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A Duluth man's story left to the imagination

DCN Correspondent

Taking the road less traveled may sound poetic and appealing, but sometimes it is a synonym for hard work. Such was the case for my Dearly Departed assignment.

Of my five names, the most interesting one was a young man named Roy W. Thorstad, buried in Park Hill Cemetery, Duluth, Minn. The information on his grave marker was so scant that I almost moved on to another marker. But along with the birth and death years (1895-1918), it read Co. D 14th Infantry, which is the branch of an army made up of units trained to fight on foot.

Not starting off with a death date makes this assignment rather challenging, because I cannot directly look for an obituary. I started by searching for him on the Minnesota GenWeb database. There was absolutely nothing there. So, naturally, I turned to Google.

The only thing I could find was a WWI enlistment record from Petersburg, Alaska. This came from the Web site, http://www.rootweb.com. From this, I gathered that his middle name was Wilbur (poor guy), and that he lied about his age when he enlisted. He said that his birthday was July 29, 1894 when really it was in 1895. I have no idea why he was in Alaska. One of my guesses is that he jumped on a shipping boat in the Duluth harbor. After working for awhile, he left to join the war when he landed in Petersburg, a port town on the southern leg of Alaska, just below Glacier Bay National Park. But that is just speculation.

Now having his birthday and middle name, I turned to Pat Maus (the archivist at the Northeast Minnesota Historcal Center in the UMD library) for help finding some hard evidence. I paged through the phone directory for the city of Duluth from 1915 to 1916 to see if I could find Roy listed anywhere. I found a whole clan of Thorstads. The patriarch of this little band was Edward Thorstad (born 1865, died Dec. 22, 1939). He and his wife, Anna, ran a grocery store at 3004 W. Third St. in Duluth, and lived in the apartment above it. They had four children (Dorris, Jerome, Roy, and Laurence). Edward gave up the grocery store in 1925 and became a salesman for the Minnesota Steel Co. but they still lived in the house above the store. Maybe one of the kids took it over.

By 1939, according to the 1939 directory, Edward had moved to 3057 Vernon St. (a couple blocks away from Wheeler Field in West Duluth). Anna was not listed in the 1939 directory, so at the time, it was a mystery to me as to what happened to her. I assumed that she either died, or they got divorced.

Next, I went back to Park Hill Cemetery and talked to the staff there. I was provided with the interment records, with Roy’s information. I was thrilled to see a date of death. And what is more, under Roy’s grave marker, the whole family is buried. Roy was the first of the family to pass away, and the interment record said he died of pneumonia. Anna was the next to pass away, but that was not for another 20 years (1938). Edward followed in death six months later and is buried next to her. This leads me to believe that they were not divorced. Anna barely missed the 1939 census, while Edward barely made it.

I went to the library to check the microfilm for Roy’s obituary. There was nothing on the Duluth Herald or the News Tribune. I think this is because he had been away from Duluth for quite a while when he died. The papers were full of casualty lists from the war, so because his name was not on there, I believe that he never made it overseas but that is impossible to know (unless the folks from Iowa get back to me). The complete set of Duluth city directories confirmed my guess about Anna’s death. She shows up in the 1938 directory, but not in the 1939 one. Edward was living in an apartment with her in 1938, but he moved to Vernon Street in the short time after she died, but before he died (duh). Jerome became an agent for Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., and Lawrence worked for Minnesota Steel with his father.

Still on my hunt for information about the elusive Roy Wilbur, I noticed that the only
address information given for Roy on the interment record is “Camp Dodge,? handwritten with pen. I did a little research, and found (according to http://www.GlobalSecurity.org) that Camp Dodge is currently the Iowa National Guard headquarters, but in 1918, the federal government took it over and used it for a training headquarters. At its peak, it housed over 28,000 men. I sent an e-mail down to the Iowa Department of Veteran’s affairs inquiring about any information on Roy, such as if he ever made it overseas to fight. They didn’t have any information but they referred me to the Iowa Gold Star Museum, which is the historical center in Johnston, Iowa (the city where Camp Dodge is located). They never replied.

My search ended there. The majority of time that Roy Wilbur Thorstad spent in Duluth has been spent at Park Hill Cemetery. His only mention in the Duluth City Directory was a listing of him as a son of Edward the grocer. He never married, and died at age 23.

We may never know whether he died a heroic death in France, or caught the common cold on a bunk bed in Iowa. He may have been the adventurer in the family, or simply the black sheep. Regardless of the circumstances of his ill-fated departure from Duluth, his family honored him by placing themselves all under his tombstone.

This biographical sketch was written for the Research for Reporters class at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Each student in the class went to a cemetery in Duluth, got a name from a grave marker, and then used a variety of primary and secondary sources to find out as much as possible about the person.