The Hermit Kingdom

In my last post, Serendipity, I introduced Ora Tuttle of Norwalk, Ohio, who in 1907, at the age of 27, realized her life-long dream of serving as a missionary in a foreign land. And where would she be going? The mysterious “Hermit Kingdom” of Korea.

The headline in the May 24, 1907 issue of the Norwalk Daily Reflector announcing Ora’s assignment caught my eye for several reasons, chief of which was my fascination with Korean history and culture.

Korea Tiled Roofs

I first went to Korea in 1975, as a young Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army, assigned to the 2nd Infantry Division north of the capital of Seoul. On the bus ride from the airport to my unit, I stared out the window, transfixed by the high-hipped tiled roofs of the traditional homes. How did the inhabitants of those exotic dwellings spend their days? What customs did they observe? How did they relate to one another. What thoughts occupied their minds? I was hooked.

At that time, the country still struggled to recover from the horrors of the Korean War, and a large part of the population lived an agrarian life not unlike that of their ancestors one-hundred years before. I only spent a year in the country, and had little time to study the culture.

By the time I returned in 1986, to an assignment in Seoul, the nation’s economy had grown dramatically. Many old houses had been torn down and replaced by high-rise apartments. But my fascination with the old days remained. Now I had the time, and resources to travel and study, and I immersed myself in the culture, learning the language, and visiting every historical site I could find in an attempt to understand the country’s culture and history.

Gyeongbokgung Station

Gyeonbukgung Subway Station

In the newspaper, one day in 1986, I noticed an announcement of an exhibit of photographs of “old Korea” was being displayed at the Gyeongbokgung subway station in the northern part of the city. I headed there to see what it was about. What I found staggered me. In alcoves set in the walls of the station were photos depicting a land I had only imagined from visiting the traces of the old days that remained in the capital.

The exhibition promoted a book Korea 100 Years Ago in Photographs, published by the Catholic Publishing House. I bought a copy and studied the photos for months. What a treasure trove of images! There were, of course, the obligatory photos of famous people and important events, but the bulk of these images depicted the daily lives of ordinary people. And that was what drew me in.

Pounding Grain

This is my favorite photo in Korea 100 Years Ago in Photographs. Lifted from a daguerreotype glass plate from 1890, the vivid colors of their dresses gives life to these two, now long dead girls. Gazing at them, I feel an almost unbearable ache in my breast. Note that the English caption is brief to the point of being nearly useless. My limited language skills were sorely tested and my Korean- English dictionary got quite a workout as I perused this book.


This was the land that Ora Tuttle encountered when she arrived in Korea over one-hundred years ago. In fact, it is possible that she took some of the photos in this book — most were taken by missionaries. Her life in this land was so different from her previous life in Norwalk, Ohio, I wonder how she coped. But cope she did — for many years — as we will discover in future posts. How?

From childhood, Ora had prepared herself for the trials of living and working in a foreign land. In my next post, we’ll explore what inspired her to take on this challenge, and how she prepared for what would become her life’s work.


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Ora Tuttle Goes to KoreaIn late May, 1907, a letter from the Chicago Training School for Home and Foreign Missions addressed to Miss Ora Tuttle of Norwalk, Ohio, arrived at her sister’s home in nearby Fostoria. Ever since she had graduated from that school, Ora had been at her sister’s home, anxiously awaiting word of where she would be assigned. Did she hesitate before opening the envelope? Did she say a prayer? Or did she tear it open the moment it came into her hands? No matter which of those things she did, we know that she read the letter, and learned that she had been assigned to mission in the mysterious “Hermit Kingdom” of Korea. [1]

Ora Tuttle was twenty-seven years old, and had been preparing all her life for this moment. She had grown up in a prosperous family in a good part of Norwalk, and had received an excellent education for a young woman of those days. A graduate of Norwalk High School in 1897 [2], she had attended Ohio Wesleyan University the 1903-1904 school year. [3]

But secular education and career had not been the focus of her life. Her energies had always been devoted to the Methodist-Episcopal church in Norwalk. That is where she had found like-minded friends, and that is where she had realized her purpose in life. From an early age, she believed she had a call from God to serve Him as a missionary in foreign lands.

To prepare herself for her calling, Ora had joined societies at her church that supported missions, served on their committees, assiduously studied missionary work, and spoke to any and all about what she had learned and of her dream of becoming a missionary herself.

And now, she was actually going on a mission. She had realized her dream. From this day forward, she would live it.


Serendipity led me to this story. While browsing the May 23, 1907 issue of the Norwalk Daily Reflector for articles about the June graduation of the Norwalk High School Class of 1907, the headline “Miss Ora Tuttle Goes to Korea” caught my eye.

temporary-derangementWhat about this headline captured my attention? First off, the name Tuttle rang a bell, although I wasn’t sure why. Then I remembered. In January, I posted a series of posts titled Temporary Derangement about the Tuttle ancestry of Sarah Barnett of the Class of 1907. That story culminated in a bit of narrative non-fiction about the December 1906 suicide of Sarah’s grandmother, Calista Harris, nee Tuttle. Was Ora Tuttle a distant cousin of Mrs. Harris? If so, how did the woman’s suicide affect her?

Emperor Sunjong

Sunjong – Last Emperor of Korea

That Ora Tuttle was heading to Korea aroused my curiosity, too. I lived in Korea for eight years intermittently from 1975 to 1999, first as a soldier and later as a businessman, and I developed a deep interest in Korean culture and history, especially of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the last years of an independent Korean monarchy before Japan annexed the peninsula in 1910.

In the Daily Reflector article, I noticed that Ora would be a Methodist missionary in Korea, another point of connection for me. Although baptized in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Norwalk, Ohio, I was raised a Methodist.

So there you are. As often happens in historical and genealogical research, looking for one thing leads you to something unexpected — and fascinating. I am now securely hooked by Ora’s story, and want to learn more about her. What events in her early life led this daughter of the Firelands to missionary work? How did she fare in that strange and mysterious land? What was her ultimate fate?

I’ll explore the answers to all these questions in my next series of posts, beginning with how I became interested the history and culture of the “Hermit Kingdom.”


[1] “Miss Ora Tuttle Goes to Korea,” The Norwalk Daily Reflector, May 23, 1907, page 1, column 4.

[2] “The High School,” The Norwalk Daily Reflector, September 4, 1895, page 3, column 4.

[3] “Gone to College,” The Norwalk Daily Reflector, September 15, 1903, page 7, column 2.

[4] “History of Epworth League Read at Banquet Last Night,” The Norwalk Evening Herald, April 18, 1907, page 2, column 1.

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