Fragile Tea Set Links Ashland Generations
Published in the Ashland Daily Press
March 9, 2019
My mother’s china cabinet held the fragile treasures of our family’s past. When I went to visit Mom recently, I asked to see the child-sized tea set that once belonged to my 2nd Great Aunt Josie. The ceramic toy was stored in a plastic bag on the top shelf. It was toward the back, so I found a step stool to safely remove the bag from the glassware surrounding it.
I set the bag down on the dining table. I removed each of the cups and saucers one by one with a kind of reverence. Even though the items dated back to the late 1800’s, it wasn’t the antique component that made them valuable. In fact, between the two cups and four saucers, there was only one good set. It was sentimental value that made the ceramic precious because this toy was the only thing that my 2nd Great Grandparents’ saved from the fire that burned their two-story house.
“Do you see the burn marks?” Mom asked.
“Maybe,” I answered, inspecting the one good cup. “I see something that looks like a scuff mark?!” I held the tiny handle and set the cup in the groove of the one good saucer. I pictured 13-year-old Josie having tea with one of her dollies. I was saddened to think she never lived past the age of playing house. “It’s hard to believe that children were allowed to play with breakable dishes.”
“It’s all they had back then,” Mom laughed. “They didn’t make plastic yet.”
Life was so different in the late 1800’s, it was hard to imagine.
“Did Josie’s dad build that house?” I asked.
“Him and Josephine did, I suppose,” Mom answered.
“What brought them to Northern Wisconsin?” I asked.
“Grandpa Kreeger heard of the free land that was being offered in Northern Wisconsin.”
“Through the Homestead Act. They had to agree to settle on, and farm the land for up to five years. After that, the land would be theirs.”
Mom went on to explain that my 2nd Great Grandfather, John Kreeger, was 16-years-old when he joined the military and served as a scout for Custer. She remembers hearing the stories of how Grandpa Kreeger was one of the scouts assigned to deliver a message that additional men were needed for what came to be known as the Battle of Little Bighorn. While they were out, Custer and his entire army of soldiers were killed.
“Wow,” I said. I couldn’t imagine what it would have been like to have lived through that. “Did he move to the Drummond area after the war?”
“No. Grandpa Kreeger moved to Iowa. That’s where he met Josephine.”
After having two children, and twenty years of running a photography shop in Ottumwa, IA, my Kreeger grandparents decided to homestead a property in Drummond. Their youngest, Josie, would have been just starting elementary school. Their oldest, Nina Belle, was 19 and engaged to a man who worked at the saw mills in the Cable Drummond area.
Grandma and Grandpa Kreeger built a two-story house on their property, and while raising their two children, they learned how to grow and harvest crops. They hunted and fished for meat.
On February 16th, 1905 the Kreeger’s were blessed with their first granddaughter. Nina Belle named her baby Doris.
Auntie Josie was a spunky 13-year-old, who looked forward to her visits from her big sister and niece. Josie’s second-floor bedroom was filled with dolls and other girly toys that she looked forward to sharing. It must have been an exciting time for all of them.
It probably was a beautiful fall day, with the leaves on the trees changing color, the morning that Josie died.
The story that was carried over the generations was that they took their boat across the lake to where the hunting was known to be good. They canned meat back then for the upcoming winter months when food and supplies were harder to obtain.
Mom remembers being told, although the facts were spotty, that the family walked to the lake shore, and Josephine laid the gun on the dock near the rope that anchored the boat to shore. Josie stepped into the boat and sat in her designated spot. John got into the boat and held onto the dock while Josephine went back to untie the rope. Somehow, the rope wrapped around the trigger of the gun, and when it fell over, it discharged, killing young Josie.
It was a horrible accident that changed a loving, adventurous couple, into two heart-broken, grieving adults, with shattered dreams. The only thing the Kreegers kept alive after Josie’s death, was Josie’s bedroom which they tended like a shrine.
My Grandmother, Doris Anderson, remembered once going into Josie’s room, wanting to play with the toys. Great-great Grandma Kreeger ordered her out of there. The door was shut, and she was told never to go in there again. The accident became something no one ever talked about.
In 1932, the homestead house burned to the ground. The story goes, it was a lightning strike that started the fire. The only things saved from the fire were those dishes I now held in my hands.
“Wow,” I said, inspecting each of the broken pieces. As I looked for the evidence of the fire, I couldn’t help but feel a connection to young Josie. It was such a tragedy in how she died. How my grandparents, who through their grief, lost their passion for life. Each other. I could barely breathe when I whispered my thought out loud, “It was probably a good thing that a fire burned that house down to the ground.”
“What happened after the fire?” I asked, my heart swelling with compassion.
“They bought a house in Drummond,” Mom answered. “Grandpa Kreeger was 79 when he died. After he passed, your Grandma Kreeger started spending the winter months with her Grandchildren’s families.”
“Did Grandma Kreeger ever talk about Josie when she came to stay with you?” I asked. My mother was seven years old the year Grandpa Kreeger died and Grandma Kreeger came to stay with them that first winter.
“No,” Mom answered sadly. “They never really talked about it. They cried, I know that.”
“Did they ever find happiness again?” I asked.
“Oh, I suppose,” Mom answered. “I have good memories of our time together when they’d visit us. They loved to play games, like Chinese checkers, Pinochle, and the card game Smear.”
“It was a horrible accident,” I said, looking down at what was left of Josie’s playset.
“Yes, it was,” Mom answered.
It was time for me to go home, so I started placing each of the porcelain pieces back into the plastic bag. I took extra care to pack away the unbroken tea cup and saucer. It was hard to believe that this little white tea set had been saved by our family for 114 years. Some would say that we’ve been unwilling to let go of a painful memory. But maybe the feel of the toy on our fingertips just reminds us of how precious life is. Just maybe objects like the tea set are what keep us connected to what was good in our past.