The Nelsen family (from left), Donald, 78, Leslie, 88, Ethel, 90, Vera, 80, Lloyd, 82, Vivian, 84, and Amy, 91,
gather near Ethel’s huge garden, which some of them refer to as "the south 40."

Long lives the Nelsen clan

Memories run deep for large family in Westbrook

WESTBROOK—"Who got in the most trouble when we were kids? Not me, I was always an angel."

Before Donald Nelsen could utter the words, six of his brothers and sisters had already answered the question by pointing at him.

"Maybe you’d better put a question mark behind that," admitted Donald.

"I used to take Donald by the suspenders and hang him on coat hooks, because he’d tramp on a floor I’d just scrubbed," Ethel said.

At 90 years old, Ethel is not the oldest sibling in the room. Of the 12 Nelsen children, 10 are still alive, and six live in Westbrook. Donald is visiting from Texas.

In the entire group, there’s not one bachelor or bachelorette. With all their offspring, a complete family reunion at any one house would be impossible, so every August they meet in a park for a picnic. The first year, the 130 who gathered were only about half the family.

When their father, Ned, died in 1980, he already had 87 direct descendants. Donald and Vivian are tied for the most grandchildren at 17 each. The record for the most greatgrandchildren goes to Ethel, with 42. Before there was even a town called Westbrook, Ned Nelsen walked up from Alta, Iowa, near Storm Lake, to buy the farm. His children all heard the story of how he walked with a bobsled, and had to sleep under it a night or two on the trip north.

Most of the siblings have vivid recollections of the original farmhouse. Before it was torn down, they’d wake up in winter to find snow on their beds.

The four oldest Nelsen children are pictured
in 1912 (clockwise from left), Amy, Leslie,
Ethel, and baby Irene, now deceased.

"I remember getting out of bed and stepping in a little snowdrift on the floor," added Ethel. "And I remember we used to jump from the hayloft onto the hard ground. I’m surprised no one had broken bones."

Almost every Sunday they walked the three or four miles to their uncle’s house. The group consensus is that the family was so close because they didn’t have all the distractions that kids have today. They spent a lot of time just visiting.

"I remember the big trip was going to the Windom fair," said Leslie. "We’d have to buy a battery and two new tires just to go 28 miles, and we had to carry a pump and a tire patching kit."

"Didn’t Dad get his first car in 1917?" asked Vera.

Leslie nodded and said, "That car could pull anything these small tractors could pull."

Their father had to walk behind the plow and the cultivator. Most of the family picked and shucked corn by hand. Their mother, Anna, canned all the beef, pork and chicken, since there was no refrigeration. She made homemade soap, and her sewing included not just dresses for the girls, but family coats and snowsuits.

Along with boots and shoes, packages of assorted fabric remnants were ordered from catalogs. Some clothes were fashioned from flour sacks, which were made of printed fabrics.

Lloyd lived on the home place for 60 years before passing it along to his daughter. The group remembers that Lloyd was the first one to bring home an early model radio that used A, B, and C batteries. Anyone who could get their chores done in time listened to "Amos and Andy" and "Jack Armstrong, All American Boy."

The first to leave the nest was Amy, who earned $70 a month to teach school for three years before she got married.

"Ask her who was her best student," Donald said, and after the group laughed, they reminded him that when he had Amy as a teacher, he had to call her Miss Nelsen.

Leslie added, "When I was in eighth grade, my teacher was only two years older than me. She gave me a nickel a day for hauling in coal, and a nickel a day for hauling in water. I started her Model-T for her, but I guess that was on the house. I jacked up the hind wheel to crank the engine."

Ethel, a nurse for 28 years, appreciates modern conveniences, but she has fond memories of her younger years.

"Amy and I rode a horse and buggy into town for school. We heated up a stone in the oven to put at our feet in the buggy, and we covered ourselves with a rubberized horse blanket. To keep the house warm, we burned cobs in the wood stove. You’d see that get red. I think it was cozy. There are things that are nostalgic."

Worthington Daily Globe
Worthington, Minnesota
Saturday, July 19, 1997
p. A9

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