This is the post that really began it all. On Valentine’s Day of this year I shared a version of this essay on Facebook, with modest success and frustration over my inability to share it exactly as I’d hoped, hence the blog. This will be the first in a regular series of posts sharing what I’ve learned about my family’s history. I hope to make them interesting and informative. I hope that you will share them with other people, and ask questions in the comments to guide me.
Introduction to the Valentine Bier Story
There are Biers all over the world, however I am confident in saying that all of the Southern Wisconsin Biers are related, having descended from brothers Anton and Valentine Bier. Valentine Bier was born on 14 Feb 1842 in Ketzelsdorf, a village in the then Austro-Hungarian Empire. Because he was born on the feast of St. Valentine, he was named accordingly. He eventually married and had ten children. One of these children became a priest named Father Charles Bier, whom many of my readers may remember. He was a prolific diarist. His writings figure prominently in much of the work I will share.
According to his and other family diaries, the Biers had lived in Ketzelsdorf for several generations. Valentine and Anton’s parents were named Johann Bier and Victoria Baar. I learned their names off of a copy of a baptismal certificate from one of their grandchildren. Both Johann and Victoria were deceased by the time of the recording of that baptism in 1886. Some family diaries indicate that Johann and Victoria actually died quite some time before that, during Valentine’s childhood, leaving him and his brother, Anton, orphans.
The Biers had lived in Ketzelsdorf for several generations. Interestingly, the village of Ketzelsdorf no longer exists, and yet it does exist. To understand this dichotomy, one must appreciate a bit about the history of that part of the world. This history will also explain to you why, when asked where the Biers are from, it is most accurate to answer: “Bohemia.”
A very brief history of Germans in Bohemia (relying heavily on Wikipedia):
Bohemia occupies the western-most region of what is now the Czech Republic. The other two regions that make up the Czech Republic are known as Moravia and Silesia. During the past 2,000 years, Bohemia has been many things: a duchy of Greater Moravia, an independent principality, a kingdom, part of the Holy Roman Empire, and a part of the Habsburg Monarchy and the Austrian Empire. When Valentine Bier was born in the village of Ketzelsdorf in 1842, Bohemia was part of the Austrian Empire. So, in some documents and census records, he lists his birthplace as “Austria” or, at times, “Germany.”
During that time, the German and Czech populations of Bohemia and its neighbor, Moravia, coexisted although one or the other tended to dominate certain regions. The village of Ketzelsdorf was a German village, as was much of that region.
During WWII, Nazi Germany annexed regions with sizeable German-speaking populations of the three Czech lands of Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia; the Reich named the region The Sudetenland. Thus, when Valentine’s son, Charles, became a priest in the 1930’s, he wrote:
Near the geographic center of Europe is the Sudetenland. It was formerly a part of Austria but in World War II it was annexed to Germany by Hitler. Now it is a part of Czechoslovakia which has become a Russian satellite
–Father Charles Bier, “Why I Became A Priest”
Sometimes ethnic Germans from this Nazi-controlled region were referred to as “Sudeten Germans.” Later, in 1969, these Czech lands (including Bohemia) were given autonomy within Czechoslovakia as the Czech Socialist Republic. At that time, all of the German names for things were replaced with Czech eponyms. Thus, Ketzelsdorf ceased to exist; it is now called Koclírov. Concurrently, ethnic Germans that remained were forcibly relocated. In 1990, the region’s name was changed to the Czech Republic, which became a separate state in 1993 with the dissolution of Czechoslovakia.
Valentine married a local girl, Catherine Jiru, on 11 February 1868 at the Catholic church in Ketzelsdorf. The parish church was called St. Philomena’s, and it still exists as St. Philomena and St. Jacob church. Koclírov currently has a population of about 700.
Father Charles writes his parents’ lives in Ketzelsdorf:
Originally it had been known as Langendorf (long village) but after a fire had destroyed most of the village it was called Ketzelsdorf, which means a shortened village. There is only one street that runs through the entire village and the houses are numbered from 1 up to 200. It was in house number 78 that . . . had been occupied by the Bier ancestors for several generations.
-Father Charles Bier, Memoirs of An Old Recluse
The family truly scraped by in Ketlzelsdorf:
They and their parents before them had been making their living by renting a few acres of land on which they grew flax, rye and some vegetables. The flax crop was their main source of income. From the fiber of flax-straw they manufactured linen cloth. During the fall and winter months the flax straw had to be cured, processed, scotched, swingled and then the fibers had to be spun into threads. After that the thread was woven into linen cloth with a hand-loom. This was a long and tedious process and brought but very scant returns in cash. Figuring the price they got for a yard of this linen cloth, and computing it with the amount of labor required to produce it, the earning amounted to less than one cent an hour. It was hard to make ends meet on such an income even while the family was small, but as the family grew larger it became impossible.
Old World Wisconsin raises flax and processes into linen for visitors. Here’a a video on the process that someone made. I commend a visit to OWW to you! Interestingly, the phrases “flaxen-haired” and “tow-headed” both reference the flax-to-linen making process.
Around the same time, Valentine contracted smallpox. He somehow survived, and wore a full beard for the rest of his life to cover the devastating scars. During his illness, however, the family’s lot became dire indeed:
Due to the unfortunate illness of my father we were reduced to extreme poverty and want. In this desperate situation my father appealed to some friends who had come to America. At their invitation, but with heavy hearts and gloomy prospects my parents decided to leave the old home and relatives and friends and seek their fortune in far-away America.
Of course, the family could not all travel together; there wasn’t enough money. Valentine couldn’t even afford his own ticket–he was sponsored by a friend in Wisconsin. So, Valentine left Catherine to fend for her brood of six children, soon to be seven. Did I mention that Catherine was pregnant? So, Valentine sailed alone on the Elbe, from Bremen toward Baltimore, a route frequently taken by Germans emigrating at the time, trusting in the promise of friends awaiting him across the sea. He’d likely never traveled more than 10 miles from home prior to this.
What would happen during his journey? What would he find on his arrival? And what of Catherine and the seven children left behind in Ketzelsdorf?