1881-1896 – From Farming To Furniture.

We don’t know for certain where the newly-married couple – D.J. and Barbara Boller – made their home immediately after their nuptials in November 1881. As we mentioned last time, the Boller and Miller farms were not very far from each other (see map below), located in Washington Township in SW Johnson County near the little Mennonite community of Amish. In an article celebrating D.J & Barbara’s 54th anniversary – June 27, 1935 Mt. Pleasant News – we find that their “first home was established on a farm near Kalona where they lived 3 years.” One obituary we’ve found mentions that D.J. was “engaged as a farmer and school teaching when a young man.”

1869 Township map (above) shows the Miller farm (NW corner) and the Boller farm (SE corner).

About three years into D.J & Barbara’s marriage (1881-1884), my grandfather, Waldo Emerson Boller, was born in the Deer Creek area on June 15, 1884. More, obviously, about him later.

Sometime after Waldo’s birth in 1884, Daniel & Barbara began looking for a change in scenery and a home for their new family. An 1886 map of nearby Greene Township in Iowa County, indicates that the Bollers were living on 80 acres of farmland there. See maps above/below…

On June 20, 1886, D.J. and Barbara had their second son, Ora Frank Boller, born in Parnell, Iowa County – located just NW of the Boller farm in Greene Township of Iowa County.

In that same 1935 anniversary article (above) we mentioned earlier, it states that Daniel decided to leave Iowa County, setting out in a different direction with his life around 1889. While census records are silent on the subject, we believe that D.J. picked up his family of four and moved further west to Grinnell, Iowa, where he went into the furniture and undertaking business with his younger brother, George D. Boller.

Furniture and undertaking may, at first glance, seem like an odd combination. However, during the pioneer days, the role of undertaker quickly fell to those with related skills: the cabinetmakers, who could build caskets. After a death, for example, someone in the family would bring the local cabinetmaker some record of the size of the deceased —perhaps a pole notched to indicate the person’s length and width (see pic above). In turn, the craftsman would make a coffin to those dimensions.

In 1976, Iowa City historian Irving Weber wrote up a great article about Barbara Miller’s family: the Jacob B. Miller family of Deer Creek and their long-standing tradition of making cabinets & coffins. Since Daniel J. Boller was Jacob’s son-in-law, it’s quite obvious that when D.J. was looking for a new profession, opening a furniture and undertaking business was a natural.

Over the centuries, the Mennonites have become excellent craftsmen working with the many fine woods found in their communities. Remember that when the early Mennonite settlers looked for new land to farm, they were experts at identifying healthy trees. The Deer Creek area was well known for its fine selection of hickory, walnut and cherry groves. Those trees produce some of the finest wood available to those who have the skills to carve and construct fine furniture.

The Lowell Erb Century Farm (1976) – This is the original Benedict Miller farmland of the 1850’s (see map below), which then went to Jacob B. Miller (father of my great grandmother, Barbara Miller). The farm then passed hands to Lew Miller (father of Glen Miller, author of The Deer Creek Story). Lew’s daughter, Erma, married Jacob Erb, whose son is Lowell Erb. Whew – got it? Read more about the Boller-Miller connection here.

The Miller/Erb farm was home to many Miller Family Reunions over the years, including this one in 1966, which included a good number of Native Iowan friends from the Meskwaki Tribe in Tama County.

Now…back to the Bollers in Grinnell…

That 1935 wedding anniversary article (below), tells us that the Bollers lived in Grinnell for four years (1889-1993) while “Mr. Boller learned the undertaking business.” During this same time period, Christian Harbach, Des Moines’ first cabinetmaker and undertaker, opened a training school for undertakers, and by the 1880’s, Polk County was the home of one of the country’s best-known embalming schools, with the state’s professional association being one of the first to be established in the country (1881). It’s very likely D.J. received his training and licensing through Harbach’s School of Embalming or one like it.

According to that same 1935 wedding anniversary article, the Bollers lost everything in a devastating fire (1893?) that closed D.J. & George’s furniture and undertaking business in Grinnell. Family records indicate that George headed off to Waterloo, while D.J. took his family back to the Kalona area. Bruised but not broken, 37-year old D.J. was now trained and ready to take on his future, and soon would be re-locating to yet another small Iowa community that would support his new business venture: Boller Furniture and Undertaking.

According to the 1895 census records (and confirmed by that same 1935 newspaper article), Daniel & Barbara Boller and their two children, Waldo (age 10) and Frank (age 8) lived for three years (1893-1896) in Kalona (Washington County) prior to their big move to nearby Henry County in 1896. At this point in time, D.J.’s parents, Jacob & Catharine Boller, had retired from farming and were living in Kalona as well. Read more here.


Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Greene Township, Iowa County, IAGenWeb

Furniture and Undertaking: An Odd Combination?, Jocolibrary, January 16, 2014

A Legacy of Excellence: The Early Years: Cabinetmakers and Livery Proprietors, Mary Halstead, Hamilton’s Funeral Service, 1984, 2003, pp 15-16

Washington Township farmer also made coffins, Irving B. Weber, Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 18, 1976, p17

Wayland Couple Married 53 Years, Mt. Pleasant News, June 27, 1935, p 4


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