When I was a little girl, Momma would give me little things to do to help out around the house with the cleaning, It was a good way to get me involved and to be a good steward of all we have been blessed with. My favorite job was dusting. I probably wasn’t fabulous at it because Momma would come around behind me, hours later and find all of the spots I missed but I do a sufficient job now and that’s all that matters. The reason I loved dusting was two-fold: first, I got to arrange the things on the shelves as I went along and to me that was great fun (always the decorator) and second, the “immigration clock” was something I was allowed to touch when I dusted! We didn’t call it that when I was younger because it wasn’t until I was an adult that anyone told me the story of how it came to be in the family. I just loved that clock! It didn’t work unless you made it work. It would keep ticking for a short period of time and if, say, while dusting, the hands just “happened to be in the right place”, just before the (any) hour and the clock was moved just right, the ticking would last long enough to make the clock strike the hour! It was ironic 😉 how it always seemed to do that every time I dusted!
Momma never had it fixed and when it moved with her a few times, the casing started to crack. When we were able to, I had it fixed and then it came to “live” at my house! I told my grandmother about it becoming mine and she told me the story of how it became our family clock. As I was cleaning up the kitchen this morning and listening to the news on TV, they reported on Donald Trump’s most recent statements on immigration and I thought about the conversations I had with many of the 150 or so folks who came through our house a little over a week ago, on the Christmas House Tour. A part of our immigration history, as recent as the 1920’s has been completely forgotten by the majority of Americans and yet it is supposedly still part of the immigration process. It used to be that you couldn’t just decide to come to America, show up at Ellis Island and travel to wherever you wanted to start your American dream. It just wasn’t that simple! The story of our clock tells more than the time.
My great grandfather John and great grandmother, Bertha (originally pronounced “Bear-tah”) found themselves “with child” at age 22 and 20 respectively. It was a difficult time in history to not be married and six months after the birth of my grandfather (also named John) they tied the knot and started their lives but things were difficult for them, no doubt socially, since everyone in that small village knew each other and having a child out of wedlock was simply not acceptable at the time. Sometime within the first year of his life, they knew they needed to make a change. I’m not sure why he chose the United States, but with a small tin photo of Bertha around his neck, said goodbye and traveled to Ellis Island to begin to make a way for his young family.
Young Bertha, circa 1920s
Great Grandfather wore this around his neck to keep his focus while making a way for his family to come to America.
I love the evidence of his hard work, on the backside of the pendant.
Before immigrating to the United States, he was required to find a sponsor, in the area he wanted to settle. This sponsor would be responsible for helping him with the language, to find a job, a place to live, would speak for him and be responsible for him if he got into trouble. The sponsor would also ensure that proper, legal status or citizenship was obtained. No, it wasn’t always just open boarders for any and all to come start a life here. I always thought it was, and all who heard the story of the clock this weekend, thought so too. There was and is far more to it than that! Sponsors are required for a person to legally enter the U.S. and can be anyone over 21, either family, family friend or business. You can read more about modern U.S. sponsorship HERE.
Enter “Aunt Mary” Stehle (who later married David Smith). She was of no relation to our family, as far as we can tell, but she became like family to John and Bertha. She would be his sponsor in Altoona, Pennsylvania and help him to find work as a stonemason. He eventually rented a home near Mary and was financially stable enough to send for his wife and son. My grandpa was three years old when he came to the U.S. Bertha and young John came to Ellis Island with a plan and defined, hardworking, not just free because you came here, path to citizenship. It wasn’t easy. They clung to the German church and German speaking community, so tightly that when my grandpa was in primary school, the teacher had a conference with his parents ad sponsor to explain that young John was to immersed in German at home to properly learn English and that they should find an English speaking church and speak only English at home so they could help him learn his new language.
It makes the most soulfully, deep bong when it chimes the hour.
When my Great Grandfather became a U.S. Citizen, “Aunt Mary” said she wanted to give him something to celebrate him no longer needing her sponsorship and asked if there was anything of hers that he wanted. He said he had always admired that clock so she gave it to him as a gift for becoming an independent and upstanding American. Our clock is a Seth Thomas clock and That clock will always represent a rightly obtained citizenship and a solid immigration, in my heart. Please excuse me while I go “dust my clock”.