There Was a Vast Unbroken Prairie

Where the forest meets the prairie, Buena Vista County, Iowa, by Samuel Calvin (University of Iowa)

This obituary of JAMES BUCKLEY WOLFE appeared in the Oxford Mirror, page 5, on February 3, 1916. Wolfe was my great-grandfather Maurice’s oldest brother. What strikes me is how this obituary, more than most, seems to be a means of remembering the early history of Clinton County, Iowa. Wolfe is cast in the role of the archetypal pioneer: one who made a pilgrim’s progress from Ireland, through the Slough of Despond (Chicago, apparently), fields of fire, and finally to the Celestial City, otherwise known (ironically?) as Lost Nation. It’s as if the obituary writer were not so much taking stock of James Wolfe as s/he was of the entire community.

Anyway, as for the misnomer in the headline: Wolfe did have a younger brother called John B., born in 1851.

Obituary of John B. Wolfe, Pioneer

James B. Wolfe was born in County Kerry, Ireland, April 13, 1844, and died at his home near Lost Nation, Iowa, January 27, 1916. When an infant he came to this country with his parents. The history of his life is the story of the immigrant and pioneer. They came to Chicago. Where a vast city now stands there were then only swamps and sloughs. Afterwards the family moved to Ottawa, Illinois, and later, in 1854 came to Iowa settling on the same farm, a part of which the deceased owned at the time of his death.

At that time, where there are now prosperous well tilled farms, there was a vast unbroken prairie over which the deer roamed at will and through which surged the all devouring prairie fire sweeping everything before it. Here, the deceased experienced the struggles and privations of pioneer life. Through the sides of the rude hut of a home, the wind and the weather blew. Often did he tell of how he shook the snow from the bed covers on awakening and brushed it aside on the floor to make a bare place upon which to stand while dressing. He lived to see the great evolution and progress of the past almost three quarters of a century. He saw the railroad, the steam engine, and the automobile displace the rail and the ox drawn wagon of the pioneer and the transformation which has made an unbroken, unpeopled* prairie the garden spot of the world.

The deceased united in marriage to Annie O’Connor, February 8, 1872, which union was blessed with seven children all of whom with the wife survive. They are John O. C., Nora L. and James L., of this place; Mrs. Frank Goodall [May R.], of Toronto; Doctor Jeremiah, of Grand Mound; Mrs. I. S. Ryan [Anna], of Welton; and Attorney Walter I., of Dunlap. Besides, the deceased leaves to mourn his death four brothers and three sisters as follows: Judge P. B. Wolfe, Mrs. T. D. Fitzgerald [Katherine] and Mrs. D. Langan [Margaret I.] of Clinton; Attorney Richard B. of DeWitt; Maurice B. of Lost Nation; and Sister M. Scholastica [Johanna] of St. Joseph’s Mercy Hospital, Sioux City.

He was a man of sterling worth and unimpeachable character who counted every man his friend. Always a natural leader of men he held many positions of honor and trust, though never a seeker after public acclaim. At the time of his death, he was president of the Lost Nation Savings Bank.

The funeral services were held at St. James’ church, Toronto. Requiem High Mass was celebrated by Father McNamara assisted by Father Regan of Oxford Junction and Father Small of Lost Nation and the choir of the Sacred Heart church, Lost Nation. Father Small paid an eloquent tribute to the faith of the deceased—a life-long Catholic in which faith he so calmly and resignedly passed away.

The remains were borne to their last resting place by sight of his life-long neighbors and friends, namely James Connors, Anthony Early, William Burnett, Thomas Early, Edward O’Donnell, Edward Scanlan, M. P. O’Connor and James Hughes.

Those from a distance who attended were, Judge P. Wolfe and daughter Mollie and Mrs. T. D. Fitzgerald and daughter Margaret of Clinton; R. B. Wolfe and family and Mrs. M. Scanlan of DeWitt, Iowa; John B. Wolfe of Melrose, Iowa; Kate Carroll, Kilkenny, Minnesota; Mrs. B. McBride of Hawarden, Iowa; Hugh Buckley, Chicago; O. S. Gilroy and Jennie McLaughlin of Bettendorf, Iowa; and Mr. and Mrs. T. J. Leahy of Fulton, Illinois.

* It should go without saying that this was not true.

Scan of the obituary after the jump.

image: Where the forest meets the prairie, Buena Vista County, Iowa, by Samuel Calvin (University of Iowa)

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I Do Hope I Won’t Be Too Hard on You

Baby Book of Brendan Wolfe, with note by Tom Wolfe

The first note my dad ever wrote to me was in my baby book. I was not quite five months old.

January 26, 1972

Brendan, me boy,

I trust, lad, that the time will come when you will exhibit a bit more intelligence than that presently displayed. You are on your third day of diarrahea (sp?), and you seem to enjoy it! I had rather expected you to exercise a bit more control by now.

Actually, Brendan, I am quite proud of you. I get rather excited when I think of your future. I do hope I won’t be too hard on you. Love God and your fellow man, and serve both. Remember the Sermon on the Mount.


Your Father

image: two pages from my baby book, including my first picture, which my dad labeled “Neanderthal Man”

I Am Still Trembling As I Write This

"On Family Fun" by Tom Wolfe, pages 1 and 2

I found this essay among my dad’s papers.


Tom Wolfe

January 6, 1981

Who in the name of all that is sweet and holy ever said that families should stick together in order to have fun? I have a profound distrust for anyone espousing such a philosophy. Over the years, I have discovered that sanity for me lies in avoiding “family fun” like the plague.

Occasionally, I stray though. Last summer, a friend and I thought we would try the super father role, a mental derangement of which we all paid dearly, fathers and children alike. For three days and two nights, we stayed on a small Mississippi sandbar with six small, screaming, and semi-delirious children, seven million mosquitoes of indeterminate age, and the filthiest, smelliest scum the Mighty Mississippi could offer us for water. By the end of this nightmare, neither of us could tolerate children any[more], nor, for that matter, were we too crazy about each other. This winter holds no terror for me. I laugh at twenty inch blizzards, and I scoff at sub-zero weather because I know in my heart that nothing could possibly be worse than a child-and-mosquito-infested sandbar!

My wife not only believes in “family fun” more than I do but she practices it often. It is presumably for this reason that she smokes God knows how many cigarettes a day, has stomach cramps, and has a little twitch beneath her left eye. She will periodically gather all our children into the kitchen and tell them they are going to have “fun” cooking something. Our teenaged girl invariably mixes the wrong ingredients, then spills it all onto the floor; our nine-year-old boy sticks his face as closely as possible to his mother’s Gallic countenance and talks nonstop; and our seven-year-old girl just manages to be underfoot. After about a half hour of this “fun,” my dear, gentle wife will invariably snap and scream some horrible epithets at the children wihci [sic] would destroy any normal psyche but, strangely enough, never seems to significantly damage their relationship with her. She always insists afterwards, long afterwards, that it was worth it.

Recently, “family fun” unobtrusively insinuated itself into our home once again like a fog in the night, this time in the guise of apparently harmless games called “Scrabble” and “Uno.” At first, other family members played the game, but I, not trusting such things, gave it a miss. Unfortunately, I weakened and was soon seated around the table with everyone else. I even smiled a little—but not for long.

Tonight was surely one of the most harrowing examples of all this I’ve experienced in recent years. Our teenager took forever keeping score; our little one kept showing all her cards and nearly drove me crazy with her creative method of dealing cards; and our freckle-faced boy giggled until both my wife and I were on the raw edge of hysteria. I am still trembling as I write this, and I doubt that anything on God’s sweet earth will induce me to participate in such “fun” again.

image: “On Family Fun” by Tom Wolfe, pages 1 and 2

He Is Survived by Four Small Children

Thomas Wolfe and Ray Wolfe, Delmar, Iowa, 1941

An obituary for my grandfather RAY WOLFE, from the Jackson Sentinel, September 16, 1941:

Rites At Delmar Thursday For Raymond B. Wolfe

DELMAR – An unusually large and sympathetic assemblage of the relatives, friends and acquaintances of the late Raymond B. Wolfe were gathered together in St. Patrick’s church at 9:00 o’clock Thursday morning, Sept. 11, to attend the funeral services. Requiem high mass was celebrated by the Rev. J. J. Hopkins, with the Rev. James Quinlan, of Charlotte, and the Rev. Herald O’Connor, of Lost Nation, as his assistants on the altar. Interment was made in St. Patrick’s cemetery, Delmar, with the Rev. J. J. Hopkins officiating at the ritualistic service. Eight members of Timber City Post No. 75, The American Legion, of Maquoketa, under the command of Glen Bailey, composed the firing squad, and Hugh Fletcher, bugler, sounding taps, as military honors were accorded the deceased veteran of the world war. Casket bears were also Legion comrades: Charles Rasmussen, Allen Bracket, Percy Cassin, Peter McGinn, Ralph Guise, and Dan Waters. Deceased was born October 27, 1896, the son of Morris [Maurice] and Sarah Wolfe, near Lost Nation. He married Gladys McGinn, of Delmar, on August 25, 1925, and they lived on a farm near Lost Nation before moving to Delmar. He was a veteran of the world war, and a member of Timber City Post No. 75, The American Legion. Besides his wife, he is survived by four small children, three daughters, Sarah [Sara], Mary and Marjorie [Margery], and one son, Thomas; and four brothers, Philip, John, Melvin and James, all of Lost Nation.

image: Thomas Wolfe and Ray Wolfe, Delmar, Iowa, 1941

The Ballad of Short Dick

An onomatological curiosity in the Wolfe family: my great grandfather was Maurice; my great (x3) uncle was Maurice, as was his son and two of his nephews, one of whom—wait for it—was named Maurice Morris. Maurice Morris’s brother, by the way, was Edmund Maurice. Edmund Maurice’s father was Maurice, and his father, my great (x4) grandfather was James Maurice. James Maurice’s brother was Maurice James, aka Young Maurice, whose father also was Maurice James, aka Old Maurice. Young Maurice had a nephew, Edmund Maurice, whose father was Short Dick. And, finally, Old Maurice’s grandfather, which is to say my great (x7) grandfather, who farmed land in County Limerick at the time Cromwell’s men came through, was the original Maurice James, or Really Really Old Maurice.

image: ca. 1920. Standing (left to right): Maurice Wolfe, Frank and Mary Carraher, Sarah McAndrews Wolfe, Ray Wolfe, Phil Wolfe, Melvin Wolfe. In my father’s hand, seated: “McClains (sp.) from Clinton (They liked chicken!).”