Saturday, 17 February 2018

My German Grandfather and Swedish Grandmother

My Grandfather, Maximilian Weismiller, and Grandmother, Pitronella Fredrika Peterson, had a bit of a 'May-December' marriage. Grandma wasn't quite 16 when she married Grandpa, who had just tuned 29. Of course, it was 1892, and mores were a bit different then!

My Grandfather was a first generation American of German parentage. His parents were Rheinlander Catholics who had left Germany to avoid the beginning of the Prussian Kulturkampf against the Church. He was born on St Patrick's Day, 1863, the child of the only German family in a solidly Irish town in Eastern Iowa. His Catholic parents, of course, sent him to parochial school. Unfortunately, the extreme bigotry of the Irish against the Germans meant that if an Irish child vomited, the nuns made him clean it up, because he was 'just a German'!

As a result, when he was seven, in grade two, he told his parents that he wanted to go to public school. They refused, because it was (and is, not that anyone cares) a sin to send a child to a non-Catholic school if a Catholic school is available. So, in an act of defiance, he threw his school books in a creek. His parents bought him another set, which he proceeded to burn! That ended his formal education. His parents would not send him to public school, and he would not attend a Catholic school where he was mistreated because of his nationality, so he dropped out of school at seven. This lack of formal education did not, however, prevent him from becoming a successful businessman.

Grandma was a Swedish immigrant who had crossed the Atlantic at age 11, in a sidewheel steamer. She never forgot the whale she saw spouting in the North Atlantic. She was the first member of her family to have a surname, tho' I'm not sure where it came from. The records in the Landsarkivet in Göteborg indicate that she was the child, born out of wedlock, of Anna Mathilda Karlsdotter. At any rate, whoever her father was, her mother left Sweden for the US when Grandma was quite small, placing her in a foster family. My great grandmother was a 'mail order bride', coming to the US to marry a Swede named Bloomquist. He was a widower with children, and they had children together before my grandmother came across the pond.

Anna saved money until she could send for her daughter. Finally, in 1887, she was able to do so. At eleven, Grandma was too young to make the voyage unaccompanied, but she had an older, male relative who chaperoned her, since he was emigrating as well. She came to a small Swedish settlement in Osage County, Kansas. And, when I say 'small', I mean 'small'! When I was a boy, in the 1950s, there were still one or two tumbledown buildings left of Peterton, but no one had lived there in decades.


Within a year or two, tho', there was trouble at home. Grandma never went into detail, but she told me that when she was about 13 or 14, she decided that she and her mother could not live under the same roof, and, as she put it, 'I wasn't going to raise all those kids!' (she was the oldest of a large brood), so she left home. 


In 1890 there weren't many moral opportunities available to a young woman. In a large city being a shopgirl or a charwoman were possibilities, but in the small towns of the recently settled West, being a servant girl in a 'nice' household was the best available.


Grandma never explained how she got from Osage County to Marshal County, where she lived the rest of her long life, but somehow she ended up in Beattie, Kansas, as the servant in the household of a German-Jewish banker, where she picked up German and Yiddish to go with her native Swedish, and the English she had learned since arriving in the States. After she married Grandpa, it irritated him that her German was better than his!


Many, many years later I attended Beattie Schools. Our baseball field had a sinkhole between second and third base. No matter what we did, there was always a hole there, which we had to avoid whilst running the bases. One day, just in passing, I mentioned the hole to Grandma. She asked where exactly it was. When I explained, she laughed and said, 'That's the Brunswick's cistern! I used to draw water out of it'. Our baseball diamond was on the site of the house in which she had been a servant!


At some point, she left service with the banker's family and moved to the County Seat, Marysville, where she became a servant in the house of the Reverend Mr Easterly, the local Methodist Episcopal minister. It was he who, in his parlour, witnessed my grandparents marriage in 1892.


My Grandfather had become a saloonkeeper, not a popular career choice in a period where the Prohibition Party and the Women's Christian Temperance Union were influential. He had begun in Iowa, but when Iowa passed an effective prohibition law, he moved to Kansas. Kansas had been legally 'dry' since 1881, but there were so many loopholes in the law that there were numerous open saloons on the main street of Marysville. 


He was a respected businessman with a half page advert in the city directory which read, 'Max Weismiller, Dealer in Spirits, Fine Wines, and Cigars'. However, since selling alcohol was technically illegal, he had to pay an interesting 'business tax'. Every month, he had to pay a 'fine', and once a year he had to go to jail for three days! The city marshall would stop by the saloon and ask him when would be a convenient time to serve his 'sentence'. Grandpa would 'consult his calendar', and tell the marshall when he would show up at the jail.

I have no idea how the two met, since Grandma left that detail out, but it's possible that he attended Mr Easterly's church. He had left the Church at the earliest opportunity after his experience with the Irish nuns, so it might well be that he attended protestant churches, eyeing the young ladies. Grandma had been raised a Lutheran, of course, but she told me that after her local church switched to English language services, it really wasn't church anymore, so it is likely, that as a servant to a minister, that she would just attend her employer's services.

However they met, they did, and decided to get married. It was not a popular marriage in either family! A German 'Catholic' and a Swedish Lutheran at a time when religion and nationality were still taken seriously. Grandpa didn't even tell his family that he was getting married. One evening he got dressed up and his sister asked him where he was going. He told her he was getting married. She asked the obvious question, 'Who?' He replied, 'Nellie Peterson'. Aunt Gussie said, 'I wouldn't marry that, if I were you!' To which Grandpa replied, 'Well, you're not me!, and left to go to his wedding.

After they were married, Grandma would go down to Osage County to visit her family. Whilst she was gone, Grandpa's family would tell him that she had gone to Peterton to see her boyfriend, and Grandma's kin would tell her that Max was 'fooling around', whilst she was gone.

They had five children, my Father being the youngest. In 1904, Kansas passed the 'bone dry law', plugging the loopholes in the prohibition law. Put out of his chosen career, Grandpa became a broom making factory owner. It was always Grandma's proud boast that he was the only broom maker in Marysville that had ever bought a half railway car load of broom corn at one time.

However, locally made brooms were becoming a thing of the past, and Grandpa's factory closed. He got a job on the Union Pacific Railroad, shovelling cinders in the cinder pit at the roundhouse.

(Digression, since most younger people, and those who didn't grow up in major railway towns, probably have no idea what I'm talking about. Prior to the introduction of diesel powered locomotives, railway engines were coal fired. Burning coal produces cinders or clinker, which were dumped in a pit at the roundhouse [a large building with a turntable to turn the engines], and needed to be shovelled from the point at which they were dumped into the main body of the pit. The clinker was then used as a bed for laying new track, or for repairing old track beds.)

He began his new job on Monday. On Friday, as he was working, he heard an engine approaching. He stepped back from the track and leaned on his shovel to wait for the train to pass. In 1916, worker safety was not a major concern of large corporations, and there was no OSHA. The engineer had extinguished the engine's head lamp to conserve kerosene. Without the light to see how far back from the track he was, Grandpa didn't realise that his shovel was right on the track side. The train knocked his shovel away from him and he fell under the engine. He survived for an hour or so, but he was so badly injured that there was nothing that could be done.

Grandma was left a widow at 39, with two children, my Uncle Glen and my Father, still at home. She got a job in a steam laundry, operating the heavy iron mangle. Not an easy job, but she had three mouths to feed, and there was no workers' compensation or insurance. 

She managed to raise the funds to buy a cemetery plot, the details of which are for a future post, but had no money to buy a head stone. She found an attorney willing to sue the railway, and eventually did receive a settlement, out of which she bought a stone. It is a large standing stone, of the style very popular in the early 20th century, and on it she had engraved, 'Maximilian Weismiller, 1863-1916' and below that, 'Nellie, His Wife, 1876-...'

In 1966, she had been a widow for 50 years, and was one of the oldest citizens of the town. The local newspaper sent a reporter to interview her. In the course of the interview she was asked why she had never remarried, since she still had children at home. It wasn't for lack of opportunity, as I know from personal observation! Even when I was a boy, there were gentlemen who would come 'acourting'!

Her answer was priceless! Given the family problems, and all the obvious things about Grandpa losing two businesses, she still stated flatly, 'I got the best on the first try. There was no sense in trying again'!

In 1973, after 67 years of widowhood, she was killed in the house fire that also killed my Uncle Glen, who had never married or left home. We laid her to rest in that plot she bought in 1916, next to the 'best', and had '1973' engraved on the stone. She had had a small limestone marker placed under the headstone, over Grandpa's grave that said 'Father' (she always called him 'Papa'), which has weathered and broken in the ensuing years. I would like to have a new one made for him, and a matching 'Mother' to put over her final resting place.

May they both rest in peace! They are gone, but never forgotten.

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