by Ralph Voss
On a cold but sunlit Tuesday morning in January of 2001, while I was visiting in my home state of Kansas, I decided it would be a good day to drive to Holyrood, my father’s hometown. Holyrood is a hamlet lying in the southwest corner of Ellsworth County, about halfway between Ellsworth and Great Bend on U. S. Highway 156. From Holyrood, I took the familiar drive on Highway 156 west, which cuts through what was once my Grandfather Voss’s place just southwest of town.
My grandfather William Voss was born in Germany in 1866, and family lore has it that when he was a very young man he was a sailor out of Husum, the North Sea city in the Schleswig-Holstein part of Germany where he lived. He may have studied the astrological maps that seafarers used; at any rate my oldest sister, Betty, remembers starry nights in Ellsworth County when she was a little girl and Grandfather Voss would point out constellations to her. My Aunt Emma Voss told me that because he was color-blind, Grandfather was prevented from becoming a seagoing captain, so he decided to leave maritime service. Though he may have had prospects as an apprentice carpenter in Germany because that was his father’s trade, relatives and friends had gone to America and had written back about its opportunities. Thus, he migrated to America in 1883, when he was not yet 17, an act of personal assertion and courage that astonishes me when I think about it. Perhaps the spirit of adventure called him more strongly than it did most young men. Perhaps he wanted to escape the compulsory military service his social class would have required of him. Perhaps he just wanted to get away from his parents. Whatever his motives were, he sailed around Cape Horn at the tip of South America and landed at the port of Seattle.
He had connections, relatives perhaps, in Illinois, and he made his way there, where he worked for a time as a carpenter, saving money, until 1885, when he joined other relatives and friends who had settled in Ellsworth County. The plains of Kansas had been hawked by railroad companies and other land speculators as a virtual garden, and many immigrants moved out onto these prairies to seize the dream of land ownership that would have forever evaded them in Europe. It was near Holyrood that my Grandfather eventually owned his own farm. His 160 acres lay about two miles southwest of Holyrood in Valley Township, my destination that January day.
Aunt Emma told me that not long after Grandfather Voss came to America, he wrote to his mother and stepfather (his father having died and his mother remarried), encouraging them to come as well. Soon they bought their own place near Holyrood. Then Grandfather also sent to Germany for his onetime girlfriend, Anna Wacker, who came to live and work in the home of one of Grandfather’s cousins near Holyrood. How long or how well they had known each other in Germany, I do not know, but it seems to me that her migration was also a remarkable act of assertion and courage. She was born in 1868, so she was a couple of years younger than he. Their courtship resumed after her arrival in Kansas, and after their marriage in 1894, my grandparents moved into the only building he had so far erected on his place, the barn, where they lived with their animals until he finished building a granary, which then became their home until he finished the house. I guess to Grandfather’s way of thinking, you took care of business first, then comforts.
I often speculate about how my Grandparents lived in the “New World.” My Uncle Christopher, born in 1895, was their first child; next came a daughter, Elizabeth, in 1897 and then the twins—Albert, my father, and Alfred, in 1898. Two sons died in infancy, Hermann (1900) and Wilhelm (1903), and then Marie, their last child, was born in 1905. Photographs taken in the early 20th Century depict Grandfather and his sons and relatives plowing and harvesting with cumbersome equipment drawn by teams of horses. Another photo depicts Grandfather standing alone by his barn, dairy cattle grazing just beyond a fence behind him.
His was a stereotypical self-sustaining farm of the period, labor contributed by everyone in the family. The men worked the crops and the livestock, keeping everything around the farm in repair. The women raised gardens, canned food, churned butter, cooked and sewed.
All the Vosses were bilingual, though Grandmother Voss’s English was none too good. As events transpired early in the 20th century, they were all reluctant to speak German anywhere but in their home. Anti-German feelings grew strong in Kansas and other parts of the country during World War I (1914-1918). According to information I found in records accessed via the Kansas Council of Genealogical Societies, my grandparents, though over 50 years old, and U.S. citizens by 1917 when the U.S. entered the war, had to register at Lyons, in nearby Rice County, as an “alien family.” That is but one tip of many considerable icebergs.
Kansas State Guard records contain some anonymously-authored reports of the activities of some of the military companies formed in Central Kansas during the war. These reports add emphasis to how strong the anti-German sentiments were. “Was ready at all times to put down any proGerman [sic] argument,” states the reporting author of the activities of Company C of the 40th Battalion, out of the town of Wilson (about 20 miles north of Holyrood). “Put German schools out of business, and incidentally saw that German sympathizers kept their place or left town,” the reporter concludes. The reporter of activities for Company D out of Kanopolis (about 20 miles northeast of Holyrood) took a more strident, first-person approach: “It was reported to me that there was a German preacher at the town of Carneiro, who was teaching music, and that he was using such pieces as the German national hymns. I took a small squad and went after this man, took him into Ellsworth and turned him over. Later he was forced to leave.” What must it have been like to be a fairly recent German immigrant in Kansas then?
My Grandparents had to have suffered tremendous emotional hardship, especially when Uncle Chris was drafted into the American Army in 1917 and sent off to France to fight against the “Huns,” as propagandists called German soldiers. How sad and heavy must have been the hearts of my Grandparents, especially Grandmother Voss, who had brothers fighting in the German army at the same time her oldest son was fighting against them in the American army. How stressful it must have been for them as the war raging across the Atlantic came close to putting their twins–my father and Alfred—also in the line of fire. According to Kansas State Guard records, Albert and Alfred were members of Company B of the 40th Battalion out of Holyrood. The anonymous reporter of that company’s activities states that the Company: “grew out of the organization of the Holyrood Home Guard and was mustered into state service October, 1918. The company drilled once weekly, except when weather conditions and quarantine [for the influenza epidemic, probably] would not permit, up to the signing of the Armistice.” Conscripted in October, my father and his twin were almost certainly bound for war when the Armistice stopped the killing in November, 1918, and the so-called “war to end all wars” ended.
Uncle Chris did not fare nearly as well, suffering the effects of a mustard gas attack in France on October 2, 1918 during the Meuse-Argonne battle. He was gassed the same month his younger brothers were mustered into the Kansas Guard, though it isn’t clear that my grandparents knew about his gassing for some time. While they might have received an official notice that he was wounded, it appears that they had to wait an agonizingly long time for more information. Finally, a letter to them from the American Red Cross in Washington, D.C., dated April 9, 1919, informed them:
A report dated February 18, from Base Hospital #55 [Toul, France] tells us that your son, Pvt. Christopher Voss, was under treatment there and was improving at that time. We are glad to be able to send you this encouraging news of your son, and hope he will soon be entirely well again. If we hear anything more concerning him will let you know.
The Red Cross is glad to be of service.
That letter was written six months after Christopher was gassed, attesting to his continued hospitalization four months after the incident. After his return to the U.S., Christopher sent my Grandparents a telegram from Camp Merritt, New Jersey, saying he was “getting along fine,” but he would, in fact, be increasingly plagued by the after-effects of the gas for the rest of his life.
My Grandmother would be plagued by something even worse—deepening depression, what was then called melancholia. The enormity of her sadness, the perplexity of a world she could neither understand nor control–for anti-German sentiments hardly stopped with the Armistice--led her to such profound depression that everything Grandfather tried to brighten her spirits, including sending her to the famous Menninger Clinic, failed. I never knew my Grandmother Voss because one June day in 1925, after she had returned from a stay at Menninger’s, she took a can of gasoline down into the family’s fields, splashed it on herself, and struck a match. I did not learn of this tragedy until I was 10 or 11 years old, and I never heard any of the adults in my father’s family ever mention it.
And so my Grandfather Voss became a widower at 59, and he lived to see yet another great war against Germany, a war in which his son Alfred and some of his grandsons, including my brother William, served. He continued to farm as long as he was able, but gradually turned the work over to his sons. Uncle Chris had married Emma Christian, whose father owned nearby land, so Uncle Chris and Aunt Emma’s family lived on what people called “the Christian farm.” Before and after World War II, Alfred, who never married, remained on Grandfather’s farm with Aunt Elizabeth, who also never wed. She kept house and cooked for both Grandfather and Alfred. The work on the farm was split among Grandfather and his three sons, but my parents, who married in 1921, also rented a farm near Holyrood. That rented farm is where my brother William–named for Grandfather–and my sister Betty (Elizabeth, after Dad’s sister)–were born. Seeing better opportunities in becoming an electrician, my father eventually gave up farming and moved 25 miles to Lyons, where five more of my sisters and I were born.
I learned my first lessons about death when Grandfather Voss died in May of 1950, when I had just turned seven. I couldn’t quite grasp that this tall, smiling man with the great shock of white hair and the mole on his cheek was truly gone for all time. I had spent many Sundays at his farm at family gatherings that included all of my father’s siblings and most of my cousins on his side—my Uncle Chris Voss’s children as well as my Aunt Marie Novotny’s large family. Grandfather had perfected the art of growing a garden, especially cabbage, and his cellar harbored great crocks of sauerkraut, festering toward the moment that someone else besides me would consider to be the time of maximum flavor. (I didn’t learn to like sauerkraut until many years later.) Often on those Sundays, his cellar would also hold wash tubs full of bottles of beer for the adults and “pop” for the children. We called soft drinks “pop” when I was growing up in Kansas—it didn’t matter what flavor it was, cola, grape, cream soda, orange—it was all “pop,” and we loved it. Arriving at Granddad’s and going down into the cellar, I thought I was in some earthly version of heaven because there was all that pop and no one was going to monitor how many bottles I drank.
Grandfather had a black cot near the south door of his house. He liked to sit or lie on it, and he kept a pipe-holder and canister of tobacco nearby, because he loved to smoke his pipe. He had a thick accent, but I don’t remember it being so heavy I couldn’t understand him well. In retrospect, I am not sure he had many reasons to, but it seemed to me that he laughed a lot. Many years later, when I read Willa Cather’s short story, “Neighbor Rosicky,” I would think about my Grandfather Voss, for Cather’s character, Anton Rosicky, is a kindly Czech immigrant on the plains of Nebraska, a pipe-smoking patriarch who loves his family and his land equally. One of my most prized possessions is an old photograph of Grandfather with me, taken outside his house when I was perhaps six years old. In the photograph he is wearing his customary denim overalls and is seated in a chair, hands together in his lap, elbows cradled on the chair’s armrests. Because he is outside, his hat perches on his head, shading part of his face. I stand beside him in a horizontal-striped shirt and blue jeans, my right arm behind his left elbow. I am scowling, probably because the sun is brightly shining in my face. He had a little old dog named Brownie then, but the dog isn’t in the photo. My Aunt Elizabeth told me that the day Grandpa was too sick to stay at home anymore and the ambulance came to get him and take him to the hospital in Great Bend, Brownie wailed mournfully, as though he knew Grandpa wouldn’t be coming back.
I have also a photograph taken of him with his family in 1910, when he was in his mid-40s. In this photo he is standing with his hands on his hips by the south door and porch of the house he had recently built. His family is arrayed to his right: Grandmother Anna, much shorter than he; little Marie; Elizabeth, who looks to be a good three inches taller than her mother; then the boys–Christopher, as tall as Elizabeth, flanked by the twins I cannot tell apart, Alfred and Albert (my father), and finally two dogs. Locust trees are visible behind the north side of the house; I’m sure Grandfather planted them there for shade and for a break against the winds of winter. East of the house stands tall, tasseled corn. Here is the proud immigrant farmer on his land with his family, the yeoman agrarian of American plains legend. The photographer must have stood several yards away, so as to present the family and the house in landscape. The top and bottom quarters of the picture are simply sky and ground, as if to emphasize my Grandfather’s achievement in this setting. On the back of the picture someone has written: “Mr. & Mrs. Wm. Voss & family–1910. Country home near Holyrood.”
Some forty years after that photograph was taken, Grandfather’s funeral was at Saint Paul’s Evangelical and Reformed Church on Nassau Street in Holyrood. In 1950 this little church still offered services in German, but I think the funeral that day was in English. I don’t remember much about it, except that I got a new pair of what my mother called “dress pants” and a new, long-sleeved shirt to wear with them. Grandfather lay in an open casket, and I was none too happy to be filing past him, watching closely for some sign of movement, some suggestion that he was merely asleep, and that the funeral was all a mistake. He was buried in the cemetery behind the church, laid to rest beside the woman who preceded him in death 25 years earlier. As we drove home to Lyons that afternoon, I thought I saw his face in the clouds. Many years later, I brought a souvenir coin from Germany and buried it beside his gravestone. What a story his life must have been, if only I could know it well enough to tell it all.
After Grandfather died, Uncle Alfred and Aunt Elizabeth continued to live on the farm for awhile, and then they moved into Holyrood. The house he built was sold and moved into Holyrood, too. Some years later, the farm ground was sold. I don’t know who owns it now, but I often drive by the site when I am in Kansas, as I did on that sunny cold day in January, 2001. I generally park near where his driveway was, get out, and stand there for awhile beside my car, gazing at the land, where the only remaining sign of his place is the old pump site above the water well that was right behind the house. I think about what once was there, and what, it seems to me, is still there hanging in the prairie air: the dream of my Grandfather Voss in the New World.
Albert Voss, Taped Interview. August 1, 1982, Plainville, Kansas.
Emma Christian Voss, Taped Interview. March 15, 1990, Holyrood, Kansas.
Marie Voss Novotny, Taped Interview. June 24, 1984, Holyrood, Kansas.
Kansas Council of Genealogical Societies / Accessed December 19, 2007
Kansas State Guard History and Roster / Accessed December 19, 2007
Photographs, Copies of Photographs, Facsimiles of Voss Family Documents in the
Collection of the Author, Including the Obituaries of William and Anna
Ralph Frederick Voss is Professor of English at the University of Alabama, where he specializes in Composition and American Drama. A native Kansan, he holds degrees from Fort Hays State University and the University of Texas-Austin. He has written The Strains of Triumph, a biography of the Kansas playwright William Inge, and other books and articles about writing and drama.