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Column: May 9, 1886 was one of Nobles County's saddest days

Editor’s note: Former longtime Daily Globe Editor Ray Crippen died Dec. 27, 2015. We will continue to publish previously run “Isn’t That Something” columns on Saturdays, until further notice, as a tribute to Crippen and his knowledge of local and regional history. The following column first appeared Aug. 26, 2006.

WORTHINGTON — People tell me about things they find interesting in a column. Several commented on a recent column which reviewed a diary kept by Worthington pioneer Ed Buchan in 1878.

On Jan. 19, Buchan wrote, “A most beautiful day. As warm as June. Went out to the other farm and stacked hay in shirt sleeves.” On Feb. 2, Ed’s brother, Will, was mowing hay, and on March 9 it was raining hard at Worthington. By March 19, the Buchans had wheat and oats planted and by April 20 there was a complaint: “Mosquitoes quite numerous.”

Just by chance, I was checking some information from 1886 — 120 years ago. By April 22, “McManus & LaGrange put up new screen doors to their meat store,” because of flies, and also because, “Several mosquitoes have arrived along with the spring rush.” It was said all of Worthington’s rain barrels had three to four feet of fresh rain water by mid-April. The Methodist church had a strawberry social. Trees were coming into leaf. Worthington was experiencing days from May and June before April was past.

This made me think — I don’t like to say so, but I have some memory of that bitter winter of 1936. I remember the Armistice Day storm of 1940. Along the way, I know there have been mild winters, but I cannot bring those to mind. I think we all carry memories of winters that were bitter and snow-choked, winters when there still were snowdrifts melting in April. We forget winters we took in stride.

The thing I was looking for in 1886 was not reports of mosquitoes and strawberries in April, but details from one of Nobles County’s saddest days.

May 9, 1886, was a Sunday. This was one of the years when O.H. Roche, the wheeler/dealer from the Chicago Board of Trade, had his 2,000-acre hunting resort along the shores of Round Lake. He called it Roche’s Roost, and he sometimes arrived in a private train car. He brought pals who sat in swivel chairs along the lakeshore to make themselves comfortable while they shot at ducks.

On that May Sunday morning, there were two boats on Round Lake. One boat was from the Roche ranch and in the boat were three men:

Edward Erickson, 28, who had come from Sweden four years earlier and who worked for Roche; Frederick Erickson, 26, Edward’s brother, who had come from Sweden only the year before; Henry Hewitt, 30, who recently was married. The three young men were fishing. They rowed toward the east shore. James Boardman, Roche’s superintendent, also was on the lake, rowing along in another of Roche’s boats.

That Sunday “was a good one for pickerel.” The fishermen were “in the best of spirits and taking in fish rapidly.”

It was after 11, still not quite noon, when Boardman, the superintendent, saw “a gale shaping” in the sky in the east. Boardman made for shore. Even at this, his boat was capsized in shallow water near the beach “between Barrett’s and Dodge’s groves.”

Boardman looked back over the lake. There was no one to be seen. He was satisfied the younger men also got their boat off the water. He headed for shelter from the gale, which was sweeping above the whitecaps.

Later — 1 p.m. — Boardman was back on the shore. That was when he saw the second boat, capsized in the water, bobbing in the waves. He called to others at the Roche place. There quickly were other men on the lake and along the lake. Soon it was apparent the storm along the east shore was so violent it turned over the boat in which the three young men were fishing. They all were gone — drowned — even though at least Henry Hewitt, the young groom, was a very strong swimmer.

A curious thing: another brother and a sister of the Erickson brothers arrived at Worthington from Sweden that very afternoon. They were laughing for their prospects of a family reunion before sunset. No one had a heart to tell them the news. They learned when they arrived at the farm of another, older brother, Lewis, who lived near Lake Ocheda.

How could there be such a tragedy? That question has been asked a thousand times.

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