A family history: Polly Jelinek researches family’s past, ties to Civil War

Published 2:03 am Monday, May 27, 2013

Polly Jelinek and her brother, David Madison, stand next to the grave of Daniel Wait, a great-uncle who fought in the Civil War.

Polly Jelinek and her brother, David Madison, stand next to the grave of Daniel Wait, a great-uncle who fought in the Civil War.

On Thursday, Polly Jelinek and her brother, David Madison, placed an American flag on the grave of their great-great uncle, Daniel Wait, a Memorial Day family tradition carried out at Oakwood Cemetery for as long as the two can remember.

The gravemarker in Oakwood Cemetery of Daniel Wait, a relative of Polly Jelinek, who fought in the Civil War.

The gravemarker in Oakwood Cemetery of Daniel Wait, a relative of Polly Jelinek, who fought in the Civil War.

For the 80-year-old Jelinek, it’s more than the grave of a relative who died in 1918 — more than a decade before she was born. It’s more than paying homage to a veteran of the American Civil War.

For Jelinek, the tradition is part of lifelong bond with history formed through family stories and personal connections.

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“That’s one of the reasons history’s always been my favorite,” she said. “I had a relationship to it.”

Jelinek’s love of history began with Daniel’s brother, Clinton Wait, whose grave she and David also visited Thursday.

Clinton lived with Jelinek, Madison and their family in the 1930s, and Jelinek remembers her great uncle — who was physically disabled by polio or rheumatism — having friends over to talk about the old days in Austin and his brothers’ stories of serving in the Civil War.

“I just sat there and listened, and they’d talk about stuff,” she said. “Then when they’d go, I’d ask my uncle about different things.”

When Jelinek started learning about the Civil War in school, it caught her interest because she’d heard stories of her relatives serving.

That inspired Jelinek to learn more about her family’s history at a young age, and she started talking to relatives about the family line.

“I guess I did it when I was in high school,” she said. “I started just asking my grandma about things.”

Her grandmother gave her a list of relatives who’d served in the Civil War.


Connected to History

Jelinek has worked with Sue Doocy, research and archives manager at the Mower County Historical Society, for about five years researching documents from her family’s past, like pension applications, accounts from books, obituaries and more.

Doocy described Jelinek as someone who is hyper-aware of her family’s history, largely because of her exposure to stories at a young age.

A picture of Daniel Wait, a relative of Polly Jelinek who saw action at both Antietam and Gettysburg.

A picture of Daniel Wait, a relative of Polly Jelinek who saw action at both Antietam and Gettysburg.

“It’s touched her life,” Doocy said

Along with Clinton’s stories, Jelinek remembers participating in scrap drives and buying defense stamps at school during World War II.

“That was contributing to the war effort,” said Jelinek, who also remembers a map on her grandmother’s wall of where her relatives were fighting.

Doocy said Jelinek’s connection to history isn’t limited to the Civil War or World War II.

As a girl, Jelinek was taught by Ruby Rupner — whom a building at the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center is named after — and she remembers the teacher using a bird that had flown into the window to teach the children about anatomy.

After her schooling, Jelinek taught for more than 50 years, first at a country schoolhouse and later at Whittier Elementary in Austin until 1992. On Thursday, Jelinek spoke at the Historical Society about her experiences in a country school.

“It’s like a close relationship with the history, because she’s got it tied in all over,” Doocy said.

Jelinek’s family boasts a rich history in America, with the Waits coming over from Plymouth, England, around 1650. Relatives like Gardner Wait even fought in the American Revolution. The family lived in Massachusetts, Vermont and New York until Amherst Wait Sr. started west in 1852 and 1853 and settled first in Iowa and then in London Township near Oakland, Minn.

“She’s got a fascinating history,” Doocy said.

That family history has often led Jelinek to Amherst Sr.’s 12 children.


Family stories

About five or six of Jelinek’s relatives — most Amherst Sr.’s children — fought in the Civil War and some also fought in the Indian Wars.

One of the most intriguing stories centers on Daniel, whose grave Jelinek visited Thursday. According to records, Daniel was born in 1837 in New York before moving to Minnesota. He fought in Company E of the First Minnesota and was wounded in the leg at Gettysburg.

Other records show Daniel was wounded at the Battle of Antietam.

According to one record, a rebel soldier struck Daniel on the back and then thrust a the butt of his gun or his bayonet into his mouth, knocking out three teeth before he was then taken prisoner.

After the war, Daniel lived in the Dakotas and Iowa, and Jelinek said the family suspects he suffered from Post Traumatic Stress. Many called him “the rover” because he never settled.

Jelinek said Daniel’s time in the Dakotas proved to be a family mystery. He married Mary Shute in 1872 and had two daughters, according to records.

“But nobody in the family ever met them,” Jelinek said.

Daniel and Shute would later separate.

Near the end of his life, Daniel lived in the Minnesota Soldier’s Home, but he was reportedly kicked out in 1897 for “gross and outrageous behavior” — likely related to being drunk and having alcohol on the grounds, which was not allowed.

“You associate some those things with his kind of character,” Jelinek said. “He was the rover; he didn’t settle.”

He re-entered the home in 1901, was kicked out again in 1902 and was then readmitted in 1915 after promising to “be a good boy.”

Jelinek shared one family story of Daniel throwing a handful of pennies into the yard when he’d he leave Austin after visits for the children to go pick up.

His obituary states he was dressed to visit family in Austin for the first time in about two years when he died at a hotel in Minneapolis in 1918.

Some mystery still surrounds his wife and the daughters.

“I don’t know whatever happened to his family,” Jelinek said. “You just wonder what ever happened — there were those two girls.”

Daniel’s brother, Amherst Wait Jr., also came from New York. Family folklore is that it snowed on the September day he was born. Amherst served in Company H of the Minnesota First Mounted Rangers.

After the war, he acquired homestead land near Fergus Falls and lived there the rest of his life.

“While Mr. Wait never acquired a great amount of the world’s goods, he was always an optimist, always jolly and good natured, and ever ready to lend a helping hand to a neighbor in distress,” Jelinek read from Amherst’s obituary.

Martin Wait served as a private with Company I of the 82nd Infantry out of New York regiment and died of “starvation and dis” — likely dysentery — in Florence Stockade, S.C. on Oct. 10, 1864. Some reports say he died while in prison.

Jelinek has fewer details on other Wait boys, but Van Buren Wait is believed to have died at Andersonville prison and Samuel also served in the war.

Jelinek’s great-grandmother, Polly — Amherst Sr.’s daughter — married Harvey Wiseman, who fought in the Civil War with the Minnesota Mounted Rangers in C Company of the Second Minnesota. She still has a spoon he carried during the war.

Jelinek found that Harvey contracted dysentery in the war, and was cared for by his wife.

“His health was broken, and she became his nurse,” Jelinek read from one account.

Jelinek’s great-grandmother, Polly, was proficient in caring for her husband and became a sort of nurse, often caring for the sick and leading many to call her Aunt Polly.

“Aunt” Polly’s sister, Rhoda, married Ethan Earl, who is featured in a display at the Historical Society. He enlisted at 21 in Company K of the Fourth Minnesota Volunteers.

He participated in battles in Mississippi, but he became ill in 1862 with typhoid or another kind of fever and was hospitalized for some time.

He was honorably discharged in December of 1862.

“He came home, as every one supposed to die, almost a living skeleton, weighing only 95 pounds with his uniform and accoutrements on,” one document read.

He struggled with chronic diarrhea and rheumatism for the rest of his life.

Though Earl never recovered his full health after the war, he brought a piece of history to Mower County. He brought back a log embedded with shrapnel and bullets that is now displayed at the Historical Society.

He died March 11, 1896.


‘They don’t care about it’

Through her studies, Jelinek said she’s grown to respect the Minnesotans who fought in the Civil War.

“I’m always amazed at how the soldiers of the Civil War were wounded, and they seemed to get up and go back and fight,” she said.

Minnesota soldiers were known as some of the best fighters in the war, according to Jelinek, and some documents give them a share of the credit for victories.

“They always said the ones from Minnesota were really good fighters,” she said.

Jelinek’s connection to her family’s history is rare, as she admitted many people overlook family histories today.

“They don’t care about it,” she said.

While Jelinek has compiled details on her family history for coming generations to view, she’s often thought of doing more with her research.

“I always wanted to write a book, but I never knew where to start,” Jelinek said.

Jelinek used to write newspaper columns on history, and Doocy suggested Jelinek use the columns as the start to her book.

Polly Jelinek talks about some of the relatives of her's that fought in the Civil War including a Daniel Wait.

Polly Jelinek talks about some of the relatives of her’s that fought in the Civil War including a Daniel Wait.