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Bob Lind, Published July 05 2009

Lind: Amenia, N.D., man tells of grandfather’s Titanic fate

The story appeared in The Forum earlier this month: The death of a 97-year-old woman in England who had been the last survivor of the Titanic.

She was a baby when she was placed in a lifeboat before the Titanic went down April 15, 1912, making her one of the 706 survivors.

But 1,517 others on the ship died. Among them: Mark Chaffee’s grandfather.

Mark, 52, of Amenia, N.D., and the CEO of Chaffee Wind Farms, is the grandson of Herbert F. Chaffee, who, with his wife, Carrie, was returning from England on the Titanic when it struck an iceberg and sank.

Herbert was a wealthy man. So wealthy he could afford a 1903 Cadillac and a chauffeur.

His grandson now lives in that chauffeur’s house.

Eben, Herbert

Mark is in demand as a speaker about his grandfather and the Titanic, for good reason: He has much information about both.

His story begins with his great-grandfather Eben W. Chaffee, a New York resident who settled near Amenia. He became so prominent a landowner and area promoter that Chaffee, N.D., was named for him.

When he died in the 1890s, his son Herbert took over. He was in his early 20s, but he’d already been active in the business. And he made it even better.

He eventually owned 34,000 acres of land in the Amenia-Chaffee area. “He made it into a million-dollar business,” according to agriculture historian Hiram Drache of Fargo, who in one of his books terms Herbert a bonanza farm “managing genius.”

By 1912, Herbert was worth $12 million. So he and Carrie could well afford to go to England.

Travel theories

Why they went there is open to debate. Mark says there are several theories.

One is that Herbert was tracing the family genealogy. Another is that they were making arrangements to buy stained-glass windows for their church, the Amenia Congregational Church. Whether or not this is true, the church, now closed, did have beautiful windows that now are on display at Bonanzaville in West Fargo.

Another theory would demonstrate Herbert’s integrity.

This story is that one of his sons bought a solid gold brick and a share in a mine, which he in turn sold to a man in England for $25,000.

That man discovered the brick was only gold-plated and wanted his money back.

So, the story goes, Herbert and Carrie went to England solely to make things right with this man, even though their son apparently hadn’t known the gold brick was a fake. Mark says he’s been told that his grandfather paid the man in cash, using crisp new bills.

In gratitude for Herbert’s honesty, the story continues, this man gave Herbert two special gifts, each worth $5,000.

They were first-class tickets for the maiden voyage of the Titanic.

Protecting his wife

Whichever of these stories is true is unknown. But what is known is what happened to the Chaffees as the ship was going down because the information came from Carrie herself.

She didn’t want to leave her husband. But he insisted she get into a lifeboat, gave her his wallet, and told her he’d be on the next lifeboat.

Carrie never saw her husband again.

And next …

Carrie went back to Amenia and, maybe because she was so distraught, had the house her husband had built in the 1880s torn down.

She went on to become mayor of Amenia in the 1920s. She died in 1931.

She and Herbert had five children: Eben, Dorothy, Lawrence, Adele and Lester. Another child died in infancy. Lester, who was Mark’s father, was 9 when his father died.

Carrie willed 40 sections of land to her children, but Dust Bowl foreclosures brought them down to 13 sections. Lester managed to retain six sections, however.

Lester died in 1982.

Mark says he grew up hearing many stories about his grandfather and the Titanic.

Now that the last survivor of the tragedy has died, his stories become even more valuable. And they’ll become even more so in three years on the 100th anniversary of the disaster.

Former North Dakota Gov. Bill Guy of Fargo, a longtime friend of the Chaffee family, has urged Mark to write a family history, and he intends to do so.

Meanwhile, it should be noted that even though his grandfather died aboard the Titanic, this doesn’t make Mark water-shy; he spent 25 years in the Navy, six of them active, and he now is in the Reserves.

If you have an item of interest for this column, mail it to Neighbors, The Forum, Box 2020, Fargo, ND 58107; fax it to 241-5487; or e-mail blind@forumcomm.com