On April 19, 1873, Mary Ann Freeman married Arthur Wilson Thomas in Kane County, Illinois. They settled in Wheaton in DuPage County. They raised a family of ten children. This slideshow chronicles their lives there through documents and family pictures from the collection of Mary's nephew, William Meehan.
From The Moses Speese Family Story by Ava Speese Day (1912-1988)
"From early years, Berwyn was a part of the vocabulary of everyone who took a ride or hoped to ride on the CB&Q Railroad. When my dad, Charles Speese, came home from Omaha each fall after taking cattle, horses and mules to market, he would name the towns he had traveled through and we kids looked in the geography to see where he had been. A look at the map showed that Grandpa Moses Speese lived closer to Berwyn than to Broken Bow, so he probably did his trading at the nearest town. This meant less work for men as well as for yesterdays' horses.
Three of these black families included Grandpa and two of his brothers. They came to Custer County and lived on farms situated between Berwyn and Westerville, north-east of Berwyn. When the railroad arrived up Muddy Creek Valley in August, 1886, the business men there moved their firms south seven miles to Ansley, the new railroad town. Consequently these black families traded frequently and transacted much of their business in Berwyn, their nearest shopping center. Then too, the fact that Berwyn had a good grain market as well as active hog and cattle buyers drew considerable business and contributed to Berwyn being a trading center.
The children were enrolled in various schools near the Westerville area, at times as many as firty were in attendance. They were for the most part, a religious group.
… in 1882 … Moses Speese went to Westerville, and on October 11, filed on the southwest quarter Section 30, Township 17, Range 18, Custer County. In 1883, he filed on the northeast quarter of the same section. The children attended school with the McEwen boys, the Cannons, Leeches, and others. Moses lived to see his children take direction in life, Henry becoming a minister, John, a lawyer and Rad, a very successful teacher of music. All played the piano and the violin. Church was very much a part of their family life and continued to be so in the lives of all.
Grandpa Moses Speese, who died when my father, Charles Speese, was 15 years old, is buried at the top of the hill of the Westerville cemetery. The three foot high headstone reads: Moses, husband of Susan Speese; died March 29, 1896. Aged 58 years. Across the bottom is the word FATHER. Next to him is buried his brother, Jeramiah Shores and his wife, Rachel Shores. She served as mid-wife to many Custer County babies, mostly her way was a chicken or two, some eggs or vegetables.
Moses's wife, Susan Speese, is buried in Westerville cemetery."
The Speese and Shores families lived in Custer County when famed photographer Solomon Butcher posed the families and took now iconic pictures of the groups in front of their sod houses.
Article at left from The Custer County Chief, Broken Bow, NE, 28 Feb 1908
"...They are colored people, but..."
In February 1908, the Custer County Chief (NE) reported a reluctant farewell to Charles Speese and his family (see article above). Six weeks later, the Torrington Telegram (WY) "warned" its readers that "colored people" were buying the "old Snyder ranch."
The article on the left appeared in the Torrington Telegram on Thursday, April 16, 1908. This is the community the Speese, Shores, and Taylor families migrated to upon leaving Nebraska. These black homesteaders dreamed of building an empire for themselves and future generations.
The dream of a home called Empire lasted little more than a decade. By late summer 1920, the Empire post office closed. There were many contributing factors to the failure of Empire, but some believe that the death of Baseman Taylor in 1913 was a contributing factor.
When Mr. Taylor's behavior became unstable, his family asked authorities to declare him incompetent. He went peacefully when the Goshen County sheriff came for him. Before taking him to a hospital, officers shackled Mr. Taylor's hands and feet to a bed and tortured him for three days. Baseman Taylor died at the hands of the sheriff on November 6, 1913. His death foreshadowed the death of a dream.
Learn more about the community these related families formed in the Nebraska State Historical Society's article by Todd Guenther, "The Empire Builders, An African American Odyssey in Nebraska and Wyoming," Nebraska History 89 (2008): 176-200.
"In March 1925, we left the Sand Hills for Pierre, S. Dak."
Lena and Ava Speese Day, Our Sod House Memories
Charles and Rose Meehan Speese left Nebraska for South Dakota in 1925, settling in Okobojo, also known as the Sully County Colored Colony. There, they met the family of William and Octavia McGruder Day. Lena Speese married George Day in 1929, followed by the 1931 marriage of Lena's sister, Ava, to George's brother, Lou.
"Mr. and Mrs. E. C. Vonohlen and children departed Thursday for Leland, Ill., where Mr. Vonohlen will engage in farming and make his future home." Notice from The World-Harold: Omaha, November 9, 1910, GenealogyBank.
The brief article did not mention that Ernst was returning home with his family. Ernst's father, Christian Ludwig Wilhelm Von Ohlen, immigrated from Germany in 1854 and settled in DeKalb County, Illinois. A year later, he was joined by his father, Christian Ludwig Von Ohlen. By June 1863, he appeared on a Civil War Draft Registration List for the Illinois Second Congressional District, which included DeKalb County. DeKalb County and Leland, Victor, Cortland, and Sycamore were home to many Von Ohlen families.
When Hester Freeman Meehan died in 1923, Charles Meehan settled in Cortland, where he occupied and farmed the Von Ohlen tenant house. He lived there until November 1929, when he returned to Nebraska to live with his son, Ed, in Alliance.
Ernst and Annie Meehan Von Ohlen's sons are pictured with a friend in DeKalb County on August 10, 1920.
Kermit is in the car, their friend Harry Olson is on the left, and Floyd is on the right.
FREEMAN FAMILY LED THE WAY
Before the Meehans left Canada, Hester's sister, Rachel Freeman, lived in Oak Park, Illinois. In 1877. Rachel married Lewis Johns of Maywood, Illinois.
Frank Johns, son of Rachel Freeman, and cousin, Bill Meehan, not long after Bill left the Nebraska Sandhills. Frank and Bill worked as chauffeurs during this time.
GRANDPA VISITS MAYWOOD
After the death of his beloved wife and lifelong friend, Hester, Charles settled in Sycamore, Illinois, near his oldest daughter and her family, Ernst and Annie Meehan VonOhlen.
Charles often visited his son, Bill, in Maywood.
The picture of Charles is from the VonOhlen collection.
BROWN FAMILY ARRIVES IN MAYWOOD
August 19, 1934, Charles Meehan writes, "I was given to understand you were bringing all the Brown family there ... Ed and I went over to Dens to bid them good by ..."
Six of the seven Brown children attended Washington Elementary School and Proviso High School. This picture was taken in Maywood.
BILL MEEHAN ACTIVE COMMUNITY MEMBER
During Bill Meehan's 42 years in Maywood, he was an active member of the religious, civic, and social community.
He joined Second Baptist church in the early years and was ordained to preach in 1952. He taught the Senior Boys Sunday School Class for many years. Other activities included the Booker T. Washington Progressive and Civic Club (pictured), Oak Park Public Speaking Club, Maywood Community Fund, The Townsend Club (Social Security forerunner), Boy Scouts of America, and others.
MAYWOOD WAS HOME
Maywood is where the site's creator grew up. By 1948, all but Bill Meehan left Maywood. On a day-to-day basis, a fantastic community replaced the family.
They filled the role of surrogate grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, all providing support, guidance, direction, encouragement, discipline, a firm moral foundation, and love.
Chicago was and is the home of several Anderson and Freeman descendants.
Pictured upper left is Osborne Singleton, son of Rachel Freeman, and Livas Thomas, Son of Mary Freeman. Osborne and his brother Oliver lived in Chicago for many years. Their cousin, Livas, lived in Wheaton. Their brother, Frank Johns, lived in Maywood, Oak Park, and Chicago, and their sister, Mary Harvey, married Samuel Hatcher. Many of Samuel and Mary's descendants still live in Chicago.
I found Thomas Smith, son of Addison and Mary Anderson Smith and Hester's first cousin, pictured lower right in Bill Meehan's 1930s address book. The research found several of Hester's Smith cousins left Ontario for Detroit and Chicago.
On the Canadian border and only fifty-odd miles from Chatham, Ontario, Detroit drew many whose families left the United States for Canada in the early to mid-nineteenth century. The facts surrounding each decision to settle in Detroit differed; the proximity to family members who remained in Canada certainly provided added incentive.
When Maurice and Gertie Meehan Brown left Maywood, they resettled permanently in Detroit, with several of their children settling in surrounding Detroit communities. Detroit was an easy commute to reach the many Brown family members in the Chatham area.
Tom Smith lived in Detroit before moving to Chicago. His brother, Dr. Garret Smith. Garret received his doctor's degree from the Detroit College of Medicine in 1910. His 1949 obituary read, "With the passing of Dr. Smith, Rondeau lost one of the most successful sons of one of its most illustrious pioneers, the late Addison Smith, the first colored settler at the Eau." (Newspaper obituary from the collection of Terry Lynn Murphy.)
John Leroy Thomas, son of Arthur and Mary Freeman Thomas and Hester Freeman Meehan's nephew, lived for some time in Montana. On 22 December 1917, he married Bertha Terry in Lewistown, Fergus County, Montana. The picture on the lower left, taken in Butte City, could be Bertha Terry.
The image of Livas "Joseph" Anderson, center left, measures nine and a half by thirteen inches and is printed on linen paper with his eyes lined in ink within a dove grey cardboard folio stamped with the words Napa, California. It is beautiful! But there is no evidence that the man in the picture ever returned to the United States. How did his image come to be reproduced in California?
Ava Speese Day's 1977 Christmas Letter included a brief passage about Hester Freeman Meehan's brother, Robert. She wrote that "Mom's uncle Robert Freeman used to live in Fresno. We never heard any more from or about him after a big flood hit there about 1924." It is possible that Robert had the old tintype reproduced, but Fresno is about 200 miles from Napa Valley, so the search continued for someone closer to Napa Valley.
The answer came in 2017 when Family Search added newly digitized California Transcription records. Hester's nephew, Solon Pericles Thomas, pictured center with Livas, died in Napa on December 5, 1926, at 48. Records indicate that Solon was only in Napa for a few years. Still, during that time it is possible that he commissioned the preservation of the image of Livas, the oldest known Anderson ancestor.
Those Audacious Meehans
All pictures used on this site are the property of Catherine Meehan Blount unless otherwise noted. Other images are used with permission.
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