Monday, March 25, 2013

BIRTHDAY BIO -- Kenneth H. Schmidt (1932-2011)

Today would have been my dad’s 81st birthday.
Kenneth Howard Schmidt was born in 1932 in Greensburg, Kansas, in the home of a midwife. He could point the house out to me before the tornado of 2007 destroyed it.

He was the oldest child of Harvey and Beatrice Schmidt. They would add another son, Lee, and a daughter, Judi, to their family in later years. He grew up on a farm southwest of town.

While the Schmidt families came from a Mennonite background, Harvey and Beatrice were not regular church attenders as Ken grew up.  But Ken would return to his Mennonite roots and join the church as a young man at Hesston College, Hesston, Kansas. And Ken would go on to work for the Mennonite Church – and in particular, the medical ministries – the rest of his life.

 Ken’s path into this field began with his salvation experience. As a Mennonite, he chose to be a conscientious objector and registered as such with the selective service. This change of status made him a target of selective service investigation for many years.

Ken served out his alternative service as an orderly in hospitals in Pueblo, Colorado. While this wasn't his first choice, he was glad to have a location in Colorado as his girlfriend and future wife, Phyllis Egli, was in nurses training in LaJunta, Colorado – about 75 miles away.

After he completed his service and Phyllis completed her training, they were married and settled in Kansas working as farmers for Ken’s dad, Harvey. But Ken kept his hand in the medical field. He was on the board at the local hospital.  And eventually he decided to go back to college and got a degree from Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas in Medical Technology.

In the following years, the Mennonite Church hired him to work in hospitals and nursing homes in south Texas, Colorado, and Indiana. Although he was trained in medical technology, he worked in administrative positions. And even after he retired and returned to Greensburg, Kansas, he worked as administrator of the local nursing home.

Ken was also active in churches wherever he lived and active in the lives of his children and grandchildren. He was also a part-time farmer in Colorado and in Kansas.

Ken was a very devoted husband and in their later years, Ken and Phyllis - his wife of over 50 years – were often seen holding hands as they walked down the halls of their retirement apartment community.

As Phyllis struggled with illness and disabilities, he was more and more her constant help and companion. And as her health failed, so did his. He was showing early signs of dementia.

Mom passed away in January 2010 and in the months that followed, Dad seemed to lose his will to live. He lost weight and slowly slipped away from us. He passed away on the 25th of January 2011. We love you and miss you, Dad.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Book Review: My Grandfather's Prison

I recently read the book My Grandfather's Prison: a Story of Death and Deceit in 1940s Kansas City by Richard A. Serrano.[1] I came across the book in a Kansas City bookstore in the section labeled "Local."

Although Mr. Serrano is a journalist, not a genealogist, this book is an intriguing example of family history writing. It is definitely lacking in documentation from a genealogist's standpoint. I would love to have seen footnotes, endnotes, bibliography -- anything to document the sources that Mr. Serrano details in his story.

The book basically tells of Serrano's search for what happened to his grandfather, James Lyons. Lyons abandoned his wife and child, Serrano's mother, when she was 2 or 3 and then died shortly before Serrano was born. No one really knew what happened to him except that he was a "lovable drunk" who died in the old jail.

Serrano discovers the death certificate lists his grandfather's death as "shock . . . fractured neck . . . traumatic conditions." Why was he in jail? "Drunk in public." His grandfather was murdered in the Kansas City Municipal Farm solitary confinement cell. How does something like this happen? Why did it happen? Who did it? The mystery begins.

The search for old records is detailed and so painfully familiar to genealogists - missing records, misfiled records, poorly stored records . . . it's all here. But there are lessons to be learned from Serrano. His persistence is admirable and pays off when he is allowed to dig through old records and when he finds people most of us would never even think to look for! But Serrano's ability to recreate the social environment that his ancestors lived in is key in ultimately understanding his grandfather's life and his death. Kansas City history is full of corruption and deceit. The story includes mob style murder and organized crime connections. If your family was in politics or police work in KC you might not like what you read here!  Kansas City history includes a large skid row population. Those people were all someone's family, too. Some of their stories make it into Serrano's book. Bringing Kansas City to life on his pages hit home to me when he discussed the 1930s in Kansas City. I suddenly remembered my grandmother telling me that she and grandpa went to Kansas City after they were married in 1931 and he left her alone in a hotel room to go to a "speakeasy." The draw of the Kansas City "speakeasy" during Prohibition was an irresistible lure for many men.

There is a lot of sadness in this story. The sadness of what alcohol abuse and addiction does to families is probably the most notable. But just as we all have discovered, there are things to be learned when we understand our ancestors including all their flaws. Serrano's journey brings him what he needs.

In spite of its lack of documentation, this book is a good and easy read and well worth it. One reviewer on Amazon called it "slow paced and unfocused" and his arguments had some validity but I found the writing to feel very sincere. I think it will inspire you - maybe to dig a little deeper for records, maybe to search for social history, maybe to write about a difficult ancestor. I recommend it. Just remember your citations.

Image courtesy of Dan at

[1] Serrano, Richard A. My Grandfather's Prison: a Story of Death and Deceit in 1940s Kansas City. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2009.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Funeral Card Friday -- Benjamin P. Schmidt

My great, great grandfather Benjamin P. Schmidt was born in Karlswalde, Russia. He and his wife and children immigrated with the Mennonite migration in 1875 and settled in Barton County, Kansas.

Every year there is a Benjamin P. and Catharina A. Schmidt Family Reunion in Greensburg, Kansas, and one year one of his grand daughters brought this funeral card.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Wedding Wednesday - Peter and Annie Peterson

My great grandparents Peter Pedersen and Anna Peterson were married on January 22, 1891. They chose to use her spelling of the Peterson name as their married name. They were the first couple to be married in the Augustana Lutheran Church in Manson, Iowa.

Fifty years later, in 1941, they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary,

and in 1945 their story was published in the local newspaper.
Manson (Iowa) Journal, August 16, 1945

This article tells their story. She immigrated from Sweden as a very small child. He immigrated from Denmark as an adult. They met in Manson and spent the remainder of their lives there.

Thanks to Heather at Leaves for Trees for suggesting this graphic!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Those Places Thursday - Calvary Mennonite Church

In the 1930's Calvary Mennonite Church in Greensburg, Kansas, was meeting in a small basement structure that they did not have the resources to complete. But the growing congregation needed more room. So in 1937 when the opportunity came up to purchase the old North Grade School building, they decided it was the right move and acquired the building.

North Grade School

They decided to remove the second story. They used jacks to hold up the roof while they tore out the story, but when the jacks were lowered there was still a ways to go to get the large roof lowered in one piece.  I was told that a man named Folsom Wheeler, who was known as an inventive genius, came up with a way to get the old roof down onto the first floor when he had a dream about it. They placed large ice blocks between the roof and first floor, removed the jacks and waited as the ice melted and slowly lowered the roof onto the first floor.
remodeling in process

I wish someone had taken a picture of that!

This church is the church I remember as a small child. I remember my Aunt Judi's wedding here, sitting on those big front steps, church dinners in the basement, watching the ladies quilt.  I remember my parents let my siblings and I play quietly beside them during Wednesday night prayer meetings. I also remember that if we weren't good in church we were carried out of the building and disciplined. We learned how to sit still at an early age.
The church in 1953

In 1974 the Calvary Mennonite Church changed it's name to the Greensburg Mennonite Church and in 1978 a new church was built next to this one. In 1981 the old school/church building was torn down.
Greensburg Mennonite Church in 1995

On May 4, 2007 an F5 tornado came through Greensburg destroying everything, including every church in town.
Greensburg Mennonite Church site, summer 2007

But in the years since, every church has rebuilt including Greensburg Mennonite. You can see the new church by looking them up on their Facebook page.

"The Greensburg Mennonite Church History" compiled from "Church History" a term paper by Wallace Jantz and past records of the church.

Personal notes and photos of Kenneth Schmidt.

2007 photo copyright RMartin

*If link does not work, find Folsom Wheeler at: Find A Grave Memorial # 19676248

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Treasure Chest Thursday -- Supercar!

When I was very young, my dad bought – or maybe traded something for – a car from my Uncle Tom. It was 1954 Chevrolet that he listed on his 1963 taxes* as a “field car.”  As I remember it was rather beat up and at first we kids weren't very thrilled about riding in it. But Dad knew how to get us to love it.

It didn't have seat belts of course so we could all stand in the backseat. There was a ‘rope’ across the back of the front seat that we could hold onto. The three of us were very close in age – so close that for part of the year our ages were consecutive, as in 3, 4, and 5. Dad would often pick all three of us up at once to carry us out to the car. It made for cleaner shoes I am sure. Dad called the car “Supercar” and as we bounced down the long lane of our farm, we would all yell, “Sooopercar!”

When my dad quit farming to go back to school, he got rid of that old car but we never forgot it.

I don’t have a photo of it, but I found this photo on the Serious Wheels website.
Image Copyright Serious Wheels

*yes, my dad saved all of his taxes and they are a treasure trove of information