A History of the Burns Family
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PART ONE: Guy's Path to the Dance

CHAPTER SIX: Mary Dinger

On the road to Fremont, Nebraska [1]
January 25, 1878

PART ONE Overview
1 - Wildcat Brigade
2 - Battle of Wilderness
3 - Field Hospital
4 - Orphan School
5 - Ladies' Man
6 - Mary Dinger
7 -The Masons
8 - Mary Rebecca
9 - Guy the Wanderer
10 - Farmer Boy
11 - Center of the World
12 - Birthday
13 - Fish Story
14 - Miss Fenn
15 - To the Dance

More Information

thurs 25 I walked from Milerd NEB to freemont and their was a squad of Indians their

Fremont, Nebraska in the winter











Lo is weary, but he knows it could be worse. It's cold but not bitingly so in this remarkably mild Midwestern winter. There's slush on the road where the sun has done its work. [2] Thank the Lord Mr. Brady had paid for his boot repair! Mr. Lithgow is a good cobbler, but very expensive, and Lo had little money then to cover such an expense, even less now. Which is why he's been walking all day along the back road to Fremont, the eastern terminus of the Union Pacific Railway. He's saving his pennies for the trip West and can't afford to wait for the next train. [3]

He must be at least 25 miles west of Millard by now, but he can see nothing ahead that looks like a town. Just mile upon mile of snow-covered Nebraska farmland. An occasional crossroad disrupts the beeline geometry of his path, but otherwise it's just one continuous sea of glinting white.
         1878 January 4th - Mr. H. L. Lithgow please
repair Lo Burnses Boots and charge
to my account. -- A. J. Brady


He cannot think of a time when he was not walking toward some familiar place – the shingle mill, his sister Sallie’s house, [4] the Boot Jack church up to Mayville, the Haughs' place up north of Sigel in Eldred – but now he is walking away.  Away from all that trouble back in Brookville.

He blames himself. He'd known full well he was playing with fire when he started fooling around with Mary Dinger. When she knocked at the door that evening back in November, bringing the book over from Johnny Sulger's, or so she said, he invited her in without hesitation.

He couldn't see the harm. She'd been a welcome diversion from the tedium of waiting for his tendons to reknit after the fight with Charley. The Burns and Dinger families had been neighbors for years, so she was more like a younger sister than a potential flame. He didn't understand she was in love. And so when she made no move to leave, he didn't press the point. She stayed until morning. He knew it was wrong, but he couldn't help himself.

Coming over a slight rise, Lo rests a while, his breath making clouds in the frosty air. The fencepost shadows are lengthening fast, so he can't stop long. There's a farmhouse and barn ahead, shielded by a dense clump of Dingertrees. A shadow moves in the gloom, and Lo sees before he hears a black horse and haywagon approaching. A boy is at the reins, hat pulled down tight over his ears against the cold. They turn into the lane toward the barn, the horse quickening its pace as it nears home. Silence settles like a soft blanket over the road. Alone again, Lo shoulders his knapsack and resumes walking. Ahead, the setting sun is already flaring at the horizon, and he must quicken his own steps unless he wants to sleep with the cows tonight.

Although it’s probably what he deserves.  He’s wrestled with his conscience ever since Mary broke the news and they tried to work out what to do.  Dr. Jane’s female pills hadn’t worked, if she ever really took them.  The baby will be born this summer.  But he will not be there to see it.  Mr. Dinger’s anger put paid to that, when he threatened suit on the grounds of "fornication and bastardy." [5]

Mr. Brady's decision to send him to Pittsburgh for the timber auction had provided a timely means of escape from a terrible situation. [6] Lo had arrived by train on the 16th of January, just in time for the afternoon proceedings. After supper at the American House, he'd gone to Martin Williams' saloon to celebrate, and stayed until 10 o'clock. And it was there, fortified by a little Cutter's, that he'd made up his mind not to go back to Brookville, at least not for a while. Instead he bought a ticket for Chicago on the Chicago-Fort Wayne-Pittsburgh railroad.

He had no particular plan at the outset, but with the country fallen on hard times, the West beckoned as the land of opportunity. From Chicago, he just kept going west. The Rock Island line took him to Des Moines, where he prevailed upon the city marshal to put him up for the night at Pennsylvania House. From there he continued on to Omaha, living by his wits, looking out for the main chance. Now he's thinking he'll head out to Colorado on the Union Pacific; there are gold strikes in Gunnison, they say. Maybe he can find Elmer, who graduated from Dayton at Christmastime, and last he heard, was headed out to western Iowa to work on the railroad. [7] If that doesn't work out, he can always go north. You can put a lot of money by in those Wisconsin logging camps with nowhere to go and nothing to buy.

Over the next rise, Lo spots Fremont at last, still nearly a mile off.  But at least he’ll be there in time to scare up a decent meal and a place to sleep.  Where he goes from here, he’ll decide tomorrow.  Suddenly he misses home with a painful stitch of the heart – the Haughs, his brothers and sister, his friends Dean and Johnny and Charley and Mose, the green hills of Jefferson County.  In the middle of this flat white stretch, he feels insignificant and very alone.

And just ahead, he now sees, there is a new wrinkle to the day's end. In a clearing in a stretch of woods beside the road he spots a tipi, and next to it, a group of Indians. He assumes they are Pawnee, the tribe living in these parts. Are these men as fierce as the Sioux who had defeated General Custer last summer? A tall Indian wrapped in a blanket silently faces the road, but makes no move. With his heart in his throat Lo strides on down the road, hoping the man will not follow. After 30 miles of walking, he's on his last legs.


Author’s Note

We know from Lorenzo's diary that he headed to Iowa and Nebraska after the timber auction. We even know some of the places he stayed along the way. We don't know exactly how far he went, what he did while he was away, or how long he was gone, but we do know where he was on January 25, 1878, the date of his final journal entry.

We also know he returned to Brookville more than once. His wife's autograph book from 1883-1885 includes signatures from people in Brookville, including cousins in Mary Rebecca's mother's family, the Halls. In the photograph at right, Lorenzo is shown with a widowed Margaret Haugh, probably at her home in Eldred in about 1915 or so. Bob Burns remembers many details about a trip he and his father took to Brookville when he was 9 or 10, perhaps to accompany Margaret's body home for burial. She died in 1930 and was buried in Pennsylvania, so the timing works. [8] All of these clues indicate that Lo's connections to Jefferson County eventually resumed after his 1878 exodus.

There's no confession in the diary, but the evidence that Lorenzo fathered a child out of wedlock is compelling.

  • Lo’s diary records Mary Dinger’s visit and overnight stay on November 12, 1878.

  • Lo hightails it to the Midwest about the time he would have learned Mary was pregnant. He mentions Dr. Jane's female pills at about this time in the diary's chronology.

  • The 1880 census shows David and Ellen Dinger living in Pine Creek Township with no Mary and a 1-year-old grandson named Lorenzo Burns.  Next door are Mary (age ~ 18) and Samuel Fike, a married couple with no children. There is no older Lorenzo Burns anywhere in the 1880 census.

  • The Balch family tree on Ancestry.com indicates Mary Dinger married Samuel Fike in January of 1880 (the census was taken in June).

  • The 1900 census shows the Fikes have a son named Loe P. Fike, who, according to his WWI draft card, WWII draft card, and Social Security Index information, was born on August 15, 1878.  This would have been about nine months after Mary's overnight stay.

Loe Fike's WWI draft registration card shows that he is shorter (5'6")
and skinnier (130 punds) than his legitimate half-brother Guy

That Mary Dinger married Samuel Fike and raised Lorenzo’s son suggests Lo was either not ready to rear a family or not considered marriage material.  At the very least his reputation in the community must have suffered, and like other men of the county in those days he could have been sued for "fornication and bastardy."  In these circumstances, Lorenzo might well have decided to leave Jefferson County, at least for a time, and head for points west. 

One song in Lo's songbook is about going out west, and a signature in the book is that of a man from Gunnison County, Colorado, which was enjoying a gold rush at the time. Just as Liberty's disappearance from the 1850 census led me to wonder whether he'd been swept up in the Gold Rush of that period, so might Lo have gone west to do some prospecting.

But another song is about lumbering. We know Lo went to the White River Logging Camp in Mason, Wisconsin, during the winters of the mid- to late-1880s, when he was a young married farm laborer in Ohio, but there's a hint in Guy's memoir that this practice may have begun when Lo still lived in Pennsylvania.

Another tantalizing hint can be found in the 1880 census. A 21-year-old "Lorenzo Dinges" is boarding with a family in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, west of Jefferson County, in the small town of Jenner. His occupation is listed as "travelling salesman." His birth year is listed as 1859, his birthplace as Pennsylvania, his parents' birthplaces also Pennsylvania. Jenner, which was off the beaten path, might have been a very good place to hide out for a while until the Dinger furor calmed down. The use of the name "Dinges" [although it might be "Dinger" -- the census worker's handwriting is a little unclear] might be an attempt at gallows humor (a popular Burns family coping mechanism). In the 1870 and 1900 census records, no one by the name of Lorenzo Dinges or Lorenzo Dinger can be found anywhere.

Snippet from the 1880 U.S. census -- click image to enlarge

The truth is we'll probably never know where Lorenzo was between 1878, when he left Brookville for points west, and 1883, when he turned up in Windham, Ohio and started courting Mary Rebecca Mason.


[1] The scene is imaginary, but most of the details in it are taken directly from Lo's diary. There is a train connection between Fremont and Millard, but it might not have been completed by 1878, or it might not have been running daily.

[2] 1877-1878 was called Minnesota's year with no winter. An El-Nino pattern was in place, and temperatures were much milder than normal in the upper Midwest. The “Monthly Weather Review” from February 1878 reported prairie fires in Minnesota, Dakota, and Kansas. In that same month active insects in Iowa, grasses sprouting in Dakota, and the ice cover in Duluth harbor broken up by heavy winds were all reported.

[3] The Union Pacific line going through Fremont is a segment of what the UP calls "The Overland Route" as well as the route of the Transcontinental Railroad. According to the UP website, Fremont was established as an end point on the Transcontinental Railroad on December 31, 1865.

[4] There is strong evidence that Lorenzo kept in touch with his sister Sallie. As noted earlier, we know from the historical record that Sallie graduated from Dayton and married Edward Paine. In his diary Lorenzo wrote the words "Sallie Burns" right next to "Sallie Paine." An Edward Paine of the right age grew up in Pine Creek Township with a father A. B. Paine, and Sallie and Edward settled first in Jefferson County, in Polk Township, which was within visiting distance. By 1900 they had moved to far western Pennsylvania, and later they moved to West Virginia. They named one of their sons Lorenzo.

[5] A small notation in the diary margin says: "Dr. Jane's Female Pills" with no further explanation. Although abortion was increasingly frowned upon in the latter half of the 19th century, it had not become the hot political and moral issue it is today. "Female pills" were understood to induce abortion and were widely advertised in newspapers at the time. Conception out of wedlock was another matter. The 1864 report of court proceedings from Jefferson County that listed charges against Liberty Burns for "surety of the peace" also lists several men who were being sued for "fornication and bastardy." This was no small matter back in the 1870s, and would have provided ample reason for Lorenzo to flee!

[6] Brookville’s nineteenth-century growth was mainly the result of the booming lumber industry. In the 1830s the area's rich timber tracts were identified, and mills were erected up and down the watersheds. By the 1850s, there were sixty-two mills on the waterways circling Brookville. Large rafts were made of timber or sawn boards, and the high-water seasons of the fall and spring in Brookville saw raftsmen plying the waters between the growing town and the lumber markets of Pittsburgh.

[7] The map fragment below shows the places where Lorenzo might have stayed on his journey west. The 1880 U.S. Census finds an Elmer E. Burns of the right age employed as a railroad worker and boarding with a family in Red Oak, Iowa, a town located on a rail line not far from the train route that notations in Lo's songbook suggest he took. The black arrow points to Red Oak.

Elmer and Lo

[8] On the way to Brookville, Guy and Bob stopped to help a fellow motorist who had run out of gas.  Guy insisted on fetching some gasoline for him, whereupon the man offered him $5 for his trouble.  Guy refused to take the money, so the man gave it to Bob.  Guy allowed his son to keep the money on the condition that it be used to buy a souvenir for Ada, who was not along for the trip.  They bought a shiny gold-colored brooch with a pearl in the middle.  At the Martzes the kids spent a lot of time in the family room listening to hit records on the Gramophone, especially one with “St. John” in the lyrics that they played over and over until Bob came to hate it intensely! He may have been referring to the St. James Infirmary Blues -- who knows? Interestingly, Mary Dinger Fike had a sister who married into the Martz family.