Titanic Legacy
Culver is home to a living Titanic legacy
Thursday, 29 October 2009
By Jeff Kenney Citizen editor

Reprinted with permission

Dan Weaver figures he was somewhere between five and eight years old when a teary-eyed, older man with whom he was already familiar through frequent visits with Weaver's father Allen, came to the Weavers' house on Thorn Road in Culver. He remembers the man, huffing and puffing as he worked alongside Dan and his parents, Allen and Rosemary Weaver, to plant four maple trees, six to eight feet tall at the time, in the family's front yard. It was the early 1950s - Dan and his mother Rosemary can't pinpoint the exact year - and the man's accent suggested his status as an immigrant to America some forty years earlier. Dan Weaver says he knew Nils Paulson had lost his wife and children to the wreck of a ship called the Titanic, "but I didn't realize the connection and the importance of the history of the event. I just knew he had lost his family." Among its many other results, the April 12, 1912 sinking of the Titanic also connected the lives of Dan Weaver and, hundreds of miles and several states away, the late Nils Paulson's nephew. That nephew, Edwin "Buddy" Johnson, recalls raising his hand during a high school discussion in his native Louisiana of the Titanic disaster and telling the class he had relatives who died on the ship. "The teacher thought I was telling stories," he says. But Johnson's mother confirmed his father's uncle Nils lost his wife and four children on the ship; Johnson's subsequent report about the family connection finally convinced the teacher.

It's appropriate Johnson's uncle Nils Paulson would be celebrating his 119th birthday this November 2, the traditional day of All Souls in many Christian traditions, were he alive. However, his legacy remains in the maple trees Paulson planted in honor of his deceased family on the Weaver property just outside Culver in the early 1950s.

Paulson, a former coal miner in Sweden, emigrated to the United States around 1910 to work as a trolley car operator in Chicago, saving his money to send for Edwin Johnson's great aunt Alma (his wife) and the couple's children, Torburg Danria (age 8), Paul Folke (6), Stina Viola (4), and Gosta Leonard (2) to join him at last. As fate would have it, the Paulsons (the family name had been changed from the Swedish Palsson when coming to America) purchased a third class ticket in the steerage section of the ship, boarding at Southampton, England.

When the ship famously struck an iceberg and lost all but 712 of the 2,435 passengers and 860 crew members, Alma Paulson and the couple's children were among the dead, though for a time a heartbroken Nils entertained hopes one of the surviving, unidentified children might be his. He visited the Chicago offices of the Titanic's White Star Line company begging for information, but finally it was officially concluded his entire family died in the disaster.

Nils Paulson never got over the loss. He moved to Culver in 1946, after his retirement, marrying another Swedish immigrant, Christina, in Chicago that same year. The couple lived at 605 Williams Street, between School and Plymouth Streets on the north end of Culver, where Nils had a small woodworking shop according to Johnson, who has never been to Culver but always wanted to see the house and especially the trees Paulson planted as a monument to his family. The year after the Paulsons' arrival in Culver, they met the late Allen Weaver, according to his wife Rosemary, who still lives at 17015 Thorn Road, adjacent to land Paulson purchased to turn into a garden.

Paulson made regular trips to his small piece of land, she recalls, to work the garden, striking up a friendship with Allen Weaver. "One day he asked if we had any trees for our front yard," says Rosemary, "and Allen said 'No,' and he said, 'I want to put some trees out if you don't mind.'"

A grief observed

Paulson chose four saplings grown from sprouts fallen from a row of maple trees which still stand on the Lewis Street side of his property.

"There was no marker (to accompany the trees)," adds Weaver. "We should have had him do something (to mark them). It was just so sad when he planted the trees, even. He cried as he was planting them. It was just sad."

Weaver isn't sure why Paulson planted four trees instead of five, since he lost four children and his wife, but it's probably safe to assume the trees were specifically meant as a memorial to each of his children, rather than three children and his wife. Rosemary Weaver says her husband, who for years worked the marl pits behind the couple's home and died in 2005, likely knew the details. "Allen and (Paulson) talked a lot; I never was in on the conversation, just what I picked up -- bits and pieces.

"(Paulson) was a kind gentleman," she adds. "Soft spoken; his English was pretty good."

Nils and August

Another November date is an anniversary of sorts which intertwines with Paulson's tale. August Wennerstrom died November 22, 1950 at the age of 58; he had been on the Titanic as well, and there met Alma Paulson. At the time, Wennerstrom was 27 years old, a political dissident and journalist in Sweden whose barbs aimed at the Swedish aristocracy at the time landed him in ill favor with the authorities. He emigrated in 1912, purchasing a ticket on the fated ship at Copenhagen. He held two Paulson children in his arms as the ship went down, but lost them as the icy waters rose. He himself fought the cold for eight hours, clinging to the frame of a collapsible life boat partially destroyed by the explosion of the ship's boilers, as was reported in a 1924 article in the Culver Academy Vedette newspaper, which described a talk Wennerstrom gave cadets there.

The talk was an annual event after Wennerstrom's arrival in Culver, where he almost wandered into employment some years earlier as superintendent of buildings and grounds at the Academy. As the story goes, Wennerstrom was leaving the train in Culver just as an Academy representative was awaiting the arrival of the new gardener, "Leo." AugustWennerstrom became August "Leo" Wennerstrom and took the job.

Details remain sketchy, but Wennerstrom and Nils Paulson must have crossed paths in Chicago and naturally developed a connection born of Wennerstrom's proximity to the Paulson family during its final hours. However the two became connected, Paulson likely visited Wennerstrom in Culver and was impressed enough to move here after his 1946 retirement in Chicago. Though an East Shore property owned by the Academy was for years known as "the Wennerstorm home" due to its occupancy by the family, after his own retirement August Wennerstrom and family moved to a Thorn Road home just a bit north of the Weavers' land (and Paulson's garden).

Wennerstrom had married Namoi Johnson, also of Swedish origin, in Chicago, and the couple raised six sons and a daughter, naming one son "Culver" after the community they adopted as their own (five of the sons served in World War II, Culver in Korea). Here and abroad, August Wennerstrom gave talks about the sinking of the great ship, and filled a notebook with memories of the event. He remains one of the most documented Titanic survivors and the only one to reside in Indiana.

'Uncle Nils'

Nils Paulson, meanwhile, lived quietly on Williams Street with Christina -- an active member of the Maxinkuckee Rebekah Lodge -- until her death in August, 1960, at age 77. Afterwards, recalls Edwin Johnson, Nils went downhill.

"When (Christina) died," recalls Johnson by telephone from his home in Jackson, Louisiana, "we got word of that, and after that my mother told me (Nils) was getting sick (and) asking if he could come live with us. My daddy was his nephew and my mother was a nurse and was more than willing to help. I was struggling with a wife and three babies at the time. They drove up (to Culver) in my mother's Olds... he stayed with my mother and father. Later we sold our house and moved in with them."

Nils Paulson arrived in Louisiana shortly after Christina's death in 1960 (he sold his garden land on Thorn Road around the same time), his health deteriorating. Edwin Johnson's wife Ann spent more time with Nils than her busy, working husband, as did the couple's young, fair-haired children. In those later years, she says, "Uncle Nils would cry when he saw my boys and say, 'Oh my Swedish babies!' He would lapse into a heavy Swedish accent."

The Johnsons keep many of Paulson's personal effects, including his railroad watch from Chicago and a number of items from Sweden, including his passport and papers from the Olympia ship on which he sailed to America. For years they had Paulson's 1957 Chevrolet, which he'd driven from Culver to Louisiana in 1958 to visit the family. "He had a wooden elevated pedal on his brake because his wife was short," notes Edwin. "He willed the car to my dad and my dad gave it to me. I gave it to my son and he restored it and sold it."

Nils Paulson passed away September 21, 1964 at St. Francis hospital in Monroe, Louisiana; his funeral and burial were in Culver, as he'd willed his body to be shipped back here and buried in the Masonic cemetery where Christina was laid to rest.

And while the Johnsons knew "Uncle Nils," it was only recently they learned of the maple trees he'd planted after a visit to Culver by a friend of Edwin's, who stopped in at the Culver Public Library and found a file on Paulson including news of the trees and even a letter written by Edwin's mother to the Easterday Funeral Home in Culver in 1960 inquiring whether Paulson had a headstone here.

Since his son first began aiding in research on Alma Paulson and her family around the year 2000, "Buddy" Johnson has become fascinated with the story. And it's at least somewhat reciprocal. He's been contacted by Titanic researchers in Halifax and beyond, and was surprised to learn, when visiting a memorial and reenactment of the Titanic in Branson, Missouri, that his aunt Alma is portrayed by an actress on a regular basis. In fact, he says, he was "treated like I was a celebrity" when he told them he was a descendent of Alma Paulson.

A legacy of worldwide significance

In Culver, Dan Weaver, too, hopes the Paulsons' memory is kept alive. He hopes, after he and his wife Jan finish building their home near Plymouth, to contact some of Alma's descendents in Sweden. "We've been wanting to go to Switzerland and we thought maybe a dual trip. We'd like to take over and present them with a few seeds or a start from these (memorial maple) trees if we're allowed. It would be just interesting to meet the descendents."

Weaver would also like to investigate the possibility of having the trees marked or protected for their historical significance, which has been recognized from time to time: besides an article in the Culver Citizen around the 1997 release date of the popular Titanic Hollywood movie, TV station WTTW interviewed Allen Weaver on the subject for a story, as did WSBT-TV in South Bend, who returned in 2007 to interview Rosemary (that film is available for checkout at the Culver Public Library today).

And the trees have been no secret, even if they're not "household knowledge" to everyone in the Culver area. Through the years, says Rosemary Weaver, "people came by to see the trees; they had heard they were here. They would stop and talk to Allen about it."

In addition, she says, her children and grandchildren grew up hearing the story of the "Titanic" trees. Dan especially has sought to keep up the legacy of the monument, she says, likely from his memories of "following his dad down to talk to Mr. Paulson.

"The grandkids and kids all shinnied up those trees," she adds, recalling one branch particularly popular for the children to climb and hang from.

It seems a safe bet Nils and Alma Paulson, and their children, would approve.

For more information Encyclopedia Titanica: Alma Cornelia Palsson

Find A Grave Memorials

Nils Paulson - Lost his wife and children on the Titanic. Buried in the Culver Masonic Cemetery
Alma Cornelia (nee Berglund) Palsson - Buried in the Fairview Cemetery, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada Burial # 206
Torburg Danria Palsson - 8 - Buried in the Fairview Cemetery, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada Burial # 206
Paul Folke Palsson - 6 - Buried in the Fairview Cemetery, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada Burial # 206
Stina Viola Palsson - 4 - Buried in the Fairview Cemetery, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada Burial # 206
Gosta Leonard Palsson - 2 - Buried in the Fairview Cemetery, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada Burial # 206

August Wennerstrom - Titanic Survivor Buried in the Culver Masonic Cemetery

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