Anna Wolter writes her history
Part One: From Göttingen, Germany, to Champaign County, Illinois
Anna’s people, the Wolters and Schepelmanns, lived at Göttingen, near Hannover, in Lower Saxony. They were university-educated teachers and musicians. Her parents, Christian Wolter and Emelia Schepelmann, traveled to New York for what was supposed to be a visit of a few years. They settled permanently in the middle of Illinois. (The double-n German Hannover, Anglicized to Hanover, is said to be making a comeback in proper usage.)
July 4, 1843 was the date my mother was born. She lived until May 18, 1913. Mother Emelia Schepelmann was born and reared in Goettingen, Hannover, Germany. Her parents had five dauthers and one son. My father’s name was Christian Wolter. He was also born in Goettingen. In his family there were also six children — five sons and one daughter. Grandmother Schepelmann died at the age of fifty-seven. Grandfather reached the age of ninety-four. He and his son Adolf were graduates of the Goettingen University. Both became teachers and musicians. They were often called upon to preach the sermon in church services (not reading the sermon). Grandfather Schepelmann was a slender, healthy man who believed in daily exercising. At the age of eighty he still enjoyed ice skating.
My father Christian Wolter had a sad beginning in this world. Grandfather Wolter died two months before my father was born. That left grandmother with six small children. However, one year later, her Heavenly Father called also her into His Home. Now there were six homeless children. A couple who had one son took father into their home, raised and loved him like their own son. My father lived with them until he married. Father’s sister was raised by a family of nobility. Those distinguished people gave her a wonderful education. My father’s brothers were not so fortunate. They too were separated. The people with whom they lived treated them with indifference. They were forced to do strenuous work while still small.
A year after my parents married, they came to America. They had no intentions of living here permanently, but just to spend several years here in this new country. My father, who was a bookkeeper, had difficulty finding employment because he spoke no English. Foreign languages were not being taught in Germany in those days. Their first home was in the city of New York, where both found work in a restaurant, where they also had the opportunity to rent a small apartment on the second floor.
In those days electricity was unknown. They used only gas lights here in America; in Germany, only kerosene was being used. Therefore, the first evening, my parents blew out the gas light before retiring for the night. Soon they smelled fumes; sleep was impossible. They got up and quickly opened windows. They endured the night. However the next morning they fell ill. They went downstairs to work, but didn’t mention their experience to the landlord, owner of the restaurant. In the afternoon my mother invited one of the waitresses up to the apartment. Upon entering, they almost fainted because my parents had closed the windows before going downstairs in the morning. Consequently, the gas fumes were thick. If this had not been discovered during the day, my parents would have lit a match upon entering the rooms and everything might have gone up in flames that evening. Here we see again how the good Lord guides us safely through all the perils of life.
After living in New York several years, a friend of theirs persuaded my father to invest money in a piece of land in Champaign County and to try to learn farming. A family by the name of Bakers offered to share their home with them until they were able to build a small house of their own.
It was a lonely country. There was no direct road leading anywhere, hence they would simply drive to the small city of Champaign, a distance of twelve miles, with horse and buggy across the prairie to do their shopping for food. This was an all-day affair — they always packed food to eat on their trip.
It was difficult for my father to adjust himself. Having been an accountant, he continued to wear white shirts with stiffly starched collars and cuffs in the field and while doing all his farm work. Washdays were a drudgery for my mother. Washing machines were unheard of; all her work was done by rubbing the clothes on the washboard. After some time, my father discovered that other men wore dark shirts.
My parents experienced many days of homesickness for Germany, where everything was well-established. Many times they spoke of their beautiful chausees. These are roadways leading from village to village. They were kept clean and swept regularly with brooms. People were proud of their passageways. On both sides were a variety of fruit trees. My mother often mentioned the Deutschländer Zwetchen (plums). Travelers were not permitted to pick the fruit off the trees, only those on the ground. I also learned a lot concerning the German customs. Mother gave such vivid descriptions of the cities and of Germany in general that I visualized myself having been there.
During the first five years of married life, my parents had two stillborn sons. Several years later a daughter, whom they named Dina, was born. When she was in her sixth year, mother gave birth to a boy, who was a brilliant child. How often I wished that I had known him. When he was three years, he recited twelve verses of the hymn Warum sollt ich mich denn grämen [“Why should I then grieve”]. At the age of four he developed typhoid fever and died. Ten years later, I was born on September 23, 1886.
My childhood years were spent on the farm. At times I was lonely. My sister, being fourteen years older than I, had other interests. However, I am happy to recall the many animals we had — horses with their colts, cows with their calves, pigs, dogs, cats and kittens, guinea fowl. They make more noise than any animals except the turkey gobblers we had. Then there were more geese, ducks, and chickens with their offspring. The goslings, the baby ducks, and the baby chicks were a joy to behold — also how the mothers took care of them. When the mother found food, she always called the little ones. They would come running immediately. At night the mother hoveled them carefully. As I mentioned, we had a wide creek running through the farm, where the geese and ducks could swim all day. At the end of the afternoon, one of the ducks took the lead and the rest of the flock followed in single file. Sometimes forty or fifty of them waddled in perfect straight line.
Mother undertook the job of picking the down (finest feathers) from the breast of the geese once a year. I caught the birds and handed them to her. We still have some of the pillows, stuffed with the fine original down.
At last, but not least, were the entertaining starlit heavens, not to be described. These we do not notice in the city. I must not forget to mention the ice skating on the frozen river through our farm. People from surrounding towns came with their ice skates in the afternoons and evenings in the winter.
Before I was born, a Lutheran school teacher who taught in a one-room school, lived with my parents for five years. He had a room and three meals a day for seven days per week. He paid five dollars a month. Several times my parents suggested he move, but he wouldn’t consider leaving. He felt he was one of the family. He married a good friend of my mother’s who later became my sponsor — a fine person by the name of Anna, from whom I inherited the name. When I was ten years of age, the teacher’s family had five children. Their second child Mamie and I were like sisters, and often were dressed the same.
The teacher seemed to think he still belonged to our family. Twice every week — in fact any day of the week — he packed his family into his little buggy with a jump seat after school hours and drove to our home. In those days there were no telephones. We didn’t know they were coming until we heard the horse and buggy cross the bridge near our home. Then mother said, “Da kommt der Packwagen.” (Of course I jumped joyfully.) Mother started preparing dinner. When the meal was ready, Mr. Langhoff said that it was time to leave. Mother being a grand hostess invited them to stay. Mr. Langhoff saw the food being set out on the table and remarked that everything looked too good to be leaving.
A short time later, the Langhoffs moved to Champaign. During the following year we had teacher Mohr. After several years, we called teacher Zantner — both excellent teachers. However, the schoolroom left a lot to be desired. There was only one aisle, which of course ran the long way of the room, with long benches on both sides, reaching to the wall on both sides. There were six pupils seated on the long bench. The most difficult situation was the fact that when someone had to leave the room or go to the blackboard or any other mission, he got on the bench, the children moved forward so he could walk behind them and jump off the bench into the aisle. Also, it was important that every pupil hold onto his ink bottle to avoid spilling ink. This procedure was repeated on the return trip. When school closed for the day, two upper-grade girls were appointed to sweep the floor and two boys moved desks and benches The seating situation was simple — the girls on one side, the boys on the opposite side of the aisle. No monkey [missing line]
While we lived on the farm my mother’s sister Augusta Berting, her husband, and their daughter Anna crossed the ocean from Germany and settled in Chicago. After several years, my uncle decided to return to Germany to be with their two sons. One was a printer, the other a lawyer. In the meantime, Aunt Augusta died and their daughter was left homeless. However, my parents decided to take her into our home. My sister was nineteen years of age, our cousin twelve years, and I five years. Anna lived with us six years, returned to Chicago, and married Fred Heidelbach, a member of our Lutheran Church in Forest Park. I think they still have people in that congregation by that name.
My sister Dina, at the age of twenty-two, married a man by the name of John Heerdt. He owned a small farm. After being married two years, a baby daughter arrived. They called her Augusta. I still remember how proud I was when I was told that I had become Aunt Anna at the age of eight years — I couldn’t stop asking questions!
Two years later there was a sad change. Little Gusta lost her daddy. It was discovered he had been suffering from a tumor in the brain. He died in a hospital here in Chicago. My sister sold her land and moved into our home.
On to Part Two