Memoirs of Henry Villard/Volume 1/02

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With Kinsfolk in Illinois.—1854-5

THE farm was situated five miles from Belleville in a rolling prairie region, and consisted of about one hundred acres of well-cultivated land. There was a rather small two-story frame house painted white, and with green shutters, with an extension — upon the crown of a hill, in the shade of some lofty trees, and commanding a fine view; also, a large barn and stable combined, and half a dozen other outbuildings used for various purposes. In front of the house was a large vineyard, and behind it a flower- and vegetable-garden. It being winter, the ensemble did not look as attractive as in the greenness of summer, yet was altogether pleasing.

My uncle Theodor and aunt, whom I had never seen, were awaiting our coming. The former received me rather stiffly, but the face of the latter fairly beamed upon me with kindness. My uncle was the next youngest of my father's brothers, and was then about forty-six years old. He was a thick-set man, rather under middle stature, with a strong, round head covered with curly hair, and a broad face framed by a full beard. Both hair and beard were already tinged with gray. His face had a set, stern expression in repose, but he had a pleasant smile, which showed that he was really very good-natured. My aunt won my heart at once. She was of good height, and, though already of matronly proportions, still had a graceful figure and movements. The shape of her head was beautiful and her hair still jet-black. Her brilliant, soft black eyes and gentle mouth imparted much light and sweetness to her face (though her features could not be called handsome), and made her very winning. She was, too, just what she seemed to be — clever, vivacious, interested in everything, and overflowing with inexhaustible kindness. I felt attracted to her as to a second mother, and she treated me as a mother would, for which I have always felt profoundly grateful. My uncle was a highly educated man, but was often blunt in his speech and given to ridicule and sarcasm. He was exceedingly well-informed about American as well as European affairs, and was full of progressive and even radical ideas, and not indisposed to talk. It required but little intercourse with him to bring out his absolutely sterling character, which secured him the highest respect of friends and neighbors and the community at large.

The couple were blessed with eight fine, model children — four boys and four girls. The eldest of the boys was named Gustav, after my father; he was a year older than I, and was away studying to be an engineer. The other boys — Carl, Theodor, and Ernst — ranging from fourteen to ten, were sweet-tempered, confiding, lusty fellows, who took at once to their newly arrived cousin. The eldest daughter, Anna, was of my age, a handsome, well-formed girl, with the black hair and bewitching eyes of her mother. The second daughter was a fresh-looking blonde of a very quiet disposition, never happier than when she could serve others. The other two daughters were affectionate, blooming little girls of seven and eight, with whom I quickly established the most cordial relations.

Altogether, I found myself in a family circle again, the equal of which for perfect harmony and mutual affection it would have been hard to find anywhere. I now felt the softening, elevating influences of this sweet home-life, and a sense of inner peace and happiness awoke in me that I had not felt for years. My aunt begged me to do my duty without delay and write to my parents. It was well indeed that I had delayed doing so till I had drawn in the right inspiration from the domestic picture before me. It took me days, however, to compose a letter that satisfied me. When it was done and sent off by mail, I felt the sense of relief that always comes with the final fulfilment of a long-delayed duty. Robert wrote likewise and at length, as I learned only after the lapse of many years; and my uncle and aunt sent letters to my father and mother after I had been a few weeks with them.

My uncle followed the practice of all successful Western farmers in doing every sort of work on his place himself. He had only one regular hand employed to help him, so that if he had not done so from choice, necessity would have compelled him to take a leading part in the farm routine. Though it was winter, there was enough to occupy him more or less, daily. There was also but one female servant in the house, so that much domestic labor devolved upon my aunt and the two eldest daughters in taking care of the large household. Naturally it became irksome to me to be idle while all the grown members of the family were continually busy. Moreover, without any thing to do, time came to hang heavily on my hands; so I soon offered my services for any in-door or out-door work, and this offer evidently gave pleasure all round. I helped feed the horses, cattle, and swine. I chopped, sawed, and hauled wood. After snow-falls, I cleared paths all over the place. I assisted in shelling corn, threshing wheat, and even in the annual killing of fat hogs. I performed also a variety of kitchen, dining-room, and yard offices for the ladies. I enjoyed the work, and it was obvious that my willingness to do it strengthened the warm feeling of the whole family toward me. I also had a chance to participate several times in so-called log-raisings, a peculiar custom, brought down from the pioneer days, of mutual assistance among neighbors in setting up dwellings, barns, and stables of logs.

What with these occupations in the daytime, and reading, games, and music in the evening — my aunt and the eldest daughter were very musical — time passed very quickly, and Christmas, 1854, was at hand before we knew it. The observance of it was in true German style, with a great tree which the whole family helped to decorate, and there were presents for everybody. What a contrast my enjoyment of the festival in such a home sphere offered to the loneliness and depression I had experienced during this hallowed season the year before! Until then I had seen none of the relatives but Robert, who stayed at the Engelmann farm about four miles away, and walked over once or twice a week to visit us. On Christmas Day, however, quite a number, old and young, as well as other friends from Belleville, appeared to celebrate the day with the family. The ice was broken for me, and after Christmas I began a round of calls with my uncle and aunt that extended all through January, and introduced me to dozens of pleasant families in the town and country.

My first call was at the Engelmann farm, where my great-great-uncle Friedrich had made his home after his arrival in Illinois. It presented a very modest appearance, consisting as it did of a small one-and-a-half-story frame building with a few outhouses. The farm extended over the slopes of several hills. The soil was not very good, having been chosen, if I remember rightly, mainly for its adaptability to fruit-growing, and on account of its southern exposure and sheltered position from the north winds. The interior of the dwelling was furnished in the simplest possible style, and had but little that could be called comfort. This home was occupied by Friedrich's wife Betty, who had been left a widow at a ripe old age a few years before, with her daughter Josephine and son Adolph. The old lady was a picture of venerableness, was well-preserved for her age, had a clear and active mind, and charming, benignant ways. But she was constantly depressed in spirits by the loss at sea the year before of her son Jacob, who was on his wedding-tour. Adolph I had seen when I visited Zweibrücken six years before. He was a most interesting person then, owing to certain romantic events in his career. When only eighteen, in 1846, he had enlisted for the war between the United States and Mexico, was made a lieutenant for gallantry, and returned with a severe wound that permanently crippled his left arm and secured him a pension for life. Notwithstanding this, he was carried away by youthful enthusiasm when the Schleswig-Holstein war broke out in 1848, while he was in Germany, and he went through it as a private soldier. He was a fine-looking youth, and had kept his striking personality.

It was my uncle's habit to drive into Belleville every Saturday morning and remain till evening. He spent the time in shopping, making calls, dining with relatives, and spending a social hour at one of the numerous beer-saloons, where, according to German custom, a number of his acquaintances met regularly. After the New Year I always went with him, and thus came to know the several families of relatives besides the Scheels. First among them in social position was Gustav Koerner. Trained as a jurist in Germany, and established as an attorney-at-law in Frankfort-on-the-Main, he was compelled to fly in consequence of his participation in the ill-judged political uprising in that city in 1833. He devoted himself to his profession in this country, and was associated with Theodor Engelmann, the oldest son of the Forstmeister. He had found it hard at first to obtain a satisfactory practice, but in time became very successful and was one of the best-known lawyers in Southern Illinois. From the beginning, he took a lively interest in politics. He affiliated with the Democratic party, which enjoyed a long ascendancy in Illinois. He rendered valuable service as a party manager and effective speaker both in English and in German, as a reward for which and as a representative of the German element he received much political preferment. He was elected to both houses of the Legislature, made a circuit judge, and subsequently a member of the Supreme Court, and, finally, Lieutenant-Governor and ex officio President of the Senate. He was then holding that office. When the proslavery tendencies of his party became so pronounced under Presidents Pierce and Buchanan, he assisted in the formation of the Republican party, and remained one of its leaders till after the Civil War. He was intimately acquainted with Abraham Lincoln, who honored him in 1862 with the mission to Madrid. He was now about forty-five years old, in his prime in every respect. He was a small, slight man, with a strong head, gray hair, and marked features, from whose expression the weakness of his eyes detracted much. He was somewhat distant on first acquaintance, and perhaps a little too self-assertive, but, withal, an amiable man and a very fine conversationalist. With my German conception of the dignity of official position, I looked upon him with awe. He was very happily married to one of the Engelmann daughters, Sophie. They had two sons and three daughters, all very bright and interesting. The elder son Theodor, a cadet at West Point, unfortunately died there during his second year. The two elder daughters, Marie and Augusta, were almost grown up, and promised to be very attractive. The family lived in a comfortable brick mansion, where they dispensed much hospitality.

Theodor Engelmann was no doubt the ablest of the Engelmann sons. With a sufficiency of practical sense to get on in life, he combined strongly idealistic tendencies and very warm feelings, which he preserved till the end of his protracted days. Besides being the law-partner of Koerner, he held the office of Clerk of the Circuit Court, which yielded him a considerable emolument in fees. Another relative was Molly, daughter of Theodor Erasmus Hilgard (then revisiting Germany), who presided over the home which her father had built for himself in West Belleville. She married an American, Sharon Tyndale, of a well-known Philadelphia family, who met with a terrible end. In 1871, while Secretary of State of Illinois and living at Springfield, the capital, he set out one night to take the midnight train to St. Louis, and was found murdered on the street the next morning. No clue was ever obtained to the motive or the perpetrator of the deed, though every effort was made and the State offered a reward of ten thousand dollars. Mrs. Tyndale's three sisters, Rosa, Clara, and Theresa, presented the remarkable case of having married three brothers Tittmann, who, belonging to a distinguished family in Saxony settled in Dresden and Leipzig, went to America from political choice and necessity. Clara, the younger of the two, was a woman of unusual parts, which had, moreover, been carefully developed, and from an early age she was tireless in her endeavor to store her mind with miscellaneous knowledge. Her tastes were strongly linguistic and literary. She was constituted very differently from her sister Rosa, who was quite as intellectual and, at the same time, a picture of sweet womanhood. She must have been beautiful as a young girl.

Besides my relatives, there were a great many nice people living in Belleville and its immediate vicinity. The town had but six or seven thousand inhabitants, and had no special external attractions except that it contained an almost purely German community. I was told that the population included only a few hundred native Americans. We hardly ever heard any English spoken. The business signs were almost exclusively in German. But this very German character of the place and the adjacent settlements made Belleville peculiarly attractive to people of that nationality, of high as well as of low degree. There was a curious representation of the former living in and about the place — quite a sprinkling of noblemen and jurists, doctors, academic teachers, and other professional men, together with merchants of the best type. Most of them had come to America either as political refugees or as victims of the fickleness of fortune; but not a few had, like my uncles, emigrated from choice. All sorts of callings were followed by them in town, and quite a number tried to earn their living as farmers. The latter were known among their own countrymen as “Latin peasants.” The most prominent among them was Friedrich Hecker, the well-known exile, who also played no mean political part in this country. He lived about ten miles distant from Belleville. I heard a good deal of him, but never chanced to see him in those days. He and one other among the “Latin peasants” were alone successful as farmers. Even my uncle, as it afterward turned out, failed, notwithstanding the hardest kind of labor, to make both ends meet.

In the latter part of January, to my own great relief and joy as well as that of the others, letters arrived from my father to my uncle, and from my mother and sisters to me. The former expressed his gratitude very warmly to his brother for receiving me into his family, and indicated his willingness to provide for my support to a moderate extent until I could earn a regular living, offering, of course, to reimburse my uncle for any outlay for necessaries that he had incurred for me. I really had no right to expect anything else from him. My mother and sisters wrote in the most loving and encouraging manner. Their letters were full, too, of a great amount of interesting local news. What with the reopened relations with my dear ones and my pleasant surroundings, I felt once more very content and happy.