Writing Your Family History, Part 3 of 3: Singing to the Cows

St. Thomas the Apostle
Catholic Church, Saint Thomas,
Missouri, circa 1900. It was
destroyed by a tornado in 1948
Guest article by Gene A. Groner

On our drive to Saint Thomas, Missouri Dad talked about growing up as one of six boys and two girls, the one-room Catholic school he and his siblings attended, and the jobs they had on the farm.

“We took care of the farm animals and we made our own sausage. My job was to clean the sausage machine.”

Dad’s family spoke only German at home while the children were required to speak English in school. This was shortly after WWI when Americans still had strong anti-German sentiments. Dad spoke a few phrases of German to me on our way to Saint Thomas, accompanied by I-know-something-you-don’t grins. Sometimes he told me what a phrase meant and sometimes he didn’t. He may not have remembered.

Searching for relatives
The church today.
At the Saint Thomas post office we looked for names and addresses of people named Groner and there were only a few. The postmaster’s name was Clem Groner. His father, Sam Groner, was postmaster two postmasters before Clem. An automobile repair business, Groner’s Garage, was owned and operated by Clem’s brother, Raymond. Today the garage is operated by Raymond’s sons, Jerry and Mike.

Daniel S. Schmidt, in his The Heritage of St. Thomas: Community – City – Parish, writes that Ben Groner (probably a cousin of Dad’s) was an entrepreneur who started two businesses. The first was the Cedar Grove Hatchery in 1925, which at one point raised 10,000 chicks per week. The second was a school-bus operation in 1926. He bought a ten-seat, open-sided van to transport school children. He sold the van in 1927. Ben ran the hatchery until his death in 1934 at age thirty-two. The hatchery closed when no one stepped forward to take over. I’m related to all of these Groners in some way, since my great-grandfather Benedikt was the original Groner in Saint Thomas.

Dad found the name and address of a cousin and we drove to her house. She invited us in and served apple pie and fresh-brewed coffee. She and Dad reminisced for a couple of hours. I didn’t try to remember her name or their conversation. These were Dad’s memories, not mine, and this trip was for him.

The church where Dad was baptized
Our next stop was St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church, rebuilt after a 1948 tornado. The original one-room church was built in 1848 of rough-hewn logs. Larger structures replaced it over the years as membership grew, with construction mostly by local labor using local materials. The church in which Dad and his siblings were baptized and where their family worshipped was built in 1884 at a cost of eight thousand dollars. Distinguishing features included a bell tower above the entrance and stained-glass windows. The 1948 tornado destroyed the parish complex which included the church, school, convent, and rectory, all of which were rebuilt.

We walked around inside and admired the stained-glass windows, which depicted ministries of Jesus Christ. Dad didn’t speak. When we came to the podium he slowly and tenderly ran his hands over the edges and top. His eyes filled with tears.

“Are you okay?” I was surprised, because I had never seen him cry.

“Yeah. Just memories.”

Singing to the cows
We stayed a short while and left for the area where the family farm had been. The farm likely was forty or fifty acres when Dad lived there.

“We raised crops, cattle, hogs, and dairy cows,” Dad said, as we stood in front of the two-story house where his father was born. The house was filled with hay. “I remember we had a steam-powered thrasher to put up hay and wheat. We sometimes had to back the thrasher up a hill when it didn’t have enough power to go forward.”

Years after our trip I learned from Dad’s brother, Cletus—he preferred “Bud”—their mother would set the two of them on a fence where she could keep an eye on them while she milked the cows.

“We sang to the cows while we were on the fence,” Bud said.

The family continued dairying when they moved to Marshall, Missouri where Dad’s parents managed a dairy farm. Dad’s job was to deliver milk to residents. Among his customers were Ada and Henry Spohrer. He fell in love with and married their daughter, Dixie, and she became my mother.

Dad and I spent the night in Saint Thomas and the next day drove to nearby Meta to see another cousin. He collected pieces of iron and iron equipment. When he got a truckload he sold it. I don’t remember what he and Dad talked about; things I couldn’t relate to and I wasn’t trying to remember.

I wish I had paid more attention
We headed for Topeka about midday. Dad didn’t say much on the ride back. At his house he thanked me and hugged me; another surprise.

“This meant a lot to me, Gene. I’ll never forget it.”

As I worked on my ancestry research in the following years, I regret I hadn’t listened more closely and taken notes. I continued to visit Dad several times a year, but we didn’t talk about his family enough to enable me to fill in the blanks. Whatever his memories and feelings, he kept to himself. Most of what I learned, I learned from others.

Gene A. Groner is a stockbroker in Kansas City, Missouri.

Photos: Church circa 1900 courtesy Daniel A. Schmidt. Church today courtesy St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church.

Share a brief story of discovering your family history by leaving your comments or by sending an email.

Writing Your Family History, Part 2 of 3: New Hope in America

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 Ancestors
I 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 Rhineland
Many 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.

Writing Your Family History, Part 1 of 3: Getting Started

Coat of Arms of Jean d'OstFrise
(1506-1572). See caution at left.
Besides being a treasure, the beauty of a written family history is its versatility. It can combine memoir, creative nonfiction, historical research, and genealogy. You decide how much of each, if any, to include. Family history is also a perfect project for those wonderful old photos you’ve been putting off identifying and organizing for your children and grandchildren.

Many people searching their family histories get caught in the excitement of purchasing a family coat of arms. Caution: A true coat of arms is granted to a person, not a family, and is passed to male descendants of the original grantee. If there was a coat of arms for you, you would already have it. Today, only a few countries have official agencies for making authoritative grants. Coats of arms available for purchase on the Internet are generic representations for entertainment purposes and decorative wall hangings.

Family Tree Magazine lists its 101 Best Websites for discovering and sharing your family history.

Kimberly Powell, who writes on genealogy for About.com, has tips on writing your family history and a list of—and comments on—print-on-demand publishing options for your family history book. Here is a summary of her tips:

Choose a Format - Options include photocopied booklet, hard-bound book, newsletter, or website. Contents can be memoir/narrative, scrapbook, album, or family tree.

Define the Scope - This could be a single line of descent, all descendants of . . ., grandparents, or other family groupings such as persons of a particular surname or country.

Set Deadlines You Can Live With - Schedule a writing time and frequency so each stage of your project can be completed in a timely fashion.

Choose a Plot and Themes - These give your family history focus. Immigration/migration, rags to riches, pioneer or farm life, rising of slavery, and war survival are a few to think about.

Do Your Background Research - This makes the reader feel like an eyewitness to your family's life. You could include social and political histories, wars, natural disasters, occupations, fashions, transportation, and foods. Interview relatives for family stories to add a personal touch.

Organize Your Research - Create a timeline for each ancestor you plan to write about. Order your material chronologically, geographically, by character, or by theme.

Choose a Starting Point - Open with something exciting that grabs readers’ attention and draws them in. Review the openings of your favorite fiction books to see how this technique works. Use flashbacks to fill in.

Use Records and Documents - Compelling first-hand accounts can be found in diary entries, will excerpts, military accounts, obituaries and other records. Cite your sources. Use captions and dates for photos.

Make it Personal - Facts are great, but stories and family traditions are what your readers will enjoy and remember most. Stories with more than one perspective add interest and keep readers engaged.

Include an Index and Source Citations - An index makes it much easier for readers to find the portions of your book that detail the people in which they are interested. Source citations provide credibility to your research and leave a trail to verify your findings.

Next week, Part 2: “New Hope in America,” an article by Gene A. Groner showing what a family history might look like using Kimberly Powell’s tips. 

Photo courtesy heraldique-europeenne.org

What have been your experiences with writing your family history? If you have questions, solutions, or tips please send your comments.

Writing Your Family History: A Three-part Series

The Groner brothers, circa 1946.
Left to right: Jack, Gene, Wayne.
Next week, I post the first installment of my three-part series, "Writing Your Family History." Family history can combine memoir, creative nonfiction, historical research, and genealogy. You decide how much of each, if any, to include. Your family history can provide a wealth of information from which to draw memoirs, or it can stand alone as your legacy of record.

June 14 – Part 1: Tips from Kimberly Powell, who writes on genealogy for About.com. Includes a link to publishing options for your family history book and a caution regarding coats of arms.

June 21 – Part 2: Gene Groner tells about taking our father back to Dad’s birthplace in Saint Thomas, Missouri and how the town became a settlement for German emigrants. See how Kimberly Powell’s tips come to life on the page.

June 28 – Part 3: Gene’s story continues, including a brief history of St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church that was rebuilt after a tornado in 1948.

I hope you enjoy the series, recommend it to your friends, and leave your comments.

Photo courtesy Wayne E. Groner.

Tell us about your family history you have written or are working on. Let us know your questions about writing your family history.