The 1900 census shows Van Buren March working as a house painter and living on Second Street in Slayton, the Murray County seat near the southwestern corner of Minnesota.
Thirty years later, census rolls list his son, George March, also working as a “painter and decorator,” living on Second Street in Slayton, where the population had grown 20 percent, from 883 to 1,102, by 1930.
And a 1955 Murray County Herald story, detailing the wedding of George’s 28-year-old son Robert March, said the groom graduated from Slayton High School and St. Thomas College “and is engaged as a painter.”
That’s three generations of Slayton painters.
“Painting was more of a profession back then,” said Mike March, one of the family’s descendants who lives near St. Cloud. He retold the story of how George and his sons once used ropes and a tractor seat to paint the Slayton water tower. They made their own paint with ground lead, linseed oil and turpentine until premixed paints and pre-cut wallpaper allowed anyone to do the work their family once performed.
But before painting careers dried up, the March boys of Slayton added their brush strokes to more than houses. They colored a frame of world events and German history — covering a 28-year span from 1918 to 1946.
George’s 21-year-old son, Cpl. Erwin March, was among the first of more than 1,400 Minnesota soldiers killed in action during World War I. German shells peppered his trench with shrapnel on Jan. 30, 1918.
“Shells seemed to be falling everywhere,” a fellow soldier recalled, saying Erwin’s telephone wires had been severed. “ ‘Boys, we are in for a little scrap all by our lonesome,’ the corporal [March] said. Then he doubled up and fell down in the mud.”
Records show shrapnel killed him instantly. The American Legion post in Slayton is named after Erwin March. He was among eight Slayton boys to volunteer for the Army just weeks after the U.S. entered the Great War.
Nine months later his mother, Mary, received a letter from her seventh and youngest son, saying he was in good health and hoping for a leave. The same day, the telegram reporting his death arrived.
Lisa Six of Savage plans to visit her Great Uncle Erwin’s grave in France this summer. Her love of March family history has already taken her to Nuremberg, Germany.
Six’s late father, Robert March, was Van’s grandson, George’s son and Erwin’s nephew. Robert joined the Army in 1945, working as a clerk typist as World War II ended. At 19, he was dispatched to Nuremberg, the site of the war crimes trial of more than 20 Nazi leaders — including Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess and Alfred Jodl.
German shrapnel had killed his uncle 28 years earlier. Now, Robert March was typing up trial testimony for the Army.
“I was very fortunate, that I didn’t have to face combat, not that I wouldn’t if I had to,” Robert wrote in a letter to the editor, published in the Murray County Herald on Sept. 12, 1946, explaining that he was too young to see any action in WWII.
Not that he didn’t face a different sort of evil as that experienced by his Uncle Erwin.
“I have been living with people that not over a year and a half ago were telling the world that they were the master race,” he wrote. “As I see them now, they are far from masters in this world, but they are arrogant … they still have the idea that they can some day rule the world.”
He witnessed the testimony of Goering, Hess and Jodl. About a month later, the verdicts came down. Goering, considered the second-most influential Nazi behind Adolf Hitler, was sentenced to death but committed suicide in jail. Hess, Hitler’s deputy minister just below Goering, spent 40 years in prison before committing suicide at 93 in 1987. And Jodl, a Nazi operations chief, was sentenced to death by hanging.
Robert March, one of the Army typists at the trials, returned home to run welfare departments for Murray County in Slayton — then in Pipestone and Fairmont. He died from leukemia at 40 when Six, his youngest of four children, was only 2.
“Not knowing my dad, I’ve always had a deep need to know more about him,” said Six, 52, explaining her recent trip to Nuremberg and the Palace of Justice. She wanted to get closer to her father and “feel his presence there.”
She toured the site of the trials, which is now a museum — finding a photograph of her dad among 50 U.S. soldiers.
“It was surreal,” she said. And it soon became more so. She asked the museum director where the soldiers stationed at the trial stayed during their stint in Nuremberg. Turns out it was the same Grand Hotel she was staying at with her husband, Kevin.
“Tears of joy were shed,” she said. “I felt my dad’s presence and got goose bumps.”
She hopes to feel her Great Uncle Erwin’s presence on her coming visit to France in September. And, by the way, she said her brothers and several cousins all inherited a special gene passed down from her great-grandfather, Van Buren March.
“Everybody in our family paints,” she said.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His new book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: https://tinyurl.com/MN1918.