"The Germans established a settlement in Freedom, which adjoins us on the west, which has spread in several directions and now covers several townships, Three-quarters of the soil in Lodi Township is to-day in German hands. They have not retarded, but accelerated, the improvement of the soil. Industry and frugality are their cardinal virtues. Their strong hands have subdued and made productive the most forbidden and barren places."
Baltimore had a large German concentration at that time, and he may have already known some of the recent transplants living there. His goal would've been to earn enough money there to purchase land and start a farm. So he probably performed day labor and worked as a yeoman, and saved what he could.
The goal would then be to work his way along the "German Belt," stretching from the mid-eastern Atlantic states through the Midwest. These states viewed Germans as good farmers and industrious residents, and offered them cheap land, which they inevitably made very valuable.
It is generally believed in the Wenk family that Ignatz had previously learned in Baden of a large enclave of 'Black Forest Swabians' that had established a community in Michigan's Washtenaw County.¹ They were concentrated there throughout Freedom Township, in the western portions of Lodi Township, and northwestern Saline Township.
But all we really know about Ignatz at this time is that he married Anna Maria Esig, almost 25 years his senior, and they settled in Freedom Township, located in the southeast section of Michigan’s lower peninsula, approximately fifty miles west of Detroit. Over 1200 German families settled there between 1830 and 1900, and two thirds of them were from the Black Forest area of Germany.² It was joked at the time that Swabians didn't mind farming the steep hills in those areas because of the steep slopes in the Black Forest region, unlike the Prussians and Hessians moving into other areas. All Germans agreed, though, that the climate was much harsher in Washtenaw than in Baden: Hotter and more humid in the summer, and much colder in the winter. But the land was cheaper than in other areas, and that superceded any other wants for these poor, disenfranchised immigrants.
There are many legends concerning the origin of the word "Washtenaw." Some people think it was the name of an Indian who lived near the mouth of the Huron River, which flows through the area. Other people think it's derived from the Potawatamie or Chippewa word "wash-ten-ong," meaning "grand river."
According to Chapman's History of Washtenaw County (1881), the Huron River valley was originally home to a large Native American population. Then in 1680, the French explorer LaSalle passed eastward through this region, canoeing from Portage Lake down the Huron to Lake Erie. French fur traders and Jesuit missionaries soon followed. Michigan became a territory in 1805, and four years later Godfrey, Pepin and LaShambre established a trading post known as "Godfrey's, on the Pottawatomie Trail" in what is now Ypsilanti. Major Benjamin Woodruff purchased 160 acres of land in 1823 in Ypsilanti Township, beginning the first permanent European settlement. There were 15-30 settlers in the "County" at that time.
But more kept coming, and on January 1, 1827, Washtenaw County legally came into being. It was divided into 20 townships, with the population was nearly 1,000, spanning a distance of 30 miles east-west and 24 miles in the north-south direction.
Ignatz' home in Freedom Township was formed in that county on March 7, 1834, by the Legislative Council of the Territory of Michigan, splitting off Town 3S, Range 4E from then Dexter Township. The name for the township evolved after considerable dispute, until someone expressed that a good deal of freedom should be exercised in such matters, and that name was then proposed and adopted. (The map below shows Washtenaw in 1873.)
When Ignatz arrived in Michigan, it was still wild in many places. So homesteads had to be self-sufficient in order to survive. Farms like Ignatz' had to include crop fields, stables and pens, orchards, and a wood lot filled with huge wooden timber for building, with oak, walnut, maple, white and black ash, and white and red elm (Dutch Elm disease has since killed all of that, though). His home was part of the land's ecological make-up, a self-sufficient, living organism that supplied everything the occupants needed to live. (As opposed to today, when a home is just the place you sleep until you have to go to work.) Ignatz had been a Catholic in Baden, but worshipped at the Methodist church on Ellsworth Road (the church was disbanded in 1870), and belonged to the newer, more liberal Republican party, like all good "Forty-Eighters."
After 10 years in the United States, Ignatz Wenk and his wife, Anna (as "Mary") appear for the first time in the 1860 census. Ignatz (spelled "Egnat Wenk") is listed as a 42-year-old farmer, with $1000 worth of property and $400 in other assets. His wife is 61! Ten years later, Ignatz is listed in the census as only 48 years old with $2600 worth of property and $660 in other assets. Meanwhile, Anna (aged 72!!!) is "keeping house."
She was about 14 years younger than Ignatz, and in one of life's great little ironies, she brought to the marriage a one year-old daughter, Catherine, whom Ignatz raised as his ownjust as Johan Wenk had raised him back in Baden. Catherine's true heritage is uncertain, but her origins give us another clue that Ignatz and Eva Catherine's marriage was arranged from overseas. Catherine's baptism record in Germany lists her sponsor as Joseph Wenk of Baden, though the church was many miles away. Eva Catherine then brought her to Ignatz in America. None of the other children would know that she wasn't the natural child of Ignatz and Eva Catherine until after their deaths.
After Catherine, Ignatz and Eva raised four more children, as well:
The 1880 census is a valuable tool in part because it is the only US census available for the last two decades of the 1800s. Most of the original 1890 population schedules were destroyed in a fire at the Commerce Department in 1921. Less than one percent of the schedulesrecords enumerating only 6,160 individualssurvived.
In this census, Ignatz Wenk is now 54, and his second wife, Catherine, is 43. He has adopted her daughter, Catherine, who is listed as an 11-year-old, born in Michigan. They have also had four more children in their first ten years of marriage: John (age 9), Joseph (age 7), Martin (age 5), and Louisa (age 2).
Ignatz' brother, Joseph Wenk, a tailor, has emigrated to the United States, and is also listed with his family on this page, below Ignatz, who is listed as a farmer.
But the family didn't only work. Holidays were special times in the Wenk householdespecially Christmas. Catherine would bake all kinds of cookies like Liebkuchen and Springele and a bread called Snitzbrodt. Decorations for the tree were homemade, like popcorn and cranberries chained together along the branches on string, dried apples, and real candles which were lit at night.2
So life was hard on the Ignatz Wenk farm, but it was a truly good life, and far above what had been available to him in Baden.
Ignatz Wenk passed away in 1897. Ignatz' obituary, printed in German, is below, reading, "When he died, he left three sons, two daughters, two sisters, two brothers and a lot of friends." He's buried in the Freedom Emanuel Evangelical Memorial Cemetery. His eldest son, John, took over the farm, while sons Joseph and Martin had to go into debt to start their own homesteads.
The 1900 census lists that his sons, Joseph and Martin Wenk, are working the farm for 69-year-old Catherine, who interestingly is listed as speaking no English. Catherine now ran the family. She was a very frugal person. She cooked on a huge black range, fueled by wood, and wasted nothing. She made many kinds of soups for the family, including liver dumpling, vegetable beef, and noodles called "knifle" supplemented her meals. She and her daughters baked bread every other day, made their own butter, and sold both butter and eggs. There was no refrigeration, so meat was smoked or dried in order to preserve it. And she stocked it in the cellar, along with canned fruit and vegetables, for meals during the long winters. In the fall, hickory nuts were collected and dried in the attic, to be used in hickory nut cake with caramel frosting.
"...Various immigrant groups were more or less absorbed into the Ann Arbor community within a few years. Not so the Germans. They learned English but kept their native tongue and made sure their children learned it. They joined local groups and entered politics, but they prayed in their own churches, gathered in their own service organizations, formed their own band, and established their own volunteer fire company, which drew the admiration of their Yankee neighbors. Assimilated and much respected for their industry and public spirit, they nonetheless retained for decades a separate identity as well."
Meanwhile, another generation of Wenks were carrying on with the family farming tradition. Germanic-Americans have a history of banding together in close-knit communities and family units. The Wenks were a prime example. They have survived cyclones, a Depression, wars, and draughts so bad that Joseph Wenk once had to feed tree bark to his cows, and have stayed in the same area of Michigan for 150 years, anduntil recentlymost of them were living on the same ROAD!
The Michigan Gazetteer of 1837 described the township as: Lima Center, village and post office, Washtenaw County and Township of Lima, pleasantly situated on the branch of Mill creek has grown up. The territorial road from Ann Arbor to St. Joseph passed through it. This place is quite thriving and there are large quantities of hydraulic power that might be used to advantage in the vicinity.
Martin stayed close to his family and became a farmer, like his dad, and then bought a threshing business, which he ran with his brothers (and eventually his children).
He also bought a sawmill. In the early 1900's, Martin charged $3-to-$7 for sawing 1000 board feet of trees... and he only lost one finger in all of the decades he ran the mill! (It was reattached by Dr. Bush in Chelsea.) Local farmers brought the logs from their wood lots by horse-drawn sleigh in the springtime, to cut lumber for barns, homes, fences and gates. The steam-powered mill furnished its own fuel by burning lengths of slab-wood (the first cut taken off a log) to heat the water, which was drawn from a nearby stream. The sawdust created by the cutting would be used for mulch, bedding, and ice storage (ice had to be covered in a special shed on all sides by eight inches of sawdustthere were no refrigerators yet).
Family always came first for Martin Wenk, even at his work. The children did all they could in the threshing and sawmill business', and attended school when they could, as well. They were:
Martin and 29-year-old Martha Grieb lived in Lima Township and had one son so far, named Elmer. Martin is listed as a laborer in a threshing business.
Martin used his own family to run the business, training his sons to work in the threshing operation. It was important to him that each child contribute to the enterprise, and that all of his sons work not only to better themselves but the entire family.
Martin's children bonded for life, living mostly on Fletcher Road near the town of Chelsea, Michigan, around their father's farm. While the other Wenk families continued to attend the same Evangelical church as Ignatz, the Griebs were Lutherans, and Martin switched denominations after the marriage. They worshipped at Zion Lutheran Church, just down the road from the farm.
Chelsea was first settled in 1834, and first called "Kedron" until July 19, 1850, when Elisha Congdon renamed it after his old home across the river from Chelsea, Massachusetts. The Village of Chelsea grew rapidly after 1850 as the railroad laid the pathway for business and passenger service. Elisha and his brother James got the Michigan Central Railroad to build a station there in 1848 for land concessions. The town was finally incorporated on October 22, 1864.
Martin's son, Ernest, recalled later to Kathy Clark in a Chelsea newspaper: "The Wenk threshing operation covered parts of four townships, namely Freedom, Sharon, Lima and Sylvain. To operate a steam-powered rig required a fireman engineer, a water boy to keep the engine supplied with water, a blower man, and a machine man. The water supply tank was pulled by two horses. The threshing crew usually slept in the farmer's barn. They had to be on the job early to build a roaring fire to get enough steam pressure to start operations, and set off a steam whistle telling the farmers it was time to get on the job. Each farmer was required to have on hand enough coal to do his work. Farm wives were popular for putting on super good meals.
Martin's daughter-in-law through Erwin, Dorothy Wenk (née Pritchard), remembers: "You had to do a noon meal, most likely roast beef, mashed potatoes, bread, gravy, vegetablesgarden or canned. We used home-canned meat but bought roast if we had threshers, and pies for dessert.
"At night we usually served hot dogs, fried potatoes. Probably cake for dessert at night. But the noon meal was the biggest. Ruby and Edna would help me. We would work together a lot. I was glad when threshing was over!
"We would serve least a dozen or more at noon. You had wash basins outside and towels, mirror comb on a bench outside. The water came from tubs or pails as there was no running water inside.
"At our house we did not have enough chairs, so we used crates and boards, covered the boards with blankets for them to sit and eat. You could get more at the table with benches made that way instead of chairs also.
"We kids had to be water boys and bring water to the field workers. We also made lemonade for them to drink. We also served ice tea, coffee and water. Art Grau was my biggest customer for iced tea. Mother always made a crock of lemonade. Hard cider and beer was available for most. My dad made beer and my job was to suck the hose. Maybe that's why I don't like the taste of beer."
A cyclone tore through Rogers Corners in 1917, destroying several structures, as well as a lot of others on Fletcher and Waters Roads. Joseph Wenk's house on Waters Road was destroyed, as were Martin's and Catherine's Farms. Zion Church and parsonages were damaged. But much of the community came out to help in rebuilding the properties. Fortunately, the Wenks were a hardy, devoted and industrious bunch, and the disaster didn't set them back for very long. Some photographs of the wreckage from the cyclone are displayed below.
The original 1920 census schedules were destroyed by authorization of the Eighty-third Congress, so it is not possible to consult originals when microfilm copies prove unreadable. But fortunately, we can still read here that Martin and his family are listed right underneath Joseph's. Martin (43) and Martha (39) now have 6 kids: Elmer (10), Erwin (9), Rubena (8), Edna (7), Ernest (5), and Norman (nearly 2). Martin is listed as a "working farmer," as a general laborer and the owner of a threshing business.
The 1930 United States Federal Census is the largest census released to date and is the most recent census available for public access. (Census records are not released publicly until exactly 72 years from the official census date.)
This census gives us a glimpse into the lives of Americans in 1930, and contains records for approximately 123 million Americans.
By 1930, Martin (54) and Martha (49she would die seven years later) are still in Freedom, and all the kids still live at home, working the farm: Elmer (20), Erwin (19), Rubena (18), Edna (16), Ernest (15), and Norman (12). Martin is listed as a "working farmer," as a general farmer, as do all of his sons, but the threshing business is no longer reported.
The mill was sold before 1939, but Ernie purchased another in the early 50's. Then the mill was removed for good in 1993, when Ernest retired from farming and the farm was auctioned off. But the sawmill is still working today, somewhere today in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
Above is a photo of his 80th birthday party, with siblings John and Louisa, and their spouses. Martin lived until October of 1962, when he passed away at the age of eighty-six. During the course of his life he watched Michigan change from an agricultural paradise to an industrial powerhouse. But the Wenks remained farmers first, and a family always...
¹"From Germany to Washtenaw County: A Story of a German Immigrant and his Descendants in America," by Kurtis McDonald, 1997.