As with all histories…the truth we think we know depends on who’s doing the telling. This is never more true than with family histories. Family politics and personal agendas are certainly not evident when you are a young child listening to the stories of your parents’ youth. And what’s even more insidious then what is said…is what goes unsaid. Insidious might be a bit strong of a word, but perhaps not. The stories you never hear are the most heartbreaking of all…because you never knew what you were missing. That is, until you discover the truth…or it finds you…
As you all learned from an earlier post, the family legacy I was raised with is one of industrious German farmers enduring the hardships of homesteading in the vast and isolated barren plains of Nebraska. Godforsaken is a word that’s easily understood when you spend any time in Western Nebraska, even in the present day, although it can’t come close to what it might have been like in 1900 with nary a tree or green field in sight. What could be so bad back at home in Germany that would drive so many immigrants to arrive in America in the twenty years just prior to and just after the turn of the century? It has become quite apparent that it is time for me to reengage my high school German lessons…relearn the language and remind myself about what was going on in the home-country before the great wars.
On the sixth of April 1917, the United States declared war on Germany. In the following eighteen months twenty-four million men between the ages of eighteen and forty-five were required to register with the US government by filling out a draft registration card. The original cards have been preserved by the National Archives and are kept at one of their regional facilities located in Georgia.
The Third Registration—for men aged thirty-one to forty-five years old—was held on the twelfth of September 1918. It was on this day that all four of my great-grandfathers reported to their local board offices to fill out their draft cards. Three—Henry J. Otte, Archie William Kaasch, and John Abraham McGuffin—reported to the office in Gering Nebraska, the local county seat. The fourth, Charley Richard Schank, reported to the office in Gage County, on the opposite side of the state. Two of the men, Henry and Archie were registered by the same man, William Hale. They were both farmers in the Scottsbluff area. Did they know each other? Did they acknowledge each other? Could they possibly have imagined back then that the grandchildren they did not yet have—Henry’s grandson Dick and Archie’s granddaughter Sandi—would marry some forty years later? And what did these two men of German descent think of fighting a war in a place they surely still had family connections? They lived in a community where people spoke German, read German newspapers, and even attended church services conducted in German. Such everyday actions that would soon become suspect during the heat of the war.
Henry, age 44, was a second generation German. His father, Johann Wilhelm Otte, was born in Ohio, his grandfather Fredrick Wilhelm Otte had immigrated in 1834 through the port of Baltimore. Henry’s mother Elisa Sollman was born in Indiana from German immigrants as well. His wife Mayme Springman was born in Erie Pennsylvania. I have not yet determined her family’s history, but I suspect the German influence there as well.
Archie, age 41, was first generation German. His father, August, was two years old when he arrived in America in 1852 with his father Fritz Kaasch from Mecklenberg. Archie’s mother Mary Busch was also from Mecklenberg. I have yet to determine the point of arrival for either the Kaasch or Busch families. Archie’s father August also owned a farm, purchased in Schuyler Nebraska sometime before 1900, after he worked as a railroad brakeman in the 1880’s. Archie’s wife Julia Bott, had come from a long line of proud German families who had arrived in the country well before the American Revolution.
Charley Schank, age 44, was actually born in Germany, listed in census records as Prussia. Although he arrived in America with his parents (Charles & Florentina) around 1883, he listed himself as a German Alien on his draft card. He was a self-employed brick mason. For anyone who’s traveled across the Midwest, you will see a trail of red brick…everywhere…the Germans loved their red brick. His wife Anna was Canadian, but also appears to be of German descent. Charley is a bit of an enigma in my world. He is the man—mentioned in an earlier post—with no headstone on his grave. He would arrive in Scottsbluff during the depression as part of a WPA farm irrigation project as a member of the Veteran’s Civilian Conservation Corp. The mention of “veteran” means that ironically, my German Alien great-grandfather, was the only one of the four to serve during WWI. I confirmed the fact he was a war veteran on a later US Census record, but I have yet to find a military service record. I will definitely revisit this great-grandfather in the future. He seems to hold a key…to what I don’t know…but to something.
John McGuffin, age 39, is listed as a self-employed machinist. At the time of the draft, he was living in Scottsbluff with his wife Edna (Wood) presumably working on the equipment at the Great Western Sugar Factory. John, born in California, would end up back in California employed as a mechanic with the American Crystal Sugar Company by the time of the Second World War. The ancestry of John and his wife has come as something of a surprise. Well that’s a bit of an understatement really. I will provide details in an upcoming post, but suffice to say, not many could compete with them as to whose ancestors arrived in America first. Hint…were not talking colonies…think settlements.
But first I want to go back to draft day…the twelfth of September 1918—back to the men who were coming and going from the local board office in Gering Nebraska. I mentioned the two farmers, Archie and Henry, perhaps acquainted, perhaps not, never imagining that they would someday share great-grandchildren. But what of the relationship between Archie Kaasch and John McGuffin? Did either of them have any knowledge of the other? Would the relatively well-off farm owner with a ten year old daughter have anything in common with an itinerant mechanic who was a father of eight? Years later, Archie’s only daughter, Evelyn Marie, would fall in love with John’s son Clifford. According to family lore, Archie and his wife Julia were not at all happy about the match. They had sent their daughter away to college at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. By this time, Clifford was living in Sacramento California, perhaps already working as a clothes presser as he would in later years. They wanted something different for their daughter and would not consent to marriage. And so, on the eleventh of April 1935, Evelyn Marie Kaasch (aged 23) eloped with Clifford Preston McGuffin (aged 26), in Harrisburg, Nebraska in the neighboring county of Banner. The witnesses were Clifford’s sister Gladys McGuffin and her future husband Guy Green. Evelyn and Clifford would live in Sacramento for a time, where their first two daughters were born. They would return to Scottsbluff prior to the birth of their third daughter in 1941. In Scottsbluff they would own and operate a drycleaner business, the Acme Cleaners. It was at the drycleaners that Clifford’s life would end in a tragic accident. Thinking he had picked up a bottle of 7Up, he instead drank cleaning fluid, which led to immediate kidney failure. It was 1946. Clifford was thirty-eight. His oldest daughter, my mother, was only eight years old.
Archie and Julia Kaasch remained a large presence as Evelyn continued to raise her three daughters in Scottsbluff. The McGuffin family—including John and Edna—had mostly moved back to California. This is the point where family history changed. Tea-totaling Julia, who never approved of Clifford or his family to begin with, was known to refer to the McGuffin clan as a bunch of drunken Irishman. Julia’s authority, along with the absence of any other person willing to challenge such notions, meant that Clifford’s family legacy was forgotten—or never taught—to his daughters.
By the time I was born in 1964, most of my great-grandparents were dead. Only Henry, who lived to age 95, was alive at the time of my birth. He died in 1969. Even so, my memories of him come through my grandfather and father. My great-grandfather John McGuffin died several months before I was born in 1964 at which point I don’t think he had any contact with my mother or her sisters. My great-grandmother Julia died just nineteen days before I was born. My grandmother Evelyn (her daughter), died thirty-two days later. My mother once told me that 1964 was the worst year of her life. I understand. The birth of a daughter could only heighten the sense of loss my mother must have felt…losing her mother and beloved grandmother within such a short period of time. This is the way life seems to work. I think I too absorbed that sense of loss my mother felt, for the two women I would never meet. But somehow too, I’ve always felt their strength and love. They’ve always been right here with me. And I know that Julia Bott Kaasch still has much to say about those family roots she’s always been so proud of (and I have quite a bit to report myself.)
But what of those others? Those grandparents and great-grandparents I knew little of or nothing at all? They seem to know I am listening…and they have plenty to say. Stay tuned…