Tapping our roots at family reunions

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The grandchildren of George Whitaker and Fanny Mae Cunningham Hazlett held a reunion at the Farmersburg Community Center on Saturday, June 27. George and Mae were the parents of Irwin Hazlett, Wilma Schlitter, Merlie Henkes, Frances Fuelling, Jane Coffman, Dolly Wirkler and Bill Hazlett. Of the 21 grandchildren, seven are deceased: Edgar Hazlett, Jim Hazlett, Norma Grahn, Pat Towers, Dan Coffman, Marilyn Gullickson and Margie Hazlett. Unable to attend: Shirley Jackson of Wilmington, Del., and Dean Hazlett of Clarksville, Tenn. Grandchildren attending the reunion: Carole and Jim Gerdes, Monona; Rollie Henkes, Monona; Polly Morrison, White Bear Lake, Minn.; Jannes DeCamp, Lombard, Ill.; Orrin Fuelling, Meridian, Miss.; Gene Fuelling, Oelwein; Quentin and Kathy Coffman, Eldridge; Toni Clow, Cedar Rapids; Bill and Kate Hazlett, Shellsburg; Mary and Larry Elgin, Cedar Rapids; Martha and Greg Fletcher, Independence; and Michele Van Wey, Farmersburg. Great-grandchildren attending: Lisa and Jeff Woodman, Monona; Jill Nathe, Brooklyn Park, Minn.; Teresa Coffman, Madison, Wis.; Tanya Clow, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.; Nathan, Melissa and Sage Clow, Cedar Rapids; Amanda and Joe Coates, Madison; Mackenzie and Graydon, Pleasant Hill; and Victoria and AJ Van Wey, Farmersburg. Also attending were the current owners of the Hazlett Family Farm, Lawrence and Janice Lotza. (Submitted photo)

An original plat map of township 95

By Rollie Henkes

Even if you weren’t “family,” I think you could have taken away something from the Hazlett family reunion last month, especially with respect to your roots and family tree.

Typical of such reunions, we enjoyed renewing connections over coffee and a sumptuous potluck as we gathered at the Farmersburg Community Center. But as things went along, we learned even more about who we are. 

Teresa Coffman, granddaughter of Jane Hazlett, gave a Power Point presentation about Family Echo, a Wikipedia-like interactive genealogy website. Teresa told how it allows family members to enter biographical and other information, including photos, to build the family tree online. Any family can use the site as a do-it-yourself information center. Graphics allow your entries to be posted on the right branch of the family tree.  Family members can update information at any time. Password protected, the site is private and it’s free: www.familyecho.com.

Family Echo might be a good option for families in this digital age. Many of you, of course, are fortunate to have a keeper of the hardcopy histories and genealogy.   Polly Morrison, daughter of Merlie Hazlett, fills that role for us. She’s been compiling the family stories of Hazlett descendants ever since the first Hazlett reunion in 1996.  The 2015 edition contains the updated biographies and family photos of more than 50 first and second Hazlett cousins and their families, written and submitted through Polly’s persistent encouragement. Now at more than 150 pages, the book’s plastic binders allow new pages to be added as the families update their stories. Polly offers a digital edition as a pdf.

But to really understand who we are, our stories need to be rooted in the stories of our ancestors. In the book, you read that I grew up on a family farm in Gooding Township, graduated from Monona High School in 1953 and went on to a career as an agricultural journalist---and so on. But my history pales next to that of my great-grandfather, George Hazlett.  In 1845, he sailed from Ireland with his parents and younger siblings on a voyage that took six weeks, during which his father died. He made his way to northeastern Iowa to become a pioneer settler; he bought 40 acres from the U.S. government in 1849 and felled trees on the land to build a cabin for his mother and siblings. Once they were settled, he took off for California in the early 1850s. He “mined the miners” during the Gold Rush by running an eatery; he then trekked back to Iowa, often on foot, with his pockets full of enough gold to buy more land. He went on to become one of the community’s leading farmers and citizens, while raising a family.  

Variations of the story appear in many family histories whether your ancestors came from Ireland, Germany, Scandinavia or other countries to improve their lot. They personify the true grit of our pioneer ancestors, who from Iowa’s prairies and woodlands built the beginnings of the Iowa we know today.  

None of our stories would be complete without the sad chapter about the fate of the Winnebago, Meskwaki, Sauk and other tribes that our people displaced from their homelands so we could create ours.     

The farmstead of the Hazlett farm stands at the intersection of B-45 and Suttle Creek Road between Monona and Marquette. However, it is no longer the Hazlett farm. The Hazlett descendants, like so many, joined the flight from the land—an exodus that saw the sons and daughters who remained eventually selling out to larger farmers.  

The Hazlett farm did not quite fit the mold. In 1985, Bill Hazlett, George’s grandson, and his wife, Tamee, sold the farm. But it didn’t completely sever the Hazlett descendants’ ties to the farm.  Bill and Tamee had been friends with the new owners for years. They were Lawrence and Janice Lotza, both born and raised on farms in the same neighborhood.  Bill and Tamee had turned down a higher offer when they learned that the buyer was going to bulldoze everything and put it in cropland. “That’s not going to happen,” Bill said. “There will be a family that lives here, not just corn and beans.”

In the years after the sale, Bill and Tamee shared stories about the farm with Lawrence and Janice as they sat around the kitchen table. Lawrence wrote a history of the Hazlett farm based on those conversations. The priceless recollections are included in the latest edition of the Hazlett Family History. Lawrence and Janice were honored guests at the reunion.     

Now retired, Lawrence rents the cropland to a farmer who he said farms the land in a responsible way, not fence-row to fence-row. The farmstead itself is immaculate, with the ’20s era barn and some other buildings still standing. An avid gardener, Janice tends to the flowerbeds started by Tamee. They tore up the linoleum in the kitchen to reveal the original oak flooring. The restored pantry reminds me of Grandma Hazlett’s oatmeal cookies I enjoyed as a youngster.  

“Janice and I respect the heritage and hope to maintain the farm as Bill and Tamee would have done,” Lawrence wrote in his history.

That got me thinking of how the settlement of the farms in Clayton and other counties in northeastern Iowa ties into the history of the country itself. Sure, there were the momentous events that led to the founding of the nation. But much of the nitty gritty work of settlement fell to our pioneer-farmer ancestors. The Hazlett family history points to the pivotal role played by the establishment of the land survey system. Surveyors worked their way west from the Ohio River following the Land Ordinance Act of 1785. The General Land Office (GLO) took over the program as surveyors crossed into the lands west of the Mississippi following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Their work established the plat maps we see today as they divided the land into six-mile-square townships and then into 36, one-square-mile sections. Along the way, they described the lay of the land and quality of the soil in words and sketches. They further divided the land into salable parcels of 40, 80 and 160 acres, paving the way to settlement. After the plat maps were approved, the GLO opened up the area for sale, operating out of land offices set up across the disappearing frontier.

Abstracts show that George Hazlett bought his first 40 acres in 1849. We think he made the transaction at the GLO Land Office in Dubuque. The land was in section 5 of township 95 north, range 4 west. I went to the State Historical Library in Iowa City for more details.   

Scrolling through a roll of microfilm at the library, I found the original plat map of township 95. According to the record, Ira B. Brunson surveyed that section in 1838, eight years before Iowa statehood. The microfilm also contained a transcription of Brunson’s notes.    

Township 95 was later named Giard Township after the enterprising French trader Basil Giard, who wrangled a land grant of nearly 6,000 acres from the Spanish Crown. It included much of what are now Marquette and McGregor.  His is but one of the stories through which Brunson’s survey provides a window. 

You’ll find survey notes and plat maps in the archives of most states. They’re even online in states such as Wisconsin. “The notes are the most complete written record of what the landscape was before Euro-American settlement,” said Rob Nurre, former land records manager for the Wisconsin Board of Commissioners of Public Lands. “They give us an idea of where the streams flowed, the wetlands lay, and whether the land was prairie, savanna or forest. Together with soils maps and other information, we can use the survey notes to better understand the history of the land we live on.”

In reading Brunson’s notes on section 5, these words jumped out: “On the north and west there are numerous sink holes thro’ which water passes.” 

In Lawrence Lotza’s history of the Hazlett farm, we read: “Three college boys asked Bill and Tamee’s permission to explore a hold in a wooded area on the farm. The boys took rope and lights and went down. They heard noises like running water and rushed back to above ground. They were lucky to get out.”

The land speaks to us through two voices over the gulf of more than 130 years. May the stories that bring us closer to our roots continue.

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