|Gene A. Groner|
Guest article by Gene A. Groner
Dad never liked his given name, Aloysius Elias.
“What kind of parents give names like that?” he said on several occasions.
Parents of strong German heritage, I learned.
At some point Dad dropped Aloysius, added the name Louis—the given name of his maternal grandfather—and used Elias Louis or the initials E.L. the rest of his life. Everyone knew him as Al.
Dad lived alone in Topeka, Kansas in the early 1980s following the death of his third wife. He retired after selling his one-man heating and air conditioning installation and repair business. I was married with children and we lived in Blue Springs, Missouri. I visited Dad several times a year. In May 1982 he mentioned he had never been back to his birthplace, Saint Thomas, Missouri.
“Let’s drive there and spend a weekend,” I said. “You can show me around and get reconnected to your memories.”
“I’d like that,” he said in his low-key way. He seldom showed emotions and kept his personal business private, precisely my stereotypical image of a German male.
My German AncestorsI have German ancestors on both sides of my family. My mother, Dixie, was a Spohrer. Her great-grandfather, Johan Heinrich Spohrer, and his two brothers emigrated from Leistadt, Germany to Pennsylvania in 1850. Johan’s family later moved to Seneca, Kansas. Dad’s grandfather, Benedikt Groner, came to America from Vorderdenkental, Germany in 1870 and settled in Saint Thomas, Missouri. Groners have lived and farmed in the Vorderdenkental area for more than six hundred years.
I picked up Dad in Topeka on a sunny day in May 1982 and we began the four-hour drive to Saint Thomas. Years later, as I reflected on the trip, I recognized I went into it with a couple of hidden agenda items. One, I was doing some initial work on our family’s genealogy—which I had yet to take seriously—and the trip could have been helpful, although I hadn’t planned to take notes. Two, Dad and I were never close. I struggled over the years with whether and how to try and improve our relationship. At the time of the trip, though, I simply felt the trip was a nice thing to do. Dad was seventy years old and likely would not have driven to Saint Thomas alone. It could be his last chance to go.
On the way to Saint Thomas, Dad uncharacteristically opened up a bit about his ancestors. His grandfather Benedikt was a poor farmer and twenty-five years old when he came to America.
“He took a boat from Ulm to Dusseldorf, then boarded a ship to the U.S. and eventually found his way to Saint Louis,” Dad told me. He didn’t know why Benedikt left Germany. Historically about that time, millions of Europeans left loved ones and jobs because of political oppression and high taxes. They risked the dangerous journey to the United States in search of new opportunities and new freedoms. Deaths aboard sailing ships were common as the result of diseases and accidents during voyages lasting forty-five to sixty days. It is unlikely Benedikt would have traveled on a much more expensive steamship which could cross the ocean in nine to twelve days.
Missouri's RhinelandMany Germans settled in Missouri between St. Louis and Jefferson City. The hills, forests, and streams reminded them of their homeland. The area became known as Missouri’s Rhineland, more suited to growing grapes than general farming, and gained a reputation for winemaking. Missouri was the second largest wine-producing state in the nation before Prohibition. The federal government designated the towns of Augusta and Hermann as America Viticulture Areas in the 1980s for the science, production and study of grapes.
Saint Thomas, a farming community founded in 1857 by men of English ancestry, was made up of predominantly German-Catholic families when Benedikt arrived and has remained that way. The town is about twenty miles south of Jefferson City, surrounded on three sides by the Osage River. The river was an important shipping route for goods between Saint Thomas and St. Louis at the start of the 1900s. Saint Thomas had approximately three hundred residents when Dad was born in 1911 and has a similar number today.
“Benedikt took up farming and in a couple of years married Anna Scheulen Otto.” Dad said. “They had seven children, one of whom was Leo. Leo married Elizabeth Bock and they became my parents.” The German family ties were strong. Elizabeth’s grandparents were born in Germany. Anna’s parents were born in Prussia, although Anna was born in Missouri. Anna’s first husband, Franz Otto, was born in Germany.
Anna and Franz had five children by the time of his death in 1871. Daniel S. Schmidt, in his The Heritage of St. Thomas: Community – City – Parish, writes Franz owned a saloon in Saint Thomas. Benedikt and Anna were married one year after Franz died, when Anna’s children ranged in age from one to six. Benedikt ran the saloon for four years and didn’t like it, so he sold it and returned to farming.
Dad never told me about the saloon or the twelve children Benedikt and Anna had in their combined families.
Next week, Part 3 of 3: The Dairy Farmer Takes a Wife.
Gene A. Groner is a stockbroker in Kansas City, Missouri. Photo courtesy Gene A. Groner.
I'm sure you have an interesting story from your family history. Please share briefly in comments.