Originally published in The Rock River Times.

Lillie Olson2

Grief affects all of us differently.  It can rob some of us of the very spark to live while others use it to propel themselves to reach out and comfort others.  Some, like the family in this story turn it into a family commitment.

Lillian Olson Anderson was born in Rockford and seemed to live a charmed life.  Her father, Nels had come from Sweden and settled in the New Milford area to begin his life as a farmer.  But fate intervened when another Swedish immigrant known as Ugarf invited Nels into the funeral home business.  Nels expanded the business to form the Rockford Furniture and Undertaking Company on Seventh Street in 1888. It was the beginning of five generations (so far) of his family serving the Rockford Community.

The Olson family grew to include seven successful children.  One daughter, Lillian or Lillie as her family called her,was born in 1890.  She would later be described as a beautiful, intelligent girl with brown hair and big blue eyes.  Lillie was described as being a favorite among her friends known for a kind heart and a positive attitude.  Lillie, along with her parents and siblings, felt it was their duty to help those less fortunate than themselves.  She even volunteered to help care for those who became ill with the Spanish Influenza during 1918.  

No one was surprised when the delightful young woman married the successful Bert Anderson in 1918.  The couple rented an apartment on Charles Street. Bert sold suits to business men and Lillie continued her work in the community. The future looked very bright for the hard working couple. But that all would change in December of 1921.  

No one was sure what happened but they soon noticed that Lillie’s whole personality changed. She became easily frightened and confused.  Lillie would wander the streets for hours before finally making her way back to the apartment on Charles Street. By the end of the year, she had suffered what was then called a nervous breakdown.  She would cry uncontrollably and suffered from horrible dizzy spells. Her family was devastated but as was their custom, they rallied behind the young woman. They took turns caring for her and hired women to sit with her when they could not be there..  

But, unfortunately, Lillie used her charm and her intelligence to sway those women to allow her to step outside unaccompanied for “just a breath of fresh air”.  She would use these unattended moments to steal away from the house on Charles Street and would be gone for hours. The family would search for her for hours at a time.  Many times, the family found her sitting on the bank by the river watching it flow past. 

Neighbors and friends knew of Lillie’s condition and would call if they spotted her and her older brother Fred would race to the location to bring her back to the house. The family’s fears grew as the winter months turned to spring and Lillie’s wanderings increased.

Fred had followed his father into the funeral business in 1910.  He went a step further when he decided to serve as the Winnebago County Coroner from 1920-1928, one of the most turbulent times in Rockford due to gang activity during Prohibition.  Fred had gained a reputation for really caring for the dead and reaching out to the families.

On April 14, Lillie’s mother, Selma called the house and suggested that she and Lillie take a walk in the spring air.  Lillie was excited and told the young woman sitting with her that day that she wanted to meet her mother and not to worry if they returned later than her husband.  “Just remind Bert that I have that errand we discussed.” Lillie stated as she grabbed her coat and rushed out the door. 

The girl thought all was well until Selma Olson showed up at the door a few minutes later asking for her daughter.  The search started almost immediately. Mrs. Olson alerted the family and they spread to look for her. Friends joined the search and then others showed up at the door. Strangers, friends and former clients came to help.  They spread throughout Rockford first and then outward to the county. Eventually the search would spread nation-wide. Two of the Olson girls had moved to California when they married. There was hope that Lillie might go to visit them.

Nels and Selma were devastated by their daughter’s disappearance.  Fred and his siblings followed every reported sighting. Henry Baldwin was the Winnebago County Sheriff at the time.  He suggested the family contact a local psychic in the Dekalb area that had assisted in other missing person cases. The family sent a representative for a meeting with the woman.  She told them she could see brown hair floating in the water. The search was expanded down the Rock River south to Grand Detour.

One week after Lilli’s disappearance her mother entered her daughter’s bedroom and noticed the girl’s Bible on the stand next to the bed.  Hoping to find some words of comfort, Selma opened the book. There on the inside cover Lillie had written a line from John 14: “I go to prepare a place for you” and addressed it “Father and Mother”.  Selma stated later that she knew that she would never see her daughter again.

On May 4, 1922, a local farmer, John Moore was approaching his field west of Roscoe by a big bend in the river.  He saw something swirling in the water about twenty feet from the shore. He said it took him a few minutes to realize that it was a body floating there.  He and another man brought the body to the shore.

One doesn’t even want to imagine what it must have been like for Fred Olson as he and the sheriff made their way to Rockton.  Unfortunately, they had made similar trips in the weeks prior to this sighting. Previously it always had been someone else’s sister that was pulled from the water.

But not this particular time.  Fred recognized his sister’s clothing right away.  He also identified the wedding band that she still wore.  The initials carved on the inside of the gold band confirmed that this time they had found Lillie.

Fred C.Olson handled death on a daily basis for years by this point.  He had comforted many family members through their loss of loved ones.  This time it was his grief that overwhelmed him and he sank to his knees.  The men who had accompanied Fred to that field stepped forward to do for Fred what he had done for countless others.  They brought Lillie’s body home for him. They also stayed by his side as he told his distraught parents the news that would break their hearts.

Lillie’s body was badly decomposed and the medical examiner declared that he believed that the young woman died the day she went missing. Later her pocket book was found on a bridge that crossed the river. Lillie’s doctor testified that she had likely suffered a dizzy spell as she attempted to cross the bridge.  Her death was ruled an accident.  

The family gathered together to say goodbye to the beautiful young woman.  She was laid to rest at Scandinavian Cemetery.

The Olson family continues their legacy of serving the Rockford Community even today.  They have helped many families through the grief process in their five generations of service.  Perhaps it brings comfort to the families they serve to know that the Olson’s family has known the heartbreak of burying family members taken much too soon.


Copyright © 2020 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events