September 24, 2013

Behind the story told in this old news clipping lies the attempted murder of my grandmother:

Akron (Iowa) Register (August, 1905):
Next to death, the saddest thing to record is the breaking up of a 
family. Dr. Mereness, who located here several years ago, closed his
 office and gave up his practice and left last Thursday. He was a very
 bright young man and could have had a large practice had he not been
 addicted to drink.

Nettie Daly, daughter of Irish immigrants, was married to the bright young man. Here she is at eighteen:

Nettie at about 18 copy

One night, quite drunk, he chased her through their house with a butcher knife, determined to kill her.

Nettie (top row) with her brothers and sisters. This photograph was taken close to the time of her first marriage.

Nettie (top row) with her brothers and sisters. This photograph was taken close to the time of her first marriage.

She fled with their infant son to her father’s house nearby (her mother had died the year before).

Nettie's parents, Emma and James Daly.

Nettie’s parents, Emma and James Daly.

Jim Daly put Nettie and her baby on a train and sent them off to some of her mother’s relatives back in Ohio, where he hoped she’d be safe.

It was not the first time Nettie’s husband had threatened and abused her, but it was the first time he’d come that close to actually murdering her. The fact that she’d been beaten and terrorized didn’t impress the well-off Ohio relatives, who met her at the train station as a duty but, upon seeing her standing alone in the depot with a baby in her arms, feared for their reputations.

Who was this young mother, their neighbors might ask. Was she married or, God forbid, divorced? She would naturally appear to anyone in their circle to be a single, unmarried mother, they told her. Her start in life had been so promising, they said – married to a doctor, living in a fine house. And now…

Nettie’s Ohio aunt and uncle, Mr. and Mrs. Chown, solved the issue of their potential shame by putting their niece to work as their maid.

As soon as her father learned that her husband was far enough away from the area to justify Nettie’s return, he sent for her. She came home and got a job.

Le Mars (Iowa) Sentinel (August, 1907):

Mrs. Nettie Mereness is clerking in the store for Mr. Sanford.

Given the times, it never occurred to anyone to press charges, but staying married to the man was, for Nettie, out of the question. She was one of the first women in Iowa, if not the first, to obtain a divorce. It wasn’t easy, by any means, for women to gain their freedom.

From 1905 newspaper - "A Woman's Barriers to Divorce."

From 1905 newspaper – “A Woman’s Barriers to Divorce.”

But Nettie’s husband didn’t put up much of a fight. He let her go. He married someone else, and eventually so did she, a man who had been a guest (on the groom’s side) at her wedding, a decent man, who felt sympathy for what she’d lived through.

Harry (center)

Harry Carlisle (center)

Harry was in love with Nettie and she with him. You can see it in her eyes as she stands here on a front porch at a family reunion gazing at the photographer, who happens to be Harry.

Nettie and extended family, farm porch (circa 1910). Helen (baby on lap of grandmother); Dwight, Nettie's son from her first marriage, the boy in the middle, front row.

Nettie and extended family, farm porch (circa 1910). Helen (baby on lap of grandmother); Dwight, Nettie’s son from her first marriage, the boy in the middle, front row.

Nettie (within the red box) is holding Harry’s hat. That beautiful boy in the middle of two older boys in the front row is her son from the first marriage. (And on the great-grandmother’s lap is the infant Helen, who, if you follow this blog, you might remember from my post about attending her 100th birthday titled Party Time – Not So Much.)

Harry and Nettie, two of Nettie’s sisters and their husbands, and a family friend left Iowa to purchase four adjacent pieces of property in North Dakota where they began farming, ranching, and raising their families together. Nettie gave birth to a daughter and a son (my father).

To make sure her children got more than the education offered at school, she always provided room and board to one of their teachers. Dinner table discussions extended what had been learned each day in the classroom with questions asked by the whole family, and the teacher was expected to answer all of them.

Roger, the youngest child, was ignored by his sister (eight years older) and his half-brother (thirteen years older), so he started to roam the fields and hide out in the barn with his dog, Bonny. Nettie left books there and at his other hideouts, hoping he would find them and read them. He did.

Roger and his dog Bonny

Roger and his dog Bonny

Nettie was a progressive. She followed politics. When the Non-Partisan League started up in North Dakota, she jumped in.
nonpartisan league poster
Like the founder of the League, she took the family’s Model T and a soap box and drove all over the state.
She put her soap box down in the middle of Main Street in dozens of little towns, stepped up on it, and gave speeches to farmers urging them not to sell their farms to corporations, to maintain the family farm, to vote for women’s suffrage, and to start their own banks so that their farms could not be foreclosed, a rampant practice that was sweeping through the state because of unregulated banking.

The Non-Partisan League was a popular movement and, despite the fact that the legislature told protesting farmers to “get on home and slop your hogs,” the farmers and ranchers achieved many of their goals and managed to wrangle power away from the brokers who ran the state.

But the Depression, crop failures, drought and other hardships wiped out many Dakota farms, including the four adjacent properties. Foreclosures continued. The time came to give up the land and leave behind the houses this group of neighbors had built together out of large stones they’d collected from the fields.

Nettie and Harry moved to Bismarck with their teenage son, Roger. They took in boarders and fed hungry people that Roger found downtown and brought home. Nettie started a book club (with a group of doctors’ wives, interestingly), read voraciously, and, to earn money during the Depression, sold boxes of Christmas cards office door to office door at the Capitol building.
Alice_old capitol building_Bismarck

Her children grew up and became, on occasion, snappy dressers:

Dwight, Avis, and Roger

Dwight, Avis, and Roger

Her handsome husband retired to an armchair.

Harry in his armchair.


One day Roger brought home a young woman named Alice.
Alice_yearbook pic
Alice was so impressed by Nettie’s kindness and intelligence that she could hardly contain her pride when they were together. Even when catching a glimpse of her on the streets of Bismarck, she always thought, “That’s my mother-in-law.”

Nettie died of Parkinson’s disease at sixty-five.

Nettie at 60

Today is her birthday.

Happy birthday, Nettie Daly.


Listen to Pete Seeger’s “Banks of Marble” on youtube. Nettie would have approved this message.

Lyrics to Banks of Marble

I’ve traveled round this country
From shore to shining shore.
It really made me wonder
The things I heard and saw.

I saw the weary farmer,
Plowing sod and loam;
I heard the auction hammer
A knocking down his home.

But the banks are made of marble,
With a guard at every door,
And the vaults are stuffed with silver,
That the farmer sweated for.

I saw the seaman standing
Idly by the shore.
I heard the bosses saying,
Got no work for you no more.

But the banks are made of marble,
With a guard at every door,
And the vaults are stuffed with silver,
That the seaman sweated for.

I saw the weary miner,
Scrubbing coal dust from his back,
I heard his children cryin’,
Got no coal to heat the shack.

But the banks are made of marble,
With a guard at every door,
And the vaults are stuffed with silver,
That the miner sweated for.

I’ve seen my brothers working
Throughout this mighty land;
I prayed we’d get together,
And together make a stand.

[Final Chorus:]
Then we’d own those banks of marble,
With a guard at every door;
And we’d share those vaults of silver,
That we have sweated for.

farmer with horses and plow

Read more about the Non-Partisan League.

This is a recent commentary on”Northern Lights,” a brilliant but extremely difficult film to find (1982) about the brutal conditions faced by North Dakota farmers in the early 20th century and the help offered by the Non-Partisan League.

15 Responses to “Nettie”

  1. Heide Says:

    What an amazing woman! It is not a wonder you turned out as you did Andrea with such powerful women role models in your lineage. Loved reading about Nettie and her triumphant life!


  2. Janina Fuller Says:

    Happy birthday Nettie! Thank you for your courage, stamina, hard work, vision, and for your awesome granddaughter Andrea!


  3. kvwordsmith Says:

    Nettie is my hero! Next to you & Alice!


  4. What a fabulous piece, Andrea. These family stories are at their most potent when placed in the contest of a bigger story. Well done. And fabulous photos, too. I am so delighted to be reading your blog.


  5. Dee Says:

    Andrea, I am thinking how lucky you are to know
    the stock you come from, and the line of “exceptional”
    coming directly to you and through you. Roger in
    the barn reading with his dog! How you have enacted

    And that you can write it so it is alive again!

    So much luck for all of us!


  6. Pene Fedro Says:

    Wow, what a story. I wish I knew more about our Swedish relatives. Your story belongs on PBS’s new show about geneology.

    Keep on keeping on. Pene


  7. This has made me cry tonight — I’m not sure why. That photo of her standing on the porch with the hat in her hand — her look, her love — well, it just moved me. I am so grateful for the stories you tell here — for your inimitable ability to weave life in these people long gone. And I adore that photo of the very young Alice.


  8. John Says:

    What a wonderful ending to a story that started off so sadly. I can’t imagine what it was like for Nettie to go live with relatives who were more concerned with their own reputation than they were with doing what was right. But, thankfully, Nettie found happiness….

    And, knowing what I know of you… I think she’d be quite proud of you, her granddaughter.

    Happy Birthday Nettie. Wherever you are, may there be a soapbox to stand on!


  9. Kim Patton Says:

    Wholeheartedly agree with Heide’s comment.
    Just love the last picture of Nettie. Her strength and kindness shines through so fiercely it’s almost blinding.


  10. Sondra Says:

    I’m lucky to share a last name with such an amazing woman! Such a great story. I’m sure one of millions that could be told about those times…


  11. Sue Rosoff Says:

    Great story! Great photos!!! Nettie was quite something!!!!!


  12. Vanessa Whitacre Says:

    Happy birthday Nettie, I agree that is no wonder that you turned out the way you did Andrea. You are an amazing woman with a rare insight into life and a great ability to write about it. I love all of your pieces. Thank you


  13. Cheryl Says:

    So brave. It gives me a great feeling of solidarity to know of this brave woman who paved the way for women like to me to say “enough”, get out, and begin a new life. And to think that Nettie is your grandmother. But of course she is. I hear her wisdom in you every time we talk.


  14. A true trailblazer, that Nettie, and so savvy! Who ever thought of inviting the teacher to dinner? A beautifully told story and tribute, Andrea.


  15. Beth Says:

    Oh my. Does anyone else see the resemblance between Nettie (in that picture on the porch) and the writer of this blog?
    I love that Alice was proud Nettie was her mother-in-law. Are there more stories about the two of them?


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