Sunday, January 6, 2008

The Sixth of January

This last week focused on Illinois in so many ways. But one thing at a time... Driving home this evening I realized two things- the internet is flooded with scads of useless crap (mostly porn) and January the Sixth is a special day. Conveniently, these realities coexist beautifully. That is, I feel little guilt for what I am about to do- flood this minute corner of the cyber-world with vignettes about a dead immigrant.
        I was sleeping at 3 am yesterday morning but at that exact time 196 years ago (6 January 1812) in a wooded valley along the River Kyll in a cottage in a tiny village called Densborn in Rheinisch-Preussische Anna Maria Faber gave birth to a boy. Anna's husband Simon Stomps was a carbonarii, a charcoal-burner. He went into the woods and made charcoal. Evidently this was a delicate and messy operation. They cut down trees, chopped them into pieces, arranged the sticks into a conical pile with a certain space for air, covered this in sod or clay, and burned it from the inside out. This produced charcoal which was helpful for stoves, deforestation, and literally fueling the Industrial Revolution.
        Anyway, Simon and Anna Maria took their son to the parish church of Sankt Maria Magdalena and Fr. Haas inducted the baby into the Roman Church as "Johann Stumps" later that morning. Johann was a farmer but eventually flew the coop for industrial labor. His quest took him to the dirty industrial town of Schönecken where he married a young lady at the elegantly named St. Leodegar Church in 1841. They had three kids and then she died. It was probably stressful or even sad so he returned to home to Densborn. He married again. This time he wedded his cousin's daughter (fairly common at the time). And so Christina Stumps became Christina Stumps. This couple would eventually have 7 children and even some mental illness amongst the progeny. (I have suspicions that this resulted from the consanguinity).
        Presumably because Prussia was embroiled in increasing political turmoil Johann, the wife, and kids picked up and left in the spring of 1857. They didn't bother registering for passports or obtaining permission of any kind ('illegals' in a way). They just floated down the Rhine and took passage on a British Bark, the Alberti at Antwerp. The Stumps family arrived at NYC on 3 June 1857 and promptly made their way to Lemont, Illinois, the very edge of Cook County, a visual appendix.
        After toiling in the area for a few years Mr. John Stumps (anglicized) relocated to 20 Evans Court in Chicago. The Civil War just ended and the West End of Chicago was a booming German neighborhood. John worked as some kind of shoemaker and laborer. Supposedly, he was an enterprising man who loved real estate. One story says he went to Washington to deliver some land documents from Kansas to President Lincoln. They stood eye to eye (6 feet, 4 inches). I don't really understand this and unfortunately the only photographs of John and his family were a bunch of tintypes that his crazy grandson threw down a well 110 years later in a paranoid frenzy. Without a doubt, John later bought land in a promising subdivision, Washington Heights, far on the South Side (about 107th & Beverly).
        John had fathered 10 kids by 1872. Four died in infancy. Ferdinand liked trains as a kid and lost a leg chasing one in a railroad yard in the neighborhood. He was known as "Peg Leg Stumps" and he eventually went to Oklahoma in the Land Rush. Catherine raised a respectable family around Downers Grove but was maimed rescuing her daughter from an oncoming train (her shoestrings were snagged). Simon drowned in one of the worst mine disasters in Illinois history. Gertrude married a beer salesman from Bavaria. Michael learned the boot and shoemaking trade from his dad John. Mike also operated a streetcar.
        One windy day, a few blocks away from their place, Kate O'Leary's cow kicked over a lantern in her barn and burned the whole damned city down. (I want to believe this despite what the Chicago City Council resolved in 1997). Mike was working and saw the fire so he joined the futility that was fighting it.
        In the Spring of 1878 John again got a progressive itch and decided to move forward. So, he and the misses/cousin, Mike, Peg-Leg, and little Christina (Tennie) packed up and headed for the middle of nowhere, more exactly about 16 miles from the middle of Kansas. John bought a quarter section of UP Railroad Land in Ellsworth County. The area was flat and treeless. For the most part, it still is.
        Coming from a city and a wooded Prussian valley, John despised the desolation but loved the cheap prices. He had lumber shipped out from Chicago by rail and hauled out to the farmstead by team. He built a fine and commodious frame house, planted groves of trees and took to farming. Tennie was a fine student and Peg-Leg made cigars in the neighboring town which no longer exists. The local paper, the Cain City News, jostled John for building a stone hen house: "He believes in keeping his stock as well as himself, well housed, and is bound to have all comfortable" (20 Nov. 1884). Indeed, the Stumps' was a 'hoppin' place, to use an anachronism. Before the construction of the local Catholic Church Fr. Emmerich said Mass at their farm on his circuit. They also hosted a lavish dance party as a fundraiser for the construction of the Church (doomed as the town when the RR went elsewhere). The fete was an extraordinary affair wherein "the largest cake seen in years sold for $12.50 to Mrs. Mary Lauterbach" (16 April 1885).
        Soon enough Peg-Leg married and was off to subjugate the Native Americans (by moving to Oklahoma). Tennie met a Chicagoan who came out on the railroad with the summer threshing crews. John sent her off with a feather mattress and fine bedstead for a dowry and they married in Chicago. John's wife/cousin, 17 years his junior, got the cancer and died in 1892. They buried her in the churchyard cemetery in the declining Cain City. John wrote his will and lived with his son Mike and his family in their new house.
        In the winter of 1895 he fell ill. When the Holyrood Sun from down the road complained of not hearing from old Mr. Stumps on 15 March he'd already been dead for a day. They buried him next to his wife. He has a host of descendants all over Kansas, Oklahoma, Illinois, and Wisconsin, mostly (me included). His thrifty lifestyle and Mike's subsequent investments in oil and real estate managed to cushion the family, financially but not mentally.
        When my grand-uncle was a young man he was sitting on the porch of that old farmhouse. His old aunt came out with a trowel and a bucket of iris tubers and he inquired about her activity. "I'm going out to the Old Cain City Cemetery to put flowers on grandpa's grave, Old Man Stumps under the cedar trees." Uncle Walt was spot-on with those kind of details and years later that information piqued the appetite of my hungry 12 year old mind.
        We hopped in his rusted out Chevy and went down the road to that same abandoned cemetery his Aunt Regina visited 50 years before. Knee high grass and not a tree. A few headstones but no Stumps marker. "All that money and not a simple marker?" I asked. "Well, Regina always wanted to get one...just never got around to it" said Walt. (She was worth well over $1000000 in 2007 dollars when she died). The neighbors across the road advised that the trees were removed by some volunteers a month before. Walt took the truck into the overgrown mess and we began to scour the grounds. Supposedly the cemetery is owned by the Diocese of Salina and administered by the Holyrood Parish. It didn't look like it. It still doesn't. Fortunately, however, the tree removal was a hack job and iris tubers are remarkably resilient. There in the NW corner of the cemetery sat two fresh hewn stumps, still smelling of cedar, and a smattering of renegade irises before them. Stumps below the stumps. I snapped a picture of the spot. Paydirt.
        Eight more years passed. When I left the Seminary this May I had a list of summer projects. Number one: Stumps marker. The first week in July dad called a high school classmate who runs a monument company in town. He cut us a deal (literally): $70 for a simple, used but overturned, granite headstone- engraving included. I wanted it to be a surprise for Walt. Dad tried to get that Friday off of work for the 6 hour round trip but his boss decided to take an unexpected sojourn to his lake cabin in Arkansas. No dice. The next week I went to the grocery store to buy tortellini. When I got home the phone rang. Walt was dead. I was mad at dad's boss.
        We went down for the funeral and also did a little recon work concerning our memorial for the less-recently departed. How fortunate I took that picture before! This last spring was a killer tornado season and two twisters moved right over the spot, damaging and disfiguring my other visual markers. By early August 2007 I had had this grave marker which says (1812-1895) sitting in my garage over a month and would be damned if it wasn't in the ground by school time. (The technicians said they haven't seen 8's like that in a while). Come hell or high water I would get that sucker planted!
        Finally we went down in August. On a balmy, mosquito-ridden evening, just at dusk Dad, Mont (his cousin) and I went out with that hunk of granite, some shovels, and a couple bags of ready-mix cement. We dug a bed, nailed us a frame, poured us a footing, and set the stone. The grass was waist-high all around. If someone is upset that we trespassed on Diocesan property then the bishop can remove the stone himself. (Good luck with the deep footing. It's anchored by a large cinder-block- and try mowing the place once in a while). The next morning I broke away the frame and nestled the dirt around the crevices. When I walked away the scene receded again within the prairie grass, cut from view. At least something is there, finally.
        We missed John by 112 years and Walt by one week last summer. I slept through John's birthday yesterday and now I shall again 'hit the sack.'

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