Remembering My Uncle & A Family Legacy
Willard Wilson Dunn, age 96, passed away Wednesday morning, January 6, 2021, at the Fergus Falls Veterans Home in Minnesota. Funeral services have not been set but it is anticipated they will be held in the spring or summer. His funeral and arrangements are being made by the Larsen Funeral Home in Pelican Rapids, Minnesota.
Willard was my Uncle, and was a big part of my life as I was raised by aunts and uncles.
Not many people are blessed to live on this planet as long as Mr. Dunn, who would have celebrated his 97th birthday this coming January 21. Dunn was born to a Minnesota pioneering family – Dolphy John and Elsie Mae Dunn on January 21, 1925, in what would later become Dunvilla. Willard was the fifth of six children, and outlived all his siblings.
History of Military Service
Willard attended a one room school in Scambler township and resided on the family farm until he, like so many in his generation, joined the military. He served honorably in World War II, being assigned to Germany where he witnessed a great amount of devastation and death. I often asked him about his time there and he pulled back from wanting to discuss it, saying the things he saw at Auschwitz and other places during the war and post war clean up were too terrible to discuss. Throughout his life, I always wanted to learn more from him about that time, but he always appeared too sad to go into any amount of detail.
Willard had just returned from World War II in Germany when his older sister Ferne (my Mother) passed away and his younger brother Clifford, following the family tradition of service to country, was about to leave for yet another war in Korea. Clifford was seriously hurt by a bomb explosion in Korea and was always in pain. He was later killed in an automobile accident, likely due to distraction from the pain he experienced constantly.
Willard had been an entrepreneur all his life, after leaving the army he founded a construction company with a cousin, Ray Ballard. At other times through his life, he started a turkey farm between Dent and Pelican Rapids, and later bought a semi-truck and did trucking throughout much of the country.
After retirement, he moved to Texas with his wife Ramona, to live with his great nephew (my son), David Hanson, and family. After Ramona passed away from cancer, he later chose to return to his roots in Minnesota where he lived in the Veterans Home in Fergus Falls until his passing.
The Dunn family name is very well known in Minnesota, and throughout American history. Roy Dunn, an uncle, was a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives from 1924 until 1964. He would often visit during political campaigns with a friend, Hubert Humphrey. Incidentally, Roy enjoyed exceptional longevity as well, living far past his retirement, passing away at the age of 99 in 1985.
Dunn Family Tree
Discussing the Dunn family tree is an interesting subject in itself. Public service did not begin with Willard’s uncle Roy in the Minnesota legislature (he served as Majority Leader of the House of Representatives from 1935-1937 and then again for an astoundingly long period from 1939 until 1955).
The first member of the Dunn clan to move to America was Hugh O-Dunn, moving to U. S. shores in 1760 with his son William, who was 20 years of age at the time. They settled in York, Pennsylvania before moving to “Great Island,” Pennsylvania, which was known for its very fertile land and the abundant bounty enjoyed by the Indians who lived there.
William loved his new country and almost immediately dropped the “O” prefix from his name, thus becoming William Dunn. Dunn was known as a shrewd and enterprising negotiator, worked out a deal with a Muncie Indian Chief Newahleeka to trade a silver mounted rifle, a hatchet and a keg of whiskey for 325 acres of land on the island. The Chief later tried to back out of the deal, but Dunn would have none of it and remained there as a squatter during those early pre-Revolutionary War days.
William was very patriotic and jumped at the chance to fight the British in the Revolutionary War. It is even recorded over his grave that Dunn served in “Pulaski’s Legion” of the Continental Troops during the war. Dunn served with George Washington at the battles of Germantown and Trenton and admired Washington so much one of his immediate descendants was named George Washington Dunn.
After his discharge, William returned to Great Island and began working with the “Province of Pennsylvania” for legal title to the land now that the British were no longer in charge. He was able to secure 300 acres for a 30 pound (dollars were still not in existence) fee in silver or gold per acre. By 1785, he had received title to an additional 312 acres because of his service during the war.
The Dunns even were known for constructing one of the first manufacturing facilities for whiskey in the area, having been assessed for a “Still House” on the 1790 tax rolls. The still remained until it was turned into a tavern by a great-granddaughter of the Dunns.
War of 1812
James Dunn married Elizabeth Alexander and they continued the tradition of having many children: William 3rd, Elmer, Eliza, James Jr, George Washington, David, Samuel, Alex, John, Polly and Jane. Also following the family’s patriotic bent, James and all eight of his sons enlisted in the military and fought the British again in the War of 1812.
A patriotic cousin, John Wilson Dunn, was known as the “little drummer boy” (made famous in American folklore) of the war of 1812. The history of John Wilson Dunn, is of particular interest in that he is the grandfather of Dolphy Dunn, Willard’s father.
He was known to have gone by his middle name, Wilson, rather than his given name of John, which was the name he gave his first born son. In honor of him, Willard was given the middle name of Wilson when born.
The history of the family was to change as Wilson Dunn chose to marry outside his Irish heritage choosing French woman Nanci Anne Reynoud. Reynoud had been taken to America when she was a baby by her parents, who were members of the French aristocracy and fled to avoid the guillotine. Her records had been falsified when they came to America because her parents had been terrified of being located and returned to France for execution. Nanci’s name was officially changed to Nancy Reynolds out of fear of being found and brought back to France.
The family sold much of their holdings in Pennsylvania and scattered to Chappaqua, New York, Ontario, Canada, and Illinois. John Wilson Dunn and Nancy missed Pennsylvania and moved back in 1846. While living there, Flora Ann Dunn, John M Dunn (Willard’s grandfather), William E Dunn and Viola Dunn were born. The Dunn women, lead by Nancy, began to complain of the bluish oily film that began to spread over the streams and bubble up from the ground in their new Pennsylvania holdings.
They noted that the water tasted terrible, it ruined clothing, and made life difficult in many ways. By the mid-1850s, (John) Wilson Dunn had enough and threw a blanket into a stream, took it out and wrung it out into a container. Chemists then tested it and found it to burn. Dunn sold his interest in the land surrounding what later became known as Oil Creek and moved the entire family to Big Foot Prairie in Illinois where the water was pure and the oily substance was not evident. They remained in Illinois for only four years, deciding to once more move further west, then settling in Wisconsin.
They lived there until 1874 when (John) Wilson, who had developed a large herd of hogs and other animals, fell when feeding them and was trampled to death. Children continued to manage the farm but at the advent of the Civil War, the patriotic bug bit the family again with young members of the family fleeing to join the Union Army. John’s (Willard’s grandfather) brother George was so intent on serving he falsified his age and joined anyway. He was inducted on March 10, 1862, but only served six weeks as he received a leg wound after only ten days.
Moving to Minnesota
After recovery, George migrated to Fort Snelling, Minnesota and enlisted in the Minnesota Rangers. After once again being released, he rejoined the Union forces and served until October 9, 1865, after having served with General Sherman in the infamous March to the Sea. Thereafter, George returned to the family homestead, after which the clan moved to Minnesota in 1873.
Willard’s father, Dolphy John Dunn was the second of the family (Roy having been the first) to be born in what was to become Dunn Township near Pelican Rapids, Minnesota. Dolphy was born on April 1, 1889, just a year before the population of the area would grow to 25 people, the number sufficient to form a township.
Dolphy’s father, John, was a quiet, gentle man with a generous personality. He was extremely considerate of others and looked for considerable advice on whom to marry. He was counseled by his friends and relatives to marry a young girl who would honor him above all others. He found what he considered a perfect match, a young Indian maiden named Rosetta Lightfoot. She had been born in Indiana and was only 13 years of age when they were wed. As things turned out, Rosetta was a strong matriarch for the family, very hardworking, very bright, with efforts contributing to him becoming a very wealthy man throughout his lifetime. Rosetta and John’s first child was Clara Dunn, born in 1878.
Dolphy & Dorphy Dunn
Willard’s father, Dolphy and his twin sister, Willard’s aunt Elizabeth Dorpheus (known as Dorphy), were the subjects of a lot of local folklore for decades after a unique incident which occurred on their family farm when they were children. Dorphy was known as a headstrong young lady, completely unlike her father. She assumed the task of going out into the farms farthest acres to bring home the cattle for milking each evening.
She would sing or whistle so wolves, bears and other wild animals would leave the area and leave her to her task in peace. One evening while chasing the cows home she was met with a huge hairy figure bolting up from the weeds on one side growling at her.
Dorphy promptly pulled a revolver from her apron and shot the beast. Fortunately, she was a bit high, only grazing the very top of its head making a deep furrow in the scalp from the path of the bullet. As it turns out, the “beast” was her mischievous brother Dolphy, who had been attempting to force her to be more cautious when she went out for the cows. The fact that he covered himself with the thick hide of a bear saved his life. The thick hide deflected the bullet so it only grazed him.
Willard took after his father in many ways, as he was mischievous throughout his life, loving to joke and play with everyone. When he was around, there was seldom a quiet moment.
Dolphy and Dorphy’s sister Clara married Ray Ballard. Dorphy married Ray’s brother Wesley Ballard. Westley and Dorphy named a son Ray after Wesley’s brother. The younger Ray and his wife, Ginger lived out their lives in the Pelican Rapids area and had a number of children, of which Ginger Rae, Brenda and Jackie still reside in the area.
Willard and Ray were great friends and founded a construction company together, which they operated until Mr. Ballard passed away after a terrible accident.
Roy E. Dunn, Dolphy’s cousin, was the son of John’s brother William E. Dunn. Roy had a brother, Frank and two sisters Bessie and Laura. Roy was born in May of 1886. Roy is well known in many Minnesota historical circles in that he not only founded Dunvilla Resort but also served in the Minnesota legislature from 1924 through 1966. Roy and his wife, Anna Laura, had only one child, a daughter who married a doctor and moved to Knoxville, Tennessee.
Roy and his father had the vision to buy out a disgruntled homesteader who owned 160 acres and a lot of shoreline on Lake Lizzie in the early 1900s. The startling price of the land and the lakeshore property was the princely sum of $40. They began building cabins on the lakeshore in 1908 and before long had constructed two dozen cabins on the shore.
After Roy was elected to the legislature, a main lodge, styled after a California mission, was built.
Vacationers from across the entire Midwest flooded to the Lodge for years before Dunn retired, sold out, and moved to live out his final years in St. Paul. Dunvilla still exists on it’s original site between Pelican Rapids and Detroit Lakes.