Sunday, July 20, 2008

How the history and culture of my Bohemian Austel Family almost floated away

Image: The National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library (NCSM&L), Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was inaugurated in 1995. I own a postcard which shows the Presidents of three countries standing on an outside terrace waving to a crowd gathered for the event: Bill Clinton (US), Michael Kovac (Slovak Republic) and Vaclav Havel (Czech Rep.).

In June, 2008, our country experienced record flooding in Iowa and Missouri and raging wild fires in Northern California. The environment seemed to be angry at us. And I can’t say that we have been exactly kind to the environment. But this is not to be a diatribe on the conflict between man and the environment- just one of its disastrous consequences.

When I heard that the Cedar River in Iowa crested several feet above flood stage, I was immediately concerned about the Czech and Slovak Museum in Cedar Rapids. Three years ago, in 2005, I was returning from a two month job at a nuclear plant in Blair, Nebraska. As I traveled east along Interstate 80, crossing Iowa, I took a side track and stayed the night near the historic German immigrant community of Amana. Next morning, I took an early hike on the nature trail at Amana, and then drove about 20 miles further north to the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids. I spent most of the day touring the museum and the adjoining Czech Village.

The Museum proved to be an excellent way to learn about the culture and history into which my great grandfather was born in the mid 19th century. JOSEPH AUSTEL was born in 1851 in the former village of Haindorf, Boehmen (or Bohemia in English) which then was part of the Austrian Hungarian Empire. Franz Joseph was both the Emperor of Austria and the King of Bohemia. The name of the village was changed from Haindorf (from village in the woods in German) to Hejnice, in the Slovakian tongue when Czechoslovakia was re-established after WW I. In the 1990s, the country was split during the so-called velvet divorce into two countries: the Czech Republic and Slovakia. So, there is a lot of history and changes to absorb for the family historian who is trying to understand where his Bohemian ancestors came from. For the greater part of a day, I delved into the history and culture of my ancestral homelands. The displays were artistically created and very informative. I collected stamps as a kid- and still do on occasion. So, I was quite pleased when I saw enlarged reproductions of commemorative stamps being used as part of the displays.

Image: Historical Time line shows events during the last 80 years for Czechoslovakia beginning before its establishment in 1918. Commemorative stamps are used to illustrate various events and personalities.

My favorite displays were the mannequins dressed in the folk costumes (Tracht in German or Kojke in Slovakian) for the various regions of the county. When they dressed up, the Bohemians wore material of embroidry and lace. I learned that lace and other textiles were significant export items from Bohemia, and then I could understand WHY my great grandfather, born in Bohemia, worked in a Textile Mill in the latter part of the 19th century in Canton Thurgau, Switzerland. However, I still cannot say why he and his wife MIGRATED to Swizterland around 1875, but at least he had a trade when he got there.

I was particularly impressed by a statue of the founder and first president of the re-established Republic of Czechoslovakia: Thomas Garrique Masaryk. The statue has a fantastic history; it was designed by Jan Vitele and cast in bronze by Bartak shortly after the death of Masaryk in 1937. However, when the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia at the beginning of WW II, the owner of the statue, Vaclav Ilk, had to bury it in his backyard garden during the German occupation. The statue was moved and re-buried three times to keep it from being discovered. Ilk would have been executed by the Nazis if his secret was ever discovered. After WW II, the Russians confiscated the statue from a local town square and it was “lost” until the late 1960s. It was then that Ilk read about three statues of Thomas Masaryk which had been stored at a Museum in Prague. His sculpture was identified and returned to him. The statue was gifted to the Iowa museum in 1995 by Jira and Anne Jilick in memory of Ilk, and it now stood in front of this visitor for a digital picture (see image).

Paired with the image of the statue is a picture of an historical marker in downtown Pittsburgh, PA, indicating the Pittsburgh Agreement which was signed by Mazaryk among others in 1918. It established the intention to form the democratic country of Czechoslovakia. At the time of the signing my immigrant Bohemian great grandfather, JOSEPH AUSTEL, was residing just a couple of miles away in Braddock Borough- interesting how history weaves itself.

By the way, Thomas Masaryk has an interesting genealogy which includes his disputed parentage and his marriage to an American, Charlotte Garrigue, from whom he took his middle name.

As I was leaving the museum, I took a closer look at two panels showing portraits of famous persons of Czech and Slovak birth or descent. I am sure you will recognize a few: photographer, Ansel Adams; actor Robert Urich; astronaut Eugene Cernan; athletes Martina Navratilova and George Blanda; artist Andy Warhol, playwright Havel; military leader, Stefanik; “Good King” St. Wenceslaus; McDonald’s founder, Ray Kroc; blogger, Bob Kramp- hey wait minute, I know that guy.

After my tour of the museum, I wandered over to the nearby Czech Village to buy some postcards and have a snack. The Bakery looked- and smelled good. I decided to assimilate myself into some enticing, ethnic food. There seemed to be a lot of pastries with poppy seeds. One pastry looked like a patty of dark chocolate on a bun. The lady behind the counter explained it was a “Bohemian Burger” made from a patty of mushed poppy seeds. Fearing I might fail the security drug test at my next nuke job, I opted for a cream puff of some sort- with fewer poppy seeds. Actually the baker gave me a complimentary cookie. Everybody knows the way to my heart is through my stomach, so I can say I really admired these people. I scribbled the name of the pasty on my museum brochure- looks like “Kalajke” or “Kalachee”. The latter is probably a phonetic spelling. If your grandma makes them, put a few in a box and mail to the address on my home page.

So, what happened to this fantastic learning and research center during the floods last month? Take a look at the image below- and you may gasp for air. Moreover, you may gasp and wonder what in the world was lost in this disaster. There are plenty of images and videos of the flood and its aftermath at the references and Internet links below. One can see the determination of the friends of the NCSM&L who are committed to preserving the museum. I know it must be depressing to look at the water damage, but please, hang in there. I certainly appreciate how much you have given to me and my family- for generations to come.


Flood Damage assessment and clean-up: images, news updates, and how you can help.

Story and interviews regarding the NCSML flood on National Public Radio.

The original Czech and Slovak Museum and Library Web site

Permanent exhibit on "Homelands: The Story of the Czech and Slovak People" and a free guide downloadable in pdf format. If you have ancestors from the area of Czechoslovakia, you have to go here. I downloaded and saved all 6 pages of the full page spread.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Negative Impact of some Early Deaths of my Ancestors

The Age at Death Pedigree for my ancestors is kind of scary. The yellow colored squares indicate my direct ancestors who died at less than 55 years of age. At a genealogy conference I once attended, a physician talked about Medical History for the genealogist. He told the audience that nobody could predict when one would likely die. It was a combination of GENES and LUCK. Well, I guess I am pretty lucky because I am over 60 (I’ll leave it at that), and I’m still kicking. My mother is extremely lucky- but I don’t believe she sees it that way.

On the other hand, my father was not so lucky, he died at a relatively young age. But, that was not the worst of it. His mother, Emily, died in the 1918 Influenza epidemic only seven days after giving birth. Robert was then fostered and eventually adopted by his father’s sister, Martha Streich (Strike). She was married to Robert William Kramp, and that is why I am a Kramp instead of a Streich. But yet, there is a blood connection; Martha was my father’s paternal aunt. Not shown on the above chart is that Dad’s adopted mother Martha died of a heart attack when she was only 50 years old. By the way, I wish there was an easy way to show these adopted relationships on one’s pedigree.

My father did not comprehend the circumstances surrounding the death of his biological mother- how could he; he was only a week old when she died. That these German immigrants did not talk too much about such things to the children further added to my father’s frustration. His first inkling that he was adopted came from the neighborhood kids. Sometimes they teased him about it.

When his adopted mother died, my father’s biological brother, Russell Stryke, took him from Ramey, PA, to Alexandria, VA, and started him in the printing trade as a Linotype operator. As my father applied for his apprenticeship card, they asked for his name. He replied that he was Robert Kramp. It was then that his brother told him that this was not true; his name was not Kramp, but Strike. Still not fully comprehending the situation, my father made the decision, perhaps with some resentment to his biological family, to become legally adopted by the Kramp family- even though his biological father was still living at the time. The episode sparked some hard feelings between my father and his biological family of which there were five other siblings.

So, my father lost his biological mother when he was a week old and his foster mother when he was 15 years old. Go now, hug your children or your mother.

However, as I researched further, I discovered that Dad’s biological father, Otto, lost his own father, Karl Strike, when he was only 8 years old. His mother quickly re-married but her second husband was a rather stern, German step-father. Otto and his brother, Julius, left home at a very early age. Julius married a 16 year old Welsh girl when he was only 18 years old. He had one child, a daughter, and then abandoned his family, never to be heard from again. Incidentally, Julius is one of the “missing persons” in my research.

My point regarding these early deaths is that I believe it disrupted the closeness and togetherness of the family. Also, I believe that the loss, in particular, of the Nourisher of the family which has traditionally been the mother often has a drastic negative impact on the family unit. I was told that Emily Russell’s daughter, who did not talk for a year after her mother died, took all the family pictures and letters to the backyard when she was a teenager and burned them. I can see the mouths of my fellow genealogists dropping to the floor now.

In my great grandparent’s generation, there were two early deaths of the matriarchs, Eleanor Hartley and Maria Gutgsell. Eleanor’s husband never re-married and his five motherless children were raised by older daughters in the family. However, Maria Gutgsell’s husband Joseph Austel remarried a girl half his age. She was a good and faithful wife, but some say she was very partial to her own nephews and nieces to the consternation of her step children.

What was that story told by the Brothers Grimm regarding the wicked step mother? I’m sure everybody has heard of Cinderella. My mother told me that Mrs. Emily (Russell) Strike made Otto promise on her death bed that he would not allow the children to be raised by a step mother. Otto kept his promise.

NOTE: This blog entry was submitted to the 52nd Carnival of Genealogy; topic, “About Age” hosted this week by the owner and blogger of Lisa's 100 Years in America

James Irvin Russell, Theatrical artist, Architect, Riverman

Image: Advertisement in the Barnesboro Star (PA) for the silent movie, “The Mark of Zorro” with Douglas Fairbanks coming to the RUSSELL Theater, circa 1920s. Theater was owned and operated by my father’s uncle, Nicholson Russell, the father of James Irvin Russell

A couple of weeks ago, a group of us genealogical bloggers accepted an Independence Day assignment to write about an independent, free-spirited character in our family. I immediately thought that most of my ancestors met that criteria or I would not be sitting here today in Monroe, North Carolina. They had the adventuresome spirit to leave home and neighbors, travel over long distances with all their belongings; cruise across the Atlantic Ocean; and emigrate to a new country. I don’t take the gumption of my ancestors for granted. But for this assignment, I needed to focus on one individual. So, my second thought drifted to the life and adventures of James Irvin Russell (1908-1991).

From his obituaries (see References at end), I learned
“… He was a theatrical and commercial artist. His portraits of notable persons include those of George Washington Carver and Booker T Washington commissioned by the Florida State Tuberculosis Board …”

"… But, Mr Russell was probably more well known for his excursions into the jungles of South America by way of the Amazon River. He made eight trips, mostly alone, down the Amazon starting when he was 63, hitchhiking in dugouts, canoes, barges and other semi-primitive ways of river travel. He made his last trip down the Amazon in 1979, when he was 72 years old. …"

In the mid 1990s, I visited James Irvin Russell's nephew in Johnstown, PA, who was named after his much admired uncle. However, his middle name was Edwin- James Edwin Russell. The nephew had gone to Jacksonville, FL, during his summer vacations from school and worked beside his uncle as he constructed several artistic homes in a community called Coquina Gates. From this nephew, I obtained two manuscripts written by James I. Russell, one was a 22 page typewritten autobiography; and the other, an 18 page journal of his trips town the Amazon River, the longest river in the world. Later at home, I transcribed the biographical information for my genealogy. I don't think the manuscripts were ever published; I believe James Russell died before he could finish the projects.

However, there were a number of newspapers and magazines which did indeed feature articles of James' adventures. The Florida Times-Union of Jacksonville, Monday, 19 July 1971, published a lead article, "River Rover Won't Give Up" and subtitled, "Amazon's Source Led Boatman On". The article was written by James’ friend, Ron Sercombe, who he had known for 20 years. Then again eight years later, on Sunday, 17 Dec 1978, the newspaper came out with, "Down the Amazon River- At age 70, adventurer makes 10-year-old dream come true", by Cynthia Parks (Times-Union staff writer). Finally, The Gulf Travel Club's "Odyssey" Magazine, May/June 1978, printed, "RIVER MAN JIM RUSSELL: His Sixties Haven't Slowed Him Down" by Peggy Payne.

All these articles came out AFTER James Russell built seven houses including a chapel in a community called Coquina Gates in Jacksonville, FL. The homes were built in an artistic style with flagstone floors, round shaped windows, exposed wooden rafters and beams, and the liberal use of Coquina Rock in walls, fireplaces, and garden walls. And yes these talents of James Russell were also featured in a Sunday Magazine Supplement on 29 Mar 1964, entitled, "Talent for designing vaudeville sets now used in creating houses”.

It is no wonder that James I. Russell, ran out of time before he could complete his autobiography which he planned to title, "My Wild Sixties".

Image: In 2001, I visited the Jacksonville home of the late James I. Russell. On the walls of the den were maps of James’ South American journeys down the Amazon River, as well as his “practice” cruises down just about every river and swamp in northern Florida. Mrs. Anna (Mathews) Russell modeled one of the native baskets that James picked up in South America. A wild cat skin hangs on the wall behind Anna and is mentioned in James’ journal. The balsa craft that James floated down the last leg of the Amazon River was named after his patient wife, “The Anna Nery”. It was built by his Peruvian guides, who were the same father-son duo who guided an earlier National Geographic exposition.

Mrs. Anna (Mathews) Russell, shows me a house that her husband, James, designed and built in the Coquina Gates community of Jacksonville, FL. Coquina rock is quarried from layers of the lime shells of the sea animal, Coquina. The unique building material was also used in the construction of the Spanish fort in St. Augustine, FL.

I recently re-read all the newsprints on James and also his unpublished autobiography which he started out with the subtitle, “The Little Movie House”. James was born in Barnesboro, Cambria Co, PA, which is the same county where Johnstown is located. That may ring a bell as the site of one of the most disastrous floods in our nation’s history. Over 2,000 persons were drowned in the rushing waters that broke from a dam on the Conamaugh River in 1889. James claimed the disaster was one of the reasons he had river water in his blood.

James theatrical art days began when he joined his brother and sister and they played music in the stage pit as silent movies were shown on the screen of their father’s RUSSSELL THEATER in Barnesboro. Later, James quit high school so he could become a licensed projectionist. He loved the movies.

James had a natural talent for art and painting. Unfortunately, his father’s theater closed down after the Crash of 1929. James went on the road as an advance man and publicist for "Punjab, the Very Essence of Hindu Mystic Powers” a traveling vaudeville show. James wrote:

“I traveled up and down the east coast and much of the mid-west designing and painting colorful displays that covered the entire front of the theatre from sidewalk level to above the marquee. … After two years with Punjab, and tired of traveling from one city to another, setting up in cold and drafty backstage rooms and temporary work shops, I wanted to stop moving and stay in one place. When Punjab's show opened in Pittsburgh, our next booking was scheduled for Charles Fienler's VIRGINIA THEATER in Wheeling, West Virginia. I settled down in Wheeling for the next seven years.”

Using search engines on the Internet I was surprised and delighted to find the old theaters and landmarks which confirmed the words of James’ autobiography. I found pictures of the VIRGINIA THEATER in Wheeling and other theaters at which James worked as he crisscrossed America during the Great Depression. There was THE HOLLYWOOD THEATER on Sandy Boulevard, Portland, Oregon (now on the National List of Historical Places), The GRAND TABOR OPERA HOUSE in Denver, Colorado (which is currently being renovated to its historical splendor). And remarkably, I found a picture and story regarding a vintage sailing vessel "THE STAR OF INDIA", formerly called the ENTERBE. The ship was preserved during the 1930s and now houses the San Diego Maritime Museum. While working on art projects for the grand opening of the museum, James shared meals and bunked in the captain's quarters with a 6 ft, 8 inch, Brit who was called ”Lofty”.I wish I could share the whole manuscript with you in this blog entry but it is too extensive. I plan to post it on my father’s genealogical web site next to the 19th century journal of Thomas W. Russell. The journal is the only other piece of autobiographical writing (except this blog) that I have encountered during my research. So I will close with one more excerpt from James’ manuscript. The team which is renovating the Grand Tabor might be interested in the story. Wouldn’t it be neat if there are some old pictures of James I. Russell’s art work still extant in some forgotten, dusty, cob-webbed room of the old building?

The Grand Tabor Opera House, a vintage photo (left) and the House as it looks today in the process of renovation.

“Soon after I started work at the theater, Mr. Tabor engaged Elliot Daingerfield, who was one of England's most prominent scenic artists, to paint the asbestos curtain. An amusing thing happened after the curtain was completed. Workmen were placing a portrait on the top center of the stage proscenium arch, when Mr. Tabor happened to come down the aisle, looked up and said, "Who the hell is that guy?"

"Shakespeare, the bard of Avon", said one of the men on the set crew."

"Who ever heard of him?"

"Take it down and put my picture up there."

“During the time I worked at the Tabor Grand, the original asbestos curtain hung from the high loft on the back stage. Each year on the anniversary of the grand opening night the curtain was lowered for the audience to view.”

Oh, what about the picture of Zasu Pitts? Let me squeeze in one more anecdote from Russell’s autobio:

"For the next eight months [at the Hollywood Theater in Portland] we worked 10 to 14 hours a day. One night I remember, the manager, a Mr. Gill, a tough Irishman and in a bad mood, charged through the shop while we were working late. I was painting a poster effect in water color of Zasu Pitts. Gill looked it over and said, 'Mr. Russell that would be alright if you can make it look like Zasu'. We had not been compatible from the start. I was tired and water soaked and just stopped trying to please him. A few weeks later he fired me."


James Irvin Russell, obituaries

Photo and history of "The Star of India"

Google Book Search: Wheeling (WV) in Vintage Postcards (scroll to page 117 for the Virginia Theator) (also look in

The Tabor Opera House

Friday, July 4, 2008

An Independent, Free Spirit. Introduction to The COG

What person comes to your mind when someone mentions a free spirit. But first, I think we ought to define who or what is a free spirit?

For "footnoteMaven", it meant a person who is independent but lacking responsibility- specifically her great grandmother, Lois or Lula or LoElla Green(e), who apparently abandoned a family to build a boat out in the backyard of her house in a gladiola garden. And by the way, the boat floated.

For Miriam, it meant her Uncle John who was an independent, single man- perhaps too independent to marry and settle down. He served in the Philippine Insurrection, homesteaded in British Columbia, and otherwise spent his life "moving around and was apparently happy". Miriam made a good point that family historians often concentrate on married ancestors, who obviously have descendants, and neglect the bachelors and spinsters in the family.

For Jasia of "Creative Gene", it meant "a relative who was feisty, spoke their own mind, ... who most people might consider a “nut” on the family tree but you know they really just followed a “different tune?” ... whose character and habits may have made them seem 'ahead of their time' ..."

For Henry David Thoreau, it meant, "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away".

These definitions and story beginnings come from a group of bloggers who have banded together in what is called a "Blog Carnival" in the blogger world. The term Blog Carnival in general is a group bloggers who write about a specific topic. There are Blog Carnivals on topics such as parenting, making money, home schooling, or any topic you can think of. The Carnival of Genealogy or COG, as you would expect, includes bloggers who are OBSESSED with writing about genealogy and family history, sometimes with a related interest thrown in- photography or travel or scrap booking for example.

Really, there is a whole world of genealogical and family history writers out there in the "bloggosphere". (My teachers always instructed me to keep jargon at a minimum but it's difficult these days) I thought I was alone a year ago when I began blogging about my family history/genealogy/ autobiography. But I often asked myself how could such a blog be interesting to a stranger or web surfer who in passing just sees a swirl of unlinked, unrelated or mostly dead people. Please realize I have been researching my genealogy for about 16 years and there are only a few people in my family at large who have an interested in this subject, that is OUR family. My immediate family- mom, sister, brother, daughters, grandchildren- lean back; yawn, and groan "aaaww not again" when I start talking about a family story- regardless of how interesting it may be. They're all interesting of course. And, have you ever noticed, my dear fellow genealogists, that when you start talking about your 10 x great grandmother at a Genealogy Convention or club meeting, your listeners wave you aside and immediately start talking about THEIR ancestors.

But I persevered any way, believing that when (not if) my family would someday wonder where they came from- there would be my blog of interesting, almost- irreplaceable genealogy. Did I mention that I print out my blog entries every few weeks and bind them in a plastic comb. In my will, I will stipulate a publisher who will take it from there I hope.

Also, I thought there might be an audience- like I have nearly 7000 persons in my genealogical computer database, not all living being granted. Don't most people have a computer these days?

Assuredly, I am not alone. One of The Carnival of Genealogy members (I believe Jasia is the founder and host of COG) has 51 bloggers on her blog roll. Uhhh.. a blog roll is a list of blog sites or links which are attached to a particular blog presumably because they have a common interest or thread. In this case most of the 51 bloggers attached to Jasia's blog roll have titles that suggest a genealogical interest. Another Geneablogger, Miriam, has about 110 links on her blogroll. To date, I have one link in my blog roll, but it's a good one- and she also has a Kramp ancestor from Pomerania (Pommern).

All this was supposed to be an introduction to MY submission of a family member who was an "Independent free spirit", but I haven't got around to who is THE Spirit yet. So look for him, yea a guy, in my next blog entry. Hint: he is a descendent of the Russell Line. Obviously, I did not create a blog about my free spirit in time to be included in the 51st Edition of The COG. The deadline was July First. I lurked in the shadows for awhile. But today is Independence Day, and I will include him in my own blog at least. If you are interested in seeing those Free Spirits who did make the deadline for inclusion in the official COG edition, go to the host's blog here.

FAQs about Carnival of Genealogy, by Jasia
Blog Carnivals, in general. Submission forms
51st Edition of Carnival of Genealogy