Thursday, October 25, 2012


My apologies to those of you who understand German and know what the meaning of the title of this post.  But nothing else seems to fit.

Why, oh why, wasn't the German language kept in my family?!  Why wasn't it spoken in the home throughout the generations so that it could've been spoken while I was growing up?  The only 2 Germans words I ever knew were Gesundheit! and Schnickelfritz!  And I didn't even know that Schnickelfritz wasn't a "real" German word until a German woman I worked with said to me, "Oh Schnookie, that's not a word.  What does it mean?"  So I found myself explaining to this 50ish something German woman what "Schnickelfritz" meant.


The question of the loss of the German language in my family has been something I've asked my parents about, and they actually know the answer.

Dad told me that his grandpa, Anthony Kerkhoff, was a very proud German immigrant and naturalized US citizen.  He did not allow any of his children to speak German and/or Plattdeutsch except when speaking to their grandparents.  And only then, if no one else was around.  There's the family story of Anthony picking up his 2 eldest children, Frank and Florence, after they spent a weekend with their grandparents (I don't know if this would've been Casper and Lisette Kerkhoff or Joseph and Elisabeth Vodde).  As they were on the trolley car home, Uncle Frank saw something and pointed it out to his father.  Because Frank had been speaking German all weekend, he said it in German.  Anthony, who emigrated from Haselünne with his family when he was 14, immediately reprimanded his son and said, "We're American!  We speak English!"

I love that passion of his.  I admire it.  I love that he committed himself fully to his new country.  He became a US citizen just 2 weeks after his 21st birthday.

Anthony Kerkhoff's Second Set of Naturalization Papers.  The first set was lost in the burning of courthouse in Cincinnati in March, 1884.

But as proud as he was to be an American, he was also proud of his hometown.  Haselünne is the one town's name that has been handed down through my Kerkhoff generations.  My dad was told by his dad who was told by his dad (Anthony) where we come from.  And my Grandpa Joe's middle name, Vincent, is taken from the Catholic church in that town.

Anthony lived the American dream.  He worked hard, he learned a trade (he was a machinist), owned his own business a couple of times (as a matter of fact, he went bankrupt in 1899), and then finished out his life working as the foreman for a large and well known machine shop, John H. McGowan Pump Co.  I assume that if he was the foreman of such a well respected machinist business (upright drills) after his company went bankrupt, he was still highly respected and trusted.

Then there's my great grandmother, Amelia Heger Meyer, born in Covington, KY.  This one is a bit fuzzy, but I think it gives a good window into my ancestors' views on language.  Dad told me that his grandma left St. Aloysius Catholic church in Covington because she had a "disagreement" with the priest over English vs. German being spoken.  Dad wasn't sure of the details except that Grandma Millie marched herself up to the priest to voice her opposition to German being spoken (we don't know if this referred to homilies, the school, etc.).  The priest at the time apparently told her that St. Al's was a German parish.  And she said, "We're American!"

St. Aloysius

From the sacramental records, I know that Millie packed up her little family and left St. Al's between 1895 and 1897.  My Grandma Ada Meyer was baptized at St. Patrick's in Covington, KY, and went to that church throughout her childhood.  She and Grandpa Joe Kerkhoff were married there in 1919.  I can't tell you how funny it is to look through St. Patrick's sacramental records and see things for Bridget O'Shaughnessy and Patrick Kelly (I'm kind of making these up, but you get the idea).  Then I came across my grandma's First Communion class.  All of these Irish names and then I read "ADA MEYER."  Couldn't they have at least written it as "Ada O'Meyer?"  LOL!

But I guess that Millie had her opinions and wouldn't budge.  And that brings a smile to my face.

My mom's maternal grandpa, Gerhard Henry Geisen (the son of 2 emigrants from Klüsserath), was bilingual.  I don't know how well his parents spoke English (if they spoke it at all), but Grandpa Gerhard was fluent in both languages.  He owned some butcher shops in Covington and also owned rental properties throughout the city.  He easily went between the languages depending upon the needs of his customer(s).  His wife, my great grandma Maggie Pistner Geisen, was also the daughter of German immigrants, but I don't know how fluent she was in German.  I assume she was, but I don't have stories to back that up.  I also don't know how fluent their daughter, my Grandma Elsie, was.  Did Grandma speak German at all?  If she did, I never heard it.  However, I do know that her brother, Bill Geisen, was bilingual.  He was the successor to the butcher business, so I'm sure he also had to speak to the German immigrants who came into the shop.

Gerhard Henry Geisen

However, the buildup to WWI changed all that.  There was, unfortunately, a strong anti German feeling among Americans during this time.  And Uncle Bill finally told his dad that they couldn't speak German anymore.  Not to their clients and not privately.  So they stopped.

I admire them for their commitment to their country.  I love that they were so passionate in their love for their country.  But as someone living in the 21st century, I am so sad that the language was lost.  I am struggling with trying to learn even a little bit of the German language.  This 46 year old brain just is not getting it.  But I'll keep plugging away.  If my immigrants can struggle to learn some English, I can struggle to learn some German.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

After all, what could these women have told me?

When I was little and not so little, I didn't give a thought to my extended family members.  Not that I didn't love them.  I did.  I enjoyed seeing them.  But I didn't think about them.  I didn't wonder about them or their lives.  I mean, how interesting could they be?  They were old.  What an idiot I was.

Aunt Mayme and Aunt Dada were my grandma's two oldest sisters and the two eldest Geisen children.

Aunt Mayme and Aunt Dada, probably around 1890

I remember both of them very well since Aunt Mayme lived to be 97 years old and Aunt Dada was 103, and they were both "with it" until the day they died.

Aunt Dada (Charlotte Geisen)

Uncle "Zazzee" and Aunt Mayme, 1910

The sisters would be at every family event (the Geisens always loved a party), and I remember visiting Mayme and Dada at their home in Covington.  They became roommates after Mayme's husband, Uncle "Zazzee" (Harry Hunninghake) died in 1965.

Uncle "Zazzee" and Aunt Mayme at their niece Janet Purcell's wedding

Neither sister had any children (Dada never married), so they relied on each other and their other siblings.  All the Geisens were very close, but these 2 sisters especially so.

I remember being extremely bored when we "had" to visit these 2 ladies.  I certainly had better things to do, didn't I?  I wasn't bored because they ignored me.  They'd "make" over me, get me treats, try to talk to me, etc., but I couldn't wait to leave.  And those feelings multiplied when they went to live in the rest home.  I hated visiting that place.  But Mom would take us, and Aunt Mayme and Aunt Dada seemed to enjoy seeing us.

I'm ashamed now at how I must have acted toward them.  I wasn't a brat or nasty.  I was simply indifferent.  I never asked them questions about their lives or what interested them.  It never occurred to me to do that.  I never viewed them as "real" people with priceless knowledge and experience that they could've shared with me.  If only I had asked.

Once I began researching my tree, I kept coming back to these two women.  I started asking Mom questions about her aunts.  Because I realized that these ladies, especially Aunt Mayme, KNEW a lot of the personalities I was beginning to obsess over.

Aunt Mayme was held in the arms of our Union spy grandmother, Charlotte Brand Pistner.  They both knew their grandpa, Adam Pistner.  Oma Maria Susanna Schmitz Geisen would've held them, laughed with them, given them treats.  They even would've known and REMEMBERED their great grandfather, Johan Jodoc Schmitz, from Klüsserath.  They knew what his voice sounded like.  What his laugh was like.  Did they know why their great uncle, Jacob Schmitz, was only left $1 in his father's will when all the other Schmitz children were left equal share of the "estate?"

And all I would've had to do was ask.  Just ask them about their childhoods and their family.  Give them a drink or two, and they would've sung like canaries.

I had no idea that Aunt Dada had been engaged to a man who was killed in Europe in WWI.  She never fell in love again.  I just thought she was a "spinster."  It never occurred to me that this "old woman" was once young and in love.  Now I think of her in that moment when she found out that the love of her life had lost his in a foreign land.

I never thought to ask Mom if she knew why Aunt Mayme never had children.  And then during my research, I found out that Aunt Mayme had survived an ectopic pregnancy early in her marriage.  That, in and of itself, was an amazing thing.  Since Mayme and Zazzee couldn't have children of their own, they doted on all of their nieces and nephews (my mother included).  But according to Mom, her eldest brother was probably their favorite.  He was their first nephew, and they adored him.

With their first nephew, Brant Purcell

I still can't believe that I missed the many opportunities I had to get to know these women.  When I find "new" Geisens or Pistners and realize that Mayme and Dada would've known them, I could just kick myself.  They were my link to these previous generations, and I blew it.

But they weren't just my link.  They were amazing ladies!  Two more examples of strong women in my family tree.  And I completely ignored them.

If you're blessed enough to still know your grandparents, great grandparents, aunts, uncles, great aunts, great uncles, etc., please do me a favor.  ASK THEM QUESTIONS ABOUT THEIR CHILDHOODS!  Ask them about their grandparents, aunts, and uncles.  What were they like?  What made them laugh?  Were they stern?  What stories did they tell?

Because one day, they won't be there to ask.  You can never go back.  Please learn from my painful lesson.

Monday, October 8, 2012

There are times when I think I'm pretty good at this genealogy thing

I've already written about one family story that Dad told me about as I began my genealogy quest a couple of years ago (The Immigration Story That Wasn't).  That one turned out to be a huge fabrication, so I assumed that the other story, an even bigger tale, was untrue.  Even before I discovered our Kerkhoffs' real immigration information, I came to the conclusion that the Frederick Meyer death story was outlandish.

As far as I know, Dad never told me anything about his maternal grandfather.  I don't think I had ever heard his name.  However, once I started asking questions, Dad was more than happy to tell me all about the story of his grandfather and his grandfather's death.

The Meyer family had moved to Chicago because my great grandfather had gotten a job working for his brother's company.  I was told that Fred Meyer fell off a train and then "lingered" for a while.  His family (siblings) wouldn't allow a doctor to be called because they belonged to a "weird religion" (my grandmother's words) and didn't believe in doctors and/or medicine.  He was "talking out of his mind" after his injury.  Finally, Amelia (Fred's wife and my great grandmother) was able to sneak out of the house and get a doctor.  According to the family story, my great grandfather died on the operating table.  As if that weren't enough, his brother wanted to adopt Grandma Ada.  He and his wife didn't want to adopt Grandma's 2 brothers or her baby sister.  Just Grandma.  I was told that Grandma got very upset, Amelia was having none of that nonsense from her husband's family, and she took her 4 kids and immediately moved back to Covington.

Fred Meyer and Amelia Heger Meyer, 1893

                                               Al, Ada, and Walter Meyer--Not in the photo, Nona Meyer

Where to start?  I knew his name, and I knew that he died between 1902 (when his youngest child was born) and 1910 (when Amelia was listed as a widow on the US Census).  I first tried to look for Cook County death certificates for a "Frederick Meyer" who was killed by or on a train.  Honestly, how many Fred Meyers could've been killed by trains in Chicago during those years?  As it turns out, at least 2 others were killed that way.  Moral of the story?  Don't go near a train or its tracks if your name is Fred Meyer.  However, my great grandfather's death certificate was not one of the ones I found.

I also looked at cemetery records, newspaper obituaries, and the Chicago city directory.  And I was getting more and more frustrated.  I was used to looking for uncommon names like "Kerkhoff" and "Vodde."  Fred Meyer was kicking my butt.

I put this particular branch "away."  But then, I would come back to it and get frustrated again.  The brick wall was overwhelming, and I couldn't figure out how to scale it.

And then I flew with my friend Cindy.  She has been doing this genealogy thing for decades and is a master.  She asked me what brick wall I was up against, and I told her the tale of Frederick Meyer.  She asked me some questions (where did my great grandparents meet, get married, where did Amelia's family live, etc.) and then told me, "Oh, they'd have an article about his death in the Covington paper."  EUREKA!  That made perfect sense and hadn't occurred to me.  I was focusing and obsessing on the Chicago connection, but I had completely ignored the Covington aspect of it.

We also had a SLC layover (the reason why we had both bid the trip) and immediately headed over to the genealogy library when we got to the hotel.  My dad had mentioned Covington's St. Aloysius Catholic church many times to me, so I decided to pull that microfilm and see if I came across anything.

St. Aloysius Catholic Church

Looking at Catholic sacramental records on microfilm can be quite a task.  They're normally organized into Baptisms, Marriages, and Deaths for a specific time frame.  And then you scroll into Baptisms, Marriages, and Deaths for another specific time frame.  For me, my eyes start to glaze over as I slowly look at microfilm.  One record leads to another and another and another.  You get the idea.  Especially if you don't have a specific document that you're looking for.  And I was just looking for any name that was familiar (Meyer or Heger).

I thought I was still looking at Marriage documents when I stumbled across a document for Frederick Meyer.  I saw his father's name, too (John Meyer--He's been another stumbling block for me).  But I didn't see my great grandmother's name.  I saw another woman's name!  Had Fred Meyer been married before he married Amelia??  What was going on?  I was trying to focus on the document, but I couldn't seem to make heads nor tails of it.

I walked over to Cindy and asked her for a new set of eyes.  I'm sure she thought I was nuts since she knew exactly what it was as soon as she looked at it.  It was his Baptismal record.  Amelia made him convert before she married him!  Yep, that sounds like a woman in my family. :)  However, it had a notation which stated that this was a conditional baptism.  Apparently, he couldn't provide proof of his baptism or didn't know if he had been baptized.

Conditional Baptism

I also found their sacramental marriage record.  They got married the day after his conversion to the Catholic church.  I have to chuckle at my great grandmother's "strong arm."

The HUGE piece of info on this fabulous Catholic document was the name "Catherine Seip."  I now knew the name of my great, great grandmother!

It's amazing how one "little" piece of information can knock down a huge chunk of that brick wall.  Armed with this new name, I found three of Frederick Meyer's siblings on  I found Cook County death certificates for two brothers and a sister.  SCORE!  I also found the 1880 US Census that told me that my great grandfather lived with his sister, Anna Mary Meyer Eisengart, and her husband, William Eisengart.  And the Covington city directory listed my great grandfather as a tinner.  And wouldn't you know, Mr. Eisengart was also a tinner.

I started to put 2 and 2 together.  Perhaps Grandpa Fred didn't work for his brother but actually worked for his brother-in-law.  That made sense.

During this part of my investigation, I followed up on Cindy's idea that there would be a mention of his death in a Covington newspaper.  The Kenton Co. library's genealogy department is fabulous.  And they came through for me again with an online newspaper headline index.

Kenton County Newspaper Headline Index

I typed in my great grandfather's name and found this:


31 December 1903
Page 5

Fred Meyer Fell From an Elevated Railroad in Chicago.

"Injuries sustained Nov. 13 by falling from an elevated railroad car, in Chicago, caused the death of Fred Meyer, formerly of Covington, in that city Wednesday.  The news of his death was received by President Robert Welling , of the Riedlin Club, Wednesday night.  Meyer fell a distance of 30 feet, breaking both legs and injuring his head.  He was formerly engaged in business at 915 Main Street, Covington, and was well known.  He was a member of the William Riedlin Club.  The remains will be buried in Chicago."

Updated to add:  I found an article in a Chicago paper about his accident.

14 Nov 1903, Page 2

Once again, I used Google and looked for information on his siblings.  And I wasn't prepared for what I found.


His sister, Anna Mary, was a deaconess in a religion called the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church.  Using Google, I quickly discovered that this was the religion my Grandma Ada told her kids about.  In the early 1900's, this religion's leaders and followers didn't believe in the use of medicine or doctors.  Another piece of the puzzle was in place.  Online, I read as much as I could about this religion and its founder, John Alexander Dowie.  BTW, this religion has nothing to do with the Catholic faith.

Wikipedia--Christian Catholic Apostolic Church

Wikipedia--John Alexander Dowie

After reading numerous things about this religion and its founder, I could only imagine what my great grandmother must have gone through.  She was raised Catholic in a very Catholic city, and the closest "weird religion" she must have come into contact with was if she met a Lutheran (her husband). :)

She left her extended family behind to take her four children up to Chicago with her husband so he could take a job with his brother-in-law.  I assume she must have been terribly homesick.  I know that Aunt Nona was born in Covington in late 1902, and Grandpa had his accident in November, 1903.  So they weren't in Chicago for an extended period of time.  The only family she had in Chicago was her Meyer in-laws.

From what I've heard, Grandma Millie (Amelia) was a devout Catholic.  I can't imagine what she went through after her husband's accident.  She had four small children up in a city she wasn't familiar with, and her sister-in-law (if not others) was, according to the family story, keeping a medical doctor away from her husband.  If I were her, I wouldn't be comfortable leaving my children with these people so that I could go and try to find a doctor in a city I didn't know.  I also assume that she was not allowed to bring a Catholic priest to him so that he could receive the Sacrament of the Sick.  As a Catholic, my great grandfather was entitled to that and should have received it.  I get pretty angry as I think of the pain my great grandmother must have gone through during this.  I get pretty angry as I think of a priest being kept away from him (I don't have proof that this happened, but I think it's a logical assumption).  BTW, I made sure that he hadn't converted to his sister's religion.  I e-mailed someone at the current church and asked if they could find any record of his conversion.  The nice woman replied and told me that the only record they had was for Maria Anna Eisengart's conversion.

Did Amelia's family finally get up to Chicago to help?  Remember, this was November and December in Chicago.  Weather was probably crappy.  And her parents and/or siblings would have had to travel through that.

Ultimately, did she sneak out (as the family story says she did) and get a doctor?  Did one of her family members find one?  I don't know.

 I do have a copy of the coroner's inquest of his death.  My great grandmother was one of the witnesses.  Imagine having to give a statement concerning your husband's death while you and your four children are grieving.  Another logical assumption, I believe, is that she must have been one hell of a woman.

I had solved almost the entire mystery concerning his death.  I knew the circumstances, the date, the place, the religion, etc.  But where was he buried?  That missing detail seemed to bother my dad.  He didn't know where his grandfather was.  I felt a need to solve this last mystery for him.

The task seemed daunting.  Do you have any idea how many cemeteries there are in Chicago?  Do you have any idea how common the name "Frederick Meyer" is?  I grabbed another beer and started googling again.  Logically, I tried to figure out where he would have been buried.  I remembered that I had read that Mr. Dowie had bought a town in Illinois named "Zion."  Would his sister have buried him there?  It was worth a shot.

Zion, IL

Mt. Olivet Cemetery--Zion, IL

Was this "my" Frederick Meyer?  The date seemed to match with his death in late December, 1903.

Frederick Meyer Burial Information

There was only one way to find out.  I e-mailed the cemetery, gave them as much information as I had (each cemetery is different regarding what type of information they keep on the deceased) and hit "Send."  A few days later, I had another fabulous cemetery worker to add to my "Favorites" list.  She responded and told me that she had no information on Frederick Meyer except that his plot was bought by "W. L. Eisengart."

I had found him.  My dad now knew where his grandpa was buried.  This may seem like a small thing, but for me, it was huge.  To give this gift of knowledge to my dad is one of the reasons I'm addicted to genealogy.

Dad asked me if his grandpa had a tombstone, and if so, what it said.  I e-mailed the cemetery worker and asked her.  She was darling and responded that he did have a marker, but she didn't know what it had engraved on it.  However, she told me that she'd send the groundskeeper out to take a photo of it.  She sent it to me the next day.

If any cemetery worker is reading this, please accept my thanks for your dedication and love for your job.  Your enthusiasm and dedication are incredibly appreciated.  I wouldn't have nearly the information I have for my ancestors if not for you.

Amelia Heger Meyer immediately moved back to Northern Kentucky after her husband died (she's listed in the 1904 Newport city directory) and raised her family.  She suffered further heartbreak.  Her young son, Walter, died in 1911 at the age of 12.

Her father died in 1912, and her mom died in 1921.

Henry Heger, immigrant from Ahaus, Germany

Henry Heger and Theresa Kühr Heger

And then, Fred and Amelia's eldest child and son, Al, died a the age of 33.

Al Meyer and Ada Meyer Kerkhoff on the left

Uncle Al Meyer, not too long before his death

Dad loved and loves his Grandma Millie very much.  He describes her as a "grandma's grandma."  She suffered much in her life, but it didn't beat her.

Amelia Heger Meyer with 3 of her grandkids (Rosemary, Ed, and Joanne Kerkhoff)