There are so many family stories about John Burgraff (1858-1921) that it was initially very difficult to figure out what to think of him.
When someone dies, it becomes normal for people to follow the old adage, “Don’t speak ill of the dead.” Many people are elevated to near sainthood by those left behind. When I started asking about John, this appeared to be where the stories were. John was a hard working farmer. John was a smart guy that understood the idea of investing in land. John was a man that appreciated technology. John provided well for his family and they had nice houses and good barns. John was always ready to help a neighbor.
While no doubt all of this is true – it is not the whole picture of a complex man. There were some comments that probably paint a more realistic picture. One comment attributed to John’s son William was, “If you’re dealing with my father, keep your hand on your wallet.” When I commented on the move the family made to a larger farm, Sadie told me, “The older the boys got, the more land Dad bought. He didn’t work it – that’s what he had the boys for.” The general impression was that he liked to own it, but he didn’t necessarily want to be the worker bee.
People spoke frankly about John when asked and sometimes the information was simply amazing. I have not quoted directly here to protect the speakers – no one wanted their name with this information. There were several comments about John and a fondness for women and more than one person said that Mary must have been a saint to put up with his wandering eye.
His business dealings were another source of speculation. The comment above attributed to William was hardly the only comment about John’s deals. He apparently spent a lot of time looking at and speculating on land. When Little Arrie was killed he was away looking at property. He seemed to constantly be seeking new land and new deals according to the many people I spoke with. He appears to have desired to be the big fish in the small pond. I have no doubt that if there had been a country club with golf, John Burgraff would have been a charter member.
The one thing that everyone agreed upon was that he was good at business and knew the art of the deal.
John may have been a speculator and a wheeler-dealer, but he was also a man that loved to have large family gatherings, shared with his family and friends when they were in need, loved to dance, and sang to his children.
No one is either all good or all bad – they are just people.
John’s will, dated 6 October 1916, was very simple.1 He left $1 to each of his children: Peter Burgraff, William Burgraff, Maggie Den Adel, Elizabeth Dyksterhuis, John Burgraff, Jane Burgraff, Hugo Burgraff, Albert Burgraff, Arie Burgraff, Bastjaan Burgraff, Marion Burgraff, and Sadie Burgraff.
The rest of the estate went to Mary and clearly stipulated that she could do what she wanted with it. He also named her as executrix of his will. I did not search out the probate files to look for an appraisal of the estate.
Mary’s will is dated 13 March 1926 and has a little more detail and two very interesting tidbits.2
Peter and William (sons of John and Elizabeth) each received $500.
John Jr. Hugo and Albert each received $500,
“…for the reason that they have given more of their services than the other children in accumulating my estate.”
This would be payable after the sale of real estate, but before the division of proceeds.
Everything left would be divided equally between: John Burgraff, Hugo Burgraff, Albert Burgraff, Arie Burgraff, Bastjaan Burgraff, Marion Burgraff, Maggie Hoekstra, Elizabeth Dyksterhuis, Jane Nymeyer and Sadie Burgraff – to share and share alike. There is one exception made to the property.
“I hereby declare that the piano in the home is the property of my daughter, Sadie Burgraff, and the same shall not be included as a part of my estate.”
Mary requests the courts appoint her brother Hugo Kortlever as guardian of the minor children: Arie, Bastjaan, Marion, and Sadie.
Interesting tidbit 1: Hugo and Albert are nominated as the executors. John Jr. is not named. She also provides a separate sum of $200 each for their services.
Interesting tidbit 2: In the final paragraph of her will Mary states,
“It is my further desire that my son John Burgraff do not remain on said farm with the other children but that he secure another place to board and room, and not take part in working or leasing of said farm, and I authorize my executors to take such measures as may be necessary to carry out this provision of my will.”
It sounds like John was persona non-gratis at this time. Several phone calls later I was able to determine that Mary wanted the boys (Hugo and Albert) to be able to ask John to leave. John was not a farmer and contributed little to the working of the farm, although he lived there and apparently did not hesitate to partake in all the benefits. He did not work much outside the home, but he perceived himself to be the wheeler-dealer that his father was. Sadly, according to my sources, John lacked the temperament and talent for this. Mary made it clear that she was aware of the problem and would not saddle the other children with a sibling that wouldn’t pull his weight.
On the 1930 census Hugo age 28, is listed as the head of the family and at home are: Sadie age 17, Bert age 20, Marion age 19, and at the end of the list is John age 31.3 Apparently Hugo did not ask John to leave.
Mary’s probate would not be closed until 27 April 1936. The drop in farm prices and products beginning in 1926 and continuing through the Great Depression made it almost impossible to sell the property. Hugo eventually bought the shares of the farm from his siblings. The following items are of interest in the probate file:4
In 1929 William entered an agreement with his grandmother Maaike Flora Bel Kortlever. She provided him the cash he needed and he signed away his $500 that would be coming with sale of the land. Her son Hugo Kortlever acting as executor, claimed her share after her death in 1931.
In 1934 Bert sold his share of the farm to his sister Sadie.
John’s shares (according to the 31 Jan 1936 document) were sold under Sheriff’s sale to satisfy a judgment at some time prior to that date.
1. Whatcom, Washington, Record of Wills and Probate, Vol 8 of the Whatcom Probate Index: p. 79, Will of John Burgraff; File No. 4445.
2. Whatcom, Washington, Record of Wills and Probate, Record of Wills, Vol 8: p. 237, Will of Mary Burgraff; File No. 5979.
3. 1930 U.S. census, Whatcom County, Washington, population schedule, Ten Mile Township, enumeration district (ED) 53, p. 7A, dwelling 165, family 165, Hugo Burgraff; digital images, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com: accessed 7 Jul 2009); citing National Archives and Records Administration microfilm T626, roll 2522.
4. Whatcom, Washington, Probate Files, 5979 – Mary Burgraff; Superior Court of the Sate of Washington, County of Whatcom, Bellingham, Washington.