Page Two
Uhl - Kroencke Family History

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     Almost panting with anticipation, I rushed from the hostel, and half ran in the direction I'd been instructed. Dusk had turned to darkness. I crossed a small wooden bridge - the Medem splits here, one branch going toward the sluice, the other toward a canal and the open sea. I followed the road toward the Medem sluice. Before me stretched the shadowy outline of the great dike - a contoured mound of grass-covered gravel some twenty feet in height - which runs the length of the shore, the first and last line of defense against the legendary ravages of the North Sea, which itself lies five hundred meters beyond and out of view. The neighboring houses were almost all well-preserved, half-timbered relics, with roofs of thatch - woven from the cane that grows on the banks of the Elbe. Several of these houses today serve as taverns and inns, considerably more ornate and festive in appearance than the old public house once tended by our ancestors. I was now on a little island, and just past the sluice works, the long drive I was looking for emerged from the dim background. Down it I plunged, half stumbling in the darkness, till I came to a split rail fence. And there, peeking from behind the now overgrown vegetation and ill kempt lawn, was the unmistakable silhouette of the old Kroencke house. Even from that myopic distance, I could see that the house, now shabby from lack of care, was not what it had been. But the old octagonal shed that was once linked in some capacity with the bowling lane, had survived, as had the flag pole rising from the peak of the second story, above the front door.
     What possessed me, I don't know. It must have been ten at night. But I wandered around the grounds till suddenly I stood before the back door. This was force of habit; in Maine, no one but the occasional vacuum or bible salesman comes to the front of the house. And I knocked. A few seconds later, a young man appeared, and without thinking, I let loose a string of apologies, with a rapid fire explanation of my strange appearance before him at that late hour - all in English. Now, not as many people speak English in Germany as you might imagine; and normally, when English is spoken, it is seldom spoken well, and understood even less. This fellow, Reiner Schlimme's English, however, was exceedingly good, almost colloquial. In brief, he was a boat builder, living with his wife and two young children in the downstairs apartment of the house, which he rented from Uwe Kroencke. He had spent a year or so during boyhood, living with his parents in Levittown, Pa., and more recently he'd lived for three years in Ireland, building a boat for a writer who'd written a long account of the experience for Wooden Boat magazine, which coincidently, is published in Maine. Then, still childless, he and his wife, Petra, had sailed their own boat across the Atlantic, and settled down in a small coastal North Carolina town for almost a year, until Petra's pregnancy required their return to Germany.
     In a flash, I found myself sitting inside what had apparently been the house of Henry Kroencke's parents. Whether or not Henry himself had ever lived there, I can not say until I find out both the year the house was built, and the year Henry migrated to America. I am hoping to receive this information in the near future. From the couple Schlimme, who I must admit I liked instantly, I now heard a tenant's tale about a landlord - Uwe - who may be our nearest living Kroencke relative in Germany. It seems that Uwe has been living near Hamburg for many years, working for Mercedes, and that he had promised his mother, Minna, he would not attempt to sell the house until after her death. Reiner says he would like to buy the house, but can't afford Uwe's price. The house is solid, but needs a good deal of repair, both inside and out, and so has appeal to Reiner as a handyman special. Uwe feels - according to Reiner - that whoever buys the house will do so for the land, and will very likely demolish the structure anyway. The setting of the house is indeed exceptional. The plot is quite large, and bordered by the river on two sides. It is this water frontage that appeals to Reiner - not for aesthetic reasons alone - but because of his profession. In fact, Reiner's latest project, a gorgeous forty foot sailboat - following a Herrshoff design - now sits near completion on blocking at the end of the drive, behind the house.
     From that night forward, for the next week or so - even after I had left Otterndorf - I was not successful in making contact with Uwe. I - or I should say - friends and acquaintances - placed many phone calls to his home in Hamburg, and spoke frequently with his wife and daughter. But we never found Herr Kroencke at home. And neither did he make an attempt to contact me. Apparently the sense of family-feeling that I had toward the old house, toward the Kroenckes of Otterndorf, and potentially, toward Uwe himself, was not reciprocal. During one call to his wife, my friend described me, a bit over-enthusiastically, as Uwe's "American cousin," to which she quickly responded, "my husband has no cousins." In fact, as I was to discover later during my stay in Otterndorf, after getting my hands on the Kroencke genealogy, Uwe is directly descended from Henry's uncle, and furthermore Uwe's great grandfather was my great, great grandfather. We are hardly close relations, but our lines run parallel from the same source, five generations back in my case, four in his. My friends thought that Uwe might be understandably suspicious about someone suddenly showing up from the States, claiming kinship. So before returning home, I wrote Uwe a long letter, which a friend translated to German, explaining about my book, and requesting that he answer some very specific questions about the Kroencke family, and about Henry in particular, especially if any knowledge of his - or any relative's - emigration to America was passed down in the family lore of those who remained behind.
     The following morning, Heiko Volker, a local genealogy buff - who also happens to be Otterndorf's police chief - picked me up at the youth hostel. For the next several hours, he gave me a tour of the town and its surroundings, and answered my many questions. In the records of the local historical society, he had discovered the branch of the Kroencke family to which Henry belonged. Unfortunately, this being Holy Saturday, and with Monday also an official holiday, I wouldn't be able to consult the record personally until Tuesday. I had no choice but to remain in Otterndorf; but this was no hardship. I'd known in advance that my trip would coincide with Easter Week, and that I'd have to hole up somewhere for a couple of days when the country's normal routine ground to a halt. Otterndorf was the perfect choice for both material and spiritual reasons. I knew my stay here would be productive from the standpoint of information; and the fact that this very day, April 10, was also Henry's birthday, seemed to lend my presence here a kind of fateful endorsement.
     I showed Heiko two other postcards from Otterndorf that Dorette had sent back to the Uhls in So. Ozone Park from her 1922 tour of Germany, where, incidentally, she remained for several months, and during which time she traveled as far east as Konigsberg - the former seat of the Prussian king that is now a part of Russia. (What connection Dorette had to Konigsberg is anyone's guess). Returning to the postcards, one showed an ancient, timber-fronted Gymnasium or High School dating from 1614, the other a more modern building of the Art Nouveau style. There was also an address where a Claus Kroencke had once lived, and where Dorette had also apparently stayed during her visit to the town. All three buildings are still there, but the house is no longer occupied by descendants of the Kroenckes. As we drove from site to site, Heiko gave me some historical background on Otterndorf, and also told me what he knew about the Kroencke family's history in the town.
     Otterndorf dates from 1400, and for much of its history, the town was encircled by walls. While severely damaged by fire on two occasions, the town was never sacked or otherwise damaged during the endless periods of warfare that have plagued Germany over its long history. Even during the apocalyptic Thirty Years War (1618-1648), when so much of Germany was razed by fire and sword, Otterndorf managed to purchase its safety from the competing armies by payments of tribute - the bounty of a wealthy and free peasantry whose surrounding farms had helped to fuel the legendary Hanseatic trade with their abundant harvests of wheat. Heiko showed me a stretch of the old moat, and a raised path lined with linden trees where the southern wall had once stood. Ruled by a Duke until 1663 who resided in the local schloss - a modest enough affair as mansions go - Otterndorf was later administered by the princes of Hanover, who included the kings George, rulers of both Hanover and England.
     Later we drove to neighboring Cuxhaven, a small coastal city with an active container port. For a brief period, from the final decades of the past century until the outbreak of World War I, many emigrants from Germany to America embarked directly from the Steuben wharf in Cuxhaven, named in honor of the Prussian officer who became a hero of the American Revolutionary war. A direct rail link to a large terminal building on the wharf, all the more incongruous today because of its size and haunting emptiness, had brought the teeming emigrant trains straight from Hamburg, then, as now, a "free city," and which, until 1937, counted Cuxhaven as a part of its extraterritorial possessions. It is at least conceivable that when Henry and Dorette left Germany, they embarked from this small port - no mention of which have I ever come across in the mainstream of American migration literature - only a few kilometers from Henry's birthplace in Otterndorf.
     As for the Kroenckes themselves, Heiko began to ply me with general details of their lives which were completely contrary to what I might have imagined. Henry, having been a Konditor - or baker - to use the more prosaic American term, it was certainly surprising to learn that he came from a line of people who, in one way or another, made their living from the sea. Henry's father, as I was to learn later while consulting the Kroencke genealogy, was Georg Adolph (Adolph also being Henry's middle name). and Georg Adolph (born 1829), according to Heiko, was a "deichvogt" - which I will translate loosely as "shore warden." In an apparent contradiction, the Kroencke genealogy refers to Georg Adolph as a "harbor master," and "tavern keeper." But we know from the postcard referred to above that he did in fact keep a tavern, a place close enough to the shore for local dike workers, boatmen and fishermen to frequent during the day for a pick-me-up glass of schnapps, and perhaps a relaxing game of ten pins. The harbor master/deichvogt discrepancy may be simply a matter of semantics. Whatever his actual title, Georg Adolf's position was an official one. He wore a badge, and in effect had salvage rights over all shipwrecks along the western end of Otterndorf's coastline. His duties would have also included organizing rescue efforts for shipwreck survivors. Not only was Georg Adolph's position a responsible one, but also, potentially, very lucrative - which explains how he may have accumulated sufficient capital to build what was certainly in its day, an impressive and expensive home.
     Two more days would pass before I was to finally set eyes on the Kroencke family genealogy. But there were other leads to track down. Several postcards had also been sent by Dorette from the neighboring village of Freiburg-on-the-Elbe, home, apparently, of another family connection with whom Dorette had sojourned during her travels - but whether this was a Kroencke, a Dreyer or another party unknown, I had no way of telling. Freiburg, though, is only about twenty-five kilometer from Otterndorf, so I thought it would be worth popping over just to see the place. But getting there proved to be a challenge. In fact, during my four weeks in Germany, this was the only time that the country's incredible public transportation system let me down. Freiburg, which occupies an elbow of land where the Elbe bends toward the North Sea, is somewhat isolated geographically, and therefore not serviced by train. I was told there might be a bus serving Freiburg from the next town on the rail line just south of Otterndorf, but that proved incorrect; the only option there was a forty dollar cab ride. I returned to Otterndorf feeling a bit like the tourist in Maine, who, when asking directions is told, "You can't get there from here."
     Earlier in the day, this being Easter Sunday, I had decided to attend service in the church where our Kroencke ancestors had almost certainly been members in good standing. Lutheranism was, of course, the religious affiliation of the Uhl/Kroencke clan in So. Ozone Park, no doubt through Lizzie's influence, since Connie had by then become an Episcopalian, while his mother - Frida Schum - is believed to have been a Catholic. The Otterndorf church, like its equivalents in Celle and Steinfurth, was a perfect gem, embodying in its much renovated structure, the evolution of ecclesiastical architecture in Germany over the past six centuries. The service was simple, and not particularly well attended; most Germans belong to the state church, and support it through a mandatory tax contribution, but active participation in the church is minimal. One can quit the church, and thus economize the tax payment, but then your children can not be baptized, nor your dead buried under the auspices of a preacher.
     After my misfired attempt to reach Freiburg, I decided to head off in the opposite direction, returning to Cuxhaven to visit the Wrack - or Shipwreck - museum. Since Georg Adolph, and also his kin going back at least two generations (as I was soon to discover) had been lock attendants and shore wardens, I thought the shipwreck museum might shed some light on the exact duties and responsibilities of a "deichvogt." Most of the artifacts on display at the museum had been salvaged over the years during on-going operations to clear wrecks from the channel linking the Elbe to the North Sea. Of much greater interest to me were a dozen or so photographs and illustrations from old periodical showing some sea rescue operation in progress. Those crews lucky enough to have their ships founder near the shore, had a fair chance of survival, thanks to the heroic efforts of the rescue teams, shown in picture after picture, forcing their oar-powered crafts over the roiling breakers and into the furious sea where the pathetic victims clung to the rigging of their sinking wrecks with expressions of utter desperation. As I stood before these passionate illustrations, I felt a tinge of pride toward my ancestors who might have participated in such courageous work. Another photo also caught my eye, a portrait of Kapitan Johann Friedrich Kroencke, whose schooner, the "Albertus" had been sunk in 1864 on a voyage down from Hamburg, having been rammed in the night by the British steamer "Hero." But Johann Friedrich does not appear to have been in the direct line of the Otterndorf Kroenckes.
     The southeastern sector of the North Sea - or German Bight - as the English call it, has long been one of the more dangerous shipping lanes in the world. Squalls whip up from nowhere, and heavy fogs or - in the winter - ice floes often make navigation through the narrow channels extremely hazardous. Under such conditions, many ships have met their ruin off the shores of Otterndorf, providing the Kroenckes with ample opportunity to accumulate booty from the sea. A British steamer, the "Kaffraria," for example, had grounded off Otterndorf in 1891, and soon broke apart in a severe winter storm; artifacts from this, and many earlier wrecks, were found in the Kroencke home after Minna's death; and some of them are now in the Wrackmuseum. The Kroenckes were involved in official salvage operations from at least 1850, when a notice in the local newspaper announced that, in May of that year, an uncle of Georg Adolph's would sell salvaged goods from the "Kroencke barn."
     I had not given up on my desire to visit Freiburg, and fortunately, the next day, I was able to persuade the boat builder, Reiner, and his wife Petra, to give me a lift in their car. Seeing the town proved interesting, but not terribly relevant to my mission, unless you count the fact that we actually dropped in on a family named Kroencke, remotely related to the Otterndorf branch I suppose, but how I was not to learn. They were nice people, inviting us into their house just as they were about to sit down to a midday dinner. And someone pulled out a copy of a Kroencke family book, which they had purchased, in German, from Halbert's of Bath, Ohio. I'd already seen the 'Book of Uhls' from the same company, and judged it worthless, full of boilerplate on the general saga of world migrations, and precious little on one's own family. This bogus Kroencke book confirmed my earlier opinion of this company and its products. The senior person in this household, an elderly man, suggested that the name, "Kroencke" was derived from the Plattdeutsch word for "fork"; like all popular attempts at etymology, this too must be taken with a grain of "salt."
     When Tuesday morning arrived, I rushed to keep my appointment with Heiko Volker at the Kranichhaus, the town museum and repository for old records. At the peak of this old building's facade stands a statue of a "kranich" - or crane. Coincidently, the image of the crane also provides the motif for the Kroencke coat-of-arms, an example of which continues to hang in the old family house. The symbolism of the crane, perched on one leg, peering out vigilantly over the watery horizon, is obviously appropriate to the Kroenckes' historic occupation. "Do you know why the crane holds a large rock in it's raised claw," Heiko asked me when I walked into the Kranichhaus library. "Because, should the bird ever relax its vigilance and fall asleep, the stone will fall on its other foot." While I found this folkloric anecdote amusing, my full attention that morning was on my own roots, and I was thrilled to see that Heiko already had the Kroencke genealogy opened to the appropriate pages on the table in front of him. In my attempt to summarize the family tree below, the dry format of begets and begots is regrettably, unavoidable. I hope that a certain amount of redundancy - looping back to references made above, for example - will facilitate rather than hinder the clarity of the presentation:
     There are eighteen separate Kroencke family lines in Otterndorf. Ours, listed as number two, is by far the largest. The members of the other large line were primarily owners of mills, engaged the grinding and export of grain. For the most part, members of our line, as I have mentioned, drew their livelihood from the sea. Our first ancestor who appears in the town records, Johann Kroencke (born ca. 1731), died in Otterndorf, but was not born there. Johann did not live within the walls of the town, but was a lock keeper on the East End of - for want of a better tern - greater Otterndorf. Johann and his wife, Gissel Meyn had six children, and we are descended from the only son, Claus (b. 1769), who survived into adulthood. Claus was a lock inspector and a pilot. Claus and his wife, Anne Margarethe Elizabeth Bauer, had seven children, and our line continues through their second son, Jurgen Adolf (b. 1798), who owned his own boat, and was presumably engaged in coastal shipping.
     Jurgen Adolf and his wife, Margarethe Dodegge had eight children, all of whom - except for the last - were born in the West End of Otterndorf, where the old Kroencke home sits today. Apparently Jurgen moved from one end of the shore to the other, both neighborhoods being within the town limits, following his marriage, and then back again at the time of the birth of his last child. Their first child was Hinrich Matthias, who died within a month of birth. The second, Peter Wilhelm, died at age three in 1831. The third was my generation's great, great grandfather - and Henry Kroencke's father, Georg Adolph (b. 1829). I am assuming that Georg Adolph, as the oldest surviving child, came into possession of the family's West End property, and there he built the house that has loomed so large in the narrative of this adventure. Next - child number four - was Johann Nicolaus, who died at age two in 1833, and the fifth child was a daughter, Anna Margarethe (b. 1834), who married a Peter Wilhelm Sommer in 1856, and took her own life in 1865; no offspring are listed. Number six was Heinrich Wilhelm (b. 1837), and it is from this line that Uwe Kroencke is descended, the man who today owns the house that once belonged to our Henry's parents. Jurgen and Margarethe's seventh child, Otto Theodor (b. 1840), remained unmarried, and died at age fifty-two, also a suicide. Child number eight, Catherine Wilhelmine Louise (b. 1845, and possibly the Aunt Eliese mentioned by Dorette in several post cards) married Johann Christian Hahn, and no offspring are listed in the Kroencke genealogy.
     In 1857, Georg Adolph Kroencke married Catherine Marie Kemme, who came from Osterbruch, a small hamlet just south of Otterndorf. The couple had three children, Heinrich Adolph (Henry Kroencke), born 1858, Margarethe Catherine Marie (b. 1859), and Emma Marie Alwine (b.1873). No other details on these individuals are included in the family tree as it exists in the Kranichhaus archive. Since I only learned of the existence of Henry's sisters on my last morning in Otterndorf - and since no other information, like a marriage entry, accompanies their names, I was unable to learn anything about them. We can not even assume that they survived childhood. Through the good offices of Heiko Volker, I hope to obtain their birth records from the local church, and follow up from there.
     Of Jurgen and Margarethe's eight children, only four survived to adulthood, and two of those committed suicide. A few additional comments can be made with respect to Jurgen's siblings and their descendants. But you's better fasten your seat belts; it's hard to keep all these names straight in the roller coaster ride up and down the family tree unless you get it all down in front of you in the form of a diagram.
     So here we go: you will recall that Jurgen, son of Claus, father of Georg, grandfather of Henry, had six siblings. Very likely it was Jurgen's elder brother, Johann Nicolaus (b. 1795 - in whose honor he had apparently named his fourth son, deceased at age 2) who had organized the salvage sale in the barn mentioned above. It was the family of Jurgen's fifth sibling, however, Heinrich Matthias, with whom Dorette had stayed at the Otterndorf address inscribed on one her postcards, the one I refer to having visited on Holy Saturday in Heiko Volker's company. In fact, it was Heinrich Matthias's son, Claus - a painter - who lived at Grosse Damstrasse 18, the address in question, at the time of Dorette's visit. And Claus's son, Heinrich - Henry Kroencke's first cousin - died during the First World War. It may be this "Heinrich" who Dorette refers to when she writes Lizzie and Connie that, "you were probably upset when you heard of Uncle Heinrich's death." This assumes of course - as was very probable - that all communications between the families ceased during the war, and that Dorette was just now reestablishing the connection between them, and that only now had the news of their relative's death become known; it also assumes that Lizzie's father's cousin might have been designated "uncle," which is reasonable considering these two branches of the family appear to have been close, and that he was of her father's generation. To really confuse you, I will also point out that another of Heinrich Matthias's children, Margarethe Catherine Elise married her first cousin, Jurgen's sixth child, Heinrich Wilhelm who is mentioned above (Georg Adolph's brother and Uwe's great grandfather). We can just as readily suppose that this was the Aunt Elise to whom Dorette frequently refers, since it was this couple who were living in the Kroencke house during the "eight day" visit she had written home about. But this Elise's husband could not possibly have been the "Uncle Heinrich" whose death was belatedly announced, because Heinrich Wilhelm, who seems to have come into possession of the family home after his nephew - and probable namesake - Henry migrated to America, did not die until 1931 at the ripe old age of 96!
     To attempt any further interpretation without additional facts - and in the case of my readers - without a copy of the full Kroencke genealogy before them - would risk pushing what is, in general, a clear and objective - if sketchy - reconstruction of the Kroencke story beyond the brink of coherence, and perhaps - what is worse - into the realm of fiction. In passing, I should note that the spelling inconsistencies in the various names (Adolf/Adolph, Hinrich/Heinrich, Elise/Eliese) are in the genealogy. These apparent discrepancies may be typos in the text, or they may represent stylistic preferences of the period.
     There remain now only a few loose ends to tie up in this report. Two major elements of Henry and Dorette's story continue to elude me. First and foremost is the lack of any documentary basis for determining the exact time of their migration, not to mention for arriving at some understanding of why they chose to leave Germany at all. The choice of his profession, so radically different from the milieu of seamanship in which he was brought up, suggests there may have been something of the rebel or 'black sheep' in Henry's personality. The seemingly disproportionate number of suicides in his family (another cousin also took his own life) may be a clue to some darker tendency in the family from which Henry had taken flight. Henry's choice of trade, on the other hand, may help explain how he came to meet his future bride; either his apprenticeship or a stint as a working journeyman could have brought him to Celle or Hannover - or wherever it was that Dorette was living at the time they met.
     The second major mystery has to do with a single post card, dated January 7, 1913, addressed to Henry Kroencke in Freiburg on the Elbe, and sent from nearby Winsen, Germany by someone named W. Wallrath. As yet untranslated, I can only make out the salutation, "Dear Henry & Dorette!" A snapshot of Henry and Dorette, probably from this same period, shows them standing with a group of friends on the gangplank of an ocean liner, the President Grant - a German flag to one side, an American flag to the other. Could it be that the Kroenckes visited Germany together in 1913, as at least the postcard seems to confirm? If so, it seems clear that the German and American branches of this family maintained relatively close contact for many years following the couple's migration, a contact which only seems to have faded after Dorette's return from Germany in 1922. Whatever degree of contact she maintained with her German kinfolk thereafter and until her death in 1941, the remaining witnesses to that era do not recall.
     And so, now you have all the known facts (or at least the facts known to me) about the roots of the Uhl and Kroencke families in Germany. There are still many tasks to perform, many sources to explore, that will advance the work I have thus far completed. In particular, the Schum and Dreyer connections require extensive research. Anyone who wishes to cooperate in this effort should contact me.
     Your affectionate son, brother, uncle or cousin,
     Michael Uhl
     Box 105
     Walpole, Maine 04573
     vox:207/677-6018; fax: same