Chapter III: The Giebelhaus Family

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Transcribed by Michael A. O’Neill in December 2014
Transcribers note: This transcription of Emma’s book was created using Dragon Naturally Speaking voice recognition software, which will result in capitalization errors; misspellings of proper names; and odd usage of prepositions or common words. Originals can be found at the location(s) listed on Worldcat, as well as in the Seattle Genealogical Society‘s library.

In a previous connection it was mentioned that according to Mrs. Margaret Krueger, the original Conrad Giebelhaus left Hesse Darmstadt as an 18-year-old boy. We do not know the name of the girl whom he married in Norka, but in 1780’s son, who was also named Conrad, was born. The German-born Conrad died shortly afterward, and his widow then married a blacksmith named Horst. Because her son was brought up in his step-father’s family, he was always referred to as the “Horste Giebelhaus.” In this way our branch of the family acquired the nickname by which it was still known in grandfather Miller’s day.

After reaching maturity, the second Conrad married a girl named Maria Elisabeth Hoff, who had been born in the neighboring village of Frank. Among all of our ancestors this couple sounds by far the most interesting. Conrad must’ve had a wonderful sense of humor, and on Sunday mornings, when his wife would have enjoyed sleeping an extra hour, he would sit on a bench outside her bedroom window and carry on very loud conversations with an imaginary neighbor. The monologue would go as follows:

Good morning.
How are you?
Oh fine, thank you.
Oh no, I’m the only one up. The rest of the family is still asleep.

Then about five minutes later he would begin again:

Good morning.
Yes it is a fine day
My wife? Oh no, she’s not up yet. She’s still lying in bed.

After having been fooled several times by the above procedure, Great-Great-Grandmother Giebelhaus would mutter in disgust, “Just listen to the old fool!” and would turn over for another minute of sleep.

This remote grandmother must be at least partially responsible for our own capable, energetic Grandmother Miller. She was an unusually industrious, intelligent woman, and did more than anyone else to pass on knowledge of Germany to her children and grandchildren. She loved to gather these youngsters around her and tell them stories of her own parent’s childhood in their native German villages and of their long trip in wagons across the great steppes of Russia. The experience of these early colonists greatly resembles those of the American pioneers who traveled in covered wagons to the West Coast. In both cases there was the constant danger of attack from wild animals and savage tribes, the heat of the summer, the dusty roads, and the fear of possible blizzards in the winter.

Maria Elisabeth was also a very religious woman, and in addition to her pioneer stories, she would repeat the familiar tales of the Old and New Testament and try to instruct her children in the Christian faith. We are also told of her remarkable industry, economy and good housekeeping. She was a wonderful exponent of German thrift, and would frequently repeat ancient proverbs that her own mother had taught her, such as “Spar in der Zeit, dann hast du in der Not,” (Spare in time, and you’ll have something in distress) and “Wer ein geringes night zu Rate halt; der nimmt für und für ab” (He who does not spare in little things, will gradually lose little by little).

Since she had been born in the village of Frank a certain amount of communication was always kept up with her relatives at home, and it is perhaps for this reason that one of her daughters, named Anlis, married a young man from there. However, this girl could not have been very popular, because when Grandmother Miller’s name was later suggested as a possible bride for another boy in Frank, the comment was made that one Norka girl in the village was quite enough!

Maria Elisabeth’s only son was born in 1822 when she and her husband were already middle-aged. It is easy to imagine the joy with which this third Conrad was welcomed. As he grew older, his father often took him along on the hunting trips which formed his chief recreation. He owned several lean-looking, long-legged dogs which were his special pride and joy; although Maria Elisabeth sometimes grumbled about the amount of work that they caused, since her husband expected her to feed them with a thick “Rübbel Suppe” and broken up pieces of bread.

During the winter months the men of the village used to brag about the skill and intelligence of their dogs, and the number of wolves, foxes and hares which they were able to catch, just as Americans of today tell their notorious fish stories. In later years, Wes Ammie (grandmother Miller’s sister) remarked that the words and expressions that were used were so old-fashioned that they must have been hunting phrases from medieval Germany. Although the men got a great deal of pleasure out of the sport, it was also of tremendous value to the colony, because of the ever-present danger from the wild animals of the steppes. On cold winter nights, savage wolves even roamed through the streets of the village, and in the morning their footprints could be seen on the freshly fallen snow.

Throughout the 19th century the Giebelhaus family continued to live with the Horsts, and it was here that our great-grandfather learned the blacksmith trade from his father’s stepbrothers. He grew up to be a tall, good-looking man, who always carried himself very erect, and who inherited the pride and self-respect of his mother. After reaching maturity he married a rather small girl named Katherine Yost who had brown hair and gray eyes. It is said that she always seemed to be in a hurry, and was often scolded by her mother for peeling the potatoes too thickly. The young bride must have been rather happy at the thought of entering the Giebelhaus family. Her own father had died when she was a small child, and her mother have been married a man named Fink, whose relatives regarded the arrival of two small stepchildren as an unwelcome addition to their family. Since Katherine’s new father was a cobbler, he had a little room of his own in which to work. The story is told that at supper time his oldest sister in law would call loudly into this room, “Mann, wir wolle esse!” Without even looking at his wife and her children. Whenever this happened, Mr. Fink would make a special point of taking Katherine and her younger brother by the hand and leading them to the dining table in order to demonstrate that they also belonged to the family.

During the course of their married life, five children were born to Conrad and Katherine.

  • Hannes (John) came in 1841;
  • Ammie (Ann Marie or Emma) in 1844;
  • Heinrich (Henry) 1848;
  • Anlis (Anna Elizabeth—our own grandmother) in 1850; and
  • Katrincha (Katharine) in 1856.

Of these five children, the second son, Henry, seems to have been primarily famous for his unusual ability in school. While he was still a small child, he would stand next to his grandmother’s chair as she read to the children out of the Bible, and before very long he had learned to distinguish the words himself. The relatives of the family were afraid that he would become addled by this unusual precocity, and in order to enjoy his books in peace, Henry was sometimes forced to crawl under the bed. When he was eight years old he was sent to school for the first time. The village schoolteacher asked him if he knew his ABCs, and when he answered in the affirmative, he was given a rather simply written book of Bible Stories to study. But in a scornful voice he announced, “Reich mir mal das Testament,” and opening the Book at random, he proceeded to read the entire page. This story spread all over Norka and was repeated for years afterward. Even Reverend Bonwetsch heard about the incident and later tried to persuade the boy’s relatives to send him away to school so that he could become a pastor. However, by this time, Henry’s father was already dead, and Katherine refused to allow him to leave.

Another amusing story is told about our own grandmother. One afternoon when she was still very young, her father and mother left Norka in order to drive to Frank where Conrad’s sister, Anlis Hopp, was living. Since this woman was grandmother’s godmother, the baby was naturally taken along. Little Anlis fell asleep as the wagon jogged over the rough roads, but in the evening as they approached their destination, her mother tried to awaken her and told her to look at the lights shining out of the houses in Frank. The little girl, who had never been out of Norka in her life, answered in disgust, “Die hun ich a tausand mol schon gesieh” (I’ve seen them a thousand times already), and without more ado, sleepily put her head back again in her blanket.

Several years later Anlis was old enough to start the Mittledorf School, where her reputation as a good scholar became almost as great as that of her brother Henry. She seems to have resembled her aristocratic grandmother much more than she did her own hard-working mother, who was always far too busy to spend much time on books. Her ability in school can be verified by referring to the “Ausweiss Schein” which each Norka citizen received when he left the colony for America. In this document a report was made on the scholastic achievements of every member of the family; and after grandmother’s name one finds the highest praise, “gut,” whereas grandfather Miller and all his children by his former wife are described by the word “ziemlich” (average).

When Anlis was seven years old her grandmother Giebelhaus died, and the fascinating stories of Darmstadt, the Rhineland, and the long trip to Russia could no longer be heard. Seven years later, in 1864, the old grandfather was also carried to his final resting place. The house must have seemed very empty without the kindly old man with his quiet jokes, his tall hunting tales, and his intimate knowledge of Norka’s entire history. He had been born in 1780 just 13 years after the founding of the colony, and had lived through many of the hardships of the early years. He had probably learned to know some of the French prisoners of war who were quartered among the Volga Germans after Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. He had seen the terrible grasshopper plague of 1814 when all the fields of grain had been left stripped and bare. In 1848 and 1858 he had watched dreaded cholera epidemics sweep through the village, killing so many of the inhabitants that extra cemeteries had to be constructed. He had participated in the celebration that took place on August 26, 1856 when Alexander II was crowned Czar of Russia. He had seen the population of the village grow from its original 961 to nearly 6000, until the resulting land shortage had forced many of the colonists to leave for the Wiesenseite in 1859. And now, after 84 years, death had finally brought his own life history to an end.

On Easter Sunday of the following year, Grandmother Miller, along with all other fifteen-year-old children, was confirmed by Reverend Bonwetsch in the large village church. Part of the ceremony consisted of the Communion Service, which was performed in the Reformed rather than in the Lutheran fashion. The chief difference consisted in the use of bread rather than wafers, and the members standing rather than kneeling at the altar. It may have been during her period of confirmation instruction that Anlis became interested in religion, because even as a young girl she attended the prayer meetings of the pietistic brethren in Norka.

However, Grandmother Miller must also have had a rather stubborn streak in her. She always wanted to be dressed attractively, and there were sometimes arguments with her mother over what kind of clothes she should wear. Every girl had one “Sunday dress” which Anlis often wanted to put on in the evenings when she visited her friends. Her economical mother thought that this was a lot of foolishness and told her to keep on her everyday clothes. Whenever this happened, Grandmother Miller would roll up her “good dress,” hide it under her coat, and then change her clothes at a friend’s home.

During these years Great-Grandfather Giebelhaus had been in rather poor health. At the time of his marriage, his wife had inherited some money, which he used to buy a few blacksmith’s tools and a small shop of his own. The young couple were quite prosperous for a while, but as Conrad got older he was often troubled with bronchitis. His neighbors claimed that it was because he got overheated in his shop and then drank the ice cold water of a well near his home. He gradually seemed to become more and more weak, and was eventually forced to sell his shop at a great loss, depending entirely upon his farming as a means of livelihood.

Then in June 1866 Conrad and his wife drove to the neighboring village of Dönhof to buy some farm implements for the coming harvest. When they reached their destination, they drove their wagon into an open square next to the home of a friend. The horses were unhitched and fed, but before the couple started for the marketplace, Conrad decided that the wagon ought to be pushed into the shade of the nearby barn. Katherine got in back of the wagon and he pulled in front. As a result of their united efforts, the wagon suddenly lurched forward, and the tongue of the shaft was jammed so deeply into Conrad’s stomach that he was severely injured. He was taken home in great pain, and died soon afterward when he was only forty-four years old.

Great-Grandmother Giebelhaus never married again, and for the rest of her life lived in rather difficult financial circumstances. Since the Russian Mir system was now in effect, neither she nor her three daughters had the right to take any of the village land. Instead, the entire family had to live on what could be raised on John and Henry’s share. After his 20th birthday, John married a girl named Margaret Schilling (Wes Griet) who was brought home to live with the rest of the family. From the very start this daughter-in-law had rather poor health, and although she gave birth to twelve children, only three daughters managed to live. Since John was the oldest man in the family, he was given the title of Hausvater and had complete authority over sisters, although his mother could determine what was to be done in the kitchen.

The oldest daughter, Ammie, was also having her troubles. She had married a man named Krueger, who died in a typhoid epidemic in 1870 just a month before her first baby was born. In the same epidemic, a neighbor woman who’d married a man named Klaus also died. Since Great-Grandmother Giebelhaus was the aunt of the dead woman, she was invited to the funeral supper that was held after the services were over. When she got ready to leave, one of the Klaus women gave her some food to take home to her daughter, Ammie, who was then in bed with her baby daughter. This incident was later remembered when John Klaus and Wes Ammie decided to get married. The little Krueger girl, however, was brought up by her father’s parents, since the old couple refused to allow Wes Ammie to take the child into the Klaus family.

In the meantime a period of intense excitement had begun in all the German villages along the Volga. One of the chief incentives that had encouraged the people to enter Russia had been the promise that they would be excused from military service. However, in 1871 a law was passed making military training compulsory in the German colonies. A wave of protest and anger immediately arose. According to one historian, a German farmer by the name of Heinrich Lorgast even went to Moscow to remind the czar of the promises that have been made by Catherine II, but all pleas and protests were of no avail, and in 1874 the first German boys were forced to say goodbye to their weeping relatives and leave for the army barracks. The term of enlistment varied from three to seven years depending on where the soldiers were located and upon what branch of service they entered. During these early years they were often mistreated by the Russian officers who called them names and abused them for not understanding the Russian language. These stories soon came back to the villages and help to increase the already intense hatred of militarism that existed. As a result, thousands of Volga German families now decided to leave Russia for the United States.

In 1872 another disaster occurred in Norka when a fire broke out in a 4th Street home where the mother was baking some “Gröppel” which were fried in deep fat like doughnuts. Every Norka home had a large barrel of water that always stood in the yard for just such an emergency, but the dry wooden house was soon a massive flame, which spread across the sheds and barns of the yard. Before long the entire Unterdorf as far north as 1st Street was fiercely burning. (Since both the Giebelhauses and Millers lived in the central part of town, their homes remain standing.) Mrs. Conrad Repp told me how the pigs and cows lay burned in her parents’ backyard, and how the warehouses full of wheat continued to smoke for days afterward. Another old-timer, George Kaiser, also remembers how the owners of the burning houses desperately loaded their belongings into wagons and attempted to save them by hurrying to the outskirts of the town.

Two years later, one of Norka’s most sensational trials took place when a man by the name of Lehl and several of his accomplices were arrested for robbery and murder. The prisoners were lodged in the homes of the citizens until the day of their trial. According to the decision of the judge, nine men were found guilty and were ordered deported to Siberia. Since it was possible for their wives and children to go along with them, all of the women except one agreed to accompany their husbands into exile. The greatest surprise was expressed when Mr. Lehl’s wife also decided to leave, because he had always treated her very cruelly, and would even beat her unmercifully whenever he got drunk.

Then in 1875 when she was 25 years old, Grandmother Miller married John Miller, a widower with several children. By this time her second brother Henry had also brought his wife, Sopie Reisbeck, home with them, the house must have seemed rather crowded with two sisters-in-law and their growing families. However, before we describe grandmother’s life in the Miller family, it is necessary to tell something about the background of the man whose life she shared for the next 44 years.

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