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Peter Pfeiffer family

Burr Oak farmer and store clerk who, with his wife and daughters, lived with his wife’s family across from the Masters Hotel.

He was a man whom to know was to be his friend. – Peter Pfeiffer obituary

In Pioneer Girl, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote of the Pifer (the name was spelled Pfeiffer) family who lived in a big white house on a terraced lawn across the road from the rooms the Ingalls family rented over the (Kimball) grocery store in Burr Oak, the house observed daily as the girls walked home from the schoolhouse across the road from it. Wilder wrote that Mr. Pifer was a wealthy man who lived there “with his widowed daughter and her two daughters,” with both girls too old to be Laura and Mary’s playmates, often coming to sit and visit Ma. Although the Pifer home was beautiful with its open staircases and marble fireplaces, Laura said it seemed “chill and unhomelike.”

Wilder’s statements aren’t quite correct. The house was owned and built by John May, who lived there with his wife Elizabeth and son George (and possibly his wife and son). The May’s daughter, Mary Jane, also lived in the home with her husband, Peter Pfeiffer, and their two daughters, May (born 1862) and Isadore Pfeiffer (born 1863). Although it doesn’t seem as if the daughters would have been “too old” to play with the Ingalls girls who were 2-5 years younger than they, May and Isadore would have been teenagers at the time, of an age that seems to be Laura’s definition of being “grown up.” At the end of Chapter 2 in By the Shores of Silver Lake, Laura is “almost thirteen” and considers herself “grown up” at the time, with Mary’s blindness, Jack’s death, and Pa going west to work part of what made her realize it. In the Burr Oak story, however, Freddy’s illness and death, Ma’s pregnancy soon after, Pa leaving his job at the hotel, and multiple problems caused by drunken men aren’t enough to make Laura – or even Mary – the least bit concerned. Laura was a child.



John May was born about 1814 in England. A stone mason by trade, John and his wife, Elizabeth May, plus their children George (a stone cutter by trade), Mary Jane, and John, came to New York via London in 1849, settling in Washington, D.C., then in Weston, Virginia, where he was a contractor and builder. Before moving west, John May was supervising architect for the construction of the West Virginia Asylum for the Insane, the largest hand-cut stone masonry building in North America. The Mays settled in Burr Oak in 1868, where John soon became one of the largest land owners and stock raisers in Winneshiek County. He purchased large tracts of land in Sections 14, 23, and 24, Township 100 North, Range 9 West, the farm being operated in partnership with his son George and son-in-law, Peter Pfeiffer.

In September 1868, John May purchased Block 9, Town of Burr Oak, plus extensive adjoining lands in Wilsie’s Addition to Burr Oak. The property was purchased from attorney Martin Moore and his wife Phebe. The frame house he built in town sat in the middle of Block 9, terraced to overlook the rest of the village. In 1877, May completed construction of extensive barns and out-buildings on his farms, costing over $7,000. The former May house is shown above in a 1998 photo; it is no longer standing. Both John May and his wife Elizabeth are buried in the Burr Oak cemetery.

George May (born about 1838 in England) is enumerated on both the 1870 and 1880 censuses in Burr Oak, but he and his wife, the former Mary Peterson, were apparently only together a short while before separating or divorcing, since Mary and son Raymond are also enumerated on both federal censuses as living with her parents in Weston, West Virginia; they are not on the 1880 Iowa census. The couple had married in Weston, West Virginia in 1867; George was most likely working for his father in construction of the insane asylum at the time.

Although Mary (Peterson) May doesn’t seem to have lived in Burr Oak long, George remained in Burr Oak and worked with his father and brother-in-law, Peter Pfeiffer, on the family land. George died December 21, 1904, and is buried in the Burr Oak cemetery.

Mary Jane May (born about 1840 in England) married Peter Pfeiffer in Weston, West Virginia, in September 1860. Peter was born in Germany in 1837 and came to the United States in the 1850s; he worked for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad for nine years. The couple had two daughters: May Pfeiffer (born April 1862) and Isadore Pfeiffer (born September 1863). May married Frank Gannon and moved to South Dakota, where Frank was president of the First National Bank of Aberdeen; May died in California in 1943. Isadore married (and divorced) Archibald Shannon; Isadore died in California in 1939. Mary Jane May died July 9, 1898; she is buried in the Burr Oak cemetery.

Mary Jane Pfeiffer owned the May family home after the death of her parents, selling it to her husband in 1898 for $2500. In October 1904, Peter Pfeiffer gave up farming and sold the house to Fayette C. Schanck for $3000, moving to Decorah, where he died May 29, 1918. He was buried in the Burr Oak cemetery.

The map at right shows a portion of Burr Oak, with the locations of the Masters Hotel, Kimball Grocery Store, John May home (the only building on the entire block), and the schoolhouse.


Pifer family (PG)
     Peter Pfeiffer
     Mary J. (May) Pfeiffer