A Selection from The History of Black Hawk County, 1878

I’m spending the morning reading my recently acquired copy The History of Black Hawk County, published 1878, and to my delight am finding the most splendid descriptions of Iowa, its people and places. Here, for your reading pleasure, is a brief description of Mr. Charles Dyer, one of many “bands of adventurers” to come to the land of the Red Cedar and tear up its supply of timber:
“One of these [adventurers] was Charles Dyer, who had a peculiarly formed hump-back, looking, as some of the early settlers described him, ‘as if he had shouldered himself.’ Dyer continued his work of plunder to such an extent that the white settlers determined to drive him from the county. They assembled, and visited his shanty in a body to deal with him in accordance with pioneer custom; but the gentleman whom they desired to see wasn’t at home. After due deliberation—as they knew that Dyer could not read a note of warning if they left one for him—they stripped the bark from a large tree in front of his rude cabin, and, with a bit of charcoal, one of their number sketched upon the naked trunk a picture of the hump-back, which they riddled with bullets. The likeness was unmistakable, and it is said Dyer understood it, as he quietly disappeared. It is not known when the event occurred or where Dyer’s cabin was located.” (page 308)

What Do the Papers Tell Us?

Because it is so difficult to find people who can or will discuss the Andreessen event, I have turned to reviewing local newspapers, particularly The Stout Weekly News section of The Grundy Register. Many hours of scanning and reading the incredibly small type (I had to finally invest in a magnifying glass) reveals an ordinary family and a hard-working, well-respected man. His several interactions with town matters show a man committed to being a part of his community and not a man prone to disturbing actions.

One such entry from July 23, 1931 states the following:

Nanno Andreessen has received authority from the railroad company to install an electric pumping device for water to the Stout stockyards. The old equipment has never given satisfaction when required. The well is now practically empty and it will be up to the railroad company to secure water from some source for this purpose. If the railroad company had rented the pump that is now installed in the yards at the beginning of the year, they would have been able to conserve much water as the mindmill [sic] pumps night and day and a great deal of water has been wasted.

Other pieces show that he was involved in civic matters, such as an entry on July 3, 1924 noting Articles of Incorporation of the Farmers Trust and savings Bank of Stout, Iowa. His name is included as one of the provisional directors.

Additionally, as The Stout Weekly News was filled with many of the daily comings and goings of its citizens, I found numerous mentions of Nanno himself, or Nanno and family, as having been Sunday afternoon visitors at one neighbor’s home or another. He was also very busy with his shipping business as other notes comment on yet another carload of hogs or cattle driven to Cedar Rapids or Chicago.

Apparently, he was well-liked and his family was respected.  His family, and that of his wife’s, were integral parts of Beaver Township and had well-established roots there. Clearly, much of what is laid out about his life, at least in The Stout Weekly News, provides no hint of what was to come that February day in 1932, which leaves more questions than answers, I’m afraid.

Amazing Journey

This summer has led me on an amazing journey into the story of the Andreessen family of Stout, IA. To begin, I met another interested person, who incidentally lives in the very house where the story began, and I’m happy to now call her my friend. Additionally, I met members of her family who were absolutely wonderful and who welcomed me into their home where we shared thoughts and insights into the story as well. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would ever have the chance to meet people also associated with the story and in such a unique way.

One of the things I’ve learned from this journey so far is that I am not alone. There are others who share the same interests as I do. More importantly, I was reminded about how wonderful people in Iowa are. Not only do we want to connect with each other, but we also support each other, we welcome them into our homes, and we encourage each other in our pursuits.

When I started this blog, I thought I would be the only one reading it — with the exception of an interested family member or two. I thought it would become my way of recording my stories and something for me to turn back to over the years to see what I did and what I learned. Now I see it in a very different way. I see it as a way to make connections, to expand my way of understanding these stories and the people they involve. With each new connection, I learn more and can share more.

The most important part of all of this is to honor those whose stories we tell.  We all lead imperfect lives, but we can still celebrate life and remember all that made people good, that made them our families and our friends, that made them Iowans.

Final Resting Place

IMG_1450One day last summer, I took a drive out west of Cedar Falls, west of Dike, to the small town of Stout, IA. Here I found the final resting place of the Andreessen family. It was a quiet, sad experience for me. After reading and thinking so much about this family, it was surreal to find myself standing where they lie. I had pondered their stories and asked questions of everyone I could think of, and now I was standing there in front of the names of people who, in a strange way, were beginning to feel like family to me.


Nanno, Christine, Elmer, Verna. Father, Mother, Daughter, Son. Lined up, resting together in a mass grave, or so the papers said. I finally saw for myself what I’d been reading about.

Not far away was the grave of Christine’s sister, Maggie Hessenius, who was also shot that day. She was just far enough away to be removed from the four Andreessens, yet seeing the same date on her tombstone as on the others gave me an eerie feeling.


As I continue writing their story, I know I need to go out there again.I feel it is my duty not to forget.

Killings Occur as Breakfast Lies on Table (The Andreessen story continues…)

“Note on garage door in Stout gives first intimation of tragedy–Officers believe farmer
shot women and children and was killed later by fatally wounded wife — Motive unknown
The once wealthy farmer was in financial straits–killings occur as breakfast lies on table.”

Waterloo Daily Courier,  Wednesday February 17, 1932

In my research into the Andreessen’s story, I have become mesmerized at the detail with which newspaper reporters wrote nearly 80 years ago. The articles I’ve read, those I received from my grandmother’s collection and those I’ve uncovered on my own, are much more descriptive than any modern articles written for modern papers. These writers were indeed storytellers, crafting a tale so vivid that the readers could not help but become a part of the story themselves.

“His wife, still living, fired at her husband with a .12 gauge shotgun when he returned,
killing him instantly, the officers believed. The top of Andreesen’s head was shot off.”


“Four empty shells were picked up in the room by Sheriff Mamminga.
The bodies of the children lay in the east corner of the room, faces upturned.
The bodies of their mother and aunt lay nearby on their backs.”

Waterloo Daily Courier,  Wednesday February 17, 1932

Gruesome as the details are, they provide an impeccable representation of the scene of the terrible event. Who needs crime scene photos when such detail is laid out before us? Writers of articles like these not only recounted specific details but even ventured as far as to give a retelling of the day’s events, pure speculation though it may have been.

“She apparently had bathed her face as a pan of water and blood
was at the edge of the table nearest her. A bloody cloth was in the pan.”

Waterloo Daily Courier,  Wednesday February 17, 1932

As readers, we become the characters in these stories, yet we needn’t have been there to be involved. I feel as though I , too, have become a resident of Stout, experiencing the shock and horror with the others, waiting, hoping the next article will rationalize the horrendous deed that took place during that cold February day in 1932.

Head Injury: A Reason to Kill? (The Andreessen story continues)

In my research into the Andreessen murders, I have found very little mention of the event aside from newspaper reports. However, a few months ago, I did stumble upon one book that mentioned the event in two brief paragraphs:

“Another farmer, Nanno Andressen, had fallen from a windmill ten years before 1932, leaving him unconscious for several days. That incident led to some sort of mysterious trauma, or perhaps the cause became ever-mounting financial difficulties, remaining the only reasons his brother could possibly offer to explain why Andressen killed his family and himself one winter day in 1932 . Andressen stormed into the kitchen that icy cold morning and shot his wife, her sister, and his two children as they ate breakfast before chores, and then he proceeded to drive to nearby Stout, leaving a message at a local garage: “Call at Nanno Andressen’s place and you will find five dead bodys [ sic ]. Everyone is dead.” 42

Ossian, Lisa L.. Depression Dilemmas of Rural Iowa, 1929-1933. Columbia, MO, USA: University of Missouri, 2012. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 23 February 2015. Copyright © 2012. University of Missouri. All rights reserved.

What’s interesting about that passage is that it alludes to a head injury the elder Andreessen sustained. Upon my review of local newspapers at the time (which, incidentally, go into amazingly specific detail of the lives of the local residents), I found only a brief mention of Andreesen’s fall and the resulting injury. However, I did not see any reference to this injury as a suggested reason for Andreessen’s violent behavior that day during my review of Iowa newspapers. Ossian’s note is the first mention of this as far as I can find. The footnote reveals the source for that information as the Des Moines Register, November 11, 1929, 1 which I will need to look into. My interview with my grandmother did not produce any mention of his head injury, but this is not surprising given that she was so young at the time of the event.

What Ossian’s second paragraph produces is more in line with part of the mystery I uncovered:

“When garage employee Harvey Dilger found the murderous note at 7 a.m., he immediately drove with Clarence Wilson, station agent, and Albert Neiman, mail carrier, out to the Andressen farm where they did in fact find five bodies. Two versions still remain to explain the last death. Nanno had either subsequently returned to the farm and killed himself with a shotgun as planned or his wife, barely alive when he returned, struggled with him and ultimately shot her murdering husband dead. Four murders and one suicide or five farmstead murders? Only the corpses carry the truth.” 43

Ossian, Lisa L.. Depression Dilemmas of Rural Iowa, 1929-1933. Columbia, MO, USA: University of Missouri, 2012. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 23 February 2015. Copyright © 2012. University of Missouri. All rights reserved.

Here is where many sources converge: What caused Nanno’s death? Was it suicide or murder? Certainly, he was prepared to die that day, whether that involved him taking his own life (given the cryptic message: “you will find five dead bodys”) or whether he died at the hands of another. Sources indicate his wife may have still been alive when he returned, yet that does not clear up the mystery of the hidden gun which was not found by others until days later…more on that to come.

The Rensselear Russell House in Waterloo, IA

Last summer, when time was still on my side, I spent a few days as a docent at the Rensselear Russell House Museum in my hometown of Waterloo. A Victorian structure built in 1857 by businessman R. Russell, the home stands on its original spot overlooking the downtown area situated near today’s Grout Museum of Science and History and its accompanying structures, the Snowden House and Imaginarium, both of which also have interesting histories related to the area.

I first visited the Russell House when I was in junior high school in the early 1990’s, probably seventh or eighth grade, and have held a youthful fascination with it since. Needless to say, I was excited to serve as a docent and offer tours and my own retelling of this structure and family’s history.

My first day was great. I had about 4 or 5 different groups of people come in, ranging from retired couples passing through town to families with their young children. The time flew and I was closing up before I knew it. My second day was less busy. In fact, no one came. It was probably because Cedar Falls was holding its annual summer festival, Sturgis Falls. That said, I had my book and was prepared to settle in for my three-hour shift waiting for anyone who might choose to call on me that day.

The house was very quiet with just me occupying her spaces, and the air was still and musty except for the slight breeze from the modern AC flowing intermittently about. I could not help but close my eyes hoping to “hear” the house. I wanted so much for it to speak to me, for a voice to come through the quiet and tell me what life had been like in the house so many years ago. I tried to imagine myself as a family friend and wondered how it would have been to sit in the fancy parlor or the family’s sitting room. (Because it’s a museum, there are limited places where one can sit now. I was on a metal folding chair most of the afternoon.) How would I have had to act? What would I have been wearing? What type of education would I have had? How different would my life be?

StairsAlas, all was quiet that day in the Russell House. No voices, no sounds, no stories, no answers. The wannabe “ghost hunter” in me wanted to see Mrs. Russell come down the grand entryway steps or hear the laughter of young Genevieve who drowned in a cistern on a nearby property when she was very young. The hurt experienced by the family during those dark days after losing Genevieve, the joyful birth of their daughter Lillian years later, and the later deaths of both Mr. and Mrs. Russell seemed to hang in the air around me. (Image from the Grout Museum District webpage).

While disappointed at the time that I had no “living” visitors to lead around the house, looking back now, I see what an amazing gift I was given to have the experience of being in that house all by myself. It offered me solitude and time for reflection. For a brief period of time, I was with the Russell family, stepping tentatively into their world, yet keeping one foot (securely) in my own.

Stout, IA: A Moment of Serendipity

My research into Stout, IA experienced a moment of serendipity this summer. One day while waiting for some car repair work to be completed at the Honda shop, I struck up a conversation with a woman who was with me in the waiting room for a similar reason. She noticed the book I was reading — Midnight Assassin — which was about the Hossack murders in Iowa that took place around 1900. This opened the door for a conversation about my interest and research into the Andreessen’s story. After a while of conversation about what I’ve discovered during my quest so far, she revealed that she was on her way to have lunch with a few friends, one of whom had grown up in the Stout area. After hearing of my story and (as often is the case) asking if I was working on a book, she said she would ask her friend if she had any recollections or information about the place or event. Feeling elated, but also cautiously guarding my optimism about receiving new information, I shared my name, email and phone number with her and we said our good-byes.

A week or so later when I was in Louisville, KY for the AP English Language and Composition Exam scoring session, I received a voice mail from a kind woman explaining that she was the friend of the woman at the car dealership and would be interested in speaking with me about her knowledge of the area. I could hardly believe it! What a call to receive! Unfortunately, I was unable to return her call for a few days because of my work in KY, but as soon as I got home, I called and held my breath to see where the conversation would go.

In short, it was a lovely conversation. She filled me in on a lot of the details about the community, the settlers, the religious factions, how people interacted with one another in that time, and so forth. She provided a few additional names for me to contact, but sadly, they didn’t provide any new leads as the folks were in their eighties and not too interested in speaking on the phone to an unfamiliar woman asking questions about an event that happened over 80 years ago.

Though I was disappointed to not get anywhere after this wonderful second conversation, I was more than joyful about the serendipitous meeting at the dealership and the nice woman’s consideration to pass along my information to her friend. Even more, I was touched by the second woman’s call which gave me a better picture of the town and its people.

My thoughts return to Stout and the journey continues.

My Current Project: Stout, IA

Lately, I’ve been fascinated with an event that occurred in rural Iowa in 1932. Many of my friends at work have heard me talk about this, some at great length because I get so absorbed in describing what I’ve discovered in my research. The story is not a pleasant one, but it’s pretty typical for the times, given that 1932 was in the heart of the Depression, an event that took its toll on Iowa farmers in many ways, economically and, more importantly, very personally.

When I was a child, I remember coming across an old newspaper clipping my grandma had in a cedar box on her dresser. It told the story of horribly tragic murder of a family in the little town of Stout, Iowa. I knew from the way my grandma reacted to it even then that the story carried with it difficult memories and associations for her. She grew up on her family’s farm just outside of Stout, which was a very small community filled with groups of Dutch and German farmers. Stout, like most areas, suffered its share during the Depression years, a fact proven in a search through its newspapers at the time. The clipping told the story of the Andreesen family murders. The father, Nanno, killed his wife, children, and his sister-in-law, and then killed himself. Fascinated by this story, I never really forgot it. However, the “busy-ness” of life took over and I forgot about the story for many years.

When I moved back to Iowa after graduate school and began teaching, I recalled that box of clippings and asked my grandma if I could see them again. I made photocopies of the clippings so that I would have a record of them for myself. Occasionally, I’d return to them, but it wasn’t until recently that I took a real interest in learning more about the Andreesen story. It’s been difficult to find much information as the event occurred so long ago, but I’ve been reviewing newspapers from the area/era and have been trying to make contacts wherever I can. Thankfully, I still have my grandma to ask, which I did, and I have some very supportive friends who’ve guided my investigation along the way.

What do I expect to find? I have no idea. I’m not beginning this journey with an end in mind. A lot of people ask me, “Are you going to write a book?” The answer — I have no idea. I have no idea where this will go…what I will find…if I will find anything…or if anything I find will be interesting enough to other people. What I do know is that I am fascinated by this story — for reasons I don’t know and can’t explain — and I want to know more, if for no other reason than to just remember this family, the children who died so young, the pain felt by the parents and the community, the tragedy of what life was for the rural Iowan during the Great Depression. Theirs is one story among many of Iowans that should not be forgotten. I hope that my search and my writing does not stir up any old wounds and does not hurt the families of those who may have known or be related to this family. In my research and story-telling, I aim to do nothing but show respect and compassion for the lives of the people I write about.

More about the journey to come.

The Beginning

My interest in local history began many years ago. I can’t say when for sure, but I know that I’ve always been interested in stories, especially stories of times long past, stories that reveal what makes us human, and stories that connect us together. I encounter these stories everyday, and I want so desperately to know more and understand the people and the circumstances surrounding their lives.

I’ve been writing about these stories for a while but never in a way that would be easy to share with others. That’s why I’ve created this blog. I hope to share with you the stories I encounter and, in some cases, the stories I uncover.