[previously published 4.13.17 Western Itasca Review
White House of the North
About ten years ago, we drove in the northern part of the county when I saw what looked to be an abandoned boarding house or a large family home down a long gravel driveway off County Road 29. I photograph old buildings, schools mostly whenever I get a chance. I take them partly because I love how they look and also because someday they will be gone. It was a sunny day, so I grabbed my camera and photographed it from all sides.
I had no idea who owned the structure or the story behind it until I started visiting the Itasca County Historical Society. I found a small booklet in the research library with a hand-drawn illustration of that very building on the cover! The title was “The Log White House,” a compilation of history and stories about the Sereno and Ina (Delap) White family from Alvwood. Mabel White, the compiler, was the wife of Earl. Earl was one of seven children born to Sereno and Ina.
Mabel dedicated the history of the Sereno White family, as follows: “Earl Delap White who at this time September 1, 1985, is the only living member of the original S.C. White family and to a herd of relatives and to Margie (Donald White’s wife) who asked me to write up a White Report.” Mabel collected stories and information from various family members. I have filled in the blanks of a few details by looking at state and federal census records. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from “The Log White House.”
Sereno Centennial White
Sereno and Ina were both born and raised in Waushara County in central Wisconsin. Sereno’s middle name is Centennial, and he was born on September 30, 1876. His father, Asa, chose his name. “Asa Bradley White, being a proper person and aware of historical events, named that baby boy born to them on September 30, 1876, Sereno ‘Centennial.’ He was born in Waushara County, Wisconsin. The country was 100 years old then, and what better way to commemorate it than to name a son in its honor.”
Both of my maternal great-grandfathers were born in 1876, and neither one of them had that patriotic middle name, but I suspected Asa wasn’t the only one in the country to name their child Centennial. I checked the 1880 federal census and found 89 children born in 1876 with the first name of Centennial. There were 49 girls and 40 boys from 25 of the 38 states that were part of the United States. The top four states were Indiana -7, Ohio – 6, Illinois – 5, and tied for fourth place were Pennsylvania, Michigan, Kansas, and Louisiana.
Sereno and Ina married when she was fifteen, and their first child was born with a year. By 1910 they had six healthy children but needed more space. In April of that year, the Whites and a few other families from Wisconsin moved to Alvwood, Itasca County.
The group traveled as far as Blackduck by train. “Dad said Grampa (Otis Vandervort) and Uncle Reno (Sereno White) rode in the boxcar with the livestock – a horse, a cow and a dog.”
The Whites occupied a building too small for them while a new home was being constructed and was very excited to move in before winter. “The new 24×24 house was built of hewed logs, with walls high enough for three bedrooms upstairs. It was built by ‘Scandinavian and expert builder and hewer, Pete Berg.’ When the family of eight moved into the new house, the old one became the chicken coop.”
Separation of the Family
In March 1911, Ina delivered her seventh child, and although a doctor was sent for, she died before anything could be done. With the help of neighbors, Sereno managed for a couple of months. The baby was healthy, and Ina’s brother Lugene and new wife Goldie took the child, who they called Donald, back to live with them in Wisconsin. His actual, registered name was Ruben Asa, but he only used that name when he enlisted in the Navy during WWII.
Two-year-old Earl “was given a home and loving care by Charlie Bedore and his wife, Mathilda. He lived with them until he was nine years old and then went back to the family.”
By about Christmas, it was evident to Sereno he could not care for the other five children himself, so he placed them in the temporary custody of the state. The boys were placed in an orphanage in Owatonna and the girls in Sauk Center. Sereno wanted them to return home as soon as his situation changed, but it ended up being three years, and for some too long.
Leslie and Lloyd, the two oldest boys, ran away within a year and Clifford felt abandoned because he was only six and couldn’t accompany them. “He was later put on a farm in Waseca. The boy of this farmer always blamed Cliff for all his wrongdoings, and Cliff got punished for it. He got tired of this and ran away to a neighbor’s farm, where they gave Cliff money to help him leave. He came to Horicon, Wisconsin, and found himself a job on a farm. When he ran away, he changed his name to Weise. He was married in that name. Later he changed it back to White.”
The 1920 U.S. census shows the five oldest children, Leslie, Lloyd, Gladys, Alice, and Earl, were living in the family home with their father. Donald was still with his aunt and uncle Delap. No one knew what had become of Clifford after he left the farm in Waseca. It wasn’t long before Gladys married, which meant Alice was the only female at home. She was in charge of the household and missed her sister. Her mental health and general thought processes began to deteriorate when she was about 25. Eventually, her father had no choice but to have her committed to the Fergus Falls Hospital for the Insane, where she died of pneumonia in 1932.
One by one, the White brothers married and established a farm in Alvwood. Imagine their surprise when Clifford came up to visit! He had married and with a family of his own realized he wanted to find his brothers and sisters. Cliff was only five when he and his brothers went to the orphanage. He didn’t remember where his family was from, so he sought the answers at Owatonna and ventured north.
By 1930, Cliff had returned with his family to the community where his mother and father had settled. Donald had always maintained a relationship with his brothers and sisters and was glad to meet the brother he had never known.
At the time of his death in 1941, four of Sereno Centennial White’s children were within walking distance of his home place, and he had over a dozen grandchildren whom he saw daily. Donald remained in Wisconsin, and Gladys was near Crookston. And at least sixty-six years after his death, the house stood for me to photograph. I expect it is still standing, and perhaps it is time for another photo-shoot.