My great-grandfather John Sebastian Sehnert was an odd man. From his earliest childhood, people shook their heads and said he was bound to come to no good. He was an idler, a woolgatherer, indifferent to authority, dreamily impervious to punishment, unintimidated by anybody else’s opinions. At school, he insisted on re-Germanizing his name, pronouncing it in the heaviest Teutonic accent he could muster: yo-hann say-BOSH-tyan. When the other kids made fun of him he just laughed and repeated their jokes himself. That was how his friends and even his family came to call him Bosh.
The name stuck because it suited him. He had a lifelong love of bosh, of nonsense and irrelevant fantasy. He loved bad jokes and worse puns; he invented childish parodies of popular songs and sang them with operatic passion. He was the class clown, the goof, the one who couldn’t stop laughing at the silly names in the geography lessons; to the end of his days he thought education meant high-sounding nonsense made up of equal parts Lincoln and Cicero and Hiawatha. His only real talent was for playing hooky. He practiced it incessantly–sometimes his brothers had to escort him forcibly into the schoolhouse to keep him from flunking out. He learned every road and creek and woodland for miles around town. He knew every barn and backcountry church, every derelict cabin, every farmhouse where he could cadge a free lunch, every fenced-in shack where a family kept its lunatic relative–the wild-eyed uncle who’d nailed up hex signs to ward off the evil eye and would charge trespassers from the cornrows while shouting verses from Revelations.
Bosh did manage to finish the eighth grade. After that he had a meandering career around town. There was always a relative or a family friend or a business associate of his father’s who’d help him out with a menial job; they were always taken by his air of kindheartedness and imperturbability but ultimately exasperated by his daydreaming. He was a grocery clerk, a telegraph messenger, a shoe salesman, a photographer’s assistant. His longest-lasting job was train conductor. When he was 19 he got hired by a midsize passenger line that ran between Toledo and Topeka. He worked the milk run from Saint Louis to Springfield for a couple of years but never liked it much. In those days trains were a byword for swarming confusion: every car was a carnival of salesmen, remittance men, immigrant families, preachers, hustlers, and drifters. He was worn out by the sight of them, and made homesick by the interminable vistas of unfamiliar farmland streaming past the tracks. Eventually he quit and resumed his aimless life around town.
He became a familiar sight in Edwardsville’s saloons. People said he was the only one of the Sehnert boys who’d rather be a saloon’s customer than its owner. He became a fiend for billiards, which he mastered in endless afternoons of solitary practice; he got to the point where he could beat just about anybody in town. He started playing for money, and picked up enough to indulge a newfound taste for fine clothes he learned to wear fashionably loose, the tie and handkerchief just slightly askew. In this attire he strolled into the classiest billiard rooms downtown, the ones with green baize and polished brass and varnished mahogany, carrying himself with the negligent grace of a riverboat gambler come ashore for a day’s amusement. Even as he trounced his opponents he treated them with grave respect–so grave, in fact, that nobody could tell if he was kidding.
It was his father who put an end to this career. J.L. understood laziness all too well, but he wasn’t going to watch any son of his make a fool of himself. So he took Bosh into the family business and gave him the one job everybody thought he could handle: deliveryman.
Twice a week Bosh loaded up a big beer wagon and drove its horses between Edwardsville and Pierron and Highland. To be fair, it wasn’t as easy as it sounds. The roads hadn’t changed much since the days of the first settlers. They were fine in the summer, baked solid by the sun and softened by dust; they were passable in winter, after the ruts had been filled in with ice and hard-packed snow. But the thaws of spring and the long rains of fall made them a soupy misery: a journey of a few hours could turn into a day and night of torture as the wagon lurched from one bottomless mud hole to the next. Bosh took pride in his skill at maneuvering through these obstacles, but what he liked most was the solitude–usually he rode alone, with a shotgun in case of hijackers, and he had nothing to do except watch the familiar hills and forests drift past.
But it was the sight of him perched atop the beer wagon that finished him off in the eyes of the town. A hundred years later, one of the local gossips could still remember the judgment it passed on him. “Everybody liked Bosh,” she told me. “But they all said the same thing about him. His problem was he just had no ambition.”
Sehnert’s Hotel was notorious for the speed at which it ran through hired help. Those were hard times, the 1890s, the worst that America would see until the Great Depression; a lot of people were out of work, on the road, grateful for any day labor they could scrabble up. But even so, some of the hardiest cooks and maids and clerks couldn’t put up with the ferocity of Franciska’s taskmastering; and of the women who could, most were scared off by J.L.’s lumbering, undeflectable flirtatiousness. But soon after the turn of the century a new chambermaid hired on who proved resistant to both.
Her name was Agnes Gross. She had just turned 21; she was broad and big-boned, with a flat nose, a wide, plain face, and masses of dull brown hair. She had a spectacular temper. No one was better at conveying furious resentment at Franciska’s demands; and her look of sullen hatred whenever J.L. contrived to be alone with her was enough to get even an elephant like him to shy off. But she had one other quality that trumped any of her defects in the Sehnerts’ eyes: she had a limitless capacity for hard work.
She had been born in the town of Alhambra, about 15 miles east of Edwardsville. Her family was much like the Sehnerts: in fact they’d come from the same Rhinelander province, and had similar success in America as farmers and tradespeople. Agnes’s brothers were pharmacists and grocers and railroad workers; one would soon open the county’s first telephone service (he had 40 clients, and his wife operated the switchboard from a curtained alcove in their parlor). Agnes’s family also had a faint hint of the disreputable hovering over them–though in their case it dated from a single incident. Agnes’s father August had been a wagon maker until his factory burned down in the mid-1870s. Decades later, people in Alhambra were still saying darkly that the fire had been no accident.
Agnes had been on her own since she was 14. She’d never gotten along with her family: she was iron-willed and disobedient and she’d run away several times while still in grammar school. Once she left home for good she spent years working in factories and living in cheap rooming houses. In her late teens she came to Edwardsville and drifted into domestic service. Sehnert’s was the first hotel she’d worked at, and she hadn’t decided yet if it would be her last. She didn’t have much use for her employers and was thinking of moving on–that is, until she met Bosh.
He was 24 then: a good-humored young man with a round face, disorderly hair, and kindly eyes. He was known to everyone as a ne’er-do-well and a soft touch, someone who couldn’t be trusted to carry out the simplest errand but who would empty his pockets to the last penny if a friend or new acquaintance or passerby was in need. When he began to notice Agnes–hanging around the hotel in the afternoons as she made the beds, fearlessly teasing her when she was in a foul mood–she couldn’t tell whether he was imitating his father (with far more delicacy) or taking pity on a plain girl. It was a long time before she would admit to herself that he was serious.
His family had no idea what to make of this romance. On the whole, they approved–J.L. was heard to say that Agnes was just the girl who could beat some sense into Bosh. But there was a sticking point, at least for Franciska: Agnes was a devout Lutheran. The crisis was resolved when she agreed to convert to Catholicism. It was the only instance on record where she did anything for the sake of somebody else’s feelings.
Bosh and Agnes were married in March 1902. The custom of a church wedding with the bride in white wasn’t common then among German Catholics; the service was at the priest’s house and Agnes proudly wore a new blue dress. The wedding day was brilliant–cloudless, windy, and warm, the first thaw of spring. The streets of Edwardsville became rivers of mud and Bosh’s skill as a driver failed him–a few blocks from home the bridal carriage got stuck up to its axles. His efforts to free it grew so ornately frantic that the whole wedding party was caught up in a wave of giddy hilarity, and everyone arrived at the priest’s house disheveled, mud-spattered, and teary-eyed with laughter.
The newlyweds moved into their own room at the back of the hotel’s second floor. There was inevitably some gossip around town about the speed of their engagement and why a hotel owner’s son would marry a chambermaid. But it was silenced when the first child, my grandfather Clarence, was born a decorous 11 months after the wedding.
Bosh’s older brother George was an artist–everybody said so. When he was a teenager he was apprenticed to a local brewmaster, and afterward he started brewing beers and ales for Sehnert’s Hotel. He concocted the sweetest pilseners, the most chocolaty bocks, the fizziest weisses, and the richest spiced Christmas ales. Sehnert’s became one of the most popular brands in town, and orders poured in from saloons and taverns all over the county. J.L. had to expand the brewery; he moved it out of the hotel basement and rented space at a warehouse downtown. When the money started raining down he decided to sell the hotel and run the brewery full-time.
It was a seller’s market. After the Spanish-American war the new century brought boom times to the heartland, and J.L. waited for the right buyer, closed a deal shortly after New Year’s 1905, and immediately bought a big new house for the family.
The house was on Brown Street, a quiet residential street on the southeast side of town. It was a squat, solid brownstone–a solemnly respectable place where the blinds had been kept drawn and the afternoon stillness was deepened by the tock of the grandfather clock. But J.L. liked things lively. He filled the house with family and friends: three generations of Sehnerts and a floating population of visitors, houseguests, and out-of-town cousins. It was a rare meal when 15 or 20 people didn’t sit down together at the dining room table.
The new owner of the hotel bought almost everything in it: the bedsteads, the unmonogrammed sheets, the mugs and plates and coffee cups. All he needed to do was paint out “Sehnert’s Hotel” on the clapboard and paint in “Liebler’s Hotel.” The only big item he had no use for was a newly arrived box of Sehnert’s Hotel letterhead.
I have one of those pages in front of me now. Somebody has used it to write a brief account in German of J.L.’s life–the childhood on the farm, the Oakdale House in Pierron, the move to Edwardsville. Scrawled across the top in English is, “Died 12:40 AM 25th day of December 1905.”
J.L. was 55 and strong as an ox. But in those days death came with little or no warning from any of a thousand untraceable causes; that was a time when an unnoticed blister could prove fatal. Part of the gossip that circulated daily across the back fences and along the laundry lines all over town was who had fallen mysteriously ill, who had died overnight, who had been seen only yesterday looking in the pink of health. All the Sehnert children and grandchildren ever knew for sure about J.L.’s death was that Christmas at the Brown Street house was always a day of mourning.
George took over as head of the family and proprietor of the business. It didn’t take long for everybody to realize he wasn’t cut out for either job. He was a niggler and a worrier, quick to fire anybody who challenged him and maniacally suspicious about being cheated. At home he proved an overbearing tyrant who presided gloomily over the dinner table and lashed out at anybody who dared to lighten the mood. It wasn’t long before he started losing both workers and dinner guests; Bosh, the least valuable employee, was the first out the door.
Bosh grew somber and preoccupied after his father’s death; for the first time in his life he started to talk about moving out and buying a place of his own. He took a job of uncharacteristic seriousness: apprentice machinist with a local freight railroad company. He worked at the roundhouse, a loud, smoky, sweltering place filled with the shriek and clang of metal on metal and the roar of escaping steam. The work was exhausting and dangerous, but Bosh was at last learning the rudiments of a trade. He impressed everybody by displaying a previously unsuspected capacity for backbreaking work.
Each day he walked to and from the roundhouse along Troy Road, the main highway south out of town. A few blocks from Brown Street it led him past the last house and into the countryside. There were now several big blotches of new construction: a brick factory with a churning smokestack, a brass foundry, a huddle of makeshift wooden buildings around the shaft of a coal mine. Bosh had to walk half a mile or so before the pristine stillness of the prairie resumed. In summertime the rustling of the tall grass and the buzzing of bees could be heard hundreds of yards away, and in the winter the snow hissed along distant lines of fence posts. There was rarely any traffic. The clop of a horse resounded minutes ahead of its arrival, and the rumble of a wagon gathered strength as slowly as a thunderstorm.
A half mile or so down the road was a rail crossing; Bosh followed the tracks west to a cluster of spurs and sidings by the roundhouse and the repair barns. The land on either side of the tracks was sparse and meandering, poor soil for farming. That’s why Bosh was so surprised to see, one spring morning in 1907, men trudging alongside the tracks with surveying gear. He knew at once what that meant. Somebody was interested in buying up the land and building houses.
He then had maybe the only practical idea of his life. If he acted quickly, he could afford to buy land there and build a house himself.
He’d never even considered being a property owner before and had no idea how to go about it. His brothers had to arrange everything for him. But that wasn’t too difficult: the boom times in Edwardsville meant that banks were eager to lend. All Bosh really needed to get a mortgage was a steady job and a couple of hundred dollars up front. His brothers decided that the money was his fair share of their father’s estate; and as for the job, they encouraged him to apply at the N.O. Nelson Company, the prestige employer of working people in Edwardsville.
The Nelson company manufactured fine porcelain and brass plumbing fixtures. It was the creation of an eccentric industrialist, one of the last of the 19th-century experimenters in utopian philosophy: he’d built not only a factory complex just south of town but a village for his workers that put his ideas and whims into practice. The village, named Leclaire, was carved out of the woodlands east of Troy Road. It had generously sized houses on elegantly curving streets named after Nelson’s heroes, Longfellow, Lincoln, and Ruskin. There were no local laws or police officers, and an elaborate barter system was used in place of money at the village stores. Even Bosh, who wasn’t going to give up his new property to live in Leclaire, still shared in employee benefits unheard-of at ordinary factories, such as free medical and dental care. Then there were the factories themselves, the brass foundry and the porcelain shop. They were models of modern design–long, low buildings with rows of immense arched windows and double rows of skylights, ivy flourishing on the walls of whitewashed brick. They looked like newfangled greenhouses.
But once Bosh was hired, he learned that the aura of modernity stopped at the foundry door. Inside there was little that would have puzzled a brass worker from the Renaissance. The fury of the cauldron, the endless roils of steam and smoke, the dancing shadows of the work crews, the squeals and hisses of the molten brass, the shriek of the drills, and the peacock-tail plumes of sparks from the saws–it was all overwhelming and intoxicating on first exposure.
Bosh slowly got the hang of it. Nelson didn’t believe in specialization; every employee was expected to understand the operation of the whole plant. So Bosh learned his trade in a slow circuit down the hall and back again. He began at the cauldron, where a crew used long, charred oars to stir a fierce sludge of copper and zinc, periodically dumping in a load of hissing salt (to flux the oxides) and the scraps and defective castings left over from the last shift. In the middle of the hall other teams of workmen set the enormous and mazelike sand molds. To save time, the foundry made dozens of pieces in a single cast; so after the bellowing alarm of the pour, after the cast was cooled and the fused sand scoured away, a surreal tree of pipes hung with dangling faucet-fruit was revealed. Yet another team cut the tree apart and loaded the pieces into hoppers, rolling them out the main doors toward the shipping department on the other side of the grassy plaza.
After Bosh completed his first successful circuit through the foundry he was instructed to repeat it; after that to repeat it again. Then he was promoted to shop foreman. It was the most responsible position he’d ever achieved and it proved to be the farthest reach of his ambitions. He stayed at the job for the rest of his life.
In less than a year Bosh owned three adjoining plots along the railroad tracks–almost a third of an acre of land–and his house was ready for occupancy. It was a spartan place even by the austere standards of the day. There were four rooms–kitchen, dining room, bedroom, and parlor (which, as was the custom, was strictly reserved for guests)–plus a basement pantry and an attic. It had a coal furnace but no electricity or plumbing. Fresh water was drawn from a hand pump in the yard by the kitchen door, and there was a two-seater outhouse by the back fence. The yard was grand, and Bosh planted a big vegetable garden and a little orchard of peach trees. He and Agnes bought their furniture at a bankruptcy sale at a nearby farm; they came home with a load of carved chairs and knobby bedsteads and a battered but magnificent kitchen table. They put up fashionably dark floral wallpaper in the parlor and hung three pieces of art: a tinted lithograph of Abraham Lincoln, a second of Lincoln giving the Gettysburg Address, and a third of Lincoln on his deathbed titled Now He Belongs to the Ages.
The family and most of Bosh’s friends thought the house a step down from the one on Brown Street. But that didn’t matter to Bosh; he loved the place the moment he first set foot in it. Many years later, toward the end of his life, he told a daughter that every time he returned to his house, even from a trip to the grocery store, the sight of it made his heart leap.
Next week: The End of the Old Country.
The previous installments are posted at leesandlin.com.