A hundred years ago Alfred G. Sensenbach left Jackson Hole to be inducted into the Army. He never came home.
He never even made it into the service. Instead, during a time when America was focused on the war against Germany and was under siege by the great worldwide influenza epidemic, his death was a conjunction of the two great disasters. Reporting to take the oath in Kemmerer he was told the war was over and the draft didn’t need him. Alfred went to visit friends in Rock Springs, where, a week past his 22nd birthday, he died Nov. 23.
The headline on page 1 of the next Jackson’s Hole Courier said: “A.G. Sensenbach Victim of Pneumonia.”
This week it’s a century since he died, and next week is that long since he was buried on his family’s homestead near the south end of Timbered Island, in what’s now Grand Teton National Park. His grave is still there, alone, surrounded by a chest-high chain-link fence erected by Post 43 of the American Legion. That replaced a wooden rail fence that had been there.
“He went down to Rock Springs. He had gone to some school there. He went down, got that flu bug — the epidemic — and he died,” said Charles Carlson, a nephew born five years after young Alfred died. “They shipped him up by railway to Victor and by wagon over the pass to Jackson Hole.”
The Courier reported that Alfred “went out to Kemmerer in response to his draft call, but, the armistice having been signed, he was released” and went on to Rock Springs.
Alfred’s death stood out even in a Jackson that had sent others to the war and that was battered by influenza at home.
The newspaper story said Alfred “was stricken with pneumonia, the disease very quickly claiming him its victim, so that the news of his death came without warning and was a great shock to relatives and friends.
“He was a splendid young man of admirable character and habits, and his death, coming when he was just on the threshold of manhood, brings general sorrow,” the unnamed reporter wrote.
Hard work, socializing at the Bar-Leaf-Bar
Alfred’s parents were Harry and Marie, homesteaders in 1914 who were known for entertaining neighboring settlers at their isolated home, especially during cold winters when it was a dangerous trek to town. They were often called “Dad” and “Ma,” and they named their homestead along Cottonwood Creek the Leaf-Bar-Leaf Ranch.
Alfred may have made many friends, but he left little mark on the public record. The Courier, like most small papers then, reported a lot of social life, but he wasn’t often mentioned. In July 1916 the paper wrote that he was “wrangling horses at the Bar BC this summer,” and in April 1917 there was a mention that he “made a trip to Jackson on snowshoes last week.” He’s known to have played the fiddle, and the instrument is still in the family.
The Aug. 8, 1918, paper reported that Alfred had been ordered, with other young men, to report for a physical and then to the draft office in Kemmerer.
During Alfred’s short life he lived the way many young men in Jackson lived, his nephew said.
“They all worked at the dude ranches,” Carlson said. “They were wranglers handling the horses and the dudes.”
The family homestead was a tough go, with poor soil and not enough rain, and it grew from a hard-luck ranch into a roadside business that rented cabins to tourists even before the park was created. What’s now the Park Road ran through the property. Harry Sensenbach called his tourist business Dad’s Place, and had business cards that said “Thar’s Beer Near Them Thar Hills.” The main house of the Sensenbach homestead and several smaller log buildings were bought by Byron Jenkins in 1946 and became part of his resort, called the Highlands. The buildings are still used at the Grand Teton Climbers’ Ranch.
The Sensenbach business “sold beer to dudes and park rangers and tourists, who were plentiful in the summer,” said Gene Carlson, the younger brother of Charles.
Gene remembers the area as mostly empty back then, “with a few places here and there, scattered around,” a location where “winter was a lot longer than summer.”
The family faces war
Charles and Gene’s mother, Alfred Sensenbach’s sister, Lauretta, married a man who did make it to the war. Roger Carlson went to France as a member of Company B of the 15th Engineers, where his Western skills with pack horses and mules came in handy. His dad “came home a sergeant” Charles said, after being in the battles at St. Michel and Belleau Wood.
The May 23, 1918, issue of the Courier had a letter from Carlson, who reported running into fellow Jacksonite Almer Nelson, and that Almer and another friend were at the YMCA, where “they are having moving pictures this evening.”
“A minstrel show and songs and music was on the program last time,” he wrote.
Nelson wrote in a letter to his parents that he was eager “to get a crack at Fritz.”
After Fred Carlson came home he worked as a carpenter and later bossed crews for the Civilian Conservation Corps as it put unemployed men to work in Grand Teton and Yellowstone parks. The family stayed a few years in Jackson Hole, but then went west.
“When the Depression came we moved to California,” Charles Carlson said. “It was like that book, ‘Grapes of Wrath,’ with the Okies moving to the Golden State.
“It was mom and dad, the five kids, the dog on the running board,” he said.
The Carlsons came back to Jackson after a few years. Charles Carlson went to Jackson-Wilson High School but graduated in Gardiner, Montana. He joined the Navy in 1941 and became a machinist’s mate in the Pacific, serving in the Philippines. His brother Gene served in the U.S. Army Air Corps in New Mexico and Colorado as a plane mechanic. A sister, Elinor Buchanan, was a WAVE, a member of the Navy women’s corps, and served in a hospital.
After the war Charles Carlson worked for 35 years for the federal government on training programs. He will turn 95 this Friday, the centennial of his uncle’s death. He and his wife, Janice, live in Denver.
Gene went to work for General Electric and Martin-Marietta, where he worked on the Space Lab. He is 92, lives in Cincinnati with his wife, JoAnn. Their sister Florence Carlson died in 1999. Elinor, the Navy nurse, and sister Eunice Oliver died this year.
Blue lupine memories
Though there’s little memory a century later of the uncle he never knew, Charles Carlson remembers that his elders long ago made it clear that the young man’s passing was a blow. He remembers going to the grave site when he was young.
“Back then there was a buckrail fence around it, about the size of a bedroom,” he said. “As kids we used to go out there all the time.
“Grandma Sensenbach would take the kids and we’d get some water out of the ditch, and she’d take some flowers she had planted out by the outhouse and plant them there.
“If you go out there today you’d probably see some blue lupine.”