I have been working on a collection of letters my grandfather wrote a century ago from Camp Grant, Illinois, in 1917. He had just joined the United States Army; his artillery regiment was at Camp Grant for training and outfitting. He was the mess sergeant, in charge of the kitchen, cooks, and supplies.
I would like to let these letters speak for themselves, to tell their own story, but of course one wants to supply some background, too. So I embarked on a preface, which as you’ll see below, soon got out of hand. Nevertheless, I publish raw text here, as I have put this project off long enough. Once you have a blog post online, you have something to work with! That’s the way a writer like me thinks.
So what shall we try to accomplish in this preface? A prior question is, does the preface replace individual introductions for the letters? I don’t think so. The preface stands by itself. It does not replace anything. So we’ll write some family history that contains some background for the letters, an introduction that is as short or as long as it needs to be. Such an introduction ought to be high level, and deal with what little we know about family history. We’ll include anything we want there, and not worry about length. I can always write a short section later, to explain why you put this book together, and to let you know the book’s origins. In general, I want to let ‘er rip with the introduction, as this may be the only chance to write some of these things down. I want to interest you in the Greffenius family history, and in upcoming volumes in the series.
The introduction ought to give basic facts about the book’s two main characters, Albert and Lora. Albert was born in 1887. I don’t know his birthday. I want to guess he was born in the first half of the year. If so, he was thirty years old when he went to Camp Grant, and began his correspondence with Lora Lang. Lora Lang was born April 21, 1897, so she was twenty years old when the correspondence began. The age difference, at ten years, was substantial, but not so large as to preclude a growing friendship. I want to say a little about the lives of each protagonist up to the beginning of the story in 1917. I don’t know a lot about their lives, but I’ll tell you the little I do know.
AFG’s father, and my great-grandfather, was Julius Greffenius, arrived in the U. S. as an infant or toddler during the Civil War. He died of unknown causes in 1888, only one year after Albert Frank was born in 1887.
Albert Frank’s only son and only child was named Albert Julius, my father. He died in 2011. For several years after that, AFG’s letters were tucked into a bottom drawer of my dresser upstairs. Over the last two or three Christmas seasons, my sister Laura has travelled from Anchorage, Alaska, to Boston, Massachusetts to visit. During those visits, she stayed up late at night to read these and dozens of our grandfather’s letters, written now a hundred years ago. As a result, the letters migrated from the dresser to my study.
Let’s move back and forth over that century, to see where that takes us. Our grandfather, Albert Frank Greffenius, grew up near Ripon, Wisconsin during the late 1800s. My dad mentioned a couple of times that he thinks his father’s given name at birth was Frank Albert, or Franz Albert, but he wasn’t sure about that. His father was already thirty-seven years old when he, Albert Julius, was born in 1924. That means Albert Frank was born in 1887. He had plenty of time to swap his first name and middle name during that time, if that’s what he preferred.
The other character in this story, Lora Lang, is mostly silent. Without her, this story could not have reached the twenty-first century. She saved the letters her friend Albert, then her beau, then her husband wrote to her from 1917 on. When she died in 1985, her son acquired the letters she saved. When Albert Julius died in 2011, he passed the letters on to his children. Laura’s interest in their content makes me think we should do what we can to preserve them.
Now we have a project that feels rather steep. I think I have taken almost two years to prepare the first eight letters. The stack of old paper is thick – I cannot estimate how many letters it may contain. I did a quick survey, and see that most of the letters date from the early 1920s. My sister has read many more of them than I have. Most of us like round numbers. At one hundred years old, I thought we should publish the letters Albert Frank wrote in 1917. We can take up letters he wrote in 1918 next year.
Why, at age thirty, did Albert Frank start a correspondence with Lora Lang, ten years younger, and also from the Ripon area? World War I has something to do with that. I will tell you the little bit I know about Lora’s and Albert’s experiences before 1917. I’d like to tell you about things that happened after that year, too, but you need a good reason to read future volumes of these letters. One way or another, we’ll build some history around these letters.
Let’s start with Albert Frank’s parents. His father’s name is Julius Hermann Greffenius. Born in 1859, he came to the United States as a young boy during the Civil War. In the early 1880s he married Amelia Dahlman. The couple had two sons, William E. Greffenius, born in 1884, and Albert Frank three years later. Julius died in 1888, only twenty-nine years old. No one knows why.
Amelia remarried not too long afterward. I have not known the name of her second husband – it was William Lieske – but he and Amelia raised their two boys well. A lot of immigrants from Germany settled in central Wisconsin, so the community was close. I’ve never asked the question straight out before, but one wonders why Albert Frank might have joined the army when he was thirty years old, well after fighting age. Army recruiting would not send someone that seasoned into infantry training. A lot of influences might lead to a decision like that. I wonder if growing up in a close community of German families in Wisconsin might be one of them.
Another bit of speculation about AFG’s name: Albert Frank’s stepbrother after Amelia remarried was named Frank. Perhaps his stepfather and mother took to calling him Albert, to tell the two boys apart. That would explain the change of given names early in his life!
I wanted to write what my dad told me about Albert Frank’s life before 1917. The problem is, I don’t know what parts of the story come before the war, and what parts come after! So I will have to guess. Perhaps letters I have not read will contain hints, or more than hints, about AFG’s activities after the war.
AFG taught himself how to be an attorney, just as I taught myself how to be a technical writer. We both had a lot of help, but the training was self-directed. In my grandfather’s case, I don’t know what parts of his preparation occurred before he was in the army, and what parts occurred after his service.
If we look for continuity of location, AFG’s legal training occurred after he left the army, during 1919 and 1920. By 1921, he formed a partnership with another attorney named Hoverson in Valley City, North Dakota. AJG told me about how his father became a lawyer, but he didn’t place that story in relation to AFG’s army service. Perhaps he figured I would know.
If our best guess is correct, and legal training occurred after 1918, we have thirty years unaccounted for! That is, we have no idea what my grandfather did as he grew into a boy and a young man during the late 1800s and early 1900s. After that, a full decade of his life, his twenties, goes unchronicled. What did he do? Turns out he was a bank examiner, or auditor. Young men and women do that now, too, except they work for large consulting and accounting firms!
My dad said AFG took business courses at a small school in Iowa before he studied law. Seems to me those business courses were in Fairfield, Iowa, in the southeastern part of the state. We have a letter from around 1920, sent from Fairfield, so even that part of my grandfather’s life seems to have occurred after the Great War!
Did AFG just knock about for ten or more years, before he joined the army? Did he live at home and work on the farm? Did he travel out to Colorado, to see his older brother William, who settled out there? That does not seem so likely, as I believe William moved to Durango, Colorado later in his life. How did he earn his money? Who were his friends? What were his interests outside of work? We have to guess about all of these things. In fact, the record is so empty, we cannot even guess.
The first thirty years of AFG’s life, then, seem to have disappeared – not totally, though: I found a few business letters from that period. That shows why you should write things down. Whatever AFG may have written down before 1917, we have little of it. At age thirty, he started to send letters to a young woman who preserved his correspondence. She kept his letters together, in one place. More than sixty years later, when she died, they were still in one place. She passed them on to her son, who passed them on to me. Aside from a couple of photographs I’ve seen, they are my only material connection to my grandfather.
If I have to guess, I’d say my grandfather did a little of everything during the ten to fifteen years that preceded the war. First he had to finish high school. We don’t even know where he went to school. We are talking about rural Wisconsin, where the farm and the Lutheran church came before everything else. Yet we know AFG was well read, because he wrote well. Much later in life, he wrote an account of Jesus’ trial. In fact, once he started writing, he didn’t stop. A writer like that also reads.
So my guess is that his appreciation for words began while he was in school. It may have come from his parents, of course. In any case, after he left high school, the true mystery begins. Without the structure of college, or the structure and demands of a family, how do you account for the activities of a young man in his twenties? I can’t even account for my twenties, and I had plenty of structure built into my life during that decade! AFG seems to have been an electron, jumping from one orbit to another.
My dad tells me his father was ambitious. Everything points that way, especially given the story that unfolds after 1918. We have no reason to think he was less ambitious before the war. The difference before the war is that he did not have any anchors: no steady job, no wife or children, no close family outside of Ripon. No wonder he thought to join the army when the war started. He had already left Ripon, but he was not headed anywhere definite. He was already thirty years old by then.
So I guess we have to start where the letters start, in 1917. I don’t even know his stepfather’s name – see more below. I don’t know if I could find it, even if I tried to look it up. Our family has some connection with the Lieske’s, who owned a hardware store in South Dakota. I do not know if that connection comes via Amelia’s remarriage after 1889. I can’t think of any other source for that connection. I will report in on that question, if I find information related to it. Meantime, I wonder if AFG’s losing his father when he was one year old was related at all to his lack of anchors or roots during his twenties. I wish I knew something about his relationship with his stepfather.
Having mentioned the Lieske’s, I need to write a little about them. My dad and I travelled to Pipestone, Minnesota, around 1970, to visit Frank and Linda Lieske in a nursing home. I’d like to tell you about that visit.
What drew Albert Frank out to the Dakotas in the first place? The family connection may have been Frank Lieske, AFG’s stepbrother. Frank Lieske owned a hardware store somewhere in central South Dakota. Pipestone is just across the state line from South Dakota. My dad said he and his parents used to travel south from Valley City, to visit his cousins in South Dakota. Frank Lieske was the same generation as my dad’s father, around the same age as AFG’s older brother. My dad always liked hardware stores, too.
Note: Go here to see photographs related to Ripon’s history.
Another note, from a message I wrote to my son:
I am doing some research into family history, for my latest project. I found that your great-grandfather, Albert Frank, began his career as a bank examiner, or auditor, before he started his career in law. Interesting parallel to your start. Albert Frank was in South Dakota at age twenty-three, examining accounts for a small-town bank, in 1910. Seven years later, at age thirty, he became a mess sergeant in the army for about a year and a half, a turn in his career I’m sure he did not expect. Then he prepared himself for legal work after the war.
If the first thirty years of AFG’s life are blank, or nearly so, the first twenty years of Lora Hannah Lang’s life share the same quality. We don’t know a lot about her life from 1897 – when she was born – to 1917, when she began her correspondence with AFG. In fact, we do not know a lot about her life before 1922 or 1923, when she married AFG.
Lora’s parents were Charles and Augusta Lang of Ripon. AJG’s notes indicate Augusta’s maiden name was Smith, but he places a question mark after the name. Interesting that he is not sure about his grandmother’s maiden name. I think he was not close to the Lang’s. Every time my dad spoke of his grandfather, Charles Lang, his voice took on a rather grim note. He said Charles drank heavily, and beat his daughters when he was drunk. He wondered whether his mother was so anxious and nervous throughout her life, because her father would break into her bedroom while she slept at night, and beat her for no reason. Try to imagine that: you never feel secure in your own home, where your parents are supposed to protect you.
Lora had a twin sister named Elnora, who never married. She also had a brother named Carl, who did not have children. Lora was quite close to her sister, as is often the case with twins, and missed her terribly after she moved to North Dakota. Albert Frank and Lora would visit Ripon for almost three weeks every summer. I think the friendship between Elnora and Lora was one of the main reasons for making such a long trip. Many of the roads in the 1930s were not even paved yet! In fact, the 30s and 40s were when many of the roads in that part of the country were being paved, so I’m sure the trip from Valley City to Ripon had many detours!
We can only speculate why Lora was willing to move so far away from Ripon, given how much she missed her family and friends there after she left. Brutal treatment from her father must have had something to do with it. That makes her decision to stand up to him in the matter of her marriage, after the war, all the more remarkable. Inebriated or not, he must have been a fearsome figure for her. He may have seen Albert Frank as too old for her, certainly a mature man who would take his daughter outside of his control. I expect his daughter saw Albert Frank the same way: someone who could remove her from her father’s threats. So four or five years after the war, she moved to North Dakota, to join her new husband.
I realize I have one more note to write for today. Making connections is one of the most pleasurable things about learning. That happened a short time ago, when I went to see if I could discover the name of Amelia Dalman’s second husband.
First, a couple of notes about names. Albert Frank’s name appears as Albert Franz in the printed family tree I checked. He grew up in a German Lutheran community, so I expect the name on his birth certificate was Albert Franz, or Franz Albert. Changing the z to a k would have been an easy change to make. As for his mother, I believe I have seen her name spelled numerous ways. Amalia Dahlmann is the most German form. Amelia Dalman is the most American. I will stay with Amelia for her first name. What about her surname? Shall we make it Dalman, or Dahlman? We can leave off the second n at the end of the name. I sort of like the h before the l, though, but it seems that after you add the h, you should add the n as well.
Here is the interesting train of discoveries. When Amelia remarried, she did indeed marry someone named Lieske. He was a widower named William Lieske, who had two children from his first marriage, Frank and Minnie. So Amelia and William had a lot in common: they had both lost their first spouse to death, and both had two children from their first marriage. Amelia and William did not have children of their own. I imagine Amelia had three last names during her lifetime: Dalman, Greffenius, and Lieske. The family records always refer to her as Amelia Dalman, so that’s the name she’ll have here. She gave a lot of continuity for the family in Wisconsin.
We don’t know how Frank wound up owner of a hardware story in South Dakota. Like Valley City, his town – my memory tells me the town’s name is Chelsea, population only 27 in 2010 – was a long way from Wisconsin. Chelsea was the other place my dad visited during the summer. Albert Frank did a lot of travelling during his lifetime.
The other connection I made was Minnie! Just as Frank was AFG’s stepbrother, Minnie was AFG’s stepsister. AFG mentions Minnie quite frequently in his correspondence with Lora, but I had no idea who she was. Now that mystery is solved.
Let’s say Amelia married William Lieske in the early 1890s, a few or several years after she lost her first husband in 1888. That means AFG’s family, the only one he would remember after age five or so, would be the one I have described here. Mother Amelia Dalman, father William Lieske, brother William Greffenius, stepbrother Frank Lieske, and stepsister Minnie Lieske. That is the first time I have ever been clear about the consequences of Julius Greffenius’s death in 1888, and Amelia’s remarriage. I am glad my father took me to visit Frank Lieske at that nursing home in Pipestone, when I was in ninth grade or so!
Whenever my dad explained family history to me late at night, I would think, I’m not going to remember the complications that come from Amelia’s remarriage. It was hard enough to keep the straight-line ancestry from Julius to Albert Frank in order. I mean, the 1800s seem a long time ago. AFG was born 130 years ago, which just seems hard for me to grasp. Seems my grandfather should have been born in the 1930s, but my dad was already on the verge of manhood by the mid-1930s. So here we are, in 2017, talking about events from the 1800s. When you think my great-grandfather, Julius Greffenius, was born just before the Civil War, in 1859, that gives you even more reason to reflect on the rapid passing of time, and the reach of generations.
As long as I’m on a roll here, let me make a few remarks about the Colorado branch of the family. AFG’s older brother William moved out there. Again, no one has any idea what took him so far away from Wisconsin. The Greffenius family seems to be a restless clan. My wife asked what he did out there. I said, well, he came from a family of farmers in Wisconsin, but you can’t farm in Colorado. It’s semi-desert out there. All you can do is ranch! So I figure that’s what William Greffenius did. He must have been a rancher. When you look at pictures of his descendants, taken in Durango almost a hundred years after William moved out there, they all have the lanky Greffenius build, and they all dress in blue jeans and cowboy boots. So I figure my guess about William’s livelihood can’t be far off.
William had two surviving sons, Ruben and Rino. Rino I believe worked with the U. S. Forest Service. Ruben may have worked in conservation and natural resources as well, perhaps as an instructor or professor at one of the state universities. I can’t rely on my memory, though. That’s another question to ask when I have a chance.
William had a third son named Lavern Milo Greffenius. He died in a hunting accident in his mid-teens. He was born in 1919, and died in 1936. I had envisioned Milo’s death in Wisconsin when my dad first told me about it, and perhaps it did occur there. His family may have moved to Colorado in the mid-thirties. Perhaps the accident motivated William to move such a long distance, to get away from the memories and grief of such a loss in Wisconsin.
I will have to check with Sherri Hunt in Durango, to see what she knows about the Greffenius family’s Colorado roots. Just as William Greffenius is my great-uncle, William may be Sherri’s grandfather, or her great-grandfather. I believe we worked that out during our email correspondence, but I don’t remember now.
That should be enough for today. I hope these paragraphs motivate you to write down thoughts about your family’s history!