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Stella Thiese


Posted By: Kelly Wernette (email)
Date: 3/4/2004 at 05:36:02

Stella Thiese Story

She was born in Postville, Iowa on August 22, 1891. She was the first child of August and Dorothea (Ryberg) Thiese. August and Dora would spend a total of 10 years living near Postville. Stella, Eldo, Laura, and Dorothy Thiese would all be born in Grand Meadow Township, just south of the Alamakee county line. They always listed Postville as their birthplace as this was the common practice of that time. The young Thiese children all attended elementary school in Postville and they had family that lived near by. Henry Thiese, August’s older brother was a local businessmen. He and his wife Clara owned and operated the Millenary store in the downtown area.

The Thiese family was one of thousands of German immigrants that settled in Clayton County, Iowa just after the American Civil War. William Thiese, August father, had emigrated to Guttenberg in 1867 from Hanover, Germany. He and his brother were successful farmers in the Guttenberg area. August Thiese was born there in 1867 and worked that farm with his father and brothers until 1890. That year he married Dorothy Ryberg and moved his family 30 miles northwest of Guttenberg to the little town of Postville.

We know that the Thiese family left Postville and moved to Alexandria, South Dakota in 1901. The August Thiese family grew to eight children in all. They farmed over 360 acre’s of land in Alexandria and he rented even more. According to a newspaper account of that time the family “lived on the P. F. Wickhem farm, just east of the C. Heineman place.” We know that life was difficult, dust storms common, and that August Thiese was forced to take a job to help keep the farm going. He worked for the P.F. Wickhem, and helped ship grain and other farm products east to Chicago.

Most of the farm work was done with teams of horses. We have pictures of August and Eldo cutting the wheat with teams of four horses each. Esther Thiese, Stella’s younger sister born in Alexandria, stated that she recalled seeing “cattle leaning up against the barn with their ribs showing through the skin, you could count every rib”. She said: “Nothing but Russian thistle would grow”. Enormous Dust storms raged through the Dakota’s. Esther also recalled “that dust would get on everything, even our food. We used to take wet towels and try to fill every crack and window. We even put towels around the doors.”

Despite the difficulties, Stella told family members that the family lived reasonably well. In good times the farm produced oats, corn, barely and wheat. August insisted that everyone attend school and all the children could read in both English and German. Stella was a good student in high school so August paid to have her attend the Grand Island Business College in Grand Island, Nebraska. Stella excelled as a business student but also found time to play on the girl’s basketball team and have a leading role in the school play. One picture exists of Stella on the stage delivering a line. She wrote the following comments on the back of the picture in her own handwriting: “I was the rich mother in law and now I am giving my new son in law a lecture. The name of the picture is “Too much mother in law”. Does not Ted make a swell boy? Notice my $50.00 hat”. She was of course wearing the hat in the picture and Ted was her roommate who was playing a male part in the play. That was necessary in an all girls school.

Another postcard from the era shows Stella with about 60 peers boarding a passenger train. The script on the back reads: “Dad, this is me and my gang going to Grand Island. Notice that I’m the one marked X.” She had marked a clear X on the front of the picture distinctly on her white dress. Young woman during this period appear to have more freedom to move around thanks to the trains of that era.

Stella received a postcard in 1909 from a cousin in Postville. It showed an elementary school and the script on the card read: “Stella, do you remember this school” It was signed “Your cousin” and it was Postmarked Postville, 1909. Stamps ran 1 cent in those days.

Stella is seen in one photo marked “1909” with about 50 young ladies in a group photo at the Grand Island Business School. Stella would use this training in business to keep copious notes of trips and expenses. She would later work on the ration board during World War II. In 1917, she worked for Borrows in Flint, to help supplement her husband’s salary.

The big event in our family history occurred in 1914 when one Frank Kelly escorted Stella Thiese to a picnic. This event, captured on a photograph, which I have, shows the couple was very well chaperoned on their first get together. No one knows the details of the romance of Stella and Frank but we do know that in 1915 Stella and Frank got married in Yankton, South Dakota.


In the photo Frank Kelly is on the horse on the far left. It was taken in Chamberlain South Dakota in 1914. The men on horse back are all students at the Catholic college called Chamberlain College.

One year later, we see them behind the soda counter in drug store in Mason City, Iowa. I expect this part time work was intended to raise some money for the trip. The photographs represent our only way of tracing the Kelly’s since no written diary was kept. So we knew they stopped here only because we have the picture with Stella’s note on the back.

According to Dorothy Kelly, Frank and Stella moved next to Escanaba in 1916, Michigan where Frank worked as a projectionist at the local theatre. Frank seems to have had a technical background since he had attended Columbus College in Chamberlain, South Dakota. However, they didn’t stay there long because we know they arrived in Flint, Michigan in 1917. Frank took a job working at the Realto as a projectionist, and Stella worked in the office at Borrows, a department store in Flint. The couple rented a flat at 222 Center Street for $6.00 per week.

According to Stella’s meticulously well-kept journal, Frank earned $35.00 per week, while Stella earned a sum of $15.00 per week. Jim Kelly, Stella and Franks first of seven children, was born that year. One of the great documents Stella left her family was the journal of expenses kept in 1917. The German traditional kraut appears frequently, which cost 10 cents in those days. She left no detail unrecorded. When she bought a copy of the police magazine, she recorded it. The aforementioned salary figures were taken from this document.

In 1915, the year Frank and Stella married, Stella would lose one of her young sisters to illness, Laura Ida Sina Thiese. The shock of that early death, Laura was only 19, was followed by the horrific news that brother Eldo Thiese, had been severely wounded in the Argone campaign of World War I. Eldo spent 3 months if a field hospital in France after a poison gas attack in 1918. Although Eldo would return home a local hero, he died in 1920 in White Lake, South Dakota. He received a Military funeral and a wonderful obituary story in the South Dakota newspaper, which Stella kept and I now have. The local coroner of that time determined that Eldo death could be attributed to injuries received during the war. Overall, 15,000 Americans would lose their lives because of gas attacks during World War I.

In 1919, Dorothy Kelly was born, and the family moved to the wonderful barn style home on 2526 Lawndale, Flint, Michigan. In this house, Stella would give birth to Dorothy, Earl, Marguerite, Frank, Ruth, and Don. They all lived in very tight quarters in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

The Kelly’s did not appear to belong to any mainstream church during this period. According to family lore, the Kelly Catholics and the Thiese German Lutherans drove the couple away from both religions. It seems that ecumenical toleration did not exist for Frank and Stella. Being turned off to the whole thing they never formally joined a church again. Stella did attend St. Johns church close to home according to Dorothy Kelly. She was known to collect recipes from the church crowd and record them. Dorothy describes the group as an organized baking society. An interesting footnote, Stella’s confirmation certificate still exists and every word of it is in German.

In 1935, Dorothea Ryberg Thiese died in Mitchell, South Dakota. Stella mothers death brought many Thieses to Michigan. Esther Thiese, Leonard Thiese, William (Bill) Thiese, and August Thiese would all eventually settle in Michigan. Stella would have her family come close to home and I’m sure that pleased her greatly.

1937 saw one of the great sit down strikes of all time in Flint. Workers literally sat down at their workstations and refused to leave. According to family legend, Frank was one of those strikers. Stella was one of the brave women who delivered sandwiches to the workers. If she would have been caught, she could have gone to jail.

In 1941, Stella worked on the ration board for Flint, Michigan. Apparently, a very notable Charles Stewart Mott worked on that board with her. Mott was the founder of General Motors and reportedly the richest man in the world at one time. In 1944, Don Kelly served in the army. She wrote to him often and notes about his whereabouts exist in her journal.

In both 1941 and 1944, Stella and Frank took sentimental journey’s back to see the family. In 1941, they visited Duluth to see John F. Kelly, and Perham to visit Mary Kelly. They visited Brainerd to see the brothers and sisters of Frank Kelly. They visited Guttenberg, Postville, and Mason City Iowa. Many pictures were taken during this journey but no written record was kept. However, 1944 is a completely different story. This trip, which could be called the graveyard tour, appears to have been a sentimental trip that took them to every important place from their past lives. They stopped in Duluth to visit the home of John F. Kelly; they stopped in Brainerd to visit the grave of Mary Kelly. They visited St. Paul, Des Moines, Mitchell, Alexandria, Postville, and Guttenberg. They even made their way to Grand Island, Nebraska. They visited George and Ida Thiese in Guttenberg, Iowa. Remarkably, Stella kept a detailed account of every stop for gas, every penny spent on breakfast, supper, or dinner. She notated every cabin in every city they rented. This is a genealogical windfall of the highest magnitude, because it spells out the important places, burial sites, and residences of long lost relatives. To help us out she wrote down the address and telephone numbers of many of the folks they visited. Stella was a remarkable record keeper.

In 1951, Jim Kelly would be killed in a fatal car crash. He was returning home from California for a visit when he fell asleep at the wheel. This was the only tragic death to one of her children during her lifetime. We can imagine it was a huge shock. Jim is buried next to Frank and Stella at the Sunset Hills Cemetery, Flint, Michigan.

In 1957 Frank Kelly died. One year later, Stella Kelly followed her husband in death. They had lived remarkable lives together and they were missed greatly. Dorothy Kelly, continued to live at the house at 2526 Lawndale will into her 70’s. Finally, in 1980 the home was sold.

Stella Thiese Kelly was a remarkable women who lived during remarkable times. She was a pioneer feminist in a sense. She had to be one of the first in her family to play girls basketball on the Alexandria high school team of 1907-1908. She was the first female family member to attend college when she boarded the train for the Grand Island Business College in Grand Island Nebraska in the 1909-1914 era. She was fiercely independent in her youth, traveling her and there by train and often unchaperoned. She worked to support her family on several occasions during the early 20th century. She was one of the few woman who served on the Flint Ration board in World War II. She was an activist who brought sandwiches to striking workers and risk putting herself in jail.

Stella saw the last of the American Frontier near the badlands of South Dakota. She saw her husband Frank Kelly for the first time when he rode up across the Plains with six men all packing six shooters. Later Stella’s husband Frank traded in the horse and gun for a tool and die job in Buick Town as they participated in the “Industrial Revolution” in Flint, Michigan. Stella was a witness to passing of one era and the birth of another in one lifetime. She participated in the great themes of our era. She was out in front leading the way and she showed us that new things are possible.

- written & submitted by Kelly Wernette, Stella's grandson
(there are more photos of the August Thiese family & Stella in the Allamakee Album)


Allamakee Biographies maintained by Sharyl Ferrall.
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