Did you know any of your great-grandparents?
I knew one of my great-grandmothers. Her name was Helena (Buhr) Heinrichs, and she was born in 1892. When you think about the fact that it’s 2018 right now… it’s kind of stunning to think that I’d known someone who was alive in the 1800’s. I think I was about 14 years old when she passed away.
When I think about her, I feel like I’m stepping way back in time.
She lived independently well into her 90’s, and was pretty tough. I mean, she must have been! I don’t think her house ever had running water. There was a pump in the front yard, and an outhouse in the back. And behind that, there was a barn, with livestock that she cared for. And on the other side of the driveway, a LARGE garden that was fenced in. That fence must have been there to keep out the rabbits and deer. I remember going over there one time, walking through the gate, to harvest some produce from that garden, together with my mom and grandma.
She lived in a little one-and-a-half storey house, and spoke only Plautdietsch. My parents served as interpreters when she wanted to communicate with me. One time, she indicated that I should follow her to the upper floor. I’d always wondered what was up there. When we emerged at the top of the stairs, I saw the entire attic was open… at least, that’s the impression I have in my memory. There was a bed at the end, under the window. We walked toward it, and she pulled something out from beneath it. A tea set. For me. It must have been my birthday. I still have that tea set today.
Another time, I was to follow her down into the cellar to help her retrieve some preserves for faspa. We walked through the mint-green kitchen, to the half-door, and descended the dark soft wooden steps into the earthen lair below. Even though it was just a root cellar filled with jars of pickles and beets and what-have-you, I was terrified. There were things hanging from the beams. I imagined they were dead animals… but really, they were likely dried herbs. (Right?) I’d never been in anything so earthy, so dank, so enclosed. It was dark. Strange. It felt dangerous. Having obtained the preserves, I was relieved to rejoin everyone else on the main floor.
On the wall in the dining room there were many photographs of strangers. I found them disturbing because some of them were very familiar, yet I couldn’t place them. I stared at one specific photo a lot. Finally I asked about it, and my parents laughed because my dad was in that photo, along with his siblings — when they were teenagers. I hadn’t known they’d ever been young, I guess.
I was always kind of mystified by my Great-Grandma also because I’d heard she had been born in Mountain Lake, Minnesota. The name captured my imagination… but I knew nothing of the place, nor how and why she’d gotten from there to here.
I’ve recently learned about the Mennonites who settled in Mountain Lake in the 1870’s. They were from the Bergthal Colony. Thanks to the Grandma’s Window database, I’ve learned that my Great-Grandma’s father and grandparents came from the Bergthal Colony in Ukraine. Specifically Schoenthal. They moved there from Chortitza… and I’ve learned from reading the MMHS’s book Settlers of the East Reserve, that the Bergthal Colony was established for the landless people of Flemish background, which aligns with what I’ve learned from the database.
Her maiden name, Buhr, isn’t very common around here. In fact, I’ve never met anyone else with that last name. In various places in various records it will be spelled: Bauer, Becher, or Bouhr.
I’ve learned that her father immigrated to the United States on July 31, 1877, on the S.S. Nederland from Antwerp to Philadelphia. I wonder what that was like. I visited Philadelphia once… not knowing that the boat my great-great-grandfather came to North America on had docked there. I’d like to go back and think about that. I wonder how he and his parents (and siblings, likely) got from Philly to Mountain Lake… and how long that took.
Slowly, I’m filling in some of the blanks.
(Feature photo: my birthday at my Great-Grandma’s house.)