For the past 45 years, I’ve from time to time researched my family’s history, not that it’s historic in any way. And it’s not so much that family roots bind me to something larger. In many ways, it’s about the hunt, the sleuthing to fill in history’s holes. I like the research, the discovery of information, the eureka moment when the past is crystal clear and personal.
It often comes by accident. My brother Rich found a random number on a document and on a hunch plugged it into a patent search engine. Up popped a patent my great great grandfather, John Griendling, received for an adjustable barber chair in the 1870’s. A few years ago another accident led me to an extraordinary yesterday.
Sites like Ancestry.com have made it much easier to conduct genealogical research. They review the original documents and write up the information in a digital record that is easily searched. But the original documents can provide extraordinary insights.
In the early part of the 20th century, census takers had come to the home of John’s daughter. John had immigrated to the U.S. in 1844 with a knapsack and a claim to be a cabinet maker. But Germany is a big place and proved to be a blockade to more research. During censuses of a still immigrant country, the government wanted to know where your parents were from. I had seen on previous censuses “Germany.” But on this particular one, the census taker made a correction that opened the door to yesterday’s extraordinary events.
I can imagine the conversation he had with Leina, my ancestor. “Where was your father from?”
“Wiehe,” she said
“I never heard of that country.”
“It’s a town in Germany.”
“Oh. That’s what I want, the country not the town.”
So he crossed out Wiehe and wrote in Germany. He didn’t erase it or obliterate it, but put a single line through it. Meaning I could see it on that photographed census sheet. Of course, I immediately looked up Wiehe and found that it was a hamlet in the Saxony area of Germany. I knew John had renounced his allegiance to the King of Saxony to become an American citizen. Was this his hometown?
As Karla and I had always wanted to see Prague, and I had convinced her to try a biking vacation, we selected a Vermont Bicycle Tour itinerary from Prague to Vienna. We spent a few days prior to visit Prague, and since Wiehe was less than four hours away by car, I decided to visit Wiehe.
I wrote the mayor and the head of the tiny historical society of Wiehe. They responded and invited me to visit them when I came to town.
We awoke early yesterday, plugged in Wiehe to the GPS and took a road trip. We got lost where the GPS failed us. We made a stupid decision to go to a McDonald’s on the way. It was on the other side of the road, and we discovered too late that we couldn’t return to the highway in the direction we were headed without backtracking several miles. And then within 5 km, the main road to Wiehe was closed for re-pavement. We had to drive what appeared to be an ox cart trail to come in from the other direction. We arrived about noon.
I had spent a sleepless night worrying about all the things that could go wrong with a once in a lifetime visit for which I only had a few hours to spare. Would we get lost? (Yes.) And when we arrived, would we receive a perfunctory welcome and not much insight into the family’s history?
Frau Dagmar Dittmar, burgermeister for Wiehe, was stout and loud and warm and gracious. But she spoke not a word of English. She got on the phone as we waited in her office and summoned the welcoming party: the town historian; the former pastor of the only church in town; a former English teacher who by her own admission was unqualified for the job—and two Gründlings, a woman of 74 and one of her nieces.
The history chief held in his hands a family tree chart. The former pastor, a long-handwritten piece of paper. They had done their homework. They had a portion of the family tree I was unaware of and a list of Gründlings born from about 1810 to 1854, among them August Gotthold Andreas Gründling, my great great grandfather, born in Wiehe April 29, 1811. (The earliest citing of my ancestor was on the ship manifest where he was referred to as Gotthold; he changed it to John by the 1860 census.) His godfather was another Gründling from Dresden, obviously a relation and now another avenue of investigation.
We spent an hour trying to communicate (the English teacher was right about her qualifications). Google Translate was cumbersome. But the excitement on both sides was palpable. Especially me. I couldn’t believe my good fortune.
They had obviously worked hard to make our visit productive. Their hospitality, though, was most appreciated. They walked us through the town. The old schoolhouse was now a museum. The church is big but modest, spruced up by plywood facades and painted walls. They took us to 77 Leopold–von-Ranke-Sraβe, the Gründling homestead. They seemed as happy to see us as we were them. They felt honored by our visit. We felt overwhelmed by their warmth. They made it feel like home.
All because of a clerical mistake.