ELIZABETH MARIE RASMUSSEN SUNDBERG
The information below has been compiled from a variety of sources. If the reader has access to information that can be documented and that will correct or add to this woman’s biographical information, please contact the Nevada Women’s History Project.
At A Glance:
Born: August 21, 1874 in Copenhagen, Denmark
Maiden Name: Rasmussen
Race/Nationality/Ethnic Background: Danish
Married: Adolf Sundberg, April 1900, in Cherry Creek, Nevada
Children: 3 sons, 2 daughters
Primary City and County of Residence and Work:
Cherry Creek and Ely (White Pine County)
Major Fields of Work: Homemaker, Community supporter, Housekeeper
Other Role Identities: Wife, Mother, Cook for hot springs spa
For the majority of Nevada pioneers life was not easy. To this day, the frontier has never been formally closed, and crossing vast eastern Nevada, it becomes apparent why. Even more, in the early 1900s, the land formed a formidable obstacle. It was so for my pioneer grandmother, who arrived in 1900 in Cherry Creek, NV, and who lived there and in Ely for the rest of her days.
Born Elizabeth Marie Frederica Rasmussen in Copenhagen, Denmark on August 21, 1874, to Christian and Carolyn Rasmussen, she was their first child. Her father was a carpenter. Her mother died in 1883. At that time there were three children, the others being boys. Subsequently her father remarried and her stepmother bore two more boys. Her stepmother expected Elizabeth to be the general caregiver to the other children and domestic helper.
In Copenhagen, she was given a religious education in a private school, similar to what we might think of as an elementary finishing school, and when her favorite brother was sent to sea, she asked her father if she could receive the education he was no longer going to have. Denied this, she ran errands throughout her neighborhood, saved money, and immigrated, at eighteen, to Chicago from Aarhus in 1893.
In Chicago she was a doer of all work for a Danish immigrant family. She was homesick and often ill, but she saved her money, returning to Denmark in August 1899 for her brother Paul’s Lutheran confirmation. On her trip back to the United States, she was brewing tea on the ship’s deck when an orange rolled past her. The orange’s owner, Adolph Sundberg, a Swede, introduced himself. He had been a cabin boy and seen much of South American, but by then had migrated as a miner to Cherry Creek, Nevada. When he met Elizabeth, he owned a saloon, which he had bought after he lost an eye and quit mining.
There ensued a six month correspondence. Even though Dolph was eighteen years older than her, Elizabeth decided to marry him. She traveled from Chicago to Wells, where he met her. Arriving two days later by stagecoach in Cherry Creek at 6:00 p.m., they were married at 9:00 p.m. in the home of Dolph’s former girlfriend. Elizabeth always said she knew she was destined to marry Dolph because she survived a train wreck enroute to Wells; that was her sign she should be married. Elizabeth wore her $5.00 gold wedding band all her life.
There followed the births, within eleven years, of five children, the oldest three boys (John, Adolph, Jr, and George), the youngest two girls (Palma and Rosalie).
Meanwhile, the Exchange Saloon burned and was rebuilt. However, Elizabeth was never happy being a saloon keeper’s wife and, in 1904, Dolph sold out and moved his family to Cherry Creek Hot Springs, where he set up a spa, installing a redwood tank, which had been hauled over the Sierras from San Francisco. Using the hot water from the spa, Adolph heated their home. He also grew a commercial scale truck garden, and his sons helped him deliver produce to Cherry Creek, a mile away. Elizabeth not only baked countless desserts and meals, which could be purchased in addition to swimming, she also did all the spa laundry and raised the children without any help. Her relief from drudgery was the visit, two or three times a year, from her friend, whose husband ran a mine several miles up Egan Canyon. Otherwise, she was isolated.
On Christmas Eve 1912, Elizabeth lit a lantern in her living room. The oil exploded, setting her afire. She couldn’t run to the nearby door into the pool, because the Christmas tree and the children were in her way. She ran outside, threw herself into a hot water ditch, and extinguished the flames, but not before she was horribly burned on her breasts, arms, and hair. For her remaining life, she carried scars where her steel corset stays melted into her flesh. A doctor was miles away; the only way she survived was walking around a small table, with blisters hanging almost to the floor. When she fainted, her children propped her up and kept her moving until the doctor finally came. She was in bed for two months and nursed her youngest child throughout. When she recovered, she insisted they must leave. She was terrified and could only think of the fire. So, in March 1913, the family took the train to Ely.
By then Dolph was well advanced with silicosis (miners’ consumption), contracted during his time in the mines. However, the family had enough money to build a six room house with an outhouse on Second Avenue. Electricity was available—amazing to all.
After suffering through many childhood diseases, to which the children had not been exposed in their rural isolation, the family moved on. The older boys took odd jobs; Elizabeth cleaned houses. Dolph worked for a time as a gardener and maintenance man at the court house in Ely, but he was soon too ill to work.
He died in 1922, age sixty-six, and his oldest son, John, became the primary bread winner at sixteen. He became a car dealer (Buick, Cadillac) thanks to money loaned by a local white slaver. Elizabeth continued her cleaning, worked to support St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, and established a primitive soup kitchen, where anyone who needed a meal could arrive at her home to share a large pot of rice and skim milk, sometimes with butter, sometimes with sugar.
By 1930 her children were raised and through high school. They supported Elizabeth with monthly checks. Soon all owned businesses in Ely, the men on their own, the women by marrying men who started businesses. Except for groceries, farm equipment, bars, and bordellos, the Sundberg family owned many businesses in Ely, including the car dealership, a hardware store, a drug store, and a sporting goods-novelties-liquor store.
Elizabeth worked tirelessly to aid the war effort in both World Wars I and II, making bandages and scarves with women from St. Bartholomew’s Auxiliary. Her hands were never still. She knitted and crocheted enough items that her great great grandchildren are still using them. Meanwhile, she had lost her second son, Adolph Jr. and her oldest son, John. Patiently she bore their loss, believing, “Someday we’ll know, someday we’ll understand.”
In her mid-eighties she lost most of her sight, but continued to live by herself, going out for dinner to one of her children’s homes. She died in 1962 at eighty-eight. Her third son had preceded her in death by two weeks, but her daughters did not tell her because she was very ill.
Elizabeth’s Danish accent delighted her family. She remained light on her feet and loved to dance a jig for joy. Hers was a life of toil, religious devotion, and of love freely given and received.
Researched and written by Elizabeth Palma Sundberg Isaacs; condensed by Elizabeth I. Riseden. Posted to NWHP Website March 2009. The photograph is from 1899, taken on a visit to Denmark. Credit: E. I. Riseden collection.
Sources of Information:
- My Mother, a biography written by Elizabeth Palma Sundberg Isaacs in 1975.