Chapter IV: The Millers leave for America

TOC | Prev | Next

Transcribed by Michael A. O’Neill in November 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.

The information that exists regarding our grandfather Miller’s family is even more meager than is that of the Giebelhauses. We do not know the name of the original ancestor who left Germany in 1766, and neither can we be sure if he was the father or the grandfather of the first John Miller whose name and dates have come down to us. This is grandfather’s own father, who lived from 1802-1850. He was left an orphan with no other close relative except one sister who later married a Seventh Day Adventist by the name of Loos. In the meantime, John got a job with a wealthy family named Glanz. In order to earn some extra money, he set up a blacksmith shop in which he made nails. As a result, he was soon known as a “Nagelschmidt,” and in this way a nickname was also attached to grandfather Miller who from the time of his birth was known as the “Nagelschmidt’s Hannessie.”

After working for the Glanz family several years, John married one of their daughters, who had been christened Emma. She was a tall, strongly-built girl, and from all reports was good-natured and kind-hearted; but it is also said that she talked in a loud voice, and had rather rough mannerisms. She and her husband continued to live in the Glanz home, since John had no parents to whom he could bring his bride. The young couple had three daughters: Margaret (born 1828); Anna Marie (1830); Kathrinliz (1832); and three sons: Hanarm (Adam) in 1836, Hannes (John) our own grandfather in 1841, and Ludwig in 1844.

The oldest daughter married a man named Schleiger, and left the Miller family at that time. But the second daughter, who married a man named Loos, continued to live at home with her husband. At this time the father of the family was sick in bed, and since the three brothers were still quite young, Anna Marie’s husband was expected to run the blacksmith shop. Unfortunately, he seems to have been a rather worthless drunkard, and under his direction business went from bad to worse. His father-in-law could see what was going on, and often threatened that as soon as he got well, he was going to get rid of his son-in-law, and take over the business himself. This plan was never accomplished since he died in 1850 when he was only 48 years old. A few years later, Mr. Loos also died, leaving his wife a widow with two sons. The oldest of these boys, Henry, became the next blacksmith of the family, and years later he made his living this way in Denver, Colorado. In the meantime, Anna Marie married a man named Mueller, with whom she spent the rest of her life in great poverty.

The third sister, Kathrinliz, first married a Mr. Burback by whom she had four daughters, but after his death she had two sons from a second husband name Spahn. It was this sister who is the first of all our relatives to come to the United States in 1877.

In the meantime, the three brothers all continued to stay at home with their mother, making their living on the land which they received periodically as their “dusch.” Grandfather Miller seldom talked about these childhood years except to tell that he attended the Mitteldorf Schule, and that his sister Kathrinliz was always very good to him. Adam was the first of the boys to get married, but he was soon followed by his two brothers (Grandfather and Ludwig) who married cousins named Traut. These girls had been brought up in the same family, and probably hope to spend their married life together as well, but both of them died in childbirth within a few years of each other. Grandfather was once heard to say that when he first saw his wife, he didn’t think that she was very pretty because she had such black hair and a dark complexion; but after they had been married a short time, he began to really appreciate her.

Grandfather Miller’s second wife was a tall, slender girl named Kathrinlis Hinkel whose oldest son, Uncle Henry, was born in 1868. I have been told that the second wife had a rather sharp temper, and wasn’t too well-liked by the rest of the family. In those days, a woman was always expected to help her husband with his work, but it seems that Kathrinlis had a mind of her own, and took her time in going outside when grandfather needed her. Two other children, Uncle John and Aunt Kate, were born in 1870 and 1873.

The Miller household was a very crowded one in those days. The oldest son and his wife, Lisbet Hölzer, had five children named John, George, Conrad, Kathryn, and Dorothea; grandfather had three; and Ludwig, whose second wife was named Katharina Klaus, had two, John and Ammie. In the summertime the three daughters-in-law worked with their husbands on the field, and the old grandmother took care of the ten youngsters. One of these boys tells that on Saturdays, after the rye bread was baked, all of the grandchildren would crowd around her begging for the end piece. In order to avoid any sign of favoritism, she would cut the entire outer crust in a round circle so that every child could have an equal share.

In 1875, death came again to the family. The first to go was Grandfather Miller’s wife, Kathrinlis, who died in January of typhoid fever. She was buried on such a bitterly cold day that it was impossible for her small children to be taken to the cemetery, but for the rest of her life, Aunt Kate Albert claimed that she could remember the slow-moving procession to carry the coffin of her mother from their 5th Street home to the cemetery behind the church.

Three months later, on April 13, 1875, our Great-Grandmother Miller also died. She was then 68 years old, and had been a widow for 25 years. Throughout all of this time, she must have faced many hardships and privations in bringing up her children without the help of a husband. In this respect, her life resembled that of the Giebelhaus grandmother, who was also left alone at an early age, and was never able to enjoy a period of prosperity from then on.

As it was necessary for grandfather to find a stepmother to take care of his children, he remarried the following June, and in this way our grandmother, Anlis Giebelhaus and her four-year-old daughter Emma came into the Miller family.

Under the best of circumstances it is often rather difficult for small children to accept a new stepmother, but in this particular case, additional difficulties were caused by Grandmother Miller’s new sisters-in-law and brothers-in-law. Vetter Ludwig began to cause trouble by telling the older children that grandmother wasn’t their real mother, and that they didn’t have to obey her. The presence of Aunt Emma was also resented, and once, when an epidemic broke out among the children of Norka and Aunt Emma became ill, grandmother decided to wrap the child in a shawl and carry her back to the Giebelhaus home. Here, Aunt Emma was put in bed with Wes Griet’s and Wes Sophie’s daughters who are also sick. Aunt Emma recovered from her illness, but unfortunately, both of the other little girls died.

Another cause of friction arose over Vetter Hanarm’s role as “Hausvater.” As the oldest son, he had the most power in settling family affairs, and in the same way, his wife, Wes Lisbet, had the greatest authority in the kitchen. When great-grandmother Miller was alive, all of the small children had been treated alike, but under Wes Lisbet’s regime, it was perhaps only natural that her own children got preferential treatment, when apples or other good things to eat were being divided.

Grandmother Miller must also have hated the crowded conditions in which she was now forced to live. The entire house consisted of only two bedroom separated by a kitchen that contained a large built-in stove. During summer months, part of the family could sleep in the summer kitchen that stood in the yard, but in the winter, the three married couples and their eleven children had to live and sleep in only three rooms. The family’s financial condition must also have been rather bad, although grandfather did manage to earn a little extra money by such jobs as building wooden barracks for the Turkish prisoners of war who were sent to the Volga in the winter of 1877-78.

During the same winter, a stranger came to a Norka with fabulous stories of the wonderful prospects for success and prosperity along the Amur River. After the stranger had collected a sufficiently large number of names, he left town, saying that he wanted to make some necessary preparations for the trip, but would return in two weeks.

In the meantime, all of the future immigrants proceeded to sell their homes and property. In some cases, they even filled large linen bags full of zwiebach and sausage, in order to leave immediately when their guide returned. However, the two weeks went by, and after that a month passed, and since the stranger still failed to appear, the bitter truth was finally accepted that they had been cheated out of their money. Since Vetter Ludwig had already received his share of the estate from his two brothers, he no longer had any right to his father’s home. Consequently, he and his wife now moved to a new home on 9th Street, leaving Hanarm and Hannes in the 5th Street house.

After Ludwig was gone it didn’t take long until grandfather also decided to live in a separate house on 9th Street. In the summer of 1878, all the oxen, horses, cows and farm machinery were divided between him and Hanarm. One of the horses was much more valuable than any of the others, and in order to avoid any argument, the two brothers decided to draw lots for it. Grandfather’s son John was the youngest boy in the family, and as a result, he was asked to pull the straw which would determine the winner. According to this decision, the horse was given to grandfather. Vetter Hanarm’s boys were standing around watching the proceedings with bated breath, and when they heard what happened, one of the boys threw his arms around the horses’s neck and began sobbing as though his heart would break.

After grandmother began living in a home of her own, her life must have been much happier than before, although it still contained a great deal of hard, bitter work. During the summer months, she would help harness the horses, and would drive with her husband to the fields where she pitched hay, bound the grain into sheaves, and assisted with the threshing. Throughout the entire year there were such unending tasks as cleaning house, selling clothes, milking cows, cooking meals, baking bread, carrying water from the well, and taking care of the children. Every week, both in the winter and summer, she first rubbed and boiled her clothes at home, and then carried them to the banks of the little stream that flowed south of the town. Here they were rinsed in water that was often so cold that a hole had to be cut through the ice in order for her to reach the creek below. During the winter months, she did most of her weaving, and night after night, she would sit at her loom weaving wool and linen cloth, and also thin cotton material called sarpinka, which was exported from the Volga colonies.

In addition to these long hours of work from early morning until late at night, there was also the discomfort of her many pregnancies. Grandmother’s first three babies were all born dead, and it wasn’t until May 18, 1880 that her first living son, Adam, was born. The story is told that when she heard that this latest baby was really strong and healthy, she cried with heartfelt joy, “Gott sei lob und dank, dass ich das Kind in die Arme nehme kann.”

The terrible loss of life among both mothers and babies of the Miller and Giebelhaus family was in no way unusual along the Volga. The explanation is partly due to the hard work performed by the women until their babies were practically born; but also because there wasn’t a single doctor in Norka. Since the attending midwives had never studied medicine, they were naturally unable to cope with any of the difficult cases of childbirth. It must also be remembered that the discoveries of Semmelweis, Lister and Pasteur on the necessity of sterilization had not yet reached the Volga. A similar loss of life existed in colonial America where it has been said that in one New England cemetery, eight out of ten wives had died of childbirth and hard work between the ages of 21 and 32. When a tiny baby died in Russia, the neighbors often expressed an almost callous attitude toward the event. The expression “Es ist ufgehobe” (It’s in Heaven) was frequently repeated with a mere shrug of the shoulder.

Two years later, my mother and Aunt Katy were born at 5 o’clock on a Sunday evening just as the cow herd was driving the lowing cattle through the streets of Norka. Kathryn put in her appearance first, but was followed fifteen minutes later by mother. They were both very pretty little girls with light blonde hair and brown eyes. None of the relatives could tell them apart, but from the very start it was impossible to deceive Grandmother Miller. Since Aunt Kate Albert was then nine years old and Aunt Emma eleven, each of them was given the task of taking care for one of the twins; and for the rest of their lives, mother seems to have been Aunt Kate’s favorite, just as Aunt Katy became Aunt Emma’s. In the same way, mother’s name came from the Miller side of the family, since she was named after the oldest daughter of Vetter Hanarm, whereas Aunt Katy was named after her Giebelhaus grandmother.

Whenever the girls were alone, Aunt Katy usually showed a greater spirit of initiative than mother did. Grandmother Miller often told how they climbed into the barn loft when they were three years old and trampled with their feet in a large earthen crock filled with eggs, which had been set aside for the Easter holidays. Upon being discovered, mother found herself unable to get out of the crock, but her more agile sister tottered down the ladder, egg yolks dripping down her legs, while she hypocritically babbled that mother alone was to blame.

Another story was told to me in Portland by Mrs. John Ross, one of mother’s cousins. She was married in Norka when the twins were four years old, and for the occasion, Grandmother Miller had made them red plaid dresses with tight bodices and gored skirts. It seems that when the twins arrived in their bright new clothes they attracted even more attention than the bride had received.

During these years, mother’s two half sisters and brothers started attending the Mitteldorf school. At this time, classroom instruction consisted primarily of learning to read and write, and memorizing the Heidelberg catechism and the songs in the Volga Gesangbuch. Aunt Emma received the best grades, but this may have been due to the fact that her conduct was better than that of the other three children. Aunt Kate was especially likely to get into mischief, and one day she was told by the teacher, Mr. Rudolph, to come to the front of the class and hold out her hand for punishment. He then lifted the ruler, but just as the weapon descended, she jerked her hand away so quickly that the teacher struck his own lap instead. In retaliation he forced her to lie across one of the benches while he gave her a really good paddling. Aunt Kate continued to go to school until her fourteenth year, when she joined the confirmation class. But since she was a year younger than the other members of the group, grandfather had to pay the teacher a set sum of money, 1 ½ rubles, to “buy” her the right to be confirmed.

The cruelty of many of these early schoolteachers is mentioned by many Norka citizens. One of mother’s cousins, Mr. Henry Miller, who went to school around the same time, also tells how often he was whipped by Mr. Rudolph for not knowing his lessons perfectly. But in defense of the instructors, it should be pointed out that teacher often had as many as 100 children in his classes. Because of the inadequate space, the older children attended classes in the morning, and the younger children came in the afternoon.

In 1880, one of the most outstanding events in the history of Norka was the building of a magnificent new church on 9th Street. [See for photos of the churches of Norka, including the new church on 9th street, described on the site as the “third” church.] The tall, stately dome of the edifice was covered with gold leaf that could be seen miles away, and the white Doric columns and stately doorways, made it by far the most beautiful building in the town. The minister’s pulpit was against the side wall; and the round altar was in the center of the building so that the members of the congregation could stand in a complete circle during communion. On either side of the altar pews were places for the older men and women. The married women and single girls had to sit in certain designated seats on the main floor, and the side balconies were reserved entirely for the married men and single boys. As the members of the congregation got older they moved gradually forward toward the front of the church until they eventually reached the seats reserved for the very oldest people. The famous Norka pipe organ, and mixed choir of boys and girls, could be heard from the rear of the balcony. The cornerstone for this building was laid on June 24, 1880, and the religious services were attended by Reverend Bonwetsch, who was still alive at the time, and by Reverend Jordan of Balzer, who was the brother-in-law of Reverend Stärkel, the current pastor.

However, in spite of the gaiety of weddings, holidays and church festivals, the period from 1880 on seem to be full of disasters. It all began with one of the most serious droughts that the Volga Valley had ever experienced. The poor people of the village were soon entirely without grain, and if it had not been for the community storehouse, thousands would have starved to death. Then in 1884, a second serious fire swept through the entire Unterdorf from 1st to 9th Streets. It even extended as far as the central part of the town, and destroyed the parsonage and surrounding buildings, although the firefighters succeeded in saving the newly constructed church. The flames also reached the home of Wes Ammie and her second husband, John Klaus. Mr. Klaus had luckily stayed home from work that morning in order to mend a broken wagon, and he was thus able to rescue a few household possessions which he placed on the wagon and drove to the old Giebelhaus home on 1st Street. This particular fire was caused by a woman who is carrying ashes from her stove, and carelessly allowed a few of the sparks to escape from her pail. For the rest of her life she had to bear the animosity of her neighbors for being the cause of the catastrophe.

In the meantime, more and more people had left Norka for the United States. Grandfather’s sister Kathrinlis and her husband Mr. Spohn had joined the first large group of immigrants in 1877. They had settled among some Seventh Day Adventists in Kansas, and had decided to join their church. All of their letters were so encouraging that in 1886 the oldest sister, Mrs. Schleiger, also decided to leave with her children. The group of people with whom she came settled in Sutton, Nebraska, and helped to spread the name of Sutton throughout all Norka. Because of their sisters’ examples and the poor economic conditions in Russia, Grandfather Miller and Vetter Hanarm also became interested in the United States. A further inducement was caused by the fact that Uncle Henry was now nineteen years old, and would soon have to register for the army. As a result, the two brothers agreed to leave Norka together. All of their possessions including their houses, furniture, and farm implements, as well as their cattle, sheep, pigs and horses were sold. The only things that the two families took along with them where their clothing, their bedding, some food—such as zwiebach, rye bread, sausage and meat—and a few religious books, which always included the Bible and the Volga Gesangbuch. Feather beds and pillows were tied in the center of sheets, and other possessions were placed in coarse linen sacks which the men carried on their backs.

All the preparations were finally made, and on the morning of May 9, 1887, the long trip to America began. Vetter Ludwig Miller and Vetter Hannes Giebelhaus both offered to help drive their relatives to the railroad station at Saratov. All other relatives and friends walked with the wagons to the end of the village where they stood weeping as the final farewells were said. Mother and Aunt Katy were only four years old at the time, and neither of them can remember anything definite about their life in Russia. But mother thinks that she did carry away a mental picture of her Grandmother Giebelhaus wiping her eyes with the corner of her apron as the little group moved out of sight.

Grandmother’s sister, Wes Ammie, also drove along in her brother’s wagon, but when she got back from Saratov, she told her children that she never again wanted to take such a journey. After the departing families had been placed in their railroad car, the three relatives had stood on a slight bluff behind the station from where they could see the train as it wound around the hill and out of sight. According to Wes Ammie it was much harder for her to see the train leave than it had ever been to walk in a funeral procession to the cemetery. And she always referred to this farewell as having been a “living death.”

In the meantime, the new immigrants traveled steadily westward through Russia to the border station of Eydkunin. Along the way the family’s chief worry was whether Henry would get over the Russian border safely or not. According to the military law of Russia, no permanent passports were given to boys who were nineteen or twenty years old. As a result, it was necessary for grandfather to go to some Jews who sold Henry a false passport in which he was described as a native-born German labor named John Klaus, who had gone to Russia as a farm worker. When they reach the border, Henry continued to sit with the rest of his family, but fortunately no suspicious questions were asked, and he was allowed to leave the country without any difficulty. It is for this reason that Henry’s name is not mentioned in grandfather’s passport that lists the names and ages of everyone else in the family. However, his name is included in the parochial certificate which was signed by Rev. Stärkel.

After our grandparents crossed the German boundary they could not help but notice how very backward their civilization along the Volga had become when compared with that of Western Europe. They also realized for the first time, that because of the lack of contact with the country of their origin, a definite social and psychological barrier had arisen between them and the more prosperous-looking, progressive Germans of the Second Reich. In addition, several unpleasant incidents occurred. Since mother and Aunt Katy were only four years old, grandfather had been told that it would not be necessary to buy them a railroad ticket. However, the Prussian conductor who got on the train at Eydkunin seemed to be afraid that the children were older than their father had claimed. Both of them were sound asleep at the time, but without more ado, he yanked mother to her feet, hurting her arms so badly the grandmother was afraid for a time that she was seriously injured. There were also several occasions when the Volga German immigrants heard themselves referred to as “Russiches Rindvieh” or cattle; so that by the time they reached Bremen, they had lost any feeling of anticipation that they might have had in seeing the country from which their ancestors had come.

While the families were waiting in Bremen for a boat, some immigration officials from South America came to the steamship hotel in which they were staying and tried to persuade them to settle in the fertile São Paulo area of southern Brazil. Grandfather listened to what the agents had to say, but soon told them that he had definitely made up his mind to go to North America. It is interesting to speculate what the fortunes of his family might have been if he’d accepted this offer, and taken his children to Brazil instead of to Nebraska.

In the meantime, passage was booked on a freighter whose German captain had decided to go into the immigration business. The boat had been thoroughly cleaned and was then divided into three sections: one for families, and the other two for single men and single women. The entire Miller family consisting of the parents and seven children were lodged in one large room where they both ate and slept during the long slow voyage across the Atlantic. Vetter Hanarm and his family occupied a similar room.

After several days’ delay, the boat was finally loaded, and during the last week of May the anchor was lifted and the order to sale was given. One hundred and twenty-one years earlier, the original Millers and Giebelhauses had left Germany for Russia, and now it was our own grandparents who were watching the coast of Germany disappear in the distance. But the same spirit of courage, sadness and hope must have been in their hearts as they too went forth to meet a new day.

TOC | Prev | Next