While some people wonder what to wear for certain occasions, 16-year-old Isabelle Demarest of Crystal, Minnesota, knew just the right attire for her great-grandparent’s centennial wedding anniversary — her great-grandmother’s 100-year-old wedding dress.
“It feels super cool,” Demarest said. “I would have never ever imagined that I would be wearing her dress — like the wedding dress — and it’s just such an honor that I was chosen to wear it.”
Demarest wore the vintage wedding dress at the Nelson family reunion Aug. 3 at Litchfield Eagles Club. The event drew descendants of Joel and Emma Nelson from all over the U.S. to celebrate the 100th wedding anniversary of Joel and Emma.
Jill Flynn of Rockford, Illinois, has been the safe-keeper of her grandmother Emma Nelson’s wedding dress. When Emma died, Flynn took possession of the dress and stored it in a cedar chest in her house.
“Joel Nelson and Emma Benson were children of Swedish immigrants who grew up in the Beckville community — south of Litchfield,” said Les Nelson, the couple’s youngest son. Nelson is a retired pastor who now lives in Montana.
Emma and Joel married in 1919 after Joel returned from World War I service in France where he was a musical entertainer.
“He (Joel) played all the bugle calls from ‘Reveille’ to ‘Taps,’” Les said. “And then he played the cornet in the band for the officers’ dances at night. He was in the 32 Engineers’ band in France.”
“He said, ‘I was very lucky to be in the band. I didn’t have to do any fighting,’” said Margaret Conrad of California, one of the Nelsons’ daughters. “And his uniform and his bugle are in the (Litchfield GAR Hall) museum.”
For most of their lives, Joel and Emma farmed south of Litchfield, and they also raised 11 children, six of whom are still living. Joel died in 1975 at the age of 85, and Emma died in 1978 at the age of 79.
“They typify many farmers of the Litchfield area,” Les said, “who farmed this land throughout the ‘20s, the Great Depression, the war years and years of prosperity following the war. They were deeply involved in this community, serving in many capacities, and educating their children in Litchfield schools.”
Although his parents farmed their whole life, Les said not a single descendant is actively farming today.
“It’s just kind of the way the world is changing,” he said. “Back when our grandparents came, everybody is homesteading in small family farms, and now it’s just big commercial farms.”
The Nelsons and their families hold a family reunion every two years, but this centenary celebration was especially significant, Les said.
“We believe it will help future generations understand their history,” Les said. “And appreciate this couple that truly lived the American experience. This event pulls us together as a family to celebrate our roots in Joel and Emma Nelson, their values and this community.”
Two of Joel and Emma’s children live in the Litchfield area. Others traveled from different parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, New Mexico, California, Oregon, Washington and Montana.
The reunion consisted of a couple of tours, a picnic and a banquet. The banquet held at the Eagles Club took the form of a wedding reception, complete with a banquet meal, DJ, wedding cake, dance and toasts.
“We will be sharing memories and wearing wedding attire of the many generations of family weddings,” Les said days before the reunion.
Beckville Lutheran Church has played a very significant role in the lives of the Nelsons and their extended family.
“They were married there,” Les said. “All 11 of their children were baptized and confirmed there, four of their daughters were married there, and their youngest son (Les) was ordained there.”
Additionally, Joel and Emma, their parents, many of their siblings and four of their children are buried at the Beckville Lutheran Church cemetery, Les said.
“As this is the 150th anniversary of Beckville,” Les said, “the two events will merge on this weekend with a celebratory organ concert on Sunday afternoon featuring two classical organists, a grandson and a great-grandson of Joel and Emma.”
The rudder of a ship gets all the attention, because it determines where the ship is going, Les said. His parents filled a more ordinary — yet vital — role.
“But if the ship didn’t have ballast, it would flounder and sink,” he said. “And I think that they (Emma and Joel) represent the ballast. I mean, we always give so much attention to the rich and famous. But it’s the everyday guy who gets up and milks the cows, and farms and creates the food, and feeds the country and fights the wars, and that’s what they typify to me. They weren’t famous, they weren’t rich, but they were that American, solid citizen who voted every election, who went to war when they were called.”