December 14th, 2009


Neither of my grandfathers went to school past the third grade. They both read the Bellingham Herald every day, never needed help with written instructions, voted in every election, and kept themselves as well informed as the average voter in their precinct; they were both quick mental calculators with the wits to sniff the air and negotiate a favorable deal while the stakes were changing. My mother said her father could play any musical instrument he touched. He fiddled to entertain the neighbors and he read, transposed, and arranged music. But for both my grandfathers, from grade three on, their only classroom was work on the farm.

I believe my grandfather’s lack of education was a thorn in the side of my great-grandfather, Gottlieb, who was raised in East Prussia and orphaned about the age of twelve. Lucky for him, nineteenth century Prussia was busy founding European social democracy. When he and his younger brother were orphaned, the newly established Prussian social safety net snatched them up and educated them in the Prussian public school system. The pair emigrated to America with an exemplary liberal and technical education.

Life in America was a success for Gottlieb. Technically trained as a woodworker, he was quickly hired in railroad car yards building passenger cars decorated with ornate woodwork in Detroit and then Stevens Point, Wisconsin. He worked in the car yards until he accumulated the resources for his next step: he bought a farm in Minnesota and became a land-owning farmer in about 1880.

Gottlieb’s farm in Blue Earth Minnesota was ten degrees south of the 52nd parallel of Gottlieb’s birthplace in Prussia, but Blue Earth’s temperature extremes are closer to those of harsh Scandinavia or Russia than the mild northern marine climate of Prussia.

Gottlieb and his growing sons learned to farm in Minnesota, and apparently they learned well. By the 1890’s Gottlieb had collected the resources for another step. This time a move to Whatcom County, Washington Territory, a place with a wet marine climate that called itself the “fourth corner” because it was the last corner of the country to be settled. This was Gottlieb’s final move.

Gottlieb’s Minnesota decade was as harsh as the Minnesota winter. The family has never said anything good about Minnesota in 1880s.

Cold, hot, dusty, miserable. Not enough rain and too much snow. Hail recalling biblical stonings. Few schools, a dismal fact than scarcely mattered when there was too much work to allow school in the summer and too much cold for school in the winter.

My grandfather was born during the Minnesota decade in Blue Earth. He had an older and a younger brother. Older brothers had first right to education, my grandfather’s younger brother was too young to do a man’s work on the farm. If someone had to stay home to work, it was my grandfather. A third grade education was the best Gottlieb could give him. Gottlieb’s thorn was his intelligent, energetic second son who had no trade, no science, no history, no literature, no art, no philosophy, no theology; only the bare skeleton of literacy and far too advanced training in hard labor and disappointment.

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