Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Popping Babies out of the Oven

My great-grandmother, Friederika Christina Utz, came to the US with her family in 1881, shortly after she gave birth to a child out of wedlock, a daughter Emelia. I don’t know if that was the reason the family chose to emigrate, but they settled in New York where they had many other family members who had made the same trek from Abstatt to the US. Her family eventually settled on a farm in Hempstead, New York, out on Long Island. Their city cousins from Brooklyn and Queens would visit on Sundays, a circumstance that greatly irked Friederika’s younger sister, Pauline, who resented living on a smelly farm and envied the fine clothes of her cousins.

Another emigrant from Abstatt was August Heinrich Unkauf, who immigrated to the US in 1879 out of the port of Hamburg. Since he left Abstatt in 1879, we can safely assume he probably wasn’t the father of Amelia. What he did in his first years in the US is a mystery. I still haven’t found his record in the 1880 census, despite trying various creative spelling variations. But somehow August and Friederika got connected and decided to wed. In 1888, we know August was now in Rushville, Nebraska, where he made his living cutting firewood and doing day labor on farms. Friederika was to travel to Rushville where they would marry.

Utz-Unkauf Wedding Photo
Now this caused a ruckus in the Utz family. Friederika was told, you can’t take an infant (Emelia was now a child about 7 years old) to the wilderness! Of course, you can travel to Rushville, marry and have babies there. The family’s argument was a bit weak, but Friederika was forced to leave Emelia behind to be raised by her family. She made the trip to the brand new prairie town of Rushville, arriving on the Fremont, Elkhorn, and Missouri Valley Railway. On 13 April 1888 she and August were married in Rushville.

According to family lore, the Unkaufs lived in a sod house near Rushville. They were members of Immanuel Lutheran Church, the same church attended by the Sandoz family. Novelist Mari Sandoz painted a picture of life in northwest Nebraska at this time in her semi-autobiographical novel, Old Jules. My great-uncle Henry was born 12 March 1889 and my grandmother Minnie was born three years later on 26 Jan 1892. The story is that my grandmother was a twin, but her twin died at birth. She was a tiny baby and was born during a ferocious High Plains blizzard. She was kept alive and warm by placing her on a pillow in the oven of the wood burning stove. So while Emelia was kept warm and snuggie back in Hempstead by the Utzes, her mother was literally popping babies out of the oven in frigid Rushville.

The Unkaufs and Children in Rushville

Eventually, the Unkaufs tired of prairie life and moved east. The family lived in Hermann and St. Charles, Missouri, where another child, Pauline, was born. They finally settled in the cute little town of Mt. Pulaski, Illinois, the county seat of Logan County. I never knew my grandmother had a half sister until much later. As I discovered in going over old family photos, they kept in touch and occasionally visited. My grandmother was a strong, resourceful woman, who was the glue that held her family together. She was proof that you can indeed raise children in the prairie.

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