6:20 AM and at Charley’s at 8. Found Emma very bad but she recognised me.
- Aug 23 Friday. No change in Emma’s condition. Was at Nora for the mail and to write to the children
- Aug 24 Sat. We put in our time nursing Emma. Her fever about the same, but she grows weaker, very warm.
- Aug 25 Sun. An anxious day. Emma not feeling so well this afternoon. Her spells of delirium are longer.
- Aug 26 Mon. I went to Nelson with Charley Epley. Emma is worse.
- Aug 27 Tues. The doctor came at 12 AM. Emma gradually getting worse. Sent for Doctor Buffington, arrived at 4:30 AM. Charley went after him.
- Aug 28 Wed. Emma seems a little better than last night but very weak. I go to Nora every day to send news to children.
- Aug 29 Thurs. Emma about the same. Only moments of consciousness are shorter. She talks constantly in her delirium.
- Aug 30 Friday. Emma was worse this morning. Went after Mrs. Downing at 2:00 AM and sent to Nora for Mrs. Rice.
- Aug 31 Sat. Emma no better, our hopes grow fainter as the days go by.
- Sept 1 Sun. Emma getting weaker. I wired to the children today as there was no mail. John got here at 5:00 PM.
- Sept 2 Mon. Emma very bad. Have given up all hopes of her recovery but doing everything we can to alleviate her suffering.
- Sept 3 Tues. Emma grew worse about midnight. We went after Mrs. Downing and sent after Mrs. Rice. She grew worse and breathed her last at 10:30 AM.
- Sept 4 Wed. We started for Nelson at 7:15 AM. Got there at 8:25. Undertake sealed coffin and we were just ready to take train at 9:13 for Elk Creek.
- Sept 5 Thurs. Funeral services held at house at 10:00 AM. Repaired to cemetery immediately after and layed the precious remains to rest.
- Sept 6 Friday. Charley and Edith went home today.
John Lake Overturf helplessly watched his daughter die over the course of 15 days and then buried her.
Children’s Memories of their parents
The remaining ten children created a loyal and devoted family to their parents. When the children were older, John, the fourth child and third son, and Ida, the second daughter and the second child, wrote about their parents:
"[I] remember Mother refusing money for meals and father refusing pay for hay and grains....Alzina visited her children annually during her later life and read The Deep Woods People, and similar books, to her small grandchildren. Her enjoyment of life to the last was of the fullest and sanest sort....
“They both had the sterling virtues of remembering and cherishing old friends. We older children remember that they were often called from their rest at night to aid the sick. Well do I remember that for one whole week, Father was gone every night to stay with Mr. Hitzeman when his leg was so terribly shat- tered. And also I remember when I told Mr. Hitzemann of Father's passing to his reward the tears streamed down his cheeks and he was unable to speak.
"...as children and young people, they were both friendly and agreeable. Hospitality and generosity flowed strong in the characters of both. The great migration from the Eastern states and from European countries that flowed for several years past their door in the 1880s was part of the greatest folk movement the world has ever witnessed. We remember the campfires in the old barnyard, the shifting of stock in our none-too-roomy barns to accommodate tired horses, the making of beds on the floor when inclement weather drove women and children to the house. We remember also that often repeated saying, 'We haven't very good accommodations but to such as they are, you are welcome.'" [John Horton Overturf]
"Mother was the most wonderful woman in her own personal way I ever knew. Her capacity for thinking of and doing for others and still care for all her own responsibilities could have but one source, a spiritual source. I loved to hear her sing the old hymns as she worked. Father was so kind and gentle while we worked side by side at chores and in the field, always making our tasks easier with encouraging words, cheerfulness and now and then a song. He loved music. I still can hear that wonderful voice." [Ida Overturf]
In 1908, the boys again posed for a photograph. They are, from left to right:
- Harley James
- George Edwin
- Elbert Franklin
- William Fuller
- Charles Elmus
- John Horton (front)
- Jesse Ray (behind)
Overturf Family Life
John was the Director of the Elk Creek School. A souvenir from the school shows his position as director and lists many of the Overturf children who attended. In June of 1908, Alzina went to Bird City, Kansas, perhaps to visit their son, Charles, and his wife.
According to family legend, one visiting relative the children didn't particularly appreciate was Aunt Jane Corbin, oldest sister of John. She had been born in 1850, married, and moved to a farm in Kansas. She was not popular with her brother's family because she would come to stay for too long and expected to be waited on like a queen. She wouldn't help the girls in the kitchen. On one of her extended visits, she complained over and over again about an old and sick dog of the family which all the kids had loved dearly. The dog lay on the porch gathering flies and Aunt Jane complained once too often to one of the boys as he crossed the porch with a shotgun on his way to go hunting. The family legend says, he grabbed the dog by the hind leg, threw him into the air, and shot him. The dog hit the ground dead and the boy kept walking (no one knows — or is willing to tell, perhaps — which one of the seven brothers it was). Aunt Jane went screaming into the house and packed her bags and left.
John Reveals his Beliefs
John Lake wrote the following about his religious and political beliefs:
"I believe that there is a god and that He is the creator of all things, and that He holds the destiny of every human being in His hands, but at the same time I believe He has made a general law governing the world and to a great extent the salvation of every soul is in his own hands, by complying with this general law or rejecting it.
"In the winter of 1869 and 1870 I professed Religions and joined the Christian Church and for a few years took quite an active part in church work, but after we came to Nebraska I have never been affiliated with any church. I have no sympathy with church creeds, dogmas and formalities, socials and all the modern ways of replenishing the treasury of the church. I am afraid if Christ were to visit the earth at this time He would find most of the Synagogues in the hands of money changers.
"In politics I have always been a Democrat, but not of the ilk of the 27 so-called Democrats who voted for the Payne-Aldrech Tariff Bill. The first opportunity I had to vote for presidential electors was in the fall of 1872. Grant was the Republican candidate and Horace Greeley was nominated by what was the called the Liberal Republicans and endorsed by the Democrats. I couldn't vote for either, although Grandfather Lake pleaded with me to vote for Greeley. While he said Greeley wasn't his choice, he thought anything would be better than Grant.
"So my first ballot cast for president was for Samuel J. Tilden in 1876 (whom we elected but they stole it from us). I voted for the regular Democratic nominees from then on until Cleveland's second nomination when I could not reconcile his and John G. Carlyl's policies with Democratic ideas, and I could not vote the Republican ticket, so did not vote that time. I turned down Alton B. Parker; I cannot and will not vote for a plutocrat and against the common people."
The Final Years
John and Alzina lived in Elk Creek, Nebraska, for twenty-eight years. Towards the end of their time there, in about 1904, John's father, Simon Fuller Overturf, came to live with them after his wife, Minerva, died and stayed for almost six years. In 1909, John and Alzina were forced to move to Bird City, Kansas, due to John's ill health. At that time, Simon Fuller stayed in the Elk Creek area, living with some of his grandchildren.
John Lake died at 4:30 a.m. (according to a telegram sent by J.R. Overturf to one of the other children) on January 5, 1911, in Bird City, Kansas.
The following article is from the newspaper in Bird City, Kansas:
A Prominent and Highly Respected Citizen Dies at His Home Near Bird City THE REMAINS TAKEN TO NEBRASKA FOR INTERMENT Universal Sympathy for the Bereaved Family
John L. Overturf was born in Licking County, Ohio, September 25, 1850. At the age of 16 years he removed with his parents to Knox County, Illinois, where two years later, January 19, 1869, he was united in marriage to Alzina M. Sheldon with whom he lived continuously until death separated them.
In 1877 they came west with four small children and all their earthly belongings in a wagon and settled in Nemaha County, Nebraska. Thirty years were spent on the same farm where the rest of the children were reared.
June 29, 1909, was the date of his departure from the old place which he loved, to search for health. He visited different parts of Colorado and New Mexico with no avail. When on March 10, 1910, he came to his farm at Bird City and courageously awaited the inevitable.
The family consisted of 14 children, 9 boys and 5 girls, four of these have preceded him in death, two boys and two girls all dying in infancy except a daughter at the age of 23 with typhoid fever in 1901. These are W.F. of Holdrege, Nebraska, C.E. and E.F. of Bird City, J.H. and Mrs. Ida Tibbets of Elk Creek, Nebraska, Mrs. Tamson Jacka of Tecumseh, Nebraska, Mrs. Etta Smith of Nora, Nebraska, G.E. of Hastings, Nebraska, J.R. of Loomis, Nebraska, and H.J. of Bend, Oregon.
He departed this life January 5, 1911, at 1 o'clock a.m. Funeral services were conducted at the M.E. Church Friday at 1 o'clock by Rev. J.R. Creamer assisted by Rev. G.W. Kearns, after which the remains were taken to Elk Creek,Nebraska, for internment. The remains were accompanied by Mrs. J.S. Overturf, C.E. Overturf and family, E.F. Overturf and wife, and W.F. Overturf. The sincere sympathy of the entire community is extended to Mrs. Overturf and children in this sad hour of bereavement.
From another newspaper, probably in or near Elk Creek, Nebraska:
Readers of this paper will no doubt be greatly surprised and pained to learn of the death of Hon. John L. Overturf, although for the past two or three years he was known to be in failing health. Mr. Overturf had been a prominent citizen in Johnson and Nemaha counties, having served Nemaha county as one of her official board some years, and not long since was the nominee of the people of Johnson and Nemaha counties for float representative. He stood high in the esteem of all acquaintances, and his death is deeply deplored.
After John's death in 1911, Alzina continued to reside in Bird City, Kansas until her death on August 19, 1928 (age 75 years, 1 month, 9 days). She was buried at Mt. Zion Cemetery at Elk Creek. All of her children were at her side during her illness except William of Wellington, Ohio. She was a widow for seventeen years.
The following is her obituary:
Alzina M. Sheldon was born in Hartford, Ohio, on July 10, 1853, of parents from Vermont and Virginia. In 1864, when she was 11 years old, her parents removed by emigrant wagon to Knox County, Illinois. Here, in 1869, she was united in marriage to John Lake Overturf whose parents had emigrated from Ohio in 1866. In Knox County, Illinois, their first four children were born, and with them they came to Nebraska in 1877.
After three years of residence northeast of Elk Creek, they moved to the farm east of Elk Creek known as the Overturf place and there resided for 28 years. Here the entire family grew to manhood and womanhood and from this, the old home place, started on their independent career in the world. On account of Mr. Overturf's failing health, they removed to Bird City in 1909 where he died January 5, 1911. After a temporary residence with her children for five years, she built her own home at Bird City in 1916 where she resided until the date of her death August 19, 1928, aged 75 years, 1 month, and 9 days. At the age of 15, Mrs. Overturf became a member of the Christian Church in Knox County, Illinois, and at the time of her death was a member of the Methodist Church at Bird City, Kansas.
As a last tribute to her, her children wish to say that she lived a useful and sacrificial life and that she was a true mother in the highest degree. "We do not say, we cannot say that she is dead; She's just away to a better land. With a cheery smile and a wave of the hand. That has left us thinking how very fair It needs must be since she is there." The many friends of the sons and daughters of their children extend to them heartfelt sympathy during their hour of great sorrow.
Some of this information comes from Dorothy Cunningham after researching the German ancestry of the Overturf family. She wrote about it in The Overturf Family, published in 1988 and revised in 1995.
[This page researched and written by Susan Overturf Ingraham, a descendant of John and Alzina. Page last updated on January 10, 2015.]