WORTHINGTON — A promise to bring his Uncle Louis Groninga back home to Nobles County was fulfilled last week when Curtis and Vickie Groninga, of Santa Rosa, California, received his remains in Reliance, South Dakota and completed the unfinished journey Louis was on when he was found dead along a set of railroad tracks on July 10, 1968.
The Groningas had promised Curtis’ dad, John Groninga, prior to his death in 1977 that Louis’ remains would join those of their parents and two infant siblings in the Summit Lake Township Cemetery near Reading.
An avid genealogist, Curtis knew little of Louis’ story — other than the stories told of his young life and his tragic death — until he began delving into the mysterious life of a man who vanished from his family, rode the rails, endured unimaginable tragedies and used a variety of aliases along the way.
“In July 1968 they found his body in Reliance, and he was buried in a potter’s field in Kennebec, South Dakota,” Curtis said during his visit to Nobles County last week. “On Lou’s body by the railroad tracks, they discovered that he’d slit the veins in his arm. They also found his sister’s address and a note of some sort saying he wanted to go back home.”
The sister he was trying to reach was Betty Groninga Staubus, who lived in Worthington up until her death.
“The Lyman County Sheriff’s department in Kennebec contacted Betty and said, ‘We think we have a relative of yours who was trying to get to you,’” Curtis said. “At the time, they were hesitant about claiming him because they hadn’t heard from him in so long.”
Had it not been for the note, Louis’ family might never have known what happened to the brother they’d missed for so many years. Louis was 65 at the time of his death, and his family hadn’t heard from him in 28 years.
“He was travelling under an assumed name, John Larry Morgan,” Curtis said. “On the sheriff’s report for the death certificate, it said he was using an assumed name from 1950 on.”
Fingerprints led to the confirmation that John Larry Morgan and Louis Lukas Groninga were one in the same.
Still, Louis remained in the potter’s field. The family didn’t know how to go about bringing him home. It wasn’t until this spring that Curtis made the concerted effort to complete Louis’ journey.
“We were there in April and saw his headstone,” Curtis said.
“It’s like a Boot Hill area,” added Vicki.
“By visiting that site, it really motivated me to get this done,” Curtis continued.
A witness to death
When Louis was seven years old, he joined his dad in walking from their home in Org to Worthington to buy a new pair of shoes. The railroad tracks stretching through the countryside marked an easy route for them to travel, but on that day, two trains — a passenger train and a freight train — were traversing each set of rails.
A Sept. 8, 1910 story in The Worthington Globe detailed the account:
“Klaas Groninga, a laborer residing at Org, was instantly killed by the Sioux Falls branch passenger train last Friday afternoon. He was … walking on the track when about a mile from town, No. 24, a freight train, was coming along and running abreast of the passenger. The engine (struck) him on the hip and shoulder, throwing him into the ditch.”
“Throughout my whole family, my aunts, uncle and dad didn’t talk a lot about this,” Curtis shared. “Nor did they keep great records.”
Curtis said his dad and aunts spoke of his good nature and likeable personality and that he grew into a tall, dark and handsome man.
But they also spoke of the hardships, and how each of the children was “farmed out” at one time or another to Anna’s parents and siblings as a way to help.
By the time Louis was old enough to venture on his own, he knew one thing — he didn’t want to farm.
‘He wanted to get away’
Curtis said Louis’ siblings often recalled his restless spirit — one sister went so far as to say he had an inability to make a commitment.
In 1927, when their mother, Anna, died of a burst gallbladder, the youngest — John Groninga — was 17.
“Somewhere around 1930, Lou and my dad, and Lou’s wife, Missy, joined together and looked for a job in Detroit (Michigan), and somewhat closer to where their sisters were,” Curtis shared. “They were starving during the Depression and they were in a line looking for food or employment.”
As Curtis recalled from stories told to him by his father, they were approached by some police officers who offered them money and a hot meal. All Louis and John had to do in exchange was to vote for a certain individual these officers wanted as police commissioner of Detroit. The brothers voted five times for someone they didn’t even know, and were paid $5 for doing so.
“They were ashamed of that,” Curtis said.
The brothers, unable to find work, decided — upon Louis’ suggestion — to ride the rails to the Pacific Northwest, where they heard they could earn good money picking apples.
“You could make more money and live pretty much the rest of the year — if you did it right — picking apples,” Curtis said. “But the two of them really wanted to use their mechanical skills.”
John found work as a gas station attendant and then as an automobile mechanic, and because of his hard work, he convinced his employer to hire Louis.
“Lou would tend to work for a while and then not for a while,” Curtis said. “He was always trying to move on.”
In 1937, still working at that same gas station, John met the love of his life and the two soon married and moved to Glendale, California.
Lou and Missy, meanwhile, stayed in Seattle, Washington, for a while.
“In about 1937 or ’38, Lou goes silent with everyone in the family,” Curtis said. “No one heard from him for two years. Then, in 1940, they get a postcard from him saying he was in Tacoma (Washington) and bound for Alaska. There was no mention of Missy.
“From 1940 to 1968, when Lou’s body was found by the railroad tracks in Reliant, S.D., no one had heard from him. They’d speculated that he’d gone to Alaska.”
Tracing 28 years
Based on information provided to Louis’ family after his death, it was learned that his alias, John Larry Morgan, had lived in Ogden, Utah from 1950 until he left for Minnesota in 1968.
By happenstance, Curt was planning a trip to Yellowstone National Park in August 1968, a month after Louis’ body was found. His dad asked Curtis to detour to Ogden to see what he could find out.
“One of the places he asked me to go was the Ogden Police Department,” Curtis shared. “They knew Larry — that’s what they called him. They had arrested him a few times for public drunkenness.”
Later, though, Louis secured a job managing low-rent hotels in downtown Ogden. He worked for Belle Starr and her husband, and to earn extra money, he sharpened tools.
“Belle Starr adores Larry Morgan,” Curtis said of meeting the women during his 1968 visit. “She said he was such a nice, kind, not-particularly-happy and sometimes sad person.”
Belle shared that she didn’t know much about Larry Morgan’s past, other than that he’d said he was in a horrific automobile crash that took the life of his wife and child in Helena, Montana, and had suffered from amnesia.
“Lou was riding the rails a lot — he preferred box cars,” Curtis was told. “He would ride the rails to dry out; he’d ride the rails to Texas and Arizona.
“Belle said he was in a lot of pain. He knew he was going to die and wanted to head home.”
More missing pieces revealed
Following Curtis’ visit to Ogden in 1968, nothing more was learned about his Uncle Louis until 1977. Days after his father’s funeral, Curtis said a woman knocked on the front door of his mother’s home.
Naida Glick said she’s related to John, and that she had been searching for her birth father, Louis Groninga.
“Apparently Lou didn’t know (about her),” Curtis said, adding that Naida was told by her mother that the two had a relationship when he was building roads in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in 1928.
“She’d done a lot of good work and really knew more about the Groningas than anybody at that time,” Curtis shared. “She really got me interested in trying to track Lou and the Groninga history.”
Through that research, Curtis discovered that Louis — while no divorce record was found from his first wife, Missy — had married Catherine Morgan in December 1943. At the time, he was using the alias Louis Granigan, and identified his parents as Granigans — with their correct birthdates — on his marriage license application. By April 1944, that marriage was dissolved; and in 1946, an article in a Helena, Montana newspaper announced his marriage to Jessie Hayes, a local woman who was in the Women’s Army Corps in World War II.
“The sense you get from those articles is she is very well known, and you get this impression that Lou is probably at his happiest with this marriage,” Curtis said. “Their marriage license is again (with the last name) Granigan.”
Tragedy strikes Louis again when, in November 1947, he and Jessie are in a head-on collision with a cattle truck. Jessie died four days later, and Louis spent months in the hospital.
“From that point on, I’ve not been able to track anything more about Lou Groninga or Granigan,” Curtis said. Louis left that name behind, relocated to Ogden, Utah and became known as John Larry Morgan.
Laid to rest
On Sept. 28, Curtis and Vickie Groninga received Louis’ remains from the Hickey Funeral Home in Chamberlain, South Dakota, thanks to the help of an attorney there. In addition to the remains, the Groningas also transported Louis’ headstone home to Nobles County. The headstone was purchased years ago by Louis’ daughter, Naida, in memory of the father she never knew.
“I wanted to make certain that came home with Lou,” Curtis said, adding that he had to get permission from Naida’s two daughters in order to exhume the remains and move them. Naida died in 2013, and her daughters — Leslie Godbe from Nevada and Susan Krimmer from California — were unable to make the trip to Minnesota for the reburial.
Last Wednesday, the Groningas visited the railroad tracks near Org where Curtis’ grandfather was killed, and walked with his uncle’s remains along a portion of the track.
“I’m completing one part of his journey — from Reliance to Worthington, but I’d also like to be able to complete that other part of his journey from Org to Worthington,” Curtis said.
They laid Louis to rest in a small ceremony Friday morning at the Summit Lake Township Cemetery.