Much to be
grateful for prior to 1903
Married for thirty-five years, Bela and Sara were the descendents 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).
from hearty stock and it was reflected in their
children, who grew to adulthood at a rate exceeding
what I see in the genealogy records of other
families of the era. Five days before the Iroquois fire, Della
and Donald may have counted their blessings to see
all six of her 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
Owens 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.
Much less is known about Donald.
He attended a public elementary school, played the
piano, enjoyed the benefits of being the youngest
child and was described as a little gentleman.
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'd
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 so
presumably the unknown little girl was a stranger
who befriended Donald in the midst of the disaster.
Della's body was found at Rolston's funeral home,
unburned but showing what were described as "scars."
If she wasn't burned or trampled, I am puzzled by
what scars she had. In Stoddard family lore
the bodies were identified by means of the victims
clothing. This seems contradictory at first,
given reports of minimal evidence of injury.
The reason is that some victims bodies were so
blackened from smoke, even though not burned or
trampled, that identification was difficult.
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.
Some may have entered morgues looking for a
particular color on dress or petticoat.‡
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. The funeral service was conducted by
a family friend, Reverend Henry K. Denlinger of the Second
Presbyterian Church in nearby Bloomington, Illinois.
Della and Donald were buried side by side in
the Stoddard family plot in Minonk Township Cemetery
(section 8, lot 24).
In the years after the fire
Reportedly at the time of the
tragedy Bela Stoddard was
in the process of making a $160,000 land purchase
he'd planned to deed to Della. The parcel
was located in northwest Bureau County, Illinois,
northwest of Minonk. Nothing was published to
suggest what was planned for the property but the
transaction was delayed, possibly cancelled.
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
Zedell's name was posted in
victim lists as Zabella. In some lists the only
mention of Donald was as a younger brother who
accompanied her. Death certificates were issued 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
contributes that the bodies were identified by
pieces of the victim's clothing that were saved by
Fred Simater and years later given to Zedel and
Donald's sibling, John. Zedel and Donald did
not have a brother named John; however, their
brother Bertel 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.