Ann Laemmlen Lewis
22 November 1988
I sat at his bedside and held his cold hand. “Grandpa,” I whispered, “It’s Ann.” He roused from his sleep and turned to look at me. His nightshirt was awry, his face was unshaven, his cold hand trembled.
“He is so out of place in this rest home,” I thought. This proud, self-reliant man, now at the mercy of young nurses who haven’t a clue who he is or where he has come from. They are more concerned with his bedding and his meals than with his life or his mind. But that is their job. It is my job to be his grand-daughter.
“This man deserves a more grand ending to his life than this,” I thought, “I must take him away from here–even if only for an hour or two.”
I turned to him. “Grandpa, tell me a story.”
I smile now when I think of all the hundreds of times I’ve said those very words. And I think of all the times he has lifted me away–to his homeland of Germany, on a trip through the Panama Canal, across America in a Model T Ford, from farm to farm, laboring, working, saving. Today was my turn to take him away–to take him back.
“Grandpa, tell me a story,” I asked again. “Tell me about where you came from. Tell me about where you have been. Tell me how you came to America.” Grandpa’s face brightened, his alert mind left his hospital bed, and, together, we went away from there.
Grandpa once found a love letter in an old desk with an arched lid. It was a letter from his father’s father, Leonhard Heinrich Lämle, to his love, a young housemaid named Maria Sustina Schelle, who lived in Switzerland. His words spoke to her as if she were a queen.
Leonhard and Maria were married and had two boys, Heinrich, my great grandfather, born in 1863, and Albert, born about two years later. Leonhard lost his life when the boys were still young. Maria started a store to support the family, probably selling groceries and household goods. Enough money was earned to send the boys to a better school in the neighboring village of Heilbronn.
Heinrich worked in a tax assessor’s office after school, but he was not one for office work. He changed to become a hired man for a farmer in Grossgartach. With one horse, he farmed limited acreage, which was mostly rented.
Heinrich married nineteen-year-old Karoline Schott, a hard-working girl. Her father was the overseer of the chicory processing plant in Grossgartach. Five children were born to Heinrich and Karoline: Heinrich, born 25 Oct. 1889; Marie, born 11 Jan. 1891; Herman, born 9 Aug. 1892; Rudolf, my Grandpa, born 13 July 1899; and Wilhelm, born 22 Dec. 1903.
Heinrich and Karoline raised about 3 cows, a few young stock, 2 pigs, a couple dozen chickens, a few geese, and a few rabbits. Money was scarce. Every possible Pfennig was saved. Often people walked the four miles from the Heilbronner Depot to Grossgartach to save 20 Pfennig (about five cents).
Heinrich worked about 25 acres of land. But this land was broken into small plots–about 20 of them, and they were scattered in a one-and-one-half mile radius around the village.
Heinrich was community-minded. He served many years in the village council and on a church council. He was a representative for widows and orphans, and he substituted for the town mayor. All these things were done without pay.
The family worked hard together. Grandpa Rudolf was a bright child and a good student. Of all the children, he was selected to attend a better school in Heilbronn. The railroad ticket cosh 10 DM (about $2.50) for three months of transportation.
In 1914 World War I broke out. Hermann joined the Ulanen cavalry regiment in Ludwigsburg in 1912, survived the war, and came home at the end of 1918 half deaf and nervous. Hermann was in the infantry from 1915 to 1918. Grandpa was drafted in July 1917 into Regiment 122 based in Heilbronn. After three months, he asked to be transferred to the mountain artillery, Sonthofen Allgau. He was only in one bloody battle–at the Marne, against the Americans. He returned home January 1919.
After the war, Grandpa became a surveyor. He wanted to work outdoors, and he enjoyed geometry in school. But after losing the war, a future in this field didn’t look bright. So Grandpa went to the Agricultural Hochschule Hohenheim. After two years, he had his diploma. Then he taught young farm boys in the Winterschule Schwabish Hall from October 1921 to April 1922.
One Sunday afternoon, Grandpa read an article in the Landwirtshaftlichen Presse: “Ein Moderner, Industrialisierter Landwirtschafts Betrieb.” (A modern Industrial Agricultural Enterprise.) Grandpa wrote to the chief of the operation, located 25 miles west of Berlin and Potsdam. He asked if he might be a common laborer in exchange for learning experiences there. Grandpa was lucky to be invited to go. He was given the responsibilities of carrying out agricultural experiments such as sugar beet spacing, fertilizer trials, and waste disposal (a trainload of garbage from Berlin came to them every day). He also compared varieties of potatoes and grain, and he worked with soil experiments. Living conditions were excellent, but galloping inflation left no earnings to speak of. Inflation ended in 1923.
Grandpa became curious to know what farming was like in America. When he heard that Henry Ford came out with a $5.00/day minimum wage, five times the wage of a teamster in the Betrieb, Grandpa made plans to go to America. A farm boy named Arnold Hinrichs who studied in Berlin helped Grandpa get permission to enter the United States. He taught in the Winterschule during the winter of 1924-25 to earn money for the trip.
At the end of April, 1925, Grandpa sailed on the ship Arabic, stopping in Halifax, before landing in New York City. There he bought a rail ticket to St. Paul. Only $18.00 of his savings remained. He arrived at the farm of Erwin Hinrichs on Erwin’s wedding day, May 1, 1925. That night there was a wedding chase over a rough road in an old Ford. Grandpa didn’t think the car would survive the festivities!
Grandpa remembers his first day working on the Hinrich farm. He had not had an opportunity to buy overalls yet, and he was asked to milk the cows with his nice breeches on.
Life on the Hinrich farm was not easy. The hired man often got the bad end, especially loading and unloading loose hay. There were no bailers yet. When winter came, hired men were no longer needed, so Grandpa was very lucky to meet a man named Dr. Emil Kern, who was looking for a partner to travel west with him. He had a 4-door Model T Ford. Grandpa had saved $150.00, and in September, he left with Emil, traveling through Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, to California.
The money didn’t last long. They always slept in the car with the front seat down. After six weeks on the road, they were tired, hungry, and broke. Their first work was found picking cotton at the Hoover Ranch in Wasco. After that, they pruned trees with an Italian gang, nine hours a day for $4.00. Next, they pruned vines in Sanger for 25 cents an hour.
Emil left to go north to work on a filling station, and Grandpa stayed and rented a farm west of Sanger. He says he worked inhumanly hard with the barest of living conditions. All was temporary, and every cent was saved. Grandpa left Sanger in an open 1923 Model T Ford Roadster on April 12, 1928, and praying on his way to Fresno, “Dear God, do not let me come back!”
Going north, he tried to find work in several lumber camps, but it rained nearly every day, and no work was available. The Northern Californian Coast Redwoods were a beautiful sight he has never forgotten.
One morning after a night of rain, Grandpa got stuck in a meadow next to the road. Grandpa said if he would have come out a second later, a Greyhound would have crushed him, car and all. The Greyhound skidded to a stop close to where he was crosswise on the road.
Grandpa didn’t want to return to Germany before September, so he worked on a farm near Stephensville, near Missoula, Montana, for 3 months for $45.00/month. On the first of August, 1928, he left, spending three days in Yellowstone Park, then continued east. In Cheyenne, Wyoming, he saw a rodeo, and marveled at how a girl on a galloping horse could slide down one side, go under the belly, and back up into the saddle on the other side.
He also remembers watching an Indian gala with drummers and dancers, and seeing a herd of wild horses in South Dakota. After a stop at Mt. Rushmore, he stopped to visit the Hinrichs in Minnesota, helping them thrash three days before moving on to Chicago. He continued to Detroit, Buffalo, Niagara Falls, Ontario, Paris, Hamilton, Albany New York, Patterson, and New Jersey. The trip from Sanger to the east coast lasted six weeks. In New York, Grandpa boarded ship again, for Hamburg Germany. He arrived in Grossgartach on a sunny September afternoon. Except for the man at the depot, he didn’t see a single soul as he walked towards his home. When he turned left on the street where he lived, he caught sight of a young woman coming diagonally across the street in a way that was beautiful. He felt inside: “Here comes my woman, my bride.” And so it was.
Her name was Elsa Schaefer. In 1912, when she was seventeen years old, Elsa had traveled to America, where she found employment as a house maid. She earned between $4.00 and $6.00/week, and later $15.00 in a grocery store. Every month she sent $10.00 home to Germany to help her widowed mother. Instead of using it to help pay for her pieces of land, her mother put the money in a bank. It was all lost when inflation made the German money worthless in 1923.
In 1928-29 there was 30% unemployment in Germany. After losing $500.00 to get the patent on a sugarbeet topper someone else used, Grandpa took a 4-week tractor course near Berlin, and worked for a few months to save some money.
Elsa and Rudolf wanted independence. Believing they could make it together in America, they married on September 28, 1929, and in November they set sail on a honeymoon cruise to America. They left from Hamburg on one of the four German motorboats that went through the Panama Canal. The Seattle was a freighter weighing 7000 tons. It cost only $200.00 per person from Hamburg to San Francisco. Stops were made in Antwerp, Le Havre, Southhampton, Trinidad in Venezuela, both ends of the Panama Canal, and in Los Angeles, before landing in San Francisco six weeks later, on the 26th of December, 1929. Except for a wild mid-Atlantic storm with 30-foot waves, it was a wonderful honeymoon, one of the nicest anyone could ever imagine.
Grandpa remembers well his amazement when he saw the huge stocks of bananas in Panama. A young boy offered to sell him a stock for 25 cents, Grandpa paid him 50 cents, and both were thrilled with the deal.
They landed in San Francisco at 11:00 a.m., and by 4:00 p.m. had purchased a reconditioned Model T Ford Roadster for $145.00. They drove to Modesto to visit friends, then on to Sanger, where they stayed with good friends, the Hans Linshoefts. After a few days, they found a 20-acre place to rent on Lac Jac Avenue. They stayed two years. After that, they rented the 27-acre Higgenbotham place, near Parlier for three years. The land on these farms had not been leveled and irrigation was a back-breaking job.
Dried peaches were sold for 3 3/4 cents a pound, and raisins for $55.00 a ton. They received $300.00, three times from Germany before no more money could be sent out. With that, and with the money they earned, they were able to buy their present place from William Kreb for $8250.00 in November, 1934.
Much work was needed on their newly-acquired farm. Nothing was scraped, and Grandpa says nothing growing there was planted right. Five acres of old prune trees needed to come out. Grandpa said, “The neighbor and I sawed the trees down close to the ground with a crosscut saw. Except for plowing out the stumps with a U-plow, I did all the work by hand, even split up the stumps. We had a wood pile 20 feet wide, 5 feet high, and 60 feet long. Wood was used for cooking and heating in summer and winter. Elsa pruned eight acres of muscat grapes all alone.”
The only substantial building was the house, but it had no real kitchen, the front porch was old-fashioned, and there was no back porch. The bedrooms and bathroom were remodeled, and a cellar was dug. There were lots of rats. One day, with the help of the neighbor’s dog, 18 were killed! The work on the house was finished in 1944.
At first, there were hardly any tools on the place with which to work the land. Grandpa drove to Fresno with a borrowed rickety trailer and bought tools for $300.00.
In 1937, they harvested twenty-seven tons of raisins and bought a brand new 4-door Model A for $970.00, getting $50.00 for the old roadster.
Slowly, and surely Grandpa and Grandma prospered and created a new life here in America. I asked Grandpa if many people from his home area in Germany came to America at that time. He said, no, he was the only one he knew who came, except for Elsa, my Grandma.
Grandpa and Grandma have had a good life here. They have raised four outstanding sons, Arthur (my father), Henry, Wilfred (who had a twin sister, Ruth, who died of pneumonia at 16 months), and Franklin.
Grandma died in June of this year, and at her funeral service, Dad spoke of the life she and Grandpa made together here in America. They worked hard, and they shared what they had with others. I learned something new about Grandpa and Grandma at that funeral. Dad spoke of the days during the war when times in Germany were hard. Grandpa and Grandma sent hundreds and hundreds of care packages home to family, to friends, and to people they didn’t even know. No one ever told me about that before, and as I heard that story for the first time, my heart swelled with gratitude for my Grandpa and my Grandma.
I asked Grandpa to tell me more about that story. “I think I spent about $10,000.00 for relief between 1945 and 1946,” he said. “I thought I didn’t want to be one who made a profit out of the war prices. During the war, we got checks we didn’t expect because prices went up, up, up. So all that extra money went for relief. The average package cost about $22.00. We sent raisins, honey, canned foods, clothing, and sometimes mother would put in a chocolate bar.” During one Christmas vacation, 150 packages were sent.
This was a family project. For two years, every week packages went to the post office. Grandpa was in charge of getting the names of people who were in need. He corresponded with Tanta Mina in Grossgartach, and she sent names and addresses of families in the community who needed help. She went to community leaders and to churches to collect names of people they didn’t even know. Packages were even sent to other communities. The boys helped pack the packages, in assembly-line fashion, and Grandma sealed them up. Many of them were packaged with cloth, hand-stitched closed.
Grandpa and Grandma returned to their homeland of Germany in 1952, and again in 1970. From what I’ve been told, people they didn’t even know came to them to thank them for caring enough to share during those hard times.
To this day, Grandpa remembers the tragedies of war. He has written, “Mankind could be satisfied and mostly happy if war would be no more. Think of all the misery these wars in this century have caused. Peace is a gift of God. ‘Love one another’ it says again and again in the New Testament. It must be studied and obeyed. Think of Hitler–his godlessness was the trouble of much of mankind.”
Grandpa has always had a reverence for God and for the greatness of his creations. He speaks fondly of Dr. J. Langenwalter, the pastor of the First Mennonite church Grandpa attended. This good man spoke at little Ruth’s funeral, and from that time, Grandpa began to attend church. He has not forgotten three profound truths taught by Dr. Langenwalter: “It is a divine law that the growth of the knowledge of God is determined by a man’s obedience to him.” “We must live the whole week through asking what Jesus would do.” And, “God never fails to reveal Himself to the point of perfect understanding, if a man consents to do His will.”
Grandpa is close to God. And now, his life is in its final months and years. Grandpa has lived well. Grandpa has loved well. Grandpa is a good good man.
The nurses were back–time for another meal. Time to get Grandpa dressed. Time to do their duties.
And it was time for me, his grand-daughter, to bring him back. We’d spent a wonderful afternoon away from there. We’d traveled together through some wonderful memories.
“Grandpa, thanks for the stories,” I told him. He leaned over and kissed me, and said, “Ann, you are a wonderful wonderful girl. God bless you.”
“Grandpa, I love you,” I whispered as loudly as I could. My voice didn’t work very well any more, and tears blurred my eyes. I left his bedside. His hand was warm now.