Rivers of Thought

Life, Leadership, Business & Technology

By now you’ve read the story (I hope) of the germination of the idea to release the second edition of my mom’s book, The Flames Shall Not Consume You. If you haven’t you can read it here: The Flames Burn Brightly – The eBook. It started with a message from a young woman from Peru asking about the availability of mom’s book and suggesting it be released in digital formats. That message exploded into a project to publish an ebook version that became an Amazon Best Seller. While that project was in full tilt, I started another project to produce an audiobook version. 

The ebook project was filled with amazing moments! To quote me: 

Call them serendipitous moments, call them gobsmacked moments, call them just a coincidental moment, or, as my old friend Melva calls them, divine coincidences…the project to publish the second edition of The Flames Shall Not Consume You has been full of such moments. I mean, who can’t see the handiwork of the universe in a young woman from [the country of] Peru reaching out inquiring about the book? 

The audiobook project began with an epiphany on the Fourth of July holiday. An audiobook needs a narrator. Seems pretty obvious, right? But who? I had narrated my previous book and had a great time doing it. It didn’t seem right for me to do it. It had to be a woman’s voice. I considered using Audible’s royalty share program. I had used that program when the outstanding Ron Fox narrated my first book. This program enables an author to produce an audiobook using professional voice talent with no out-of-pocket expense. The author and the narrator agree to split the royalties, with no advance and no guarantees. Pretty sweet program (says the author). 

I REALLY wanted it to be someone that I knew. I felt strongly it needed to be a woman in her 40’s…the same age that mom would have been when the fire occurred. As I sat watching the fireworks at our neighbors’ house, it suddenly came to me…why not Amy Brown? I’d known Amy since she was a kid. I was her Junior High School Sunday School teacher. Her parents were one of the first people that welcomed us into the church in the ’80s. My parents loved her parents. Amy is a woman of faith, my mother was a woman of faith. Amy is an incredible business person and champion of women in the workplace, especially in tech, my mother was a trailblazer for women, especially minister’s wives. I knew Amy’s mother, Carol, had an empathetic soul, my mother had an empathetic soul…and I was betting Amy did, too. 

Then the doubts crept in. No way would she agree to do this. She is the CEO of a new tech start-up, she is a mother of young kids, she is a wife…when would she have time to do this? I barely knew her. Yes, I knew her as a teenager, but we had barely seen each other in 25 years. Aside from Sunday School and a youth group canoe trip, I bet all our conversations could be contained in less than an hour.  

I argued with myself for a couple of days, finally, on July 8th, I sent her an email.

Subject: An “out of the blue” question for you

I am working on a project that I need some help on…and I thought of you. 

As you may know, my mom published a couple of books about 40 years ago. Because of the era in which they were published, they were not available on digital platforms like e-books or audiobooks. I have worked with her original publisher to have the publishing rights released to me via her estate. 

My plan is to publish second edition versions in e-book and audiobook format. The latter is where the question for you comes in. Would you consider being “my mom’s voice” and narrating her books for the audio version? 

I know that is a huge block of time and believe me when I say if you can’t give up that much time or otherwise don’t feel like you want to do this, I will totally understand if you say no. …

…Of course, we would need to discuss compensation for your time. This could either be an hourly rate or a royalty share of the sales of the audiobook.

Within 45 minutes I had her answer.

First let me say that I am completely honored that you would ask me to do something so personal, so important.  One of my first reactions when reading this email is a “why me?” sort of question—(with a tone of humility, not annoyance). 

Second, it is true that my time is super super thin but this sounds like a project that would be very fulfilling for me.  If we could work very collaboratively on scheduling and there would be ample flexibility I would certainly be open to doing this with you.

An idea on compensation. . .what if, instead of compensating me for my time, we instead devoted a % of the book to a charity or organization in honor of your mom?  We could promote that?


After a few more emails back and forth, we agreed to meet at the recording studio to do a one-hour session. This would give Amy a chance to experience the process. I wanted to give her an “out” if she tried it and decided it was not for her. 

The First Recording Session

I don’t know if Amy was nervous, if she was she didn’t show it. I, on the other hand, had jello for knees. We were using 416 Wabash Recording Studio with Mitch Lohman as the engineer. I had worked with Mitch and 416 to record my previous book, so I knew what to expect. For Amy, it was all new. The recording studio is a part of 416 Wabash Event Center. When there isn’t an event, there is very little lighting. The style of the Event Center is kind of industrial. It always reminds me of Gotham City in the Michael Keaton Batman movies…dark…industrial…foreboding. 

When you step into the studio, the first thing you see is the control board with thousands of dials, buttons, and sliders. To a former wanna-be rock star it is pretty cool! Behind the board is a couch. That would be my spot during the recording. Just past the board is a door as thick as a bank vault door, through that door is the sound booth. Mitch helped Amy get comfortable with the set up of the boom microphone, headphones, and teleprompter. We were all set. 

Ready to begin…

I took my place on the couch and Mitch swung the sound booth door shut. From where I sat, I could not see Amy. Mitch and Amy could see each other through a window in the wall of the booth. After a few sound checks, Amy began. We started with the Acknowledgements section, challenging because of all the names mom mentions, but pretty straightforward. We were ready for Chapter 1.

Chapter 1

Ladybug, Ladybug, Fly Away Home

January 4, 1980. A date as indelibly engraved on my mind as the day of my birth. It began like so many other days. The alarm went off at 5:45 a.m. I dragged my body to the shower to the music of WXTZ—the “old people’s radio station,” my rock-fan sons called it.

I was transported. Transported in place and time. Suddenly, I was back in 1980. I was listening to my mom tell the story. Tears welled up in my eyes and began to stream down my face. After a few minutes, Amy paused. She started again and paused. “I need a–I need a moment”, she said. Mitch stepped out of the studio to give her some time. I opened the door to the sound booth, tears in my eyes, and approached Amy. Her eyes were filled with tears as well. I could only croak, “Thank you” as we embraced. This would not be the last time tears were shed during that session and the sessions to come. 

When we finished with the hour, the three of us paused in the studio. 

“Amy, thank you so very much for this. Now that you see what it’s like, go home and think about it for a few days. Let me know if you’d like to do this.” 

“Jeff, I don’t need to think about it, I’m doing this!” 

Let’s Do This!

The next morning I sat down at my desk and found an email from Amy in my inbox.

Good evening Jeff,

I wanted to share this with you in person today but I wasn’t sure I’d be able to share it without getting choked up again…

When you asked me to do the audio-recording of your mom’s book in July, I was both honored and terrified.  But here is why I knew this was something God wanted me to do….

I consider 2017 to be one of the most spiritually pivotal years of my life.   That year, in January,  I chose a special word to be my “beacon” or call for the year.  Actually, the word chose me.  The word was “fire.”  And the scripture that was placed upon my heart when God gave me that word in 2017 was the scripture of the burning bush and particularly the line about the flames not consuming you. 

Fast forward to your request, and it was as though God was calling me by name.  Today being in that sound booth, I truly felt the presence of your mom and dad.  It felt like holy ground.  Thank you for inviting me into this sacred place.


INCREDIBLE! Another one of those “moments”. 

Isaiah 43:1-2 “But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”

Exodus 3:2 “And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed.” 

English Standard Version

In my return email, I told her the story of the cover design and my dad’s ashes. I had not told anyone that story except for Carmen and Brad. 

Recording Continues

As we progressed through the next several recording sessions, we shared more tears. Truth be told, I think Mitch might have shed a tear or two. It soon became obvious I had grossly underestimated the number of sessions it would take to complete the book. I assumed the book to be about the same length as my books, yet after four sessions we were not even halfway. With a great deal of apprehension, I checked the manuscript…over 63,000 words! Mom was a prolific writer, my books were only 35,000. Now, I really was apprehensive as I sent an email to Amy telling her how many more sessions were needed! 

I gave her the out. She could stop, no hard feelings, I would totally understand. This was a huge commitment in the first place…now it was twice what I initially told her. Her response? No way am I stopping! What if we made each session 90 minutes or even two hours? 

Can I say INCREDIBLE one more time! 

Doe a Deer

We continued to share the experience of bringing mom’s words to life…

…when the book told the story of the nurses encouraging mom to sing to help her endure the pain of the dressing changes, the only song mom could think of was “Doe, a deer, a female deer”.  When Amy read the passage, she paused and asked quietly, “Do you want me to sing it?” And then she did! (and it was beautiful). 

…when mom confessed to swearing at her mother, “Bull–”, Amy again paused and asked, “Do you want me to say the whole thing? “Bullshit!”

…when mom’s vocabulary stumped us all and Mitch had to Google pronunciation after pronunciation. 

…when Amy would stumble over a phrase and have to repeat it…and repeat it…and repeat it…and we all laughed! Trust me when I say, it is easy to get tongue-tied when you’ve been talking for two hours straight! 

…when I learned Amy was doing the narration cold…no rehearsal…because she wanted to experience the emotion as the story unfolded. Uh, amazing! I don’t know if you have ever tried to read out loud, in front of an audience (even an audience of two), and have it recorded but it is very difficult to make it sound like you aren’t reading, it is even more difficult to put the emotion in your voice and the emphasis in the right place when you don’t know what is coming next. I am a professional speaker and narrated my second book and I certainly rehearsed. I am in AWE. 

…when Amy got to the chapter about, well, about my mom and dad’s sex life after the fire. I was VERY glad I could not see her at that moment. I was 50 shades of…red! 

The Gift

As we neared the end of the book, Amy arrived carrying three boxes. She gave one to Mitch and one to me. Nestled in paper inside each box was a stone…a red stone…carved to look like a flame. “I wanted each of us to have one to remember this experience.” Mitch proudly added his to the curio shelf in the studio. Mine is sitting on the desk in my office. I see it every day. I think of Amy, I think of Mitch, and I think of mom.

You would think the story would end with the last audio wave of the recording…but this story was to continue…

The Flames Burn Brightly, a story I hinted at in some of my previous posts. This is the story of bringing the second edition of my mom’s book, The Flames Shall Not Consume You to life!

Since first writing about my mother’s passing in 2013, I occasionally hear from people whose lives she impacted. The notes come via comments here on Rivers of Thought, emails, or even Facebook Messenger. Most of them had never met my mother, yet her stories changed their lives in some way. Mom was an author. She was a speaker. Her words and her story were powerful. 

Whenever anyone reaches out, I am moved. I want to learn more about the person. I love to know how mom or mom’s words moved them. Through my mom, my network has expanded to include some incredible people. 

A year ago, I received a note from a young woman from Peru…the country, not the city in Indiana. 

The Flames Shall Not Consume You

The Adventure Begins

Hmmm, digital. To the best of my knowledge, mom’s books had never been released in ebook or audiobook format. Those mediums have been around much longer than you’d think, but in 1980 when mom’s books were published they were not mainstream. Where to start? I had no manuscript, I had no publishing rights. 

I wrote to David C. Cook Publishing, the original publisher of mom’s books. Several weeks later I received a letter from their legal department. To paraphrase, it said, in part, those books were published long ago. There is no information in our records pertaining to the books. Therefore, to the extent David C. Cook Publishing has any rights to those works, we pass those rights to the estate of Mary Ellen Ton.

Hmmm…no records…wasn’t the definitive answer I was looking for when it comes to publishing rights…but what the heck, I can always claim ignorance and beg forgiveness. Let’s rock and roll! Almost a year later, while cleaning out some old files of my mom’s I found a letter from David C. Cook to mom, transferring all rights back to her…heck, I had permission before I even asked (I’m not so much a rebel as I thought). 

Mom wrote two books that were published by David C. Cook. While I wanted the rights to both books, I was particularly interested in The Flames Shall Not Consume You since my new Peruvian friend mentioned it specifically. My mother was nearly killed in a tragic fire back in 1980. She suffered burns over 50% of her body and a broken back. The book is the story of her journey through the fire, its aftermath, her wrestling match with God, and ultimately, her transformation. 

The Manuscript

But now…the manuscript. I could type it all in from a copy of the book. That would only take, like, forEVER. I started Googling transcription services that could help. I found a bunch but I was nervous about using an unknown service. Then it struck me. Why not reach out to my editor Lori Paximadis. She may have a service she recommends. As it turned out, Lori provides that service herself! She bought a copy of both of mom’s books from eBay, ripped the spine off of them, ran them through an OCR scanner to convert them to text files, and then corrected all the OCR misreads. 

Once she had the manuscripts in a usable format, she reviewed them and recommended minor changes to bring them to modern editing standards. I reviewed each of her recommendations and accepted most of them. One item got past both of us…and the original editors. It’s like nails on a chalkboard every time I hear it now. To anyone that spots it or hears it, let me know, you will win a fabulous prize! 

The Cover

While Lori was working her magic on the manuscripts, I reached out to my graphics designer, the amazing Jennifer Vogel. Jennifer (or JVo as we call her) and I have been working together now for about four years. PowerPoints, social media, webinars, webcasts, and book covers…she brings my words to life through imagery. There was no one else I would entrust with bringing my mom’s book cover back to life. 

The Flames Shall Not Consume You

I think you will agree, she did a beautiful job! 

Call them serendipitous moments, call them gobsmacked moments, call them just a coincidental moment, or, as my old friend Melva calls them, divine coincidences…the project to publish the second edition of The Flames Shall Not Consume You has been full of such moments. I mean, who can’t see the handiwork of the universe in a young woman from Peru reaching out inquiring about the book? 

Another one of those moments occurred just weeks before the publication of the ebook when I received the cover images from JVo. I wrote about this moment in part two of my series A Journey Through the Land of Serendip. Rather than making you click through to read the story, I will share it here…but you SHOULD click through and read the full series after you finish this post! 

A Serendipitous Moment

In the summer of ‘21, Carmen (my wife), Brad (one of my sons), and I traveled to Greenlake, Wisconsin to scatter dad’s ashes in the same place we had spread mom’s back in ‘14. As we spread his ashes, some fell on the surface of the lake. As the waves rolled in, the ashes began to spread. To me, they looked like wisps of smoke. The next morning, I was reviewing the cover designs Jennifer had sent. Her design of flowers, flames, and smoke is a beautiful reimagination of the original cover.

I saw it immediately…wisps of smoke…wisps of smoke…the ashes spreading across the surface of the lake. I immediately pulled up the photo of the water I had taken the day before. The wisps of ashes on the lake were a perfect overlay of the wisps of smoke in Jennifer’s image. Chills ran down my spine, and tears ran down my cheeks. 

Climbing the List

With the book cover in hand (well, not physically in hand, more like with the book cover in cloud), I finalized the ebook version for release on Amazon. My goal was to release the second edition on September 5, 2021 on what would have been mom’s 88th birthday. My dream was to sell enough copies for the book to hit the Amazon Best Seller List, my fantasy was to have it hit number one. I began to publicize the launch to family, friends, acquaintances, Facebook friends, LinkedIn connections, Twitter and Instagram followers, and my newsletter subscribers. My message of “Buy an advance copy, help make my mom a best-selling author” was spread across every channel I could find. 

The Flames Shall Not Consume YouIt worked!! The Flames Shall Not Consume You was the number one new release in five different categories…but it was better than that…it hit number one bestseller (not just new releases) in the Survival category!!! NUMBER ONE! Mary Ellen Ton was a best-selling author!!

The Flames Shall Not Consume You

But! The story doesn’t end here! Wait until you hear the story of bringing mom’s words to LIFE. The project to create the audiobook is filled with more of those amazing moments! Until next time…

This past fall was to be my 45th high school reunion (yes, FORTY-FIFTH, I know, I’m old). We also learned last summer that the re-dedication celebration of the memorial in honor of my great-great-grandparents was to be held the very same day.

Let the wrestling match in my head begin…

…attend the reunion and see friends I had not seen in five years (or 45 years) …

…attend a celebration in Chicago with people we did not know…

…spend three days in Evansville attending dinners and lunches…

…drive to a celebration we knew little about…

…my high school days were far from my glory days (queue Bruce Springsteen) …

…being a direct descendant of the honorees would make us mini-celebrities…

…I was a shy, quiet, nerd in high school (I know, hard to believe, right?) …

…we would undoubtedly learn more about our family history…

…it would be a chance to see Hal, Beth, Tim, Kim, Jim, Harold, and others…

…besides, we’d already paid for the reunion…

…Chicago is a long way to go for an hour ceremony…

I chose the reunion.

A Funny thing happened on the way…to the reunion

As summer turned to fall, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about the decision a time or two (or, three), but did not waiver. Just after Labor Day, I received a message from a buddy of mine from high school. He needed to talk to me about something, could I jump on a call? Of course! Hal was one of those high school friends that I had reconnected with over the last decade. He and his wife, Beth (who I knew from church youth group as a kid) are one of the couples Carmen and I make a point to stay in touch with and to see them when we can. They have both had health scares since our last reunion five years ago. I dreaded the news he was likely to share.

As it turned out, Hal wanted to talk about the reunion. He was one of our class officers and has been involved in planning each reunion. Boy, was I relieved?!!? His news? It seems the planning committee had reached an impasse on masks/no masks, vaccines/no vaccines related to the pandemic. Rather than push the issue and cause hard feelings, the reunion was being canceled! No offense to Hal nor any of the other committee members, but I almost cheered. We immediately started making plans to attend the re-dedication celebration in South Holland.

A Funny thing happened on our way…to the re-dedication

I don’t recall when Carmen and I got the bug for tromping through cemeteries, nor do I recall how many we have tromped through. We have visited the graves of ancestors, historical figures, and servicemen and women (known to us and not) across the U.S and in Europe. It only seemed fitting we should visit Jan and Aagje’s graves in Mount Greenwood on our way to a ceremony rededicating a monument to their honor.

The 16th of October found us heading up I-65 early enough to spend an hour or so investigating the graves, grab lunch, and make it to the church on time. It was a crisp autumn day, a great day for exploring a cemetery for graves of ancestors and pioneers. Locating the Ton area was easy-peasy (thanks to FindaGrave.com!). Many of the headstones had been updated since the original internment. Some, however, were old enough to render them unreadable. We decided to venture over to the Cemetery office to investigate the plot maps.

The woman in the office was incredibly helpful. She pulled out records from 125 years ago when Jan died and was buried. We reviewed plot maps (and wished we had stopped in before trying to make sense of the headstones, would have made THAT a lot easier!). We learned enough to know we would like to go back when we have more time. We’d love to dig into some of those old records. Jan’s record indicates he died at home from cancer of the perineum (if I am reading the handwriting properly).

We decided we wanted to take the time to place flowers on Jan and Aagje’s headstones, so we headed to a nearby florist. As we talked with the clerk, we learned the shop typically closed at noon. She just happened to be staying late to meet with someone who had not arrived yet to pick up an arrangement. As we were preparing to leave, she asked if we would mind staying. The person she was supposed to meet was from the “east side”. I remember thinking, isn’t the east side of Chicago a lake? A little perplexed, but assuming from her tone we knew the source of her uneasiness. Not knowing what else to do, we agreed to stay. A few minutes later our suspicions were confirmed as two men, two African American men, arrived to pick up an arrangement for their mother’s plot.

It was a non-event. They picked up their flowers. They chatted cordially, and they left.

The irony. We had driven several hours to pay our respects to and celebrate emigrants who risked jail, bodily harm, and deportation to aid fellow human beings as they sought their freedom, and the clerk was apprehensive about meeting two men from “the east side”.  Over lunch, Carmen and I tried to focus on the ceremony ahead, but our minds kept returning to the clash of images separated by 150 years…

…was she being racist?

…was she being sensible and safe?

…as a woman, was she afraid to be alone with two men?

…was she afraid to be alone with them because they were from “the East Side”?

…was she afraid to be alone with them because she assumed they would be African American?

…she had no idea what reaction we would have, why did she even say anything?

…what should WE have done or said? We, ourselves, had been warned to be careful driving around Roseland because “it’s not a good area”.

Our lunch over, we headed to the Re-dedication Ceremony. We pushed the interaction out of our minds so we could be fully present at the celebration of the Memorial Garden.

The Re-dedication; a family reunion; and family extended

The memorial to Jan and Aagje is on the grounds of the First Reformed Church of South Holland. The site for the memorial was chosen because Jan had served as one of the first deacons of the church. We arrived a few minutes before the re-dedication was to begin. As soon as Carmen mentioned to the greeter that we were descendants of Jan and Aagje, we were promptly escorted into the downstairs meeting hall.

We were quickly introduced to Robin Scheldberg from the South Holland Historical Society. You may recall from my earlier ramblings; Robin had reached out to me after discovering one of my posts about Jan and Aagje. It was she that first told us about the rededication. Within moments we reunited with Nadine Harris Clark, the gardener extraordinaire who maintains the memorial gardens and who is also the aunt of LeRone Branch. You may recall from my earlier posts, LeRone was the Eagle Scout who led the effort to build the memorial.

We were both very anxious to meet LeRone. Personally, I wanted to shake his hand and thank him for honoring my great grandparents. Nadine shepherded us across the room in his direction. Before we reached LeRone, she stopped to introduce us to his Uncle Mike. Mike Cowan drafted the original design of the hardscape for the memorial and volunteers his time to help keep the gardens manicured.

Mike’s design is breathtaking. A 9,000-pound piece of granite serves as the centerpiece. Railroad tracks run across the garden disappear under the granite and reappear on the other side to represent the Underground Railroad. Surrounding the stone is a garden of flowers and grasses that would have been native to the prairie south of Chicago 150 years ago. A brick walkway leads from the drive to the memorial. A pair of benches sit to either side so one can sit and soak it all in.

After thanking Mike for his efforts and his design, we stepped across the room to shake hands with the man of the hour, LeRone. LeRone is now in his mid-twenties and a tax accountant for one of the big four firms. Ten years ago, as an aspiring Eagle Scout, he chose this project as his Eagle Scout Service project to complete the requirements of the rank. Now, I have never met a real rock star before, but my heart was racing like I was getting ready to shake hands with Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, or Ronnie Wood! What an amazing undertaking it must have been for a kid of, what? sixteen!

LeRone Branch

It was an honor to shake his hand, thank him for memorializing Jan and Aagje, and chat with him for a few minutes. His project serves primarily as a reminder of the brave souls who escaped enslavement and sought freedom by traveling on foot, by boat, sometimes by train. Many times, their ultimate destination was Canada. As historian Larry McClellan states, “to find freedom, they had to leave the land of the free”. Bravery is not the lack of fear, but rather the courage to act in the face of fear. As I view the memorial, yes, I think of Jan and Aagje, but more than those two ancestors, I think of the thousands of men, women, and children who traveled in, not just fear, but terror, towards freedom and a better life.

Eenigenburg – Ton Reunion

After chatting with LeRone, we made our way over to one of the display tables. It was covered with Ton family history pieces, most of which we had not seen before. We soon learned the pieces were from the collection of the keynote speaker, Merritt Bethig. Merritt is a descendant of my great-great-grandfather, Jan Ton of Holland (The Netherlands). Jan’s daughter Jannetje was my great-grandfather Jan’s sister. She married Gerrit Eenigenburg and emigrated to the U.S. on the same ship as Jan and Aagje. We soon learned there were many Eenigenburgs in attendance. We had a great time having a mini–Ton Family reunion. We met Merritt, of course, and his sister Jean Bristow. We also met Marie Eenigenburg Min and her cousin Bob Eenigenburg.

Moments before the program was to begin Nadine approached me. Somewhat nervously she asked if I would be willing to say a few words during the program. With a quick glance at Carmen, I smiled and said, “absolutely, I would be honored”. As Nadine walked away, I turned to Carmen and said with a chuckle, “now…to think about what I am going to say…”.

The Program – the distant past; the not-so-distant past;  and the future

Nadine quieted the crowd and thanked everyone for attending the rededication ceremony. She asked LeRone to come and sit in one of the chairs sitting in the front of the room. Somewhat shyly, and perhaps a little embarrassed with all the attention, he took his place.

Pastor Jim Oord of the First Reformed Church welcomed us to the church. He told a short story of Jan bringing firewood to the first pastors of the church to help keep them (and the church warm). The image of Jan, with his wagon full of wood, riding across the prairie to the church served as another piece of the puzzle forming the picture of Jan and Aagje.

Special recognition was given to Anthony Volek of Volek Brothers Construction, Anthony was one of LeRone’s Scout Masters. Not only did he provide leadership, but he had access to the heavy equipment needed to build the hardscape, including moving the 9,000-pound boulder from the quarry to the site. Amazing what a team of Scouts can do in a day…with some great leaders and the right equipment!

The next speaker was Bill Paarlberg Past President of the South Holland Historical Society, it was his suggestion to honor Jan and Aagje in this way that led to the entire project. The Historical Society has a great collection of materials that tell the story of the area from the early 1800s through today. You can bet Carmen and I will be diving deep into these materials!

Merritt Bethig

For his keynote presentation, Merritt Bethig focused on the trip from The Netherlands, to France, to New York, and ultimately, to High and Low Prairie south of Chicago (today’s Roseland and South Holland). The Hollanders, as they came to be called, consisted of 65 men, women, and children who left their homeland and headed to America in 1849. Not long into the journey, the ship was besieged with cholera. 17 of the Hollanders died. One can only imagine the filth, the smells, the vermin, and the death that made the journey intolerable.

From New York, they traveled the Hudson River to the Erie Canal. After traversing the Canal, they boarded another ship to navigate the Great Lakes, arriving at the port of Chicago 60 some-odd days since leaving their homeland. Upon arriving in Chicago, they met up with some Hollanders who had preceded them and settled about 20 miles south in the prairie lands near the Little Calumet River. Given the low-lying marshy lands in the area, it must have felt a bit like home.

Much of Merritt’s talk was based on the book by another Ton relative, Jill Eenigenburg. Her book, From Tulipland to Roseland and Back, tells the story of the Eenigenburg family and the creation of a museum in the village of Eenigenburg, The Netherlands. The Tons and the Eenigenburgs have been intertwined for over 170 years!

After the keynote, Nadine turned to me and asked me to speak. My first instinct was to walk across the front of the room to LeRone, shake his hand, and thank him for honoring my ancestors. I then spoke for a few minutes about our “discovery” of the story of Jan and Aagje and our trip to the area the previous summer.

Tom Sheppard took up the story and shared about the Tons’ involvement in the Underground Railroad. Tom is one of the founders of the Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project. He provided an update on the project including a canoe trail on the Little Calumet and signage to be placed in several spots in the area, including at the site of Jan and Aagje’s farm.

It was now time to hear from the man of the hour, LeRone Branch himself. When Bill Paarlberg suggested the idea of a memorial to the Underground Railroad and Jan and Aagje Ton, LeRone pictured a plaque on a pole. Pretty simple, right? A plaque on a pole…until Uncle Mike got ahold of the idea! LeRone’s vision of a plaque on a pole turned into quite a project! LeRone graciously thanked all those involved in the original project, as well as those responsible for the rededication ceremony itself.

The final speaker of the day was Nadine herself. She talked about the plant selection for the gardens and the group of volunteers that maintain them. The group researched the types of plants that would have been native to the Great Lakes Region at the time. They continue to research and as they learn more, they update the garden.

After the program, there was time to view the exhibits, chat with new friends, and snap a picture or two (or three or four). A group of us then walked out to the memorial. It had changed. It had taken on new meanings. The words from the program echoed in our heads and hearts. Here we were surrounded by family…cousins who had never met. Here we were surrounded by new friends…Nadine, her sisters, LeRone, Uncle Mike…new friends that now felt like family.

How I wish the clerk at the florist could have joined us that day. How I wish she could have felt what we felt that day. How I wish…


I know this was a long post. Thank you for sticking with me through the story! Before I wrap things up, I want to name some names, as a way of thanking THEM for the work they have done.

Development of the Memorial Garden

Garden Construction: July 9, 2011

Initial Planting: August 10, 2011

Dedication: October 15, 2011

  • South Holland Historical Society and Bill Paarlberg (initiated project)
  • Boy Scout Troop 409 and Scoutmasters Mark Cipich and Anthony Volek
  • South Holland Garden Club
  • Larry McClellan and Paul Petraitis, Historians
  • Paul Ton, Original Working Committee
  • Rochelle Harris Branch (LeRone’s Mother), Original Working Committee
  • Yolanda Harris, Original Working Committee
  • Pastor Mel DeVries, First Reformed Church and Original Working Committee (Deceased)
  • Richard Zimmerman, First Reformed Church, and Original Working Committee.
  • Robin Scheldberg, President, South Holland Historical Society, and President, South Holland Garden Club
  • Lynn Larsen, South Holland Historical Society, South Holland Garden Club, and Original Working Committee
  • Nadine Harris Clark Garden Coach
  • Mike Cowan, drafted the original design of the hardscape and currently helps maintain the garden

Rededication Ceremony

  • Nadine Harris Clark
  • Robin Scheldberg
  • Richard Zimmerman
  • Pastor Jim Oord, First Reformed Church of South Holland
  • The Congregation of the First Reformed Church of South Holland
  • Weed and Feed Club (Charlie and Rich)
  • South Holland Garden Club
  • South Holland Historical Society

A special, heartfelt thanks to LeRone Branch and Nadine Harris Clark, truly a part of our family.

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