|An Immigrant Called Joe|
He never walked till he was three, but life would take him far from his birthplace, the village of Reschen in Austria-Hungary. He was born in 1898 during the 50th year of the reign of Franz Josef, the Emperor of Austria and the King of Hungary. This young European of all those years ago was my father.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire was a patchwork of different racial groups, including Germans, Magyars, Rumanians, Italians, and Slavs like Czechs, Slovaks, Poles and Croats. The people spoke different languages, and in the case of my father's family, they spoke German 1. The imperial domain of Franz Josef was surrounded by the lands of Russia, Rumania, Servia, Italy, Switzerland and the German Empire.
Reschen was located in the Austrian part of the empire, and the village was not far from the city of Römerstadt which was north of Olmütz, now called Olomouc. A letter from the Czechoslovak Travel Bureau in 1970, said that "Reschen is now Resov near Horni Mesto, District of Bruntal in North Moravia." The picture of the sign, to the left, was taken that year.
Dad was named Josef Alois Riedel,2 the same as his father. He was baptised in the little Catholic Church in the village here pictured↓.
He was the third in the family of six children. Arthur and Mike were his older brothers, his sisters Marie and Ida were younger, and Fritz was the youngest child. Their home was on the edge of the village but they farmed some distance away, growing grain and flax for linen on a piece of land that had a waterfall and a brook flowing through it with quite a bit of water. Dad said it was near a hillside where the “gebirge” were (refers to mountains). They had wolves, fox, and all kinds of birds in the area, even raven.
They sliced sugar beets for their cows and fed them a moistened grain called "meng."
For their sustenance they raised pears, plums, peaches, grapes, and sweetwood. They also had several kinds of berries including gooseberries. They made sauerkraut in big jars. Reminiscent of tramping grapes in a vat, one person packed it barefoot while others attended to other tasks, such as taking leaves off the cabbage. When they butchered a hog they saved everything except the squeal. They smoked their meat. The chimney had a steel door and grates, and the meat was hung inside. Grossmutter would cook the meal with hickory wood and the smoke would cure the meat. (A detail of a map just below zeroes in on the area of Reschen.)
The roofs were made of slate, called Shievenstein. Each piece had two holes to drive nails through. In their yard they had crushed rock which the children had to rake each Saturday.
In 1906, when he was eight, his parents ― who we knew as Grossvater and Grossmutter ― immigrated with their six children to this country, embarking at the German port of Bremen, on the ship Oldenberg.
In not many years the clouds of war would gather and the thunder of guns would be heard, sparked by the assassination in 1914 of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo in another part of Austria Hungary, and the map of Europe would change, but their destiny lay in the land to the west, America.
They encountered storms on the Atlantic and during the crossing their ship almost went down. It would've sunk except that they tightened the bolts that held the sections together. The roughness of the seas overturned cauldrons of soup, scalding cooks. Dad was hit in the mouth by a swinging door, causing him to lose a tooth.
They went lower class, having one mattress for the eight of them to sleep on, and drank from tin cups. Fourteen hundred or more people were aboard, including a lot of Russians. One person died and was cast overboard.
On March 4th, after 16 days at sea, they landed at Baltimore where I was told Grossvater had to hop on his toes to prove he was physically able to support his family; otherwise he would've been sent back to the old country.
He put his exchange money in his sock and they traveled by train to to Chicago and then on to Fulda, Minnesota, where his wife Amalia had a brother Franz who had immigrated to America before them. They stayed with them until they got a place for themselves. To help support themselves Grossvater did farm work for Franz and his neighbors. They had no wood and would twist tall slough grass to burn for cooking and heating. After two years, they moved to Mankato, where the children could be tutored in German. To heat their home they would pick up coal along the railroad tracks that had fallen from tenders.
In Mankato Grossvater secured a job at Hubbard Mill for12 cents an hour, 12 hours a day. They made Mother Hubbard Flour. Dad also worked at the mill as a sweeper. And one day, while they were unloading wheat, Grossvater went into a pit to repair an auger. Someone turned it on, and a belt caught his pant leg, dragging him toward a pulley. A laborer saw what was happening and was able to rescue him, but not before the accident mangled his legs. He was out of work for 11 months. He received seven dollars and some cents insurance, and at the above rate, around five day's worth of pay.
Grossvater was a tall, strong man. Once when he was crossing some railroad tracks, a fellow tried to rob him, but he hit the guy over the head with a dinner bucket.
He was a janitor at Sts. Peter and Paul's church for 25 years. It's where Dad attended school until about the Fifth Grade, when he went to work as a delivery boy for the F. M. Otto grocery store. After they closed, he worked for the Northern States Power Co. He bought his mother a washing machine and helped make life better for his folks.
He met my mother by mistake. She had come up to Mankato from Iowa to attend commercial college, and her way to school was past my father's home. One morning Dad said hello to the girl across the street, and my mother, who happened to be passing by, thought he'd spoken to her and replied. In this way they met; the following year they married.
After my oldest sister Marie was born, they went to California where Dad worked as a street car conductor for the Market Street Railway in San Francisco. In 1934, he returned to the Midwest, to work the farm in Iowa where my mother had grown up. It's where we children would grow up as well, although the three oldest (Marie, Francie and Bob) spent part of their childhood years in Frisco. There would be 16 of us who survived infancy, and nine or ten of us were born on the farm.
The first years Dad (pictured here, perhaps at a celebration) farmed with horses. He paid a hundred apiece for two horses called Queen and Lady, but Queen didn't do well. Another horse named Beauty was the best horse he had, and yet another was blind. That was Dolly. In 1937, he got a John Deere B tractor with rubber front tires and back wheels with lugs. He was the first in the area to pull a horse-drawn John Deere corn planter with a tractor. A hitch was made to fit the tractor. The tongue of the planter was cut off and irons were made to replace it. It was partly their idea to convert and the horses were slow. The animals were bothered by horse flies, and it was humorously commented that they didn't bother the tractor.
The farm had a stream like the old country, the Indian Creek. The barn wasn't attached to the house like in Reschen, but sat by the road under the dominion of a big, shady cottonwood tree which stood in front of it. Grain wasn't reaped by scythe, but by machine, and instead of bundles being bound by stems twisted together, they were tied with twine. The grain wasn't threshed in the winter by beating, but in the summer with a threshing machine.
There would be dry years and wet years and better years. Dad would know the dependence of man upon the weather. He would look to the sky for rain, and often it would not come.
There would be work, a lot of it. The toil of man with the animals and the crops and the soil. He would go out early in the morning and many a time work till long after the sun had set, without much rest between. He would repeat what his father had said: Immer, immer arbeit: always, always work.
Dad did more than farm. He used to take care of the local telephone line called the Kruser Line which ran out north of the nearby town of Lake View to Quinlan's corner, then along the road south of the farm, and turn north again to come past our place. It was a party line and each farm had its own call signal. Ours was three longs. The phone hung on the wall by the front door and a crank on the side would connect us to town. If someone listened in on another's conversation they were referred to as rubbernecks. You could hear them click on. Dad also served as President of the school board and hired teachers for our country school, called Wall Lake No. 4.
He never forgot his parents, and although Mankato was some distance away, he would go see them, taking them things from the farm. One time he was going there in a Model T when a cold wind arose, and he ran into ice and snow. The canvas-topped car had no windows nor izing glass curtains. I was a young child and sat sheltered on the floor boards, while Dad, shivering, drove with one hand and sat on the other to warm it.
Poverty touched his life, and when he had no overshoes, he cut strips of gunny sack to wrap his shoes against the snow. But perhaps poverty touched his heart, enriching it. His life was marked by giving to others. He didn't just share with relatives, but he shared with other people who came to the farm, giving them things like eggs, potatoes, and even meat. Some came for the purpose of obtaining food. I have a recollection of a person in our yard, who may've come off the road, and a tramp comes to mind. Tramps used to camp in an area of town near the railroad tracks, more than two miles away. They made their way to the farm as well as gypsies did.
In a sense life is like a lot of roads, taking us in some direction with an end in mind, be it of this world or of the next. Dad never forsook the faith of his father, the faith in which he was baptized Josef in the small church of Reschen. He would add an Our Father and a Hail Mary to grace before meals. And his Father of prayer helped him in raising his family.
He would talk about St. Joseph driving a hot stake into the ground on his feast day of March 19th. Then it was supposed to warm up, something of importance for those who worked the land. Not only was his, the name of this saint, but it was his father's name as well. It would also be a name he'd pass on to two of his sons, Francis Joseph (I call him as Francie, but others know him as Joe) and Joseph James (Joey). He had an aunt named Josefa and it was his maternal grandmother's name, Josefa Koenig, who was Lady in Waiting for Lady von Hangenstein.
At 80 years of age he still worked. He'd get down on his knees and pull weeds in the potato patch.
While he was still alive, I wrote a story about him, which was published in the Peoria Journal Star on June 18, 1978. Much of what was printed at that time is written here. I ended his story then: "Some day, as will be true for all of us, he will immigrate to another world, but he will not pass through this one without having done for others, and without having left the print of his knee upon the earth." He died at the age of 84 on December 7th, 1982. He was en route to help another person, when the car in which he was riding, slid on ice and went off the road. He set off on foot to summon help. He never reached the nearby farm place he was heading toward. The one who never walked till he was three, fell by the side of the road, never to revive. His steps that day had taken him beyond the borders of this world 3.
1 While they spoke German and were of German heritage, they were from Austria-Hungary. After World War I the Austro-Hungarian Empire was divided up, part of it becoming Czechoslovakia, with Reschen being part of that country. In the record of the 1910 Census, Dad's place of birth is shown as Austria. In 1943 his Certificate of Naturalization lists his former nationality as Czechoslovakian. On the Certificate of Citizenship of my Aunt Marie (Dad's sister), dated Sept. 12th, 1938, it shows her former nationality as Austrian.
2 The name we received had an extra 'L' added to it and is not pronounced now in good German, with the "reed" sound on the first part. In fact that's what Ried means in German, a reed or reeds (or a reedy marsh), but whether this points to its origin I cannot say. I had thought it had to do with a place of reeds like a marshland, or to one using reeds to make things like baskets, but I've seen it said that the derivation is from another source. As evidenced by the marriage certificate, Dad was spelling it with a double L when he married Mom in 1926. The modification of the name may reflect some trouble that some in the family wished to avoid. It seems in my past I heard of instances of houses being painted yellow in this country because of antipathy toward Germans.
3 The account of the driver that day, a granddaughter: The roads were pretty clear with patches of ice, packed snow or both, here and there. On the road ahead, there was a railroad crossing, and after it, a junction with a side road. She had already slowed, but after crossing the railroad, she slowed even more. She proceeded straight, going uphill and heading north. The car started to slide toward her right, spun around and went into the ditch, facing south. It ended up somewhat against a snow bank. The lady they were helping, slid against her in the front seat. Dad was in the back seat, immediately got out of car, and headed up the hill to seek help.
The granddaughter helped the lady out of the car. She was part way out, when the granddaughter looked up the road and saw that Dad had stopped, was standing sideways and looking down where they were. He was then halfway to the farm place, but he didn't speak. She helped the lady back into the car, and as she was closing the door, she looked up the road but didn't see Dad immediately. Then she saw him lying face up, on the other side of the road. He'd crossed over.
She ran to him but he didn't answer her. She tried CPR but he didn't respond. After some minutes went by, a car came along and she asked them to get help. Then another car from Sac City came along , with a lady in it from a nursing home, and she administered CPR, but there was still no response.
Later it occurred to the granddaughter that while she was helping the lady into the car, she looked south and saw a man standing by a beige/brown car by the railroad tracks. This drew her attention long enough that she didn't see Dad fall. It's possible the car came off the side road and stopped on the road they were on. The man she saw never came to help and disappeared, leaving a bit of a mystery.
My dad, the man whose name happened to begin with the German word for reed, happened to fall on the road above the Tomahawk Marsh, a place of reeds.
Addendum of some maps, documents, information and history.
is a larger area map of the old country. Locate Römerstadt, and to
its left, Hangenstein and Bergstadt. Reschen is below
Bergstadt. Above Romerstadt is Neudorf.
father-in-law and Josefa Koenig's father, Josef Koenig, was a hunter
The story is told that two Austrian officers saw him bring down a running
deer at a distance, barely within musket range. They encouraged him to
join the Austrian army. He participated in Napoleon's invasion
of Russia where at the campfire at night they roasted in front and froze in
back. He was wounded several times and once a ball hit him in the hip
but it was too painful to extract. Later in life he had a sore foot,
and they found the shot had worked its way down to the bottom of his limb.
They farmed. Plowing was done with a swivel-type moldboard plow. They could go up and back in the same furrow. The grain was cut rhythmically with a scythe, and to avoid the heat of the day, they would begin cutting at midnight. Having no twine they tied the bundles with the grain itself. This was done by twisting some strands together, placing them around the sheaf, twisting the ends and tucking them under. Threshing was done in the winter by beating the grain, using a stick tied to a schlagel, a piece of wood like a rolling pin. It pounded the grain to knock it off the hulls. From the flax straw, they made linen cloth.
I wonder if the stream on their land was a
tributary to Oslava running east of Reschen. Since Dad
described it as a bach, which is a brook, I'm inclined to think the
waterfall was neither the Reschener Wasserfall, mapped to the east and north of
Reschen, near what appears to be a big wood, Grosser Wald, nor the one
mapped to the west of Reschen. These could be the two pictured
on a greeting card from Reschen (Grüsse
von Reschen), which showed two waterfalls: Kleiner Wasserfall and
Grosser Wasserfall (small and large waterfall). My Aunt Ida spoke of
another. She said Reschen is where there are three waterfalls.
I received the following information about locations and
names of towns on April 7, 1970, from the Cartographic Division of the the
National Geographic Society. Their letter said it was given by the
U.S. Board on Geographic Names gazatteer (spelling given) on Czechoslovakia.
Copyright © 2006 - John Riedell - All