Family history installment: background for Albert Frank Greffenius and Lora Lang


, , ,

For the last year or two, I have worked on a collection of letters my grandfather wrote to Lora Lang 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 regiment’s mess sergeant, in charge of daily meals, kitchen operations, cook and cleanup staff, menus, supplies, and, since this was the United States Army, paperwork.

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.

One motivation was to see if we could publish the 1917 letters on their own centenary, but we have already missed that mark. Nevertheless we can appreicate the first set of letters just as well during their one hundred and first year. The detail in these letters does take you back to a time when America prepared to fight a war against Germany in northern France.

Naturally I’d like these letters to speak for themselves, to tell their own story. As with most letters, though, a little context helps. So I embarked on this preface to introduce the two principals, and to sketch a little family history. If a collection of century-old letters bring life stories and family relationships closer to mind, that is a good outcome.

Here I want to supply basic facts about the book’s two main characters, Albert Frank Greffenius and Lora Hannah Lang. Albert was born in 1887, birth date unknown. 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 was born April 21, 1897, so she was twenty years old when her friend went on active duty. The age difference, at ten years, was substantial, but not so large as to preclude a growing friendship.

Let me write about Albert and Lora, their biographies before the beginning of the story in 1917. I know little about their experiences, living conditions or families in Wisconsin, but I’ll tell you enough to get acquainted with them.

Albert’s father, and my great-grandfather, was Julius Hermann Greffenius, born in 1859. During the Civil War, he and his family arrived in the United States from Germany. More than seven hundred thousand Germans came to America during the 1860s. Many of them settled in Wisconsin. A large number of families came from farms in Europe, and wanted to remain farmers in the United States. Both Albert and Lora grew up on farms outside of Ripon.

Julius Hermann grew up during an interesting time, the 1860s and 70s, but he had a short life. He married a woman named Amelia Dahlmann, probably in the early 1880s. They had a son, William, in 1884, and a second child, Albert Frank, in 1887. Then Julius died of unknown causes in 1888, only one year after Albert Frank was born.

Our grandfather, Albert Frank Greffenius, grew up near Ripon, Wisconsin during the late 1800s.Family records and oral history suggest Albert’s given name at birth was Franz Albert. If so, we would have to account both for the spelling change, and for swapping first and middle names. For assimilation, many German Americans changed the spelling of their names, both before and during the Great War. As for the swap, when his mother remarried after 1888, Frank Albert had a step-brother named Frank. If his parents wanted to keep the two boys straight, one of them would have have a new name. Albert Frank was the youngest of the two, so his mother must have asked, “What shall I call him now?”

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!

Albert Frank’s only son and only child was named Albert Julius, my father. He died in 2011. For several years after my father’s death, his father’s letters were tucked into a bottom drawer of my dresser. 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.

The other character in this story, Lora Hannah Lang, is mostly silent. Without her, this story could not have reached the twenty-first century. She saved the letters her friend Albert wrote to her from 1917 on. When she died in 1985, her son, Albert Julius, acquired the letters she saved. When her sone died in 2011, he passed the letters on to his children. Laura’s interest in their contents makes me think we should do what we can to preserve them.

Why, at age thirty, did Albert Frank start a correspondence with Lora Lang, ten years younger, and also from the Ripon area? The Great War has something to do with that. You want to stay in touch with friends from home after you join the army. Let me tell you a little about Lora’s and Alberts parents and family circumstances before 1917. We’ll 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 Greffenius, born three years later. Julius died in 1888, only twenty-nine years old. We don’t know why.

Amelia remarried not so long afterward, to a man named William Lieske. William had two children from his first marriage, Minnie and Frank. So William and Franz Albert – soon to be Albert Frank – had two new step-siblings.

A lot of immigrants from Germany settled in central Wisconsin, so the community was close. 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.

No one knows details about Albert Frank’s life before 1917. The letters he wrote in 1918 and after reveal a lot about his life during and after the war, before he married and had a son. We do not have a similar record for the long period of his life before 1917.

Thus we have thirty years unaccounted for. That is, we have little 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? We can infer from brief records he was a bank examiner, or auditor. Young men and women do that now as well, except Albert Frank did not work for a large consulting or accounting firm.

Did Albert Frank just knock about for ten years or more from 1907 to 1917, before he joined the army? Did he live and work around Ripon during that time? Did he travel out of central Wisconsin? Did he have a good relationship with other members of his family? 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 gone largely unrecorded. I supposed it is a reminder to you should write things down, but then you have to get your scattered records into the hands of a family historian who wants to tell your story a hundred years later. Serendipity can help with that. So can your friend and spouse, who saves your letters through decades.

Whatever Albert Frank might 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 photograph of her husband I saw on my grandmother’s dresser, the letters are my only material connection to my grandfather.

If I have to guess, I’d say my grandfather did a little of everything – or a little of some things – during the dozen years that preceded the Great War. First he had to finish high school, though we do not know where he received his secondary education. In rural Wisconsin, farm work, family relations, the Lutheran church and the local school formed the basic foundations of life. We know Albert Frank read well, because he wrote well. You can see that in this correspondence, and in other things he wrote later on.

My guess is that his appreciation for words, and how to use them for precise communication, began while he was in school. It may have come from his parents, of course, or from his desire to make a mark outside of Ripon. 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 does one account for the activities of a young man in his twenties? Even with structure, that decade of one’s life can pass like a whisper. Unless you are prodigy in some area, or an athlete, you may have few accomplishments to support that transitional period.

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 conventional anchors or incentive structures outside his birthplace: no steady job, no wife or children, no family. 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. One wonders if losing his father as a one year old second child might have influenced the pattern of his life later on. In that connection, we do not know anything 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.

Follows a quick summary of Albert Frank’s life before the war, taken from a message I wrote to my son, who is also an attorney:

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.

To prepare for legal work, he clerked and read law in North Dakota, a state as different from Wisconsin as you can imagine. I did not ask my father what drew Albert Frank to the Dakotas, and I do not think he could have told me.

If the first thirty years of Albert Frank’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 Albert Frank. In fact, we do not know a lot about her life before 1922 or 1923, when she married.

Lora’s parents were Charles and Augusta Lang of Ripon. Albert Julius’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. Lora had a flinty look in her eye. I wonder if that came from her mother.

I think Albert Julius, Lora’s son, had little affection for the Langs. 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, during the 1930s and 40s, state departments of transportation paved many of the roads in that part of the country. I expect the long trip from Valley City, North Dakota 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 may 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. Cruel or not, he must have been a fearsome figure for her. Her father 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.

Here is an interesting train of discoveries. When Amelia remarried, she married 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: Dahlman, Greffenius, and Lieske. Family records often refer to her as Amelia Dahlman, so that’s the name we’ll use here. She gave a lot of continuity for the family in Wisconsin.

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 Albert Frank’s family, the only one he would remember after age five or so, would be the Lieske-Greffenius clan: mother Amelia Dahlman, father William Lieske, brother William Greffenius, stepbrother Frank Lieske, and stepsister Minnie Lieske. We can now clearly conceive the consequences of Julius Greffenius’s death in 1888, and Amelia’s remarriage.

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. The 1800s seem a long time ago, moreso now we are well into the twenty-first century. Albert Frank was born 131 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.

To fill things out just a bit, and take us even further away from Wisconsin, let me make a few remarks about the Colorado branch of the family. Albert Frank’s older brother William moved to Fort Collins at some undetermined time. We do not know what took him so far away from Ripon. 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. That is a guess, and a subject for more research. When you look at pictures of William’s descendants, taken in Grand Junction 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. I figure my guess about William’s livelihood can’t be far off.

Related post (earlier draft)

Greffenius family history: 1917