Identifying two of the William Nelsons

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 26, 2006

By Ed Shannon, Tribune feature writer

People with the same first and last names can sometimes be the source of some understandable confusion.

However, there are ways to deal with this dilemma. One way is to use nicknames. Another is to identify each with an address or specific part of the city like Shoreland Heights or south side.

Still another can sometimes be based on appearance or age. Then again, there’s the way folks in Albert Lea area once had to use to identify two men named William Nelson. They identified each one with a specific occupation.

One of

these men was a farmer and pioneer resident. His name was William N. Nelson, and his middle name or initial could have been used for identification. He was born near Wiota, Wis. (near Monroe) during 1855 and came to Freeborn County with his parents at the age of 3.

This particular Nelson became a successful farmer and soon made a specialty of raising hogs and cattle for shipment and sales in the Chicago market. According to the 1911 History of Freeborn County book, his annual income from this aspect of farming was about $100,000.

Nelson was instrumental in the organization


the first creamery in Glenville, In time, he became involved

in real estate and eventually owned 4,000 acres of land. By 1911, he owned 700 acres in Freeborn County, plus property in Murray County (north of

Worthington), Montana, Texas and North Dakota.

Nelson’s other interests included owning stock in the First National Bank and Freeborn County State Bank, both of Albert Lea, and the Glenville State Bank. In 1890 he became a third owner with his brothers, C.E. and J.E., in Albert Lea’s Nelson Bros. Department Store.

In 1905, William N. Nelson retired from his farming and business activities and moved to a new home at 421 E. Fourth St. He later served as the city council member representing the Third Ward and eventually became the vice president of Peoples Savings and Loan Association.

The man the Tribune said started in life driving a team of oxen and ended up driving an automobile died on March 6, 1937.

When another William Nelson died Feb. 4, 1943, the Tribune identified him as an auctioneer. He could have also been identified as a former city council member and state senator.

One way folks could further identify a difference in the names for the two men was with their middle initials. The second William Nelson’s initial was T, which may have been for Thomas.

This particular Nelson, who was unlikely related to William N. Nelson the farmer was born during September 1872 on a farm in Bancroft Township near Clarks Grove.

Nelson showed an early talent for what the Tribune was &8220;crying sales.&8221; An article in the April

1951 issue of the Community Magazine explained that Bill Nelson was one the region’s first

&8220;sales criers.&8221; And here’s an indication this particular Nelson became better known by his nickname of Bill.

Bill Nelson once owned a livery stable in Albert Lea. He purchased livestock for shipment to and resale in both Chicago and South St. Paul. Nelson also owned a harness shop and general store in the city. Yet, it was his 50 years as an auctioneer which made him so well known in the area.

Being well known resulted in Nelson’s election to serve his ward as a member of the Albert Lea City Council for several terms. From 1922 to 1926 this resident of 327 W. Main St. was the senator representing Freeborn County in the Minnesota Legislature.

As an auctioneer Nelson became involved in real estate transactions. One of his methods was to purchase a farm acreage, then hopefully sell it for a profit at an auction later. This, plus sales of other property in the city, made Nelson a very prosperous man. However, a recession in the

1920s and a drop in land values created financial problems for the auctioneer and he lost a good portion of his fortune. Also, difficulties at a local bank during the Depression in the early 1930s reportedly resulted in another financial loss for Nelson.

He continued on as an auctioneer and managed to make a living selling surplus items.

He died on Feb. 4, 1943. His Tribune obituary in the Feb. 15, 1943, edition may have resulted in a surprise for people who knew him by the nickname of Bill, or as William T. Nelson the auctioneer to avoid confusing him with William N. Nelson the farmer. In reality, his birth name, according to the obituary, was George William Nelson!

(Contact Ed Shannon at or call 379-3438.)