Reprinted from Our County Our Story by Malcolm Rosholt, 1959, pages 112-121.
Three rather widely scattered settlements developed in Portage County which came to be associated, loosely speaking, with immigrants from Germany or Prussia, one in Almond, one in Sharon and the third in Grant. The settlements in Almond and Grant were mostly Germans of the Protestant faith and in Sharon Germans of the Catholic faith. Churches were built in these three settlements which conducted services in the German language, while a German parochial school was established in connection with the Lutheran church near Kellner.
The first German-born resident of the county to apply for naturalization was John Stumpf who entered the port of New York in 1841 and applied at Plover on Nov. 6, 1849. Apparently well versed in the English language, he quickly rose to prominence in city and county affairs and by 1854 was clerk of circuit court.
But the first German-born immigrant to settle on the land was probably George Frederick Schilling, born in Berndorf, principality of Waldeck, who, with Daniel Shafer, another native of Waldeck, entered the port of New York on July 24, 1849. Schilling, a political refugee from the abortive German revolution of 1848, together with Shafer, joined his countrymen flocking to the city of Milwaukee. But according to his daughter, Mrs. Emil (Lauretta) Zimmer, "he didn't like all that card playing and drinking that was going on there and got out of Milwaukee as far as he could." A master cabinet maker and carpenter by trade, he made his way to Portage County via Sauk City where he stopped to apply for his first naturalization papers on Nov. 2, 1850.1 From Sauk City, according to Mrs. Zimmer, he continued north on foot and arrived at "Buena Vista House" thoroughly exhausted by muddy roads and rain. Here he was engaged by Kollock & Wigginton to make the doors, sashes, and window trimmings for the unfinished tavern-house then located east of modern Keene. Apparently Shafer assisted in this as he was asked to bring Schilling's carpenter tools from Milwaukee. Probably on the strength of his work here, Schilling was hired by George Neeves to make the furniture for a newly-built tavern-house at Grand Rapids and for a time Schilling conducted a cabinet shop in that village. Later, he may also have built Cottage Inn below Plover.
But Schilling found that despite fairly steady employment he could not get ahead, chiefly, because he was forced to barter most of his labor for produce, including timber on one occasion which he had to raft to St. Louis and sell. Most of the pioneers who built stores, saw mills or tavern-houses had, no doubt, stretched their credit facilities to the utmost in order to get started and made every effort to exchange their own wares for labor whenever possible. This is a phase of pioneer life often overlooked and it continued down to the turn of the century although on a diminishing scale.
Thus Schilling, out hunting one day along the west Bluffs of Almond township, looked over the oak barrens and undulating countryside to the east and decided to become a capitalist in his own right by buying a farm and raising horses to cater to the stage coach lines and freighters. As he was among the first in the area, he had his choice of land and there is little doubt that he picked one of the finest farms in the county in Sec 5 not far from the stage road to Berlin. While the indenture on part of this land reveals that Schilling purchased it on Sept. 1, 1854 from Mathias Mitchell he probably made arrangements to settle on it before that time as family legend insists that he built his own house there in 1853 — a house which the Indians allegedly referred to as the "big white wigwam" although by no stretch of the imagination is it big nor does it resemble a wigwam. It is still standing, a model of cottage-type architecture familiar in the early history of New York state, two stories high, the second story low-ceilinged with roof slanted directly over the inner rooms. Small, horizontal windows were cut below the eaves and later a columned porch was built below these windows extending the length of the house.
George Schilling seemed determined to shut out all memory of his youth in Prussia, never talked about his part in the revolution and insisted on having his children learn English even though he conversed with his wife in German. "Father didn't want us to be saying der, de and das. He wanted us to speak good English," commented Mrs. Zimmer who betrays not the slightest trace of a German accent in her speech (d. 1958).
But, while some of the Germans turned their back on Europe, they could not entirely change their palate and one of the favorite dishes remembered in the German community of Almond township was potato dumplings (kartoffel kloese) made mostly of potatoes, flour and salt which, when tossed into the pot, sank to the bottom like stones, but when boiled, rose and whirled around. Chopped meat and vegetables were often inserted in the middle of these dumplings.
Schilling School was established about half a mile from the farm and when the children came home for lunch, often bringing three or four neighbor children along, they all had to sit quietly and bow their heads while Schilling read this prayer:
Wir danken Dir dass Du uns wieder hast
das Morgenlicht erblicken lassen.
Sei Du ferner mit uns.
Wir Danken Dir Fue Speise and Trank
die wir wor uns haben
Lass Deinen Segen auf den selben ruhen.
Gib uns darum Kraft und die Staerke
Deinen Willen zu tun hienieden
und endlich mach uns selig aus Gnaden. Amen.
(Literally: We thank Thee Heavenly Father that you us again have the morning light let be seen. Be further with us. We thank Thee for the food and drink which are before us. Let Your blessings rest upon them. Give us therefore power and strength. Your will to do here on earth and finally bless us with Thy grace. Amen.)
The same prayer was read at dinner and supper by omitting the morning salutation and substituting: Leiber volles Treurer Gott (Loving full true God) Sie Du ferner mit uns, etc.
Schilling was followed into Almond township, among others, by Daniel and Michael Shafer, Andrew Lutz, Isaiah Felker, John Walter, Jacob Helback, William Schleicher, Frederick H. Young, Jacob Mehne, and the several branches of the Hetzel family who at one time were so numerous in a district around a local store north of Almond village that a post office, called Hetzel, was opened here in 1896.
Meanwhile, a second Germany community, led by Joseph Oesterle, developed in northeast Portage County. A passenger ticket made out in Oesterle's name reveals that it was picked up at Le Havre, France, April 23, 18492 Oesterle also left Prussia for reasons connected with the new spirit of the revolution but apparently was not a member of the underground. According to family legend, Joseph Oesterle's father was a forest warden whose main duty in Germany was to keep poachers out of a game reserve maintained by a titled family. During the period of the revolution he clandestinely permitted a few outsiders to enter the forest for needed food and game and among these who took advantage of this leniency was his own son, Joseph. When word of this finally got back to the owners, new orders strictly prohibited (streng verboten) any further poaching, and anyone caught was to be shot on sight. At this point son Joseph allegedly said, "I can't let my father shoot me, and I said Joseph it's time to leave."
In Milwaukee, where Oesterle remained for three - four years, he renewed an acquaintance, apparently through family connections in Prussia, with Joseph Schlitz then developing his famed beer cellars which would one day make Milwaukee famous. Oesterle's decision to leave Milwaukee was probably prompted by Thomas Stark, to whom he was related by marriage. Stark, with his three sons, Anthony, Wendell and Alois, had begun business in 1853 by shaving shingles and hewing timbers about a mile west of modern Knowlton on the Wisconsin River. Oesterle remained with the Starks for about a year and in 1854, dissatisfied with his present arrangements, picked up his gun and ax and headed back into Portage County on foot until he struck a lake, later to be named after him. He probably noted the deer coming down to drink and the lily pads around the shores and reputedly said, "Joseph Oesterle, this is your home." In the next several years he acquired around a thousand acres of land in east Sharon. At least two forties in Sec 26 were acquired under a pre-emption entry made May 24, 1856 under the swamp lands act approved by the state legislature in 1855.3 The 1876 plat reveals that even after he had sold land to men like Koziczkowski, he was still holding more than 800 acres.
And here in Sec 3 (T.24, R.9) Joseph Oesterle, whose photograph in later life strongly resembles Benton's famed portrait of John Brown, built a log cabin and trading post where the Indians came to exchange furs for flour, salt pork, beads, and calico. Said granddaughter Frances Oesterle: "Grandmother had chickens and they (the Indians) would buy eggs from her. Once a week in that cabin he (Joseph) had a dance for the Indians. Had liquor, but he measured it out for them, only so much, no more. They were camped all around him on the lake and they used to pick blueberries, highland berries, and dry them. Made little racks and put a canvas on, and turned the berries. And they were there the whole summer and even winter."
The exact date of Oesterle's arrival in Sharon is uncertain, but his reputation as a hunter had already reached the ears of the editors of the Pinery who on Oct. 25, 1855 noted that "that invincible hunter, Mr. Oesterle ... keeps his friends supplied with venison and bear meat. He killed three deer and four bears last week."
During the Sioux Indian uprising in Minnesota in the early 1860s, the Indians around Oesterle Lake began to show signs of hostility and one morning while Mrs. Oesterle was down to the lake for water, she was shot at, whether with a rifle or bow and arrow is lost in family legend. In any event the aim was poor and after that the Indians were persuaded to leave.
Far more interesting is the story of hidden gold found in the cellar of the Oesterle frame house which replaced the original log cabin and is still standing. A few years after he came to Sharon, Oesterle learned that a boy, to whom his wife was related in Milwaukee, had been left an orphan as a result of an outbreak of cholera. Oesterle drove his team to Milwaukee and brought back Albert Steiner and raised him as one of the family. In the 1890s, after Joseph passed on, Steiner, considerably older than August, only son of Joseph, kept insisting that he had once seen "grandfather" bury gold in the cellar. No one took him seriously. This went on for several years until one day, Mrs. August Oesterle, at Steiner's insistence, went down to the cellar and began digging and shortly struck an old soda can, rusted and scarcely in one piece, but filled with gold coins. She continued to dig and found many more rusty tins. Said her daughter Frances: "I can see her yet, coming upstairs, with her apron filled with gold coins. And we counted $2500 in fives, tens and twenties!"
But she dug only in one corner of the cellar!
Oesterle was followed in Sharon by a number of German families, some of whom were born in north France. Most of them settled on the watershed to the west of the terminal moraine and around modern Ellis such as Nicholas Eiden, Richard and Nicholas Gross, Nicholas and Balthasar Bender, Conrad Miller, and Michael Mersch who, although born in Holland, was considered more German than Dutch. Henry Windorf, born in Germany, settled in northwest Alban as did several Simonis families, although early indentures identify them with Hull and north Sharon.
A custom observed in the early 1900s, at least by the Germans in north Alban, was to shoot the old year out. Usually the men marched down to the village of Rosholt and took up a position in the middle of the intersection near the State Bank and commenced firing. Meanwhile, Wolding Hardware Store, located on Main Street a few steps from the intersection, kept a delivery horse called Lazarus (pronounced Lah-zah-roos in Norwegian) in a small barn back of the store. On one occasion, Martin Wolding said, laughing good naturedly at the memory of it, when the German boys began shooting off their guns, Lazarus, failing to grasp the import of the moment, kicked up his heels and nearly knocked out the end of the barn.
The only community named after a German in Portage County is Kellner, probably for Ernest Kellner, in the town of Grant, where a small trading center developed after the Chicago & North Western Railroad came in 1901. But the district to the east along both banks of Buena Vista Creek, more on the left than on the right bank, had long been settled by German immigrants most of whom appear to have originated in Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Prussia. The 1876 plat includes German names, all within a mile of Buena Vista Creek and within two miles of Kellner, such as Mueller, Krueger, Timm, Panter, Knueppel, Schmidt, Klug, Knoll, and Goldberg. Descendants of most of these pioneers are still living in the township.
A feature of the early German settlement around Kellner was an outdoor brick bake oven used in common, no doubt a European tradition, also seen in other German communities of the state. Indoor stoves that could be used for baking were a luxury in the 1850s in Portage County and those who could afford to buy them had to drive a team to Berlin or Portage city even as Almon Maxfield is said to have done when he settled east of Plover.
The German settlement along Buena Vista Creek developed in the early 1860s and by 1865 there were sufficient families to form a German Lutheran church congregation called St. John's. The church building came some years later. The devotion of these German pioneers to their faith is reflected in one of the by-laws of the constitution adopted in 1870 which held that every person who neglected to partake of holy communion for longer than one year was to be expelled from the congregation. But building the church, parsonage and later a parochial school was slow work. Although labor was mostly donated, contributions in money were minuscule and each additional facility for one of the buildings, such as a chimney, became a major problem for the trustees. In the early 1870s the alms-bag, or klingelbuetel, a velvet purse with small tassels underneath tied to the end of a staff, was introduced for Sunday collections. But even as late as 1899 total collections for the year from the klingelbuetel amounted to only $24.11. Norwegian Lutherans in Rosholt as late as World War I used a red plush bag with gold fringes, no doubt originating in the German klingelbuetel, which was extended to the end of each pew by the ushers holding a staff. The bag was deep and prevented anyone from making a note of what his neighbor had contributed although a rough estimate might be made by the sound of the coin. Probably around 1930 the alms-bag was replaced by the wooden plate which unfortunately exposed the contributions.
Services at St. John's at Kellner were conducted in German until the beginning of the 1930s when English was substituted at least once a month. In 1932 the original German constitution was supplemented by the adoption of an English constitution.
The church minutes also reveal that in 1897, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Missouri Synod, the Kellner congregation installed 50 hitching posts in front of the church and another 50 at the cemetery. This gave the horses an official place to stand; it is assumed that after one or two services each family tied the horse, or horses, to the same post by right of pre-emption, even as the members occupied the same pews in church, the women on the left, the men on the right. Mingling of the sexes in the Protestant churches of the county probably began after World War I and especially after women won the right to vote and decided to overlook the Pauline admonition that "it is a shame for women to speak in the church."
One of the first German-born business men to settle in Stevens Point was Adam Kuhl who applied for naturalization in Circuit Court at Plover in 1856 and later began business in the city as a brewer, although not the first. However, the movement of the German-born to the city did not become noticeable until the 1860s. Among the later arrivals were William Zimmer who entered the United States at New York in 1856 and applied for naturalization at Circuit Court in Plover in 1859; Alex Krembs, who entered at New York in October 1856, probably settled in Stevens Point a few years later, and in 1871 got his final citizenship papers; John Peickert, who entered at New York in September 1853, applied for naturalization in Fond du Lac County in November 1855, and got his final papers in Stevens Point in 1871; Nicholas Jacobs, who entered at New York in June 1865 and applied for naturalization at Plover in 1867; Michael Hartl (today Haertel) who entered at New York in August 1866 and applied at Plover in 1867; Alois Hartl who entered at New York in October 1866 and applied at Plover in 1867; Joseph and Anton Green who immigrated from Prussia in June 1865 and both applied at Plover in 1867; Henry Hoeffler, who entered at New York in April 1850, made his first application in New York and got his final papers at Plover in 1868; and Henry Vetter, who entered at New York in March 1868 and applied for naturalization in Circuit Court in 1870, presumably in Stevens Point.
In the late 1870s and 1880s a number of immigrants from Austria-Hungary, usually referred to in Stevens Point as "the Bohemians," began to settle in the old 5th Ward, including Mathias Adams, Martin Neuberger, Albert Zinniel, John Ruppelt, Stephen Roth, Martin Gabler, John Huber, Josef and Martin Rischel, Ignace Kolby, and John Hautzinger. Most of them attended St. Stephen's church in the beginning but in 1883 organized St. Joseph's Catholic Church where ground was broken on April 16, 1884. Another German congregation, St. Paul's Lutheran, a Protestant group, was organized in the city in 1872 and shared a church building with the Trinity (Norwegian) Lutherans on the corner of Strongs Avenue and Brawley Street until its own structure was completed in 1898. This was located at Center Street and Wyatt Avenue and was destroyed by fire in 1934 and since has been replaced by a beautiful building of Ellis stone. Another German congregation was organized in 1895 as the Friedens Gemeinde, today known as Peace United Church of Christ, located on Dixon Street at Wyatt Avenue.
A German-language weekly in Stevens Point, called the Post, was founded by Carl Rebenstein of Neillsville in October 1892. The newspaper was taken over by Stephen von Szinnig in January 1893 who continued until September when J. H. Gerlick became the publisher. The latter continued until Aug. 26, 1899 when publication ceased. William Moeschler also held an interest in the weekly at this time. It was never revived.
The most noted German cultural organization in the county was organized at Stevens Point in the l880s and known as Eintrachts Verein (Good Fellowship Association.) The members appeared at local gatherings and on two occasions in 1898 and 1908 were hosts to statewide saengerfests of choral groups who assembled in the city for two and three days of singing and fun when the general atmosphere was one of great Gemuetlichkeit.
1 Application for Citizenship, Microfilm Reel 180.
2 In collection of Miss Frances Oesterle, Stevens Point, Wis.
3 Pre-emption Certificates, Register of Deeds, Portage County, Vol. I, p. 221.