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Uhl - Kroencke Family History

May 6, 1993


I recently returned from a month's travel in Germany, doing research for my forthcoming book about German Americans. Part of my itinerary there involved searching for the roots of our shared German ancestors, specifically Grandma (Elizabeth Minerva nee Kroencke) and Grandpa (Conrad John) Uhl's respective parents, who migrated to America sometime in the late nineteenth century. I write now to share with you the fruits of that adventure:
     First let me take up the case of the Uhls.
     Grandpa's father, Konrad Uhl, was born June 17, 1849 at Steinfurth, once a baronial estate owing allegiance to the Bishop of Mainz, and today a prosperous suburb of Bad Nauheim, the spa and resort town located some fifty kilometers north of Frankfort am Main in the state of Hesse. Konrad was the second youngest of nine sons born to Adam Uhl (b.1809), master saddler, and Margaretha Rosenbecker (b.1807), who were married at Steinfurth in 1837. Their first son died at birth in 1835, and a second son arrived twenty four days after their marriage ceremony. The church record notes their liaison prior to marriage, and Adam's acknowledged paternity of the first two children.
     The Rosenbeckers were a long established family in Steinfurth; their local patriarch, Conrad Rosenbecker (b.1613), had moved to the village from nearby Ober Widdersheim sometime in the early 17th century. Margaretha's (actually Elizabeth Margaretha) father, Johann Eberhard Rosenbecker (b.1772) was a farmer whose first wife, Anna Elizabeth Keil was killed in the battle between French and Austrian forces that had taken place near Steinfurth in 1796. Johann Eberhard then married Anna Dorothea Alban (another principal family in Steinfurth), the mother of all eight Rosenbecker children (born between 1800-1826!), including Elizabeth Margaretha who was to subsequently marry Adam Uhl.
     But Adam Uhl was not a native of Steinfurth; he came from nearby Dauernheim, a hamlet attached to the town of Ranstadt, some twenty kilometers to the southeast. Adam's parents were Wilhelm Moritz Uhl and Anna Elizabeth Beltz, about whom I learned little, other than the fact that Wilhelm Moritz is listed in Adam's birth record as a "farmer and burgher." "Burgher" in this case means "citizen," which connotes a certain degree of stability and status within the town. Also it appears that Wilhelm Moritz was not himself from Dauernheim, but Unter Schmitten, a hamlet attached to the nearby town of Nidda. Ober Schmitten, and in particular, Unter Schmitten, seem to be the historical hometowns of the Uhls in our line. Before I comment on these areas — Dauernheim and Unter Schmitten — let's go back to Steinfurth for a closer look at that village.
     Today Steinfurth straddles both banks of the narrow River Wetter, which drains the surrounding highlands and flows into the River Main below. The name "Steinfurth" memorializes a "stony ford" once used for crossing the Wetter at this point, and the village makes its first appearance in the historical record in 914 as an estate granted to the Church by King Konrad I. Archeological evidence, however, shows the area to have been inhabited from as far back as the neolithic period. By the fourteenth century, much of Steinfurth had come into the possession of a baronial family named Von Lowe, who owned 80% of the arable land. In Konrad Uhl's day, this land was leased by the Von Lowe's to four local farm families in parcels of approximately 300 acres each. By the mid-1800s, the able bodied among Steinfurth's 900 residents worked in one of three general professions: most were farmers, and those — the vast majority — who did not possess a small parcel of their own, worked as day laborers on one of the four major lease holdings; there was considerable cottage industry in the town, primarily linen weaving which, like farming, also employed both men and women; the remainder of the townsmen worked as artisans. It is to this latter category that our immediate ancestors belonged, though gardening and small scale husbandry to fulfill personal needs was practiced by virtually everyone. And the artisans moreover also existed to serve the primary economy, which was agricultural. Adam Uhl, and several of his sons were saddlers, while a number of the Rosenbeckers were shoemakers; both lines, however, contain husbandmen and farmers as well. In this context, it is easy to understand how our great grandfather Konrad (grandfather in Wilbur's case, great great grandfather in the case of the younger generation, and so forth) became a Metzger or butcher, a profession Steinfurth, like any agrarian community, produced in abundance.
     It had been assumed in our family that when Grandma (Lizzie) kidded Grandpa (Connie) about his German, it was because he spoke Platt or Low German. In fact, his family would have spoken Hoch or High German, but in the form of a rural dialect — the Hessian way of speaking by the country people being a source of light ridicule among outsiders even to this day. It is much more likely that Lizzie's family spoke or at least was intimately familiar with Plattdeutsch, the predominant dialect in the north until the Reformation, after which High German was introduced into the schools and became the language of government administration. Platt, however, remained the common tongue at home for many years throughout the north, and, while still widely spoken today, it is gradually dying out.
     The question then arises, "Why did Adam's second youngest son leave Steinfurth and emigrate to America?" About this I can only speculate. According to his death certificate, Konrad (now Conrad) Uhl died in 1925, age 76, having spent fifty five years in the United States. Assuming that figure of "fifty five years" to be accurate, this would place Konrad's migration from Germany in the year 1869 or 70. Now, all Germans were required to obtain the consent of their governments if they wished to emigrate. Yet Konrad's name does not appear on a list of residents who legally emigrated to America from Steinfurth between 1859-1901. The obvious explanation is that Konrad emigrated without the required consent, not the rule, but by no means a rare occurrence. Unfortunately, Konrad's name also does not appear on the passenger lists of emigrants arriving in New York from Hamburg or Bremen — the principal ports of German embarkation for America in the nineteenth century — for the years 1870, nor for any of the years immediately preceding or following it.
     The only obvious key to this mystery lies in recalling the significance in German history of the year of Konrad's probable migration. By July, 1870, Prussia and France were at war, and the Grand Duchy of Hesse — Konrad's homeland — was allied to the Prussian cause. A young man of twenty, like Konrad, would have been subject to military conscription, and it was not unusual for German boys to flee to America rather than be drafted into the Prussian army. Konrad might have traveled overland or by river to La Havre or Rotterdam — or may have even crossed the channel and gone to Liverpool; all three of these ports were major shipping outlets to America.
     I should also note that there was a tradition of migration to America from Hesse (as well as from many other regions in Germany), that stretches back to at least the early eighteenth century. As can be seen from my brief sketch of the Uhls in our own line above, mobility among Germans was not unusual, even if persons only moved to a neighboring town from their place of birth to improve their prospects for marriage or employment. There is also a tradition of migration to America among the Uhls of Unter Schmitten dating back to at least 1824. Among these Uhls are included such names as Konrad, John Konrad and Wilhelm — names that were (and in the case of Conrad, remain) common in our own family; it is not unreasonable to assume that our Konrad was aware of this migratory tradition, which perhaps extended to close relatives of his own grandfather, Wilhelm Moritz, who was himself a native of Unter Schmitten.
     I was able to make a fleeting acquaintance with only one distant "cousin" in Steinfurth, Manfred Alban, grandson of Elizabeth Uhl Bechtold, daughter of Konrad's next oldest brother, Wilhelm (b. 1847). Since Manfred had never heard of Konrad, much less of his departure for America, it was impossible to discover through this single contact whether or not any correspondence had ever been exchanged between Konrad and his relations back home. I did, however, peruse Manfred Alban's family album, and saw snapshots of several persons who would have been nieces or nephews of Konrad's, like Elizabeth Uhl Bechtold. I was also strangely moved by photos of Elizabeth's two sons in military uniform, both of whom died at the battle of Stalingrad. One is often — as in this instance — when pouring over these records of family history, swept by feelings of deep curiosity and even occasional melancholy concerning the roads taken or not taken by one's predecessors.
     That Konrad's trail has become faint in Steinfurth is no surprise. What is more disturbing is that his story has so completely disappeared on this side of the Atlantic as well, where — to my knowledge — no documentary evidence of his emigration has been preserved by his descendants. Or if such evidence in the form of letters or family documents was once in the possession of Konrad's sons or daughter (Frank, Conrad, Willy, Frida, Arthur) it has long since disappeared. It is conceivable that Konrad completely broke with his family, and never spoke about them, nor about his life in Germany. I can only suspect that this may have been the case because little that I am aware of has come down to us either in the form or oral record or anecdote through Konrad's grandchildren (Connie's children, Dot, Viola, Wilbur, Thelma — or Arthur's children). Konrad's chapter is not completely closed, however. I am continuing my investigations from here, and in time, I may be able to amend additional information to his sketchy story. Further inquiries in Steinfurth, Dauernheim or Unter Schmitten may turn up a Uhl descendant who has compiled the family genealogy from that side, and perhaps more news of the mysterious Konrad may yet appear.
     One final note on the Uhl hometowns. Adam's birthplace, Dauernheim, is an appealing hamlet of generally medieval appearance, built amidst gentle foothills and surrounded by a great plain. Unter Schmitten occupies a similar setting. Both villages are filled with half-timbered dwellings whose ages can be measured in centuries rather than decades. None of these towns — including Steinfurth — seems to have suffered damage during World War II. One startling example of our family's presence in Unter Schmitten is a huge painting on the side of a farm building just out of town proclaiming "Uhl Apfelwein" (apple wine). Another, was the multiple presence of the name "Uhl" on headstones in the local cemetery. (Those interred here have all died within the last generation; old cemeteries — except for the church yards where only gentry were buried — simply do not exist in Germany; the graves, I was told, are periodically plowed under).
     All three Uhl hometowns are solid and prosperous in appearance, but in Steinfurth, the gleam borders on outright gentrification. And, in fact, Steinfurth village today serves in part as a bedroom community for bustling Frankfurt, a half hour's commute due south on the Autobahn. Prosperity in the case of each of these rural towns can clearly be laid to the so-called German "economic miracle" of the post-war period; when photographs from as late as the thirties are compared with the reality of these towns in the present, the contrast is as night to day. The larger scene in Steinfurth, however, remains purely agricultural. A wide expanse of fields surrounds the town — which stands in splendid isolation, some four kilometers from cosmopolitan Bad Nauheim, and the presence of a successful rose growing industry still provides the predominant impression in Steinfurth; check by jowl, the old, well tended farm complexes — each a self-contained, interconnected unit with its large house, barn, stables, rosenkeller (for winter storage of the root stock), and other storage rooms and buildings — faces the village roads on one side, and often the open fields on the other, where the demarcations of each private plot is known only to the inhabitants.
     Around the time Konrad was believed to have left his birthplace, land — and perhaps other forms of employment — were scarce, and many residents were apparently mired in a semi-permanent state of want — another underlying motive, perhaps, for Konrad's decision to migrate. One statistic from 1860 places the towns population at 900, distributed between some 90 dwellings, making an average of ten people per household. Only two years prior to 1870, however, the cultivation of roses had been introduced into the village — and ultimately, this innovation was to be Steinfurth's salvation. When the land monopoly was eventually broken, many a Steinfurther was able to make his modest fortune as a "rosengartner" — a rose grower and exporter of — not flowers — but root stock, including innumerable hybrid creations. One direct descendant of Adam Uhl, Dr. Hans Uhl — the last "Uhl" in Steinfurth — a chemist whose contributions to local rose cultivation was highly regarded, died only months before my visit — and left no heirs.
     That Konrad Uhl's road brought him to America is obviously beyond dispute, whether or not we can ever know his rationale or the underlying circumstances that motivated that choice. We do know from his marriage certificate that, at age 26, he married Frida Schum who was 22, and that initially the couple lived at 48 Greenwich Avenue in Manhattan, a building, incidentally, which is still standing. Frida was born in 1852 or 53 in a Black Forest village called Endingen, within the then Grand Duchy of Baden. In New York, Konrad worked as a butcher and ended his days in Corona, Queens. I can provide one or two additional facts about great grandfather Konrad Uhl based on my own father's recollections. Konrad cultivated grapes in Corona (and perhaps made wine from them), he is remembered as having been something of a "heavy drinker," and not a great success in life, and there may have been Jewish blood in his family (about this latter point, I shall comment further below). He and Frida are buried in Cedar Grove, a nonsectarian cemetery in Flushing attached to the Jewish cemetery, Mt. Hebron. Frida's story remains to be researched. I unfortunately did not have an opportunity to travel to her hometown deep in the southwest of Germany, but I intend to write the local church for whatever information I can obtain. Needless to say, if any of you can add details to this account which have been unwittingly overlooked by me, I would appreciate hearing from you, even if those "details" are merely in the form of old photographs (which can easily be Xeroxed). I do know that Frida died in 1937, age 85, in Weehauken, N.J.
     As to the question, "Was there Jewish blood in the Uhl line?", again I can only speculate. As I understand it, Grandma Lizzie often kidded Grandpa Connie about this, and my theory about the origin of this claim is as follows: The name of Connie's grandmother, Rosenbecker, "sounds" Jewish, but in fact, the Steinfurth Rosenbeckers were Christian, as the presence of their many baptismal, marriage and burial records in the local Lutheran Church archives testifies. There were, however, a number of Jews in Steinfurth during Konrad's lifetime. And, furthermore, many Jews were known to have converted to Christianity over the years throughout Germany to obtain political rights and as a means of gaining social acceptance and mobility. Whether this was the case of the Rosenbeckers in memorial times, I could not determine. As for the Schums, it is likely, as the oral record suggests, that Frida was a Catholic like most of the people in the area from which she comes. Whether her mother's family, Koch, may have been Jewish is an open question. The name "Koch" in the U.S. has many representative, both Jewish and Christian.
     Manfred Alban gave an interesting account of the Steinfurth Jews during the early days of the Hitler regime. Manfred's grandfather (the husband of Elizabeth Uhl Bechtold) often traded with a certain Jewish resident of Steinfurth; the exchange usually involved livestock. But when Bechtold's two sons were called into the army (the two I have referred to above) — and were both commissioned as officers — local Nazis threatened that the sons' prospects for further advancement would be damaged by their father's continued contact with his old Jewish trading partner, who was also, presumably, a friend. The next time the Jew appeared, Bechtold told him about the problem, and said they could no longer do business together.

     Now let us turn to Grandma Lizzie's people, the Krönckes or Kroencke as they came to spell the name in America, and the Dreyers.
     Lizzie Uhl's parents were Heinrich (Henry) Kroencke (1858-1917), and Dorothea Dreyer (1862-1941). While much of what I know about this couple today results from the study and interpretation of some eighteen postcards — copies of which are in my possession — sent primarily by — but also to — Dorette (diminutive of Dorothea) during her visit to Germany in 1922, I did not discover much about her own family, the Dreyers, during my recent German travels. In part, this is because Dorette's leads on the Kroenckes were better than those on her own family and I was therefore able to establish official contact with Henry's hometown of Otterndorf before my trip, and because my visit to the town and region of Dorette's birth happened to coincide with Easter weekend, an official four day holiday in Germany during which time all the archives I needed to consult were closed. I believe Dorette was born in Celle in the former Kingdom (later Province) of Hanover, a thirty minute train ride from the city of the same name, and currently within the northwestern German state of Niedersachsen or Lower Saxony.
     I arrived in Celle on Good Friday morning, and attended a service in progress at the Lutheran Church (the "state" church in northern Germany, as well as in the Hessian region of Konrad Uhl's birth, is the Evangelische Kirche, that is to say the Evangelical or Lutheran Church). The interior of this stunning house of worship, unlike those of its sister denomination in the U.S., was nearly as ornate as the inside of a Catholic church, full of saintly images, and even the bodily presence of the crucified and the resurrected Christ in the form of both paintings and statuary. Clearly the "reforming" of at least the physical appearance of the Lutheran church in America — among those I've seen, they are as plain as any Scottish conventicle — went much further than it did with its parent institution in Germany; the Lutheran liturgy (the actual service) on both sides of the Atlantic remains remarkably similar to that of the Catholic mass). As interesting as I may have personally found this compensatory observation on comparative religions, I came away from the lovely church with no more information about the origins of Dorothea Dreyer than when I had entered. The office containing the kirchenbucher — the church records — was closed until the following Tuesday; but I have the address, and intend to follow-up as time permits.
     I did, however, spend the rest of the morning in Celle before moving on to the town of Otterndorf, birthplace of Dorette's husband, Henry Kroencke. An old photograph of Dorette in my possession, taken in Celle when she was a young woman, probably in her late teens, lists an address and the original name of the studio where she'd had the portrait taken. There is also a postcard mailed to Dorette from her daughter Lucy (Lizzie's younger sister) that had been forwarded from Hannover to Celle in care of a 'Herr Vieth,'and this contained a street address as well. Talk about cold leads; one referred to an event that had taken place more than a hundred years ago; the other, only seventy. I certainly didn't expect either one to increase my knowledge of great grandmother Dorette's origins in the town. Still, one retraces old steps for reasons that are not entirely rational, and I was pleased to see that both buildings were standing: the old studio in the town's commercial center, and the house, only a minute's walk from the railroad station, today a somewhat frayed end of an otherwise storybook village, where a small public housing complex is home to several families of Turkish "guest workers." A brief consultation with the local phone book also revealed the continued presence in the town of persons with both the names 'Dreyer,' and 'Vieth.'
     Celle dates from the 13th century, and like many of the old towns I visited in Germany that escaped damage during the late world war, the facades of its buildings have now been renovated to a degree of artificial prettiness that never existed before such places were consigned to the status of historical tourist attractions. Probably Dorette herself would be amazed if she could see the hometown that must have appeared to her own young emigrant eyes, circa 1880, as merely "old," today transformed into a glittering — and a-historical — stage set. Such is the dynamic and logic of preservationism. But the very fact that Celle's past survives at all, even in this genteel and homogenous form, is, if not a miracle, at least a strange twist in the fortunes of war. The allied invasion in early 1945 had brought British forces as far west as the notorious Nazi labor camp, Bergen-Belsen, which they liberated in mid-April. Bergen-Belsen was only 10 miles northwest of Celle, in the direct path of the British advance; had the Germans not capitulated in early May, it is likely that the half-timbered structures of Celle, which today so ambiguously recall the town's medieval past, would not be standing at all.
     Early that same evening, I arrived by train in Otterndorf, a journey which, with connections in Hamburg, took about four hours. The distance between Dorette's and Henry's birthplaces — at least two hundred kilometers by rail — made me wonder how a boy from Otterndorf would come to meet and marry a girl from Celle sometime in the late 1870s; there are several possible explanations, which I will take up below. Well, in fact, we don't know for certain that Dorette was born in Celle, nor if she was, whether she was actually living there at the time she met Henry. But about Henry's link to Otterndorf, there can be no doubt. One of Dorette's postcards, addressed to my grandparents, Connie and Lizzie back in South Ozone Park, Queens, N.Y., is a picture of an attractive, handsomely landscaped brick house bearing the printed legend, "Heinrich Kroencke — Otterndorf, Medem-Schleuse — Gastwirtschaft u. Kegelbahn." The card establishes the Kroencke name in relation to Otterndorf, shows a picture of a house belonging to one Heinrich Kroencke somewhere in the vicinity of a sluice or lock of the River Medem, and reveals that the house also functioned as a tavern with an open air bowling lane. To establish beyond question the family connection to the house pictured on the card, Dorette wrote in German, "My dears, this is Mr. Kroencke's parent's house; we stayed there for eight days. Everybody was very nice to us and they didn't want us to go."
     One objective I had set for myself in Otterndorf, was to see if this house still existed. I knew only that it was standing in 1922, and that, at that time, it was presumably still "in the family," though obviously no longer in the hands of Mr. Kroencke's parents. "Mr. Kroencke" in this case refers, of course, to our Henry, as Dorette was very likely following the convention of her day, employing formal rather than familiar usage. At that time, unlike today, one's Christian name was not widely evoked as a form of address outside a small circle of intimates, which did not include one's children. (And one's first name certainly would not have been used by complete strangers, as is today the pseudo-democratic practice among waiters, hotel clerks — and telephone solicitors — whose assaults, in this latter instance, our forebears were mercifully spared.) In any case, other than this small fact about Henry Kroencke's origins, I realized that I knew precious little about my great grandfather. I knew only that he had been a Konditor — a pastry chef — who once owned a bakery in the Bronx. According to my father's recollections, Henry may have also participated — to what degree we do not know — in New York's German-American social and cultural milieu, holding membership in both the Liederkranz Society and the Turnverein. No mention, however, was ever made within my earshot of Henry's immediate family — parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins. And so, from the vantage point of my inquiries, Henry's situation exactly paralleled that of Konrad Uhl; he too had come to America leaving his German past shrouded in mystery.
     Stepping from the train at the railway station in Otterndorf (the village of the "otters"), I was full of excitement as nowhere else during my stay in Germany. The very fact of this North Sea town at the mouth of the Elbe having been a part of my own family's background appealed deeply to my fancy. And by now, I had already fallen in love with the north German landscape seen from the window of my speeding train. Flat as a mid-western prairie, it was, however, anything but stark. Stands of firs and birches abounded, marking the separate fields, giving scope and texture to the underlying uniformity of the land. Broad patches of freshly tilled rich black soil alternated with acres of fodder crops already lush and green in the early spring; and in the wide ranging pastures, thick wooly sheep and well-proportioned beef cattle grazed contentedly. Spotted at decent intervals were the venerable thatch roofed cottages and enormous barns of the innumerable farms.
     Otterndorf itself, because of its proximity to the sea, had by now become a resort town, but the surrounding economy was still predominantly agricultural. Like Celle, the village of Otterndorf reeked of a kind of staid self-satisfaction and prosperity: bright, tidy, bourgeois — as if a team of Disney custodial and maintenance workers tended to its appearance day and night. But, perhaps because of its diminutive size, and the palpable presence of the sea air, the village seemed more gemutlich to me than did Celle.
     For budgetary reasons — Germany is unbelievably expensive — I had been staying in youth hostels when not being put up by friends — and the hostel in Otterndorf, as I was to discover — is one of the newest and best in the entire country. After getting settled-in there, I called my local contact, a man with whom I'd had some brief correspondence. We agreed to meet the next morning. In the meantime, I already knew — having consulted a map of Otterndorf prior to leaving the States — that the hostel was located near the spot where the Kroencke house had stood (was standing?), about a mile from the village center, and quite near the edge of the sea. Pulling out a copy of Dorette's postcard, I began to ask the hostel staff if anyone recognized the house in the picture. After much head scratching, and a few phone calls to older people long familiar with the local scene, I learned the following. The house still existed, and was in fact only a five minute walk from where I now stood. Furthermore, the owner, Uwe (pronounced Uva) Kroencke, currently lived near Hamburg, and his mother Minna, who had most recently lived in the house, had only died within the last year.
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