November 17, 1938 – Memories From My Childhood

This article was written in German by Gotthilf Birkmann for the 17 November 1938 edition of the Giddings Deutsches Volksblatt. It also appeared on page 276 in Worthy of Double Honor, the Rev. G. Birkmann, D. D. where it was translated by the author Ray Martens

Memories from My Childhood

My father died near the end of 1865, after having served Holy Cross Lutheran Church near Waterloo, Illinois, for more than fifteen years. A request for help through a student was sent to the faculty of our St. Louis seminary. He was to conduct school and do some of the preaching until another pastor could be called. A student named Hieronymus was sent, a young man who had come to St. Louis from the institution of Rev. Brunn in Steeden (Nassau), Germany, in order to complete his theological studies here. I was still in school and among his pupils. He was a quiet, always dutiful teacher, very patient and calm. He roomed with congregation members about a mile from the school, and, since he could not go back and forth at lunch time, the housewife sent something along with him every day to go with the fruit puree (apple butter) he had in a jar on his desk at school. So he munched his very simple lunch in our company. About six months later, after he had completed his service with us, he went back to the seminary. After finishing his studies, he returned to Rev. Brunn in Steeden, where he served for a time as his assistant and married his daughter. But only a few years later he suffered some fatal trauma of the lungs.

During the summer of 1866, Rev. K. S. Kleppisch accepted the call to be pastor of my home congregation. He had been born in Baltimore, had studied in Fort Wayne and St. Louis, and had spent maybe two years as pastor of a small congregation in Missouri. As the day of his installation neared, some of my fellow students and I practiced a song out of our so-called Missionshaife [literally, Mission Harp], a little book with which we were acquainted in our circles at the time. We showed enough courage to sing it in the installation service. All of this was well-intentioned, though the results were not altogether pleasant. Even though we were not exactly a failure with the members, frugal [in their praise] as they were, we received no praise at all from our pastor.

My mother was moved at about this time into a house which had once been the parsonage, but more recently had been used for school. In fact, school was still being held on one side while we occupied the very cramped quarters of the other side. Though we were poor and needy, I nonetheless have happy memories of our life during these days. Right at hand stood a large cherry tree, the limbs of which extended over the almost flat roof. You could climb up the tree to the roof and pick cherries. In front of the house was a pear tree as well, with beautiful, large, sweet fruit in season.

Rev. Kleppisch taught us both in school and in confirmation instruction. He was quite different in his way of treating us from what we were used to with our Teacher Hieronymus. Kleppisch was animated, blunt, almost rude, at least as it seemed to me, though, at the same time, one who both meant well and performed well. At the time he was known in the synod as a negotiator, beginning in Fort Wayne in the early 1860s. When Walther wished to negotiate with English Lutheran pastors in Missouri about views they held and prepared some theses (propositions) for the purpose (see Lutheraner, 1872), he took two others along to Gravelton, Missouri, Prof. F. A. Schmidt and Rev. K. S. Kleppisch. Kleppisch also spoke at the twenty-fifth anniversary of the St. Louis seminary on June 11, 1875.

The instruction which we received from Kleppisch, especially we confirmands, stayed with me as interesting and insightful. He required that every week we learn a hymn by heart, sometimes a very long one like O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort [seventeen stanzas are included in the Lutheran German hymnal of 1909]. He was, I think, simply putting us to the test as to whether we were willing to extend ourselves with memorization.

I had a buddy [he wrote “comrade,” actually] in confirmation instruction who lived near us during this time, one with whom I engaged in many fun activities and pastimes in this otherwise difficult time in which we were so occupied with studying. In our vacation time, we investigated, my friend and I, all the woods and streams in our area, made popguns out of elder wood, made whistles [Pfeifen] out of hickory – to blow, not to smoke [the German Pfeife, literally “pipe,” is ambiguous; thus the clarification]. Joseph, my friend’s name, also knew how to make traps, and we caught mice in the attic, along with birds and rabbits out in the wild. Actually, only two birds, cardinals that we kept and fed in cages, for which they expressed their thanks in cheerful song.

Joseph was also skilled at hunting in the wild and was allowed to carry a gun. Early one morning before anyone was up, we took the old gun of my sainted father and crept along hidden in a gully near a pond on which wild ducks often landed. My friend carried the gun; I was the apprentice following after him. We did not get any ducks that morning, but we did get a pointed lecture from a farmer who knew us very well. He had a load of barrels on his wagon. People at the time often were transporting barrels of flour from the mill in Waterloo to the somewhat distant Harrisonville on the Mississippi River, where the flour was shipped away on steamships. The farmer saw us lads with a gun, jumped from his wagon, hurried to us and said, “What are you lads doing out here so early in the morning with a shotgun? Where did you get it?” We were duly ashamed and contrite, promised to change our ways, and were excused. We did not undertake another duck hunt and did not use the old shotgun again.

In that year, 1867, at the end of August, two others boys and I traveled to Fort Wayne, where we were to be enrolled in our college. In order to get to St. Louis at the time, one had to use the mail carriage, on which for two dollars you were transported jolted and shaken [the original rüttelnd und schüttelnd has a nicer ring to it] on the bad roads. But one of my companions and I were taken to St. Louis by an acquaintance on his farm wagon, and there for the first time I boarded a train. The next morning I arrived in Chicago, and, after waiting for many hours in an old depot, finally got underway to Fort Wayne on the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne, and Chicago Railway.