11 April 2007

Gonna Take a Sentimental Journey...

Michael Gebhardt was born on January 29, 1854 in Birkwald (also spelled Birckwald and Birkenwald) in the Alsace Region. His parents, Antoine and Theresa Catherine, were likely laborers, although little is known about them.

At the time Michael was born, Alsace was ruled by the French. The Treaty of Frankfort, an effort to end a long conflict between France and Germany, was signed in 1871. At that time the Alsace and Lorraine Regions of France were ceded to Germany. The area returned to France after World War I and again after World War II.

Michael was 17 years old when the treaty was signed. He immediately became eligible for conscription into Bismarck's Army. Not wishing to send their son off to fight, Michael's family managed to scrape together enough money to send him to America, knowing they would never see him again.

Michael arrived in New York Harbor in the Fall of 1871 and happened to meet some recruiters from St. Paul, Minnesota. The city of St. Paul, in an effort to attract more residents, was offering free transportation and help getting established to new immigrants. Michael accepted their offer and boarded a train bound for Minnesota along with many others who had just arrived through Ellis Island.

Michael rarely talked about his beginnings in Alsace or his early days in Minnesota. Family stories indicate he was a driven and determined man. In a short period of time he had learned to speak English and completely lost his accent. His children and grandchildren never remembered him speaking French.

In 1883 he joined the St. Paul Police Department as a patrolman. He worked hard and rose within the ranks to sergeant (1896), lieutenant (1900) and captain (1912). He served as Interim Police Chief on three different occasions. According to his obituary printed October 31, 1931 in the St. Paul Dispatch, "whenever they're shy of a police chief, they call on Gebhardt, and he always fits the bill." He was known as the "Grand Old Man."

Michael Gebhardt was my mother's great-great grandfather.

This past Saturday we tracked down the tiny village of Birkwald. It has fewer than 20 houses and two unnamed roads. An unassuming town without even a corner bar or a post office, it is within easy bicycling distance of Haguenau, just north of Strasbourg.

We received a few strange looks from Birkwald's residents, who were surprised that tourists had arrived to take pictures of their town.

We briefly joked about knocking on some doors and asking if anyone remembered the Gebhardts. But instead we just drove along it's two streets and continued on our journey.


Un-Swiss Miss said...

How fascinating! Did it feel strange to come full circle, in a way?

Global Librarian said...

Have to admit, it did feel bizarre. My great-great-great-grandfather's family made a huge sacrifice to fund his trip to the United States, knowing they would never see him again.

And now I am here, living within easy driving distance of where he started.

Reverse Immigration. Weird.