Thursday, September 21, 2023

How my grandparents ended up in the federal penitentiary

I’m totally cheating this week and sharing a story my aunt Joyce wrote. She is the official keeper of family history for the Hanson side of things and while I don’t think my family was any weirder than anyone else’s, she shares the most wonderful stories. Maybe people back in the day simply had more interesting lives, free of screen time and the other artificial constructs we deem so important in modern culture.

 I treasure these glimpses of people I know only through old photos and faded memories. I’ve edited it a bit for readability but these are her words. The “John N.” she refers to is her older brother, my uncle, John N. Hanson, to differentiate him from my grandfather, John E. Hanson.


So here we go, as told by Joyce (Hanson) Sorenson:


This is a funny story—at least as a family we thought so, but my dad didn't—about my parents, baby Rosemary and 3-year-old John N. and how they ended up in the Iowa State Federal Penitentiary in Ft. Madison, Iowa, in 1928. Mother loved to tell the story and saw much humor in it.

My grandfather, John E. Hanson, 1927

 In 1927, after the death of their oldest child, Grace, my mom and dad put all their belongings in storage, sold their house in Burlington, Iowa, and embarked on a trip with a Model T car and a tent. They left Iowa, my dad working the crops through the West, harvesting wheat in Nebraska, cherries in Colorado, apples and hops in Washington, lumber mill in Washington, and so on until they got to Alexandria, Louisiana, where Rosemary was born in January 1928.  


In the spring of that year, they decided it was time to return to Iowa and dad would start tenant farming until they could buy a farm of their own. Now, Iowa farms traditionally change tenant farmers in March, and dad had an opportunity to go to a farm near Burlington at that time so they loaded the kids into the Model T and started north, driving up what is call the Mississippi River Road or Highway 61.  

My grandparents, Laurel and John E. Hanson and and their oldest son, John N., 1927

At that time, it was more of a gravel cow path, mud when it rained. There were no cement highways. About the time they got around St. Louis, Mo., it started to be spring rains and the roads became muddier, but they pushed on. They were driving through deep clay ruts that were clinging to the wooden wheel car spokes and they were sliding all over, but had managed to stay out of the ditch. 

This is a random pic I found online but suspect it's representative
of "highway" conditions my grandparents encountered as they
made their way home to Iowa in the spring of 1928.

 It was the middle of the afternoon when they crossed the Missouri/Iowa border headed north and thought they were about 40 miles from home in Burlington, Iowa, and hoped to make it closer that day. Instead, they slid into the ditch. Dad couldn't get them out, and there was no other traffic on the muddy road, so dad said he would walk to the nearest place to get help and borrow a team of horses to pull the Model T out, or at least pull it level to sleep in if necessary.  


He left the pistol he was carrying with mom and the babies and started walking. Took him awhile and the first place he came to was the Iowa State Federal Penitentiary in the middle of nowhere outside of Ft. Madison, Iowa. He figured maybe he could borrow a team of horses, so went up and pounded on the big penitentiary gates. Soon someone opened the peep window in the door to find out what he wanted.  

The outer wall of the old federal penitentiary at Ft. Madison, Iowa.
A new facility has since replaced this one, which still stands today.

The warden himself came and they talked. The warden agreed that it was not safe for them to sit in the ditch overnight and that dad should go back to the car and wait and he would send some help with a team of horses. So dad did, and soon down the road came a four horse team with a bunch of men to help. They hitched onto the Model T and got it out of the ditch and then kept pulling it, with dad yelling at them to stop.  


They ignored him, and pulled the car up to the penitentiary gates, which opened, and much to dad’s horror, they continued to pull the Model T and all its passengers into the main compound with the gates closing after them. The warden explained they would have to get the car checked out and that he had arranged for the visitors’ bedroom to be fixed for them to stay in until the roads improved. Dad was not at all impressed and wanted out. 


It ended up with mom and the children going to a beautifully furnished room with the most beautiful hand-carved dark walnut furniture mom had ever seen. She said they were treated like royalty, and had a hot meal brought to them, with extra milk and toast for John N. at bedtime. Women brought hot water to for her to bath in, and they bathed both Rosemary and John N. for her. She said one woman sat and read to John N. while she nursed Rosemary and then the kids were put to bed.  


When they woke in the morning, their clothes had been washed and pressed, and a hot breakfast brought to them. During this time mom said dad paced the floor and said he wanted out as this was “where they hung people."  He never went to bed or took his clothes off, but mom said he did eat breakfast.  


The warden wanted them to stay until the roads dried but dad insisted on leaving, so they did. They furnished them with a container of milk and bread and meat as they left. The guards checked the Model T, got the clay mud off the car spokes, opened the big gates and dad chugged out, much relieved when the big gates closed behind them.   


Mom thought it was great, but not dad, he never saw any humor in it, but did admit they helped when needed. Years later when I was in Corpus Christi, Texas, talking with John N., he laughed about it, and said when he flew planes for the CIA and had to pass so many security checks that he always hesitated when he checked the box "no," he had never been in a federal prison.  

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this. Story telling obviously runs in your family. Any news about your novel? Wishing you and yours all the best.