May I introduce myself? My name is Hans Albert August Friedrich Stange. A lot of names, I totally agree, but from where I come, it is quite common to have a lot of first names. My brother Carl even has five of them, so I am lucky with only four. I go by the name of Albert, not Hans, just in case you’ve wondered.
It is now the end of 1918, the war with Germany is over, Germany being defeated. And here I am, an American citizen of German descent. But the bridge back home has long been burnt and the memory of what once was home is beginning to fade. Or maybe not? Today this country is home to me, I only lived in Germany for my first 19 years. Then I left for America. Didn’t really see a future there for me; neither did my parents, so they left as well the following year. But let me go back with my story to the very beginning.
I was born on 8 September 1834 in a timber-framed house in the middle of nowhere. The middle of nowhere was called Lindenberger Silge and it wasn’t even a village; there only were a few houses spread in the woods. There was the forester’s house and the estate called Feldmarschallshof with its farm workers and the administrator. We moved one year later, so I actually did not spend my childhood there. But I do remember it very well, because my uncle Carl took over after father. I nearly forgot to mention that my father was the Holländer of the noble family von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff in Gatow, that means that amongst others he was in charge of the diary processing. Then he found a better job with the family von Saldern. You know, my grandfather had worked for them already, so we moved south to the tiny village of Plattenburg. So I grew up next to the old water castle that was first mentioned in 1319, and every once in a while we were even allowed to come into the castle. We were 6 children, 5 boys (and I was no. 4) and little Marie, the youngest of us all, 5 years younger than I. I had two brothers who died as children, Friedrich and Otto, I later named my son after the latter. But the rest of us was pretty tough and survived!
My older brothers attended school in Halle, that was pretty far away but the school had an excellent reputation and education played a very important role in my family. When it was my turn to leave home to go to school, father didn’t have that much money any more, he said he wanted to save money to buy a piece of land. But still it was important for him that I get a proper education; so I left for Perleberg and went to the Bürgerschule there. I stayed there for two years, from 1848 to 1850, and learned a lot. I learned French and Latin, I could even translate Julius Cesar from Latin to German! And I was pretty good in maths and science. What we did not learn though was English, so that was the first thing I had to do when I got here. When I was 16 years old, and shortly after my confirmation, I left school and started my apprenticeship as a miller.
The reason for it was that father had bought a mill together with a large piece of land and he now needed a miller (he didn’t have the slightest clue about milling!). He also thought that it would make sense if I became a miller, as it would be me taking over the farm and the mill after him. You might wonder why it should have been me who should take over the land, although I had two older brothers. Well, the reason was pretty simple. My brothers had left and never intended to return. They said that they could not see a future there with us and that they certainly did not want to live on the country side. So Justus joined the army and Carl became a mechanic (that really was something special in those days!). So, in 1850, it was only Marie and I living at home.
I loved the idea of living on the country side, or maybe in a small town. I would never have wanted to live in a city, with all that noise and pollution. No, I thought that this was the place I wanted to stay for the rest of my life. But that was not how it was supposed to be. There were crop failures for two years in a row and nobody came to our mill with their grain. Father borrowed money from several people and could not repay it. Things did not look too good for us at all. And all of the sudden I realized that the life I wanted to live was forever gone and that I had to think of something else to do. Cousin Gustav, who lived close by, suggested going to America. Thing was, that we were not allowed to leave Prussia before having done our military service. Father said that it might be a good idea to leave anyway. And that maybe they would follow as they would soon be forced to file for bankruptcy. So mother packed some ham and bread and off I went to Gustav who lived close to the border to Mecklenburg. We secretly crossed the border close to Berge and that was the last time I ever set my foot on Prussian ground.
We took the boat from Hamburg in April 1854 and came to Castlegarden in May. When I saw New York for the first time, I knew that I did not want to stay there. I got me a job in Durham, Connecticut and Gustav went up the Hudson River. Unfortunately I could only stay in Durham for two months, so I went to New Paltz, NY where Gustav worked on a farm and that is where I stayed the winter. And believe it or not, my parents had decided to come to America as well and so I picked them, my dear sister Marie and my uncle Fritz up in New York in June 1855 and we headed west to Illinois.
We first went to Babcocks Grove in the township of York in DuPage County. There I worked for the railroad. Mother, father and I lived together, Marie worked as a maid and uncle Fritz worked as a farm helper. In 1856 father fell ill and died in early 1857. We buried him in Cottage Hill, that was a bit cheaper there and the traveling pastor did not charge that much either.
In 1858, Marie introduced me to her friend Dorothea from the Kingdom of Hanover, and what can I tell you, we were married on 15 April 1859 in St. John’s in Bensenville. When I had left my hometown 5 years earlier, I would never have thought that I would be married to a farm worker’s daughter from Eitzendorf.
We moved to Elmhurst and soon our first two daughters Caroline (named after my mother) and Marie (named after my sister) were born. But I felt that working for the railroad was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I wanted to be a farmer. Buying land in Elmhurst was nearly impossible for me, I simply couldn’t afford it. So Dorothea and I decided to move south. Mother lived with uncle Fritz and Marie did not live with us anyway. So we decided to buy a farm in Zigel, in Shelby County. But as soon as we got there we realized that it had been a mistake to come. We didn’t really have enough money to buy the machines and the tools we needed to farm. But we figured that at least we should give it a try. But after our son Otto was born in 1864, we decided to follow the tracks and head north again. That’s how we came to Monee in Will County. And believe it or not, I could even made a good profit when selling the land in Zigel. I had come to the conclusion that I neither wanted to work on a farm nor for the railroad. I wanted to work as a merchant. And as there were more and more of these big land machines, I went into trading these machines. It was pretty simple, actually. I sometimes wonder if I wouldn’t have been a good mechanic as my brother Carl as well? We lived on a piece of land of a German settler and lived a good live. We had another child, but it was stillborn and we buried it next to the house.
We stayed in Monee for 4 years, four good years. Marie married and moved to Chicago. In 1868, I decided to become an American citizen. After fourteen years I felt that I had to take this step. I would never return to Prussia, so why would I stay a German citizen? I felt as if I had come home now and there was not way back. We did speak German at home (Dorothea never learned to speak English) but my English was perfect and I felt American.
In 1869, we moved back to Elmhurst and I worked for Brownell and Stockmann. They were looking for a clerk who spoke both German and English and was good at maths. A perfect job for me! They were coal and lumber dealers and the business was going very well. Then, in 1870, Dietrich Stockmann, decided to sell his share, so I took the chance and bought it. I now owned half of the business! After the big fire of Chicago business exploded, there was such a need for lumber and other building materials. And in 1888, Mr. Brownell sold his half to me and there I was – a store owner in Elmhurst, Illinois! I was so proud of what I had achieved. I could give my family a good life! I had it made! Coming to America had been the right decision! I was an important member of Society, founder of the St. Peter’s Church in Elmhurst. If Carl and Justus could see me now! But they stopped writing and I missed them badly. How much nicer it would have been to share it with them…. It would have been great if they had followed. But I understand that was never an option for them.
I retired in 1893 and now live a life as a wealthy pensioner. I am now 84 years old, that is very old. Dorothea died 9 years ago. My daughters Caroline and Marie died young many years ago, of consumption, both of them. Irene, my only grandchild married and moved away. I already have three great-grandchildren but they live in Louisiana. Only my son Otto lives here and I will have to move in with him and his adopted children soon.
My sister Marie has died as well, so have her husband and three of her four children. I wonder if Carl and Justus still are living. And what about my dear cousins Ernestine, Minna and Auguste? And whatever became of Gustav after I left him in New Paltz? I always said that under no circumstances I would return to Europe and that surely was the right thing to do and say. I lived a good life. But today, old and lonely as I am, I sometimes wish I still was there. I can still see the family joined together, celebrating birthdays. We had so much fun together, we were such a great team. But those days are long, long gone. The war is over and Germany is not the country I once left. But I am American now and this is my home. This is where I will die and be buried. Far away from the beautiful country I was born and that once was my home.
Next: Cousins – Carl: The Last Letter To America