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