August 31, 1939 – Memories of My First School Years in Illinois

This article was written in German by Gotthilf Birkmann for the 31 August 1939 edition of the Giddings Deutsches Volksblatt. It also appeared on page 273 in Worthy of Double Honor, the Rev. G. Birkmann, D. D. where it was translated by the author Ray Martens.

Memories of My First School Years in Illinois

Very old folks are asked by people in the Giddings area what it was like back when they attended school as youngsters. Such questions have to do with parochial schools as a rule, for public schools were very rare at the time. No one has ever asked me how it was in my childhood in my home in Illinois. Nevertheless, I would like to share my memories about that – matters which are naturally of great interest to me. It would be similar for others as they recall their school years.

I had had three teachers by the time I reached ten. First was my father, who was pastor of the congregation and, for the most part, also had to conduct school when there was no other teacher. At his time, seventy-five years ago, there were very few synodically trained teachers available. A Prof. Fleischmann taught a number of prospects in Fort Wayne, but in most cases the preparation was less than complete before the students took a call and served as best they could.

I have two special memories of my father as my teacher. The first is that he liked to sing, and he had us practice singing in school, especially songs out of our hymnal. He also had a choir composed of his young people, which practiced chorales to present in church. The other is that he delighted in drawing. Often he would fill the chalkboard with printed letters [Frakturschrift] or with musical notes, which we copied.

One of my teachers already before the Civil War began was Mr. Deffner – rather tall, slender, and thin, yet enthusiastic and industrious in his calling. With him I learned to read, plowing my way through the Fibel [an old standard reader for elementary German], working hard at distinguishing [the appearance and sound of] ph and f, x and y, and ei, eu, and au. When Deffner permitted us to sing, he always had his violin tucked under his chin. I enjoyed watching him as he drew the bow its entire length over the strings. He never let us sing without violin accompaniment.

His little, vivacious wife and he had a very neighborly relationship with my parents. One morning, just as we were sitting at breakfast, the door opened and Mrs. Deffner entered and shouted, “We are at war!” That is how we received the news that the Civil War had begun in our country. This sudden announcement frightened us badly, and a coffee cup fell with a crash from the hand of one of us. Then came four years of war with shortages and sacrifices of human life and property. Men who were drafted, whose names were drawn, had to leave family to go to war or had to buy a substitute at a cost of about $1,200, creating an enormous debt to be paid off. During that time we drank no more coffee made from coffee beans, having to use [roasted] barley instead as a substitute. We also had to be very conserving with our clothes. Cotton and other light weight material became very expensive, and one could not even consider acquiring fine clothing.

After just one year, Teacher Deffner became the teacher of a free (public) school in the area. Maybe he left in order to earn a little more than the congregation paid – he did, after all, have wife and children to support – even though what he received from the state probably also was not much. (Let me observe in this connection that our parochial schools preceded public schools virtually everywhere in rural areas, as here in Texas, so also in Illinois. My home congregation in Monroe County, Illinois, has had its own school, taught by its pastor in the early years, for almost a hundred years, while the first public school was not organized until twenty years later.)

As Deffner now conducted public school, some who had been in the parochial school followed him as his pupils. I was one of these. The hope was that we might better be introduced to the language of this country. Certainly, Deffner did let us read more English than we had before, but instruction still was conducted entirely in German, and our teacher’s defective training in English limited the gains in our English reading to the point that the hoped-for great strides of achievement were never realized. Apart from that, the weeks that I was permitted to spend at the free school were both useful and desirable. Before, I had often wished to join with other children in making their way to school, to carry a school satchel, and with the others to eat the lunch that my mother had packed. Walking the path which made its way through the woods and alongside a field, crossing the creek on a fallen tree trunk, playing with snowballs and snowmen in winter – all of this was a real change from my earlier experience. Especially nice was the forest in the springtime, when the gentle breezes blew and the tender buds sprouted and the birds could be heard in the trees. We children would look for berries as they ripened, blackberries and raspberries and, earlier, strawberries (which grew wild there around my home), also sourwood and slippery elm trees.

I attended public school only one winter and spring. Deffner left for St. Genevieve, Missouri, where he served as teacher in a small congregation for many years, and also as lector [to read sermons and conduct worship] because these old, little congregations often did not have the services of a called pastor. Forty-six years ago [1893], a son of Teacher Deffner, Emil, came to Austin, Texas, as the first resident pastor of our Missouri Synod there. Later he was in Hamilton, Texas, then for a number of years in Wichita Falls, Olney, and Klein, until in 1916 he left Klein for Nebraska. His father, who may have served at places other than St. Genevieve, died in Wisconsin about 40 years ago while living with a daughter. The morning of his death, he heard his son from Texas preach for the first time, an occasion on which Emil was visiting his father and sister. A heart attack took the life of the seventy­year-old father. It could be that being overwhelmed with joy hastened his end.

A year after Deffner’s departure [from Wartburg], the congregation received another teacher, who had studied for a time in the teacher training program in Fort Wayne. He had come from Germany not long before and had, as did his wife, German ways and mannerisms. They also continued to wear their clothes from Germany, long, heavy coats and the like. They lived so near us that their hens may well often have laid their eggs in our chicken nests, and ours in theirs. They used our stove to bake bread, that is, the brick oven outside in the yard. Most families had such ovens, made of bricks [tiles?], about five feet tall, five feet wide, and five feet deep. They were heated with wood, the ashes removed, and the large bread pans pushed into the white glowing interior of the oven, five or six at a time. That produced a supply of bread which one stored in the cellar until it was consumed by a sizable family in several days. Everything else was baked in the wood-burning stove in the house, cake, biscuits, cornbread, and the like. We also had a garden in partnership with the teacher’s family, and we shared the fruit that grew in it, cherries, pears, and apples.

I can say nothing [good?] about the teaching methods of this teacher, although what I saw in his school in Milwaukee many years later appealed greatly to me – he had the enthusiasm and the aptitude to provide something [worthwhile] for his students. His name was Friedrich Rix. He died in Detroit about thirty years ago.