Bier Trip to the Homeland Part VII:

As we boarded the bus for our trip to Koclířov,  I tried to keep my enthusiasm in check, but it was hard.  This town, formerly Ketzelsdorf, holds so much enchantment for my Bier family.  Thanks to the diaries of the emigrant Valentine Bier family, the town seemed almost palpably real in our collective imaginations.  There’d be the ancestral home at number 78, St. Philomena’s Church where Valentine and Catherine had been married and the first seven children baptized, and a magical quality of recognition.

 

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A new day dawns on the Bohemian countryside

 

I harbored some additional secret hopes.  I hoped for some clues of relatives, pre- or post-Valentine, maybe a few friendly townspeople, a good beer.  I know that my Uncle Jim hoped to stride up to the door of 78 and, after flashing his I.D., be invited in for a game of mariáš.  But I didn’t dare mention these hopes–better to keep the group’s expectations low.

Our guide, Jana, had a contact in Koclířov, a lady who would let us in the church.  In fact, she said that of all the towns that she contacted, Koclířov was the only one that yielded a positive response.  However, we were running an hour late, and I anticipated a crabby old church lady when we finally rolled into town.

 

 

 

 

Imagine my slack-jawed surprised, then, when we were met instead by two people who, quite simply, none of us will ever forget.  Hana spoke English and, therefore, did most of the greeting.  She is a member of St. Philomena’s parish, a devout Catholic, and works for the other Catholic enterprise in town, the Fatima Center.  She welcomed us with unbridled enthusiasm, warmth, and awe.  She was amazed that we had traveled so far and repeated in numerous ways how blessed and lucky she felt.  It killed me when I had to do something so pedestrian as ask for a toilet!

She also introduced us to Josef, who goes by Pepi.  (“Why Pepi?” we wondered.  “Because Josef is such a common name.”  Something lost in translation there…).  Pepi spoke German and was mildly disappointed to discover that none of us did.  His mother was one of three Germans allowed to remain in the village following WWII, by virtue of the fact that she married a Czech man.  She secretly taught Pepi to speak German, and passed on to him her sorrow over the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans.  Indeed, he made her a deathbed promise to mend that rift.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think we helped him fulfill that promise to his mother.

 

 

 

Hana pointed out some of the sites in the town, including the community hall where Pepi had celebrated his 70th birthday the night before.  She reiterated the remarkable fact that a town of 700 supports not one but two Catholic institutions–St. James the Elder & Philomena Church and the Fatima Center.  This is all the more remarkable in a country in which 80% of the population is atheist.  St. James & Philomena is the traditional town church.  The Fatima Center is both a parish church and a pilgrimage site / education center / conference center / gathering place that sells amazing pastries for 40 cents.  It was built at the site of a former convent.

 

 

 

Hana and Pepi took us into the church and related it’s history, of near total destruction and decay during Communist rule and eventual restoration.  This was due to what Hana called a miracle and what I called a little bit of shoddy bookkeeping at the government offices.  I don’t want to get anyone in trouble–you’ll have to ask one of us in person!

 

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St. James the Greater & St. Philomena from the cemetery.  In the distance you can see the Fatima Center.  You can also appreciate the valley in which Koclířov lies

 

The cemetery’s German section was protected by destruction by the Communists by Pepi and his people.  You could barely hold me back as we entered through the gates.

 

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View from the church into the cemetery

 

Holy cow, the place was awash with Biers!  And I knew absolutely NONE of them!  It was simultaneously exciting and overwhelming.  So much work left to do!.  Pepi led us from grave to family grave, pausing to shed a few silent tears at the grave of his dear mother.  Fear not–the less legible had rubbings taken by the Laning boys.  Can you believe all of this unexplored history?  My only disappointment was that I didn’t see a single Jiru grave.  Fingers crossed that the archives at Zamrsk will prove more fruitful.

 

 

 

Flanking the church and cemetery on either side were a series of niches.  These contained a set of restored stations of the cross and additional memorials.   The money to restore these came from Koclířov’s former Sudeten Germans.  Pepi has organized a series of reunions with 80+ of the Koclířov Germans who were deported.  Hana relates that many were very hesitant to return, feeling the place would be “tainted” or “cursed” to them.  However, most wept tears of joy on their return, recalling and recognizing the home of their childhood.  The expat Koclířov-ians and current population now make yearly alternating visits between the Czech Republic and Germany.  Talk about making good on his promise!

 

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Niches flanking the church that contain old stations of the cross. The restoration was undertaken as a joint effort with the exiled German former residents of Koclířov, under Pepi’s guidance.

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Niches flanking the church that contain old stations of the cross and memorials. The restoration was undertaken as a joint effort with the exiled German former residents of Koclířov, under Pepi’s guidance.

 

Finally we stepped inside the church.  Hana gave a touching impromptu speech, led us all in prayer, and then proceeded to sing a song of St. Philomena as requested by Pepi, who softly hummed along to my right.  I know that I simply wept in astonishment.

 

 

 

Feeling overwhelmed with it all, we were then led across the street to the Fatima Center for more.  We had a brief tour of the beautiful grounds.  And note to self:  rooms are available to the public for 290 Kč per night (about $12!!!).

 

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Grounds of the Fatima Center

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Grounds of the Fatima Center

 

Then Pepi brought out the homemade plum brandy.  It was his birthday, after all.  I didn’t detect any plum, and I’m pretty sure that the 57% alcohol was a low estimate.  Oh well, twist our arms, cheers to Pepi!

 

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Pepi and Jana pouring out . . .

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serving to Eug . . .

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to Pepi!

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A second for some.

 

We had two things left that we hoped for:  to see the home at 78 and to see a statue that Pepi mentioned that was commissioned by a Bier.  Pepi was sad to inform us that the Bier home was one of 145 razed after the removal of the Germans after WWII.  He was able to point out its approximate location, however, which is now the site of a small yellow apartment building.  It’s nestled on the banks of the valley, just adjacent to a creek and a 3 minute walk from the church.  He also provided me with a hand-drawn map of the town’s layout prior to the destruction of the 145 homes, as drawn from the collective memory of the town.

 

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Apartment at the site of the former Bier home

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The site lies adjacent to the small creek that runs through town

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On the other side of the creek is a bus station and parking lot; you can just see the yellow apartment building in the background to the left.

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View from the bus station facing away from the house; you can see St. James & Philomena’s steeple in the distance and appreciate just how close to the church the Bier home was.

 

We didn’t want to the leave the town, but we had to eat.  No problem.  Hana called in some additional staff for the small restaurant owned by the Fatima Center.  They stayed open just for us and the beer and dumplings were sublime.  Of course, Pepi, Jana and our intrepid bus driver, Alex, joined us as well (Hana had to get back to work).

 

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Still trying to master mariáš after lunch

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The group outside the restaurant

 

Finally, Pepi led us to the statue at the edge of town.  It depicts St. Jan Nepomucký, an icon with whom we’d become familiar.  A Czech king had thrown him into the Vltava river after he (the saint) refused to rat out the queen’s confession.  The site where he went in was said to be identified by five stars.  As a result, he’s traditionally depicted with five starts around his head.  Ironically, he’s the patron saint of swimmers.  The back of the statue did, in fact, include a name “Joseph Bier”–another relative that I didn’t know we had.  Seriously, so much work to do . . .

 

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Statue of St. Jan Nepomucký

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Inscription on the back, with the name Joseph Bier and the year 1834

 

As I write all of this, I still can’t really believe it all happened.  The day was simply magical, and I know that we all felt it.  And it’s all due to the intervention of three amazing people whom I can never thank enough . . .

 

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Pepi

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Hana…the Czech “Sister Jan”

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Jana

 

Until we meet again, ahoy  Koclířov

 

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Bier Trip to the Homeland Part V: Alternate Facts

The two days that we spent in Prague were beautiful, overwhelming in their information, and did quite a bit to set my assumptions straight.  Thesis: the Slavic people weren’t totally into the German population that my ancestors represented.  Correllary:  Prague is beautiful.

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Prague from the Strahov Monastery, above the castle complex.  St. Vitus Cathedral can be seen in the distance, along with the Vltava River.

 

As recently as two years ago, I was still muddling through the confusing fact that the towns in Bohemia from whence we sprang had new, Czech names.  As our guides slowly recounted the histories of the sites that we saw, it became clear that renaming these towns with Czech names was actually an act of reclamation rather than complete rebirth.  I learned a Czech history of being dominated first by the the Holy Roman Empire, then the Austro Hungarian, brief independence in the early 20th century only to be occupied by the Nazis, then the Communists.  The Velvet Revolution brought self-determination in 1989.  How did I miss this nuance?  I suppose that, before this trip, I was looking at things from a narrow point of view.

A brief review of a few Prague highlights, however, tells a story of nationalistic pride having nothing to do with the identity of any of their former occupying rulers.

St. Vitus Cathedral is located within the so-called Prague Castle complex. The current building is a prime example of Gothic architecture.  The altar end was built under the rule of Charles the IV, begun in 1344.  Construction paused to address more important issues to the Austro-Hungarians, such as the Protestant / Hussite “threat” and various sundry wars.  The Nave end was finally completed in Neo-Gothic Style in the 19th century.  The current cathedral is actually the third on the site built to celebrate the arm of St. Vitus that King Vaclav (who we know as Good King Wenceslas) acquired.  There are a lot of other popular Slavic saints their too, including Vaclav himself.

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St. Vitus Cathedral, eternal home of many popular saints, kings, and emperors.

Another, in my opinion more  beautiful, chapel in the Prague Castle is known as the Old Chapel and is done in traditional Romanesque style.  There, the grandmother of Good King Vaclav is buried and venerated a saint and Slavic folk hero as well.  She is Saint Ludmila.  She is noted for having raised Vaclav and for having been strangled by her daughter in law.  They were trying times.

 

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The beautiful, austere Old Chapel of Prague Castle.

 

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The Old Chapel in Prague Castle features this ancient fresco of Queen Ludmila, grandmother of king Wenceslas (Vaclav).  She is usually shown wearing a white cloth over her head.

Vaclav is a huge folk hero.  There is a statue of him astride a horse at the top of Wenceslas (Vaclav) Square.  He was actually a Duke of Bohemia, not a king as the song implies.  Also, he was killed by his brother.  Again, trying times.  Wenceslas Square has been the site of numerous massive demonstrations, especially in the days of communist rule, such as the Prague Spring in 1968.

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Duke Vaclav (“King Wenceslas”) in the eponymously named square.

 

Another guy we saw in bronze a lot was King Charles the IV.  He was considered the greatest of the Bohemian Kings.  In addition to initiating the construction of St. Vitus Cathedral, he founded Charles University & built the Charles bridge.  Bonus:  he had 4 wives, none of whom he killed!  Charles University today has over 40,000 students and is free for Czech citizens.

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King Charles IV in Křižovnické  Square, Prague

Looking for a new, fun sport?  Why not take up defenestration?  This is a historically popular way to both demonstrate against and take care of one’s enemies in the Czech Republic.  It means, literally, “to throw out a window.”  So, the rules of the game are easy.  We saw a famous defenestration window in the Prague Castle that Czechs used to defenestrate some Hapsburg clerks during the days of Austro-Hungarian rule.

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Famous defenstration window in Prague Castle.  Watch your back, I might defenestrate you.

Outside Prague castle is Golden Lane.  This series of pocket-sized homes are built into the castle walls and were the site of craftspeople.  In the early 20th century, Number 14 was the residence of a famous fortune teller.  When the Gestapo was clearing the place, she foretold their eventual defeat.  So, they killed her.

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Home of Matylda Průšová, Golden Lane, Prague Castle

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Detail from the home of Matylda Průšová

 

As I mentioned above, St. Vitus Cathedral wasn’t completed until the early 20th century.  So, all of the stained glass windows in it are modern.  One stands out, the painted window of Czech Art Nouveau artist, Alphonse Mucha.  It highlights King / St. Vaclav in the Center–as a young boy in red with Queen Ludmila, and just above being baptised by Sts. Cyril and Methodius.  Their lives are highlighted in the side panels.

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Stained glass window designed by Alphonse Mucha, St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague

I was so taken with the window that I made a visit to the Mucha museum.  He gained massive popularity through his theatrical advertising posters in France, mostly for Sarah Bernhard.  Later, though, he turned his attention to more traditional Slavic themes.  The most striking to me was the poster below, nominally advertising a lottery, but really advertising Slavic independence and self-determination.  The lottery was used to fund Czech language classes to keep the language alive.  A young schoolgirl stares accusingly from the poster, daring the viewer to NOT buy a ticket.  In the background is a dejected Slavic woman on a dying tree.

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Alphonse Mucha, from “Lottery for the Union of Southwest Moravia.”

Finally, we stopped at the exuberant John Lennon wall.  The wall has been used since communist times as a place of public expression of dissent.  It was a spontaneous gathering place after Lennon’s death, after which it earned its current name.  It is now the only place in the city where graffiti is legal.

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Joan Shadel & Tom Bier adding to the John Lennon Wall, Prague

When we were walking to our hotel on our first day in Prague, we passed through a hotel.  The statue by David Cerny there was totally confusing.  By the end, it became a welcome and understandable site.  This modern artist is big into grand public displays.  This is his most famous work, a takeoff on the Vaclav square statue, with a Vaclav astride a thoroughly dead horse representing communism.

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David Cerny’s “Svaty Vaclav”

 

Good lord, isn’t Prague achingly beautiful?  Nevertheless, I ended these two days in Prague a little nervous.  How would we be received, Germans showing up in the now-Czech villages of our ancestors?  Were we suffering from a bad case of hubris?  As we head into the countryside, only time will tell…

Bier Trip to the Homeland Part IV: A Brief Separation in Time and Space

The journey to “the homeland” has begun in earnest!  After soaking up the culture of the Bavaria for the past few days,  today we boarded a bus and drove to Prague in the Czech Republic.  The purpose of the Munich part of the trip was to get a taste of what our ancestors’ German cultural homeland is like;  this second part will investigate their lands from which they physically sprung.

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The areas of the Czech Republic on which we will be focusing:  Prague for the sheer pleasure of it all, and the Pardubice Region for the familyhistory.

165 years ago, the Bier and Langer strands of my family tree were living what I imagine to have been an uneventful life in Bohemia.  In fact, their families lived less than 20 km apart from each other in, essentially, the same county (Pardubice) of the now Czech Republic.  For a brief review, here’s a copy of my father, Thomas Bier’s, ancestor tree:

Thomas Bier Ancestor Chart

Ancestors of Thomas Bier.  Those who are Germans from Bohemia are circled.

Did the Bier / Jiru and Langer / Janisch families know each other in the old country?  Who’s to say.  The Langer / Janisch clan emigrated about 30 years prior to the Bier / Jiru family–in 1853.  Further, the Langer family settled in a large enclave of German Bohemians in the Watertown area.  While Watertown is also in southern Wisconsin, it lies over 30 miles away from the greater Janesville area that attracted the Biers.

Wouldn’t be an amazing story, though, if my Grandpa Vincent Bier and Grandma Mary Alice (Langer) Bier’s families were friends 3-4 generations in advance of their wedding?  Some exciting sleuthing into the historical record provides some tantalizing clues that this was, in fact, the case.

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Wedding of  my Grandma Mary Alice (Langer) Bier & Grandpa Vincent Bier.  21 November, 1946.  Did their grandparents–Emil Langer and Valentine Bier–ever meet?

 

Franz Langer was Mary Alice’s Great-Grandfather;  he was the one to make the move to the United States with his wife, Barbara Janisch.  Valentine Bier was Vincent’s Grandfather and was the emigree.   And, according to a brief clipping in the Rock County  Recorder Times, Valentine actually served as a pallbearer for Franz Langer at his death in 1894.  While the name is actually spelled “Valentine Beers,” it seems reasonable to assume that this was, in fact, Valentine Bier.  Both men attended the same church, St. Mary’s in Janesville.  The timing also lines up:

 

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Obituary of Franz Langer from the Rock County Recorer Times 11 October, 1894

 

 

Another source that I frequently reference is the Bier Family Journal.  This ledger-like document chronicles the daily life of the Valentine Bier family from 1899-1903;  most of the Valentine Bier children contributed at some time or another, although Father Charles Bier was the most prolific diarist.

 

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The Bier Family Diary:  a ridiculously rich source of primary information.

The diary generally concludes each day by enumerating the visitors that stopped by.  Take a look at who visited the house in the summer of 1899:

Wed. Aug 16, 1899:  Weather is quite agreeable, but rather warm in the afternoon.  Father, Louis and Fr. begin to haul manure.  Chas sees the great base ball game taking place between Janesville and Milwaukee league teams.  The score is Mil 2.  Janesville 0.  Visitors of the eve at home are Mr. Emil Langer Senior and Junior, Uncle Anton, and cousin Chas. Bier.  Fr. Baar, and Fr. Schneider, Jno. and Bertha.  Jno. begins tobacco harvesting.

 

Emil Langer Junior would be Mary Alice’s father.  Edward, the youngest of the Valentine Bier clan, was Vincent’s father.  At the date of that visit at which they surely met, Emil Langer, Jr., was 14.  Edward Bier 10 years old.  Their children would marry in just over 47 years.

Wow!  Genealogy is FUN!

In a few short days, we will retrace beginning of these families brief separation in time and space…

Bier Trip to the Homeland

After years of muttering about how we “really oughta,” we’re doing it.  We’re taking all of the rich first-hand narrative information about our family history and doing a mission of discovery.  I along with an assortment of my Bier relatives are spending our first night in Munich.

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Our guide, Christiane Haack. She was quite popular holding this sign in the arrivals hall.

This trip was about two years in the making, and we set up an itinerary to accomplish several things:

  • Go back to Ketzelsdorf (Koclirov) and see the village that our ancestors left behind.  
  • See a little of the other villages that other relatives came from (more on this later)
  • Stop by the nearest big city, Prague
  • Take in a smattering of German and Bavarian culture in Munich.

The trip ranges from my parents at the older end of the spectrum to my cousin, Nick Laning, who is 17.   Here’s a fun little tree to see how we’re all related and who’s along for the ride.   The tree is set up in relation to my great grandfather, Edward Bier.  He’s the youngest of Valentine’s kids, and the most recent common relative of us all.  Trip participants are circled:

Edward A Bier Hourglass Chart

We spent this first day getting here, wandering around the city in bleary-eyed fascination and taking in a delicious dinner of sauerbraten, bread dumplings and bier at the Augustiner Keller Biergarten, proudly serving Augustiner bier which has been brewed since 1328!

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Louise Bier and dessert and some scrap metal on the wall that we sat next to.

Now I’m in bed writing and the younger and heartier of the group are out pub hopping.   Also Uncle Jim. For my family, discovering our “German roots” is not proving to be that much of a stretch!

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Mom and Dad walking home from Augustiner Keller

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Discovering our German roots in the hotel bar–Bier and Riesling

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Valentine Bier Family: Part II

Valentine Bier-Catherine Jiru Family Portrait

Catherin (Jiru) Bier, c. 1890

Left Behind:  March, 1882

When we last left Catherine, she had said goodbye to her husband, Valentine, to fend for her brood in Ketzelsdorf while he attempted to secure enough funds to sponsor their passage to America.  Recall that the family had already been reduced to destitution after Valentine had nearly died from smallpox.  Charles was only about 2 1/2 years old at the time, but later paid close attention to the stories passed down to him by his older siblings and his parents.  Looking back as an adult, Father Charles Bier writes:

Meanwhile mother was trying to keep herself and her flock of six youngsters from starving.  Now the creditors who had loaned my father the cash to go into the grain business began to worry that they might not get their money back, so they simply came and took whatever property was removable.  There was a cow, two goats, a few geese and chickens and some garden tools and implements.  This would have driven mother to the verge of despair had it not been for the help she received from some friends and relatives.  —Memoirs of an Old Recluse

During all of this, Catherine gave birth to her seventh child, Amalia, at the end of July.  This means that Valentine left his wife when she was five months pregnant!  Can you imagine how scared she must have been?

Valentine’s Journey:  March-April, 1882

Valentine Bier-Catherine Jiru Family Portrait

Valentine Bier, abt. 1890

Valentine’s ticket was paid for by an old friend from Ketzelsdorf, Frank Huschka.  According to passenger lists, Frank Huschka had come to Wisconsin ten years earlier, in 1872, at the age of 22.  He had traveled with his 20-year-old wife, Flora.  Frank & Flora’s occupation was listed as “landleute,” loosely translated to “farmer, peasant, country person.”  Frank was about 8 years younger than Valentine, born in 1850.  After the passenger list, I am unable to pick up the trail of Frank & Flora Huschka save for the recollections of Father Charles Bier.  He notes that after ten years in America, when Frank sent Valentine a ticket for passage, he was still struggling with poverty.  And yet he still found it within himself to help out an old friend.

Valentine traveled on a ship called the Elbe, as did his family after him.  Wikipedia tells us that the ship was practically brand new at the time, having been launched in April 1881.  The Elbe was the first of a series of eleven express steamers known as the “Rivers Class,” as they were all named after German rivers.   The Elbe had accommodation for 179 First Class passengers, 142 in Second Class, and 796 in Steerage. She was a very popular ship with immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe to the United States and was virtually always sold out in steerage.  Not surprisingly, Valentine’s ticket was in steerage!  He landed in Baltimore and took a train to Janesville, Wisconsin.

As the smallpox had badly scarred his face he never shaved again but grew a heavy black beard, now sprinkled with gray.  When he arrived at the R.R. station in Janesville, Wis., Mr. Huschka did not recognize him as he looked more like a “weary willy” than the respectable friend of former days.  He was then hired as a farm hand at $18.00 a month. —Memoirs of an Old Recluse

That $18.00 a month translates into about $400 per month in today’s currency–and he was trying to secure eight people’s passage.  Between April and July, he did it.

The Journey Home:  July-November, 1882

In July, 1882, Catherine received the bittersweet news that, with the help of friends, Valentine had secured the family’s passage to join him.  Father Charles captures some of the trepidation she must have felt:

This gave new hope to mother, although the thought of undertaking such a trip with seven small children was like a nightmare to her.  Yet the hope of finding a better home, and again living with her husband, buoyed her up with new courage and the determination to leave her onetime happy home, her friends and kinfolks, her parish church and school and all that had been dear to her since the days of her childhood . . . Truly sad for her were the last few days she spent in Ketzelsdorf, preparing for the dreaded voyage and the departure that left no hope of ever coming back . . . When the moment came to bid farewell to her mother and sisters and brothers she was overwhelmed with sadness and grief.  Her oft repeated prayer was:  “God’s will be done!” —Memoirs of an Old Recluse

[Note:  Catherine’s mother and brothers, Johanna, Frank & Florian Jiru, were to join them in about three years’ time.  I have no further record of her sisters save their mention in this passage.]  The family took the same route that Valentine did:  departure from Bremen, Germany.  Two to three weeks on board the Elbe in steerage.  Arrival in Baltimore.  Train to Janesville.  With seven kids, the youngest of which was an infant.  The oldest were 12 and 13.  Yikes.

Perhaps that voyage from Moravia to America with seven small children, the youngest of which was only a babe of three months, can be more easily imagined than described.  The older children had to carry as many bundles and packages as they could and when changing trains I also had to be carried as I was less than three years of age.  We spent over two weeks on board the ship Elbe.  This was a sailboat equipped with some additional steam power.  We had to travel in the lowest class called steerage which affords the least and poorest accommodations.  All the children became seasick but mother was spared from this affliction.  When the sea was rough and the ship rocked from side to side we often bumped together and fell over each other.  This made me cross and irritable so that in later years they used to tell me how angry I became when that happened and how I used to shout and tell them not to push me like the cows.  The food we got on board the ship was very poor.  There was no milk and the butter and meats were saturated with salt.  We felt so sick most of the time that we could not have eaten even good food. — Memoirs of an Old Recluse

S.S. Elbe Ship

S.S. Elbe, 1881

Before we leave the Elbe, it’s worth mentioning that the ship had a brief life and an interesting fate.  Thirteen years later, in 1895, she met her demise:

The night of 30 January 1895 was stormy.  In the North Sea, conditions were freezing and there were huge seas. SS Elbe had left Bremerhaven for New York earlier in the day with 354 passengers aboard. Also at sea on this rough night was the steamship Crathie, sailing from Aberdeen in Scotland, heading for Rotterdam. As conditions grew worse, the Elbe discharged warning rockets to alert other ships to her presence. The Crathie either did not see the warning rockets or chose to ignore them. She did not alter her course, with such disastrous consequences, that she struck the liner on her port side with such force that whole compartments of the Elbe were immediately flooded. The collision happened at 5.30 am and most of the passengers were still asleep.The Elbe began to sink immediately and the captain, von Goessel, gave the order to abandon ship. Amid great scenes of panic the crew managed to lower two of the Elbe‘s lifeboats. One of the lifeboats capsized as too many passengers tried in vain to squeeze into the boat. Twenty people scrambled into the second lifeboat, of whom 15 were members of the crew. The others were four male second-class passengers and a young lady’s maid by the name of Anna Boecker, who had been lucky enough to be pulled from the raging sea after the first boat had capsized. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Elbe, Captain von Goessel had ordered all the women and children to assemble there but no other lifeboats were launched because the ropes on the derricks were all frozen up, and so they perished along with the captain. Within 20 minutes of the collision, the Elbe had sunk and the only survivors were the 20 people in the one surviving lifeboat.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_Elbe_(1881)

Baltimore Harbor, Locust Point

Locust Point, Baltimore Harbor. Abt. 1860.

Catherine and the children landed in Baltimore Harbor on November 13, 1882.  While we all know of Ellis Island as a significant point of entry, Baltimore Harbor was the second most popular arrival point for immigrants to the United States at the time.  Disembarkation was fairly straightforward when compared to the process at Ellis Island and Elsewhere.  Doctors and officials boarded the ships as they steamed up the Chesapeake Bay.  The B&O railroad had even constructed two huge buildings that served as terminals for both arriving ships and departing rail cars.  (Connery, William.  “Point of Entry:  Baltimore, the Other Ellis Island.”)

After arriving at Baltimore we were all vaccinated while in quarantine.  This did not leave any ill effects as it seems we had all become immune to smallpox during father’s illness. — Memoirs of an Old Recluse

This statement is interesting and may reveal some provincial resistance to vaccination harbored by the Biers and/or lack of availability of the vaccine.  Vaccination to smallpox had been introduced into Europe in the 1790’s.  (Carrell, Jennifer Lee.  The Speckled Monster:  A Historical Tale of Battling Smallpox.)

Reunited:  November, 1882

Catherine and seven children traveled several days by rail from Baltimore to Janesville, Wisconsin.

My earliest recollection of any event of which I took notice and of which there is still a faint inkling in my memory, happened on the train as we traveled from Baltimore to Chicago.  It was that of a negro porter announcing the time for lunch.  We did not know what he said [recall that they spoke not a word of English] but it was the color of his face that lingered in my memory. — Memoirs of an Old Recluse

 

Janesville RR depot c. 1900

Janesville railroad depot, c. 1900

Catherine and the children disembarked the train and were met by Valentine, whom they had not seen for over eight months, and his sponsor & friend, Frank Huschka.

 

 

 

 The meeting of mother and dad was pathetic.  They both wept like lovelorn pilgrims, once more happily reunited.  It was the first time that dad had seen the baby and he had a pet name for each one of us.  While this reunion gave him much joy he also bewailed the fact that he had not been able to provide a decent home for the family.  After loading our luggage on the wagon we all piled on for our first American “buggy ride.” — Memoirs of an Old Recluse

The description is so heartbreakingly human;  it animates the somber faces that otherwise exist only as frozen visages in photographs.  Imagine how relieved Catherine and Valentine were.  I wonder what the individual pet names for each child were?

Lumber wagon c. 1880

Lumber wagon c. 1880. This is the type of humble conveyance that transported the reunited Bier family.

 

What a relief, readers.  So now the hard part is over, right?  Wrong . . .

 

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Valentine Bier Family Overview, or “Hey, you, pay attention!”

Before I continue on with the narrative of the Valentine Bier family, I want to give a brief summary of his progeny and descendants.  I always appreciate a “cast of characters” summary at the beginning of a particularly confusing novel, and this is certainly confusing.  Remember:  you can always refer back to the Valentine Bier Descendants summary page if you ever get confused.  As I’m working on my genealogy, I always like to keep a very brief family tree handy.

Jiru-Bier Women Four Generation Portrait

Johanna Jiru, taken abt. 1904

Not to spoil the surprise, but the whole family eventually made it to the United States.  Also coming along with them was Catherine’s mother, Johanna JIRU.  She appears in a number of family photographs and is mentioned in family diaries.  No matter if everyone else is frowning in a picture, she always has a spunky grin on her face.  She appears to have weighed no more than 80 pounds at any given time.  Two of her sons emigrated around the same time as her daughter, Catherine, did.  Their names were Frank and Florian and they both settled in Janesville, Wisconsin, as well.  I hope to learn more about the Jiru family during our upcoming trip back to Bohemia this summer.

OK, now onto the rest of the family.  Valentine’s parents, as previously mentioned, died in his childhood, and I don’t know about Catherine (Jiru) Bier’s father, and her mother, Johanna is accounted for.  They had ten kids, and a lot of familiar Rock County names spring up amongst their descendants.  Here’s a summary, so share with your friends:

 

Valentine Bier-Catherine Jiru Family Portrait

Valentine Bier Family, taken abt. 1890. Back row L-R: Charles, Frank, Louis, Anna, Frances, Amalia. Seated L-R: John, Valentine, Catherine, Johanna Jiru. Kids on laps: Emily, Edward, Carrie

This portrait is a copy of a copy.  It was taken about 1890, and in diaries is noted as being the first formal portrait ever created of the family.  Note how Johanna Jiru’s bird-like face bears a smile!  (Aside:  If anyone has the original of this, I’d love a scanned copy.  And, I’m always happy to share my information as well.)

Each of the kid’s story is interesting in its own right and will be summarized eventually.  For now: shorthand.  My goal is to give you a thumbnail sketch of each individual and highlight some descendants’ names in the hope that these families, too, might be directed to the blog.  Here we go:

CAST OF CHARACTERS:  THE KIDS

 

 

  1. Edward, John, Louis, Frank & Charles Bier

    John A. Bier. Taken abt 1905.

    1. John Bier was born in Ketzelsdorf and died in Janesville.  He left home at 15 to begin working as a hired hand in order to support the family.  He married Bertha SCHMIDLEY.  They had three daughters whose married surnames were ROETHLE, LANNON & MCCUE.

 

 

Jiru-Bier Women Four Generation Portrait

Four generations: Johanna (?) Jiru, Catherine (Jiru) Bier, Frances (Bier) Hanauska, Mary Agnes Bier. Taken abt. 1905 in Janesville, Wisconsin

2.  Frances (Bier) Hanauska was born in Ketzelsdorf and died in Wisconsin.  She married Wenzel HANAUSKA.  Theirs is a good example of families from the same village moving en masse and resuming life in a new location.  Wenzel Hanauska’s family was from Ketzelsdorf as well.  His sister, Anna Hanauska, married Catherina Jiru’s brother, Frank Jiru, and they both died in Janesville.  Frances started working out of the home as a hired girl at the age of 13.  Three years’ wages bought the family’s first team of horses.  Frances always appears serious and somber in photos, and I imagine that a life of hard work has something to do with it.  She and Wenzel had five children.  Two boys carried on the Hanauska name in the area, and I went to high school with one of their descendants–Leigh Hanauska Kelz.  One daughter became a nun, one remained single, and one became a GANSER.

 

 

Edward, John, Louis, Frank & Charles Bier

Louis A. Bier, abt. 1905

3.  Louis Bier was also born in Ketzelsdorf and died in Iowa, after farming most of his life outside of Janesville.  My dad remembers him as always speaking with a thick, thick German accent, wearing a bushy mustache, and smoking a pipe.  He married Frances PARR, who was also born in Austria although I need to determine which town.  There are a lot of Parrs around Janesville, and people are always asking me to figure out “how we’re related to the Parrs.”  Well, this is about the sum of it.  Some of the names of their first generation of descendents in addition to Bier include:  MUELLER, PETERS, and KORTH.

 

 

Anna Bier

Anna (Sister Veronica) Bier

4.  Anna Bier was born in Ketzelsdorf and died in Oakland, California.  She joined the Little Sisters of the Poor and became Sister Veronica.  She took a vow of extreme poverty, begging on the streets to support the mission, and never returned home after joining the convent.

 

 

Edward, John, Louis, Frank & Charles Bier

Frank Bier, abt. 1905

5.  Frank Bier was born in Ketzelsdorf and died in Iowa.  He eventually gave up farming and became a railroad man.  He married Mary KLEIN, who was a great friend to the girls in the family.  Her family lived “in town” in Janesville.  Frank and Mary had 8 children.  Three of the boys became priests, and surnames found in their first generation of descendants include Bier, and RADDENBACH.  Finally, I think that we can all agree that Frank’s cheekbones are ridiculous and that he is a bit of a dreamboat.

 

 

Edward, John, Louis, Frank & Charles Bier

Father Charles Bier, abt. 1905

6.  Charles Bier was born in Ketzelsdorf and died in Janesville.  He became a priest, starting off a run of Catholic religious in the family that ended in my dad’s generation because, for some reason, neither he nor any of his cousins really seemed to enjoy the seminary all that much.  Charles’s diaries, when stacked up, are over a foot thick.  His commentary provides much of the color and detail that make this story so interesting.

 

 

 

Charles, Edward, Emily, Frances, Amalia Bier

Amalia (Bier) Bott

7.  Amalia Bier was born in Ketzelsdorf and died in Wisconsin.  She married James BOTT, who promptly died after the birth of their fifth child.  Amalia is the one who caught smallpox as an infant prior to emigrating.  Before getting married, Amalia also worked out of the home as a hired girl and traveled between the homes of her elder brothers helping to care for their wives after childbirth.  In pictures of her as an old lady she always looks just done with it all, and I imagine that all told, she had a pretty rough life.  In addition to one nun, the other children passed on the Bott and SHERIDAN names through marriage.

 

 

Valentine Bier-Catherine Jiru Family Portrait

Caroline Bier, abt. 1890

8.  Caroline Bier was the first of the children born in Wisconsin.  She lived at home her entire life and suffered from some  form of epilepsy.

 

 

 

Charles, Edward, Emily, Frances, Amalia Bier

Emily (Bier) Gassert

9.  Emily Bier was born in Wisconsin.  She married Joseph GASSERT and raised a family in Milwaukee.  One of her sons was a priest and the rest of the next generation can be found under the names Gassert, MEULER, REITER.  Of all of the Valentine Bier clan, Emily had the most grandchildren:  26!  Despite this she always smiles benignly in her photos.

 

 

Edward, John, Louis, Frank & Charles Bier

Edward A. Bier, abt. 1905

Finally, Edward Bier was the last, and was born and died in Janesville.  He was born when Valentine and Catherine were both 47 and started becoming an uncle to his older siblings’ children shortly thereafter.  In fact his wife, Rosalia ROETHLE was sister to one of John Bier’s daughter’s husbands.  Think about that for awhile!  Ed and Rosalia had 4 boys, one of whom became a priest and the rest of whom scattered Biers including my own family all over the Rock Prairie.  I never met him, but he just always looks so austere in his photos!

 

Sooooo, that’s it.  Remember, names who might be interested in this topic and should be directed accordingly include:

BIER, BOTT, GANSER, GASSERT, HANAUSKA, KLEIN, KORTH, JIRU, LANNON, MCCUEOETHLE, MEULER, MUELLER, PARR, PETERS, RADDENBACH, REITER, SCHMIDLEY, & SHERIDAN

 

Do any of you remember anything about any of these original ten?  Please comment below!

 

 

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Voice from the backseat: an explanation

For me at least, the most important, most memorable conversations seem to happen in the car.  There are no distractions, and there is no escape.  And it is usually impossible to sustain any meaningful / awkward eye contact for any length of time.  Since adding kids into the equation, the sheer volume of material that drifts up from the backseat is irresistible.  Some topics that we’ve covered include:

  • Who has more body parts, boys or girls?
  • Why can’t I have a phone?
  • Besides narwhal, what is your favorite marine mammal?
  • Would you rather bungee jump off a bridge or skydive?
  • Why can’t I have a phone?
  • Why did that girl in my class say that Hillary Clinton wants to kill all the unborn babies?
  • I don’t like to think about you having gray hair, because that means you’re getting old and are going to die.
  • Why can’t I have a phone?

The first conversation I remember having in the car happened when I was in the backseat of the blue boat of a Chevy that I remember as my family’s first car, although photographic evidence would suggest that dad’s orange Vega was actually the first. When we kids were little, mom would schlep us to the YMCA two or three days a week for what we affectionately called “gym and swim.”  We took infant and toddler swimming classes and then did various calisthenics and ran around while mom had a reprieve from the solitary confinement of life at home with a string of small children in the days before the internet and cable TV.  Once after gym and swim I must have been passing a lot of gas in the Chevy, because mom glanced at me in the rearview mirror and asked if I had to go B.M. and I had absolutely no idea what that meant, and how could I possible be involved in anything so official sounding?  We were driving toward the old post office in Janesville, just down the street from the Y, and maybe that pseudo-Greek building dominating the view out the windshield added to the feeling that this was Truly Something Big.  Anyway, that’s my first memory in the car, with its white vinyl upholstery and wide bench seats and the smell of chlorine in my hair.

What is your best car story?  Earliest car memory?