Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Tragedy on Christmas Eve, 1917

One of the saddest episodes in the life of my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, has to be the death of his 9-year-old daughter, Rosalie, on Christmas Eve in 1917.  Her death came less than two years after the death of little G. Oliver Jr., at age 1.

Rosalie with baby brother G. Oliver Jr. and dog Prince in 1914.
My dad and his siblings grew up hearing about Rosalie, and how their grandmother Islea was so distraught over her daughter’s death, she never again celebrated Christmas.

My grandfather Ronald was 16 when his little sister died, and his brother Percy was almost 14.  How sad it must have been for them.  My youngest child, Elias, is 10, only a year older than Rosalie, and I know how much his siblings love and care about him, despite those occasional moments when it’s not so apparent.

Rosalie with brothers Percy, on left, and Ronald, center.
I don’t know how G. Oliver handled the loss.  I did notice that about a month before Rosalie died, a Crookston newspaper reported that G. Oliver planned to form a girls’ saxophone band that would play on its own and also with the Crookston Juvenile Band (made up solely of boys).  After Rosalie’s death, no mention was made again of the girls’ band; I don’t believe it ever was organized.

In the years after Rosalie’s death, G. Oliver never included girls in the bands he directed – not in Bemidji, where he moved in 1919, or St. Cloud, where he moved in 1923.  It may have had more to do with the convention of the time than his personal preference.  But I do wonder: was it too difficult for him to instruct girls around Rosalie’s age and think about what might have been?  If Rosalie had lived, would he have formed that girls band? 
Rosalie, in center, looking at the camera, surrounded by friends.
It wasn’t until the end of his career, when he took a job organizing the first band at Red Lake High School, that G. Oliver directed a co-ed band, made up of white and Ojibwe boys and girls.
Islea, Rosalie and G. Oliver.
Rosalie was born in Crookston on June 24, 1908.  The family moved a couple of times during her young life, living for a year in Grand Forks and three years in Havre, Montana.  They returned to Crookston in 1914.

In December of 1917, the United States was involved in World War I.  According to Crookston newspaper accounts, toys for Christmas were scarce, especially dolls, and toys made in Germany could not be purchased.  On Dec. 13, the temperature dropped to 27 degrees below zero.

After a busy couple of days participating in the school Christmas program, delivering presents to friends and helping decorate the family Christmas tree, Rosalie developed an ear infection.  She became ill the evening of Saturday, Dec. 22, and the infection led to mastoiditis.  She died at home in the early morning of Christmas Eve.

I’m not sure who wrote the article in the Dec. 26 Crookston Daily Times about Rosalie’s death, but I’d like to give him or her credit (likely it was a him, probably the editor) because it contains some beautiful writing, the kind we rarely see in modern obituaries.
A Dec. 26 article in the Crookston Daily Times
I especially love this part:

“ ... It is a blow that baffles human reason.  It is beyond us all.  Rosalie had so many excellent gifts and gave so much promise for the future.  Her father and mother had planned great things for her, for she lived in the spirit of an unbroken rhythm.”

Rosalie at the lake, summer 1917.
Although G. Oliver and Islea moved from Crookston about a year after Rosalie’s death, I think part of them never really left.  When Islea died in 1942, she was buried in the family plot in the Crookston cemetery, near Rosalie and G. Oliver Jr.  G. Oliver the elder joined them in 1946.

Rosalie’s grave in the Crookston cemetery.
I will think of Rosalie this week as we prepare to celebrate Christmas with family.  Instead of feeling stressed about holiday tasks, I will try to take a breath, enjoy the moment, and treasure those around me, grateful for their presence in my life.

We all can learn from Rosalie’s example, and strive to live in the spirit of an unbroken rhythm.
Rosalie catching grasshoppers while camping out west, 1914.


  1. A touching story, Joy. The picture of Rosalie catching grasshoppers is perfect.

  2. Indeed. [Wiping away a tear or two.]

  3. Beautiful. This moved me to tears.

  4. That was such a beautifully-written and touching tribute, and the pictures are phenomenal. Thank you for sharing this with us.


  5. Joy, wish we could have met our great aunt. Thanks for compiling this wonderful tribute!

  6. i'm in tears because of this story ;(

  7. Hi Joy,

    Quite by accident, I found this story while I was searching for info about my grandmother's niece, Mary Edith, who was born on Christmas Eve 1917. If possible I would like to ask your permission to use a small portion of your story in a book I'm currently compiling. There would be no cost or obligation, and you would be given full attribution. Please contact me at

    All best,

    Lori Nawyn