.THE AUGUST BIRR STORY .
The childhood memories of his daughter, Mary Birr, a teacher in Oconto County.
August Birr was born in Stolpt, Germany, December 21, 1846. Stolpt, Pomerania, a village of thirty peasant families, was located about 30 miles northeast of Stetin and about 50 miles from Berlin. Grapitz, the capital of Pomerania, was not far from Stolpt.
His parents were Ferdinand Birr and Caroline Strecker. Both were born in Stolpt. The father was tall and slender. He wore long side burns, was a man of great dignity, and he had a great deal of pride. He was a member of Emperor Frederick William's body guard and for this was paid four cents a day. As a member of the guard, he accompanied the funeral cortege when the emperor died.
He was married to Caroline Strecker, an orphan, a descendant of rich feudal Iords and members of the nobility. Among the articles she brought to America were fine linens, lace caps, and other articles such as only the upper class had. In Germany she was a nurse. They had a family of seven children, five sons and two daughters. Their names were Karl, August, Frank, John (Grandpa), Herman, Minnie (Kraus), and Berta (Martin Delzer). They lived in a two-family house. It had a dirt floor, simple home-made furniture - beds, table, a few stools and benches. The roof was thatched. Potatoes were their main food. Dried fruits added a variety on the Sabbath day and on holidays. They had little meat, an occasional goose, the breast of which was a luxury and served only on holidays. A gruel made of oatmeal or crushed rye was the breakfast. All the bread was made of rye flour and potatoes. It was baked in an outdoor oven the peasants had in common. Baking took place only three or four times a year. Each baking lasted three and more months. Their clothes were made from linen cloth that his mother wove with her own hands on a loom.
Father attended school from the age of six to fourteen, ten months a year, eight hours a day. The curriculum included Bible stories, memorization of Bible verses, the history of the fatherland and some arithmetic. He was very proud of the fact that for six years he had a front seat at.school, an honor given to the best student in the class. All his teachers were men. The feudal lord for whom the family worked begged the grandfather to let him send father to schools of higher learning, saying this boy will go far if he has the opportunity. Grandfather was willing, but father said, "I want to be what my father is, a farmer." At the age of eighty, father could still recite some of the hymns and many of the six hundred Bible verses he had learned in school. During his last years in school he carried the feudal lord's mail to the manor house five miles distance for three cents a trip.
Sundays were usually spent on the dirt streets between the houses. Singing was their pastime. After the harvest in the fall, they had a harvest festival. Landlord and peasants together celebrated in the streets from noon until the following day. It was always a day of thanksgiving, joy and good will.
At the age of 16 he left home to work for a feudal lord, the owner of a 4000 acre estate. This estate included part of the large Muzerka marshes in Pomerania. For many weeks in summer father mowed hay with a scythe on these marshes from sunrise to sunset. Going to the marsh and returning home required three hours.
This was a man's job and he was glad to have it because he had an opportunity tunity to learn how a feudal lord's family lived. There were many servants. They had charge of the semi-annual wash days and baking days. These were usually of a week's duration. Large baskets of clothes were taken to the nearest stream, often six and more miles from the manor house. In addition to the washing, there were dozens of new linen pieces to be bleached. Not until all were bleached and dried did the servants return home. Enough bread was baked at one time to last the family six months.
The work was hard, but father worked there four years for $8.00 a year and his keep. Then at the age of twenty, he became the coachman for a clergyman who was also a land owner and had servants. Father took care of the horses and the barns, spent much time shining the harnesses and currying the horses. When free from these duties, he worked in the fields from sunrise to sunset. His wages were $8 a year plus his keep.
On special occasions there was much feasting, drinking and merrymaking. Father questioned the propriety of this on the party of a clergyman. At the end of four years he decided to leave.
Father heard fantastic stories about life in America. In America men could earn more in one month than they could in one whole year in Germany. There they also had more freedom, more security, and need not give the three years of military service which every young man in Germany had to give to his country.
He had saved $38.00. The cost of steerage ticket on a sailing vessel to America was $55.00. Additional money was necessary. His family offered assistance. His father loaned him $12,00, his brother Karl gave him $2.00 and a Mr. Runke who was bound for Indiana loaned him $30.00. With the ticket and $44.00 in cash he sailed from Hamburg at the age of 24. The voyage was rough, the waves often rolled over the top of the vessel drenching the passengers and their packs. After six weeks of sailing, he landed at Castle Garden (New York), now called Battery Park, on October 1, 1870. That was the first bit of America my father saw. His destination was Juneau, Wisconsin, where his father's brother lived. Father knew no English, but listening to the announcer in the depot, he learned which train was going to Chicago where he had to change for Juneau. He boarded the train. The conductor said the fare was $23.00. Father had only enough cash to take him to Detroit. When he arrived there he had only 72 cents in his pocket book, but he remained on the train. When the new conductor asked him for a ticket, father told in German that he did not have a ticket and he rose to get off the train. The conductor put his hand on Father's shoulder and said in a sympathetic voice, "You sit down. I'll take you to Chicago for $9.00 and keep your baggage. This you can get when you have the $9.00 to pay for the ticket. In Chicago, father borrowed $9.00 from an immigrant and redeemed his baggage. The ticket to Juneau was $5.00. The depot agent sold him the ticket but kept his baggage. When he arrived at Juneau, he walked fourteen miles to his uncle's home. The only food he had during the journey from New York to his Uncle's home was a loaf of bread and one small sausage.
His first job in America was on a farm near Mayville in Dodge County for $11.00 a month. At the end of five months he sent his father $12.00, Uncle Karl $2.00 and Mr. Runke $30.00 and wrote his parents to stay where they were that he had not been very successful.
He next worked for a farmer near Horicon for $12.00 a month during harvesting time. He and another man cradled sixty acres of grain. Each evening after supper, they tied all the cut grain into bundles and shocked the bundles. The harvest time finished, he next worked for a Mr. Rosankranz, for $3.50 a day, grubbing and pulling the stumps of the giant trees that had been felled. After several weeks of this, he worked for Mr. Delzer, husband of Aunt Kate, who was his second wife, for $12.00 a month. Here he learned to speak English.
The second year in America, his total yearly wages were $144.00. Of this he spent $12.00 for clothes and sent $32.00 to his parents to help pay for their passage to America. All members of the family came except Karl who was a shepherd and could not leave till later. For a short time they lived with grandfather's brother near Juneau. During this time, father heard rumors of the fabulous wages paid in the woods about 100 miles to the north. He was eager to go, but friends tried to discourage him. These were the post-war days of the Franco- Prussian War, and he was told of the atrocities the French heaped upon the Germans in that area. Father listened to these stories and then "I go anyhow". And he did. This was characteristic of father. He never permitted himself to be intimidated or discouraged by obstacles, threats or possible hardship.
Lured by rumors of high pay in a bustling sawmill town called Pensaukee, he found work there for $30.00 a month. This was considered great riches, and father felt he had found a gold mine. He almost immediately asked for his family to join him and find work here. His sisters found employment in the so-called "fabulous" hotel which was then considered the best equipped hotel north of Milwaukee (This was the beautiful three-storey brick Gardner House Hotel, destroyed, along with the city of Pensaukee, by a tornado in 1877). His brothers, John and Frank, also were employed in the saw mill which was owned by F. B. Gardner, who developed and practically owned the entire town.
After working in Pensaukee two and a half years, he had saved $665. He now wanted to buy some land and build a home and a new life. A friend gave him the description of the present home site. It was owned by the U. S. Government. The 120 acres were sold to father for $1.00 an acre, but the sum he paid was only $108 because he paid in cash.
The 120 acres were located in a forest of giant hardwood and pine trees, a forest inhabited by wild animals - the bear, the wolf, wild cat and lynx. No neighbors, no stores, no roads, only trails and where it was said no sensible man would raise a family. But father, with the help of mother, did.
It was now 1873. On October first of that year, father and Grandfather Birr followed a narrow Indian trail marked by blazed trees that led them to the site where father intended to build his home.. The first thing they did was to clear a small space and build a shelter for the ox team and two cows father had bought. The shelter was built with small trees, boughs and twigs. Father and grandfather shared this shelter with the cattle while they built a primitive cabin of the type found on the frontier and a barn of rough-hewn logs. Before the roof was on the house, two inches of snow fell and remained. It was the beginning of a long, cold winter. Deep snow clogged up the trails the entire winter. The log house was 24 feet by 20 feet. It had 3 rooms, a kitchen, pantry and one bedroom. A lean-to was added later. This was used as a kitchen in summer. In late September when the days grew chilly, the cook stove was moved back into the main room and in the lean-to was piled the split wood for the cook stove, the feed for the hogs, and the swill barrel. The cook stove was of cast iron and had an oven on top of the rear part of the stove. It was a second-hand one and was used by mother for twenty years. It was hard to keep the house warm with it, for they had only green wood to burn in it the first year. It was barricaded against the cold with boughs of evergreen, dead leaves and dirt piled against the sides (banking).
Besides the cook stove, father bought six chairs and two beds. The rest of the furnishings, the barest necessities, were made by hand and were very simple. Grandmother kept house for him and grandfather the first year. During the entire year, only twelve pounds of sugar were used. Pastries were unknown. The second winter father spent three months as a lumber jack in the woods near Krakow. This was the outpost for logging operations in this part of Wisconsin. The virgin timber was mostly pines; trees six feet in diameter were not uncommon. No one thought this region would ever be settled. During the three months he earned ninety dollars and spent only 75cents, of the money - 25cents for shoe grease and 50cents for a pair of old shoe packs.
The following Spring, 1874, father returned to Lomira to marry Margaret Hammel, our mother. She was the daughter of a maker and seller of grain sieves. She was a sister-in-law of Mr. Delzer for whom father had worked (and grandpa knew her sister, Louisa - side note). She was born in Bavaria, near the Black Forest, and came with her family to America at the age of 19. It was a strange coincidence that she landed at Castle Garden the same day father did, unbeknown to each other.
The new home she was to share with her husband was in a forest so dense she could see the sun only at noonday, where the wailing and swishing of the pines filled the night with gruesome sounds, where the deep silence was her environment, and where wolves howled at night and deer grazed in the yard, where the nearest neighbor was more than a mile away and her family was a month's journey from her. Only once in the first ten years did she return to Lomira. It was to attend her mother's funeral. Without wasting time father now turned to the task of clearing land for growing the food they needed. To the early settlers the forest was a challenge, a tree was an enemy. It stood where food should grow. Thousands of feet of walnut, hardwood, birch and pine were turned to ashes to make room for crops of grain and potatoes and other food. The first year they raised enough potatoes and millet to keep them and the oxen through the year.
The trees were felled by axe trimmed, cut into logs, rolled in piles and burned. There was no alternative. Timber had no market value. Father never sold a cord of the 120 acres of trees. Everyone within miles of his place had all the wood they needed. Each year father cleared several acres, some years as many as eight. The winter was spent in chopping timber. In the spring neighbors had log rolling bees, two or more days each. Men came with their teams of oxen, later it was horses, to help haul the logs into great piles. The logs were set on fire and burned to the ground. Stumps were the only thing left of the giants, once a part of a primeval forest that surrounded the home The cleared space was sometimes used as a pasture or left fallow for two or more years until the stumps were partly dead and more easily set on fire and burned or dug out by hand. Not all the stumps were removed at once, only enough to allow a plow to get through. Then the ground was sown by hand to millet or rutabagas or planted to beans.
During the years that a farm was gradually and steadily created out of dense forest by "sweat and blood," father "never saw the sun rise in bed" In addition to clearing land, each season necessitated some specific work--seeding, harvesting, plowing and hauling grain to market. None could be neglected or postponed.
The grain, principally wheat, was hauled in lumber wagons to Green Bay, a distance of 26 miles. Following threshing, father sometimes made three trips a week. Each time he usually left in the evening. After twelve hours of traveling, he arrived at the grain elevator early in the morning. After he had unloaded the grain, fed and watered the horses, he started on his way back and returned at midnight. He carried his lunch and feed for the horses. Roads were rough with ruts and rocks. There were no bridges - rivers were forded. Father sometimes lost part of his load fording the West Branch of the Pensaukee River near Sampson. In later years when there was more grain and a little more money, father bought a dinner for 25cents. The trip was none-the-less tedious. After the thirty-six hours without sleep, he usually returned home with a sick headache, and went without food until he had several hours of sleep or a night's sleep.
For the first
twenty years, there was little to sell outside of grain.
Butter had little value. In the beginning it was used as a food and as
axle grease on wagons. Hand picked beans sold for 60 cents a bushel,
were 6 or 7 cents a dozen. New calves were killed and thrown on brush
and burned to get rid of them. There was not enough milk to feed them
they were fit to eat. The first few years groceries and cloth for
were hard to get. The nearest store was in Pensaukee, seventeen miles
Traveling was difficult. Indian trails had been widened only enough for
the ox teams to pass through. They were snow bound much of the winter.
roots, rocks and flooded trails prohibited traveling in spring, and much of the remaining time. When other settlers began to arrive, a corduroy (log road) was built in places on which a traveler stuck or sank, depending on the weather and the position of the logs.
In 1878, five years after father settled on his land, he sold his oxen and bought a team of horses. This was considered a major improvement. While quite dependable and easily managed, oxen were slow and impractical for driving to Oconto Falls. In 1873, he bought his first lumber wagon. In this he rode to Stiles with the crocks of butter that were churned in his home. The butter was always exchanged (bartered) for groceries and for cloth for clothes. Eight years after he bought the land, he built a frame barn 40 feet by 60 feet, the total cost of which was $300. All the lumber and trees came from the farm. It was the first frame barn in the neighborhood. The first year after the barn was up, he raised 900 bushels of grain.
In 1885, the brick house was built, the cost was $1300. The bricks were hauled in sleighs from Green Bay. This was the first house in Morgan that replaced the original log house.
In 1886, father bought a grain binder, the first one used in Morgan. It took the place of the reaper that had taken the place of the cradle. In 1889, the year Christine was born, he bought his first democrat wagon. How proud the family was to ride to church in it, instead of in the lumber wagon. The first Sunday it was used, the girls each dressed in her Sunday dress, and crowded into the back seat. Each bursting with pride in this "Stylish" way of going to church. But this pride had a "great fall." When father pulled the reins and snapped the new whip, the horses bounded, causing the back seat to tip over and drop the girls on the ground. However, father fastened the seat down and on the way they went to church. The family was self-supporting. Meat was salted and cured, bread was made of wheat grown, berries and apples were dried and kept in a sack near the kitchen stove, strawberry leaves were dried for tea, barley or wheat was roasted for coffee. Commercial coffee and tea were rarely used -- only at Christenings or when the occasional visitor came. Soap was made from ashes twice a year. A barrel was filled with the ashes and for 2 to 3 weeks, water was poured in at the top. This seeped through the ashes and came out of a spout at the lower part of the barrel as lye. This lye mixed with scraps of fat from hog killings and rinds of meat used from day to day or the fat of a hog or critter that died, made the soap used for toilet and laundry purposes. All articles of clothing were sewed at home. For several years mother sewed by hand. The first sewing machine made it possible for the growing family to be more warmly clothed in the winter and saved many hours of labor.
Our winter underwear was made of gray flannel. Each girl had one dress for Sunday and one or two for week days. These were usually made of heavy, dark material - wool or cotton. The second year the Sunday dress became the school dress. The next year these became the week day dresses for home wear. A bit of lace or braid on a Sunday dress was an occasion for rejoicing. No child now getting a permanent or a silk party dress could be more happy than we were. A new calico dress at 9 cents "a shilling a yard" was an event. Anyone who had come to school in a new dress between fall and spring was looked upon with envious eyes. It was said such parents wanted to show off, and it was considered poor taste. Thrifty parents bought only essentials. The oldest daughter was entitled to a "nice wool dress when she reached the age of fourteen or fifteen." She was not considered grown before then.
Each child had one pair of stout shoes for Sundays. From early spring till late in fall no shoes were worn on week days. Children went barefoot or wore wooden shoes that father made. The wooden shoes had a wooden sole with a piece of old leather fastened over the front part into which the foot fit. It was similar to our present day sandals. All stockings were knit from home-spun yarn. Mother, Anna and I did most of the knitting. When Christine and Margaret were children, ready-made stockings were sold in stores where we did our shopping. These store stockings were worn only on Sundays.
It was in the late autumn of 1877 when a young man on horseback found his way through the wilderness to the log cabin in a small clearing. His name was Rev. Kuntz, a minister of the Evangelical faith. He had come from Marinette to search out the August Birr family at the request of the Delzer family in Lomira, Wis.
Other visits followed. Each time simple religious services were held. Other settlers interested were invited to hear the minister. Their interest led to the organization of what is now known as the Evangelical United Brethren Church. This was a mission church. In the beginning the minister received no salary -- just donations of cash and food. When a salary was requested, he seldom received his full salary in cash. The $600 cash from his three fields was supplemented with food from the farmer members. Oats for his horse, fresh meat and sausages, butter, eggs, vegetables, chicken, apples and berries.
For the first 27 years - from 1877 to 1904 - the church services were held in our home. Services were held at intervals of weeks or months - depending upon the condition of the roads and weather. The minister who came to Morgan also served churches in Pensaukee and Peshtigo. The Morgan and Pensaukee churches were served on the same Sunday. When he had services in the morning the minister came to us Saturday afternoon and left for Pensaukee after the Sunday dinner. When Pensaukee had services in the morning, the minister came to us Sunday afternoon and left for Peshtigo on Monday morning. During these 27 years, our home was the home of the minister when he preached in Morgan. Mother never complained about this arrangement, the extra work required. She considered it a privilege to entertain one of God's appointed. Regardless of how busy father was with seasonal work, devotions led by the minister on Monday morning after breakfast were never omitted. The minister read from the Bible, then all knelt by the chairs for prayers, rose and sang one stanza of a hymn.
On Sundays when we did not have church services, the family went to our grandparents' home near Uncle Frank's home for a prayer meeting. Grandfather read long sermons in German from a large book of sermons he brought along from Germany. Some of the children sat on benches too high for their feet to touch the floor, and they fell asleep before the prayer meeting ended! In 1904, when the law was passed establishing the two or three-room graded schools in all districts where the total enrollment averaged above 65, District No.1, Morgan, which had 90 on roll came under the provisions of the law. The majority wanted to divide the district, abandon the old school, and build two new schools. One to be to the north of the old school, the other to the south. The old school was in the center of the township and father contended for a state graded school. He had visions of a high school where the children in the Town of Morgan could get a "better education". Mr. Tom Rymer and Mr. Judd, the other two members of the school board, favored the partition. The day of the public meeting when the decision was to be made, some of those who favored division invited the sheriff to the meeting to keep father in order. Father, being the clerk, called the meeting to order and told the sheriff to go home as this was a school meeting. The pros won, and the use of the white frame school for school purposes was discontinued. Then father succeeded in getting the Evangelical Church organization to buy the building for $500. Father paid the greater share of this. The building was rebuilt into a church, and is today "The Little White Church at the Cross Roads". It was through father' s influence that the first school district, District -1, was organized in 1878, and a small log school was built. The school had one window on each side. The equipment was meager. The desks were home-made, there were few books. A large stove set in a box of sand occupied the center of the room. Pupils near the stove roasted on one side and froze on the other. At closing time ink wells were buried in the sand to keep the ink from freezing. Father was the first school clerk and held the office for forty consecutive years. As the clerk, he bought the text books the children used and sold them to the pupils. Good discipline was the chief characteristic he required of a teacher. He asked each teacher to encourage the use of English on the playground, because "English is the American language", he said. Amy Harteau was the first teacher in the new log school. Her salary was $25 a month. She walked bare foot the three miles from her home to the school. She carried her precious shoes and put them on after she arrived at the school. The log school was sold to Mr. Tom Rymer, Sr., when the white frame school was built in 1885. It is still in use.
Although father had defective eye sight resulting from an attack of measles in childhood, and he had no formal education in the United States, he learned to read. He became an avid reader of history - books, papers, and magazines. He applied for his first citizenship papers in 1873. First papers at that time entitled the applicant to vote and to hold office. When election time came, and he had to choose between the Democrat and Republican tickets, he chose the Republican ticket; because he heard it said that the Democrats were for the Saloon and the Republicans were for the Church. He cast his first vote in 1873, and he never missed a single election in fifty-eight years. The nearest voting place was in Pensaukee, seventeen miles from home. In spring and fall the roads were often impassable for horses and wagons. Often father walked both ways to vote in Pensaukee. Later, elections were held in a school house in the Town of Chase, eight miles from home. Still later they were held in a hall above the cheese factory in the Town of Morgan.
The nearest post office was Pensaukee. The family had little mail, no Papers. A letter from a relative (Aunt Kate) was an event. In 1883, the mail was brought to Sampson once a week. It was an adventure to the children in the family to walk - three miles - to Sampson to ask for the mail and to carry one or two dozen eggs to exchange for a spool of thread, yeast cake or shoe laces. The mail consisted almost entirely of one paper, "The Bochafter", the church paper. Because this was a church paper, it was never torn up or used lightly. Then in the early nineties, RFD (Rural Freed Delivery) came to this isolated community twenty miles from the nearest city. This had far-reaching effects on.the mental and social life of the people. Subscriptions to newspapers and magazines increased. Reading increased. There was a feeling of belonging to something bigger, beyond their boundaries. It stimulated a sense of pride and satisfaction that they were now really a part of the government, and the government was "interested in making life more pleasant for them".
Each one had a mail box and mail was delivered to them. Mr. Powell was the first mail carrier. He called for the mail in Abrams each day and delivered it to the boxes.
Father served in some official capacity for more than thirty years. Chairman of Town of Chase six years, town treasurer for two years, director of the Oconto Falls bank eighteen years, director of the Falls Canning Company eight years. His guiding principle in all of his relationships was climaxed in these words: "Right is right" or "Das iss recht". Town taxes were paid to the town treasurer in his home before March 1. Father's books were due in the County Treasurer's office April 1. One poor Polish farmer in the Town of Chase was delinquent. It was a day in March when father went to collect it. The distance was seventeen miles. It was late when father returned in a snow storm. Checking the money collected he learned he had an extra dollar. The following day he rose before daybreak, fed the horses, hitched them to the sleigh, and drove through the drifted lanes and roads to return the dollar to the family - an extra thirty-four miles. Ir e However, to father he did it only because "Das iss recht". August Birr was a man of enthusiasm, courage, decision, and a defender of moral principles in all of his relationships.
His enthusiasm for living, his work, his crops and his family continued until his death. The arrival of someone home for vacation was a great event. He was not so much interested in their work and salaries, but he wanted to know "Have you seen the farm? the grain? the corn?" And each year he would repeat, "You never saw finer grain, never such tall corn". And when the hay crop was not up to par, it did not so much matter for the corn crop was better than ever before.
He was a student and an avid reader. He was a subscriber to a daily paper since the day of the R.F.D. started. He had farm papers, magazines the "Bochafter" the Evangelical church publication and two volumes of "The Laws of Wisconsin".
For the first two and more decades, the nearest doctor was twenty miles from home. And for much of the year, traveling was prohibitive by poor conditions of the road. Father, being resourceful and deeply interested in the well being of his family and his community, always kept on hand a good supply of homeopathic medicine. On a small scale, it was the neighbors apothecary "shop". For symptoms of illness, he would consult the hard book and prescribe medicine accordingly. It was usually for a temperature, a headache, or indigestion. No deaths resulted from his doses.
While modern life has made a virtue of conformity, father had a way to meet the pressures of conformity from neighbors, family and strangers. He never bought because someone else had it, and he never bought until he could pay for it, and it was necessary to a worthy end. And he always had money to make a loan that a brother or sister needed, and they were always given the interest due.
As a town officer, he never showed favoritism to a relative or friend. Based wholly on his philosophy "that right is right, and wrong is wrong", and he never compromised with the wrong. There were those who didn't like him for this, but they respected him. He died at the age of 84 on April 29,1931. He never had a serious illness and was active until shortly before his death. Coming out of a coma before he died, he said to those near him, "Good-bye dear children, I'll meet you at the gate".
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