By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — In honor of Veterans Day and the Colfax Sesquicentennial celebration July 17-20, 2014, the history installment for this edition of the Colfax Messenger is Ebert Sorkness, Dunn County’s oldest living Civil War veteran.
Sorkness lived in Colfax and died at the age of 100 in February of 1940.
Part 7: Long ago and far away …
The Civil War (1861 to 1865) seems like it was a long time ago in a place far away and that it could not possibly have had anything to do with anyone living in or around Colfax.
But that’s not true, of course.
Ebert Sorkness lived in the Town of Grant, and then later on, in the village of Colfax. He served in the Civil War and enlisted in 1864 at the age of 25.
On his 100th birthday in May of 1939, Sorkness was honored as the oldest — and the only — living Civil War veteran in Dunn County. A parade was held in his honor, and the event was front-page news in the Colfax Messenger before, during and after the event.
Beginning on May 20, 1937, the Colfax Messenger published an article about Sorkness’s service in the Civil War on his 98th birthday.
At that time, Ebert Sorkness was the second remaining Civil War veteran in Dunn County.
According to the Messenger:
“Ebert Sorkness, oldest and one of two remaining Civil War veterans of Dunn County, observed his 98th birthday at his home on the North side on Saturday, May 15.
“A gathering of relatives and friends on Saturday, and a similar gathering on Sunday marked the passing of another birthday of this estimable old gentleman, who is rapidly nearing the century mark.
“Despite advancing years, Mr. Sorkness can see plainly and eats his meals without the aid of glasses. Although confined to his home most of the time, he gets about without assistance from his devoted relatives, who are giving him the best possible care in his declining years.
“Inability to hear conversation plainly prevented Mr. Sorkness from giving facts regarding his experiences in the Civil War. However, it was learned that he enlisted when (he was) about 25 years of age in 1864 with the 12th Regiment of volunteers and was a member of Company A, serving in the Union Army. Mr. Sorkness, at the time of enlistment, was a resident of Martell, Pierce County.
“A number of experiences of Mr. Sorkness were vividly remembered by A.A. Anderson, pioneer resident, who made a visit to the Sorkness home with a Messenger representative Tuesday morning. At that time, Mr. Sorkness was engaged in eating his morning meal. Despite his advanced years, he arose from his chair without aid to receive the congratulations of his visitors.
“It was noted that Mr. Sorkness had lost none of his spirit and fine radiant personality which carried him through life with the distinction of a true gentleman and Christian.
“The Messenger learned, through Mr. A.A. Anderson, that several years previous Mr. Sorkness had related of some of his experiences in the Civil War.
“Before enlistment, Sorkness had stopped at the Anderson farm. At that time Mr. Anderson was not more than seven years of age, but he recalled distinctly that the genial old veteran had one of his fingers bandaged.
“Anderson ribbed Mr. Sorkness of the fact that he would be unable to enlist because of his injury, but Sorkness, with the spirit of adventure and patriotism in his heart, shook his crippled finger vigorously with the retort that he would do his part in showing those ‘copper heads.’
“Although his most comical experience nearly cost him his life in the war, Sorkness at one time related to Mr. Anderson of a battle where Rebel and Union forces were charging at each other on an open prairie. The Union forces in this battle were greatly outnumbered.
“Unaware of the fact that his ‘buddies’ had turned to retreat in the face of greater numbers, Sorkness kept on charging at the enemy force, and noticed his lone hand in battle only in time to prevent his capture. The Rebel forces ordered his surrender, but Sorkness took to his heels and ran at top speed with bullets whistling by on all sides.
“Some of them came almost too close, he told Mr. Anderson. In the face of capture, he probably recalled the experiences of Mr. Hiram Cutting, who was captured and kept in Andersonville prison for one year, and turned to his heels rather than face the inhumane treatment of Southern prison camps.
“Note: (Mr. Cutting was captured and kept in Andersonville prison where he was chained to a pig trough and fed nothing but slop during his year of confinement. Cutting was practically starved, weighing but 95 pounds when he escaped from Andersonville. In making his escape, he ran across an open field where he was fired at by guards, but escaped without injury. He chose escape or possible death to the inhumane treatment at Andersonville.)
“Further relating of Mr. Sorkness’ experiences it was quite definitely established that he was a member of Sherman’s army on his historical ‘March to the Sea.’
“The following relatives and friends gathered at the Sorkness home for a quiet celebration on Saturday: Mrs. Barney Lee and son, Alf; Mrs. Melvin Scott; Mrs. Amelia Cardin; Anthony Berry; Mrs. T.J. Conway, all of Colfax; Mrs. Trygve Husberg, Eau Claire. The following were guests on Sunday: Rev. and Mrs. Alfred Knutson and family, the Sorkness family, Lewis and William Sorkness, all of Colfax.”
One year later, by the May 19, 1938, edition of the Colfax Messenger, Ebert Sorkness was beginning to suffer from ill health.
The Messenger reports that Mr. Sorkness “quietly observed the 99th anniversary of his birth at his home on the north side in the village last Sunday [May 15].
“Due to a recent illness which has kept Mr. Sorkness confined to his bed during a greater part of the time in the past two months, he was unable to receive a large number of visitors, and the event was quietly marked by a gathering of only immediate relatives.
“During the past two months Mr. Sorkness has become defective in both hearing and eyesight, despite the fact that he could see plainly and eat his meals without the aid of glasses until a few months ago. Devoted relatives are doing everything possible to give this estimable old gentleman the best of care in his declining years.”
The Messenger goes on to list a number of relatives who came to visit Ebert Sorkness on his birthday. The article notes that his three daughters were unable to be present but sent greetings from Washington state, Chicago and Bonita, Arizona.
The article includes information about Ebert Sorkness’s background as well:
“Mr. Sorkness was born in Norway, coming to the United States before the outbreak of the Civil War. At the age of about 25 years, he enlisted in 1864 with the Union Army, and served through the balance of the war with the 12th Regiment of Volunteers, Wisconsin Infantry.”
The story on the front page included the picture of Mr. Sorkness that had been taken a few years earlier before his 97th birthday.
One year later, the May 11, 1939, edition of the Messenger, included a front-page story about Ebert Sorkness’s 100th birthday and the huge parade that was coming up to mark the event on May 15.
The story once again included the picture of Mr. Sorkness that had been taken shortly before his 97th birthday.
According to the article, “Northern Wisconsin will have the unusual opportunity to turn out and pay homage to one of its few remaining Civil War veterans on Monday, May 15, when Colfax Legionnaires are staging a big celebration in honor of Ebert Sorkness, who will become 100 years of age on that day.
“A parade, replete with military color, will form at 1:00 p.m. on University Avenue in front of Colfax High School, moving east to Amble Street, then north to High Street, turning west to the Ebert Sorkness residence where official flag raising ceremonies will be held.
“The parade will then proceed west one block, then south past the high school back to University Avenue, then west and south down Main Street to Railroad Avenue, directly east to the village park where military maneuvers will be demonstrated through the courtesy of the Wisconsin National Guard and the Menomonie Drum and Bugle Corps.
“After the demonstration, the American Legion Colors will be officially advanced to the platform where the address of welcome will be given by Sam K. Iverson, president of the Colfax Commercial Club, who will introduce the speakers of the day.
“Guest speakers in the afternoon will include Governor Heil, or his representative, Adjutant General Ralph M. Immell, of the Wisconsin National Guard, of the State Department of the American Legion, Major H.A. Austin of the regular Army, Lieutenant Colonel Simpson of the Reserve, Assemblyman Earl W. Hanson, and several others.
“A testimonial dinner in the Municipal basement at 6:30 o’clock will follow the afternoon program. At the dinner, a testimonial will be presented to Ebert Sorkness by Henry Regner, Department Commander of the American Legion, State of Wisconsin.
“Banquet tickets will be on sale at the Hammer Chevrolet Company, and it is urged that reservations be made early.
“The parade will be the largest and best ever staged in Colfax, and the afternoon and evening programs will be well worth coming miles to see and hear. Several units of the National Guard will take part in the parade in addition to the large number of uniformed Legionnaires, the Menomonie Drum and Bugle Corps, Legion Auxiliary, Boy and Girl Scouts, Colfax Public School students, and other organizations.
“Civil War spirit will also prevail in the parade, which will have two of the old Eau Claire G.A.R. [Grand Army of the Republic] veterans riding in honored positions.
“At the testimonial dinner, Colonel Simpson will act in the capacity of Toastmaster, and during the course of this time, impressive testimonial presentations will be made to Ebert Sorkness, who served with the Union Army for eighteen months from January 19, 1864, to July 16, 1865.”
The May 18, 1939, edition of the Messenger devoted much of the front page to pictures and a story about the parade to honor Ebert Sorkness on his 100th birthday.
Five photographs published on the front page commemorated the event.
One photograph shows the stage for the program at the park and all of the people who took part in the program.
Three other photographs show the parade as it is passing through downtown.
And one photograph includes Ebert Sorkness and other Civil War veterans who came to town for the parade: L.A. Wilcox, 93, Tacoma, Washington, Post Department Commander who fought with Co. F., 4th Wisconsin Cavalry; Ancel Goosberg, 91, of Chetek, who served with the 7th Minnesota Co. C; Ebert Sorkness, 100, who served with Co. A., 12th Wisconsin Infantry; B. Regli, 56, of Eau Claire, who is the post commander of the G.A.R. in Eau Claire; Ira G. Reed, 91, Altoona, who served with Co. D. 46th Wisconsin Infantry.
Also pictured with the veterans were Mrs. Anna Berg, daughter of Ebert Sorkness, and Anthony Berray of Colfax.
In addition to naming all of the speakers for the event, the Messenger article notes that the testimonial dinner served in the basement of the Municipal Building was served by Barney’s Cafe, assisted by Mrs. Ernest Brickner and Home Economic students of the Colfax High School, and that the high school orchestra played during the evening’s entertainment.
Ebert Sorkness died ten months later on February 2, 1940.
The obituary notes that Ebert Sorkness was born in Hoff Solor, Norway, on May 15, 1839, and that at the age of 19, he came to America and worked in the logging industry in and around Eau Claire.
After he was discharged from the Army on July 16, 1864, Ebert Sorkness came to Dunn County and bought 200 acres in the Town of Grant.
He married his first wife, Serainana Kvistad, in 1866, and the couple had six children. Serainana died on April 5, 1885, and in 1890, Ebert Sorkness married Elizabeth Erickson, with whom he had seven children. Elizabeth died in 1909.
Ebert Sorkness sold his farm in the Town of Grant in 1914 and moved to Colfax, where he lived until his death.
Funeral services were held at the Sorkness home in Colfax and again at the Running Valley Free Church, conducted by Reverend Iver Olson of Sand Creek.
Ebert Sorkness was buried in the Running Valley cemetery.