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Mrs. Georgianna Franklin – Way

One very remarkable lady!          by A.B. Russ

  Often I come across people or events that I find later to be every bit as interesting, if not more so, than the information I was originally researching. This was especially true when it came to Mrs. Georgianna Franklin -Way.

  Several years ago a high school friend named Louie Mensing sent me some CDs that had the censuses for Faribault County. They started at 1860 and went through 1930. At the end of these censuses were some odds and ends dealing with death records and Civil War era veterans requesting relief from the Federal Government. I scanned them over and came across a fellow named Benjamin Franklin who said he had lost both his arms and legs while in uniform. Of course this made me read the documents again to make sure that I had it correct in my mind and sure enough it said both arms and legs. This was the start of a six- year hunt to find out as much as I could about Benjamin and in doing that I came across Georgianna, who had become Benjamin’s wife in March of 1864.

  Who was this lady and how did she end up married to a cavalry trooper named Ben Franklin? What were some of the things that happened to her while she resided in Faribault County?

   She was born in New York City in 1832 to an English immigrant couple by the name of Durke. About 1851 or so she married Edwin M. Way in Carbondale, Pennsylvania.  Not long after tying the knot the couple headed west following the trail blazed by Edwin’s brother William and his wife. The winter of 1856 was spent in Iowa where their oldest son Hartsough (Harvey) was born. The next year they crossed into Minnesota Territory hauling their chicken coop with chickens and personal belongings all stuffed into their prairie schooner. A milk cow was tied behind as they headed north across unbroken prairie so rough that the pail of milk swinging on the schooner “had turned to butter” by the end of the day of traveling. Two very slow but steady oxen pulled them across the Central Plains until they reached their goal where they stopped to stake their claim at Section 14 in Elmore Township. The nearest settlement would become Blue Earth City which was about five miles north of their homestead.

  Edwin had promised her that he would “not make her live in a dug out or sod house” but she didn’t do much better. The shack they lived in was a log cabin with a lean-to roof, plus two glass windows they had hauled with them from their old home. Son Norwood was born in this cabin in 1858 and his brother Charles in 1860.

  Georgianna and her husband settled in their home just in time to find themselves in a severe economic crisis called the “Panic of 1856-57”. Life was hard enough for the pioneer family and this economic downturn was almost fatal to many of those sitting on the prairie. In those days banks issued their own paper money based on their deposits of gold and silver on hand. The problem arose when a pioneer went to the store to buy supplies. The storekeeper had no idea if the bank that issued the currency was sound or not so they would discount the face value. The farther away the bank was from the frontier the more it was discounted. Georgianna said, “money was scarcer than teeth in a fly,” and “We never saw a penny sometimes for a year at a time. Everything was trade”. This barter system of commerce proved to be the undoing of both the farmers and the shopkeepers and many went under. When the Civil War came along the demand for both farm products and manpower made living on the frontier much more profitable.

  Georgianna relates in the book “Old Rail Fence Corners” that all was not dull and humdrum with pioneer life. She said, “The rattlesnakes were very thick. We used to watch them drink from the trough. They would lap the water with their tongues just as a dog does. Many a one I have cut in two with the ax. They always ran but I was slim in those days and could catch them.” The chance to go to a dance was something she didn’t often turn down. When her oldest was three weeks old they loaded him up and “drove fourteen miles to a dance.” She didn’t miss a dance all night and said she “wasn’t sick afterwards either.”

  Improvisation became one of the necessities of living on the edge of civilization. Real coffee was impossible to find in the store and if there was some to buy it cost way too much for these cash-strapped dirt farmers. Mrs. Way grew fond of a substitute made from browned beets and corn meal and was quoted saying, “Corn meal coffee was fine. I’d like a cup this minute.” Some of the other replacements used by settlers were potato chips browned in an oven, parched rye, and the root of the wild chicory plant.  Tea could be made from the seedpod of the sumac bush. They grew their own tobacco and raised potatoes for sale and for their own consumption. One spring a neighbor got so hungry that he and his family ate cottonwood buds. The use of the hand- cranked coffee mill was often used to turn the wheat berries into coarse flour.

   When the Civil War began in 1861, many young and not so young men answered the call to the flag. Unfortunately, Edwin was one of those who joined up.  He became Pvt. Edwin Way of the 5th Minnesota Inf. Reg. Company F.  He would be paid $13 per month plus he had to pay for his own uniform. He was 35 when he enlisted and should have known better.  Poor Georgianna was now stranded out on the frontier with three little boys less than 5 years in age and living in a shack in Elmore Township. Edwin worked hard to cut firewood for the next winter but his wife was left to get in the crop by herself and haul the wheat to the nearest mill that was 15 miles north of their homestead. As fate would have it, Edwin would lose his life September 6, 1863, at Bear Creek, Mississippi. He didn’t die a glorious death in battle but from a sickness of some sort. His mortal remains were later interred at the Vicksburg National Cemetery.

  I think many people would have said that Mrs. Way’s husband was an irresponsible pup for doing what he did but Georgianna never held it against him and only said that “she had agreed that he was right in going and that was the end of that conversation.”

  With Edwin gone Georgianna had to bring in the harvest of wheat that her husband had thrashed and now she had to haul it five miles past Blue Earth City to be milled. Now remember this was a gal who grew up in New York City and she said, “I never saw oxen before I got married.” Now she had to load up the wagon and hitch up the team of oxen. That was no small task even for a grown man and she had to find some way to get the deed done all by herself. She started off very early in the morning and got to Blue Earth late in the afternoon. She checked into the “Metropolitan” Hotel (aka Constans Hotel). The next morning she headed toward the mill. When she arrived, she found a long line of farmers waiting for their chance to get their wheat milled. Mr. Goodnow, the miller, said, “It’s take turns here, but I won’t have it said that a soldier’s widow has to wait for men”. He also added, “You will be having supper with us and spending the night under our roof.”

   Six months after Edwin’s death in Mississippi Georgianna met a young dashing cavalry trooper named Benjamin Franklin and they were married; he was five years her junior. It must have been a whirlwind courtship because Ben’s unit, the Minnesota 2nd Calvary Reg., was busy in the Dakota Territory fighting the Sioux during that time.

  Benjamin was granted leave during the winter of 1865 to return to Faribault County.  The hope of spending some domestic time with his new wife and readymade family must have been a pleasant thought after dealing with smelly horses and the hardships of military life. Tragically Benjamin became the victim of a terrible blizzard while crossing the Great Plains and almost froze to death. Some friendly Indians found him and took him to a stagecoach way station. About a week later he was transported to Fort Ridgley where he could get some medical attention. Tragically to save his life the doctors had to remove his hands, feet and nose.

  Georgianna is now saddled with three young boys and a husband who is as totally dependent as an infant but this “infant” never grows up and moves away.  

  After the Civil War veterans could claim any land unclaimed by settlers and Benjamin staked claim to some basically worthless land north of Guckeen, MN. He in turn sold it and got $300 or about 50 cents per acre. It’s enough of a grubstake for Mrs. Franklin to buy four lots on the 500 block of East 4th Street in Blue Earth, MN. The building they put up became their primary source of income. It was known as Mrs. Benjamin Franklin’s Boarding House. It was only a couple of blocks from the railroad depot so it turned out to be a good investment. The boarding house was in business from about 1870 until it became a private home about 1910. By the 1880’s Mrs. Franklin’s two younger sons had moved out and only the oldest, Harvey, was living in the building. Harvey had taken up the blacksmith trade, while Norwood, the second son was a clerk in a local store.  Eventually Norwood would have his own leather goods store in Blue Earth. The youngest, Charles attended the University of Minnesota and through hard work and some wise decisions became a very successful businessman in Minneapolis.

  What was Benjamin Franklin doing during the 30 years they were married to generate some income? Well, Uncle Sam gave him $72 a month disability pay, which wasn’t bad money in those days. He also had small postcards made showing himself without hands or feet and a short story about how he had a family to support. He sold these all over the country for 25 cents long after “his kids” were grown and they were out on their own. The local newspaper’s “personal” column states that “Stub” Franklin and Mrs. Franklin are on their way to the incoming presidential inauguration and he should do well (selling his cards) at that event.”  Ben was the personification of the saying, “when life hands you lemons make lemonade” because he sure made lots of money from his disability.

  Georgianna was known locally as a generous and kind person. It was said that she would never turn away a person in need of a square meal and a place to lay down their head. She was very active in the Blue Earth Methodist Church, the Ladies Aid, WCTU and she held offices in the Women’s Relief Corps. Along with other ladies in town she got the City of Blue Earth to ban the sale of any liquor within the city limits in 1897. She instilled these anti-drinking ideals in her children because they also were very active in the push to ban the use and sale of alcohol.

  Something big happened between 1890 and 1895 because Georgianna divorced Benjamin in June of 1895 and started using the name of Way again. Divorce was an uncommon event in the 1890’s and was granted on very few grounds. Infidelity, desertion, nonsupport, and cruelty were about the only excepted grounds in those days.  It is hard to mentally see Ben chasing the gals or putting his hands where they didn’t belong but I guess if there is a will there is a way.  Nonsupport is possible but he still had his pension from his war disability. There is no known report in the local papers that he left town and if he did, someone would have to have gone with him. My guess was that she divorced him so that he could be placed in an old soldier home.   So far, we have found no record of him living in a veteran’s home or showing him to be alive in the 1900 census.

  So how does this story end? Georgianna died in Blue Earth on July 9, 1921, at the ripe old age of 88 years 8 months and 8 days. She was laid to rest alongside a memorial stone placed for her first husband Edwin Way. She was survived by her youngest son Charles and his wife Fanny plus eleven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. Her eldest son Hartsough M. Way died in 1913 and Norwood F. Way in 1929. Charles M. Way lived until 1944. Charles would have been the person who would have provided the information for his mother’s obituary and not one word is said about her second husband of thirty years.  The time and date of Benjamin Franklin’s death and place of burial shall apparently remain known to God alone.

Addendum: Since completing this story two new facts have become known.  Marlin Peterson of Minnesota Lake who is writing an article on Benjamin Franklin for a professional journal informed me that Benjamin remarried after being divorced from Georgianna.  He also said that Ben had a reputation of drinking too much and too often plus he had a great love of big black cigars. I wonder how he was able to carry out those two vices?  Mrs. Jan Lienke Boyer who is the great-granddaughter of Charles M. Way informed me that Charles lost everything in the Great Depression and rented out most of their mansion to make ends meet.