Friday, November 21, 2008

21 November- A Story for Today

Driving home from Lawrence I passed through the rolling hills of northeastern Kansas. Contrary to images conjured up by “Wizard of Oz” beautiful broken hills constitute much of the state. Moving towards the Missouri River, patches of timber and outcroppings of limestone peak through the soil. Ages of water racing to the sea carved out craggy bluffs which hover over the wide river. On a fine fall day it makes for a picturesque drive.

The human geography in that neck if the woods is no less interesting. The entire Missouri valley was long frequented by French Fur Trappers, and their ‘Half-Breed’ families. Many of the oldest towns in the area came out of this business— St. Joseph, MO was founded by Joseph Robidoux in 1843. The WASP settlers came in the 1850s. Bordering a slave state, plenty of conflict inevitably erupted. Atchison briefly had a pro-slavery newspaper. Bordering Missouri counties were hotbeds for Confederate sympathy before and after the war (including Jesse James’ family). German Benedictine Monks established an abbey in Atchison in 1857 and ministered to Irish immigrants. Then Germans came too.

By the time my family showed up Atchison County was long settled. I thought about these folks today as this is the 126th anniversary of their marriage. Both came from relatively unusual circumstances…at least considering our contemporary stereotypes of period values. We pine for the ‘good old days’. We do it a lot— especially concerning religion, family values, welfare, patriotism, immigration, etc. Today seems an appropriate time to reflect.

Joseph Emmerich was born in a small but historically significant Bavarian village in August 1855. Though Seinsheim sits in a fertile wine growing region he and his forebears were traditionally stonemasons and bricklayers. According to tradition they participated in the renovation of the large medieval cathedral of Würzburg nearby. (Seinsheim had excellent records extending back to the early 1500’s but, sadly, everything was destroyed when the USAF firebombed the area at the end of WWII).

When Joseph was 17 his family got wind of a forthcoming military appointment. So, naturally, he booked it for America in 1872. Tradition has it that our draft-dodger was a stowaway. Sure enough he shows up on no ships’ lists. Interestingly, one “Josef Emerich” does appear but that one appears to be Jewish— hardly helping the ‘mainstream’ argument. (I do, nevertheless, suspect Semitic roots in this branch, however, from other sources… but I digress).

Joseph drops off the map until 1880 when he surfaces in rural Atchison County, KS near Effingham. His father and siblings came over and joined him. They worked as stonemasons around small commercial quarry operations. One source hints that Joseph lived in Missouri prior to settling in Kansas. It was there that I suspect he met his wife…which brings me to Louise.

Louise Breitenwischer was born in March 1862 in Carondelet, MO, a bustling river town immediately to the south of St Louis. When she was born there were slaveholders in the neighborhood. By the time she died 90 years later we had atomic weapons and neon lights. She reportedly didn’t talk much about her family during her long life. I can understand why. Louise was illegitimate— her father a German Lutheran and a severe alcoholic, her mother French Catholic.

To be fair her grandmother was also born to a single mom. The village moral authority of 1815 could not have looked kindly upon “inconnu” or “unknown” scribbled in under “father’s name”! The great-grandmother in turn was born in exile— their family dislodged from their Rhenish border-town by Austrian troops coming to the aid of Monarchists during the Reign of Terror in the 1790s. It was not easy for them.

Within a five year range of 1882 things looked pretty bad for Louise. Both her parents, her remaining grandparents, and most of her aunts and uncles all died from alcoholism, alcohol related accidents or tuberculosis. The City of St Louis had annexed Carondelet and the family home was now wedged between the Mississippi, a shipyard, RR, and a sewage ditch which drained most of the city.

But there’s no hand up like a “hand-out.” Louise’s brother Frederick had saved $500— a handsome sum for 1882. He gave her the money so she would have a chance to get out, get married, and have a good life. (As an aside, Fred and his family came out alright— this particular anecdote was passed to me by a descendant, a daughter of one Busch Stadium organist and her husband a certain Cardinals player/Hall of Fame broadcaster).

And so it was that Louise got on a boat in the fall of 1882. It wound its way over 300 miles up the Missouri to Atchison, KS. Shortly thereafter Joseph Emmerich and Louise Breitenwischer were married 21 November 1882 at St. Ann’s in Effingham.

They had two kids, one of whom was my great-grandfather. Joseph held numerous jobs from mason, to restaurant proprietor, to shoe repairman, to farmer. He did well enough to sit on the building committee for the new Catholic Church in Effingham in 1896. Sadly, that building was destroyed fire (suspected arson) in April 2008.

I didn’t go through Effingham on my way home from Lawrence. However, as I passed though the Missouri Valley I thought a great deal about all the life and stories those hills have witnessed. God Bless them all.

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