My great-great-great-grandparents Peter and Elizabeth Sehnert came from Germany to America around 1850. They had no friends or family waiting for them when their ship landed and they knew absolutely nothing about the New World, so they used a simple method to find a home. They rode the trains inland as far as the trains could take them. Days of swaying monotony took them out of the industrialized cities of the northeast and through the newly cleared farmlands of Ohio and Indiana; only west of Chicago did the settlements thin out and the landscape start to look almost pristine. The train service out there was sporadic and the cars were almost always empty. People said you could ride a train through Illinois from sunup to sundown and not see another living soul except the conductor.

The Sehnerts reached the end of the line at a country station just short of the Mississippi River. They could have kept going; a lot of people did. Those were the days of the gold rush and the great westward migration: as fast as new settlers were arriving in Illinois, the old ones were packing up, selling out, and heading west to California. There weren’t any bridges yet across the Mississippi, and there were so many people, wagons, and animals piling up at the ferry points that the wait for a crossing sometimes lasted for days. But the Sehnerts weren’t tempted. The journey west was by steamship up the Missouri or overland through Kansas, through a dangerous country that seemed to be over the edge of the world. So they stayed on what they thought of as the civilized side of the river. They bought a small farm in the open country near Greenville, Illinois.

The name “Sehnert” goes back deep into the Middle Ages and to the ancient farming communities along the Rhine. (It has a peculiar sound even to a lot of Germans, who tend to think it’s a misprint of “Schnert.”) Peter and Elizabeth arrived in America with their ancestors’ values intact. They were humble, God-fearing, churchgoing, intensely taciturn people; they would never dream of complaining about their lot in life, or discussing their private feelings, or asking their neighbors for help under any circumstances whatsoever. They believed that virtuous people passed through the world as unobtrusively as summer clouds, calling no attention, attracting no notice.

But there was one way in which they couldn’t help but stand out among their neighbors. They were Catholic.

The heartland in those days was thinly settled but thick with eccentricity. It was a world of ranters, fire-tongued preachers, Pentecostalists, snake handlers and river baptizers; the tide of new immigration from Germany was bringing in a florid assortment of socialists, Freemasons, Fourierists, labor agitators, mesmerists, and radical utopians who wanted to get back to the land. (“Latin farmers,” they were called, because they knew more about classical literature than practical farming.) There was only one thing everyone agreed on, and it was that Catholics weren’t to be trusted. They owed their primary loyalty neither to the old country nor the new, but to the sinister pope sunk in the corruptions of Rome; they held weird rituals involving blood; their confession box was a fount of indecency. Hard-hitting mock-journalistic exposes that were widely circulated and avidly read concerned the adventures of lascivious priests and the goings-on in orgiastic nunneries.

So the Sehnerts had to be discreet. Their parish church was a modest white clapboard steeplehouse hidden down a meandering dirt road. Most Sundays there was no priest. Priests were rare sights in southern Illinois in those days; one could be counted on to pass through Greenville only a couple of times a year. That meant no mass, no confession, and no communion–only a devotional meeting conducted by the parishioners themselves, following guidelines supplied by the local church hierarchy. (Church officials assured the faithful that, whatever it might say in the catechism, private repentance was acceptable in the eyes of God if there was no priest available to hear confessions.) A Protestant spy would have been bitterly disappointed; the participants were as timid as mice compared to the ecstatic, rafter-shaking revival meetings of their neighbors.

But this is not to say there was no spiritual drama in Peter Sehnert’s life. The way the family remembers him, there was nothing in his life but spiritual drama. He was one of those thundering patriarchs, half hard-hearted farmer and half Old Testament prophet, who saw the hand of God in everything, from early frosts to summer droughts, from the weakness of a newborn baby to the vigor of a young calf. But he was never known to open the Bible or puzzle over the catechism; the only sacred book he was ever observed perusing was the Farmer’s Almanac.

Men like Peter knew what God demanded of them: unceasing struggle against unforgiving odds. Peter’s standards were passed down to his descendants. My family has always been contemptuous of the lazy, the weak, the self-pitying, the fallen, and the soft–the categories into which Peter assigned just about everyone he ever met. Nobody ever forgot his rages, but even more memorable was the sight of his rare, deep-glowing bliss when he got the better of a neighbor in a business deal. Otherwise, his chief glory was his solitude. He took no interest whatsoever in the outside world. He was not known to spread gossip or listen to rumors or read newspapers or pass the time of day with anyone. Whole days went by without his saying a word to his wife and children.

This wasn’t an uncommon way of life. The heartland was scattered with immigrant families doing just what the Sehnerts did–not so much starting their lives over as starting the world over, like Noah and his family after the flood. Many were seen in town only twice a year, at spring planting and at harvest; they’d do their business as quickly and tersely as they could and then ride out again, vanishing down the ragged dirt tracks between cornfields to resume their existence with God.

There used to be a story in the family–it was still current in my childhood–about just how solitary Peter’s life was. They said that he never even heard about the Civil War (or, as they called it downstate, the War of the Rebellion) while it was going on. He was too old to fight, and his sons too young, so the whole event passed him by. But one spring morning when he was out working in the fields he heard a mysterious sound floating toward him from all directions, as though it were emanating from the land itself. It was a sweet distant humming, the sound of countless remote church bells ringing out to proclaim that the Union had been preserved.

Peter’s idyll lasted more than 20 years. But history finally caught up with him after the war. Agricultural prices went into a catastrophic decline and farms began failing. Peter was a stubborn man and kept going through several disastrous seasons, but at last his health and his finances were ruined. He lost the farm in the mid-1870s and he died soon afterward.

Peter’s oldest son John Louis took over as head of the family. Nobody thought he was half the man his father was. He had no use for farming, for hard work generally, or for a life of righteous isolation. From his early childhood on he would run away to town and spend days with the idle kids outside the general store, until his silently ferocious father arrived to collect him. He always went to church under protest, blandly lying his way through confession. But he did inherit from Peter a love of making deals. He liked to be known as a sharp businessman, in an age when “sharp” meant something close to “outright larcenous.” He started going by his initials because “J.L. Sehnert” made him sound more like a tycoon.

Soon after his father died, J.L. met and married a town girl named Franciska Spengel. She was from a German Catholic family that lived in Highland, Illinois. She had no more desire to be a farmer’s wife than J.L. did to be a farmer–so they borrowed money from her parents and opened a hotel in the nearby town of Pierron.

Pierron was a wholly typical downstate farming community–a bunch of freshly built houses scattered around a train station deep in the countryside. The houses were white clapboard, with peaked roofs and railed front porches; their neatly manicured lawns were edged by flower beds and ringed by picket fences. The business district consisted of a barbershop, a feed barn, a general store, and a smithy; there was also a government building made of stone that served as a courthouse, county clerk’s office, jail, and storm shelter. The total population was around 200 people and rather more chickens, cows, horses, and pigs.

Pierron had never seen anything like J.L.’s hotel. It was a smart two-story building with a sprawling stable attached; above the door was a big carved sign bearing the slogan, “The Oakdale House–Ample Entertainment for Man and Beast.” Its saloon had brass railings and a bar of varnished wood; on the second story were rooms to let, spartan but clean, with fresh linen on the beds and lace curtains on the windows. The hotel caused a sensation when it opened; the saloon immediately became the unofficial town hall, and everybody knew to look there first for the sheriff, the justice of the peace, and the local notary.

J.L. and Franciska had several good years in Pierron. Their first children were born there in the winter of 1875, in the attic room above the Oakdale saloon: twins, George and Mary. George was a weak child, but he survived; Mary died in infancy and nobody bothered to record why. The third child was my great-grandfather John Sebastian, afterward known as Bosh: he was born in January 1876, with the town barber (who doubled as the doctor) in attendance while J.L. tended bar downstairs. It was said in the family that Bosh arrived in the middle of a blizzard so fierce the bar’s customers never noticed the cries of either the mother or the child.

In the mid-1880s, when the citizens named the streets (so the post office could make regular deliveries), they strained their imaginations to come up with “Main Street” and “Railroad Street,” but there was no debate at all about what to call the dirt track in front of the Oakdale. It was named “Sehnert Street.” To this day, the naming of Sehnert Street is the biggest honor anybody in my family has received.

But the Oakdale never made much money. The saloon did well but the upper rooms were almost always empty, and J.L. had to come up with countless short-term schemes to keep the place afloat.

His best idea was to buy newfangled farm equipment, train his hotel employees as operators, and lease them out to local farmers for the spring planting and the fall harvest. When this didn’t make him rich, he gave up and sold out. He and his family left Pierron for good in the summer of 1888.

They moved to Edwardsville, the biggest town in the county–its population then of around 3,000 made it one of the biggest towns in Illinois. To modern eyes it would have looked postcard perfect: a lot of slanted roofs and white church steeples poking up like spars through a sea of treetops. But its inhabitants thought of it as a bustling industrial zone. It had coal mines, machine shops, factories, and several towering flour mills–these last were notorious fire hazards, and over the years they all went up in titanic blazes that the whole town gathered to watch. There were no paved streets yet in the commercial district, and in summer the reek of the horses was overpowering, but the storefronts were brick and stone and several blocks had even been wired with electric streetlights–they were switched on from dusk to midnight whenever it was cloudy.

The town was big enough to support an old-fashioned, fully articulated class system, of the notoriously suffocating heartland variety. There were aristocrats in hedge-hidden mansions who measured out their lives by cotillions and charity balls; there was a relentlessly churchgoing middle class; and there was a rowdy working class whose taste in entertainment ran to burlesque revues and raree-shows. There was also a large and thriving German community–as in a lot of downstate towns, the German-born and their children made up between a third and a half of the total population. They had their own groceries and bakeries and meat markets, German-language newspapers (brought in from Saint Louis and Chicago) on sale at the newsstands, German classes in the public schools. Many of the Protestant churches had regular German services, and German Catholics had their own parish church, strictly segregated from the Irish–it was an imposing stone building across from the town square with its own full-time priest.

There were ten hotels and rooming houses in town, and they too had a caste structure. The top of the line was fancy indeed: the Saint James Hotel at the heart of the commercial district, three stories of pale, elegant brick topped by a mansard roof, with an interior of plush carpeting, deep-varnished mahogany, and polished brass. It had an 800-seat “opera house” (“theater” connoted burlesque) where local drama clubs and visiting professional companies staged performances. J.L.’s new hotel wasn’t like that. It was a two-story corner building with a saloon on the ground floor and the rooms to rent upstairs. It stood on the southwest edge of town, in an area of recently cleared woodland along the new commuter railroad corridor, a couple of hundred yards down from the station. J.L. had “Senhert’s Hotel” painted in huge letters on the clapboards just beneath the roofline to catch the eye of new arrivals peering around uncertainly on the platform.

Sehnert’s Hotel was austere, the beds were hard, the saloon was dark and loud–but it was a popular and prosperous business from the first. (German-run saloons and hotels had a reputation for cleanliness and propriety.) The clientele were commercial travelers, itinerant craftsmen, laborers looking for work at the local factories, and farmers up from the country for a day or two to buy equipment and supplies–anybody, in short, who’d be impressed by the slogan: “First-class Service, Reasonable Rates, Courteous Treatment.” The regulars at the saloon were local German workmen who had furious arguments about the burning issues of the day: free silver and farmers’ alliances and signs of the end-time. Sometimes a traveler brought out a fiddle and played for drinks–an old country air, or a mournful ballad about the assassination of President Garfield. There was a battered upright in back where a regular would pound out tunes, and when the men danced the unvarnished plank flooring thumped and rumbled like a drum.

I have a family heirloom that suggests something about the quality of their lives. It’s an authentic Sehnert’s Hotel coffee cup. Doubtless the Saint James served its coffee in enameled china with floral patterns; at Sehnert’s it came in a featureless, unglazed, off-white mug as thick as an elephant’s hide. The absence of a handle was part of its practical design. It was intended to be filled with scaldingly hot coffee and clasped firmly between both palms. That was the only warmth a workingman was likely to feel in his hands in the course of a long winter’s day.

The hotel made a lot of money, but J.L. never had the social success in Edwardsville he’d known in Pierron. His name pops up here and there in the town records and in period newspapers, usually among the donors to charitable causes, but he was never at the glittering top of the list, only in the gray, prudent lower middle. He was a member of the German-American businessmen’s lodge, the Druids. The prestigious Anglo lodges, the Freemasons and Odd Fellows, were closed to him. And nobody ever offered to name a street after him. In Edwardsville a saloon wasn’t a fit business for respectable people.

He grew to be the model of the classic barkeep. He had a moon face, a hatchet nose, and a shock of salt-and-pepper hair; he was powerfully muscled but carried a big gut behind his barman’s apron. His manner was brusque and his English guttural; he was famous for his needling, malicious sense of humor. “A great kidder,” people called him, meaning that he wasn’t funny but really knew how to get under your skin. People also said he was a real ladies’ man: he flirted, ponderously and relentlessly, with every woman he met, from the neighborhood matrons to the chambermaids. Franciska looked the other way–it was what she expected of any man. But he had another flaw neither she nor anybody else in the family could forgive. He was lazy. For all his scheming, Franciska did the real work of running the hotel.

Nobody ever called her lazy. She was one of those iron-willed Victorian matrons who saw life as backbreaking labor with no hope of earthly reward. In family photographs she invariably appears in a forbiddingly heavy, out-of-season ankle-length dress, and her face is frozen in a mask of stony suspicion and disapproval. If she took any joy at all in existence–and I’ve never heard anybody claim she did–she found it in the flourishing of her family and the steadiness of her faith.

Her marriage to J.L. may not have been happy, but she never thought happiness was the point. Obedience was–if not to him, then to her church. She attended mass three times a week, and she was highly disapproving of the priest for his lackluster penances. She spent her entire life among the German Catholics of downstate Illinois; she never traveled as far away from home as Saint Louis, she spoke nothing but German with her family and friends, and she learned only as much English as she absolutely had to, to deal with customers and tradespeople at the hotel.

She took “be fruitful and multiply” to be the fundamental commandment. She had seven children, six of whom survived infancy, and they all grew up with her presence at the center of their world. She set them to work at the hotel almost as soon as they were old enough to walk. They made the beds and emptied the chamber pots, scoured out the cuspidors and swept the vomit-clotted sawdust from the saloon floor. Candles and oil lamps deposited a thick layer of greasy soot on every surface, so there were walls and floors that had to be scrubbed every few days and upholstery and curtains that had to be washed. And there was a ceaseless avalanche of laundry. The linens and the bedsheets were spectacularly foul, since they were used by guests who rarely bathed more than once a month. Before school each day the children waited and bused tables in the dining room; hotels like Sehnert’s were expected to lay out a staggering breakfast–at a minimum there would be fried steak, eggs, pancakes, honey-cured ham, pork sausages, fresh biscuits in bacon gravy, and fruit pie. (Lunch and dinner were lighter: usually cold meats, hard-boiled eggs, fresh-baked bread, and boiled potatoes, set out on a table at the back of the saloon.) The children slept in a stifling cubbyhole at the back of the attic, with two narrow beds and a window overlooking the train tracks. With night, the work wasn’t done. There were no lights in that part of town, so when trains arrived after sunset one of the boys had to go over to the station with a lantern and greet the passengers piling down onto the dark platform. Winter or summer, with snow piled high along the tracks or cicadas shrieking in the weeds, the boy would wait till the noise of the train died down and then hold up the lantern and cry “Hotel, hotel, hotel!”

The children all went to an English-speaking public school, and unlike their mother they were eager to assimilate. They worked hard at speaking an accent-free English (that is, whenever Franciska was out of earshot). They shed their German names just as soon as they hit the school yard. The oldest son, George Adolph, developed a lifelong amnesia about his middle name; the youngest sons, Wilhelm Louis and Emil Richard, were always called Louie and Dick; the youngest daughter, Hermina, became Minnie, and the oldest, Franciska, named for her mother, first called herself Frances and then settled on Daisy.

None of them made it past the eighth grade. There was no need for more learning when the course of their lives was so clear–the boys would go into their father’s business, and the girls would get married, have children, and work as hard as or harder than Franciska did. But in between the memorization tables of rods and poods and yards and bushels and dry quarts, they absorbed the lessons of their schoolbooks–the homilies about duty and practicality and cheerful obedience, the stern warnings about children who defied their parents and were immediately trampled to death by speeding milk wagons. To the end of their lives, they lived as though the morality they learned in school was the only kind possible. Or most of them did, anyway.

Next week: “Bosh Builds a House”

The first installment is posted at

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/courtesy Madison County Historical Society.