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, 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, 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.
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 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. 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 . . .