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John Franzman

An Austrian Immigrant


Brian Finney

Senior High Division


This is an essay of a man who journeyed here from another country with exceptional talent and ability; who in the struggle of pioneer life, never had the opportunity to prove it to his family and community until the retiring years of his life. This man was an expert carver, wood finisher, and cabinet-maker. His name was John Franzman.

On January 6, 1866, John Franzman was born to Phillip and Caroline Franzman in Lemberg, Austria. While his was just a small child, his father was lost in a forest during a heavy snowstorm and froze to death. A few years later, his mother also passed away, leaving John an orphan. The government then took over and provided him with a home and schooling.

John Franzman was an exceptional student. He learned several different languages while in school. He had a knack for wood working and drawing, and it wasn't long before he learned the art of carving and cabinet making. While serving in the Army, his superior officers had him devote much of his time to making fancy furniture, such as, bedroom furniture, dining room sets, fancy tables, for their homes. They appreciated his work. He made his own designs and drawings and did the work by hand carving. He had learned the secret of wood finishing, which put a permanent shine on the wood and retained a satiny finish for years. He was in his glory going this work.

He was also in his glory when he told stories. It was not time to start looking for a wife and a home, and here is a little story that one of Johns daughters now tells, which was one of John's favorites. It was about the meeting of his beautiful wife - - -

"Father was conerned about finding a good wife. So one Sunday, while attending church, a very beautiful young woman came in and sat down next to an old crippled woman. Being impressed by this, he decided that he must meet this young woman and soon came the opportunity. Her name was Katherina Schick, and since John was such a handsome and charming young soldier, she said she was happy and pleased to date him. They were soon engaged and later married. They decided to come to America, the land about which they had heard and read so much" (1)

John set out by himself at first. He came as far as Canada, and after he had earned enough money, sent back to the old country for his new bride. They lived in Canada for several years. They even had their first child there. Unfortunately, he died in infancy. He was christened by name of Gustaf.

John Franzman had a very hard time finding work here in the new country. Since the people were living on farms here and finding the going hard, there was not much demand for his line of work. Beds were being made of metal, and people could not afford to buy fancy furniture, so he looked for work on farms. He had done no farm work previously, and language both presented many problems. He often told this little story- -

"He was told by friends never say 'No, I can't do that job', but always be willing to try anything. A farm widow asked for a gardener, so he immediately posed as such. He was to set out a quarter acre of onions. He didn't know how to do this, but he was afraid to say anything. So went to work and set out all the onions. When the lady appeared she was shocked. 'You have the roots up!' she screamed. He then shame-facedly explained the situation and reset all the onions." (2)

He next ventured into the Dakota harvest fields and came in contact with the German farmers. It was here he gradually learned the English language. Here he also learned the art of farming, and made life-long friends. Katherina was a great pastry maker and cook, so while John was in the fields, she helped out in the farm kitchen. While living in the area around Crystal, North Dakota, two children were born to them. The oldest, a son born June 11, 1894, was named Alfred. The next, a daughter, was born in 1896, and was named Wilhemina Francis (Minnie).

John and Katherina were anxious to own a farm of their own. About this time an area in Northern Minnesota was opened and advertised - "Free land of 160 acres". If one lived on it for five years, he could then obtain homestead rights. Thus, they ventured into this new pioneer country. The year was 1898.

On arrival in the new area, a choice, wooded area of 160 acres, which had rich soil chosen. It was a beautiful piece of land, but needed much work. The nearest station named Liner was located seven miles to the northwest. Their homestead was in an area made up of mostly bachelors, all homesteaders themselves at the time. The first year they made their home with one of those bachelors whose name was Henry Butat. On December 26, 1897, that first winter, the next child was born, a daughter named Ida. A midwife from many miles away came and delivered the child.

The following spring they began to build their own house. "With the help of some of the neighboring bachelors, trees had to be cut down, peeled, and put together with a sod roof and plastered walls with clay and straw mixed together. Three dollars was the entire cost of the house in which they lived for three years. There was a wide shelf on one wall, and when the heavy rain storms came and the roof leaked, Katherina set her three little children under the shelf and put felt hats on their heads. This way the rain dripped off and the children didn't get wet." (3)

Many a story could be told of the struggle and hardships of these early days. The ground had to be cleared for gardens and fields. All grubbing was done by hand, brush burned, and rocks hauled away. There were no roads, only wagon trails from one homestead to another. The family lived mostly on wild game, such as, prairie chickens, rabbits, and deer and bear. Sometimes moose or deer would walk right through their yard. Wolves would howl all night. There were wild berries galore, so they were picked for eating and canning. Katherina would churn butter and then walk to Liner to trade it for groceries.

As time passed, more families moved in with children of school age. Families like the John Pfeifers's with ten children. After a while, the town of Grygla was built, which was only about three miles away from John's farm. Soon a school was organized. The neighbors all went together and built a school house and named it "Greenwood" school. The first teacher was a man by the name of Paul Spink, and he taught children from the ages of 8 to 20 and over.

In the year 1902, another child was born, a son this time, again delivered by a midwife. The Scandinavian neighbors pleaded with John and Katherina to call him "Ole", but Katherine said, "No, we will call him, John, Jr."

In those early years, people had to haul their grain 40 miles during the winter months and then exchange the farm products for such things as flour, sugar, fruit, and cereals. It usually took four days to make the round trip by team. First, oxen were used for this journey, then horses. This was a long, hard, job, but many new friends were made in the process. While John was gone, the chores had to be done by the wife and the oldest children.

As more people came in, the ways and means of doing the farming improved. New roads were being built, land was being dredged so water could drain off. John Franzman took an active part in improving and maintaining the area in which he lived. He read up on tame grass such as alfalfa and clover. He specialized in pure bred short horn cattle. He served on the town board. And for the people who were too poor to buy caskets for their young ones who had passed away, John built beautiful little coffins for them.

In the year 1907, the youngest child was born, a daughter, named Alice Bertha, a child with beautiful curly hair.

These early days were happy days. Every so often a group of neighbors would gather for a social time. They came by team and stayed overnight. This was the time John Franzman was the center of attention. He great talent of telling stories had the friends sometimes rolling in the aisles and then in an instant would have them wiping away the tears. He was a great conversationalist, a wonderful story teller, and a lover of music. He wrote several beautiful poems in German about his homeland.

As the years passed, he became concerned about the education of his family and giving them the right kind of religious training. The oldest daughter studied music on the new organ he bought for them, and the other girls took courses in sewing. The boys took short courses in Agriculture School. Ida, the second oldest daughter, went to high school at Thief River Falls and later Teachers College.

Then, the struggle of World War I broke up the family. The oldest son was drafted. This left a lot of the work the oldest son had done to Katherina and John, Jr. John and John Jr. built a new sturdy barn, and Minnie helped John stack hay and gather the grain.

After the war, when the young men returned, it was the time for weddings. The oldest daughter was married first in John's family. It was the first big wedding to be held in the community. As a seamstress, she fashioned her own wedding gown. She made her dress of white, while the bridesmaids were dressed in pink. It was an out of door wedding which the whole community attended. She married a handsome, progressive young farmer and returned soldier by the name of Fred Bucholz. John Franzman was a proud man that day. Fred and Minnie lived on a nearby farm. A few years later, Alfred, the oldest son, married a sister to his new brother-in-law.

In 1920, a new pastor, by the name of Rev. H. Lutz started English services at Grygla and also German services in the country schoolhouse. During this time, he stayed in the John Franzman house. They became fast friends. In June of 1922, this Pastor married John's second daughter, Ida. Again, they were wed in a big community outdoor wedding.

As more Germans moved in, mission work expanded in the area around Grygla. The John Franzman home was always open to these young missionaries and pastors. It became a central meeting place. John and Katherina, being the hospitable folks they were, always heartily welcomed strangers.

The next few years brought the Model T and radios into the area, and grandchildren to John Franzman. It was a time filled with both joys and sorrows. In 1924, the sudden death of his son-in-law, Rev. Lutz, shocked John and the whole community. This brought his daughter and granddaughter back to live with John and Katherina for a short while.

The little town of Grygla began to grow faster now, and a new pastor, the Rev. C. F. Knauft soon replaced the vacancy of Pastor Lutz. John Franzman landscaped the yard, set out many rows of trees, both box elder and fruit. John always had a beautiful lawn and Katherina always had a gorgeous flower garden.

In June of 1926, the younger son, John, married a local school teacher. The youngest daughter was now through high school and teachers college and was ready to start teaching. She was also the local organist. His widowed daughter was also back in the teaching profession and the little grand daughter became the favorite of John and Katherina, although they enjoyed all seven of their grand children.

As more and more German Lutherans moved in, people started talking about building a church. It was not until around 1929 and 1930 that the people, under the guidance of Rev. Lorenz, finally organized a congregation and pledged to donate time and money to the building of the church building. John offered to build the altar. At last, he was getting back to the work he so dearly loved.

John took much time and patience in the building of this altar. Special kinds of hardwood and special veneers had to be sent for. He used special hand tools to carve and shape the wood. Some work was inlaid,l glued and pressed. Finally, it was decorated in gold. On November 2, 1930, the altar was dedicated. The church building has been dedicated shortly before. When the neighboring congregations saw this altar, they too asked John to build one for them. He accepted a few of these offers and so kept on in this work for his remaining years. A total of three more altars were built for the neighboring congregations.

It was soon after this that the youngest daughter, while still teaching, met a man from Iowa, whose name was Henry Ennen. They were married on June 17, 1932 and moved to Iowa. In the meantime, the second oldest daughter had re-married a brother to her former husband, his name, Edward Lutz, a widower with three children.

John built altars, kneeling rings, pulpits, and baptismal founts for three congregations. Each one of them was of a different design, but they all were of the same fine work of art. They all were beautiful in their own pattern.

While working on what was to be his last altar, which he called his "Masterpiece" he became ill with cancer. He put special love and care into every piece that was to be on the altar. As a true Christian, he realized this was one way of expressing his great love, praise, and thanks to God, for the many blessings he had enjoyed through the years. It seemed as if the Spirit of God shining through John put that final glow on his work.

This last piece of artwork, with the permission of his children, was donated to his own church to replace the older, smaller one. It was left in the care of his oldest daughter, Minnie, who with her family had always stayed close by. While many others left the community, they remained faithful members, his grand daughters serving as organists and Sunday School teachers.

John Franzman passed on in 1938, and his beloved wife, Katherina, passed on in 1939. They both were given Christian burials and were laid to rest in the Grygla cemetery. Those left to mourn their loss were two sons, Alfred and John Jr., and three daughters, Minnie, Ida, and Alice.

As time passed on, the members of the church either died or moved away, resulting in very few members left. Soon, Grygla was served by the pastor from Roseau, Rev. Uhlig. When Rev. Uhlig was called away, it was decided by the mission board to ask all the members to join Thief River Falls, and the Grygla mission was soon dissolved and the church sold. One question went through the minds of the faithful members. What was to happen to the beautiful altar which John Franzman had so delicately made? Where was another church which could use and accept this altar? The leaders from the mission board decided they could not use it, since styles of altars had changed entirely of past years. Then the thought came to them that perhaps the Historical Society could make use of it. Thus, the altar found a home.

Just as many great artists' work is not accepted and recognized as valuable until after the death of the artist, the great talent and artistic ability of John Franzman was not realized until the later years of his life.

It is men like this, with a mind of their own, that helped make the Red River Valley what it is today.

(1) Biography of John Franzman, Ida Lutz, May 4, 1964

(2) Biography of John Franzman, Ida Lutz, May 4, 1964

(3) Minnie Bucholz, Correspondence, January 17, 1975


Bucholz, Minnie, Grygla, MN, Correspondence, January 17, 1975

Finney, Lorraine, St. Vincent, MN, Interview, January 25-26, 1975

Finney, Harold, St. Vincent, MN, Interview, January 25-26, 1975

Lutz, Ida, Farmington, MN, "Biography of John Franzman"

Tollefsen, Mrs. Norman, Estacada, Oregon, Correspondence, January, 1975

World Book Encyclopedia, Volumes:L 1, A, pp. 547-554; 7, G. pp. 2958-2977; 10, L. pp. 6364; 14, R, pp. 7104. Copyright, 1957, Field Enterprises, Inc.