Ostfriesland, Near Holland, Sent Many Here
submitted by Amy Robbins-Tjaden

 

              

Sunday Morning Star, Peoria, Illinois, Sunday, April 9, 1939
(permission granted to reproduce this article by Sandy McKee, Journal Star)

Ostfriesland, Near Holland, Sent Many Here; Limestone Township Early Center

In a little section of low land, east of the present Netherlands, south of the present Denmark, and bordering on the North Sea, a race of hardy, alert, conservative people has developed during the past thousand years.  These are the Ostfrieslanders or Ostfriesians.  In no other part of Germany is there a group which has kept itself so intact over such a long period of time.  And, in proportion to its population, no district in Germany has sent so many of its people to America and to Peoria and vicinity as had East Friesland.
 
The Friesans, in the times of Tacitus and Caesar, occupied all of what is now Holland, all of the low coast lands in northwestern Germany, parts of Denmark, and the islands, which lie nearby in the North Sea.  That was before the well-established national group had been broken up into its present divisions including Friesland, West Friesland, North Friesland, and East Friesland.  But despite the divisions, mostly governmental, the Friesians remain the same sturdy stock, speak the same language, Low German, with minor dialectic differences, and have a great pride in their long history and continuously steady rise.  This article is to deal with the East Friesland people.

Common Language Holds People in One Group

The "Low German" language is, of course, the language spoken by the people in "Low Germany" -- and the low refers to the territory which is low in elevation, often actually below sea-level in East Friesland, as it is in large sections of Holland.  "High German" is the name often given to the language spoken in those parts of Germany which are in the Hartz mountains, in Bavaria, or Saxony, or other elevated parts of the country.  "Low German" is the common spoken language of East Friesland, but it now seldom gets into print.  The several books which I have perused in the preparation of this article have been in the regular Germany (sic) language, and none of them has used any Low German except in reproducing some of the classical poems, and folkstories, which had appeared originally in that language.  Incidentally the translators who have interpreted the German text for me include Rev M. L. Bischoff, pastor of Saint Paul's Lutheran church, a native of Germany, but of another district Max Tschaepe, a native of Germany, but not of Ostfriesland; H. T. Poppen, Bruno Juerjens, and Ed Weerts, all born in Ostfriesland.

Ostfriesians Came After Our Civil War

Only a comparatively few Ostfriesians came to central Illinois before 1865.  Germans had come from other parts of Germany in large groups after the 1848 revolution in Germany, but that revolution had gained little headway in Ostfriesland.  The 1848 revolution centered in the German university cities, and thousands of young Germans left the country on account of differences with governmental policies and to escape service in the army.  But the Ostfrieslanders did not come until 1865 and later, and none of those interviewed could give any reason for the Ostfrieslanders' coming except to better themselves economically and to give expression to their centuries-old longing for sea travel -- for the Ostfriesians had been seafarers, voyagers, and sailors for centuries.

Schipper and Block From Ostfriesland

John F. Schipper and Henry C. Block, founders of Schipper & Block, which has developed into the large chain of Block & Kuhl department stores, were born in Ostfriesland, as also was Fred L. Block who helped to form the Schipper & Block store, in Peoria.
 
Mr Shipper was born in Wundel, which had been the family home for 200 years, in 1838.  His father had served under Blucher in the war against Napoleon, and was in the engineering department which constructed many of the public works in northern Europe, including the harbor at Cherbourg, France.  John Schipper was educated by private tutors and in the gymnasium (school) at Wirdum, later taking a business college course and then working in stores in Wirdum, Emden, and in Rotterdam, Holland. In 1865 he decided to go to Japan for his health, but upon the insistence of his father, came to America instead, and located in Pekin.  In the course of a few years he joined Henry Block in his first merchandise business, and also served in the banking firm of Teis Smith & Co, in Pekin.
 
Henry C. Block was born in Leer in 1842.  His father came from Esens, and other members of the family from Blockhuisen, in the same district.  His grandmother, Anna Oldendorp, was born in Norden, and her father came from Grosslaverde.  Others of the family came from Aurich.  He sailed for America in 1865 and a year later came to Pekin where he became a partner of Mr Schipper.  Some time later Theodore Kuhl entered the partnership.  Pekin has been for years a popular place for those of Ostfriesian origin.
 
P. A. Bergner, founder of the store bearing his name, was a native of the town of Leer, the same town from which the original Blocks came.
 
Bruno Juerjens, founder and proprietor of the Juerjens greenhouses, was born in Norden.  From Norden came Hero T. Poppen, owner of the Poppen chain of grocery stores; Heye Dieken; Frank Meyer, founder of the F. Meyer Furnace Company; and many others.
 
It is obviously impossible to list even a fraction of the Ostfriesians who came to Peoria, or of those of the second and third generation now here.  Pastors of two of the Lutheran churches state that there must be almost one thousand people of Ostfriesian lineage in Peoria and immediate vicinity.
 
Among Peoria residents, past and present, born there, are Peter Bornholdt, Jibbo Dieken, D. Janssen, George Post, H. D. Martens, several of the Rosenbooms, Cornelius Schmidt, Mrs Theodore Koester, Claus Rose, several of the Redenius family, Onno Seeba and other Seebas, several of the Heien family, some of the Christophers, several of the Wilkin family, Tjarksens, several members of the Bruninga family, and the roll could be extended.
 
John Bruninga was one of the early Ostfriesians to locate here, and he farmed in Limestone township.  One of the Bruningas says that Limestone township was chosen as a settlement place for two reasons:  it had not already been thickly populated by newcomers, and it lies along the Illinois rive, and is cut by creeks and streams much as is the old country, thus providing surroundings similar to those in Ostfriesland.  In any event, the township became a haven for those from the little lowland section of northern Germany, and at one time none-tenths of the farmers in Limestone were of Ostfriesian blood.
 
If you drive through Limestone township you will observe many old stone houses.  Many of these were built by Ostfriesians after the style of their old-country homes, even to the tile roofs.  You will observe that the cattle barns are usually well constructed.  In the old country cattle are guarded and protected from the weather with the greatest care.  And you will surely note that most of the mild cattle are Holstein-Friesians -- and there is a little story of its own.

Black and White Cattle Developed in Friesland

The Holstein-Friesian cattle were developed in Friesland, and not in Holstein, although the name of Holstein has generally been adopted in common usage.  These cattle have been in process of development for two thousand years in Friesland, and during most of that time there was no introduction of other blood.  In the time of Caesar the "black and white" milk cattle were famous.  Ostfriesland, in common with Holland, is largely a grazing country, and milk cows predominate among stock.  Practically no beef cattle are grown, but as the Holsteins are the largest type of milk cattle they are used for beef as well as for milk.  Where grain is grown it is usually for flour or for feed for the milk cows.  Farmsteads in many instances include a Bauernhaus, the family living in the front and the milk cows being housed in the back of the big brick building during the winter.  There is a fire wall between the house and the barn, and the barn is always kept almost immaculately clean.  Cattle are sometimes washed daily.  In the summer, when the cattle are kept outdoors all the time, the farmers walk to the pastureland to milk the cows and then carry the milk back to the house -- this to save the cattle from undue exertion.  Milk is the life blood of Friesian agriculture.  And it goes without saying that farmers so dependent upon milk cows should have developed the most popular breed of milk cattle.
 
A member of the Martens family told me that Holsteins in the old country are a trifle larger than the Holsteins in the United States.  They are universally black and white, although a red and white breed was developed on one of the Friesian islands.
 
Dutch Belted cattle developed out of the Holstein breed, and are distinguished by a wide, white belt completely circling the animals.  One of the first Dutch Belted cows brought to the mid-west had been imported by P. T. Barnum for his circus.  After the novelty of the belted cattle had worn away the Barnum herd was sold, and one of the Bruningas brought a fine specimen to Limestone township.  

They Still Cut Small Grain With Scythes


In all of the harvesting pictures from the old country I observed that farmers use scythes to cut barley, rye and oats, and I asked Bruno Juerjens why this method is used.
 
"The reason is rather simple," said Mr Juerjens.  "Straw is very important over there as well as the grain.  And one very important use for straw is in the dykes.  But the straw must be very long in order to serve effectively in a dyke.  A few decades ago some engineers came to Ostfriesland and induced the farmers and the government to use stone dykes.  Some of these were built, but the old North Sea swept in and swept out, in its never-ending ebb and flow, and washed holes in the rock walls.  Then they went back to earth dykes reinforced with long straw.  If mowing machines were used the straw would be too short to make a good matting, and that is why scythes are used to this very day.  The long rye or barley straw is forced down into the earthen walls, and an expert dyke builder can build a wall with earth and good straw that will stand more grief than a rock wall.  Small grain grows often to the height of a man."

Much of Old Country is Below Sea-Level

J. A. Hayes, superintendent of schools in Peoria county, told me once that the Ostfriesians who have settled in Limestone township know more about flood control, and the control of soil erosion, than any other group he has observed.  This comes naturally because Ostfriesland, where the pioneer Limestone farmers came from, is largely below sea-level, and the control of water is an important part of farming.
 
In the old country windmills came into general sue about the middle of the Fifteenth century.  Henry Rosenbloom told me that modern Ostfriesland dates from the coming of the windmill.  These mills worked day and night.  And on that auto trip through Limestone you will probably observe more windmills than in any other township in Peoria county.  The windmills, however, are gradually yielding to power pumps, and in Ostfriesland electric pumps are now generally in use.  In the old country windmills furnished power for grist mills and small factories.

Klootschiessen and Skating are Popular

Mr Hero T. Poppen (Hero is a common name in the old country) tells how the people in his native land enjoy skating and ball throwing, perhaps the two most popular sports.  Ice skating is a winter-long sport and Ostfriesland together with Holland has been widely publicized for her skaters.  And a year-round sport is Klootschiessen, or ball throwing.  The ball used is of iron and the best Klootscheter from one town is matched against representatives of other towns.
 
Mr Juergens relates an incident which illustrates the solidarity of the Ostfriesians in their native land and their desire to remain unbothered by other groups.  When the Atlantic cable was being laid, the town of Norden was chosen as headquarters for the European end of the submarine wire.  But when the Norden aldermen (they are called senators there) got to discussing the proposition they voted against permitting their city to be so used, because they thought that "strange elements" would be brought into the community by the big project.  Cable headquarters were then located in nearby Emden.  Incidentally, Mr Juergens came to America in 1893 to attend the Chicago World's Fair, and to "look around".  When he left the country he had intended to <illegible> to Australia to locate, some of his relatives having settled there.  But he became so fascinated with Peoria and Peoria people that he decided to stay.  He worked one month and then started in business for himself on the exact spot where his greenhouses are now on North Perry avenue.

Peet Beds Numerous in Central Territory

One of the industries in Ostfriesland is handling peet.  There are immense peet beds in the center of the country and the peet is cut up into slabs about the size of our paving bricks.  These are dried and then sued for fuel.  One of the Koesters told me that a beautiful and at times eerie sight is the luminescence hovering over the peet beds during damp weather, the strange glow being common.  Many of the folkstories and folksongs of the country are based around this phenomenos.  But the best known of the folkstories are connected with something vastly different -- a famous pirate of an earlier day, Stoerbecker.
 
This pirate had headquarters in Osteel, and with his crew invaded coast cities.  So serious were his depredations that communities along the sea erected towers from the top of which sentries could be on the lookout for Stoerbecker.  After a long career of piracy he was captured, tried and ordered beheaded.  Stoerbecker asked for one final favor, according to one of the folktales.  He asked that if he could walk, headless, after his execution, those of his band whom he would walk past would be allowed their freedom.  His head was chopped off and, according to the tale, the pirate walked past ten of his men before he fell to the ground.  The ten men were given their freedom.

Pekin Was Mecca For Ostfriesians in Early Days

Ed Weerts was at his home in Washington, Illinois, when I interviewed him.  He was born in Riepe, Ostfriesland, but was reared on a farm near Forlitz-Blaukirchen.  In 1884 he came to Danforth from the old country, returning to the old country in 1886 for his wife.  He farmed near Gilman for eight years and then traveled for a number of years.  He has been active in German singing societies and is widely known.  Mr Weerts recalled incidents connected with the life of Theodore J. Miller, well known real estate man, who was a native of Ostfriesland, and of members of the Teessen family, including Hero Teessen, secretary of the Godel Ice Company.  It was he who informed me that Dr Hero Kruse was from East Friesland, and that Alt Gerdes came here from his native town of Ochtusum (sic) in 1866, and that George Harms is of Ostfriesen stock.
 
"Wherever there is good farm land in Illinois and the mid-west," said Mr Weerts, "you are apt to find some Ostfriesians.  There are many of our group of people in Pekin, where many of them came in earlier days to work in the Smith Wagon Works.  There are many in Minonk, and in Champaign county.  In fact, wherever German people settled there is apt to be a good representation of Ostfriesians."
 
Mr Weerts mentioned one of the places which all visitors ask to see the Upstallbom (sic), ancient tree-topped hill near Aurich where criminal trials were held 1,500 years ago.

 


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