Introduction to Coming to Amerika

I have now finished the manuscript for Examining Lives and am set to send it to the publisher.  So now my focus has turned to my next book Coming to Amerika, the draft of whose introduction is below.


We are, as John F. Kennedy once famously wrote, a nation of immigrants.  Driven by poor harvests, famine, warfare, religious persecution, political and economic oppression, we came to the United States attracted by the opportunity for a freer life and greater economic security.  The story, of course, is more complex than this.  There are those of us who were brutally brought here as slaves and found no freedom or opportunity.  And, there were those already here who lost much in people, property and their ways of life as a result of contact with immigrants.

These are the sweeping generalizations of standard history books.  Beneath them, however, lies what I call history at the “ground level”— the unique stories of the individuals who lived the events so briefly described in the books.  Coming to Amerika is one such unique story.  It follows the fortunes of members of the Lodholz and Reb families as they journey and settle in the United States.  The story is also unique, however, from much of the literature on immigration in its breath and depth.  It is based on family letters and documents spanning over 100 years, from 1850 to 1950.  It provides a richness of detail about their lives through the lens of a wide variety of family members, each with his or her own quirks and personality.

Coming to Amerika is divided into two parts.  Part One: The First Generation focuses on the Lodholz family, their journey to the United States, their settlement in Terryville, Connecticut and their eventual move to the prairies of the Kansas Territory.  One member, however, stayed behind to work in the factories of Terryville.  The contrast between urban and rural life in the late 19th century is dramatic.  The one daughter in the Lodholz family married Henry Reb and Part Two: The Second Generation focuses on them and their many children from the 1890’s, through the Great Depression and up until 1950, when the family farm was finally divided.

It is difficult to convey from our present perspective how important letters were to our ancestors.  Often separated by many long miles of difficult to traverse terrain, relatives and friends found in letters an emotional attachment to loved ones as well as information about their health, joys and sorrows; hard times and bountiful harvests; the quick strike of death and the newborn child.

This family seemingly threw nothing out.  Letters were saved to be savored on multiple readings.  Even receipts for the sale of eggs and small drawings by children were placed safely away. In preparing to write Coming to Amerika, I found myself submerged in their world.  I hope that you can take yourself back almost two centuries now and find pleasure in submerging yourself in their world too.  It reads I hope like a good epistolary novel.



The letters and documents in Part One:  The First Generation were written in Old German.  I have generally kept to the translators’ wording while formatting the material into more coherent paragraphs.  Paper was valuable and postage cost money so the letters were often crammed with writing.

The letters and documents in Part Two: The Second Generation were written in English.  In transcribing these, I have kept the spelling of the writers and provided the modern correction only when it is not obvious what the word signified.  Keeping the original spelling allows the reader to catch the accent of the letter writer.  The letters contain run-on sentences and paragraphs, often skipping abruptly to new topics, one indication that the letters were often written in several sessions.  In this case I have divided sentences, inserted punctuation and created paragraphs in order to make the text easier to follow.

In both parts I have added contextual information about events mentioned and unfamiliar terms and items.  This information is hardly meant to be exhaustive and leaves the reader to explore further if curious about it.

The letters are of course arranged chronologically, but they are not consecutive, that is, there was obviously more correspondence than was actually saved.  The sequence of letters, however, provide a consistent story of interwoven lives.




The Restless and Ambitious Montgomery Ward


According to the census records, in 1860 Aaron Montgomery Ward was living with his family in Niles, Michigan with a listed occupation of shoemaker, his father’s trade.  Just 12 years later he was founding his company.  That was a spectacular journey.

Ward was a young man with ambition who looked to do better in life than be a shoemaker.   His father’s trade had hardly bettered his family’s straitened circumstances.   Soon after 1860 Ward moved to St. Joseph, Michigan and worked first in a shoe store and then in a general country store, working his way up to general manager, continually earning better money.

Later in life Ward described himself as “self-educated, self-made” and his succeeding jobs certainly bear witness to that.  After the Civil War he went to Chicago and first sold corn salve (under what circumstances remains to be investigated).  1865, however, saw him employed as a traveling salesman for the Case & Soben Lamp Co., probably to stores in the Midwest.  Next he spent two years in Chicago with the dry goods firm of Field, Palmer & Leiter (forerunner of Marshall Field & Company).  He then switched employers and worked for Willis, Greg, Brown & Co. until they folded.  He had a cousin Thomas Budd in St. Louis and worked as a traveling salesman for him for the Walter M. Smith Co., this time traveling to country stores in the South.  He returned to Chicago and was employed by C.W. & E. Pardridge & Co., for whom he worked while he was organizing his own venture.

Why he changed jobs so often—more money, more challenge and experience or all three—I would not venture to speculate now.  But certainly he was restless and striving and obviously learned a lot about salesmanship.  Indeed he was to become one of the greatest salespeople of all times.

What’s in a Name?

Sources on the life of Aaron Montgomery Ward, including a privately printed genealogy prepared for Ward’s daughter by the American History Society, state that his name derived from that of a Revolutionary War General, to whom he was related or at least was named after.  I had no reason to question so abundant “evidence,” but I wanted to determine just why this general had special meaning for Ward’s family.

To my shock, I found out that nobody had checked out this story all these years.  There is no General Aaron Montgomery Ward!  So where did the name come from and why is it connected in family lore with the Revolutionary War?  The first name Aaron is not such a puzzle as it is a Biblical and common enough first name.  It is the “Montgomery” which puzzled me as I could find no evidence of its appearance as part of a Ward family name until the Revolutionary War period.

The first of our Aaron Montgomery Ward’s ancestors to bear the name was his grandfather, who was born in 1776.  This Aaron Montgomery Ward was the son of Captain Israel Ward, a captain in the Eastern Battalion (also known as the New Jersey Brigade) during the Revolutionary War and an ardent supporter of independence.  On December 31, 1775 General Richard Montgomery was killed leading an attempt during a blizzard to take Quebec.  Given the fact that Israel’s son was born soon after, the best explanation of his including Montgomery in his son’s name was to commemorate this fallen hero.  Our Montgomery Ward then would have been named after his grandfather.

As I have discussed in my blog on A Soldier Called Henry Smith, family stories often are wrong but have a grain of truth in them.  I think in the case of Ward family history there was a confusion of a story about the name being associated with a general and the fact that there was a famous Ward general, Artemis Ward, who among other achievements oversaw the Battle of Bunker Hill.  Artemis Ward was, however, no relation of Aaron Montgomery Ward .

Chronicles tend to feed on and repeat each other.  Done enough times, statements get taken for facts.  It requires going back to original sources to set the record straight.  It looks like I have a lot more digging behind stories ahead of me.


The Surprises, Joyful and Sad, of Family Research

When I began writing Examined Lives about how my mother came to have a lobotomy by Walter Freeman and the ramifications for my own life, I did not know what I would find.  I had of course known my mother before she had her lobotomy (I was almost seven at the time) and afterwards.  I did not, however, have any idea of what she was like before my birth.  She rarely mentioned that period of her life.  So, discovering this was one of the surprises of my family research.  I found a mother I had never known.

This discovery was a joyful one.  I read carefully through all the scrapbooks, 5-year diary. photographs and books in which she wrote down poetry she loved including Dorothy Parker and Edna St. Vincent Milay.  These covered the time between her 15th birthday and her marriage at the age of 23.  The picture which emerged was of a vivacious, competent woman who devoured life.  In high school she had a bevy of friends, was totally boy crazy, briefly made money as part of a dancing team, participated in basketball and loved swimming and skating. She could be something of a scamp, making a nun at her parochial school angry. In her diary she comments: “Gee! I had fun but was she mad.” She told her diary that “I crave excitement.”

On coming to Chicago on her 20th birthday, she found her excitement. The first thing she and the friends who accompanied her did was take a speedboat ride on the Chicago River and the next day she got a job waitressing at a party for the prize fighter Jack Dempsey.  It was the beginning of her rise in the hospitality industry.  She took up residence and worked in the area around North Michigan, then as now a bustling, swanky place to be. She started out as a waitress at the lunch counter of the Walgreen’s Drug Store at Rush and Oak, which served breakfast, lunch and dinner and offered for dinner as drinks of choice domestic Port, Sherry or Muscatel Wine as well as fruit juice and chilled tomato juice.  This store served sometimes over a 1000 patrons a day. She soon became its night manager, then moved on to become the head receptionist at the Younkers Café on East Chicago where she managed 12 waitresses, including Ruth “a sad piece of humanity who was a streetwalker on the side.” Finally, she reached what she considered the pinnacle as room captain at the Camelia Room of the Drake Hotel frequented by the likes of Clark Gable and Greta Garbo.

Outside of work she enjoyed Chicago to the full, taking art classes at the American Academy of Art, having a bit part in a production of Richard Sheridan’s “School for Scandal,” and attending concerts and plays starring John Barrymore and Lillian Gish.  With various swains and friends, she took in the night clubs.  In just one night she visited the Dome of the Sherman, Rickett’s, Ye Old Cellar, Old Heidelburg, Adolfo’s, Augustino’s and the Blue Star. One evening she and a date spied an empty baby carriage in an apartment hall. They stole it, she got in and her date pushed her down Rush Street.

It was wonderful to meet this woman, my mother, who I had known as caring and kind, but not very sophisticated or interested in things like poetry.  Given what was to happen to her later in life, I am grateful that she had this period in which to shine.  It makes the lobotomy, however, all that much more dreadful and unwarranted.

Nevertheless, the saddest surprise for me in my research was the poem I found among my father’s possessions, clearly revealing his loss of love for my mother fairly early in their marriage, even before my birth.  It is a much worked over scrawl but with the beginning words clearly “I could adore her/but I abhor her.”  That discovery hit me in the stomach and eventually went on to explain much.