"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

History personified

By on September 27, 2017 in Articles with 1 Comment

By Brandon Harle

Maierhof with family c.1910

My graduation from Wenatchee High School was less than three months away.

I was on my way home from the prom when I walked through the door a little after midnight. My mom was waiting for me to let me know that my grandfather had passed away that night.

Like most teenagers, I was myopic to the world as a whole and focused mainly on what came next for me. I didn’t have much of a concept of the life my grandfather had led.

It’s only now, years later, and now that I am a history teacher at Wenatchee High School, that I’ve come to realize each of our paths from the past helps us understand who we are today.

Discovering how much your life has been influenced by those you have never met is both emotional and humbling.

I am fond of courage, of bravery. Not the false kind that Hollywood too often tries to sell to you. Real courage — where people make simple decisions that change the lives of others. My grandfather exemplified courageous traits without ever bringing attention to it.

His story starts in pre-World War I Germany and will end in Wenatchee. Let me share some of it with you.

In the southwest of Germany, bordered to the south by Switzerland and the west by France, lies the state of Baden-Württemberg. Less famous than the state of Bavaria to the east, Baden-Württemberg is scenic; evergreen forests mixed with grassy farmlands and quaint hilltop villages nearly all featuring beautiful churches.

My grandfather’s story starts about 85 miles to the south of the capital, Stuttgart. The small town of Biberach which was born on the Riss river is located almost five miles to the east of the village of Stafflangen. Less than two miles to the west of Stafflangen is farmland that has been in my family since the 1860s.

As a gift to Josef Mayer and Gertrud Britsch on their wedding day, her father provided to them 100 acres of timberland. They logged the timber and built a home with an attached barn that they settled into on July 22, 1863.

Josef and Gertrud were my great-great grandparents and this home became the “Maierhof.” Incredibly, the Maierhof and its farmland, 154 years later, is still owned by my family.

In June, I was able to fulfil a lifelong dream of taking my wife and children to visit the Maierhof and my relatives.

There, I walked quietly around the farm house, thinking about how far my grandfather came and how much he had provided for so many.

I grew up occasionally hearing about my grandfather’s time as a boy in Germany. Other than his heavy, guttural accent, there were only a few scattered items around his home that would reminded me he came from a far off place.

As a child however, my curiosity always focused on a wall near my grandfather’s bedroom that had several black and white photographs hanging from it. They were the type of photos you would see in a museum. Men in dark suits with large mustaches. Women in high-necked colorless dresses decorated with lace and long sleeves.

My great-grandparents, Josef Härle and Karolina (née Mayer) were married on Nov. 25, 1900. My grandfather, Anton, was born in 1906, the fifth of nine children.

The Maierhof was a busy site. The family raised milk cows, pigs, geese, bees and focused on wheat, corn and grains for crops and feed.

How the Härle’s came to America is rooted in my great-grandmother Karolina Mayer’s siblings.

From 1883 to 1887, her six brothers, Mathäus, Martin, Paulus, Josef, August and Chris all emigrated to America and settled near Leadville, Colorado. There, they joined many other immigrants that did the dangerous work of cutting wood for the local coke kilns.

The brothers eventually scattered to Nebraska, Kansas, Oregon and Washington where they would take up residence in small locales like Winlock, Pe Ell, The Dalles, and Prescott.

My great-great uncle Martin eventually married Lena Müller in Chehalis who suffered from lung ailments. The damp climate of western Washington exacerbated her symptoms and they were advised a move to a drier climate.

After the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act into law. This incredible piece of legislation set aside 160 acres plots of land for individuals. They had to pay a small fee (about $20), live on it for five years and make some improvements to the land.

It’s estimated that over 270 million acres (about 10 percent of total U.S. land mass) was given to homesteaders.

Martin Mayer applied for a homestead in Waterville and received the rights to their land on July 30, 1901. In his book, The Republic for Which It Stands, historian Richard White provides statistics that for every 10 families that received a homestead, six failed at their attempts.

The Mayer family was one of the lucky ones. They were slowly successful at their attempts at dry-land farming and were eventually aided by the Grand Coulee Dam and it’s reclamation project to bring water to the Columbia Basin.

That homestead was later given to Martin’s brother Paul and his wife Josephine whose descendants still own and operate that same land today.

The end of The Great War brought implorable economic realities to the new Weimar Republic. Germans suffered the blunt end of the treaty of Versailles with catastrophic war reparation payments that led to increased taxes and hyperinflation of their currency.

Those economic realities spread throughout Germany and trickled down even to my family’s small farm in Baden-          Württemberg.

With their older brother Sepp taking control of the farm, my great-uncles, Franz (Frank) and Karl (Carl) made the choice to emigrate to their uncle Paul’s homestead outside of Ephrata.

My grandfather, 17 at the time, stood alongside the remainder of his family outside the Maierhof as his brothers departed down the dirt road toward Stafflangen and then on to Biberach where they caught the train north, eventually boarding the German merchant ship S.S. York in Bremen.

Their uncle Paul had sent them the equivalent of $200 American dollars to make the trip, as German Marks were worthless with staggering inflation.

They passed through Ellis Island before boarding the cross country train to Ephrata, where the young travelers arrived on Christmas day 1923.

Frank and Carl spent the next two years working off their debts, tackling dry-land farming that required as many as 100 horses to tend to daily.

After paying off their debts, Frank and Carl took work farther west along the Columbia River working for A.Z. Wells in the apple orchards near Azwell.

Needing two more workers to replace my great-uncles, Paul Mayer wrote to his sister Karolina Härle at the Maierhof asking if there were more workers that could replace Frank and Carl.

My grandfather, Anton, 19 at the time, answered the request. He and his good friend made the same journey as his brothers. Down that same dirt road, east to the train and north to German port city of Bremen where they would experience an Atlantic crossing in steerage class aboard the ship S.S. Berlin.

I never had the opportunity to ask my grandfather about that journey and I wonder often what kind of courage it took to leave all he had ever known behind to pursue a chance at a better life.

After spending time at the Maierhof last summer, I don’t know if I would have had the strength to leave as he and his brothers did.

In 2015, the U.S. Census Bureau’s data showed there were more than 45 million Americans who could trace their lineage from Germany.

It is the single largest represented immigrant group in the history of the United States. Almost more than double that of English descendents, more than 13 million more than Irish Americans and more than 28 million more descendants than Italian Americans. My grandfather, like his brothers, was one of them. He entered the United States through Ellis Island on Feb. 5, 1927 and took the same route to Ephrata as they had.

My grandfather arrived in Ephrata on Feb. 20, 1927 and went about the same difficult work his brothers had endured. Fortunately for my grandfather, his brothers helped pay off his travel debt early and he spent only a year in Sagebrush Flats.

My father recalls my grandfather saying to him that he never wanted to see another horse again. He moved to Azwell with his brothers where he told my dad he was happy to see green vegetation again.

My grandfather worked in Azwell until 1942. After the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor, my grandfather was one of the millions of Americans who marched to their local recruiting station to volunteer. At 36 years old, he wasn’t required to serve but he chose to.

He and his brothers had all become American citizens and my grandfather felt he owed a service for the success he had achieved here in the States.

As one might imagine, being German and 17 years older than most GI’s at this time didn’t make it particularly easy for him to be a soldier. He was moved around a bit before being assigned to the 5th Army Air Corps as a cook. Papua New Guinea and the Philippines were his destination in the South Pacific where he served his country with distinction.

While training in San Antonio, Texas, he met my grandmother, Josepha. After the war, they married and returned to Wenatchee where the Harle Brothers — Carl, Frank and Anton — created their own construction company.

Carl soon left the company but Frank and my grandfather continued to build throughout the Wenatchee Valley. The 1950s brought Alcoa to the valley and Harle Bros. Construction was there to provide new homes for many of the new workers.

Their company grew in reputation and expanded from building homes to businesses, banks, and churches; the Sav-Mart building, the original bowling alley (where my uncle currently owns the Harle Center), the original lodge at Mission Ridge, the original chapel at the CYO Camp that is now The Sleeping Lady, the Holy Apostles Catholic Church in East Wenatchee to name but a few.

Struggling to have children of their own, Anton and Josepha made the decision to adopt three siblings in 1954-55. Mary, Mike, and my father Mark, were adopted from an orphanage in Seattle and brought to Wenatchee.

I share the photo of their adoption day with my students. The amount of joy and love in that photo is clear as my grandmother “bear hugs” her three children (you can see my dad’s cringing face as she squeezes him hard) on the steps in the courthouse that fateful day.

They later adopted two more girls, Martha and Monica. All five of them attended St. Joseph’s Elementary and my aunt Monica was part of the first class to graduate at the current Wenatchee High School.

I teach Advanced Placement U.S. History at Wenatchee High School. I often try to find ways to share my family history with my students so they can better understand that history is a living subject.

We all have the right to have our own stories be told. Immigration, western migration, the Great Depression, service during WWII, the 1950s post-war economic recovery aren’t just another chapter in our text. My grandfather lived it and I am here because of it.

I wanted to honor what he had done for me by taking my own family back to the Maierhof so they could better understand how a single, brave decision can change lives for generations.

Travelling, particularly in today’s world, is so incredibly important. To be able to sit and talk with people, to experience their culture and customs is an enduring gift.

To sample traditional Schwäbisch delicacies like maultaschen (think German ravioli), käsespätzle (cheese dumplings) and hand-made schnitzel (pan-fried tenderized pork cutlets) while enjoying a local German beer from the Härle brewery in Leutkirch where my family and I later visited. We were welcomed with love everywhere we went.

My cousin arranged time to show us all the local villages and sites, making sure to take the time to show us any family connections. Our last day we were able to travel to the Maierhof and visit with family and tour the farm.

The emotion of the day for me was deep and fulfilling: Glancing at the farmhouse that generations have lived in and came to the U.S. from. A house that was built before the end of the American Civil War. The large tree that was planted in front of the house in 1868 that my great-great grandparents had pictures taken in front of. My own children were now having their pictures taken with.

I was reminded that each of our paths from the past helps us understand who we are today. My grandfather gave me that gift and I am thankful that I now have the opportunity to share it with my own children.

I hope that one day, they are able to take their kids to visit the Maierhof and share their family’s story.

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  1. Mark Harle says:

    The pride that I have for my father, Anton(Tony) is passed on to the author, Brandon Harle – my dad was my hero and I have never heard anybody say a negative thing about him . With this article my son shows what it means to be family and proud of your roots. If at the end of my life if people can speak about me as they do about my father then my life was not wasted.

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