ALEXANDRIA, Minn. — Fredrick A. Wilson spent nearly 100 years in an Alexandria, Minnesota, cemetery without a headstone. On Thursday, Sept. 2, his long-lost grandson, Gary Wilson, finally provided his estranged grandfather’s burial place with a stone.
"We never talked about him. Not my dad or my grandmother. All I knew is that he and my grandmother divorced when my father was just a kid," Wilson said.
Wilson never knew his grandfather, and knew very little about him. Fredrick served in the Spanish-American War, a fact discovered after Gary and his brother found a cigarette case from the war. Gary knew that his father was "kidnapped" by Fredrick after an ugly divorce. Gary learned about the kidnapping from an article that his father kept in his pocket until his death from a car accident in the '70s. His dad wasn't actually kidnapped, just taken overnight and his grandmother feared the worst and called the cops. Fredrick spent one night in jail.
When Gary Wilson was 70, he received a gift from his children after expressing interest in knowing more about his family history. They gifted him a notebook of compiled research done by a family friend, which gave him information on his grandfather's lineage and his place of birth, someplace in Ohio, but not much more.
Gary's curiosity got the better of him and he decided to dig deeper into the information. He followed clues after discovering a veteran pension form his grandmother filed in 1933, after Fredrick's death, which allocated $40 a month.
On Gary's 82nd birthday, his family gifted him a membership to ancestry.com, which told him his grandfather was buried in Kinkead Cemetery in Alexandria. Gary contacted the Douglas County Historical Society, leading him to a Dec. 13, 1928, article from the Alexandria Citizen, “Transient Dies here on Sunday night."
"Fred A Wilson, transient, said to be a manufacturer and salesman for the As-Te-De remedies. Died at the Frances Hotel in this City, Sunday, at about midnight,” the story said.
The article continued saying Fredrick was in Alexandria for two weeks and fell ill during the last week. A physician visited him in his rooming house about 10 p.m. on Sunday and, shortly before midnight, he died after becoming “violently” ill. Fredrick’s remains were taken to Carlson Funeral home, where the coroner determined “alcoholism to be the cause of death.” A funeral was held the following Wednesday put on by the local American Legion post in honor of his veteran status. "No relatives were present at his funeral," the story said.
Among Fredrick's possessions were letters he had received, several of which came from his 14-year-old daughter, Orene. Both she and her brother Arlo lived in Oakes, North Dakota, and had frequently stayed in contact with their father. On the night of his death, he had received a letter from Orene informing him that his ex-wife, the mother of his children, had remarried the week prior.
Gary speculates the cause of the divorce was the death of his grandparents' youngest child, who died from tuberculosis of the spine at the age of 6. "Divorce wasn't common back then as it is now," Gary said. "The strain of a child dying sometimes does that."
After the divorce, Fredrick hit the road to sell his hair products to barbershops across Minnesota.
Gary surmises that his grandfather still loved his ex-wife and children, especially since he stayed in contact with his kids, and the news of his ex-wife remarrying contributed to his death. "It was probably really hard on him. I am sure he felt whatever hope was left was now gone," Gary said. "He must have still loved her."
The Douglas County Historical Society put Gary in contact with Deb Hvezda from Kinkead Cemetery and Jacob Turner from the Douglas County Veterans Services. They helped find his grandfather's gravesite. He discovered that Fredrick's resting place was marked only by numbers.
"Nobody could go back and see a tombstone and know what he did for this country. Now he has a marker that recognizes his contributions. He was a patriot," Gary said. "Now he can finally get the recognition he deserves."
With the help from the Veterans Services, Gary finally provided Fredrick with a headstone to be remembered, a place where his family can come to visit him.
Gary isn't done yet. He wants to keep digging to uncover more information about his family's history.
"It's fun. Like trying to solve a mystery," he said.
He hopes to find an artifact from his grandfather's hair tonic product, As-Te-De Remedies, to share with his grandson, Chase Wilson. Chase unknowingly inherited the legacy of his great-great-grandfather by starting his own hair product company, Byrd Hairdo Products.
Gary's family went to Kinkead Cemetery on Thursday Sept. 2, shortly after the headstone was in place, and gave their respects. Fredrick, who had a funeral service with no family in attendance, finally reunited with his family and received a proper burial marker.
"I would like him to know that his children always cared for him," Gary said.