One of the first things that I discovered about Shirlie Louisa Pope Johnson, my great grandmother, was that we had been spelling her name incorrectly. In just about everything that I had read about her had her name spelled Shirley – but her birth record has her name listed as Shirlie. An odd spelling – but I suppose it was nice to be unique. She faced many challenges and tragedies in her life.
|Winlsow with Shirlie and younger sister Anna May.|
|Nancy Ann Marie Lyons Pope - Shirlie's Mother|
Shirlie was born in Burke, Caladonia Co., VT on 14 Jul 1881, the eldest daughter of Winslow Lonsdale Pope and Nancy Ann Marie Lyons. By the time she was four years old, her family had moved to Lake Park, Dickinson Co., IA and they were living in Minnesota by the time the 1900 census. They then moved to McLean Co., ND sometime after 1900. Winslow bought some property there and by 11 Nov 1903, Shirlie had married Charles A. White. Charles & Shirlie had two boys, George b. 1904 and Elmer b. 1906. Just before the birth of her youngest son, Shirlie’s mother died of Tuberculosis. When her youngest son was less than a year old, she lost her husband. He had been out fighting a prairie fire and smoke inhalation killed him less than 6 days after fighting the fire. It must have been so difficult to be a young 25 year old widow with two children to take care of with probably little money to help her along the way. About a year later, she married Ulpian Grey Johnson on 27 Apr 1909 in Washburn, McLean Co., NC. Ulpian or George as he was called had emigrated up to North Dakota from Iowa following the railroad and ended up homesteading in North Dakota in 1908.
|Shirlie and her first husband Charles White.|
By 1910, Shirlie and Ulpian are living in Dunn Center, Dunn Co., ND and have had their oldest daughter, Mary (b. 27 Jan 1910), and Nancy Mae followed on 9 Mar 1912. My grandfather, Frank Stewart was b. 10 Oct 1912 and Hazel born/died 9 Mar 1919 and the youngest; Audrey was b. 22 Jan 1923. I still remember that I was very excited when I got access to the 1920 census, that I would be able to find my grandfather…alas they were not counted. My father believes that they were on their homestead on the Missouri River breaks. Not too long after that, I’m sure they were forced to leave their home because of the building of a dam on the Missouri river that flooded their home.
In early spring in 1927, Shirlie died tragically and quickly of pneumonia. We take for granted today the availability of antibiotics to help combat infections but in the late 1920’s they were not available and pneumonia could quickly lead to death. Her sister, Verna, traveled across the Missouri river on a horse across the ice to try and help nurse her, but she succumbed much too quickly. It couldn’t have been an easy situation. I know that the family had little money and no prospect of much money. Ulpian and Shirlie’s oldest daughter was handicapped and possibly mentally slow. As my father has said – he was sure if his Aunt Mary’s mental abilities was a result of her handicap or was just exacerbated by it. I have heard stories that Shirlie wasn’t that bright…but I find that difficult to believe. From what I have learned – she was strong one in the family who kept “things” together. Her husband was handicapped somewhat by a farm accident and had little arm strength. Shirlie’s husband fell apart and it was up to her my grandfather and his sister Nan to take care of the family. Nan was 15 years old and my grandfather Frank was 13 – both quit school and went to work to provide for their family. I know that Shirlie’s sister, Verna, blamed Ulpian for not getting her medical care soon enough – and I don’t think there was much family support from Shirlie’s family after her death.
|Taken shortly after Shirlie's death - Back Left to right: Ulpian, |
Nan, Mary, Frank - Front - Audrey & Mary
There was a reason my grandfather didn’t know anything about his mother’s family. Other than letters, they had little contact with Shirlie’s family. Grandpa Frank didn’t know that his mother’s family was amongst the earliest settlers in the United States. A few years after his mother’s death, they discovered a burning coal mine under the ground at the Old Dunn Center Cemetery and were advised that anyone buried there should be moved to the new cemetery. When my grandfather moved to Idaho with his family, he made arrangements to have his mother and his baby sister, Hazel, moved. Unfortunately, it was never done and she remained in a poorly marked grave in the Old Dunn Center cemetery. We went back to Dunn Co., ND many years ago and attempted to locate her grave. We think that we know where she is buried – but we can’t be sure. We can only estimate based on the available records. A few years ago, my grandmother (Marian) placed a stone at the New Dunn Center cemetery listing Shirley and Hazel as well as Ulpian on the gravestone. I don’t think that she knew at the time that she had misspelled Shirlie’s name – but then she had already done that once before – when my grandparents named their oldest daughter Shirley.
I find it difficult to really understand the life that my great grandmother had lived. I have no basis for comparison to understand what it must have been like to face what she did. She lost in her lifetime a husband, her mother, and child. There was nothing easy about where she lived or how she lived. They had horrible winters and brutal summers and it was even worse in the 1920’s. Shirlie never lived to see her children grown and married or see any of her grandchildren. I know that she was a much loved sister, wife and mother and that her death made a profound impact on her husband and children’s lives. My grandfather didn’t have a lot of things to remember his family by – some pictures and few items from his family - one of my grandfather’s most prized possessions was a button box that is sitting on a shelf in a place of honor at my aunt’s home, it was one of the few things that he had of his mothers.