Stearns County Minnesota, where my great grandfather was born in 1891, so mimicked Germany, the Fatherland of most residents, one did not even need to speak English. In the German language newspaper, Der Nordstern, you could read stories about such things as Valentine Welk being crushed to death by a rolling log escaped from his sled. Or about the schoolteacher breaking through the ice and drowning while skating home on Pelican Lake. Or about a little girl, aged 11, who died eating wild parsnips, while her brother, who had eaten a lesser quantity, was saved by the use of emetics. In 1891 Stearns County, Minnesota was a town of German immigrants with the highest density of German-American Catholic parishes of any settlement in the United States.
How was it that so many of their tribe flocked to this spot in particular? Well, it was certainly in part inspired by the dubious claims of one nineteenth century Slovenian priest, Fr. Francis Xavier Pierz, who came as a missionary to the Native Americans in 1854, and wrote back to his flock in Europe that “in three winters I have not seen more than a foot of snow” and that “farmers work in shirtsleeves the year round.” Wow. Anyone who’s experienced a Minnesota winter can tell you that Father Pierz was full of scheisse. But he had a vision. He hoped that others would come and that none that would arrive were “freethinkers, red republicans, atheists or agitators” because that would not do in his German Catholic paradise. Fortunately for me, this sounded good enough for some of my ancestors, and they decided to set up shop. Also fortunately for me, my ancestors were pretty good-natured about the whole Minnesota con job.
There was more to it than this, though. Germans by and large did not come to America seeking religious independence. In the mid-1800s, Germany did not adhere to one unified system or culture. The Industrial Revolution was not yet benefitting the country in the same way it was other European countries, taxes were increasing, and there was not a great sense of patriotism. Peasants had to rent their land, and it was the eldest who inherited the family farms which left many landless. Furthermore, farms weren’t often big enough to support more than one family. As people left for America, they sent letters home, which enticed their kin to join them for new frontiers where land was abundant.
Christ Fuchs, my great grandfather, was the progeny of two such immigrants, and before we go further, let’s stop for a little chat about his name. That is actually the name everyone knew him by. It is on his headstone. I’m not sure how you’re pronouncing it in your head, but it rhymes with Kissed Books. He was baptized Christopher just the day after he was born while his mother was likely bedridden. Christopher, however, was not the name his parents gave him. They named him Christian and he would always go by Christ. One of Christ’s older brothers would go on to change his name to Fox as many others with the common German surname would do.
He was the eighth of nine children born to Peter and Susanna Fuchs, first generation immigrants from Trier, Germany. As I start to dabble into the history of the Rhineland-Palatinate region where Christ’s parents were born, I see that the quest to uncover my roots will eventually take me into a fascinating exploration of European history as well. This particular region close to present day Luxembourg has undergone seismic shifts throughout its history, but Christ’s life in Stearns County was quite stable. He was born there and died there.
Peter and Susanna Fuchs are a story for another week. As a young couple starting life in a new land, he and Susanna were pioneers. By the time Christ was born, many siblings had preceded him – two brothers and six sisters, and two babies not surviving. The children attended school and labored on the family farm. Christ walked four miles each day to the small schoolhouse. I wonder if, during this period of icy treks, he was ever made aware of Father Pierz’ claims.
One by one, his siblings left home to begin their own lives, so that in 1910 at the age of 19 Christ and his younger sister Lizzie were the only ones still living at home. The others mostly stayed around their farming community of Albany, starting their own families and farms. I suspect one of his older sisters died as a teenager or very young adult, but wasn’t able to unravel the mystery. Despite much toil in an extreme climate, the pace of life was slow, centering around family and community. One day at church, Christ was noticed by attractive, dark-haired Christine Schleppenbach, five years his junior. My grandmother, their daughter, once told me, “It’s the woman who chooses.”
It was at a social barn dance where he was playing the fiddle that they eventually met, and their courtship began. With him on the east side of town and her on the west, visits were not simple when transport required a horse and buggy. Then tragedy struck Christine’s family. Her father died suddenly and tragically, leaving her mother pregnant and with seven children. Eldest daughter Christine was prompted to find work as a nanny on a neighboring family farm. Christ would pay her visits there while she looked after the children. On June 26, 1916, the two were married in the Albany church. He was 25 and she was 20.
Many happy years followed for them. They lived for two years with his parents until Christine became pregnant. They farmed the land of a bachelor for one year until they could buy their own small plot of land. Christ’s father gave him a cow and some chickens to get started, but alas farming was not Christ’s preferred livelihood. He had a cousin who was a blacksmith, and so he and this cousin made a trade: one farm for one blacksmith and welding shop. Family lore states that this shop was the first building erected in the community. Today there is a small but thriving community of artisanal blacksmiths in Albany, Minnesota. In fact, the craft is having a bit of a resurgence. You can even take classes, and for their Pioneer Days summer event the public can watch craftspeople work. I have been geeking out on this video, happy in the knowledge that this relic from the past, instituted in this community by my great grandfather’s family, is still flourishing. When I was visiting my dad over the summer, I asked him about his memories of his grandfather. He pointed right next to where we were seated in the backyard on that pleasant summer evening to an ornamental iron planter. “Well, as a matter of fact, he made that.” And there Christ was with us. And I like to think his spirit is still in Albany with each satisfying ting ting of the hammer.
Christ and Christine had six children, one son (the eldest), followed by five daughters, one of whom was my grandmother. Peter, their son, helped his father to maintain the growing business. A second machine shop was built years later and the family prospered. Christ worked in his blacksmith shop in Albany for 24 years. With his success, in the midst of the Depression, Christ hired the men of town and together they built an English Tudor house with brick trim, which was quite unusual and modern. It remains in Albany today. Later they moved to a home on a lake in nearby Avon, where their youngest daughter Marion loved to swim.
This gallery paints quite a clear picture of what Albany looked like throughout Christ’s life: http://www.lakesnwoods.com/AlbanyGallery.htm
I was honored to speak this week with Christ and Christine’s eldest daughter Lucille. She has just celebrated her 100th birthday, and on the phone sounds maybe half her age. She remembers both her parents very warmly. In her words, “He was the kindest and most honest person I’ve ever known. Mom took such good care of him. He worked so hard to make a good home for us. He would flood the back yard so we could go ice skating and after a hard day’s work he’d drive us to our soft ball games. I owe my genes to them.” She remembers a very compatible marriage between the two, with her father being the quieter and her mother more effusive and talkative. Life sounds as if there was always plenty to do with both parents always working hard. She remembers her mother being the sterner parent of the two, but both happy and good natured.
A portrait of the Fuchs family would not be complete without noting their musical inclination.
It was typical of German immigrants to bring with them a love of art, music, and sociability, and the Fuchs family certainly fit the mold. As mentioned, Christ played the fiddle. Christine played the piano (my father remembers a large organ in their home), and each child adopted his or her own instrument: eldest brother Pete played the bass, sisters playing accordion, saxophone, and harmonizing vocals. The family often played their musical instruments for the entertainment of others at dances, sporting events, and even on the St. Cloud radio. Lucille said in a self-deprecating way that “maybe we weren’t very good” but that “we were always playing music around the house.” However, a previous genealogical study notes, “no school program was ever complete without several of the Fuchs children participating through singing or musical instrument.”
When I ask my own father to describe his grandpa, I can hear the smile in his voice. He describes the family this way: “All of the Fuchs were very outgoing. There was a lot of laughing and joking around. They were adventurous and fun-loving, not serious. They were very accomplished, but also very self-deprecating and humble. We only saw them once or twice a year. Growing up, they weren’t in the Tudor-style brick home anymore, but a modest house in Albany near the post office and the main drag of town with a screened-in front porch and lots of flowers in the yard.” He remembers an unfinished basement with a huge quilting loom and old victrola record player that you wound by hand. His brothers and sisters loved to listen to a 78 rpm “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream,” a hit from the 1927. They crowded around and listened to it over and over. Grandma had a root cellar in that basement with mason jars full of canned veg and fruit. Big organ on main floor of living room.
Christ suffered from colitis for many years, and after a surgery, he didn’t survive much longer. He died on the day of the Feast of St. Joseph in 1971 at the age of 80. His wife Christine would go on to live another 20 years and die at the age of 96.
After a week of deep reflection on these two lives well lived, I feel overwhelming gratitude. My paternal grandmother, Lorraine, passed away last year, was a warm ray of sunshine. And my own dad is a man I am enormously proud of. After this week of exploration I feel like I understand how and why they are who they are just a little better.