Add a Face to the Name

One of the things I love about genealogy is being able to make a big discovery by piecing together tiny discoveries.  As I mentioned in a previous post, William and Olive Rathkamp are the only great grandparents of mine for which I have no pictures.  Not a single picture that I know of has made its way through the generations.  They’re also, by far, the strangest of my ancestors as I wrote here.

1905 St. Paul, MN city directory

I discovered William and his first wife, Sophie (she passed away in 1906) , in the 1905 Minnesota State census, living in St. Paul.  I’m not sure how they ended up in St. Paul, but the census states that they had lived at this address for 3 years.  There is a distant branch of the Rathkamp tree that settled in Minnesota, but I’m not sure of any sort of tie there.  The Wetenkamp, Finke, and Hulsemann families settled in Minnesota too, but that was in Martin, some 160 miles away.  These were relatives and friends from Germany who came to America with the Rathkamp family in 1868.

At any rate, I was able to find Schoch Grocery Employees, 1905-2William in the 1905 St. Paul city directory.  His entry stated that he was a stock keeper for the A. Schoch grocery store.  On a whim I did a Google Image search and was able to find this picture, taken circa 1905.  As soon as I opened the picture I was drawn to the man on the very left in the front row.  There was no doubt that this was my great grandfather.

I also sent a message to family members on Facebook and asked them, “If I were to tell you one of the people in this picture may be a Rathkamp, which would it be?”  Everybody picked the same person.

So while the picture I’ve found may not hold up as evidence in court, I feel 99.9% confident that I now know what my great-grandfather looks like.  Nice to meet you Willie.


WR Cropped

The Swedes Come Out of the Weeds

In October, 2009 I wrote THIS POST about my Great Grandmother, Olive (Hassel) Rathkamp, my dad’s grandmother.  Olive died in 1926, 16 years before my dad was born.  Until last week she and her Swedish ancestors continued to be a complete mystery.  I’ve accumulated some anecdotal evidence, but nothing concrete.  I’ve long suspected her father was Charles Hassel, knew she lived in Michigan, suspected she was born in Sweden, and suspected her mother died when she was young.  That’s it.  Not exactly something a genealogist would hang his hat on.

hassel-anna-death-record-combinedI have literally had three different people listed as possibly being her mother.  This death record seemed to indicate her mother was Anna (Erickson) Hassel who apparently died in childbirth on December 17, 1892 a date which coincides with the birth of Olive’s sister Ella.

Anna would have been 8 years younger than Charles and would have only been 16 when she had Olive.  Not out of the realm of possibilities.

I knew I’d have much better luck finding Olive’s mom if I could find a birth record from Sweden.  This was no easy task.  The only thing I had to go on was Charles’ obit from 1937.1hassell-charles-small-obit  This obit states that he was from Nora, Westmanlan (Vastmanland), Sweden.  If this was true it would have helped.  But Charles lied.  Actually he probably didn’t lie.  It’s amazing how facts are distorted through the lens of time.  Soon tiring of finding the needle in the haystack, I decided to try my old trick of working sideways.

Iron Mountain, Michigan was an iron mining town and went through a boom during the late 1800’s.  Similar to what’s happening now in North Dakota and the tar sands in Canada, workers were recruited to Iron Mountain from other areas of the world.  Even today, looking through the Iron Mountain phone book, you’ll notice two distinct ethnic groups:  Swedes and Italians.  It’s not a coincidence that skilled miners could be found in both Sweden and Italy.  These young men, searching for opportunity, ended up working together in the iron mines of Iron Mountain.

Knowing this, I started searching emigration information for some of the other Swedes that had settled in Iron Mountain.  One town that seemed to show up on more than one occasion was the town of Grythyttan, Örebro, Sweden.  Plugging this town into Google Maps, I soon discovered Grythyttan was only some 20 miles away from….Nora, Örebro, Sweden.  Grythyttan is a small town.  A small town, along with an uncommon Swedish surname would surely make my life easier.  And it did. has done a nice job of integrating the Swedish Genline database.  I quickly was able to find this gem:  hassel-carl-august-swedish-birth-record  From there, I was off to the races.  I now knew my Swedish ancestors were from Grythyttan and soon I was able to find Olive’s birth record too.  It seems her first name wasn’t Olive.  No surprise.  Olive was her middle name and her first name was Ingeborg.  Now that sounds Swedish.

So who is Olive’s mom?  Charles married Josephine Bergquist on January 7, 1892, three weeks after Anna’s death.  But it turns out Anna wasn’t Olive’s mom either.  For years, I’ve had a copy of a ship’s manifest showing a Sofie and Olive Hassel coming into the U.S. in March of 1888.  But because I stuck on the possibility that Olive’s mom was Anna, I dismissed this record.

It turns out that on May 17, 1884 (two years before Olive was born), Charles married Sophia Sax in Grythyttan.

The ship’s manifest was correct.  Sophia was Olive’s mother.  Since then, I’ve found another record.  This record shows Sofia and Olive made the trip with Charles’ brother Andrew.  It shows they were from Grythyttan.  And it shows there destination was…Iron Mountain, Michigan.hassel-sofia-olivia-gothenburgswedenpassengerlists-1888-highlighted

So here’s my best guess…Charles and Sophia marry in 1884, Olive was born in 1886.  Charles emigrates without his wife and young daughter, to Iron Mountain, then his brother Andrew, Sophia, and Olive are sent for.  Sometime between their arrival and 1890/91, Sophia dies and Charles, finding himself unable to work in the mine and care for Olive, marries Anna.  Anna dies in 1892, Charles again finds himself in a bind and marries Josephine.

My great aunt, Grace Larson often took me up to her cabin between Merrill and Tomahawk, Wisconsin.  In 1974 during one of our trips “up north”, Grace and I drove up to Iron Mountain.  I was 10.  In Iron Mountain, we toured the Chapin Mine.  While writing this post, I recalled this tour and vaguely remembered these pictures being tucked away in a photo album Grace put together for me.  Grace’s sister was Alice “Pat” Rathkamp, my grandmother.  Pat was married to Bill Rathkamp, my grandfather.  Bill’s mother was Olive, my Great Grandmother.  Olive’s father was Charles, my Great Great Grandfather.  Charles and his brother worked in this mine.  I think Grace may have taken me to Iron Mountain for a reason.

image_dcec2bf6-1b8b-447e-b652-2a30fa40f44f image_800424f6-8cbf-4c31-a6e5-5849a9076290



Willy & Olive, What’s Your Story?

You have not been telling the truth and I’m calling you out.  You’ve also been holding out on me, and I want information.  Now.

My last post about Esther Rathkamp got me thinking about all the discrepancies and mysteries surrounding her parents William & Olive Rathkamp, my great grandparents.  Genealogists are used to dealing with inconsistencies, usually attributed to misspellings of surnames.  But Willy & Olive are off the charts.

How and why did Olive move from Iron Mountain, Michigan/ Florence, Wisconsin to Milwaukee?  At some point, her sister Albina also moved to Milwaukee, marrying Albert Klatt.

Where and when did they get married? Willy’s first wife, Sophie, died in early 1906.  Willy & Olives first daughter, Esther was born March 12, 1908, this leaves a window of about 18 months for them to get married, provided they were married before conception.  I’ve searched online records from Wisconsin and Michigan, and visited the Milwaukee County Courthouse and have found nothing.

My grandfather’s birth certificate. William Rathkamp, my grandfather, was born in 1909.  His last name is shown as “Redcamp”.  There are all kinds of cases where surnames are incorrectly documented (phonetically), usually because the person verbally giving the last name is a recent immigrant.  Neither Willy or Olive was a recent immigrant and it’s doubtful either had an accent.  Willy was born in Milwaukee in 1878 and Olive more than likely was born in Sweden around 1886, and moved to Michigan when she was a baby.  Even if they did speak with an accent, you’d think the person filling out the birth certificate would ask for the correct spelling of the last name.  1909 is well before WWI when many Germans anglicized their last names.  In 1973, my grandfather had this “mistake” corrected.

Olive’s last name is also misspelled as “Hessell” instead of Hassell.

1910 US Census. Olive states her place of birth is Michigan, and that the birthplace of her parents is Norway.  I believe her place of birth is Sweden, and I’m 99.999% sure her parents were also born in Sweden.

1930 US Census. William states that his parents were born in Hamburg, Germany.  They were actually born south of Bremen, in what was then Hanover.

William’s WWI Registration Card states that he is paralyzed on his left side.

Olive died in 1926 at the age of 40, leaving 3 kids, including 10 year old Ann to her husband to care for.  Family lore has it that she was a member of the Church of Christ, Scientist who eschewed medical care which ultimately led to her death at a young age.  How and why would she have gravitated to such a radical religion?

William died in 1930 at the age of 53, leaving 3 kids, including a 14 year old Ann orphans.  William’s death will be the topic for a future post.

No pictures. Of of my 8 great grandparents, William and Olive are the only ones for whom I have no pictures.

Dodge and Emma

dodge-3-003-webMarch 13 marked the 24th year since the passing of my maternal grandfather, George Joseph Niesl.  We’re all very fortunate to have family members who had the foresight to document the lives of our ancestors.  My cousin Kari knew I had this recording in my possession and asked to make a copy.  I thought it would be even better to digitize the recording and upload it so that everybody can enjoy it.

The original recording is an interview conducted by my uncle, George Niesl (Dodge and Emma’s son).  I’m not sure when the interview was conducted, but I’m guessing possibly while George was in Milwaukee for Dodge and Emma’s 50th wedding anniversary in 1983.

Dodge & Emma Niesl Interview, circa 1983

Oma Emma

It’s not an over-exaggeration to say that if ever there was an angel on this earth, it was my Grandma Emma. Emma Nathalia (Walz) Niesl was born to Fredrich and Sophia (Bischke) Walz on May 2, 1913. Both Fred and Sophie, along with their respective families, came to America, settling on the harsh plains of South Dakota, from the Steppes of southern Russia in the very early 1900’s. While they were from Russia, both families were of German descent, their families having been recruited from Germany to Russia in the early 19th Century to settle land newly conquered by Catherine the Great, herself of German descent.

Emma and her husband George “Dodge” Niesl had 4 children, 17 grandchildren, and countless great/ great great grandchildren. She had a way of making every one of us feel like we were her only grandchild. She sang, whistled, told jokes, showed us magic tricks, cooked, told stories, made clothes, and showed to each of us a love that made us feel very special.

Never, and I mean never, would you hear her criticize or pass judgement on anybody.  It wasn’t in her make up.  She led and influenced by example.

Some years ago, as Emma was in the very early stages of Alzheimer’s, my aunt Sandie (Niesl) Patten interviewed Emma.  I recently had these videos digitally copied and have put them on Youtube in 10 minute segments.  You can see Sandie nudging her along at times, trying to keep her on topic.

But in these videos, you can also see how special my Grandma Emma was.  It’s my hope that even though she is no longer with us, my kids and my family can learn from her.  She made the world a much better place.

Giving Back

Since moving to Ripon a few months ago, I’ve been looking for opportunities to volunteer my time.  Sometimes opportunity can show up in the most unlikely of places.  During the annual Dickens of a Christmas early in December, my family and I visited the Ripon Historical Society where I met its president, Bill Woolley.  I asked Bill if there was a chance the society was looking for volunteers and he put me in touch with his wife Jean.

Yesterday I met with Jean and am excited to say that I’ll be transcribing the obituaries from the Ripon Commonwealth Press and the Oshkosh Northwestern into the Ripon Library online database, administered through the Winnefox Library System.

It may not exactly be providing life-changing assistance to those in need, but I’m sure somewhere down the line there will be genealogists who will appreciate my efforts.

New Friends, New Family

Saturday was our last full day in Germany and was supposed to have been pretty laid back and uneventful.  It turned out to be far from true.

During our trip, we had been communicating via Facebook with Anja Rathkamp from Delmenhorst.  Anja found me on Facebook about a year ago, and while we have yet to make a “genetic connection”, if your last name is Rathkamp, we’re bound to be related.  We were trying to figure out when and if we could meet on Saturday.  Korey and I decided to visit with Anja for a while Saturday afternoon after leaving Sulingen and then take our time getting back to Hamburg where our flight would be leaving the next day.

Anja had other plans.

We met Anja at her apartment and spent some time visiting with her.  She explained to us that her father knew we were in town and that he would love to meet us.  After indulging in a Beck’s at Anja’s we got into her VW and drove to her father’s.  Anja explained that her father had been a blacksmith but recently had a stroke.  I guess I was expecting her father to be frail, but Werner is a hulk of a man and greeted us with a big bear hug when we met.  Neither Korey or I was prepared for how emotional Werner was at seeing his “lost family” from America.  Anja later referred to this as the “winkle in his eyes”.

Meanwhile, Tom Martens, the husband of my cousin Lorna, was monitoring our trip via Facebook and said, “Delmenhorst?  That’s where MY family is from!!”  It turns out, Tom’s German relatives run a very prosperous bakery just out of Delmenhorst, and so Anja decided a visit to the bakery was in order.

We arrived at the bakery mid-afternoon, and met Tom’s uncle Heinz Timmerman, Heinz’s daughter Kirstin, and Kirstin’s husband Hendrick.  When I was a kid I worked for a short time at a bagel shop in Milwaukee, so this wasn’t my first exposure to a bakery.  This however wasn’t just any bakery.  Heinz had recently made the decision to relinquish management of the business to his right hand man.  Under new management, several changes have been made including the addition of an adjacent cafe.  In the U.S., change brought on by new ideas often causes some resentment between parties, but in this case the Timmermans have offered up their support and are very proud to still have their name on the bakery.

Following a tour where we were shown what I thought was a huge amount of very high quality bakery being produced, we sat in the outdoor cafe and enjoyed coffee and some very incredible butter kuchen.

After we said goodbye to the Timmermans, we learned that Anja had made arrangements for us to travel to meet Werner’s brother Jurgen Rathkamp and his family.  As soon as we got out of Anja’s car, Jurgen came out of the door and began playing a song for us on his concertina.  Jurgen’s wife Frieda had made Schnitzel, Wurst and potato salad for us.  Also there was Jurgen’s son Tammo, Tammo’s wife Martina, and their two sons.

After dinner, Frieda brought out some old family pictures.  One of them in particular caught my attention.  Keep in mind, I haven’t yet been able to “connect” my Oeftinghausen Rathkamps with Anja’s Rathkamps.  This picture seems to make the connection.

After dinner and pictures, Anja had one more stop for us.  We drove to the old family farm previously owned by Jurgen, now owned by Jurgen’s older son Heinrich.  It seems the agriculture business in Germany has changed much as it’s changed in the U.S.  with small farms being squeezed by corporate agriculture.  Heinrich decided that rather than fighting to barely make a living, he’d reinvent the several hundred year old family business and is now running what would have to be called an excavation/ recycling business.

An example of Heinrich’s innovative thinking was demonstrated when he showed us a huge pile of fluffy material.  In its prior life, this material had been non-toxic insulation, removed from old buildings, shredded, and mixed with sand and Crisco.  We had no idea what this could be used for, but Heinrich explained that he sells it to horse tracks where it replaces dirt and sand as a very comfortable surface for horse racing.

The sun had just gone down and sensing we needed to get going, Anja drove us back to her apartment where after a very excellent day, we said our goodbyes to our “new family” in Germany.  Thanks Anja!


Chasing Chickens in Oeftinghausen

I’ve been ridiculously delinquent in writing about our last two days in Germany, but sometimes life throws a couple curve balls and you just have to react.  Actually, I can handle the curve balls, it’s those inside pitches that tend to sting a little.

I can’t speak for Korey, but I think Friday was the day I was most looking forward to- our trip to the Rathkamp ancestral home in Oeftinghausen.  Thursday night we drove to Sulingen where we stayed with Marion Rathkamp (my 4th cousin) and her husband Stefan.  Besides being awed by Marion & Stefan’s house, we felt an immediate bond with them and stayed up fairly late just laughing and talking about “stuff”.  After a couple beers Stefan became fluent in English and I was thinking I probably could have taught a German class.  Truthfully, by this point in our trip I certainly wasn’t fluent, but I really enjoyed just getting in there and doing my best to speak the language.


Friday morning Korey and I decided that we’d like to spend a little time together so we took in the sights of downtown Sulingen, a very charming town of almost 13,000 just south of Oeftinghausen.  We felt like we were on the set of “Willy Wonka” at the Fischer Fine Sweets factory and laughed when a little later we tried to eat 100% pure dark chocolate.  We put our sword to good use on Schmiede Strasse.


Finally we drove with Marion to her parents’ house in Oeftinghausen.  Not only were we greeted by Walter and Mariechen Rathkamp, but also by two of Walter’s cousins, Heinrich Rathkamp and Adolf Schupp, Adolf’s wife Antje, and the Mayor of Ehrenberg.  The Mayor presented us with some aerial photographs of Oeftinghausen and some local organic cheese.  We visited for a while, had coffee and desserts, and walked across the street to see the Schmiede (blacksmith shop) my ancestors worked in along with their home.  Marion recalled many of her childhood memories and told me her grandmother lived in the large home until fairly recently.

It was a bit of a surreal experience made even more surreal after Antje Schupp, sensing my introspection, asked me, “are you imagining your great great great grandfather as a boy laughing and chasing those chickens around the house?”


We said our goodbyes to Heinrich, Adolf & Antje and then drove to the cemetery and visited the church in Schmalfoerden where my Rathkamp ancestors were baptized and married.  The inside of the church was closed, as it was being restored, but behind the church I found a couple decaying pieces of the tile roof lying on the ground which I took for souvenirs.  There was a memorial on the grounds of the church honoring those from Schmalfoerden who had given their lives during WWI and WWII.  We noted about 4 or 5 Rathkamps listed.


We then went for dinner just down the road where Korey and I both decided on Jaeger Schnitzel.  Dinner was excellent and we got to hear some great stories from Walter.  The most memorable to me was his story about the days following the collapse of the German army in WWII.  Apparently the German troops who were stationed in Schmalfoerden, hearing about the surrender, simply left their posts along with whatever provisions they may have had.  Walter and his friends decided to find out if there was anything of value left behind, thinking maybe they would find a loaf of bread or some cigarettes.  It turns out the Allies had been watching them from a distance and thinking Walter’s crew was possibly recovering weapons, began firing at them.  Walter told us that day they made record time back to the relative safety of Oeftinghausen.

For the third time during our trip, I learned a valuable life lesson:  I came to Germany excited to see great architecture, historically significant places, and to discover my ancestral roots.  What I hadn’t planned on was making a connection with people I am proud to call family.  Friday wouldn’t be the last time we experienced this, and Saturday was maybe even more of a surprise.


My cousin Matt died this morning.

His life was full of struggle and pain, but he fought to make the best of it.  Matt was born about six months before me.  I feel fortunate to have been Matt’s friend during our childhood.  We were very close, having lived in the same house for a while and having gone to the same schools most of our lives.

Over the years we grew apart but this morning when I heard the news, a flood of memories came back to me.  So this evening I decided to take a ride down to our old neighborhood.  I first drove past Sherman Park Lutheran where we roller skated, then Washington Park where we practiced football in the fall and ice skated in the winter.  Then I drove past our old house on 37th and Lloyd and sat there thinking about more memories.  Memories of us hiding from our Grandpa Dodge under his work bench.  I thought about Matt, Robert Bergner and I hitting each other over the heads like Barbarians with 4 foot long icicles.  I turned the corner and looked down the alley remembering how we used to climb up on the cinder box trying to push each other off.  I remembered all the games of football and kick the can we played in the alley.

I drove past the “corner store” where we could buy a fist full of candy for a dime.  Later on Matt could by a pack of cigarettes with a forged note from his “mom”.  Across the street at Bethany Lutheran Church, we once found an open door, ran up into the balcony and tried playing Black Sabbath’s Iron Man on the organ.  After that we went into the storage room on the side of the alter and wolfed down a package of communion wafers…not because we were hungry, but because they were there.

I drove past the house with the huge chestnut tree and thought about the hundreds of times we walked by, picked up chestnuts and whipped them at each other.  If we were lucky, the prickers on the outside of the chestnut would hit bare skin inflicting “severe pain”.  My last stop was Bethany Lutheran School.  Matt went to Bethany for all of grade school, and I into 6th grade.  It’s hard to imagine now, but Matt was a tremendous athlete in grade school.  He set the standard for all of us.

These are the memories of Matt I choose to hold on to.  While we may have drifted apart, Mathew Ryan Patten was the brother I always wished I had.

A Day With Herr Britannica

I met Friedhelm Wessels via email about three years ago while I was trying to locate my Rathkamp ancestors.  I’m glad I did.  At that time, I knew my ancestors came to Milwaukee in 1868 and I had a very rough idea of the location they may have been from in Germany, but that was it.  I was at a dead end.

Friedhelm has not only helped me find my ancestors, but has also given me a real understanding of the world they lived in.  Korey and I were very lucky to be able to stay with Friedhelm for two nights and tap into his vast knowledge during our day with him.  Later in the week, we would meet some other people who knew Herr Wessels and everybody seemed to have the same great respect for him.  Thank you Friedhelm for all your help and friendship.

Our morning started out in the church at Bassum.  Coming from Wisconsin where “old” is maybe 150 years, it’s hard to imagine this church’s origins began over 1150 years ago.  There are about 50 of my ancestors (that I know of) who were baptized or married in this church.

Friedhelm told us that during one of Napoleon’s conquests, he used the adjacent Abbey as temporary housing for his officers.  Napoleon also tore the pews out of the church and used the church as stables for his horses.  My third great grandfather, Dietrich Heinrich Hülsemann was baptized in this church in 1808, during the time of Napoleon’s reign.  That kind of thing can really get your imagination going.


Later in the day, we visited the church in Neukirchen where my great great grandparents were married in 1861.  The church was locked, but that didn’t stop Friedhelm.  He asked some locals where the caretaker lived and we drove over there to get the keys.  This church was much smaller and simpler, but still very old.  Most of the artwork was probably done in the 1500’s, but one panel in particular was definitely of Saxon origin.  Before leaving the church, we climbed up into the steeple…where we got to see first hand what happens when you have bats in your belfry.