Mid-Atlantic Ancestral Homeland

New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Pennsylvania. Those are the states my family and I visited recently, more or less in that order. It was a return to one of my ancestral homelands, the Mid-Atlantic region. The trip actually only involved part of my family, only one brother and one parent. My father was finally feeling nostalgic in his old age. So, he was our tour guide for much of the trip.

The last stretch involved some brief driving through Vermont and a stop at the Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. Vermont was beautiful, exactly as I imagined it would be. And the Gettysburg battlefield was fascinating, similar to a tour years ago of Little Big Horn where Custer had his infamous last stand. As a side note, Custer had been on the winning side at Gettysburg and played a significant role in stopping the Confederate advance, but almost everyone remembers him solely for his later defeat and death. The guy deserves some credit. Enjoyable as it was to see some beautiful countryside and explore an important part of American history, it was the personal side of our East Coast travels that interested me the most. This was first and foremost a tour of family history.

Our first destination was New Jersey. We headed to Morristown. It was in Morris County that my father’s paternal grandparents were born. That is part of the New York Metropolitan area. Morristown itself has been a place since the colonial era that attracted the wealthy (it is still a place of money), but my family wasn’t wealthy and so they lived out in what was the surrounding countryside. Morristown was also a major center for the American Revolution, a meeting place for important figures and a headquarters for George Washington.

My paternal great grandmother is Matilda Reinthaler. Her father, Charles, escaped the Austrian Army, when he was an officer sent to Italy (I guess it was the Crimean War). His men were forced to wear heavy uniforms and, though it was hot, they weren’t allowed to unbutton to cool off. He refused to follow orders and, facing court marshall, was forced to flee, ending up in New York and then New Jersey. Matilda’s mother, Caroline Lindenmeyer, left Bavaria for unknown reasons, but probably related to the 19th century wars and revolutionary fervor.

We found their home and the one room school house she would have attended, still standing down the road. Even with new houses having been built, there was a sense of the rural clinging to the former country road. She had a more stable childhood than experienced by her husband, my paternal great grandfather, Charles Salvester Steele. His grandfather came from Pennsylvania and his mother’s family had been in New Jersey continuously since the colonial era (one line of my own mother’s family, the Hawks, also came from colonial New Jersey, but we didn’t visit that part of the southern part of the state). Charles’ mother died when he was young and, since his father couldn’t afford to raise all the children, he was sent to live with the Shakers somewhere near Rochester.

That particular Shaker village has since become part of a prison. The only way to visit the buildings my great grandfather spent time in would be get arrested for a serious crime. Later on in the trip, we visited a different Shaker village that is still standing in Hancock, Massachusetts. It was part of a complex of villages along the border of New York and Massachusetts. The Shakers were a fascinating group, highly innovative and technologically advanced, business leaders in agriculture and industry. Even the design and quality of their buildings is impressive, such as the round barn we saw which is the most practical barn I’ve seen in my life. They knew how to run an operation and they had no desire to cling to the past, like the Amish. Growing up there would have been simple, but deprivation in any form would not have been an issue. The Shakers for much of their history were successful and wealthy.

My great grandfather’s childhood was a not unusual fate for many poor kids of the time. The Shakers on a regular basis legally adopted children given to them, a practice that continued until the federal government made it illegal for groups to adopt children and thus officially doomed the abstinent Shaker communities. Once reaching adulthood, the children raised were given a choice to stay or leave. My paternal great grandfather was living at the Shaker village at a time when they were already in decline. He decided to leave and that Shaker village closed not too long later.

It seems he returned to Morristown, probably because it was the only other place he knew. He remained in contact with his family, but one gets the sense that the contact was limited. His wife was also from that area and so one might presume that is how they met, although there is no family info about this. My paternal great grandfather would have learned a trade or maybe multiple trades when with the Shakers, as they put heavy focus on practical knowledge and skills. As an adult, he probably did some farming; certainly, the Shakers were famous for their agriculture. While living in this area, he took a large wagon into nearby New York City to sell produce and it likely was produce that he had grown himself.

As part of our family pilgrimage, we headed into New York City. It’s hard to imagine what it must have looked like back then. When my paternal grandfather was younger, he would travel there sometimes, since an uncle had a grocery store in Brooklyn. My family and I only had a day in the city and so we didn’t see much, besides the standard tourist sights, although not even having enough time to visit the 9/11 memorial. The most exciting part was taking the Staten Island Ferry where could be seen the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, famous landmarks for incoming immigrants, although both from an immigrant era that came after my own immigrant ancestry.

Later on following marriage, Charles Salvester Steele worked doing professional gardening and lawn maintenance in Connecticut. He also entered into flower shows, which is where the wealthy Benjamin DeWitt Riegel met him and hired him as the estate superintendent and head groundskeeper. That is how my grandfather ended up growing up on a Long Island Sound estate where, later on, my father in his own childhood would spend his summers.

That estate is apparently known as Xanadu, but my father recalls that to his family and the Riegel family it was simply known as “The Place”. It was still in Riegel ownership until recent years. About a decade ago, my father and uncle were able to get hold of Mr. Riegel’s daughter, Katherine Riegel Emory (she remembered it as “The Place”, when my father mentioned it). She was a childhood playmate of my grandfather, until teenagehood when the fates of the classes diverged. My father and uncle knew her as Mrs. Riegel when they visited in the summers of their youth. In those last years of her life, they were given permission to walk the grounds of the estate one last time, not that they realized it would soon fall under new ownership.

Years of talking about the place was a major reason for this trip. My father has for a long time wanted my brothers and I to see the place of his fond childhood memories. There was no longer a way to get on the estate by invitation with new ownership, but there is a public road that is along one side of it and two public beaches adjacent to it. At low tide, we were able to walk the rocky beach directly between the estate and Long Island Sound, making possible a clear view across the vast lawns my great grandfather once maintained. My dad pointed to all that he remembered from his childhood, along with stories his own father had shared with him, such as the time as a child when my grandfather built a contraption attached to a cable secured to the top story of the barn and stretched taut to the beach upon which the two of them rode it down barely missing a wall in the process. By the way, an article stated that my great grandfather (referred to by his work title, not his name) used to gather the eggs from the chicken coops near the old barn, but according to my father it was in fact my great grandmother who did this — just wanted to set the record straight.

The Xanadu estate is in Fairfield, Connecticut. It is another old area, inhabited long before Europeans settled there in the early colonial era. Before the Riegels bought the property, it was a gentlemen’s horse farm and at some point an onion farm. There was a village nearby that had been almost entirely burned down by the British during the American Revolution, the British having landed right around where the estate is located. As with many places on the Eastern seaboard, there is much history there.

It was nice to finally see this place I’d heard so much about all my life. The Place! I also saw the school my grandfather went to. One time walking to school, the Riegel’s chauffeur drove by on the road splashing muddy water onto my grandfather who thought it was done on purpose. My grandfather grew up with Riegel children and lived a protected life during the Great Depression, but he had an inferiority complex living on the periphery of great wealth. He spent the rest of his days being extremely class conscious and always wanting to enjoy the good life. It was even passed onto his children, including my father who likes nice things (i.e., classy cars, large houses, manicured lawns, expensive resorts, and such), not that my family is wealthy enough afford many nice things.

It would be strange growing up as the son of the help on an estate or even visiting such a place as a child. My dad recalls as a child telling a close friend back in Alexandria, Indiana (“Small Town, USA”) that he spent the summer at an estate and his friend called him a liar. Life on an estate is not an experience most of us ever have.

One thing stood out to me. There are, as I said, two public beaches on either side of the estate. They are fairly nice beaches for the area and when we first arrived many local people lounged around on the sand and played in the water as people do. However, directly on the waterfront of the estate, there is almost nothing other than rocks. This is because the Riegel family had built a seawall that caused erosion of the sand and disallowed the beach to naturally rebuild itself. This is a great example of the opposite of the tragedy of the commons. In trying to protect their private property, they destroyed the beach along their property, while on either side are two popular public beaches with lots of sand forming popular beaches.

After my grandfather graduated college, Mr. Riegel offered him a job as night superintendent at one of his mills in order to get trained. His job was to manage the factory during the night shift. It was the Trion factory in Georgia and my grandfather was one of the fair-haired boys that Mr. Riegel sent down from New York. It was at Trion that my grandfather met his first wife and my grandmother, Billie Jean Nye, who was working as a school teacher employed by the company in the company town. You can see pictures of the mill town at this article, including a picture of the hotel where lived the unmarried employees like my grandparents, the place where they first met, and a picture of the school where I assume my grandmother would have taught.

He had felt socially obligated to accept that job. Mr. Riegel, after all, was not only his father’s boss but also the owner of the house his father lived in. It would have been an offense to decline an offer of such a good job, at a time not long after the Great Depression when the economy was getting back on its feet. Still, my grandfather hated the job, as it was his responsibility to pick the workers for the week out of a crowd of men desperate for a job, deciding who would get work and who wouldn’t. During the Great Depression, my grandfather had lived a protected existence on the estate. Before working at Trion, he probably had never seen much extreme poverty and unemployment. Also, that company town would have still been recovering from recent conflict. In 1934, a year or two before my grandfather arrived, the town had been the site of labor conflict and violence:

“1934 marked the 3rd closing of the plant for any length of time. Throughout the South unions were making a strong push to organize factories and mills. “Flying Squadrons” of union activists were sent into mill communities to gain support. The large group of employees working in Trion was high on their list. Led by a group of people from the Rome Foundry, along with some local people, a mob literally tried to take over the mill. Trion’s Chief of Police, Mr. Hix, was killed attempting to protect the mill. Others that had come on to work that day were beaten or roughed up. Eventually the National Guard was called in. The mill remained closed for approximately six weeks.”

It was the kind of clash of the classes that happened in places like that. In controlling employment, the company had total power over people’s lives. It was the largest employer in the area and still there were more people looking for work than there were jobs available. As an interesting side note, this was all going on in the last years of Mr. Riegel’s life. He had contracted some disease, maybe polio, and was kept alive with an iron lung. In 1941, back on the estate, a storm had hit and the power went out. The iron lung was run on electricity and apparently they had no backup generator. My great grandfather was sent for and he tried to hook up the iron lung to the engine of a Model A truck, but it was too late. Mr. Riegel had suffocated to death. Along with the ending of his life, it was the ending of an era.

Anyway, in those remaining years of Mr. Riegel’s life, my grandfather didn’t last long at Trion. He realized there weren’t many respectable ways he could quit without offending Mr. Riegel. He could join the military or he could become a minister. He chose the latter and took his wife with him to Indiana. But Mr. Riegel was still immensely disappointed, having given this son of the help such a rare opportunity to move up in the world.

I could imagine the sense of expectation and conflict. While at Trion, my grandfather managed the mill during the evening shift. Some new advanced machinery had been installed and, along with another guy, my grandfather had to learn how to operate it and keep it running non-stop. The problem is no one had been sent to show how it all worked and something went wrong, destroying the equipment. My grandfather was horrified about the incident, but after an investigation no one was blamed. Mr. Riegel had put immense trust and responsibility onto my grandfather’s shoulders, and he obviously looked to him with great promise. After all of that, it must have seemed ungrateful for my grandfather to quit.

Even so, the training my grandfather received didn’t entirely go to waste. There was a tomato canning factory in Geneva, Indiana where the family (including my father as a young child) lived for a time. It operated seasonally after the tomato harvest and my grandfather, while not doing his ministerial duties, worked there as a temporary factory manager.

My father without realizing it followed in his footsteps when he later became a factory manager, a family tradition that began with with the Riegels. Then my father also fell into the same pattern when he refused career advancement in order to look for other work, initially having considered the ministerial option as well until he decided to become a professor in order to preach at students instead. Like his own father, he found stressful the cutthroat world of business and the harsh reality of controlling the fate of workers, in personally determining who would be hired and fired. My family apparently doesn’t have the right kind of personality traits to be part of the wealthy business elite.

Later on, my great grandmother died on the estate in 1954, when my father was twelve years old. A few years later, the Riegel family asked my great grandfather to leave the property. He was around eighty years old and had spent half of his life working and residing on the estate. It was his home and, from the way my father talks about it, I get the sense that he was heartbroken. Mr. Riegel had promised that he would always be taken care of, but Mr. Riegel died in 1941 and had never wrote anything down. His word-of-mouth promise apparently meant nothing to the heirs of Mr. Riegel or maybe it never came up. Whatever the case, my great grandfather wasn’t given any retirement package or even a place to live. He  was just told to immediately leave the home he had known and loved for so long.

As a comparison, on the other side of the road was the estate of Harold Gray, the comic strip artist of Little Orphan Annie. My great grandparents were good friends with some of long term help at that other estate, only a few minutes walk away. When Gray’s long term help retired, he bought them an expensive house. My great grandfather was probably expecting something similar, as the Riegels were surely even wealthier. Instead, he was forced to move in with his son and died shortly later.

That part of my family has always felt distant to me. This trip was the first time, since I was a baby, that I’ve visited this part of the country. There are still some of the extended family living around there, but we’ve had a hard time contacting them. My father hasn’t seen his extended family on that side since he was a kid. Yet that part of the country is so key, both to my family history and to American history.

As I mentioned, one line of my mother’s family (originating with Sampson Hawk) came from colonial New Jersey. Like my father’s family, they were likely of Germanic ancestry. The difference was that they early on headed for the frontier, whereas the New Jersey lines of my father’s family didn’t venture far. The German-American Riegel family were also from New Jersey, along with Pennsylvania where Mr. Riegel was born. My own surname has an early Pennsylvanian background, although I don’t know the ancestral source of it.

Like the Midwest, the mid-Atlantic region was ethnic American (i.e., non-WASP) territory. Specifically, it was one of the areas where German-Americans were the majority. But none of this comes up much in official histories and collective memory, as cultural amnesia is almost complete. My father has a vague memory of his grandparents having some kind of accent, whatever it was. They weren’t that far from the immigrant experience and they lived in a place where the immigrant experience should have been close to the surface. Even so, my father doesn’t recall anyone ever discussing such things. The oppressive world war era had stigmatized and erased so much of the former ethno-cultural diversity. That makes me sad, as it is a loss of part of the ancestral history that shaped my family.

Visiting New Jersey, in particular, gave me a glimpse of the world that once existed there. I have more of a sense of the place. But family history came to life even moreso in our visit to Connecticut. My father doesn’t get too excited about genealogy, maybe having to do with particular disconnections over the generations. Talking about the estate, though, allowed me to see another side of him. The estate was something personally real and important to my father’s life, one of the fondest connections he has to his family history. And for me, the stories I’ve heard for years suddenly had physical locations that I can now see in my mind’s eye.

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Equal Opportunity Oppression in America

I was listening to the audio version of The Mis-Education of the Negro by Dr. Carter G. Woodson. The narrator isn’t the best, but the book is worthwhile. It is an older book, having been published in 1933, which is part of what makes it interesting. I came across a passage that showed its age (p. 73):

Again, one observes in some of these catalogues numerous courses in art but no well defined course in Negro or African art which early influenced that of the Greeks. Thinkers are now saying that the early culture of the Mediterranean was chiefly African. Most of these colleges do not even direct special attention to Negro music in which the Negro has made his outstanding contribution in America. The unreasonable attitude is that because the whites do not have these things in their schools the Negroes must not have them in theirs. The Catholics and Jews, therefore, are wrong in establishing special schools to teach their principles of religion, and the Germans in America are unwise in having their children taught their mother tongue.

The author is discussing “Negro colleges”. At that time, apparently many of them were managed and operated by whites. Some of these whites were consdescendingly paternalistic and some were indifferent to the the plight of the students in their schools. For many of them, working at a Negro college was probably the last place they hoped their career would bring them. They didn’t want to be there and they certainly didn’t want to help African-Americans to better themselves, much less strive for equality.

That isn’t, however, what dates this passage. Dr. Woodson argues that African-Americans should have the right to teach about their own culture and accomplishments. As a comparison and contrast, he references as one example German-Americans who in many cases still used German in their German-American majority schools, including public schools in German-American majority cities.

Sadly, that world was quickly changing. What the author didn’t realize was that the following decades would become the most culturally oppressive era in all of American history. German culture wouldn’t continue to be celebrated. The German voice in America would be nearly silenced and teaching in German would be outlawed. Nearly all references to the German language and culture would be obliterated, from street names being changed to newspapers being closed down.

The oppression in America has never just been about African-Americans. But back in 1933 maybe that was harder to discern from the perspective of an African-American.

America’s Heartland: Middle Colonies, Mid-Atlantic States and the Midwest

In my post about Okies, I considered a factor that few know about or understand. Here is a small part of what I explained:

Midwestern culture has become so widespread in American society that it is almost invisible. Midwestern English, specifically in the area centered in and directly surrounding Iowa, became Standard American English which is to say that when someone of this region speaks it is perceived as there having no accent. Ronald Reagan became the great conservative leader from California was born in western Illinois which is part of the region of Standard American English. It was because of Midwesterners such as Reagan that Midwestern English became so common in Hollywood (and so common on nationally broadcast radio and television); by the way, John Wayne also came from this region, having been born in Iowa. This invisibility of Midwestern culture goes along with the invisibility of German-American culture, as the Midwest is the main region where Germans settled and most people don’t realize that there are more Americans of German ancestry than of any other ancestry. Both my parents are largely of German ancestry.

This has been something on my mind for a very long time.

In its most basic form, it relates to an earlier history. The Middle Colonies, as explained by Ned C. Landsman in Crossroads of Empire, helped create a regional culture of multiculturalism that became representative of America in general, despite not being among the earliest of the colonial settlements. This is partly because the population grew there so much faster than in any other region. It was largely because of this fast population growth that the North was able to win the Civil War.

The regional culture of the Middle Colonies had great impact on the Midwest specifically and on the North generally, and because of the Civil War its impact became truly national. The Midwest gets lost in all of this vast history. The regional culture is to Americans as mud is to a mudfish, and it is about as culturally sexy to Americans as is mud.

A big part of this influence was the German immigration. Germans were the single largest group of immigrants in American history (with several large waves of immigration over several centuries), and so they are now the single largest ancestral group of modern Americans.

German culture had a fate not dissimilar to British culture. After the American Revolution, Americans sought to create a new culture independent of that of Britain. After the First World War, Americans also sought to create a new culture independent of that of Germany. There was a nation-wide oppression of all things German which was magnified further with the Second World War. German influences remained, but they became less visible as had the British influences. Both British and German culture have merged almost seamlessly into a general American culture. The influence is there, but few ever notice it or think much about it. It’s just there in the background.

For the first centuries of American history, Germans were a cultural force to be reckoned with. They fiercely defended their culture and large areas of the Midwest were almost entirely German with public schools that taught in German and newspapers that published in German. That American tradition of Germanic culture was almost entirely annihalated in its outward forms. For example, a big reason behind Prohibition was because ethnic groups such as Germans prided themselves on their breweries and loved to drink. There was, however, a revival of German influence after the Second World War when there was a mass immigration of Germans escaping the Nazis, some of them Jews and some of them not but all of them bringing German culture.

So, unlike the English, Germans were able to make a comeback and claim their place as “Real Americans”. The English have always had the taint of oppression from our shared history of war. It is easier to forget and forgive the World Wars in Europe, especially since the Germans who came to America mostly fought on the American side or at least didn’t fight for the enemy (with a few exceptions such as Nazi scientists who came by ‘invitation’, so to speak). However, the British attacked the American colonies (i.e., on American soil) and that is a stigma that will probably remain for as long as the United States continues. The Japanese, likewise, will always have that stigma for Americans.

Nonetheless, Germans have never regained the prominently visible place they once held. Midwestern culture is almost synonymous with German culture, but you wouldn’t know that unless you have closely studied regional history. Even many people living in Midwestern states are oblivious to their own history. In Upper Midwest, they love to celebrate their Scandinavian heritage and yet Scandinavian history is small compared to the German heritage.

Standard American English (or General American) has its origins in the Middle Colonies and the later Mid-Atlantic states, but it didn’t take full form as we know it now until it developed further in a specific region of the Midwest. From there it spread West and through modern mass media became the dominant dialect. It has become so normal of a way of speaking that few notice it, including scholars, when those outside of this small region speak General American.

Walter Cronkite, Ronald Reagan, etc. These were the purveyors of Standard American English and the Midwestern culture that went with it. Interestingly, the purveyors of this have become even more widespread as the influence of the United States has spread. American English and hence Midwestern-originated Standard American English has become the most common form of English taught and spoken in the world, so common that even the BBC has begun to use more American English because its worldwide audience has demanded it.

The same goes for religion. The Methodists of the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest helped create much of modern American Christianity which spread far and wide, even helping to make the South so strongly religious. However, Midwesterners aren’t known for being dogmatically, politically and vocally religious. Ask most people what Christian denominations are most common in a state like Iowa and they couldn’t even guess.

In the Okie post, I went into great detail about religion. I specifically detailed alternative religion and spirituality. The heretical and/or secular thought of modern American society has much of its origins in this same area of Mid-Atlantic and Midwest. New Age spirituality and New Thought Christianity (Prosperity Gospel, as labeled by Evangelicals) have become so widespread that, like Midwestern dialect and German culture, it has become normalized and amorphous. No one thinks of these things as being Midwestern, for sure. Most people probably assume they were created ex nihilo in that crazy state of California on the West Coast, West of the West.

Many don’t know of the massively influential history of socialism that existed down in states such as Oklahoma and up in states such as Wisconsin, both regions influenced by the Midlands culture of the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest as it was carried by the migration patterns going West and then, in the far extent of the Midwest, heading both South and North. Socialism was another popular aspect of German culture and, more generally, Northern European culture. It had been these radical left-wingers during the Populist Era during the 1890s that helped to force the hands of the powerful in eventually creating progressive reform.

This all began with the Quaker colony of William Penn (aka Pennsylvania) along with the Dutch colony of New Netherlands (aka New York). These both introduced a concentrated German influence that was injected into the central regions of early settlements. In time, this influence made itself known in so many ways as to no longer be recognized. It was simply American.

The ancestors of these early settlers, unlike many Appalachians for example, don’t usually identify as ‘American’ on census records and they’ve never tried to force their culture onto the rest of the country. I suppose it was just the fate of history that they ended up having such a powerful impact. And it was the result of being so culturally successful that they were so easily forgotten about.

The Midwest is called the Heartland for reasons beyond it being the center of the most productive farming in the US and in the world. Farming is important and made our country wealthy, but there is a deeper current to why the Midwest captures the American imagination.

It is where Dorothy seeks to return from Oz. It is Superman’s adpted home. It is the future birthplace of Captain Kirk. It is where new things are hoped for and things of the past are longed for. It is a place of renewal. It is where greatnss is seen in the simple. Or so that is how it is seen in the landscape of the American Dream.

It is the Heart of America. A heart that still beats.