Much to be
grateful for prior to 1903
Married for thirty-five years, Bela and Sara were the descendants of
pioneering families in central Illinois and were
especially prominent in
Minonk. Sara's family roots dated to
the American Revolution and Bella was a veteran of
the Civil War (serving briefly as a private in
Company D of the Illinois 71st Infantry regiment).
The Stoddards were of hearty
stock and gave up little to illness. Their
children were long lived. Five days before the Iroquois fire, Della
and Donald may have counted their blessings to see
all six children around the Christmas
Prosperity would have
another cause for thanksgiving. Bela had become wealthy
in grain and real estate, affording a comfortable
lifestyle for his family. The
Stoddard family home in Minonk
at the corner of 4th and Cemetery Rd (today's
Maple) was large and impressive. If you love
old mansions, don't miss Martha
Owen's pictures and description of the home on
(one of the most vibrant small town websites on the
internet, by the way). The family was active in
the Minonk Presbyterian church and Bela had numerous
Della had been the valedictorian and graduated with honors
as one of six students in the 1895 class of
Ferry Hall Seminary in Lake Forest College of
Northwestern University, it's 25th class. As a student, she was treasurer of her
senior class and an officer in the Missionary
Society and wrote for the school yearbook. Back home
in Minonk, she was active in the Presbyterian church
and instrumental in the acquisition of an organ for
the congregation. She was also a member of an
amateur music club in Bloomington, IL, south of
Minonk, and a regular visitor there.
Donald was a little gentlemen
who attended a public elementary school and played the
piano. Newspapers reported nothing else about
A mother's worst fear
When her children did not return to the hotel and
Sara Stoddard heard about the fire, she telephoned
Bela Stoddard and Fred Simater
(1866-1838) set out for Chicago aboard a special
train. Simater, co-founder of a large poultry
operation in Minonk, Minonk Produce Company, and eventually
serving four terms as the Minonk town mayor, was
brother to Wilhelmina Simater Stoddard, wife of the
second oldest Stoddard boy, Bertel.
Sara and Bela Stoddard must
have felt like the world had turned upside down.
When they got out of bed on December 30, 1903, they
had six children, one with a hearing problem, but
all were living. Before the day was out they
lost two and five years later a third, to mental
Searching the morgues
Bela and Fred Simater were
joined by friends in Chicago and even hotel
personnel who were familiar with Della and Donald. When
the pair were not found alive in hospitals,
searchers turned to the morgues and found them
before the night was out.
There were conflicting
reports about Della and Donald's injuries. One
paper reported that both victims died from the
fire-related injuries rather than from trampling but
the Minonk newspaper was in the best position to
talk with family members so is more apt to be
According to the Minonk News,
Donald was found at Jordan's, barely marked from his
ordeal, reportedly dead by suffocation, still
clutching the hand of another child. Nothing was
reported about another child in the party. Presumably, the unknown little girl was a stranger
who befriended Donald during the disaster.
Della's body was found at Rolston's funeral home,
scarred but not burned or trampled. In Stoddard family lore
it was clothing that helped them identify the
bodies. This seems contradictory,
given reports of minimal evidence of injury, but
smoke blackening sometimes made identification
Other factors are the number of searchers, the
likelihood that they broke up into more than one
search party and that not all who volunteered to
help Bela and Fred search the morgues were equally
familiar with Della and Donald's appearance.
They may have been the search with clothing
and Sara returned to Minonk to make funeral
arrangements and Fred Simater remained in Chicago to
escort the bodies back to Minonk on the train.
The bodies arrived in Minonk on Friday, January 1,
1904, met by Stoddard friends and relatives in
Minonk. A family friend conducted the funeral
service. Reverend Henry K. Denlinger was
pastor at the Second
Presbyterian Church in nearby Bloomington, Illinois.
Burial was in the Stoddard family plot in the Minonk Township Cemetery
(section 8, lot 24).
In the years after the fire
At the time of the
tragedy, Bela Stoddard was
reportedly in the process of making a $160,000 land purchase
he planned to deed to Della. The parcel
was located in northwest Bureau County, Illinois,
northwest of Minonk. Newspapers did not report
the plan for the property.
The Stoddard family
donated money to the Minonk public school library in
helping to bring the number of volumes to 9,000.
Four months after the fire
the Presbyterian church in Minonk held an organ
recital as a memorial to Della.
Bela Stoddard's business interests flourished and
in 1905 he replaced one of his three grain elevators
with a larger elevator. His elevator in nearby
Chatsworth, IL had a 60,000-bushel capacity.
In 1917 Bela Stoddard made a
major donation for the construction of a new Presbyterian
church in Minonk. (One of history's handsome
structures with a wrecking ball creeping ever closer.)
Minnie and Bertel Stoddard's three-year-old son died the year after the fire.
Discrepancies and addendum
In victim lists Zedell was
sometimes miss-spelled as Zabella. In some lists the only
mention of Donald was as a younger brother who
accompanied her. The Chicago coroners office issued
death certificates for
Donald and Jadella Stoddard.
An obituary that appeared in
the hometown Minonk newspaper reported that Della
and Donald went to the ear doctor between lunch and
the theater but timing makes that improbable.
It is more likely that the threesome went to the
doctor in the morning and back to the Annex for
lunch, where Sara remained while Della took Donald to the Iroquois.
* Donald's hearing
problem is curious since he played the piano.
Perhaps his hearing was diminishing or he had
chronic ear aches.
† One daughter, Dorothy, would later suffer from
mental illness and spend much of her life in an
institution but in 1903 she was a high school
student. For her family, Dorothy's
illness may have been nearly as painful as the loss
of Zedel and Donald. In 1908 she was
valedictorian of her high school glass and went off
to Lake Forest college just as had her older sisters, Lida
and Della, but before the year was out there were
signs that all was not well. At her death in
1944 she lived in Peoria and was a heart patient of
the Mitchell Sanitarium, near the
Illinois Asylum for the Incurable Insane in
‡ Stoddard family lore
records that Fred Simater saved pieces of the
victim's clothing used to identify the bodies and years later
passed it along to Zedell and
Donald's sibling, John. Zedell and Donald did
not have a brother named John; their
brother Bertel, however, had a son named Bela, after Bertel's
father, who had a son named John Stoddard
(1927-2009) who may be the fellow who came into
the clothing fragments.