I want to tell you about an amazing round robin. I’m not talking about a bird, person, competitive meet, or petition. This special round robin is a collection of letters, photos, and other items circulated between the Johnson family members for decades. Whoever gets the round robin takes out their old letter, reads what the others wrote and sent, puts in a new letter reporting their latest family news, and mails the package to the next cousin in line who repeats the process. Round and round it goes, with up-to-date news disseminated across the family.

Here’s the story of the Johnson family round robin. It starts way back in the 1910s.

The Johnson family of Lily, South Dakota welcomed a third son who joined his two older brothers and three older sisters. His mother didn’t recover from the birth and wasn’t able to take care of the family after that. The girls pitched in to help with chores after their mother was gone, and a spinster aunt came to stay with them to help with the baby. Their father was killed in a farming accident, and the six siblings, Irene, Effie, Hazel, Ray, Orlo, and Brick, were left alone, but together they formulated a plan. The girls would earn teaching certificates and find teaching jobs to help put the boys through college. (These were the days when women didn’t work unless they were single and unmarried, and their only options for jobs were teaching and nursing. The men had to have good jobs to support their family.)

Irene finished high school and went off to college in about 1915. To keep in touch, Irene’s siblings wrote her letters while as she was away earning her teaching degree. They didn’t want their relationships to fade with distance and lack of communication. When Irene returned home, she got a job teaching in Lily and Effie, the next oldest, went to college and earned her teaching degree. The money Irene made helped support the family and provided the meager savings needed for the next in line to attend college. The letters went between the family members during those two years. When Effie earned her degree, she returned home. Irene went to teach in North Dakota while Effie taught school in Lily. Together they supported themselves, their family, and contributed to the fund for the next in line to go to college.

The cycle repeated itself when Hazel graduated in 1922, went to college went to earn her teaching degree, and returned to teach in Lily. The letters went back and forth between them all. When Ray graduated from high school in 1924, he went to a four-year college for his degree as did Orlo in 1926, and Brick in 1928. The three sisters continued to work so they could get their siblings through college. Irene taught in Minnesota, Effie in North Dakota where her sister previously taught, and Hazel taught in Lily. When Ray graduated, he went to work as a teacher and principal and pitched in so his brothers could do what he’d done. Orlo and Brick joined in the process, although Brick, being the baby of the family, had no one behind him to support.

By working together, the siblings managed to put each other through college and keep the family ties strong. During all that time, the six siblings kept in touch via a round robin. It went between all of them, wherever they were teaching or learning. Letters went in and were mailed the bundle off to the next in line. Round and round the packages went for decades. As each one got married, the package expanded. The letters contained news of births, deaths, first steps, funny events, childhood illnesses, and news about keeping house. Recipes, patterns, newspaper articles, and pictures were shared. Everyone kept up with everyone else. It was a way of binding the family together before the coming of electronics.

As the siblings aged, more of the cousins got on the list of the round robin. It came around several times a year, catching each one up on all the latest. The cousins still talk about Irene’s letters. She refused to use more than one sheet of paper so when she filled that sheet up on both sides, she turned it sideways and wrote perpendicularly across what she’d already written. It was a challenge to read her letters.

As the siblings and their spouses passed away, the cousins were there to keep the tradition going. The round robin started about 1915 is still going around today, 106 years later. It remains to be seen if the tradition is carried on by the next generation of cousins.

Electronics have taken away a lot of traditions like letter writing. Forwarded emails aren’t the same as going to the mailbox and finding a thick package of letters from relatives to read at leisure. Whether the round robin tradition goes on or is brushed by the wayside, what those six siblings did for each other should never fade. Their efforts are easily seen whenever the family reunions occur and everyone greets each other like old friends. It’s a lovely thing to see.

7 Responses

  1. I would enjoy reading that collection in book form. (Like Suitcase Letters or Letters from a Suitcase, or Letters from a Woman Homesteader, etc.)
    Rhonda

    1. You’re right, it would have made a wonderful book. Unfortunately, the letters got throw away by the ones who wrote them. We forget letters chronical the life and times of the writer. I have a box full of letters written to me since I was a child. It’s a valued collection, but no one will value them like I do.

  2. When Mom died, I found all the letters from me she had saved over the years plus a few she had received from her own mother. I hadn’t known what to do with them, but am now thinking I’ll save them. Thanks.

  3. Carol, how lovingly you have written this tribute to our Johnson Family! After having read this about our Round Robin, I have tears in my eyes. Your statement is so true, that whenever our family reunions occur, we are among old friends! It is a lovely thing to be part of. I always look forward to seeing you, Carol. I hope we can gather together again soon.

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