Saturday, July 17, 2021

Three Friends


Where are those old high school yearbooks when you really want them?

It's the 1930 yearbook which would have featured Josephine Sowle, perky "Aunt Jo" to Marilyn Sowle Bean whose entire photo collection ended up in a local antique store after her passing. In 1930, Jo would have likely graduated from high school in Onalaska, Wisconsin.

Jo and a friend—the photograph was thankfully labeled with the name Hazel Rahn—were captured in a 1930 snapshot flanking a man whose name was given as Ernest Otto. Jo we've already discussed, and I've been able to find quite a bit about Hazel, but Ernest was not so easy to discover. Not only was his expression, in contrast to the two smiling faces of the young women on either side of him, difficult to read, but the only man by that name in the same town would not have been of an age to be high school companions with Jo and Hazel.

Josephine Sowle could easily be found in the 1930 census in the household of her parents, Joe and Dora Sowle. Ever mindful of each relative's "FAN Club"—her friends, associates, and neighbors—I took a look around the census page where I had found the Sowle family. It wasn't too hard to spot Hazel Rahn, two doors away, living with her parents, Herman and Lula, and her three younger siblings.

Hazel Rahn was easy to find online, not only in trees on, but in other records. While not in a high school yearbook, her face could be found in its college counterpart a few years later. It was in that year, 1933, when she graduated from the State Teachers College at La Crosse, and began a long career in education and community service.

Two years after her graduation, Hazel married farmer Henry F. Heider, and while she continued teaching, the couple raised three children. Her years in a close-knit farming community inspired her, in 1982, to publish a book, Along the Waterloo Road, on the history of the place which she had come to call home.

All that, of course, was long after she smiled for an unnamed photographer in 1930 while standing arm in arm with her neighbor Jo and Ernest Otto. But who was he? 

The only detail I could find for someone by that name in Onalaska, where the picture was taken, was for a twenty seven year old man living not far from Jo and Hazel in the same town. This Ernest was part of the household of Louis and Frieda Otto in 1930

Looking closely at that family, I noticed a younger sister, Elisabeth, who would have been the same age as Hazel. Could the gathering have been on account of a party for their graduation? Hard to tell from the one snapshot. A moment in time, capturing three people who, together in 1930, likely had very different stories from that point onward.

Above: Photograph labeled "Josephine Sowle, Ernest Otto, Hazel Rahn, Onalaska, 1930." From collection of Marilyn Sowle Bean, currently in possession of author.

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