Ancestor Stories: Christina Schleppenbach (1895-1991)

christinaIt’s remarkable how patterns repeat themselves down the line of a family tree. But sooner or later someone comes along to break the pattern. I like to think of my great grandma – the story for this week – as breaking a cycle of women who marry tragic figures that leave them behind at the height of their vulnerability – pregnant, with many mouths to feed, and a farm to tend.

Christina Schleppenbach is the only of my eight great grandparents that I have any faint memories of. I remember a joyous celebration in 1985 for her 90th birthday. She was gifted a money tree with real bills hanging down from real branches, and this was pure magic to my 6 year-old self. Between that event and her last year in 1991, I don’t remember ever seeing her. Toward the very end of her days, she spent a little time in the home of her daughter, my grandma, and by that age, she was confused by me, trying to make sense of whose child I was, struggling to decipher whatever polite, shy thing my parents prompted me to say to her.

So my two fuzzy little girl memories don’t much contribute to her story.

Christina was the first born to 30 year old Johann Schleppenbach and 24 year-old Johanna Rakovitz. Johann had arrived from Bavaria, Germany (I suspect Deggendorf was his village, but I have to verify) to the US at the age of 20, and made his way to the German immigrant farming community of Albany, Minnesota. 1885 census records find him starting his young life in America by helping on the farm of an older brother, Ferdinand. The neighboring farm had a familial connection to the woman who’d become his wife, Johanna. She was first generation born of German immigrant parents, and her father’s life was cut short by suicide. This event left Johanna’s mother alone with ten children and a farm. Johanna, as the oldest, surely must have shouldered a great burden.

Christina was the first child of Johann and Johanna, and as was typical of their farming community, many children followed in quick succession. By 1905, 10 year-old Christina shared her household with her farming parents, 8 and 6 year-old brothers Johnny and Frank and 4 and 2 year-old sisters, Johanna and Franciska.

For now I can only surmise that the home was very musical. It was quite typical of German communities to be gregarious, and musical. Christina’s children and grandchildren remember her as playing the piano and their family was raised very musical, and so I can only guess that Christina’s love of music started in her childhood household.

However, as it had for her own mother, the music would be cut off suddenly in 1910 when their father Johann died suddenly and tragically.

In 1910, Christina’s parents were 18 years into their married farm life. Eldest daughter Christina was 14. Two year-old and one year-old Joseph and Ferdinand brought the total number of children to seven. They were also joined by 15 year-old “hired laborer” Joseph Lesser. When I overturned his stone, I found that he was Johanna’s nephew. His mother, being Johanna’s sister, had also lost her father to suicide when they were growing up. After she started her own family and while her children were still quite young, she disappeared from the census records. Then she came back. And so I can only wonder for now about her whereabouts when she was missing. In any case, in 1910 this 15 year-old nephew Joseph was part of the Schleppenbach household. 

Father Johann “drank too much.” These were the words scribbled by a family member on a newspaper clipping about the accident. These were also the words whispered by 100 year-old Lou, his living granddaughter. I can only imagine what that meant exactly. I know the temperance movement, which was steadily rising to a boiling point, was formed in direct opposition to the chronic alcoholism that was damaging the peace, safety, and finances of families at the time. The extent of Johann’s drinking problem is something I can only guess at, but what I do know is that it was alcohol that led to his unseemly and untimely death.

This is translated (Google) from the German that ran in the local paper Der Nordstern :

“After a requiem held on Friday morning in the local parish church by the high-priest Father Andreas, the earthly remains of Johann Schleppenbach who had fallen asleep the previous Wednesday, were buried with great sympathy for the final rest. The deceased fell one week before his death from a heavily laden with lumber car whose wheels went over his body, where he suffered internal injuries that caused his death. He used his short time of suffering to a dignified preparation for the difficult journey into eternity…”

A horse-drawn drunk driving incident. That sounds awful. He remained alive with his injuries for one week. That must have been an awful, awful week for the family. And then long years getting on with things. 

One Sunday Christina would spot young Christian Fuchs, another child of German immigrants. He would catch her eye again playing the fiddle at a barn dance. The two met and I can only imagine that music returned to her life. Christina began working as a nanny in a neighboring farm in order to help her family, and Christ would travel to spend long afternoon visits with her. I am told by their daughter, Lou, that the logistics of this courtship weren’t easy by today’s standards. There was always work to be done and long walking distances that separated them.

christina2They were married in June of 1916. This is the (Google translation) announcement in der Nordstern: On Monday of last week at a wedding ceremony held at 9 a.m. by Rev. P. Andreas, O. S. B., Christian H. Fuchs and Miss Christina Schleppenbach were married for life.

I just love discovering ancestors getting married on weekday mornings. Let’s just be real about the long life of service that is marriage. They even add “for life” in the announcement.

However, Christina’s and Christ’s marriage was one of true love. Daughter Lou notes how well “mom took care of daddy.” Maybe she harbored a deep fear of experiencing the loss that her own mother felt (loss of both her father and then her husband, each around the age of 49 at the height of the responsibilities of family life).

I wrote a long account of Christ and Christina’s married life in Christ’s story of which I will only summarize at this time. Christ traded his farm for a blacksmith’s shop, and the two had a prosperous and peaceful life together. They had one son and five daughters, and all were a musical family. They played music all around the St. Cloud community including on local radio and sporting events. 

For the fullest account of my findings, Christ’s story should be included with Christina’s. However, there are a few details I will add that are specific to Christina:

According to their daughter Lorraine, my grandma, Christina “sewed like a charm.” She was always sewing clothes for all her children. Also, she quilted and my father recalls an old antique quilting loom in her house (also an organ). Also, my grandmother spent summers gathering berries and mother Christina kept jars and jars of preserves in the basement for the long, cold winters.

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Christina’s daughter Lou remembers her mother as the more effusive of the two of her parents, and she speaks with a great deal of love and tenderness for both of them. Indeed, my own grandmother was a bright ray of sunshine and I can only imagine that so much of her joy was a gift from her parents and siblings. I remember my grandma once saying in regards to love and relationships something to the effect, “It might not seem obvious, but it’s the woman who chooses.” Whether or not that’s always the case, I feel like in Christina’s case it was. I think she chose with true intention a solid life partner and together they worked hard to provide a happy life for their children – one that wasn’t cut off prematurely. I believe she reversed a pattern, and I am grateful for her.

Christina Schleppenbach Fuchs died on July 29, 1991 at the age of 96. Her husband preceded her, but he lived to be 80. In her later years she was quite healthy, living independently in a tidy home in Albany, tending with care to a lovely garden. In her last few years she stayed with family and then a nursing home in Albany. Her life was long and full with plenty of music.

Ancestor Stories: Christ Fuchs (1891-1971)

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:

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.