Archived Story

County connected to Waldeck, Germany

Published 11:56am Friday, May 27, 2011

Ed Shannon, Between the Corn Rows

In several recent issues of the Tribune there has been an advertisement for a special trip to Germany during September. This group tour is intended to make a connection between the descendants of a group of immigrants who came to the U.S. 132 years ago and their ancestral home area in Germany. Also included on this tour’s itinerary are visits to Cologne, Berlin, Wittenburg, Bavaria and especially the part of Germany known as Waldeck.

This tour is being promoted by Steve Sprenger of Sioux Falls, S.D. He’s a direct descendant of one of the people who came to Freeborn County with Henry Wittmer. Steve is in the lumber business. And in this area the Sprenger name was once associated with lumber yards in Conger, Emmons and Kiester.

My interest in the saga about Henry Wittmer and how he persuaded 42 people to leave the Waldeck region of Germany came about in three ways.

First, I became aware of this phase of county history back in the fall of 1984 shortly after joining the Tribune staff.

Second, one of my ancestral names is that of Witmer. Please note the difference in spelling. Anyway, I thought there might be a family connection, but this didn’t work out at all. Also, my Witmer ancestors came from Canton Bern in Switzerland and were German-speaking Mennonites. The Wittmers were Lutherans from central Germany.

Third, thanks to the late Marvin Wittmer, plus Cathy Wittmer of rural Conger, I became involved in doing more research on the life of Henry Wittmer. He was born during 1857 in Waldeck and came to Pickerel Lake Township in 1872 to work for an uncle, Henry Schneider. As Steve Sprenger mentioned in the ad, Henry Wittmer went back to Germany for a visit in 1879 and persuaded those other people to come with him to Freeborn County.

The 33 last names of those people are listed in Steve’s ad. Those last names have been a part of life for 13 decades in the southwestern part of the county, especially in the Conger, Mansfield, Bear Lake and Pickerel Lake communities.

Just for the heck of it, I did a little research regarding the topic of Waldeck. It’s a former state or principality in what was once Prussia. The use of the word principality indicates it had a prince as the ruler until 1918. At the present time Waldeck is an administrative district of Hesse state in central Germany. I’m assuming Waldeck, with a size of 420 square miles, is the equivalent of a county.

I’ve done at last five Tribune articles about Henry Wittmer and his two legacies. Two of those articles were based on his trip back to Germany and how he persuaded those 42 people to come to this part of the nation to start their new lives. And three of those articles were based on what I call the Wittmer artistic legacy.

In 1988, thanks to Marvin and his wife Daphne, I became aware of a painting in their home on 680th Avenue, northeast of Conger. Marvin was the grandson of Henry and was then living in what was called the Wittmer home place. I took a black and white photo of the painting created in 1905 by a still unknown artist and wrote an article for the Tribune.

In December 2007 I happened to stop at the Wittmer place and visited with Kevin and Barb Marshall, owners of this pioneer home since 2000. I obtained their permission to take a photo of this painting on the wall above a stairway to the second floor. That color photo was taken by Brie Cohen.

Sadly, the Marshall home was one of the area residences destroyed in the June 17. 2010, tornado. However, the Wittmer painting was somehow salvaged and donated to the Freeborn County Historical Museum in August 2010 as a part of the area’s German heritage.

Pat Mulso, the museum’s executive director, says this unique artistic creation has been framed and is in the process of being covered with Plexiglas. Now the museum’s challenge is to find a place to display this legacy of the past.

Ed Shannon’s column has been appearing in the Tribune every Friday since December 1984.