Nature

“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”—Albert Einstein

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When my grandfather, Christoph Meintzer (Storms), was born in the Riverwoods, in 1888, his parents’ Lake County, Illinois (Vernon Township), farm house was situated on a road (lane?) angling northwest just north of the intersection of Deerfield and Saunders Roads. The last census (1910) when the family lived there did not show a street name or address, as I’m sure all the nearby properties were farms. It is now named Riverwoods Road.

In the late 1970s or early 1980s, my mom drove me past Christoph’s childhood home—visible from the road. It was easy enough to find, despite Mom not knowing the road name or house address, because she remembered it being just down the road from the Orphans of the Storm animal shelter. That shelter opened in 1928, and she remembered it when her father would drive them to his old house.

I now regret not turning into the driveway or pulling over to snap a photograph, because it appears the house has since then been torn down and replaced by a newer home. I have only two photographs with the house faintly in the background. Extended cousins, if you have a better photo of Christian & Sophia’s house, I’d be delighted to have a copy!

When my grandfather was growing up, there were woods in front (south) of the house. Presumably he played there after chores were done, and honed his hunting skills when he was older, adding squirrels or other game to the family’s table. The Des Plaines River was two miles away, providing an excellent fishing spot. One way or another, most aspects of his life were tied to nature.

How do I “know” any of this, since he died when I was eight? Trust me, I recall no conversations with him about those topics! Yet he left a trail of seemingly random bread crumbs that help paint a picture of him, if we pay attention.

His love of fishing was legendary, and I have numerous photos of him holding a stringer of fish. According to Uncle Gail’s information when I was researching the postcard from Arkansas (So Far Away), his dad sometimes traveled to Arkansas to fish!

Christoph Meintzer (right), his son, Gail, and the catch of the day. My dad snapped this photo, taken between 1957 and 1964, somewhere near Green Bay. Minnie died in the summer of 1958, so if Gail is correct in remembering her coming along to visit that trip, then it must have been 1957. If he’s mistaken about her presence, then the wider range in the quote below is possible.

When I emailed my uncle about this photo, he replied,

. . . 1957 and it was during the time we lived in that place that your Mother & Dad came up with your family and my Dad [Christoph] & Mother [Minnie] and the three of us went fishing. My Dad didn’t want to fish in the small lake I took them to, so your Dad [Bob] got out of the car, made 1 cast and caught a 3 or 4 pound Bass, and my Dad almost broke his leg trying to get out of the car to start fishing. Most of the fish on the stringers were Bull Heads. We spent a couple of hours cleaning them when we got home and then ate them. I would recall the year was between 1957 and 1960.

Christoph also hunted in his younger days. That definitely gets you out in nature! At least one postcard to Minnie while they were courting mentioned his plans to go hunting the next Sunday. A later postcard from Minnie’s sister-in-law, Caroline, mentioned her husband, Jake (Christoph’s brother) was going hunting on Sunday, and did Christ (short “i”, remember?) want to go along? My mom never mentioned having fresh game meat while growing up, so perhaps as the north suburbs of Chicago became more populated, hunting was less successful? Or maybe Forest Preserves and incorporating towns effectively “outlawed” hunting.

I imagine by now you’re wondering why there’s a photo of mushrooms at the top. Well, it turns out Christoph liked hunting mushrooms, too! He took my mom and her brother with him when they were kids, back to the woods across the street from his parents’ former farmhouse. She remembered the animal shelter, so could always find her way back, even 50 years later. The siblings ran around and had an adventure, while their dad searched for mushrooms.  

Mom didn’t remember what kind of mushrooms he looked for, and the kids never got to taste them. He always told them it was because there were mushrooms that were safe to eat, and ones that weren’t, but he didn’t want to risk them accidentally getting sick. She said he cooked them with a silver dime that was somehow supposed to indicate whether or not they were safe.

It’s a totally bogus method, and does not work. I’m being intentionally vague about the supposed technique, so you are not tempted by it. DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME! My opinion is that he simply wanted the mushrooms for himself, and “possibly not being safe” was a convenient way to justify the kids not getting any!

If I would have asked my grandpa if Nature was important to him, or influenced his life, I’d wager he’d have given me a funny look. He’d have wondered what on earth I was talking about! Yet nature wove itself through his life, perhaps without his noticing. That same thread continued on through later generations, manifesting in one way or another: fishing, camping, golfing, marathoning, gardening. None of his descendants use their “outdoors gene” (is there such a thing?) the same way, but it regularly shows up in our lives.

#52Ancestors

Colorful

Looks can be deceiving . . .

My great-grandfather, Christian Meintzer, lived his life spanning two centuries and two continents. You met him (and this photo) early on (My Favorite Photo). Looking at him here, I wouldn’t peg him as a particularly “colorful” guy (despite my cousin Mark’s artful tint job to the original black and white!). He’s a farmer, just doing his thing. But his life had a little more color than that.

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Christian Meintzer and 2nd wife, Sophia Gaertner Meintzer, outside their farmhouse in the Riverwoods, Illinois, 1913 or earlier. Colorization by Mark Halvorsen.

He was born 3 April 1830 in Dehlingen, Bas Rhin, Alsace.¹ You all remember hearing about “Alsace-Lorraine” in school, but it’s not really a place. It’s like talking about “Illinois-Indiana” or “Michigan-Ohio.” But both regions got batted back and forth between France and Germany from 1871 until the end of World War II, and Germany lumped them together. Alsace is the “leg” part of the “sloppy 7” shape they make. His parents were Chrètién [Christian] Meintzer and Christine Isel (Jessel).

Nothing colorful happens until he gets older. France required its young men to serve a mandatory 2-year military stint. From 19 April 1854 to 31 December 1857, he served in the 6th Division, 8th Regiment, of the French Army. Luckily, we still have his discharge papers! He served as a Hussar–light cavalry (horsemen) and was apparently proud of his uniform and his fancy plumed hat. He was not married yet.

Family stories claim Christian fought a dual with Napoleon over improper care of a horse. That would be really exciting . . . except that Napoleon Bonaparte (the person I think of when hearing only “Napoleon”) was dead before Christian was born! Christian actually served when Napoleon III (Louis Napoleon–Bonaparte’s nephew) was emperor. Somehow I doubt Napoleon III was mingling with the troops. So what gives?

From all accounts I’ve heard, Christian was not large (light cavalry, remember?), but was strong for his size, and wiry. His horse, and the others, would have been hugely important to his–and his regiment’s–survival, so I can see him picking a fight with someone who didn’t seem to be taking proper care of his mount–probably not the Emperor, though!

His time in the army also enlarged his vocabulary. The everyday language in Dehlingen would have been Alsatian–a dialect based on German (I’m grossly oversimplifying it!). According to his children (my grandfather and his older siblings), when he was angry, Christian would swear in French! His children did not speak or understand French, so while they knew he was saying something bad, they didn’t know exactly what was said. I hope they knew better than to try and repeat any of it–at least not around their father!

Two years after his discharge from the army, he married his first wife, Elisabeth Weidmann. They had four children, but nine months after their youngest (Catherine–Favorite Name) was born, Elisabeth and their oldest son died. Six months later, he married his second wife, Sophia Gaertner. They had five more children, but lost two.

In 1871, after the Franco-Prussian War, Alsace was surrendered to the newly-formed Germany. Residents were given two choices:

  • remain French–and move elsewhere in France
  • remain where they were–and become German citizens

I’m sure it wasn’t an easy choice for anyone to make. According to Wikipedia, 10.4% of the residents chose French citizenship,² though only 1/3 of them actually emigrated. Christian decided to stay, at least for a while. One granddaughter, Anna Kranz Schultz, told me when his son, Jacob, was born in 1876, Christian decided he needed to emigrate to the United States. According to Anna, he didn’t want his son to serve in the German Army when he grew up. It took until May 1881 for them to sail on the Labrador, moving his wife, two daughters from his first marriage, and 4 children from his second marriage, to America.

Reaching the Riverwoods (north and west of Chicago), the family settled into farming again. Not very exciting or colorful! Christian was 51 years old, and still had three more children to add to the family. He remained on the farm until at least 1910–probably until 1913, when his wife, Sophia, died. At that point (age 83), he moved around to the households of various children. He still spoke only German (Alsatian?).

As he aged, Christian didn’t really slow down much. My 2nd cousin, Richard Jahn (now age 92), once told me his dad remembered Christian out in the fields with his sons and sons-in-law, helping bring in the harvest. It sounded like they all pitched in with whichever field was ready to harvest, knowing they’d later have help with their own. Despite his age, Christian kept up pretty well with the pace of the younger men. We also have this photo of him, out sawing wood. Clearly he held his own with chores!

Meintzer03
Christian Meintzer sawing wood. Date undetermined, but before 1922.

Anna also told a story about Christian rowing a boat out into the water and taking off all his clothes. He was living with her mom, Sophie, in Des Plaines at the time, very near the Des Plaines River. Did he go out to fish, and just got too hot? Was he going a bit senile? I don’t know. But at 83+, he was clearly still a colorful guy! He passed away 28 January 1922.

Most times we don’t know much about our ancestors’ lives. Social media didn’t exist. Photos are scarce–and sometimes tossed because they aren’t identified. Their stories, inconsequential as they may seem, disappear because no one takes the time to write them down. Making time to do that preserves these bits of color from their lives. It’s worth the effort.

#52Ancestors


¹”États-civil”, database, Archives Départementales du Bas-Rhin (archives.bas-rhin.fr), Dehlingen, naissance [birth] 1830, p. 4, no. 10, Chrètién Meintzer, 3 Avril [April] 1830.

²https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alsace-Lorraine. Section 2.2 “From annexation to World War I,” paragraph 9 (“The Treaty of Frankfurt . . .”), citing reference 6.