Contributor: Josefa Abdelnour
Dates of Travel: September 2005
Soon after I started dating my now husband, I met his paternal grandmother, Evelyn. I was instantly fascinated by her once I learned she had joined the Women ‘s Army Auxiliary Corps during World War II and worked on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico. She was in her seventies when she told me this story and I quickly started learning and documenting her rich history. When my daughter was born, I named her Margot Evelyn in honor of her.
Evelyn was born and raised in South Dakota to a farming family. Her mother was Ethel Drake Nelson who was of English descent and the cousin of a direct descendant of a Mayflower passenger. In fact, Ethel’s cousin was a member of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants — commonly called the Mayflower Society — which is a hereditary organization of individuals who have documented their descent from one or more of the 102 passengers who arrived on the Mayflower in 1620.
Evelyn’s father, Elner John Nelson, was born in Sweden on June 6, 1898, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Nels Nelson. He came to the United States with his parents at the age of sixteen and settled on a farm near Chamberlain, South Dakota. In the picture on the right below, Elner is seated between his parents as a young boy.
Elner married Ethel Drake in 1924, and they moved onto a farm near Huron, South Dakota, where they resided for the rest of their lives. This is where the story gets especially interesting, if not a little bit scandalous. Ethel was twenty years Elner’s senior and he was her second husband. Ethel’s first husband, Drake, had run off to California with one of their sons. The age difference is clear in the photo below of the two of them standing in front of a pick up truck.
The photo of the book below, is the inside cover of Elner’s bible. It shows he was confirmed at the Bonderups Kyrka on March 22, 1913, in Sweden. It also shows his name was actually Johan Hellner Nilsson. Like many immigrants, his name was Americanized when he arrived in the United States. When Evelyn started giving me her family photos, I devised a plan. My husband and I would take a trip to Sweden to find the Bonderups Kyrka.