A Family Chronicle -- The Grimms


I know almost nothing about my grandfather Franz Grimm. I have a picture of a good-looking curly headed young man in German army uniform, and that is all. I remember hearing that he came from Anklam, near Stettin, in East Prussia.

I was told that he had come to Schleswig-Holstein with the Prussian army, and that there he fell in love with young Elise Fitschen. When she and her mother and sister left for America, he went AWOL and followed them "on the very next boat."

He came to the United States and went straight to Des Plaines, Illinois. Neither Anne nor I have any idea whether he was steered to that area by some organization in New York which helped young immigrants, or whether he already knew some of the young men who were settling there. Nor do I know how he managed to purchase a farm since the homesteading period was long over for Illinois.

He settled on a farm at the south-east corner of Algonquin Road and Mt. Prospect Road, just outside of the boundaries of Des Plaines, in Elk Grove Township. Elise came on from New York to meet him, and they were married on October 30, 1882, at the County Court of Cook County, by a justice of the peace.

The farm was the usual quarter section -- 80 acres -- and they had German neighbors all around them. They had four children by 1892, when Franz fell ill, and a sick man with a city-bred wife and four little children and another on the way cannot keep a farm going, so he and his family went into the city of Chicago where he tried to find work.

They had been there only a short time when their youngest child, a little girl of two, called Minna, died of pneumonia and was buried in a Chicago cemetery.

In June their fifth child, Anna Carolina was born. By this time Franz was a very sick man. My Grandmother told me how terrible she felt when he had to crawl up the stairs on his hands and knees when coming home from work because he did not have the strength to walk up. Two or three days before Christmas, 1893, he was taken to Cook County Hospital, and the day after Christmas he was dead. None of his children knew what he died of, although the boys guessed either cancer or T.B. Just this year Ella Ludlum wrote to me saying that she remembered his death, and the fact that she was told he died of cancer. His body was taken back out to the cemetery at St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Elk Grove, and for some time I knew where his un-marked grave was, but eventually that part of the cemetery was reused.

I have no papers pertaining to him. Not even a death certificate.

My maternal grandmother, Elise Fitschen Grimm, is the only ancestor about whom I have more than a smattering of information. Her maternal grandfather was named Christopher Ploghoeft, said to have been a "Professor" who married Adelheid Holst, and had at least two children --- a boy, Christopher, and a girl, Maria. Maria, who was born on August 20, 1820 and baptized in Jork (York), Schlesswig Holstein, Fitschen and was the mother of three girls, Katherine, Elise and one whose name I do not even know.

Elise was born "am Hinterdeiche vor dem Saltztore" (at the rear dike in front of the salt-gate) in Stade, in the Kingdom of Prussia. She was born on August 15, 1855, and baptized on August 25 at the Evangelical Lutheran Church, St. Wilhadi, in Stade. My grandmother's baptismal certificate was obtained when they left Germany to come to the United States, and although it says that Stade is in the Kingdom of Prussia, I think that at the time my grandmother was born it was still in the Kingdom of Denmark, and did not become part of Germany until after the Danish-Prussian war. I have Maria and Elise's baptismal certificates.

My grandmother lived with us in Des Plaines from 1922 to 1929, so that I talked with her a good deal. Her grandfather Christopher was said to have been a professor, which probably meant that he was a teacher of some sort, because in the rigidly class-structured society of Germany in the 19th century, no daughter of a professor would have been married to a manual laborer, which is what Elise's father Johann Fitschen is described as on Elise's birth certificate.

My grandmother could remember the Danish-Prussian War, which was evidently a mild conflict in their part of Denmark, because what she remembered most vividly is herself as a little girl taking flowers out to the soldiers in the field. Schleswig-Holstein became a German province following that war, and the ex-Danish population was not happy about the change.

Many years later, during the rise of Hitler in Germany, my grandmother maintained that all Germans should have been wiped off the face of the earth long ago as trouble-makers. What she and her friends especially hated was having to stand off the road and curtsey as the carriages of the German Hoch-leute went by.

Her life in Stade was that of a girl growing up in an urban setting, and I have a picture of her at about 20 all dressed up, looking very proper indeed. I do not know just what education my grandmother had, but some Indication that her grandfather may have been an educated man and that his children and grandchildren also received some education was the fact that she read fluent English, and read everything I brought home from school and college until she became almost entirely blind at 82. She read the English newspapers, and never had German newspapers or magazines in the houses -- although she got a good deal of pleasure out of the German books I brought home when I was taking German in college. She had an accent until the end of her days, but spoke fluent English.

Elise, her sister Katherine, and their mother became disenchanted with life under the Germans and decided to come to America. Their cousin Caroline Ploghoeft decided to come as well. Caroline was determined to come because she had been left an orphan some years before and had gone to live with her sister and her sister's husband.

When the sister died the husband felt that it would be a good idea if he and Caroline were married, and she was anxious to escape. The third sister did not accompany them, and I can find out absolutely nothing about her. Charlie Dummer, who is the son of sister Katherine, never heard of her. Anne [Grimm Tucker] never heard of her. Ella Ludlam, Caroline's daughter, never heard of her. All I know is that sometime in the 1890's when applying for insurance, Elise stated on the insurance form that she had two living sisters.

Maria, Elise, Katherine and Caroline packed their belongings, left Germany and came to America. As far as I can find out they had no one to come to for help when they got here, and I have no idea of how they survived those first years. My grandmother told me that she worked as a nursery maid until Franz Grimm became established on the farm in Illinois, and then she followed him out there and was married on October 30, 1882, by John C. Murphy, Justice of the Peace. Caroline came to Chicago at about this time also. Whether she had known Heinrich Ludwig before leaving Germanyt,met him in New York, or met him in Chicago I do not know, but she married him at about the time Elise married Franz Grimm. Heinrich was a sausage maker at Swift and Company, and they settled down in the south side of Chicago near the stock yards. Maria remained in New York with her daughter Katherine, who married Karl Dummer.

In 1882 Elise and Franz Grimm settled on the farm at the south east corner of Algonquin and Mount Prospect Roads, and were active in the farming community and in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. John in Elk Grove. They soon had four children -- Karl Wilhelm, born in 1883, Maria Dorothea Wilhelmina, born in 1885, Richard Heinrich, born in 1888, and Wilhelmina, born in 1891.

Life on the farm was very difficult for Elise. Her background was not one of farming, and she found the work hard, and the living rough compared to her life in Germany. She told me many years later that she had been overwhe1med by living with all of those other farmers, who spoke a very different Platt-Deutsch from that of the previously Danish area she had come from, and whom she considered much more peasants than the people in her previous life. She was a very intelligent person, however, and kept these feelings so much to herself that I doubt that her neighbors knew of them, since she remained on very good terms with them. They did a great deal to lighten her burden when Franz died, by taking the children into their homes during the summer, and by giving them housing and work in the country while she had to work in the city to support them.

She also told me, when she was an old lady, that she had been so homesick and unhappy through all those terrible years that she had hoarded her fare back to Germany, and had never spent it until her grown children were trying to build a house on Loomis Street in 1903, when she finally knew she would never go back, and gave the money to them. Meanwhile, there were letters written home to Germany, and a picture taken of the first handsome little boy all dressed up to be sent back home.

I have copies of two letters received from home, which consist of nothing but hard luck stories about life on the farms of Germany. Their special friends in Elk Grove were Fritz and Sophia Wille who lived on a near-by farm, and who had 13 children. My Grandmother told me that one year when she was having difficulty drying up her milk (when weaning) Fritz Wille told her a sure cure--- squirt a few drops of milk on a brick, and then bury the brick. Lo, it worked and her breasts dried up.

Farm produce was taken into Des Plaines by wagon on Saturdays, and shopping done then. My mother told me that there was a creek running approximately where the Belt Line tracks now lie, which flooded every spring so that the wagons could not get into town.

The Grimm and Wille children all went to school at St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church which stood --- and still stands --- on Linneman Road between Golf and Demptster Streets. It was a long walk to school for children less than nine years old, but walk it they did. I often wonder how often they attended school during the depth of winter, and I have no one to ask since Anne was not born until after they left Elk Grove. I believe that all instruction was in German at that time, but the instruction must have been excellent since it was the backbone of such schooling as they got, and all of the young Grimms, with very little more formal education in the Chicago Public Schools, were able to go on and educate themselves, and to thrive in the business world, in which no one guessed how little formal education they had.

This farm life came to an end when Franz became ill. He soon was so weak that he was unable to take care of the farm and the livestock. My Grandmother told me that she tried to carry on with the help of the children, but that she shed so many tears over conscientious little Charlie valiantly trying to do the work in the barns at the age of nine, that she insisted that they go into Chicago where she hoped she and Franz could get some sort of work less physically demanding. As a result, they left the farm in early 1893, and moved into an area of Chicago close to where Elise's cousin, Caroline Ludwig, lived with her husband and family.

In the Spring tragedy struck, and little Minna died of pneumonia. On June 18 Anne was born, and by Christmas of that same year Franz was taken to Cook County Hospital and died. He was buried out in Elk Grove at St. John's Lutheran Church, and the little family went back to life in the city.

For a time they lived with the Ludwigs and lost touch with their farm neighbors. I have a touching letter written by Fritz and Sophia Wille (in German script) to Mrs. Ludwig, asking for news of Mrs. Grimm and the children -- from whom they have not heard for a long time -- expressing their desire to come to see them if they could only find out where they were, since their last letter had been returned.

Elise must have written letters back to Germany expressing her desire to come back, because I also have a reply from there to here, telling her how hard things were in Germany, and telling her to stay where she was. She and the children moved into their own apartment and Elise set out to make a living for herself and her family. She had no special training and had a definite language handicap, but as Anne wrote to me recently --- "Mother was a hard worker, pleasant and anxious to please. She made friends easily, and had a nice personality. She went to work at Armour and Co. and had charge of the girl's cloak room, and also doubled as a practical nurse. If the girls had minor cuts and bruises she patched them up, or if they needed time out because of stomach aches or other illnesses, she provided a place to lie down and made things like Anger tea."

Old Maria Fitschen, who had been living with her daughter Katherine Dummer in New York, now got on a train and came to Chicago to take care of the Grimm children while their mother made their living. I have heard tales of how the indomitable old lady got off the train in down-town Chicago, and got a carter to take her trunk to the south side. Since she spoke very little English she was not going to give her trunk into the care of some stranger, so she arrived on the south side, sitting up beside the carter on a horse-drawn truck guarding her belongings.

Their grandmother was a great influence on the Grimm children. She insisted even in these strange circumstances, in maintaining certain standards. My mother told me that every afternoon of the old lady's life she washed herself and changed her "mutch", which was a little bonnet she always worefrom her workaday one to her dress-up one, and changed her apron, putting on a clean white one. I have a picture of her taken shortly before her death with such a mutch on, and with a black silk apron over her best dress.

Charles Grimm 1885

They lived in an area just south of the stock-yards which Anne objects to my calling a slum. As she says, "Please don't call the neighborhood where we lived a 'slum area.' So far as I can recall it it was a respectable neighborhood with fences and yards to every house. We never had gangs or anything of that sort. True, we were at the boundary of the stock yards proper, but there were decent saloons and businesses all around. The Schumachers had a saloon, restaurant, dance hall and lodge rooms in their building and it was all very respectable --- kept so by old lady Schumacher and her daughters. Any trouble makers were immediately bounced by the old man and the eldest son. They were very good to my mother in her troubled days." Indeed, so long as these neighborhoods were lived in by the first immigrants they stayed tidy and respectable.

They lived close to the Ludwigs, somewhere in the vicinity of 46th and Loomis. The first apartment they lived in did not have indoor toilets. The toilet was out in the back yards and was much like the toilets which existed in England through the second world war, and may still be in use today in working class neighborhoods. It was not just a hole-in-the-ground privy. It was a wooden structure built over an open sewer, which ran below, with a seat much like the present toilet, except that beneath that seat was an opening to the sewer. one of the horrors for the mothers of the neighborhood was the fear that a small child playing unattended would fall down through one of these open seats and be carried away in the sewer. Later they moved to 53rd and Loomis where the building had four apartments with indoor toilets between each two apartments, Elise's salary kept a roof over their heads and kept them fed.

I can remember all of them reminiscing about their food. The old Grandmother could stretch a head of cabbage and a few bits of meat and some potatoes a long way, but their everlasting morning meal was oatmeal. Some of their clothes came from the poor boxes of the Lutheran church, and my mother hated that. She told me of a blouse she once got out of the poor barrel which she thought was very pretty, but there was not a skirt. to match it, so she stood behind the board fence with the blouse on and said hello to the passersby, who could not see that she did not have a skirt of equal style.

They attended the neighborhood settlement house, but they spoke of it later on with some loathing. I can remember a time, many years later, when we lived in Bronxville, N. Y., and Dick, who was well on his way to becoming a millionaire, was filling out an entrance application for his son for a private school. He came to the area of the application where they asked for the father's schooling, and asked for his college. He said, "I put down University of Chicago. I didn't have to tell them it was the University of Chicago Settlement House, did I?`

Although they all did well in school, Mary did not like it because she thought the teachers looked down on them. one teacher earned her undying hatred by making a remark about the way Dick smelled. Really, it may not have been the personal slight my mother imagined ---- little boys in those days wore one suit of underwear for at least a week, and their corduroy or woolen knickers were unwashable, so that they were very ripe indeed by the end of winter. I can remember how little boys of even my generation smelled.

Their life was ameliorated by the fact that the farmers out in Elk Grove took the Grimm children in for the summers and parcelled them out among the various Wille farms, so that they did not spend the long summer vacations at loose ends on the city streets. Anne writes to me, "Yes, even I spent quite a few summers on the farm and they are some of my fondest childhood memories. Hulda was a year older than I Connie was a year younger. It was our job to scrub the potatoes every morning and peel a bucket full for dinner at 12 o'clock, and when we peeled those potatoes Sophie would come around and examine the potatoe skins. We grubbed the potatoes when they were large enough, and we watched over the cows feeding in the cornfields. I shucked wheat just once, got a nose bleed, and that was that.

"I really didn't mind, didn't like the job anyhow. Picked raspberries, almost anything in the garden that was ripe and ready to pick. Took mid-morning and mid-afternoon lunch to the men working in the fields, and this I liked. We had fun. Hopped on the truck when it was going to the field, and walked back home. Walked to what they called the 'factory' which was on the corner of Higgins and Oakton for supplies. All of us kids went to the farm while on school vacation. By the time I came along the others were working."

As they grew older and could do more useful work the older children did odd jobs for the Schumachers. Anne says,"I think the Schumacher alliance came about because of Mary and Amanda. They were in the same grade at schoo,s and she went home with Amanda and helped wash and dry dishes for the restaurant. This became a regular job for your mother later on, and she just hated it, but it was needed extra money she was earning."

My grandmother joined a fraternal order of German women like herself, which was both a burial society and a social club, called the Hammond Schwestern. It meant a great deal to poor women to know that if anything happened they would at least have a decent burial. Some of the members were not in dire financial straits at the time -Mrs. Schumacher, Caroline Ludwig, and a lady named Mrs. Sunderland were members for its social aspects. Mrs. Sunderland had Dick weed her garden for pay, and enrolled Dick and Anne in a sewing class. Anne says, "She came to your mother and dad's wedding, much to your mother's chagrin." Grandmother also took out an insurance policy, which was term insurance centered around a particular group of women. It was so set up that as one woman died, her share had to be paid by those remaining --- so that when my Grandmother was in her 60's, there were only a few women left, and she was paying out more than she would ever get in return. Her sons had a hard time convincing her that she should drop the policy and let what money she had already put in be lost.

When he was 14 Charlie was taken out of school to go to work, which brought in a little more money for the household, and at 14 Mary also left school. Fourteen was legal school leaving age, and although neither of them had finished eighth grade both read very well, wrote beautiful script, were whizzes at math, and were able to go on educating themselves so that in later years no one ever guessed that they had never finished grammar school.

I do not know what job Charlie held during those first years, although it was in one of the packing houses, but in addition to working and being handy man around the house he also began going to night school to make up his education. Mary was fortunate in being taken on as a trainee operator by the then new telephone company, and to get a job as telephone operator at Armour and Co. Both of them were determined to better themselves and took advantage of every possible chance to learn how things were done in America among the "rich and upper-class," Mary even went out to work as a maid occasionally when one of the "bosses" wives gave a party and stored up every clue as to the proper way to set a table and conduct oneself at a party. Both of them spoke English without a trace of German accent, although they had spoken only German for the first years of their lives. The two older Grimms insisted that their mother not take Dick out of school when he reached 14, but let him finish grammar school, after which they paid his tuition to a secretarial school, a thing he never forgot to be grateful for.

By 1900 Charlie was taking violin lessons from a neighbor named Schaefer who was a music teacher and organist at the Catholic church. When the people with whom he lived decided to move)Schaefer persuaded the Grimms to rent the house so that he could rent his room from them. The Grimms did so, and lived there for several years. It was, according to Anne, a grand old house with five bedrooms, a front and back parlor, dining room and kitchen.

It was at this house that Mary and their cousin Bertha Ludwig taught the boys to dance while Anne, aged about 10, who had taken piano lessons from Schaefer, played the piano. At this time Mary was a very pretty girl, fastidious and aware of her prettiness. She was an excellent dresser and had good taste, and enough good sense to buy one expensive outfit rather than two or three cheap ones. They all had good health and lots of stamina. They were all completely convinced of the possibility of achieving the American dream, and believed that by working at it they could achieve a place in society.

In addition to teaching the boys to dance IT everyone embarked on a great bout of self-improvement. They read omnivorously, and bought every set of books put out by the various newspapers and magazines so that years later our house was well furnished with sets of Twain, Bret Harte, John Fox, Fennimore Cooper, Jack London, Morgan Robertson, James Barriet Victor Hugo and more. They all went to the symphony, theatre, opera, and to lectures at the University of Chicago where they were much impressed by one Mangasarian. Their mother was completely cooperative in all they tried to do.

Anne has written, "I realize that while my mother never heard of psychology, she had more psychology in her little finger than most people have in their entire lives. I can never remember a time when her children's friends were not welcome at our house. We turned the living room upside down to teach the boys to dance, and when we lived at 5220 Loomis and lived directly across from the skating pond and toboggan slide, anybody who was a friend could leave their skates and cold weather gear at our house, and there was always hot cocoa for everybody."

In 1903 both boys and Mary were working and determined to build a house of their own. Where they got a down-payment, even though small,nobody now remembers. My Grandmother told me at one time that all through the terrible years she had hung onto her money for her fare back to Germany, but that when the young people built the house she gave up and gave it to them. Could that have been their down-payment?

At any rate, they built the house at 5230 Loomis Street, directly across the street from Sherman Park. It was large, up-to-date and well finished, and they made their mother quit working at Armours and stay at home to keep house. There were four young Grimms, and three boarders (two medical students and Schaeffer) and the old Grandmother was becoming senile. My Grandmother maintained later that she had never worked so hard as after she quit work to stay at home.

I have heard many stories about the old grandmother's senility which the young people found mildly amusing, but which I doubt Elise enjoyed. If not constantly watched, or somehow confined, she ran away looking for home and her mother. Charlie put fancy locks on all the doors, but still she got out. Since Mary worked for the telephone company they had one of the first telephones, but nobody could fool the old lady. She knew Mary was not in that little box on the wall. Neither could they keep her from answering the phone, picking up the receiver and listening to the voice coming from it, and then just dropping it without saying anything or calling anyone.

By this time the young people were living highly satisfactory lives. They had a large group of young friends, all very much like themselves, the first generation to be born in America of parents who had not found the streets paved with gold in their adopted land. Although the first neighborhood they lived in was largely German, they were soon working and associating with all kinds of people. The young people of that time and neighborhood had no intention of staying in their own ethnic or religious enclaves. They were all imbued with the American Dream. It never occurred to them that they were not going to leave the Yards neighborhoods behind and live the affluent life. Charlie was putting himself through the last years of grammar school and as much of high school as was possible at night. Dick had finished secretarial school and was starting out on a promising career as secretary to the president in the offices of the American Distilling Company. Anne was going to High School, Mary was well-known at Armours. Sometime in these years their cousin Katherine Dummer came to live with them with her husband Lacey Taggart and her daughter Evelyn. The Grimms and all of their friends had sleigh rides, they ice-skated on the midway, they had fancy dress parties, they walked miles in order to play tennis and golf in the public parks. They walked farther to attend lectures at the University of Chicago. They took trips to points of interest around the entire Chicago area. I have pictures of them taken in all the Chicago parks, at the Indiana Dunes, Starved Rock and the Wisconsin Dells.

Enjoying Life -- A Gallery

Mary at the Beach
Albert at the Beach
On the Courts
On the Midway (1)
On the Midway (2)

In 1908 Charlie went off to Valparaiso University, which specialized in college work and college preparatory work for young people who had not completed high school. He wanted to get himself ready for medical school. Anne went to work for Swift and Co. Mary and a new friend Albert Oppenheimer were both working at Armour and Co. The entire United Nations of friends, Ludwigs, Castinos, Walters, Pesches, Schumachers, Brockhursts, Norbergs, Salvatores and Ibbetsons were all ready to embark on a new life.

To The Oppenheimers
copyright © 1996 Thomas F. Bentley
For mmore information contact tbentley@together.net