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Once upon a time, growing up in Philadelphia, I enjoyed playing in the snow.

Building a snowman, circa winter of 1970-71

Building a snowman, circa winter of 1970-71

Brother Drew, Lou C the cat, Shona, & Donna

Winter of 1976-77. Left: Donna and friend Shona Ferguson. Right: Brother Drew, Lou C the cat, Shona, & Donna in my backyard

Sledding, circa 1978

Sledding, circa 1977. The hill became the parking garage for Frankford Hospital.

Then, I grew up.  As a grown-up, snow became rather unpleasant for two reasons.  First, I had to shovel it.  Since being cold and physical exertion don’t fall anywhere on my top 100 list of desirable things to do, you can only imagine how much I enjoy that activity.  Second, I had to drive to work in it. To educate all of the snow-lovers out there that think I’m a wimp because of that statement, the street I lived on in Philadelphia never saw a snow plow until I was in my 30’s.  Places north of us that routinely get twelve feet of snow have efficient procedures in place for its removal.  My city did not.  The main roads are plowed and salted, of course, but the “secondary” roads were not.  My parents’ street must have been a “tertiary” street, because it was left behind even when the city got around to the secondary streets (I am happy to say this has since been corrected since the late 1990’s).  As a result, once a significant snowfall occurred, our street would become a sheet of ice.  My past experience navigating a vehicle in these conditions would qualify me to drive a zamboni®.  To drive to snowless roads, one had a choice between going around a curve and up a hill, going down a steep, icy hill, or maneuvering a bit out of the way on icy but flat streets.  The latter route became my favorite – and at times I considered parking my car on the clean street and walking the 3-4 blocks to my house.

After extreme-shoveling and driving on ice, snow lost any appeal it may have once had in my youth.  Even though Philadelphia does not usually get much snow during winter, we have had our incidents.  The most famous of all was the Blizzard of 1996 which took place from January 6-8.  Although the blizzard hit most of the East Coast, Philadelphia had the distinction of receiving more snow than anywhere else.  The offical snowfall total was 30.7 inches, and of that, 27.6 inches fell in a 24-hour period – a new record.

My parents' backyard after the Blizzard of '96.  Compare to the Winter 1976-77 photos above - it is the same fence.

My parents' backyard after the Blizzard of '96. Compare to the Winter 1976-77 photos above - it is the same fence.

With that much snow, the city had difficulty plowing even the main roads – there was no hope for neighborhood streets.  There was simply nowhere to put all of the snow, so they dumped it into the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers, which later caused flooding problems.  The main concern for my family was how to eventually drive off of the street.  In fact, my mother and I were scheduled to go to Florida the following week – the only time we’ve ever traveled anywhere together.  We were convinced we’d still be snowed in by then.  But, fortunately, a miraculous pick-up truck with a plow attached came down our street.  We still had to shovel about five feet of the street to get to that lane, but it was better than all of it!

Besides the occasional 2-3 feet of snow, even more spectacular was the Ice Storms that occurred frequently during the winter of 1993-94.  At this time (as well as the Blizzard of ’96), I had a 22-mile commute to work down I-95, a road that can be deadly even on sunny and dry days thanks to Philadelphia drivers (and this was before everyone had a cell phone stuck to their face).  Pretty?  Yes!  Fun?  You’ve got to be kidding.

As for winter sports, I skied.  Once.  The best part about it was coming in from the cold to a warm place and having something hot to drink.  It’s just not for me, probably because my body is colder than average and it is just uncomfortable to be below sixty degrees.

This is the story of my discontent of winter.  Why do I live in Philadelphia?  I ask myself that question often.  It’s home.  It may not be forever, but for now it’s home.  The “fun” part of winter got left behind with my childhood, never to return.  Well, maybe it will return some day…if I get to spend winter somewhere warm.  The photo below was taken in December, and I was  finally content during winter!

Bellows Air Force Station, Hawaii, December 2002

Bellows Air Force Station, Hawaii, December 2002

[Written for the 64th Edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: A Winter Photo Essay.]

Essay title is a play on Shakespeare’s famous line from Richard III, “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York” (also used as a novel title by John Steinbeck.)

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Geography Awareness Week (November 16-22, 2008) is drawing to a close.  I was delighted to learn about it from Lisa, who had several posts at 100 Years in America related to her ancestors’ countries.  Inspired, Jessica also took up the cause and made us all more aware of our own geographical incompetence!  Their posts made me realize how much I enjoy geography.  As a traveler, I love to pour over maps and figure out where I want to go, or even to figure out where I was (maps were useless in Venice, so I was only able to see where we were in retrospect).  Fortunately, I inherited my sense of direction from my father; my mother actually got lost five blocks from our house when I was a child – I thought for sure we’d never make it home.  As citizens of this earth, it’s fun to learn about all of the wonders of it.  But as genealogists, it’s absolutely vital to develop a sense of historical geographical awareness.  By this I mean a knowledge of a place’s name or boundary changes throughout its history.  Without this knowledge, we might never actually find our ancestors!

This sense of historical geography awareness, which Lisa so eloquently called going back in time, helps us track the genealogy of a place.  I’ve noted many times on this blog how important it was to learn about Polish history in order to accurately determine where to obtain vital records for my ancestors, for Poland was ruled by the Russian Empire, Prussia or the German Empire, and Austria for over a century.  Parts of the country belonged to other countries as well as Poland expanded, shrunk, or disappeared altogether. Researchers who find evidence that their ancestor was born in Danzig, Prussia, need to know that the town today is Gdańsk, Poland.

Most European countries have had similar boundary changes in their histories as well.  Why, I was delighted when a commenter informed me that the origins of my Bergmeister family may be found in Bozen.  Bozen is a town in an area known as Südtirol, once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and/or Austria.  But I knew the town by its current name, Bolzano, which has been Italian since the end of World War I.  I finally found my Italian roots!  Who knew?

It’s important to remember that not only countries shift borders or change names, but also states and towns.  For example, the city of Philadelphia did not have its current borders until 1854; the original city limits were much smaller, and the city expanded over time.  Learning these changes throughout the years in which your ancestor lived there is a must, because you won’t know where to look for records.  Simply looking at a map is a must – if you can’t find an ancestor in a census but the state line is only five miles from where they lived, perhaps you should try the neighboring state!

I gained a greater sense of historical geography awareness in researching my Pater family.  When my 2nd great-grandfather Joseph Pater arrived in the U.S. from Poland, he went to Philadelphia.  When I found the passenger arrival records for his wife and daughters, I was surprised to see that they listed their destination as joining Joseph in “Eden, PA”.  Uh, where?  I couldn’t find a town called Eden nearby, and I had never heard of it.  I would have discounted the find entirely based on this, but the names and ages were a perfect fit.  With a little investigation into the geography of my corner of Pennsylvania, I discovered that the Borough of Eden had existed only for a few years before the name was changed to Penndel, a town I knew.  The Pater’s lived there for at least eight years, likely working in the local textile mill, before moving back into the nearby city of Philadelphia.  So remember, kids, learn your geography if you want help with your genealogy!

I’d like to close with a question to my readers: when recording your ancestral information, whether you use computer programs or just on paper, do you record the town/state or province/country as it exists today, or as it existed at the time of the event?  Do I record my great-grandparents’ birth country as Germany, but their ancestors birth country as The Kingdom of Bavaria – even though it’s the same town?  Do I record my Polish ancestors’ life events as taking place in the Russian Empire, or in Poland – even if it didn’t officially exist?  I’m curious how others deal with changing names or boundaries, so please let me know in the comments!

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Poster designed by footnoteMaven!

Poster designed by footnoteMaven!

During the month of October, which was Polish-American Heritage Month, I presented a challenge to all genea-bloggers, regardless of their ancestry, to learn more about the history and culture of Poland and write about it on their blogs.  I’m happy to say that a few folks did just that!  The following bloggers participated in this challenge:

Alwierz at the Polish-American Genealogy Research Blog writes about Polish genealogy every day!  But specifically for this challenge, Al turned his focus on the histories of his ancestors’ hometowns in Poland.  Al says, “I’ve researched and attempted to translate the histories of the area and parishes within the Kujawy area of Poland, specifically within Powiat Aleksandrow. Polish history is very rich and proud, so I had tried to translate these histories with the utmost respect. I had used two online translation tools, Google Translator and Poltran, along with my Polish – English English – Polish (Langenscheidt’s Pocket Dictionary). Any errors with any of the translations are my fault and will be corrected as they are pointed out.”  His articles for this challenge are:

This was a fascinating look at the Kujawy area in Poland.  Thanks, Al!

Jasia at Creative Gene also wrote a series of posts.  Her series focused on the crafts of Poland.  The slide shows and photographs in Jasia’s posts are beautiful, and really show the best of Polish art.  Her series about her Polish art collections are:

Aren’t they beautiful?  Thanks, Jasia!

Next, Sheri Fenley, The Educated Genealogist, learned how to polka.  Well, she tried to learn how to Polka!  Who knew it would be so hard?  Disappointed, but still wanting to participate in the challenge, Sheri instead offers a wonderful look at the polka in The Problem with Polka!  A-one, and a-two, and a dziękuję to Sheri!

Lisa, at 100 Years in America, writes about the connections and friendship between Poland and Hungary in Two Good Friends: The Pole and the Hungarian.  What a beautiful proverb!  Thanks for participating, Lisa, and for your friendship!

The footnoteMaven has presented us with the fascinating life story of a little-known Pole who was quite famous in her day.  Read all about Madame Helena Modjeska in Today I am an Honorary Pole! We’re grateful for this glimpse into her life, and you’re welcome to be an honorary Pole any day.  In fact, in appreciation you shall be called footnoteMavenska for today!  Thanks so much.

Finally, I offered a hodge-podge of various posts here at What’s Past is Prologue as follows:

I hope my readers enjoyed this challenge and the wonderful posts from those that participated.  Thanks to all!  Or rather, to say it in Polish, dziękuję!

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In our continuing celebration of Polish-American Heritage Month, What’s Past is Prologue is delighted to highlight one of the best sites on the internet devoted to Polish genealogy – PolandGenWeb.  I’ve invited PolandGenWeb’s coordinator, Marie Dallas, to tell us more about the site and what researchers can find there.  Marie and I have known each other for quite some time now, and unlike some other “virtual” friends I’ve made on the internet, we are actually “real live” friends that went to college together.  In fact, we started on our Polish genealogy quest together about twenty years ago!  We still haven’t discovered if we’re related or not, but we’re working on it!  I am also a PolandGenWeb province host for two provinces, though I admit I don’t spend as much time as I should to update those sites (both will be updated by the end of the year).  My name is also listed on the site as “creative consultant” but I really can’t take any credit for all that you’ll see there – it’s all Marie’s talents that have put it together.  Marie, on the other hand, spends most of her time keeping the main PolandGenWeb site up-to-date by providing relevant and useful information to family researchers, especially beginners.  I don’t know how she finds the time, because she does all of this for free while running a household with a husband, three beautiful children, and several pets!

Can you describe PolandGenWeb – what’s its purpose?

PolandGenWeb is part of the WorldGenWeb Project, a non-profit organization devoted to providing free genealogical information and resources. The site is intended to help genealogical researchers uncover their Polish ancestry by providing research guidance, maps (historic and present day), town locators and town lists, translation aids, archives addresses, and much more. In addition, each Polish province has its own website devoted to researching one’s ancestors specifically within those boundaries and can be accessed from the PolandGenWeb home page. The site is free to access and run by volunteer effort. Over the past 10 years, it’s grown tremendously in content.

What are some of the good resources we can find there? Do you have anything no other site has?

One of the better resources of PolandGenWeb, I think, is the Basics of Research page. It covers “newbie” information, such as how to effectively begin one’s research and what resources can be used to find the information one is looking for. Another good resource is the Poland Catholic Records Microfilms set of pages. Peter Gwozdz maintains the content and has provided very detailed information on how to work with the parish and civil records microfilmed by the LDS. I’m very grateful for his contribution to PolandGenWeb.

And of course, there’s Rafał’s Polish Surname List. This unique resource is an alphabetical list of surnames submitted by those researching ancestors of Polish ethnicity or those who lived in Poland (occupied territories or present-day boundaries). Each entry includes an email address to contact the submitter and most include the town or region where the submitter’s ancestors were from. At present, there are over 37,000 entries.

Tell me about the “Records Transcription Project” – it looks like you have quite a collection! What’s on your site? Is it hard for others to contribute?

The Records Transcription Project is the highlight of PolandGenWeb.  All of the content housed on the site is contributed by volunteers, and the majority of transcribed records are births/baptisms, marriages, and deaths from parish or civil records microfilmed by the LDS. There are a couple of sets of records whose content was taken directly from the parish registers in Poland and has not yet been microfilmed by the LDS. While the project does include resources outside of Poland, such as ethnic Polish cemeteries in other countries, the focus is on providing data from Poland (both historical and present-day areas).

In addition to the vital records, PolandGenWeb has a growing collection of transcribed cemetery inscriptions and War Memorials.  Debbie Greenlee is spearheading the effort to encourage folks who either live in or visit Poland to transcribe the names found on memorials erected to commemorate those town residents who were killed during war time – particularly those who were killed during WW2. Most are not soldiers’ memorials but memorials to murdered civilians.

It’s relatively easy for anyone willing contribute to the project.  If one rents a microfilm containing parish or civil records in Poland, instead of extracting the information from only the records for one’s ancestors, one can can extract additional information for the Transcription project. If one is visiting Poland, one can photograph and/or transcribe the names found on tombstones and war memorials in the places they visit. More details on how to contribute to the transcription project can be found here.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Thanks, Marie!  I hope others find PolandGenWeb as useful as I do.  Take a look at all the site has to offer, especially if you are just beginning your research.  Once you’re an experienced researcher, give back by contributing to one of the transcription projects.

[Written for the Polish History & Culture Challenge.]

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Poster designed by footnoteMaven!

Poster designed by footnoteMaven!

October is Polish-American Heritage Month!  In honor of this national celebration, What’s Past is Prologue is hosting the Polish History and Culture Challenge.  If you have Polish ancestry, it’s a great time to learn more about those ancestors and their lives.  But, even if you do not have any Polish blood, I invite you to take the opportunity to learn more about the country, its long history, and its people.

What’s involved with the “challenge”?  Simply do one, some, or all of the following “tasks” – or similar ones of your own invention.  Then, write about it on your blog.  Email me the link and I’ll post a round-up at the end of the month to see how much we all learned.  The best part is that you don’t have to have Polish ancestry to participate!  Become an honorary Pole by joining in on the fun!

Here are some ideas on how to celebrate Polish-American Heritage Month and participate in the challenge:

Genealogy

  • Find a Polish ancestor’s hometown
  • Decipher a Polish record
  • Write about one of your ancestor’s hometowns
  • Write a biography of one of your Polish ancestors
  • Develop a research plan for a hard-to-find ancestor
  • Join a Polish genealogical society
  • Contribute to a Polish genealogical record indexing project

History

  • Read a book about Poland or its history and tell us about it
  • Research an event in Polish history
  • Write about a Polish historical figure
  • Write about a famous Pole in the arts or sciences
  • Learn about Poland’s history through maps or photographs

Culture

  • Experiment with Polish food – make a recipe or try a restaurant
  • Read a novel by a Polish author or one set in Poland
  • Write about a famous Pole that you admire
  • Watch a Polish film
  • Learn how to Polka
  • Learn about some Polish customs or folklore

The possibilities are endless, but hopefully at least one of these ideas will be interesting to you.  I hope you will join me in celebrating Polish-American Heritage Month.  If you would like to participate in the challenge, email me with the title, subject, and URL of your post at djpoint at gmail dot com.  You can either send me emails as you post, or one at the end of the month if you post on multiple subjects!  All of the posts will be published in a round-up during the first week of November. Dziękuję!

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This week I visited the local hospital when my father went to the ER (it’s okay, he’s fine now!).  It seems as though I visit there about once a year for one parent or the other, except I’ve been there three times since Christmas and once was for myself!  Fortunately, it’s very close to my parents’ house.  As I walked towards the entrance to the ER, I noticed the old building that is seemingly out of place with the rest of the hospital.  Ever since then I can’t stop thinking about the history that is all around us – history which we are often unaware.

The neighborhood in which I grew up, the section of Philadelphia called the Far Northeast, was not developed until the 1950s and 60s, but it has a rich history that goes far beyond the current housing developments and shopping centers.  It’s unfortunate that we never learned about this local history in school, like why so many things had “Indian” names or why streets had funny names or who the people were whose names were on the public schools.  Even though my ancestors are not connected to that corner of Philadelphia, I am, and I’m fascinated by what was there before me.

My parents bought their brand new house in 1961; I arrived six years later.  Frankford Hospital’s Torresdale Division was built when I was a child.  I don’t recall what the corner looked like before then, but I remember sledding on a hill that is now a parking garage needed as the hospital expanded.  But two remnants of the entire area’s past remain standing on the hospital’s grounds: the old house and a chapel.  Both belonged to the Drexel family.

The grounds were purchased in 1870 as a summer home for Francis A. Drexel, his wife, and three young daughters.  The Drexel’s were very wealthy; Francis’ father, an immigrant from Austria, made a fortune in the banking industry.  The family lived in the city on Locust Street, but packed up for the summer to escape the city heat and spend time in “the country”.  This farmland area had only been incorporated into the city of Philadelphia in 1854; prior to that, the land consisted of small villages whose names are known today as neighborhood’s names.  In 1870 when the Drexel family first came to their summer home, the area, though officially part of the city, was country-like with a lot of open space, trees, creeks, hills, farms, and very few homes.  This whole Torresdale area of the city would remain mostly “open space” until the 1950s.

The Drexel family name is remembered today for two main reasons:  Francis’ brother Anthony founded Drexel University in Philadelphia, and Francis’ daughter Katherine is a saint.  Katherine’s story is admirable no matter what religion you believe in.  In today’s language, we’d say she “had it all” because of her family’s wealth.  But she gave up all of the worldly things she could have had for a much worthier cause.

Katherine’s mother, Hannah, died only weeks after giving birth to her.  When Francis re-married to Emma Bouvier (a relative of Jackie Kennedy), Emma became step-mother to Katherine and her sister Elizabeth.  Francis and Emma had a third daughter together, Louise.

When Katherine was a young woman, the family vacationed out west.  She was appalled at the poverty endured by Native Americans.  Likewise, she saw much suffering and poverty among African-Americans in the south.  Many “rich” women like Katherine would have simply donated large sums of money to help these poor people.  But Katherine wanted to do more; she wanted to serve these people.  At the age of 33, she decided to become a nun.  She would go on to found a religious order of sisters called the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, whose mission was to serve and educate the poor, specifically native and African-Americans.

Katherine became “Mother Katherine” as she led this order of missionary sisters in their mission, and she used much of her own personal inheritance to fund schools and convents.  Katherine died in 1955 at the age of 96.  She became “St. Katherine Drexel” in 2000 – only the second American-born saint.

Back to her early life and what she has to do with my old neighborhood…  When the Drexel’s first bought their summer estate, which has been reported to equal anywhere from 90-300 acres of Northeast Philadelphia, Katherine was 11 years old.  A chapel was built directly behind the mansion, and even today it is an impressive sight on the hill.  When Katherine founded her religious order, she housed novices on the grounds until their convent was built in nearby Bensalem.   The chapel, and the entire family estate, was called St. Michael’s.  Today, their old home is used as an office building.  The chapel was desanctified for secular use and is now used as a “wellness center”.  I once got a view inside as a teenager, and it was impressive even though it was no longer a chapel at the time.

The history of my neighborhood is much older than Katherine Drexel and her family.  But, I wanted to take the opportunity to highlight one “era” of the neighborhood.  Long before the housing boom, my street was part of the Drexel grounds.  It’s somehow nice to know that a saint enjoyed summers riding horses with her sisters on what became my house, block, church, school, and neighborhood.  Maybe that’s why I always felt blessed to be there.

For more information:

[I hope to provide more posts on Northeast Philadelphia, other Philadelphia neighborhoods, and the small town in New Jersey where I now live.  All of these areas have a rich history that few seem to either know or care about today.  I'm afraid written history doesn't go back as far as in Europe, but I should at least be able to find information about the area at least back to the 1600s!]

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Joseph Bergmeister

This military man in this photograph is my great-grandfather, Joseph Bergmeister (1873-1927). It is the only known photo of him, but we knew little about the uniform he wore or his military service, only that he was from Bavaria. Fortunately, I worked with someone who knew everything about the German military. Just from the photograph he was able to determine exactly which uniform it was, and I was later able to confirm his guess after more research.

What you can not tell from the photo is that the uniform is light blue in color! It is from the Bavarian Leib Regiment, or the Königlich Bayerisches Infanterie Leib Regiment. This roughly translates to the Royal Bavarian Infantry Life Guard Regiment. The regiment began in 1814 to protect the royal family, and it was headquartered in Munich at the royal palace.

According to my co-worker, “Such troops would have been elitist by definition, and patriotic to the core. Entrance requirements and training would have more rigorous than for normal line regiments. Peacetime service would have also been markedly different from the line troops. The Leib unit would have been called upon to serve every public protocol attended by the sovereign, much like a Presidential Honor Guard today. Everything would have been ‘spit and polish’ with a high degree of military etiquette.”

I am not sure how my great-grandfather came to be in such a unit, but I know he served for only two years: 1893-95 when he was 20-22 years old. Other than this photo, a wonderful large composite photo of his entire company, and his regimental beer stein, he left no other remnants of his service. What exactly did he do? Where did he serve? Did he like it? I’m sure he’d be proud to know that he had many grandchildren and great-grandchildren who served in all four branches of the U.S. military, including an Army Brigadier General and a Marine security guard.

If he did serve at the royal palace in Munich, he may have witnessed some interesting events. I found this article in the New York Times archive, dated November 16, 1893:

Royal Wedding

Was my great-grandfather was there? I don’t know, but I don’t think that the older sister got to marry her true love either…it looks like she married Count Otto von Seefried about two weeks later. I doubt he was a lieutenant in the Bavarian Army!

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MapMy Bavarian great-grandparents’ hometown was Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm, just north of Munich. Only my great-grandmother, Maria Echerer Bergmeister, was born in the town and her family had lived there for centuries. My great-grandfather, Joseph Bergmeister, was born nearby and went there to work for his uncle. Pfaffenhofen was the site of the couple’s wedding in 1897 and the birth of their first child a year later, a daughter. He left home in 1900 to immigrate to America, and mother and daughter joined him there in 1902. Did they ever miss their hometown? What was Pfaffenhofen like?

Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm is located in the Hallertau region of Bavaria, which is the largest hop producing area in the world. The region is in Oberbayern, or Upper Bavaria, and it has a long history. The area was likely first settled by monks from the Benedictine monastery in Ilmmünster in the 8th Century. Their estate was called Pfaffenhöfe or Priests’ station and was located north of the current town. Four centuries later, Duke Ludwig I, called Ludwig the Kelheimer, founded the market town of Pfaffenhofen where the Ilm and Gerolsbach rivers meet. The town was mentioned by name as early as 1140, and by 1197 it was called a “market town”. By 1318, Pfaffenhofen was referred to as a fortified settlement.

Pfaffenhofen ad Ilm Coat of ArmsFrom 1387-1389, the Städtekrieg, a war between Swabian towns and Bavarian dukes, was fought throughout Southern Germany. Pfaffenhofen became one of the war’s victims when it was nearly completely destroyed by fire in 1388. When the town was reconstructed, it was surrounded by a circular wall with four gates and 17 towers. The Pfänderturm is one of the original 17 towers and the only one still standing today. By 1438, Pfaffenhofen officially received recognition as a “town”.

Engraving of Pfaffenhofen, 1687

[This is an engraving of Pfaffenhofen by Anton W. Ertl in 1687. The town's wall, two of the gates, and many of the towers are clearly visible.]

Another war left a significant mark on the town. In 1632, soldiers fighting in the Thirty Years’ War were billeted to houses in town. One of the soldiers had the plague and the disease quickly spread. Of the 1,800 inhabitants, only 700 survived the outbreak. It would take Pfaffenhofen another 200 years to reach the same population.

Population growth was never a problem after that time. The town continued to attract residents. While the population was about 4,000 at the beginning of the 20th Century, it is now closer to 23,000.

The town square, or hauptplatz, has existed on roughly the same site since the town was founded centuries ago. The square has many unique and beautiful buildings. Standing majestically at one end of the square is the town’s church, St. Johannes Baptist. The church was built in 1393 in the Gothic style to replace the Romanesque style church destroyed by the 1388 fire. After The Thirty Years’ War, the interior was renovated in the Baroque style. The steeple, about 253 feet high, was first built in 1531. Destroyed by a lightening strike in June, 1768, it was immediately rebuilt. Most important for descendents of Pfaffenhofen’s Catholic residents is the existence of parish baptismal, marriage, and death records dating back to 1597.

Hauptplatz, St. John's

[Two views of St. John's Church in the Hauptplatz. The left photo is from 1875, the right from 1998.]

Pfaffenhofen’s maypole is in front of the church in the square. Erecting a white and blue painted maypole became a tradition in Bavaria in the 16th Century. In the 18th century, symbols and shields of different worker’s guilds were added to the pole, and this is how Pfaffenhofen’s maypole is decorated today.

Interior of St. John\'s church, Altar

You will also see evidence of the former worker’s guilds inside the parish church. Each guild had some church obligations as a part of the guild’s rules. Once a year each guilds celebrated their own special Mass, with special times for each guild. For example, the brewers’ Mass was celebrated on Monday after New Year’s while the tailors’ was on the Monday after Easter week.

Because of the guilds close association with the church, when the church was remodeled in 1671, the artist Johann Bellandt of Wessobrunn carved a number of apostle statues honoring the guilds: Mathew for the butchers, Phillip for the bakers, John for the brewers, Bartholomew for the leather artisans, Jacob for the weavers, and Simon for the tailors.

Because I do not read German very well, information about famous residents of Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm is difficult to find. Two individuals seem to have made a difference in the town and are worth a mention here. When I first visited Pfaffenhofen, I was surprised to see a street named after Joseph Bergmeister. They named a street after my great-grandfather? No, but they named a street after someone with the same name – his first cousin. Cousin Joseph was born on 11 August 1874, a year and a half after my great-grandfather. Unlike his older cousin, Joseph never left Pfaffenhofen. He became instrumental in introducing electricity to the town in the early 1900s. In recognition for his work, he received a medal from the town in 1934 and an honorary doctorate from the Technical College of Aachen. He died on 31 October 1950. I’m not sure when a street was named in his honor, but you can drive down Dr-Bergmeister-Strasse today! (The first name Joseph is still valued in the Bergmeister family today – you will find Joseph Bergmeisters on both sides of the ocean who are related, whether they know it or not, as 3rd and 4th cousins. In my own family there are five generations of Joseph Bergmeister’s so far.)

Another more famous Joseph from Pfaffenhofen is the poet Joseph Maria Lutz (1893-1972). He was born in Pfaffenhofen, gained recognition as a poet, and today there is a museum in his honor in town. He is also known for adding a verse to the Bavarian anthem in 1946. As there is no longer a king of Bavaria, Lutz wrote a new verse to replace the stanza about the king.

One of Joseph Maria Lutz’s poems is entitled “Hometown.” Written in 1965, the poem shares his feelings about Pfaffenhofen. The following translation was provided by Mr. Robert Wilkinson:

Hometown

The houses line themselves cuddle cozily after a fashion,

Intermittently broad and proud, intermittently narrow and aged,

The church spire points to heaven on high,

And the people are loudly singing to the chiming tower bells.

And country lanes stream in from adjacent forest and field

To become streets of prominence in both name and importance,

And in Time’s own passage finally come to stillness.

The bemused places of childhood are rekindled yet again with laughter,

And even the old fountains cascade in a trance of stillness,

as the swirling eddies made rush, silently

like life’s Insignificant Other, just as only Love can know.

And somehow even the Wind takes on a life,

Blowing in gust after gust, through the years,

And through the days, back to childhood’s Home,

As in fairy tale nights and imagined lands.

From the squares and tedious narrow alleys echo the familiar sounds,

the rolling wagon wheels, the clip-clop of stout mares,

the staccato of the blacksmith’s hammer,

or as in years of yore, the rolling barrels and the rooster’s crow.

And all that appears Close once again, is yet so Far,

And Life itself avoiding yet the grave;

strives for heavy-hearted Contentment much like a halting

song of Greeting or Return.

You, my little Town,

even if I have forgotten much,

I behold you precious still,

I, forever at Home in you.

I had the opportunity to visit my ancestors’ hometown in 1998 and 2006. I’m sure my great-grandparents would be amazed at some of the changes that have taken place. But, in many ways, they would find a lot of things the same. The apartment they lived in before coming to the US is still there, and it probably looks much the same. They might be surprised by all of the cars though!

Last Tower Standing

[This is the last tower still standing. The "Pfänderturm" or debt-tower, was built between 1388 to 1438.]

Sources for this article:

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[This post was written for the 47th Edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: A Place Called Home.]

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Zyrardow on the mapMy immigrant ancestors came from many different places. Some came from large capital cities that had very old beginnings and long histories (Warsaw, Poland). Other hometowns were not as large as a city, but they were large market towns born in the 1300’s that continue to have vibrant communities today (Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm, Germany and Mszczonów, Poland). Some of my ancestors came from much smaller places, centuries-old farmlands that evolved from feudal lands to modern villages (Puch, Germany and Komorowo, Poland). But of all the hometowns of my ancestors, the one that first captured my heart isn’t very old at all. In fact, compared to the ancient histories of these other places, it is modern in comparison. Although it lacks a history as long as other European towns, it makes up for it with the interesting way in which it was born. The town is Żyrardów, Poland.

The biography of Żyrardów begins in France. In 1810, the French government had a competition for inventors to create a mechanical linen spinning mill. The prize to the successful inventor was 1 million francs. One enterprising engineer, Philippe de Girard (1775-1845) from Lourmarin, succeeded. But with the fall of Napoleon, France could not pay the prize. Girard’s luck went from bad to worse as he endured debt, business failures, and bankruptcy. But his luck turned in 1825, when the government of the Kingdom of Poland invited him to help create a textile industry in Poland based on his invention.

Zyrardow coat of armsGirard originally opened a factory in Marymont, 2 miles outside of Warsaw, in 1831. For unknown reasons, Girard moved the operation two years later to a small farming village and forested area called Ruda Guzowska, approximately 27 miles WSW of Warsaw. This factory was very successful. More and more workers came to the area, and the settlement grew larger. In Girard’s honor, Ruda Guzowska was renamed Żyrardów. In the Polish language, the letter “ż” is pronounced similarly to the letter “g” in the French language: Żyrardów means “of Girard”. Girard was not able to see the success of his namesake town, however; he died in 1845, a year after returning to France to open more linen factories.

Arial View

Żyrardów continued to thrive in Girard’s absence. The factory was taken over by a pair of German industrialists, and by 1880 they employed 5,600 workers. The town literally grew around the factory building, and today it is one of the best preserved towns to see 19th Century architecture. It resembles a university town, with nearly every building – from the factory, to the apartment-style homes, to the churches and hospital – made from the same red brick. The area grew from a small farming village to an industrial settlement of approximately 175 acres. By 1880 the factory had 16,000 spindles with over 1,650 mechanical looms, and the value of their annual production (in 1880) was 2.2 million Silver Rubles. The former forest and farmland became responsible for the majority of linen production for the Russian Empire by the end of the 19th Century.

Workers in ZyrardowOne unique aspect of the town is that it was multi-cultural. The majority of workers were Poles, but there were also a large number of ethnic Germans working there as well. The factory itself had German managers, and there were also a number of Czechs, Scots, and Irish. The town itself had both a Roman Catholic church and an Evangelical Lutheran church, and there was a thriving Jewish community as well. The Słownik Geograficzny entry from 1895 indicates that the town had 7,126 registered inhabitants by 1880, including 5,134 Catholics, 1,541 Protestants, 244 Jews, and 207 belonging to other denominations.

The town was not without discord, however. Rather than ethnic disputes, there were employment disagreements. The government did not allow unions, but the workers were concerned about working conditions and low wages. There were many strikes at the factory throughout its history, beginning with the first in 1883.

Naturalization for Louis Pater

My Pater family immigrated from this town from 1905-1909; it was the place they called home. They were all weavers, which means they all worked in the factory. I don’t know why they left, but maybe they thought they could earn better wages in the United States. All of them became weavers in Philadelphia’s textile industry. My great-grandfather, Louis (Ludwik) Pater and his father, my 2nd great-grandfather Józef Pater, were born in Żyrardów (Louis in 1893, and Józef in 1864). Józef’s father, Jan, was born in Ruda Guzowska around 1834. Jan’s father Hilary pre-dates Żyrardów’s history and was born in a small village nearby.

RC Church, WiskitkiI had the opportunity to visit Żyrardów in 2001. It was a sudden visit with not enough advance planning, but I was grateful to see the town. My Pater ancestors were baptized and married in the nearby village of Wiskitki, and I was thrilled when my guide was able to sweet-talk the young priest into opening the church for me. My family probably attended this church because the main Catholic church in Żyrardów was not built until 1903. Wiskitki is a settlement that dates from 1221, with the first mention of “town” status in 1349. Over the centuries, the town declined and became smaller. After World War II, Wiskitki and Żyrardów were combined as one district, but in 1975 Wiskitki once again received rights as an independent town.

My Miller / Müller family also immigrated from Żyrardów; however, I have not yet found a birth certificate as proof that anyone was actually born in the town. My research indicates that the Miller family may be among the ethnic Germans from Bohemia that emigrated to the area to work in the textile industry. My great-grandmother’s brother, Emil, immigrated to the United States. In 1910, he and his family returned to Żyrardów – perhaps because of the death of his father. When the first World War broke out, the family could not return. Emil died in Żyrardów. His wife and American-born son later returned to the US, but his Polish-born daughter and American-born daughter remained.

Besides my ancestors, Żyrardów was the birthplace of some more famous citizens, including the Polish writer Paweł Hulka-Laskowski (1881-1946) and former Prime Minister Leszek Miller (b. 1946).

Sources for this article:

[This post was written for the 47th Edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: A Place Called Home.]

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Death of Jacob Zinsmeister

This is a rather unusual death record from my genealogical “collection” with an odd reason for the death. I wish they had newspapers back then – this would have made a rather interesting obituary! The record source is the Kirchenbuch records from the Catholic church in Puch, Bavaria, Germany and details the death of Jacob Zinsmeister in 1796.

Because of the unusual nature of the death, I’m not entirely certain of the Latin translation. I think it translates as follows: “On May 9 by a tree suddenly dropped from a cart in the forest of the Puch community, was killed and here buried the honest Jacob Zinsmeister, farmer, aged 56.” Either that or he died after falling from a tree. I’m also not certain of the word in the last line that seems to say “Lori” after “colonus“. Colonus is farmer, his occupation, and usually the record will indicate “hic” afterward the occupation to indicate “he lives here”, or it will name the town if it differs than the church’s town. As the town name was Puch, I am uncertain if this word is “Lori” or not and what it refers to. If there are any Latin scholars out there, feel free to chime in! I only had some high school Latin and we weren’t exactly looking at death records!

At any rate, poor Jacob died “subito” or suddenly at the age of 56. Back in 1796 he was probably considered “old” but I’ve found many others living well beyond their 50s during that same timeframe. Jacob Zinsmeister is one of my 5th great-grandfathers. He was born about 1740 presumably in Puch, which is a very small town today and must have consisted of just a few farms back then. His wife’s name was Josepha and that is all I know about her. They had a daughter named Kreszens who was born around 1777, and at least two sons. Unfortunately he died before his daughter got married. Kreszens married Joseph Bergmeister (1763-1840) in 1800. Joseph was a miller in Puch, and she bore at least twelve children! Several died as babies or young children, but at least two sons lived to adulthood and had children of their own. Kreszens Zinsmeister Bergmeister died on 8 June 1852 at the age of 75 – a much longer life than her poor dad who was killed by a falling tree!

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For several months I’ve been corresponding with the Polish State Archives [Archiwum Państwowego] to obtain a copy of a birth/baptismal record for my grandfather’s brother. Why go through the trouble for a collateral ancestor? Because my grandfather was born in Philadelphia and his older brother and sister were born in Warsaw. My finding one of their baptismal records, I hoped to pinpoint exactly where the parents came from more than just the city name.

I knew “Uncle Joe’s” birthdate from two sources: his death record (not always a reliable source) and his father’s naturalization papers. Since I’m from Philadelphia, I’m aware of how difficult “big city” research can be when you don’t know a specific address or the name of a church. But, I placed my faith in the archives and paid my fees — and his record was found! Here is a copy of the record:

Jozef Piontkowski Baptismal Record

Translated from Russian, it reads:

434. Warsaw. This happened in Wola parish on the 8th (21st) of February, 1903, at three p.m. Jan Piontkowski appeared, a tanner, age 32, and – in the presence of Jozef Kizoweter and Ludwik Czajkowski, [both] of age, day laborers from Warsaw — he showed us a child of the male gender, stating that it was born at number 2 Karolska Street on the 21st of October (3rd of November) of last year, at 5 p.m. to his wife, Rozalia nee Kizoweter, age 35. At Holy Baptism performed on this day, the child was given the name Jozef, and the godparents were Jozef Kizoweter and Zofia Kizoweter. This document was read aloud to those present, who are illiterate, and signed by Us. [Signature illegible]

Note: Two dates are given because Russia used the Julian calendar at that time. The second date is the Gregorian calendar in use in Poland (and much of the rest of the world) then and now.

Aside from the obvious facts, I’ve also learned a few key points from this record that will aid in my future research on this family. First, the record came from św. Stanisława i Wawrzyńca w Warszawie (Wola), or Sts. Stanisław and Lawrence of Warsaw, Wola. I can now check to see if Jan and Rozalia were married in this parish. As there are quite a few churches in Warsaw, it will be much easier to check one first rather than randomly search many.

I also have the family’s address which may also prove useful. Hopefully they did not move as often as they did once they came to the US! I’d like to find their marriage record and it would be quite easy if they were married in the same parish. Unfortunately, they seem to have a different address for each census and/or other event in the US, so anything goes. I am interested in finding out more about Wola, which is the section of the city of Warsaw in which they lived. Here is a brief history from Wikipedia and Wola’s website in Polish.

I finally have a confirmation of my great-grandmother’s surname, Kizoweter. My grandfather said that it was her name, but since it is not of Polish origin I wanted to see confirmation in a Polish record source. According to German Names by Hans Bahlow as well as an email from the Polish surname expert William “Fred” Hoffman, it is a variation of the German name Kiesewetter, which means “Check the weather” or “weather watcher”. Are the godparents her brother and his wife? Or her brother and sister?

As always, one record found leads to more questions. But, for me this was a step in the right direction. While I have gone back many generations for other “sides” in my family, I am still searching for the origins of my Piontkowski great-grandparents. Once you dedicate some time to the search, success is possible. Stay tuned for more information once I (hopefully) find their marriage record.

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An oft-repeated phrase when one enters an old house is “if these walls could speak, the stories they’d tell.” In Germany, it is possible for the walls to speak about the families that lived there for centuries in the form of a book called a häuserchronik.

What would you say if I told you there might be a book that is like a City Directory, only it is listed by street addresses and also records deed transactions of the houses? And, the book also contains some personal information about the residents, including occupations, marriage information, and more? Well, if your ancestors came from Germany, there really may be such a book!

When I first visited the town my Bavarian ancestors came from, I was given a “häuserchronik” as a gift. The full title of the book, published in 1982, is Häuserchronik der Stadt Pfaffenhofen a.d. Ilm by Heinrich Streidel. It provided tons of genealogical information that was later verified by researching decades of church records. I couldn’t believe that such things existed…and that you don’t hear more about them!

Here is an example of one entry found in the book. The house is currently known in the town as Löwenstraße 14, formerly Judengasse 11. Before that, the house had a number assigned to it. Beginning in 1676, it was 67 II District. From 1810-1861, it was house #55. And from 1862-1927, it was house #79. In old towns such as Pfaffenhofen, houses were numbered as they were built. So, house #10 was not necessarily in between houses #9 and #11 – it could be on the other side of town! Occasionally, the houses were renumbered, probably because by then it became too difficult to find an address! At this particular house, the record begins back in 1614! My ancestors appear in the house’s record in 1746 as follows [translated to English, with my comments in brackets]:

1746, 4 Jan
Eger, Bernhard, shoemaker – purchased (Kaufsumme or “sum”) for “280 fl”
[According to the book’s preface, in 1982 the “fl” or gulden was equal to about 1.71 Marks. Today, that’s roughly 236 Euros! He was about 25 years old at the time.]

1746, 21 Jun
The above marries Arnold, Maria Anna, from Jägern/Edlmünster
[She’s not my ancestor…she dies in April, 1761 at age 35 during childbirth.]

1761, 30 Oct
Eggerer (Eger), Bernhard, widower, shoemaker, marries Stainer, Maria Margarete, from Freising
[Note the changing spelling of the surname, which will change one more time in a later entry before "stabilizing" – it was common for names to change over time as spelling became more formal and/or more people became literate. Unfortunately, he dies 17 years later in June, 1778 after they’ve had many children, including my ancestor Ignaz.]

1778, 18 Jul   Eggerer, Maria Margarete, shoemaker’s widow
[This entry shows that changes were made to the records for events such as the husband’s death.]

1797, 10 Jan
Echerer (Eggerer), Ignaz, son, and Maria Anna, born Kaillinger, glassmaker’s daughter
[He was 32 years old; they married on 22 Jan 1797]

1844, 13 Feb
Echerer, Ignaz, son, marries Nigg, Magdalena
[He was 41 years old; they married on 19 Feb 1844]

1847, 12 Jun
He sells to a new family for 1400 fl, or 1200 Euros in 1982 money. Interestingly enough, the new owner sells it three years later for 2400 fl, proving that “house flipping” isn’t such a modern concept.

So, where did the family go? The house had been in the family for 100 years. The answer was also in the book. They moved to a different house, the current address of which is Schulstrasse 5. This house is even older than the previous one, as the records begin back in 1511! What is interesting is the immediate history prior to the purchase by Ignaz. Before I had done research with the church records, I would have only looked for his surname and ignored the rest. But, after complete research, I know the full story of the family relationships, so I will back up a bit in the house’s history.

1784, bought for 420 fl by Höck, Johann, master carpenter

1794, 12 Apr, daughter Therese marries

1794, 26 Apr, Nick, Karl, Town Master Carpenter

1844, 02 May, Nick, Rosalie, daughter, marries Aicher, Christian, master carpenter

It is from this couple that Ignaz and Magdalena buy the house for 3,980 fl. We saw from the previous entry that Nigg is Magdalena’s maiden name. Rosalie is her sister, Karl is her father (so she was born in this house), and the owner back in 1784 was her grandfather! After the couple purchases the house, it remains in the family until 1899. My great-grandmother, Maria Echerer, was born there in 1875 to Karl Echerer, son of Ignaz and Magdalena, and Margarethe Fischer. It appears that the house was owned by my great-grandmother’s brother, Karl, from 1896 to 1899 when he sold it for 10,800 Marks.

As you can see from the above example, there is an extraordinary amount of genealogical data to be found in such books. Other entries were less detailed, but nearly every house’s history had some information on marriages, including where the spouse may have come from if the town was not the same, and occupations. It appears based on the above that a new entry was made after the death of a spouse, a marriage, or the passing of the house to a son or daughter, which is why this sort of history has more in common with deed records than what Americans would call “city directories”.

But, where do you find such a treasure if it exists for your town? Well, it’s not easy. What makes the search even more complicated are the different names that Germans use. For my town of Pfaffenhofen, the book is called a häuserchronik. But similar information might be found in a heimatbuch, or town history. Some towns even have something called a ortssippenbuch or ortsfamilienbücher, which are books containing the genealogical data of an entire town or village. None of these useful resources are maintained in one place, so they are difficult to find.

First, I would try a search at www.familysearch.org for your family’s town – there are some of the above resources that would be listed if they are microfilmed.

Next, simply search on www.google.com for your town name, plus one of the above words.

You can also find success at German bookstores. One useful site that seems to have many “historical” books – and also has an English search page – is www.zvab.de. Put the town name in the subject search and see what you find!

Did you know that there are foreign versions of E-bay? You’re more likely to find a German book on Germany’s E-bay at www.ebay.de. Search for the town name, or even a surname. I found many heimatbucher waiting to be found by genealogists. It does help if you speak the language, though. While ordering via E-bay isn’t that difficult in any language, once you get the book it helps to be able to decipher the contents! I have several German books, but I don’t read German. If I did, or if I tried a little harder with a dictionary, I might know a lot more about my ancestors’ towns by now.

Finally, there is a database available at www.ortsfamilienbuecher.de that has listings of some “town heritage books”. I have not found an online resource that lists “häuserchronik” books specifically, but a local heritage book may also have genealogical information. You may have better luck contacting town or local archives to determine if any exist for your town.

Good luck, and I hope you all find similar genealogical treasures from your ancestors’ towns.

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I come from a rather small family, and I didn’t even know my own first cousins until about six years ago. Once they reached adulthood, my parents kept in touch with very few of their own cousins, but they did remember a lot of names. Because our surnames are not too common, I was able to use their memories to seek out my second cousins over the years, both by email and regular mail. In every case, I offer to share my research and I beg for copies of any photos they have. Results have been mixed. Most folks are friendly, but they aren’t really interested in the genealogy details. And as for photos, no luck yet except for copies of photos already in my possession.

At the farthest extreme, one second cousin insisted that I was wrong about some facts and stopped all contact. At the opposite end of the spectrum, another became a good friend and gave me one our great-grandfather’s Bavarian beer steins for Christmas (to date, one of my bests Christmas presents ever).

One of the best connections I’ve made was more distant, both in degree and location, when I connected with my 3rd and 4th Bergmeister cousins in Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm, Bavaria, Germany.

C. Bergmeister bldg

On my first visit to Pfaffenhofen in 1998, I was awestruck to find a building in the hauptplatz with the name “C. Bergmeister” on it. It’s a bakery! My great-grandfather Joseph Bergmeister was a baker! But wait…who was “C”? At that point in my research, I didn’t know. Attempts to communicate in the bakery were disastrous; my German is pitiful and their English-speaking associates must have been off that day.

After more research at home, I learned that C. Bergmeister was Castulus Bergmeister (1845-1912), son of Jakob Bergmeister (1805-1870). I descend from Jakob also, but from his son Joseph (1843-c.1885), which would make Castulus the uncle of my great-grandfather, Joseph (1873-1927), son of Joseph. Since Joseph (Jr) was married in Pfaffenhofen, worked as a baker, and his uncle owned a bakery there, chances are he worked for family – a family still running the bakery 108 years after he left Germany for the US.

Through the internet and some German-speaking friends, I contacted the bakery owners, and their son Hans replied in English. We exchanged emails occasionally, but when I knew I’d be “in the neighborhood” on a trip to Europe in 2006, I asked if I could visit. The next thing I knew, Bavarian hospitality was in full swing. No, we won’t recommend a hotel because you’re staying with us. No, we won’t give you directions, because we’re picking you up at the airport. Even though they weren’t even sure how I was related, they opened their homes and hearts to me. And as to how we would communicate, well, we’d figure that out when I arrive…

With some nervous trepidation on both sides, we finally met. Before dinner on my first evening there, I brought out my pedigree chart. Moments later, their chart was produced. Heads leaned over the dining table as we scrutinized each other’s data, and we simultaneously pointed to the common ancestor, Jakob. “We never knew any Bergmeister’s went to the US!” We both gained information – my research ended two generations back from Jakob with his grandfather Paul, who was born approximately in 1724 and died in 1784. Hans went back one generation more than I did! His chart named Paul’s father as Martin Bergmeister (1689-1752). This was a surprise since I thought my research in the Bergmeister’s original home village of Puch ended when the old records did.

By week’s end, my cousins’ English became far better than my German will ever be. I had many great experiences: dining with the extended family, visiting the cemetery and church, and spending an afternoon searching through boxes and boxes of unmarked photos in hopes of seeing a familiar face. It was the kind of genealogical magic I only dreamed of when I started out on this journey.

I didn’t want to show photos of my cousins without their permission, but you can see live images of the main square (hauptplatz) with Pfaffenhofen’s webcam, or you can take a virtual visit of the Bergmeister Bäckerei — serving the best pretzels in Bavaria since 1868!

[Submitted for the 40th Carnival of Genealogy: Living Relative Connections]

 

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