Winter 1998

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Robert Beck's Story

Beginnings in Germany


Robert Beck

I was born in my grandfather's house in Marlen, Province of Baden, Germany. My birthday is May 19th, 1838.

Marlen is a suburb of Khel Grand Duchy of Germany. My grandfather Beck was schoolmaster at Marlen and lived in the residence connected with the schoolhouse. When my father and mother were first married they lived in grandfather's house for some years, but when I was about two years old my father built a house at Goldshire [Goldsheur], which is an adjoining village to Marlen. My father's name was Antone Beck and [he] was born in Marlen in 1802. He was also born in the schoolhouse residence.

My mother's name was Cecilia Gebbert; she was born in Marlen, also. Her people were of the better class of the commonality or what is called well-to-do peasants. I have no recollections of my grandparents except my father's step-mother, as my father's mother died when he was a small boy, and his father died I think about 1842 at the age of 96 years, and his stepmother died in 1851, also at a very old age. I remember my stepgrandmother as a very tall and slim lady and very fond of eating apples and thought she was very kind to me when I used to call on her as a little boy. I would most always find her eating apples. As she had no teeth she would peel the apple, then scrape it, and she would give me the skins and cores to eat, which I thought were the best thing I ever ate, and after eating all the skins and cores in sight, she would tell me to go outdoors to play or go home. I think I loved my stepgrandmother more than my father did.

My mother had a stepfather, as her own father died when she was a young lady and her mother died after her marriage to my father, I think about 1844, so I have no recollections of my grandparents on my mother's side.

My grandfather Beck was a University graduate and was made principal of the school at Marlen when a young man and held that position until his death. He was born in the Grand Duchy of Baden and so were my grandparents on my mother's side, and [I] never heard my father speak of any of his ancestors as having come from any other part of Germania, so I am Badenese by birth and nationality.

My father had one brother whose name was Joseph Beck. He was a University graduate and held a chair or professorship at the University of Mannheim, Baden, which position he held all his lifetime and died in the harness. My father also had one sister whose name I do not remember. She was the oldest of my grandfather's family and after Napoleon was driven out [of] Russia in 1813 the remnant of his army was driven back to France. Marlen was occupied by the Russian troops and my grandfather's house was used as headquarters by the Russian officers, and when they evacuated the town the sister was kidnapped by the officers and taken to Russia and never heard of but once after that.

My father had eleven half brothers but I know but little of any of them, as I was too young when we left Germany to remember much about them.

My father was bound out to learn the trade of nailsmith which was a good trade when he was a young man, as all nails and tacks were then made by hand. He was also taught music which he loved and he gave lessons in music and always had a small orchestra. He was a capital good story teller and a good all-round entertainer which made him quite popular with his associates. He was of medium height, straight-built and just a little stout, of ruddy complexion, a decided blond, on the whole a fine type of a German. His education was a little above the common; [he] was a great reader and well posted in German history. He was quite industrious, always busy at something but lacked financial ability. He was strictly honest and had no bad habits but he loved a mug of beer and a good pinch of snuff.

My mother was a short lady of dark complexion, black hair and black eyes, of a mild and pleasant disposition, very industrious. She looked well after her household and the welfare of her children. She did not possess all those modern fine accomplishments because she was born and trained at a different age and the custom of her native town did not require any of the fine arts.

She was decidedly a stay-at-home lady as she very rarely went calling or visiting, especially in America. On the whole she was a very good mother and did all that a mother could do under the circumstances. As she was the mother of nine children and not rich in worldly goods, it was a constant struggle against poverty. She did not like America and had a constant longing for her fatherland which made her life in America very unpleasant. I have heard her say many times if she could walk back to Germany she would do so and stay there, but she would not cross the ocean again for the whole world.

* * *

As I have stated before, I was born at Marlen, May 19th, 1838, and baptized in the Catholic Church in that town, where the great event is recorded and can be seen at any time.

My baptismal name is Hubert Beck and how I came by the name of Robert Beck I will explain hereafter.

I remember the old church very well as it was the only church I attended while we lived in Germany. It was a very old stone church, quite large, but not very handsome outside, but the inside was gaudy with pictures and a little army of saints mounted on pedestals. Some of them looked very old and sleepy. They were all made of wood and gaudily painted. Some of them had broken arms and some had broken noses and on the whole they had a rather shabby appearance, and as a boy I really felt sorry for them as they looked hungry and gaunt. I can only say I had more pity than reverence for them. The entire church lot was a graveyard and had been used as such for several centuries. Even the inside of the church under the floor was full of graves.

When I was about two years old we moved into our new house at Goldshire which is an adjoining village to Marlen. The town is built on the ancient bank of the Rhine but the government built an embankment farther out from the ancient bank and the space between is used for fish breeding.

The country all around Goldshire as far as the eye can see is almost a dead level on both sides of the Rhine and under a high state of cultivation. The principal product besides the ordinary vegetables is sugar beets, and hemp, also fruit of every description, especially prunes, and what are called in this country English walnuts, which were raised for the oil for table use.

The village is built principally on one street which runs parallel with the river and [is] called Land Strasse or Government Street. It is a very fine macadamized street and kept in fine order by the goverment. The private houses are about all built alike and stand with the gable end facing the street. Our house was about in the center of the town. It also stood with the gable facing the street, with a little flower garden between the street and the house, and a live hedge fence next to the street, the principal entrance on the side, and the large living room facing the street.

The house was built of heavy timber on a stone basement, and filled in between the timbers with unburned brick plastered and whitewashed on the outside, and the living room on the inside was also plastered and the large sitting room was frescoed in a cheap way.

The roof was covered with red tiles. The chimney was built as required by law, that is, large and straight so that the chimney sweep would have ample room to crawl up and down in cleaning it, as the law compels every householder to have the chimney swept out at stated times. Our furniture consisted of bedsteads, some chairs, a large dining table, and a bookcase and secretary which my father inherited from his father, a tall clock that stood on the floor, [and] a few cheap pictures. All the furniture was of oak and made to last forever. The kitchen was very large and furnished with a Dutch oven and range. The dishes were of a substantial kind, the plates were of pewter, and the knives, forks and spoons of good honest steel and iron. There was nothing in the kitchen or dining room that would tempt a burglar to steal. All our bedding and clothing was of linen and homemade and plenty of it, as it is not the custom to wash soiled clothes every week, but only twice a year, [so] the people are obliged to have a large stock on hand.

As for eatables, we had plenty of it but it was of a very plain kind. It consisted of rye bread, vegetables, milk and meat not more often than about twice a week, butter and eggs only on great or stated occasions, and cake on holidays. Pie was an unknown quantity. In a general way our domestic condition was about like all our neighbors, no better and no worse. There was no aristocracy in our town, it not being a commercial or manufacturing town. But the inhabitants were mechanics, small tradesmen, and peasants.

I grew up like all other little children. Of course I ran the gauntlet of all the children's diseases such as measles and whooping cough and survived them all, and at the proper age I donned my first pants and wore wooden shoes which was the common footwear for all little boys. At the age of six I was sent to school. The school house was the next building to our house so I had not far to go. My instructor was a man, as lady teachers [were] not the fashion of the country at that age. I cannot say that I was a remarkably bright boy in school. About the main thing I can remember is that I received my regular share of whippings, of which my father approved most heartily for at that age it was considered the right thing not to spare the rod and as my father wished me to be brought up in good shape, of course he worked on the principle that the more I was flogged the better citizen I would become.

I was also instructed in the catechism. In that branch my instructor was the priest. I did not take kindly to that branch of study and the old priest was very cross and haughty. I well remember when I was called on to recite my lesson, I could scarcely answer the first question. The old priest called me to the front, made me get down on my hands and knees, when he gently raised my little coattail and with a good stout goad everlastingly thrashed that ever-tender part of my anatomy. He worked on the principle that I was too thickheaded to beat the principles of the Catholic religion into my head, so he would hammer it in somewhere else. That flogging so embittered me against the priest and all other Roman Catholic priests [that] I never have gotten over it, for early impressions are lasting, especially that one I received at the hands of that priest.

* * *

When I was about eight years old I remember a gathering of men at my father's house and they were very earnestly engaged in conversation, the subject was America. I remember my father was describing its beauties, inexhaustible resources, and a land flowing with milk and honey. A land of freedom, a land where people can live without being trodden down by the aristocracy and robbed by the tax gatherer, [a land not] priest ridden, and where it is possible for every honest and industrious man [to] acquire a home of his own. A land that produces every thing that adds to the happiness of the human race. All that talk about that wonderful land called America made a wonderful impression on my young brain and I listened to catch every word uttered on that subject. I remember my father getting books that treated on the subject of America, and America was his general subject of conversation. Our house seemed to be the headquarters for a party of men who would talk of nothing but America.

The first intimation I got that my people intended to migrate to America [was] one day when my father and mother were engaged in a very earnest conversation on the subject. My father insisted that she should give her consent which she declined to do, but finally agreed to remain neutral, she would neither say yes or no. So that settled the question and the next step was to get ready which took a long time.

There were sixteen families in our town who agreed to go together and my father seemed to be the leader and organizer and their principal spokesman and finally he was made the agent for the whole party. Well, I was as enthusiastic on the subject as any of the older men for the very thought of going to a land flowing with milk and honey and everything else that can make a boy happy fairly gave me the swellhead, so much so that I felt above speaking to the common boys about town.

I remember the tailor coming to our house who made up some clothes for father and us boys suitable to wear on the journey to America. By way of footwear my father bought me a pair of shoes with wooden soles and leather uppers, which were so much handsomer than anything by way of shoes I ever had, that it made me feel very proud. I remember one day there came a travelling showman to town. He had a box gaudily painted which contained some cheap pictures of American scenes and for two pennies or two eggs he would let the boys look through a little round glass and see the pictures for a few minutes. Of course I was all worked up and my desire was very great to see those pictures, but I had neither pennies nor eggs. But nothing short of seeing those pictures would satisfy me, but the showman would not let me peek in the round hole unless I paid him two pennies or two eggs.

I had on my wooden-soled shoes which were very much admired by the other boys. Well, a happy thought entered my mind, at least I thought it was a good one. I stumped one of the boys for a trade, that is, I would trade him my shoes for two eggs or two pennies. He took me up at my offer ran home [and] got two eggs. I took off my shoes, he handed me the eggs, I paid for seeing the pictures and was happy, for I saw all that the other boys had seen and I went barefooted. That was my first deal or business transaction.

On arriving home my mother asked me where my shoes were. I told her the truth. She called my father and stated the case to him. He asked me the boy's name to whom I sold the shoes. I told him his name. He then told me to take off my jacket and he proceeded to give me a good thrashing [and] send me to bed without my supper. The feeling I had that night was dreadful. I do not know which was the worst, the pains of the floggings, the pangs of hunger, or the thoughts of my having lost my new shoes, and how I did wish I had never seen that show box. But by way of a little compensation for all my sufferings I learned the next day that the boy I made the trade with also received a good flogging, for he had taken the eggs without his mother's consent and my mother got the shoes back again by paying for the two eggs. This transaction taught me a lesson and took the conceit out of me and reduced my swellhead quite a good bit.

* * *

Some time in August, 1847, all preparations being perfected, we were all to make the start for that promised land, to bid farewell to the fatherland and all friends and relatives, in short, to everything that is near and dear, never to be seen again.

The journey to America commenced about midnight. We were all loaded on wagons and taken to Offenburg where we were put on board a railroad train thence to Mannheim and the next day we took [a] steamer down the Rhine to Rotterdam where we were delayed a few days waiting for [a] steamer to take us to London.

My father being agent for the whole party, he contracted with an emigrant hotel keeper to feed the whole of us for a stipulated price. This Rotterdam Dutchman of a hotel keeper rather got the best of us for he fed us on soup three times a day made of hot water flavored with celery tops and a little salt and a very small piece of rye bread. He did not intend we should get fat at his expense. I never was so tickled in my life as I was when my father announced that the steamer was ready to take us to London and that we [would] eat our supper on board the boat, for I was nearly starved to death as that Dutch soup was a good stomach washer but a total failure as a life sustainer.

We left Rotterdam in the evening and about the time I got nicely started at eating my supper we got out into the channel which was dreadfully rough and of course I was taken seasick and of course it turned me wrong side out and what little eatables there [were] in me I had to throw up. Well, I felt bad all over. I wanted to die or go ashore or go anywhere except to America. I cared nothing for that land flowing with milk and honey or anything else. I was ready to sell my interest in that promised land if I could only be put ashore or be relieved of my misery. But somehow, I cannot tell how, I lived through that dreadful night and landed in London the next morning on an empty stomach.

After a few days' stop in London we were marched on board the ship, Emma Watch bound for New York. She was a good ship and after a passage of 48 days we were landed in America in fairly good condition. The only incident of note which occured on the passage across the ocean was the birth of my youngest brother, William. He was born while at sea about midway between London and New York.

I shall never forget one pleasant evening the ship's officer announced that we would see land some time that night. I stayed on deck to catch the first glimpse of that promised land. It was a beautiful evening and I stayed up until after midnight when my father made me go to bed but told me he would call me when land was in sight. Being tired I slept well. But an unusual noise woke me up. It was the splashing of the anchor and the rattling of the cable chain through the hawse pipe. Instinct taught me that we were in the harbor. I scrambled on deck as soon as I could and behold it was broad daylight and land on the right and on the left and Brooklyn and New York in the distance ahead.

My joy was unbounded for it was a beautiful morning and my eyes were for the first time beholding that promised land. I nearly cried for joy for it was the grandest sight I ever beheld in my life. My young heart was full to overflowing. Some time in the forenoon a steamboat came along side, some officers came on board, the passenger list was gone through with, the health of the people was looked into, the anchor was hoisted, a tugboat made fast to the ship and we were towed to New York and there landed.

We were marched through the streets of the city to the north on the Hudson River and [put] on board a large steamboat bound for Albany.

I remember one incident in going through the city. My father stopped at a fruit store and looked over some fruit and asked the price of different articles. One thing among the fruit was a pile of muskmelons. They were of the small variety and quite yellow. He asked the price and bought I think six of them. Of course he did not know what they were, as nothing like muskmelons grow in Germany. However, he knew they must be something good as they looked and smelled nice, and I presume he thought they grew on trees like apples and oranges.

Well, he promised us children that we should all have a taste of them when we got on the steamer. He also bought some bread and cheese for our supper. After he bought that fruit I took no interest in the scenery, for my mind was on that delicious fruit and my little stomach was yearning for some of it. When we got fairly settled on the lower deck of the steamboat it was about supper time. We all sat down on deck around the lunch basket. My father rolled out the fruit, looked [at] it very carefully, and I remember he and my mother discussed the question whether it was to be eaten raw or cooked, if cooked whether it was to be baked, boiled, or fried. However, he proceeded to peel one and cut it open to see whether it contained a pit, but the juice and seeds began to ooze out. He handed a piece of it to my mother. She tasted of it and we all tasted of it but none of us could eat it and the whole mess was thrown overboard. We were all very much disappointed in American fruit. The next morning we were landed in Albany and after a few days' delay we were hustled on board of a canal boat bound for Rochester, N.Y., which was the objective point from the start.

The old boat was a rotten old craft not fit for cattle but we were all huddled in together like cattle and after being dragged through the Erie Canal for about two weeks we finally landed at Rochester. That promised haven, that promised land flowing with milk and honey, but where was the milk and honey, roast turkeys, and all those good things that tickles the stomach of a hungry boy? Well, all that came later on. Our long journey was ended and we were planted in a strange and new land.

* * *

On landing at Rochester we boarded at a cheap boarding house for a few weeks. Then we moved into a little house that was built for us on North Clinton Street on what is known as the Curyer Place. It was a small frame house of two rooms. We moved in late in the fall.

All the worldly goods my people possessed when that little house was ready to occupy was $30, with which my father bought a few pieces of secondhanded furniture, a secondhanded stove, and a few cheap dishes. Winter set in very early that year and the little house was very cold as it was not plastered, so besides being short up for something to eat we nearly froze. My poor mother was homesick as there were seven little children to feed and not much in sight to feed them on. The prospect looked rather gloomy to winter through.

My father's trade was no good in this country and his musical ability was very poorly appreciated, and never having been trained to anything else he had a hard row before him. My oldest brother, Leonard, who was the oldest of the family, was only 13 years old, and I was in my ninth year but we all tried to help a little to keep the wolf from the door by doing little odd jobs. My oldest sister, about 11 years old, got a situation as a servant in a family at 50 a week.

I shall never forget the first winter in America. As coal stoves were not in use at that time nearly everybody burned wood, and wood sawing was the principal occupation in the winter for men that could get nothing better to do. So my father sawed and split wood for a living. I had to go with him and carry it into the woodhouse and pile it up nicely. I remember one very cold day he took a contract to saw, split and carry into a woodhouse a pile of wood. The contract price I think was 35. He made the bargain with the lady of the house but I remember that was the price my father stated and she agreed to it. Of course it was worth more money than 35 cents but my father was not posted on values of that class of work and as there was no other work in sight I presume he acted on the principle that a half a loaf was better than none at all. Well, it took us the whole afternoon to do the job and it was so cold, and being very poorly clothed for severe cold weather I thought I would freeze. I remember the lady of the house beckoned me to come in. She spoke to me but as I knew nothing of the English language at that time I could only understand her by motions. She took me into a very fine room, gave me a chair by the stove and motioned for me to warm myself, which invitation I accepted as I was nearly frozen.

That was the first time I ever saw the inside of a well-to-do American family's house and it rather opened my eyes, for there for the first time I saw a carpet on the floor and such beautiful furniture and fine pictures on the walls and everything about the room was so beautiful, and the very air in the room was sweet and fragrant. I never felt so happy in my life. But my greatest joy was yet to come. The lady brought me a plate with something to eat on it: a piece of cake, a piece of pie, and a piece of cheese. Well, I ate the cake first which was the best thing I had ever eaten. But when I tasted the pie, well, I cannot describe my joy. Milk and honey was nowhere compared with it. I began to realize that I was in a land actually flowing with something far better than the best thing I ever dreamed of and while I was eating it, oh, how I thought of my poor homesick mother and how I did wish she also had some of that pie. Well, we finished that job late in the evening and the man of the house paid my father the 35. Besides he gave him a large piece of beef, I should say about 15 or 20 pounds. I shall never forget how tickled we both were.

They were American people and it made a lasting impression on me and it was the first kind act ever bestowed on me by anyone outside of my parents. Well, somehow we lived through that memorable winter but I know we were not very fat in the spring. I think in the fall of 1848 I was sent to school. It was the old No. 6 school not very far from our house. It was a public school and all instruction was in English which I liked very much as I was very anxious to learn the English language.

Now at this stage is where my name became changed and it happened in this way. The boys began to call me Bob and some of them called me Robert which they told me stood in English for Hubert, so after that [if] anyone asked me my name I told them it was Bob or Robert, and so was called after that Robert and have answered to that name ever since.

My stay in that English school was very short, I think only about two or three weeks, when my father changed his mind and sent me to a German parochial school. I do not know why, because we were too poor to stand that expense, for the public school was free and I certainly preferred the English school as I wished to learn the English language and become an American. But I presume that old German instinct was too strong in him as he believed the son should be trained in the teachings of his forefathers. But I must say that I had no relish for the German and wished to be trained in the American ways and language.

Index to Robert Beck's Story
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