Thursday, December 16, 2010

Sweetwater Joe

I can sympathize with the struggle those who have difficult surnames have getting their names spelled correctly. Many immigrant families simplified and anglicized their names. Examples in my family tree include Backes to Bockis, Hüther to Hiither, Reiter to Rider, and Bischoff to Bishop. The Velten surname is simple and short, so you think it would not be a problem. But I have spent my lifetime spelling my name for people. It’s just a reflex now. Still, there are branches of the family that reverted to the Velton spelling. I just assumed they gave in, but I learned from an aunt that there is another story behind it.

My great-grandfather was Joe Velten. After he married and my grandfather was born, Joe moved the family to Saint Louis. They lived in the Old North Saint Louis area of the city, which was largely a German neighborhood. Joe was a teamster and made his living delivering freight, including beer barrels for the breweries. Sometime before 1900 he moved the family back to Pierce City, so the family could be closer to the grandparents. Joe needed a job, so he applied to the postal service and was awarded a job as rural letter carrier for the community of Sweetwater, located SW of Pierce City in Newton County.

From the letter carrier job, Joe got the nickname of “Sweetwater Joe”. He also got a surprise when he received his first paycheck, made out to Joseph Velton. I guess Joe didn’t carefully spell out his name for the paymaster like the rest of us. Friends told him he couldn’t cash the check, he would have to get the postal service to correct the records and re-issue the check. Instead, he changed the spelling of his name. The bizarre part of this story is the children born before this incident, and his wife, continued to use the original spelling of Velten, while Joe and the children born later spelled the name with an O. The final irony was that in his old age, Joe lived with his older children who got the final say in the matter. When he died, his death certificate and his gravestone read: Joseph Frank Velten.

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