April 15, 1937 – My 1869 Summer Vacation

This article was written in German by Gotthilf Birkmann for the 15 April 1937 edition of the Giddings Deutsches Volksblatt. It also appeared on page 281 in Worthy of Double Honor, the Rev. G. Birkmann, D. D. where it was translated by the author Ray Martens.

After I had been at our college in Fort Wayne for two years, I had completed quinta [the equivalent of sophomore year of high school]. Vacation time had arrived, and I would have gladly joined the other boys in traveling home, as in the previous year. But the fare for the long round trip amounted to a costly twenty-five dollars, and l received word from home that it would be advisable to stay in or near Fort Wayne.

The president of our college at the time, Dr. W. Sihler, did not live on campus. He was pastor of the large St. Paul’s Church in the city, although he did also teach. He was so kind as to recommend me to his relatives in the country, on a farm eight or nine miles east of Fort Wayne. The family’s name was Von der Au, and they were members of a church served at the time by a Rev. Bode. I stayed with this family for two months, and they occupy a place among my most pleasant memories of that time. My first discovery was that the family had something like ten children at home (others already moved away. The wife and mother [Hausfrau actually means the politically incorrect “housewife.”] had to cook and bake for this big group three time a day. Now a guest was added, bringing the number to thirteen, the proverbial unlucky number.

A fine Christian spirit held sway in the home, with Mr. Von der Au conducting morning and evening devotions at the table. On Sundays, we went to church to hear the sermon of the pastor, a faithful student of Dr. Walther, one who diligently studied his book of sermons. [Does that mean he was using Walther’s sermons as though they were his own?] The children of the family were well brought up, well behaved, and friendly, and we spent many enjoyable hours together. We were together not only in the fields making hay or harvesting oats and wheat, but were also careful, as children are, to find time for play and fun.

A number of German periodicals were read in this home, Der Lutheraner, Abendschule [Night School], and one from Germany, which Mrs. Von der Au was especially fond of reading and of sharing with us what she read.

I also remember that these people had an unusual device for controlling work time in the field. They hung a bell in the yard to ring when it was time for the workers to come home, at 12:00 noon and promptly at 6:00 in the evening, limiting the work day to twelve hours. That was new to me. Back home in southern Illinois, people got up very early in the morning during harvest and threshing times (the two. months of July and August) and stayed at work in the evening as long as one could see. They did rest a bit at noon and took a little time both in the morning and afternoon to devour a generous snack. At the Von der Au place, however, we did not get up that early, and we always had a couple of hours of daylight after supper.

Beyond that, I remember that the boys about my age had a considerable interest in the things of nature. We often found snakes under the hay in the field, killed them, naturally, and then sliced them open to find live, young snakes crawling out in significant numbers.

During that August, I experienced an eclipse of the sun which I have never forgot ten, a total eclipse at about 5:00 or 6:00 in the afternoon. The sun was dark for more than an hour. Chickens flew to their roosts, and the cattle became ill at ease, probably sharing with us people the eerie feeling which overtook us at this occurrence.

On one occasion, we enjoyed a visit from Dr. Sihler. At table he gave us several pieces of good advice, such as, for example, the point at which good taste requires that you stop eating. He loved that way of being lighthearted. Once in class he told us that your stomach is healthy as long as you do not realize or think about the fact that you have a stomach. Sihler was one of the founders of our synod and was held in high regard both in his congregation and in the Synod.

My benefactor, Mr. Von der Au, had a fine orchard and on Saturdays drove to the market in Fort Wayne with vegetables or fruit, especially apples. Once he took me along as he was taking apples to town, where I stayed because vacation time was almost over. Just at that time the convention of the Synod was meeting in Fort Wayne. From the balcony of the church, I watched the venerable assembly. At that time, St. Paul’s church building was less than half the size it is now. Back then, it was not delegates [from electoral circuits] who gathered. Rather, each congregation sent its own representatives. What a gigantic assembly that would be today if all the pastors and teachers, along with a delegate from every congregation, gathered at a convention. That would produce a meeting of 6,000 or more. Back in 1869, however, Dr. Sihler’s church was hardly half filled. Dr. Walther delivered an essay on the scriptural teaching on usury, a subject much talked and written about at the time.

It was, of course, interesting to me to see and hear the speakers. I remember especially Rev. Wyneken and a Dr. Preus, who earlier came from Germany and became a member of our Synod, soon after which he was chosen to be a professor at our seminary in St. Louis. Dr. Preus was very well-educated and had the gift to be able to present well what he knew. He had a presentation one night during the convention about the existence of newspapers in ancient Rome. Who would have thought that the old Romans had newspapers, and daily papers at that? Preus informed his listeners that whole groups of slaves were put to work as writers, and the pages they wrote were then offered for sale on the street corners. This presentation later appeared in print in one of our synodical journals. This same Dr. Preus also wrote two excellent books, one with the title, Die Lehre von der Rechtfertigung des armen Sünders vor Gott [The Teaching of the Justification of the Poor Sinner before God], and the other, Das Dogma von der unbefleckten Empfängnis der Jungfrau Maria (The Dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary]. In both books he refutes Roman [Catholic] heresies. Sadly, he became unfaithful to the Lutheran Church, and, after only a few years as professor in St. Louis, converted to the Roman [Catholic] Church.

My vacation with the Von der Au family had come to an end, but later they invited me to visit them again during the short Easter holiday, and I did that gladly.