Transcribed by Michael A. O’Neill on 21 January 2015
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.
When Grandfather Miller arrived in Portland on 27 October 1890, he found about 20 Volga German families living east of the Willamette River between Tillamook and Knott Streets. Technically this area was not part of Portland, because until 1891, Albina and East Portland were incorporated as independent communities with their own mayor, town hall, banks, jail, etc. The first Volga Germans had left Iowa for Walla Walla, Washington, but after spending three months in that city, they moved on to Portland as early as 1882. Other old-timers came by boat from San Francisco or by way of Nebraska. Most of them were from the colony of Norka, and it is probably due to their influence that so many other people from that village eventually settled here. The names of the earliest pioneers include the following individuals: John Schnell, Conrad Schnell, George Betz, Ludwig Spady, Peter George, Constantin Brill, Henry Meier, Conrad Schwartz, Peter Gerloch, Adam Schwartz, Peter Wolf, Adam & David Schwindt, and a Frühauf family, all of whom had come before 1889.
In the year 1890, the population of Portland was 46,385, although an additional 20,000 people lived on the east bank of the Willamette. The city had been founded in 1842, and the streets along the riverside were very narrow and irregular. Until 1887 all incoming trains had to stop on the east side of the Willamette and send their passengers across the river in ferryboats, but with the construction of the Morrison Street Bridge, passengers could then be taken directly to the business area. In 1890 three transcontinental railroads—the Union Pacific, the Southern Pacific, and the Northern Pacific—all came through Portland.
At the beginning of the decade, the most important hotels were the St. Charles, the Esmond (famous for its many elegant marriages), and the Hotel Portland. The Old Post Office Building and the Skidmore Fountain had been erected; electric arc lights had been introduced; the Union Depot was being constructed; horse-drawn cars carried their passengers through the business district; the three largest department stores were Old & King, Meier & Frank, and Lipman & Wolf (although none of them were in their present buildings), and for 29 years the Oregonian had been in existence as a morning newspaper.
Upon the arrival of grandfather’s party, the Volga Germans who were already living in Albina opened their homes in the hospitable fashion for which they were famous. Because of their isolated existence in Russia they had become a very clannish, closely-knit people, and the arrival of a “Nachbar” from their native village was always the occasion for a hearty celebration. No matter how poor the families might be, they would set their tables with the best possible food, and regardless of how crowded they already were, they gladly surrendered their beds to the newcomers, and placed their own children on the floor upon hastily constructed piles of quilts.
In the same way, our own grandparents and their children were welcomed at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Conrad Schnell who had come to Portland during one of the previous years, and who now helped the newcomers try to find a home of their own. But grandfather soon discovered that very few home-owners were willing to rent to such a large family. After having received this kind of an answer several times, he is supposed to have wondered if the Portland people expected him to kill off his children! In desperation he finally decided to rent an empty one-room store building that stood at the corner of Russell Street and Union Avenue (or Margaretta Street, as it was formerly called [or Martin Luther King Jr Blvd, as it is currently named]). Here the family simply camped for six months until their own home was built at the corner of Seventh Avenue and Morris Street, where grandfather had bought a lot for $800.
In the 1890s there was a tremendous difference in the appearance of the residential district around present-day Union Avenue. When grandfather bought his lot, all of the land east of Seventh Avenue was still covered with forests; and although the trees had been cut down at the corner of Morris Street, he had to pull out the remaining stumps before he could begin to build his home. For the next 10 years it was unnecessary for him to spend a single cent on fuel, because he and his boys could cut down all the trees that they needed in the lots across the street. The logs would then be piled up until they were dry enough to be used.
Upon his arrival in Portland, grandfather brought with him six children: Emma, Kate, Adam, the twins, and George. John was already in the city, and Henry remained behind in Lincoln to welcome his bride, Margaret Elizabeth Fink, whose passage money he had sent to Russia. She arrived about one week after the Millers departed. The young couple left immediately for Portland, Oregon where they were married in the Miller home on 9 November 1890. The ceremony was performed by Rev. Hartung, a German Methodist minister whose church stood on the corner of Stanton and Rodney. The bride’s dress was of a lilac-colored material, and the eight-year-old twins thought that it was the most beautiful creation that they had ever seen. Our Aunt Lizzie (as she was later called) must have looked very lovely that day. She was 20 years old at the time, and an attractive blonde girl with blue eyes and rosy cheeks.
Soon after Uncle Henry’s marriage, grandmother was hurt in a very serious accident. She had stopped one afternoon to see Aunt Emma who was doing housework for a family on the corner of Sacramento and Williams Avenue. These people lived in an upstairs apartment which could only be reached by means of an outside stairway. Grandmother was standing on the porch at the top of the steps talking to Aunt Emma when she happened to notice a galvanized bucket lying on a rubbish pile in the backyard. Grandfather had used practically all of his savings in order to come to Portland, and the family was so short of money that it was difficult to buy the furniture and household necessities that were needed. Grandmother commented that the bucket looks perfectly good, and she wondered if she could take it home with her. But just at that point the railing against which she had been leaning suddenly gave way, and she fell to the ground 14 feet below. Since she was pregnant at the time, the accident could have had very serious consequences, and Dr. LaMaree, who was called to the scene, warned her to stay in bed until she had perfectly recovered. For this reason the presence of a new bride in the family was doubly appreciated. The twins had started school, and Aunt Kate found a job in the Steffens Hotel in Lower Albina, but Aunt Lizzie assumed full responsibility for both the care of her mother-in-law and of the housework.
Immediately after his marriage, Uncle Henry got a job with a grubbing company that was clearing the land around Kenilworth Avenue, but in the following March he moved across the river to Felida where he did the same kind of work for two years. By 1893 he had saved enough money to buy five acres of forest land at $85 an acre. But after living on this place for a year, he found that the man from whom he had bought his land had failed to give him a clear title to the property, and had cheated him out of his money. There was nothing for him to do except move back to Portland and work again as a day laborer in a sawmill located in the southern part of town. Since he was too poor to buy car tickets, he spent an hour every morning and evening walking back and forth to work. After he had saved enough money, he again returned to Washington in 1899 and bought 40 acres of forest land at $11 an acre. On this place he built a two room cabin consisting of a kitchen and bedroom. Then he began the long, laborious process of cutting down the trees on his farm, pulling out the stumps with a team of horses, and planting in their place prune trees, hay, wheat and other crops. As the years went by, he saved enough money to buy an additional 86 acres of land which he also cleared; and in 1907 he built a large home in which he lived until his death on 9 October, 1949. Of Uncle Henry’s seven children, the three oldest were born in Portland and the four others in Felida.
In the meantime Aunt Emma had been “keeping company” with Peter Schnell, the son of the people who had harbored the family upon their arrival in Portland. The couple were married by Rev. Hartung on 19 February 1891 while they were both nineteen years old. Since the Conrad Schnell home was preferable to the Miller store building, the marriage ceremony was performed in the bridegroom’s home. In those days most American brides were still being married in colored dresses, and Aunt Emma chose a dress of wine-colored silk, with which she wore a wedding veil of white net.
At the time of his marriage Peter Schnell was working in an iron foundry, and earning $12 a week, which was then considered very good wages. For the first few months the young couple lived with his parents, but after that they rented a two-room apartment on Knott Street. However, they soon found it necessary to give up their home and return to his parents, since Pete became seriously ill with rheumatism, and had to stay in bed for most of the next four years. During this period Aunt Emma had to make the family living by going out washing and doing housework. After Pete got better they started a grocery store at the corner of Union Avenue in Fremont Street and lived in the back part of the store. During these years Aunt Emma gave birth to four children, although only two–Fred who was born on 15 July 1892, and Louis who was born on 1 November 1896–reached maturity.
The rest of the Miller family continued to live in the Union Avenue store until May 1891 when their own home was finally completed. It consisted of four downstairs rooms: a parlor, two bedrooms and a kitchen. The upstairs was made into one large room which was used as sleeping quarters by the boys. A barn and chicken fence stood in the backyard, and the entire area was surrounded by a white picket fence. Around 1896 a partition was put into the upstairs, and a bathroom and kitchen added to the downstairs, while the wall between the former kitchen and the back bedroom was torn out and the area turned into a large dining room. At the same time the basement was enlarged so that grandmother could do her washing and cooking there. Two little houses were also built in the backyard and were rented to a series of young married couples while they were making their start in life.
Just a few weeks after their grand entry into this house, the baby of the family was born on 4 June 1891, and was named Johnny by his parents. The twins were again supposed to leave for a neighbor’s house, but they knew that their mother was seriously ill, and all afternoon they refused to leave the front porch steps, where they sat clinging to each other in fear. Grandmother was attended by a midwife named Mrs. Krueger, and by Dr. LaMaree, the same physician who had care for her after her accident. The doctor is said to have expressed surprise that Johnny was such a strong healthy baby, since he had feared that the child might be born a cripple, as a result of grandmother’s bad fall.
While the family was still living in the store building on Union Avenue, the twins attended school for the first time in a building located at the corner of Williams Avenue and Russell Street. The principal was called Prof. Pratt, and the first grade teacher was Mrs. Wash, whose daughter Eva was also in the first grade. In order to reach the school it was necessary for the children to cross the Union Avenue car tracks, upon which a small electric train ran to Vancouver, Washington. At the present time this whole area has been leveled off, but in 1890 there were places where the tracks lay at the bottom of a gulch, and had high banks on either side. After the family moved to Morris Street, Uncle Adam and the twins followed a footpath that ran triangularly across the large pasture and forest that lay between their home and Russell Street, because not a single street was laid out in this area.
When the twins entered the first grade, the enrollment was so large that it was necessary for the teacher to divide her pupils into two groups, one of which attended the morning class, and the other came in the afternoon. Grandmother immediately decided that the twins should go to school at different hours so that one of them could stay home with George while she went out washing. The scheme proved so satisfactory that at the beginning of the second semester, when all the children were supposed to attend both morning and afternoon classes, grandmother suggested that they go to the school on alternate days. Aunt Katy was supposed to ask the teacher for permission to carry out this plan, but her courage never reached the proper pitch at which she felt she could broach the subject, and when she came home that night not a word had been said. The next day mother occupied Katy’s seat and responded to her name, but she also failed to mention that a different girl was now present. However, since nobody had noticed any difference in her appearance, the plot was simply continued. Every night the girls repeated to each other what had happened in class, and for the rest of the semester, and throughout the entire second grade, (when they had Miss Evans who was so pretty!) Neither their instructors nor their classmates knew that Dora Miller existed.
The secret eventually leaked out when Miss Orth, their third-grade teacher, happened to ask grandmother if one of the twins had died, as she thought she remembered seeing two little girls in the first grade. Grandmother answered that, on the contrary, both girls were attending Miss Orth’s classes, and then she explained how this was being done. That night the consternation of the Miller twins was tremendous! It was mother’s turn to go to school on the following day. She tried to persuade Katy to take her place, but Katy refused. Just as she had feared, Prof. Pratt immediately called her to his office and asked, “is your name really Katy Miller, or not?” In a trembling voice she confessed that her name was actually Dora. Needless to say, there was no precedent for the principle to follow in such a situation. But he finally decided that since “Katy’s” schoolwork had always been satisfactory, there was no reason why the system could not continue, provided it remained a secret from the other pupils. This was done until the spring of 1895 when Aunt Katy got a job before the end of the term, but mother continued alone, under Katy’s name, until she had finished the fifth grade.
There are several other factors about the story that always intrigued us children. One is that as mother could do better in geography and spelling, and Aunt Katy was better in reading arithmetic, each girl would take the final examinations in which she was most likely to get good grades. There are also innumerable stories about the difficulties they faced in keeping their secret from their classmates. One year they both received earrings for Christmas. And Katy lost one of hers, but continued wearing the other until one of her friends asked in a puzzled voice, “Katy Miller, just why do you wear one earring one day and both earrings the next?”
On another occasion mother cut her hand quite badly, and her sister also had to come to school with a bandage. But probably the most embarrassing situation arose in a geography lesson one day. A teacher had become very annoyed with one of the boys in the class who was unable to give the capitals of Europe. After wasting a great deal of time with him, she turned to mother and announced, “And now we will hear from Katy Miller. Her recitation yesterday was perfect.” To the teacher’s chagrin and mother’s everlasting shame, “Katy” was just as stupid as the boy had been.
Miss Orth, the third-grade teacher, is also remembered because of a note that grandfather once wrote when one of the girls was sick, and the other stayed at home to take care of the babies. Aunt Katy refused to leave for school on the following morning without a written excuse from one of her parents. She also insisted that grandfather put the word Miss somewhere in the letter. Her patient father finally handed over this epistle which must have startled the teacher somewhat, but which she accepted as a bona fide certificate:
Ort Misses, Die Katy war nötig zu Haus.
During the years 1890 to 1895 the Miller family continued to have a difficult time financially. Grandfather’s first job consisted in cutting down trees and laying out lots in the northeastern part of town. On another occasion he and his brother-in-law, John Giebelhaus, bought a scavenger wagon together, but in a very short time this was turned over entirely to Mr. Giebelhaus. For a time he also worked with the street cleaning department and earned two dollars a day, which his family considered wonderful wages.
But before long grandfather got an eye disease called “Bluestone” which prevented him from working steadily. As a result, he was forced to stay at home during the next few years. But, as his jersey cow gave an unusually large amount of milk, and the chickens were also very good, he began to sell milk and eggs to his neighbors. With the money that he earned, additional cows were bought, so that he finally owned four jerseys with which he ran a small dairy. Every morning he and Uncle George went out with their cans of milk to visit the neighbors who were their customers. In those days no one had any quart milk bottles. Instead, people simply left covered pails on their porches, and grandfather would pour the milk with a quart measure. After Uncle Johnny was old enough to help, he was also given a route, and then the customers were divided into three groups. Grandfather’s barns were located in back of the Morris Street house, and he took his cows to pasture in the blocks where Irving Park is now located. For this privilege he paid a small yearly fee to the owner. These cows were kept until 1908 and constituted his chief source of income until that time. Milk sold for five cents a quart, and he would add an extra cup whenever his customers paid. Even on other days he would always tip his can over for an additional contribution after the quart measure had been emptied.
Until the five youngest children could start working, it was necessary for grandmother to contribute to the family’s income. She was usually gone four days a week, and earned about a $1.5 a day for washing, ironing or cleaning house. At one of the homes, she once happened to touch a hidden spring in a wall, which opened the door of a cabinet were several bags of money were lying. Since grandmother was alone in the house, she hurriedly closed the door again, but was quite worried for fear that the accident would be detected. In later years she used to tell her children that all the time that she had gone in and out of people’s homes, she had never taken away as much as a needle without the owner’s permission.
While grandmother was off working, the twin who stayed at home was expected to look after George and Johnny; help grandfather get a late lunch of cheese, eggs etc.; keep the fire going; put the soup meat on the stove at 2 o’clock; and add the vegetables at 4 o’clock. (Since a soup bone cost from $0.05-$0.15, it is possible to understand how the family managed to live on a very small amount of money.) On Saturdays they were expected to scrub the kitchen floor and the upstairs steps. In order to make sure that neither of them did more than her honest share, both the floorboards and the steps were carefully counted, and in normal circumstances, neither of the two girls would ever think of doing more than her just half.
The chances are that few modern American children would be entrusted with the responsibilities that the twins had when they were eight and nine years old. One day grandmother even left some fat in the oven which they were to rend so that she could use it for lard. The two girls started a good fire, and then went into the yard to play. Before long the fat caught fire, and might have burned down the entire house. One of the twins happen to smell the smoke and screamed for help. The neighbor woman who lived in their summer kitchen came running to the rescue, and put the fire out. That night both of the girls expected another spanking, but grandmother was so happy over the averted catastrophe, that for once they escaped punishment.
During these early years, different kinds of soup constituted the chief evening meal, but on other days they had “Matte Klöss,” “Eben Klöss,” “Kraut und Brei,” “Kraut Kuche,” “Kartoffel und Klöss,” “Schnitzel Suppe,” “Gröbbel,” etc. Bread was baked twice a week on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Coffee cake called “Dünne Kuche” and white bread came only on Saturday, whereas white bread was more likely to be baked on Wednesday. On Sundays the meat course usually consisted of a pot roast or of a baked chicken. None of the Volga German women had ever canned any fruit in Russia, but since they arrived in America they took up the habit, and during the summer months they filled their basement shelves with cherries, pears and peaches. Wild strawberries and blackberries were used for jam; and apples, gooseberries & blackberries were made into clear jelly. In addition, barrels of sauerkraut, pickled apples & watermelons, and crocs of dill pickles were also prepared. After these things were put away for the winter, Uncle Johnny would always wait with great expectation for the snow to fall, because on that day it was traditional for the first jar of cherries to be opened for the evening meal. Another tradition, which was continued in our own family, was the habit of eating dried noodles on Good Friday.
In the summer months, the small children earned a few pennies by picking wild blackberries and walking downtown to sell them at people’s doors. They would also be sent with empty sacks to the flour mills along the Willamette River, and when the wheat cars came in, the children were allowed to sweep them out, and take the spilled grain home for their chickens. Streetcars were very seldom used, because the five cent fare was considered too expensive. During the first few years in America it was impossible to even afford Easter egg dye, and grandmother would boil the peelings of red onions until a brown colored juice was left in the kettle. This was then used to color the eggs.
Another source of income during these early years was in hop picking. Grandmother usually went with all the children who did not have steady jobs. The hop pickers would take boats down the Willamette River to the wharf of the farmer with whom they had a job. They carried along with them their own bedding and food, and lived in temporary shacks on the hop yards. The work usually lasted three or four weeks and a large family often brought $100 back with them. During the 1890s the entire Volga German district in Portland was so quiet that it hardly paid for the storekeepers to stay open, as long as the season lasted.
In spite of their lack of cod liver oil and orange juice, the picture on the following page shows that mother and Aunt Katy must have been strong and healthy children. They were twelve years old at the time, and the dresses which they are wearing were of wine-colored wool, with black velvet bands on the sleeves. These were the prettiest dresses that the girls had ever owned, and during the noon recess Aunt Katy described them proudly to a classmate as having “sleeve arms!” The “Ethel” pin which mother is wearing was found by the roadside one day, and since she considered it far too pretty to throw away, she wore it on all important occasions, entirely oblivious of the fact that her own name happened to be Dora.
The upstairs of the Miller home has always been remembered by the children for a variety of reasons. Uncle Henry often slept here when he would drive in from Felida with farm produce or on shopping expeditions. On such occasions he would entertain the youngsters with stories of witchcraft in Russia: of the “Wilder Jäger” who could be heard riding through the air on dark stormy nights when the wind was howling and no moon could be seen; and of how the farmers often found their cows milked dry and the horses covered with sweat because of the nocturnal activities of supernatural beings. They also heard about the werewolf who became a human being in the daytime, and of the “Alp” which settled upon a man’s breast at night and caused him to wake up half suffocated and gasping for breath. Then there was the story of the three men who digging for gold at midnight but who were frightened by the devil at the very moment when the treasure chest had magically appeared, and of the time when the devil was seen sitting under the table of some gamblers. The frightened children would listen fascinated—not really believing the stories, but still wondering if perhaps they might’ve happened, because after all, Russia was so very far away.
A second reason for remembering the upstairs was for a religious reason. The Volga Germans found it difficult to attend the German Reformed Church downtown because of its distance from Albina, and they never felt at home in the nearby German Methodist church. At least it seemed to them that when they came to church dressed in such Russian clothes as boots and sheep-lined overcoats for the men, and three cornered shawls and dark long skirts for the women, the more prosperous and better educated people from Germany were far from cordial. As a result, they formed the habit of simply meeting in each other’s homes for a Sunday morning service. In this way the upstairs room in Grandfather Miller’s house became a temporary place of worship. Uncle George remembers how all the little boys were lined up along the side of the bed, where they would sit swinging their feet as a long German sermon was read by one of the brethren, and of how the men and women sat on benches and chairs which were carried upstairs in preparation for the service.
After the system had continued for about a year, the Volga Germans were visited by Rev. John Koch, who had formerly served as a schoolteacher in the German colonies. He had arrived in the United States in 1887 and at once left for the state of Washington where he was ordained a German Congregational minister in 1888 through an interpreter, since he could not understand English. His first churches were at Ritzville and Endicott, Washington; but in 1892 he visited the Portland people and persuaded them to organize a German Congregational Church on 24 April of that year. Under his leadership the Ebenezer Congregational Church was erected at the corner of Seventh and Stanton in the late fall of 1892. During the summer months he had conducted a German school which was attended by the younger Miller children and throughout the winter he led revival meetings in the new church building.
The first resident pastor in Portland was Rev. E. Grieb who lived there from 1893 to 1895. At this time he was a young married man with a single daughter named Emma. Since he lived across the street from the Millers, the twins learned to know his family very well, and seemed to have loved both the pastor and his wife. Uncle Johnny, in the meantime, found little Emma so attractive that he once came to his father and announced that he wanted to marry her. At this his father responded, “Gut. Ich kopuliere dich mit a Stecke.”
In spite of Rev. Grieb’s fine education in Germany, and his sincere desire to make a success of his Portland charge, the more conservative members of the church accused him of not being a real Christian whenever he suggested that they do anything different from what had been customary in Russia. As a result he was forced to leave Portland in 1895, and Rev. John Koch was then asked to take complete charge of the church. It was at this time that the parsonage was built which is still used today, and that Uncle Adam and the twins were confirmed. The confirmation picture shows the fifteen-year-old twins wearing bangs and two long braids that hung down their backs, while their full white dresses nearly reached to the tops of their high black shoes. Aunt Katy Repp still has the confirmation certificate which shows the date as being 6 June 1897.
During these years the social life of the Miller family revolved almost entirely around the church. And at that time, just as now, Christmas was the most sacred of all holidays. In December 1951 Uncle George Miller described a typical Christmas of his childhood in the “Timber Cruiser” which was sent to the clients of his lumber company. His letter reads as follows:
It is my thought to take you back some fifty years and unfold to you a Christmas scene as it was impressed upon my mind as a boy. The setting was here in a suburb of Portland in a small one-room church. There were two rows of benches with a center aisle. The women and girls occupied one side, the men and boys the other.
These were still pioneer days and Portland was getting off to a good start. The church was illuminated with coal oil lamps and heated by a wood burning stove. As expected, the members were of the poor, hard-working families who wanted to get ahead out West, the new land of opportunity.
Christmas trees were to be had by walking a few blocks, taking an axe with you, and cutting your own. I can still recall going with my dad and other men after the church Christmas tree which would be about 20 feet in height. The Christmas tree ornaments were pretty much the same as those used today with one exception. The trees were lighted with live wax candles placed in spring clamp holders.
The program was held on Christmas Eve and had the right of way over everything. The starry eyed children occupied the front benches of the church. The service was opened with prayer by the minister and usually with the reading of the second chapter of Luke’s gospel. Next came the singing of the Christmas hymns. Then as now, the most beloved of hymns was “Silent Night, Holy Night.” Usually the effect of this hymn as sung by devout worshipers is nothing short of heavenly.
The worship part of the service over, now comes the practical side. The ushers came forward with pilot lights on long poles to light the wax candles on the Christmas tree; with the eyes of every child following the movements of the ushers until every candle was lighted, and if ever an usher overlooked a candle dozens of eager fingers were pointed to it. When all the candles were lit, the children settled back in their seats to behold the wonder of wonders, their own Christmas tree.
Now it was the custom of the day for the families to bring gifts for their children to church instead of giving the gifts at home. This was possible because the people were universally limited in their means and only simple inexpensive gifts were possible. This element eliminated all pride and jealousy and all could rejoice together. The girls’ dolls were strong on a wire across part of the platform, clothes line fashion, with no child knowing which doll was hers. I can also remember harmonicas, tops that made music while they spun, bags of marbles, that we boys received. It was a time of intense excitement as the deacons passed out the gifts; and the church saw to it that no child was overlooked.
One of the features of the program was the speaking of pieces and musical numbers. We children usually went forward when our turn came with fears and trembles and what a sense of relief it was if we could get through it without bogging down.
The final act came with the distribution of bags of candy with an orange thrown in to boot. Everyone shared in this and when we left the church we all felt it was the happiest and most glorious night of the whole year.
Such was the simplicity of it all and who can say we did not enter into the fullest blessing of the true meaning of Christmas!
George E Miller
Both of our grandparents were converted even before their marriage, and the Miller children were brought up in a very strict fashion. Such frivolities as dancing, card-playing, smoking and drinking were all frowned upon, although it was permissible to serve a glass of “schnapps” to visitors during the Christmas holidays. Every Sunday morning after breakfast a chapter from the Bible was read and the members of the family knelt at their chairs for morning worship. This was followed by Paul Gerhardt’s 17th-century song, “Wach auf mein Herz und singe.” On other mornings grandfather would fold his hands for a few moments of silent prayer at the window before breakfast. It was also customary for every member of the family to say grace at the table before every meal. This was always done in the following order, according to the age of the participants:
Grandfather: “Alle Augen warten auf dich Du gibst ihnen ihr Seise zu seiner Zeit Du tust deine Hand auf Und erfüllest alles was lebt Mit Wohlgefallen. (Ps. 145)
Grandmother: “So oft wir vor dir Tischen So wollst du uns erfrischen Mit deinen edlen Gaben Und auch die Seele laben.”
Uncle Adam: “Segne Vater diese Speise Uns zur Kraft und dir zum Preise.”
Aunt Katy: “Sprich den Segen zu den Gaben Die wir jetzt vor uns haben Dass sie uns zu diesem Leben Stärke, Kraft und Nahrung geben.”
Mother: “Komm Herr Jesu, sei unser Gast Und segne was du uns bescheret hast.”
Uncle George: “Hilf Gott alle Zeit, Amen.”
Uncles Johnnie: “Abba, lieber Vater, Amen.”
The Bible was always the book that was read most often in the Miller family, but after the twins began to earn money of their own they started a library which consisted of such books as Black Beauty, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, John Halifax, Gentlemen, Pilgrim’s Progress, Wide Wide World, Mamselle’s Secret, Jane Eyre, the Elsie Books, and the stories of Louisa May Alcott. (Uncle Adam’s money, on the other hand, was usually invested in dime novels recounting the deeds of Jesse James and other train robbers, or of Western heroes who engaged in battles with the Indians.)
Both mother and Aunt Katy also memorized countless poems while they were still in school. Mother later kept a notebook in which she copied such favorites as “the Blue and the Gray,” “The Builders,” “The Psalm of Life,” “November Weather,” “I Stood on the Bridge at Midnight,” etc. The book also contains such “Memory Gems” as:
“Count that day lost whose low descending sun views not one kind deed or worthy action done.”
“Do you covet learning’s prize; climb her height and take it. In ourselves our future lies; life is what we make it.”
“Gold is good in its place, but living a brave and patriotic life is much better than gold.”
In other words, the influence of the McGuffey Readers, with their emphasis on sentiment, patriotism, virtue and ambition were all strongly evident.
On 29 January 1893 Aunt Kate was the third of the Miller children to get married. Members of the family remember that on her wedding day the Columbia River was frozen so hard that Uncle Henry and Uncle John were able to cross on the ice. Aunt Kate’s husband, Uncle Henry Albert, at first made his living with a wood saw, which he would take as far as St. Johns. Here he cut the wood for a steam engine that brought a little train back and forth to Portland. Around 1900 he got a job as a motorman on a Union Avenue streetcar, and at this job he earned enough money to build the house on Beech Street in which he lived until his death in 1946. Two of his children, Lydia and Henry, were born in this house, but the oldest daughter, Dorothy, was born in 1896 in a small rented house on Union Avenue between Fremont and Beech streets.
During the spring of 1895 further changes took place in the Miller neighborhood. All of the land and the four blocks east of the Morris Street house was bought by an investment company for use as a racetrack. Since many of the trees and all the stumps were still standing, dynamite was used to blast them out, and the reverberations were so great that some of grandmother’s dishes fell out of the cupboard and were broken. Also, no baby chickens were hatched that spring because all the eggs were spoiled by the constant shaking of the ground.
For the next ten years the racing season was the most exciting period in the lives of the neighborhood children. They always looked forward to the arrival of the horses and the jockeys, while the crowds of spectators, the peanut stands, the constant gambling and betting, and the music of the gaily uniformed bands, all lent a certain amount of excitement and glamour to their lives. There was never any money with which to buy tickets, but the twins could see the races from the roof of their kitchen, and the two American-born brothers usually managed to carry water to the horses as an admission price. If this was impossible, they would sometimes bore holes under the fence surrounding the track or even shinny up the sides. On other occasions the guards at the gate would allow all the little boys to race from the ticket office to the entrance of the track. The understanding was that the boy who won the race would be allowed to enter free, but it usually happened that the whole group continued running until they arrived safely inside. Countless stories of these race track [sic] were often told by Uncle George Repp, Uncle George Miller, Uncle Johnny, Fred Schnell and all the other men who were still boys in the 1890s.
After the races were over and the doors opened, mother, Aunt Katy, and the other girls in the neighborhood scampered to the grandstand as fast as they could, and would run quickly up and down the rows, looking for any money that might have been accidentally dropped. Everything of value was picked up and carried home, and during all of those years, the chief handkerchief supply of the family came from these grandstand seats. The racetrack was also a source of spending money for the boys in the neighborhood because they were allowed to pick up the empty gunny sacks which had been filled with feed for the horses. Two good sacks of this type could always be sold for a nickel.
Uncle Adam quit going to school in 1894 when he was in the seventh grade. At first he worked in a cracker factory, but he soon got fired for eating too many of the cookies that were also made there. His second job was in a rope factory, but it also came to an ignominious end. One morning he woke to find the sun shining brightly in the warm spring air so inviting that he decided to go fishing. Unfortunately, his employer told him on the following morning that his services would no longer be needed. However, jobs were quite easy to get, and before long he was working an iron foundry where he earned 17 ½ cents an hour as the helper of the cupolo tender. These three jobs lasted between the years 1894 to 1901, although they were interrupted by a trip to Fresno, California which he took in the summer of 1900.
Aunt Katy’s first job was with the Johaneson family who lived on Morris Street. She took care of their small children and earned five dollars a month. The second family for whom she worked were named Clark, and they paid her eight dollars a month. Then when she was sixteen years old, she got a job in a downtown laundry about three miles from her home. She and two of her girlfriends walked this distance every morning and evening, leaving their homes at 6 AM in order to be at work by 7 o’clock. Aunt Katy continued to work here until her marriage in 1905. Her wages during this period began at one dollar a day, but eventually reached $1.50.
Mother spent the winter of 1895-1896 taking care of Uncle Johnny, but as soon as he started the first grade she got a job working for a family name Taylor who paid her six dollars a month to take care of their little daughter, Mary Francis. For the rest of her life mother was to remember this family with a great deal of affection. Me. and [sic] Mrs. Taylor also took a great fancy to their conscientious nursemaid, and remained in contact with her for years after her marriage. It was these people who gave her the heart-shaped bowl, and the gold-rimmed Bavarian cups and saucers which are still in our family today.
Mother’s second job was with a Mann family who eventually paid her $10 a month for helping to take care of the children. At both of these places she was given her board and room, but she always spent her Sundays at home. Then in 1899 when she was sixteen years old, she got a job clerking in the general store on Union Avenue that had been started by Uncle George Repp’s father. Here she stayed through the years 1900-1901, and was paid $15 a month as wages.
In the year 1902 mother’s job again changed, because grandfather now decided to start a little store of his own with his son-in-law Peter Schnell. They used the building located on the corner of Union Avenue and Fremont Street. Mother and Pete Schnell worked behind the counter, and Uncle Adam delivered groceries. However, the profits for the two families were so small that after one year the partnership was dissolved. Mother joined Aunt Katy in the laundry; Uncle Adam began working for the Rush Light Tin and Plumbing shop which was also about three miles away, and Peter Schnell bought another store across the street which he kept for the next three years. Since Uncle Adam was now twenty-one years old he was allowed to keep his wages for the first time, but began to pay his mother five dollars a week for his board and room. The economic condition of the family was much better after 1900. Grandmother never went washing again, and for the rest of her life enjoyed a much greater degree of prosperity than she had ever experienced before.
After Uncle Henry moved to his Felida Uncle John spent most of his time working for his brother. He was always a great tease and particularly enjoyed playing jokes on his sister-in-law. One day when she had put some coffee cake into the oven, she went out into the yard to do some work, and by the time she returned it had burnt completely to a crisp. In an attempt to keep the men from discovering what happened she quickly hid both the pan and its contents behind a trunk in the bedroom of their two-room cabin. However, Uncle John immediately smelled the burned “kuche” and without saying a word walked nonchalantly through the two rooms until he found it. He carried a cake in triumph to the kitchen table and turning to Uncle Henry with fake indignation exclaimed, “Just look! She hid that good coffee cake behind the trunk, so that she could eat it all alone after we go outside!”
On another occasion he become annoyed at Lizzie for not making them fresh coffee for every meal, and when she wasn’t looking he carefully placed some potato sprouts in the grounds and Lizzie’s face naturally expressed shocked surprise at the sight, but Uncle John answered with a sigh, “what else can one expect? You empty your coffee grounds so seldom!” In defense of Aunt Lizzie it should be mentioned that she worked at Uncle Henry’s side just like a man, and if her cooking sometimes wasn’t up to Volga German standards, she more than made up for it in other respects. All of the smaller Miller children were very fond of her, and on their periodic visits to the farm were always made to feel very welcome by their older sister-in-law.
In 1898 there was a great deal of excitement in the United States because of the discovery of gold in Alaska. Immediately hundreds of young men from Portland and Seattle bought equipment and left to seek their fortunes along the Yukon. One Sunday afternoon a special boat prepared to sail from the Willamette River docks, and Uncle George Repp tells how he saw several people drowned, when the paddles of the steamer began to turn and upset a small rowboat in which friends of the passengers were seated. Although thousands of spectators were standing along the banks of the river none of them were able to rescue these people in time. Uncle John, who seems to have been endowed with a greater spirit of adventure than most of his relatives, also planned to leave for Alaska, and even bought a complete outfit of clothing for the trip, but at the last minute he was persuaded by his parents to give up the scheme.
Shortly afterward the twins happened to bring a guest home to dinner. This was a Swiss girl from Beaverton, named Teresa Scheer, who was working for some Jewish people on Williams Avenue. Teresa was anxious to attend a German church service and had been advised to go to the German Congregational church on Stanton Street. A picture taken of her at the time shows that she combed her hair in coronet fashion, with heavy blond braids setting off her fair skin and blue eyes. Uncle John immediately became interested in the attractive Swiss girl, and before long their marriage took place in October 1999. At first they lived in one of the little houses that grandfather had built in back of his own home. It was here that their oldest daughter Lily was born one year later. But soon afterward they moved to a farm at Felida where they remained until the summer of 1911 when they left for a homestead near Glendive, Montana.
Although all of my Portland relatives had to begin working at an early age, I have never heard any of them complain about their childhood years. On the contrary they looked back at the 1890s with almost a feeling of nostalgia. All of the German boys in the neighborhood were fascinated by the river life along the Willamette. Throughout this period a constant procession of scows carrying gravel; steamboats loaded with potatoes, wheat, lumber and other products; and passenger boats full of travelers came gliding by. Some of these boats, such as the Telegraph and the Telephone are still remembered with affection by her uncles, and in their boyhood days they were able to recognize dozens of these steamers by their whistles.
The boys with whom Uncle George and Uncle Johnny associated played a variety of sports depending on the season. The cycle began in the spring when they would fly innumerable kites which they had made themselves. Then came the marble season and along with it they played mumble peg, shinny, and some baseball. The swimming season always began the last day of school. Uncle George was particularly famous in this respect, and on several different occasions he swam across the Willamette River. In the summer evenings the whole gang would gather under the arc light at the entrance of the racetrack and would play Run Sheep Run, Duck on the Rock, and Dare Base. Since the Miller home stood at this corner, it was always the meeting place for the gang, and Uncle George seems to have been one of the ringleaders of the neighboring boys. I have been told that he even had a reputation as a champion fighter. Every boy had a definite rank in this kind of competition, and an unfailing way to settle all questions of prestige was for a boy to place a chip of wood on his shoulder and then dare anyone to knock it off.
The twins led a much more sheltered life, but they also had their games in the evening. Their closest chums were German girls, and one of them, Katy Yost, was considered almost a member of the family. Grandfather bought an organ at this time, and both mother and Aunt Katy learned to play the simple songs that were popular in the 1890s. Aunt Katy had great ambitions of becoming the church organist, but her love of music was less appreciated by her brother Adam, who sometimes threw books down the upstairs steps in protest against her Sunday morning melodies when he still wanted to sleep.
Mother also possessed a plush-covered Memory Book in which her friends wrote dedicatory rhymes of various kinds. One of the pages contains the couplet, “Tis war for me. Peace be with thee.” and signed by one of the boys stationed at Camp McKinley, as the hurriedly constructed barrack inside the racetrack was called during the Spanish-American War of 1898. In addition to the many church services which the children regularly attended, they held frequent parties in each other’s homes and went down the Columbia River on excursion steamers. In 1900 mother even bought a bicycle and according to her brother Johnny, “was the prettiest girl in Albina, when she came riding down the street.”
During these years the relationship between the Miller children and their parents never constituted the problem that has been for so many immigrant families. Grandmother Miller was probably the most intelligent of my four grandparents. She always took great pride in her personal appearance, and was one of the first Volga German women in Portland to buy a hat and stop wearing the old-fashioned shawls that had been brought along from Russia. Grandfather was a very quiet, easy-going man, who was sincerely loved by his children, but it was from their mother that they inherited the ambition and driving energy that was less evident in the older group of boys and girls. It was also grandmother who managed the family finances and who saw to it that there was always enough money on hand for any necessary expenses.
Grandfather had filed his intention of becoming an American citizen while he was still living in Lincoln, and since the Oregon state laws allowed a person to vote on his first papers, he and his sons usually helped to elect the Republican candidates in every national election. Uncle Adam, however, constituted a vociferous Democratic minority, and in the election of 1896 carried on furious arguments with his brothers over the subject of Free Silver. It seems that Adam was constantly taunted with the necessity of reinforcing the lining of his trouser pockets if William Jennings Bryan were elected, because no ordinary pockets could stand of the weight of the heavy silver dollars which would then be minted.
During this decade much of the news from Russia was bad. In the year 1891 famine conditions existed along the Volga, and the resulting cholera and typhoid epidemics reached into most Norka families. Letters arrived from Russia telling that in some of the villages horses were being killed for food, and that children would suck at the bark of Süssholz trees in order to get a little nourishment. Although none of the Miller relatives starved to death, grandfather’s youngest brother Ludwig did die of cholera in the year 1892.
Another letter which brought a message of sorrow to the family was the account telling of the death and burial of our great-grandmother Giebelhaus, who was then living at the home of her son Henry. During the last summer of her life in 1897 she seems to have become rather crippled and was bedridden most of the time. As a result, she became more and more preoccupied with the thought of death. It was customary for a Volga German church calendar called the “Freidensbote” to publish the names of all people who had reached the age of 80 or more, but great-grandmother Giebelhaus had no desire to see her name in print. She only hoped that she would die in the summer time so that all of her children and grandchildren whom she loved so dearly, could attend her funeral service at the cemetery.
After she became bedridden, she was often visited by Rev. Stärkel, the pastor of the Norka church, to whom she would recount the many incidents of her long and difficult life. Her childhood years had been spent in the Fink family where she often felt that she was an unwanted child. And then had come her marriage to Conrad Giebelhaus, the birth of her babies, her husband’s accident and death, her thirty-one years of widowhood, and the painful separation from her daughter and son who had left for the United States.
Finally in August 1898 while the whole village was celebrating the harvest festival, she realized that her end was approaching, and she called once more for the pastor. She was given the Lord’s Supper and quietly died a few days later. Many of the preparations for the funeral had already been planned. A few years previously our grandmother had sent her a beautiful white nightgown with embroidery on the neck and sleeves. Great-grandmother Giebelhaus had decided that this nightgown was much too pretty to be worn for every day and had put it aside for this very moment. Her oldest son John had sent her some money which she had also put aside to pay for her funeral expenses. On the evening of the day in which she died, the nightly Angeles was followed by the bell that was used to announce the death of a woman in the village, and after the first introductory peels, the church bell was tolled seventy-eight times, once for each year of her long and tired life. On the day of the funeral, all the relatives and friends gathered in the Giebelhaus home for one last look at her face and the coffin was nailed shut and carried into the yard where the pastor’s assistant gave a short talk. After this the casket was lifted and slowly carried to the cemetery. Behind it came the mourners who sang religious songs as the procession wound through the village streets.
All of these details were sent to Grandmother Miller by her sister and brother who were still in Norka, and as grandmother sat weeping over the letter, Uncle Johnny also began to cry in sympathy.
As a result of the bad conditions in Russia, more and more inhabitants of the colonies continued to leave for the United States. After the death of Vetter Ludwig, two of his sons, Henry and John Miller, brought their own families and their mother to the New World. The party arrived in New York in 1899, but had to telegraph to grandfather for help in getting to Portland, because they had only twenty-five cents left in American money. When they arrived at the Morris Street home, one of the children in the party was deathly sick. The mother, Elizabeth Miller, was so worn out that my own mother sat up with the child and saw it die that night.
Around the same time, grandmother’s brother, Henry Giebelhaus, came with his wife and six children to Portland, and was welcomed at the Millers in the same fashion that they in turn had been received nine years previously. The last of the relatives to arrive was grandmother’s sister, Wes Ammie, who left Russia in 1907 with her married daughter, Margaret Krueger, her son-in-law, and three unmarried children named Elizabeth, John and Adam. Grandmother had asked them to bring along from Russia one of the black shawls of handmade lace that the Volga women wore over their heads when they went to church. Wes Ammie picked out an unusually beautiful shawl which grandmother kept for the rest of her life and \ which Aunt Katy Repp recently gave to me. I hope someday to pass it on to a great granddaughter who will enjoy saving it as an heirloom of the Grandmother Miller who has been described in these pages.