Sit right back, and you’ll hear a tale

Kathleen Marsh

June 6, 2024, was the end of a multi-generational tradition that culminated in a dispersal sale at Hilrose Dairy Farm in Sherwood. It was a bittersweet ending to a love story that started almost two centuries ago in Hausen, Germany. It’s my family’s story, but it’s certainly not unique. Tens of thousands of similar events have occurred across Wisconsin during the past 50 years. I’m recording what happened because seismic economic change affects real people’s lives. The story starts with a simple cooking pot.

When I make soup, stew or spaghetti sauce, I always use my golden pot made of iron, a five-quart cast iron Dutch oven. It’s well seasoned, the bottom blackened from use on a homesteader’s woodstove. One of my most cherished possessions, it’s not pretty, but it works so well that I wonder why it was banished to an unheated attic.

I found the pot around the time small dairy farming began its descent in the Dairy State. My father Hilard Brantmeier said it belonged to my great-great grandmother, Anna Maria Holzschuh, who immigrated to America in 1856. My brother John, our family historian, says Dad’s narrative probably contains some fiction, but as my sister Carol says: “Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.”

I acquired my treasure the day Dad asked me to help him clean out the attic of an old farmhouse, the lifelong home of my great-aunt, Anna Derfus, who passed away in 1974. Her farm was being readied for sale, and Dad was going through the attic as a favor to my brother, Joe, and his wife, Chris, who were buying the property.

Aunt Annie’s attic was not a pleasant place to spend an afternoon, and I quickly regretted offering to help. It wasn’t a Halloween horror setting, but it was stuffy, with the unmistakable odor of mildew. As we went through piles of mostly useless stuff, Dad discovered a mantle clock which he fondly recalled from frequent visits to the home. It was really beautiful, and I really wanted it. Dad said no; this clock belongs in this house. He was right, and Joe and Chris acquired another cherished family heirloom.

Rummaging around that day, I felt like a trespasser. Who was I to be poking around in Aunt Annie’s life, sorting through things she’d acquired, used, valued and then packed away? I pushed those emotions aside and went looking for something special to take in remembrance of her when I spied it, a heavy iron pot in remarkably good condition.

I picked it up, and the kettle whispered, “Take me home and put me back into service.” I showed it to Dad. “Yours if you want it,” he said offhandedly. “But you oughta know the story that goes with it.” Suddenly, that stuffy attic was the only place in the world I wanted to be.

“I’m pretty sure it came from Bavaria,” Dad said. “Probably made the six-week voyage to Sheboygan in the 1850s in the trunk of Great-Grandma Anna Maria Holzschuh, Aunt Annie’s namesake. All because Anna Maria had fallen in love with John George Holzschuh, though their marriage was impossible.”

“Say what? Why?” His answer stunned me. “Back then there were strict laws in Germany regarding marriage. Unless a man had money or met specific requirements to establish a family, he couldn’t marry.” I was spellbound, earnestly wishing my new possession could talk. Dad, who could and would talk, was delighted to have an audience.

He said John George’s father, Caspar, was a shoemaker who followed tradition by schooling his sons in the trade. In fact, that’s where his name originated. Like many German surnames, it comes from an occupation: holz (wooden) and schuh (shoe). Dad told me that even though John George became a highly skilled shoemaker, there wasn’t enough business in their village to sustain all of the sons. Until John George found a way to support a family, he and Anna Maria must wait.

“Wait? When you’re young and in love?” Dad’s face lit up like always when he was relating family history. “Yes, but there was something else, a very important something else.” He explained that Germany was still recovering from the devastation of the Thirty Years War (1818-1848), when a bloody uprising to throw off the shackles of tyrannical government failed, causing an economic disaster.

John George faced a bleak future, but he was determined to change his destiny. He knew thousands of Germans were seeking a better life in America, and he began to dream. I had to ask: “But how, how could he leave his family, his friends, his beloved Bavaria behind forever, and Anna Maria, she did go with him, right, Dad?”

He smiled. “Yup. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

(To be continued)

Kathleen Marsh is a lifelong educator, writer and community advocate. She has published eight books, four on the history of Townsend, where she and husband Jon are happily retired on the beautiful Townsend Flowage.