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First visits back to the Westhues homeplace

in Münsterland — 1952, 1958, 1971

Kenneth Westhues, 2018


Farmhouse in 1952, when Henry, Bebe, and Doris Staub visited

 

A homeplace is where multiple generations of one’s ancestors were born, grew up, worked, raised children, got old, and died. It is the land, house, and outbuildings where the lives of one’s forebears were joined for decades, even centuries, in producing goods and making a living. A homeplace is an entity at once geographic, physical, social, economic and cultural. It is usually a farm that has been handed down from grandparents to parents to children to grandchildren. It is an almost sacred space, a tangible symbol of one’s genealogical identity.

It is something most people nowadays happily do without. They are generations removed from a family farm. Ancestors’ land was sold to outsiders. The houses fell victim to fire or demolition. The ancestors themselves moved to cities and changed jobs from time to time. Homes became temporary. For most people today in North America, the tie of identity to place is loose. They may treasure some easily transportable heirlooms as symbols of family heritage, but they have no homeplace.

Click here for a photo of the Westhues homeplace in Missouri in 1896.

And here for a photo of the same home in 2018, courtesy of Wilhelm and Theresia's great-great-grandson, Henry M. Clever.

The Westhues homeplace in Missouri

The descendants of Wilhelm and Theresia Westhues are fortunate to have two homeplaces in this line of their genealogies. One is the farm 3.5 miles northeast of Glasgow, Missouri, that Wilhelm and Theresia bought shortly after their migration to the New World in 1892. The farm lies at the corner of Highway V and County Road 248. There Wilhelm and Theresia raised the six children they brought with them from Germany, plus four more born in America. After their deaths, their youngest son Fritz and his wife Eulalia bought the homeplace from his parents' estate, and raised their family in the same farmhouse. Then great-grandson Anthony and his wife Pat did the same, having bought the property from Fritz and Eulalia. Although their children now have families of their own, Anthony and Pat are still living there as of 2018.

An event that signaled the strength of the hold of the Missouri homeplace occurred in 1966, when Henry and Helen Westhues observed their fiftieth wedding anniversary. Henry was Wilhelm and Theresia’s fifth child. He had left home in his teens, become a lawyer and judge, and made his life 75 miles away in Jefferson City. That is where he and Helen were married and where they raised their family. Even so, for this very special occasion, Henry asked Fritz and Eulalia to host the large gathering at their home.

Similarly, in 1992, 500 descendants of Wilhelm and Theresia converged on the homeplace for the centennial celebration of the Westhues family’s arrival in America. Monsignor John Westhues, the founders’ grandson, presided at an outdoor Mass, while other grandchildren and great-grandchildren sang and played trumpets and guitars. Anthony and Pat graciously welcomed the horde of relatives, recognizing that while only they are the legal owners of the property, hundreds of others – not only their own children and grandchildren, but also nieces, nephews, and even distant cousins – feel attached to it.

Photo and bio of Rev. Joseph G. Westhues

The gravestone of Wilhelm and Theresia Westhues in Washington Cemetery, Glasgow, Mo. Note that his name is carved as the English William.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

The official website of the town of Werne, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Deutschland, and the town's webpage on the English-language Wikipedia.

The homeplace in Münsterland

There was a finality almost unimaginable today to Wilhelm and Theresia’s move to America. Migration meant pulling themselves out of the soil along the Lippe River in Germany, and then quickly and permanently setting themselves into the soil along the Missouri River in America. Their move was not just an uprooting. It was a final transplanting. Glasgow and St. Mary’s Parish became the new, all-embracing center of their lives, the anchor or touchstone, the place to which their identities were tied, the place they seldom left.

A few years after their son Joseph was ordained a priest in St. Louis in 1907, he offered to escort his parents back to their and his native land. After twenty years of hard work and careful management in the thriving American agricultural economy, they could afford the trip. But their youngest children were still in their teens. Their oldest daughter, named Theresia after her mother and grandmother, was in frail health. They delayed the trip. Then came the Great War of 1914-1918. Travel to Europe was out of the question. Wilhelm died in 1921, Theresia in 1926, without ever having seen their German kin again, nor the homes of their ancestors.

Neither would any of Wilhelm and Theresia’s children ever return to the Münsterland homeplace. Most had young families in the 1920s and 1930s. Travel abroad was a luxury beyond reach, especially during the Depression. Further, on account of anti-German sentiment during the Great War, the second and third generations in America felt pressure to distance themselves from their German roots. Indeed, the name on Wilhelm’s gravestone is William. I was puzzled as a child that the name on Uncle Fritz’s mailbox was Fred. The effect of World War II, in which at least nine of Wilhelm and Theresia’s grandsons served in the American armed forces, while German cousins fought on the German side, was to drive deeper the wedge between the New-World and Old-World branches of the Westhues family.

Meanwhile, the homeplace in Münsterland endured, handed down from one generation to the next, lovingly maintained, worked and treasured as it had been for centuries. Its postal address is Hellstrasse 19, Werne, Deutschland, an overwhelmingly Catholic town whose population has by now reached 30,000. The farm is 3.5 miles northeast of the center of Werne, just as the Missouri homeplace is 3.5 miles northeast of the center of Glasgow. It is on the edge of a small hamlet called Horst, but for business, school, and church, one must drive to Werne. The 900-year-old St. Christopher's Parish Church is in the center of Werne, next to the old city hall and market. There is a chapel to St. Mary in Horst, a short walk from the homeplace.

When Wilhelm and Theresia left for America, his father Theodore still presided over the homeplace. He died in January 1893. The farm then passed to Wilhelm's elder brother, in keeping with the old feudal law of primogeniture. When this brother died, it passed to his son, also named Theodore.

First visit back: Henry, Bebe, and Doris Staub in 1952

After World War II, the ties across the Atlantic began to be renewed. In 1952, sixty years after Wilhelm and Theresia left Münsterland, the first of their descendants returned to visit the homeplace. This was their granddaughter Marie (whom everyone called Bebe), the second oldest of Henry and Helen's seven children. Bebe Westhues (1920-2013) had married Henry Staub (1919-2011) in 1951. A native of Dresden, Germany, and of mixed Jewish and Christian parentage, Henry had fled to America in 1941, finished college here, then joined the U.S. Army and enrolled in medical school. By 1951, having completed his MD and a residency in pediatrics, Henry was in the Army Medical Corps, stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, just south of Jefferson City, Missouri. That is how he and Bebe met. That same year he was posted to Germany, which was still occupied by the Allied Powers. His bride accompanied him. Doris, the first of their six daughters, was born in Germany the next year.

The photo below shows the little American family — Henry in his U.S. Army uniform and Bebe holding baby Doris — standing at the front door of the Westhues homeplace with four of the five cousins then living there: Theodore and his wife Antonia at the front, their son Franz at left, and behind him Heinrich, Theodore's bachelor brother. Theodore and Heinrich were nephews of Bebe's grandfather Wilhelm. As boys, they had played together with their first cousins Theodore, Wilhelm G., Joseph, and Henry (Bebe's father), before their Uncle Wilhelm moved his family to America. Franz was among the thousands of German prisoners of war held in camps near Chicago in 1944-1945. This photo was taken by Franz's brother, Ludger, who was also still living on the homeplace.

Henry Staub was an avid photographer throughout his life, having learned the skill from his father. No wonder the barn (below) on the Westhues homeplace caught his eye. It is an example of the "low German house" or Fachhallenhaus, a half-timbered combination house and barn. This distinct architectural style was common in northern Germany from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries,Traditionally, livestock were kept in bays on the ground floor, with sleeping quarters for family members, farmhands and servants on the second floor.

Second visit back: Genevieve (Jenny) Westhues in 1958

The second of Wilhelm and Theresia's grandchildren to visit the homeplace in Münsterland was Fritz and Eulalia's daughter Genevieve, whom everybody then as now called Jenny. Besides raising four children with her husband John Ames, Jenny earned a Ph.D. in medical anthropology from the University of California at Berkeley, and had a long career as a professor in its School of Public Health. But before all that, in 1958, as a 22-year-old Trans World Airlines stewardess, Jenny travelled to Europe and found her way to the farm her grandparents had left two thirds of a century before. She took her camera with her, even loading it with film for color slides.

Heinrich had died since the Staubs' visit, but since Franz was newly married, the homeplace still had five residents: Theodore and Antonia, Franz and Elisabeth, and Ludger, who was still single. In the photo below, Jenny stands between Antonia and Ludger.

In 2018, Jenny set down in writing her sixty-year-old memories of her visit to the homeplace. Here is her account, with three more of her photos interspersed:

On a chilly day in early November, 1958, I sent a telegram (telephoning in Europe was difficult then) from Frankfurt to Ludger Westhues at the bank, where I knew he worked, asking if an American cousin and her friend could visit them the next day.  He replied immediately that he would meet us at the train station in Dortmund and drive us to Werne. At the Dortmund station, speaking no German, we missed the loud-speaker announcements for “Jenny Westhues” and never found Ludger.  After a period of sign language communication, a kind station attendant put us on a little train with wooden seats and told us to “sit and stay sit” until it left for Werne 3 hours later.  We arrived in Werne at midnight, at what was then a small and very dark station. No people in sight or hope of a cab.  Out of nowhere, an angel appeared. A young woman who spoke English took pity on us and called a friend out of his sleep who had an auto, and who happened to know where the Westhues farm home was. When we arrived at this large, red brick, gabled home at !:00 AM,  tired and hungry, the whole family was still awake, worried and waiting for us. I was home.  It was like walking into the homes of my German uncles and aunts in Glasgow:  the instant connection, welcoming smiles, smell of country cooking, and the feeling of being absolutely safe.

After emotional greetings and a bowl of soup, we were lodged in an unheated but comfortable, gabled room above the horse and hay barn, which had an entry directly into the house and a stairway from the barn. We had two comfortable beds with thick down-filled comforters, a pitcher and bowl with warm water, and a soft lantern light. I was thrilled to be in this movie-like setting of rural Europe and slept soundly until Elisabeth awakened us early the next morning. We climbed down the steep stairs and entered the house to the smell of good food, and the sight of a large dining table, beautifully set and abounded with a hardy breakfast of ham, eggs, homemade bread, cooked apples, coffee and milk.

Theodore, who carried the unmistakably strong male persona similar to the Westhues elders in my life at that time, was already seated at the head of the table; he tapped his cane sharply on the floor as a signal that the meal was to proceed. His wife, Antonia, whose sweet and welcoming smiles put us at ease, along with Elisabeth, served the meal with decorum and dignity. Sons Franz and Ludger, who both spoke some English, with mischievous twinkles in their eyes, struggled, as I did, to keep up a conversation about their life stories and ours, translating for their father, Theodore, who had many questions about the Westhues clan in America.  After breakfast, Theodore brought forth a wooden box with a lid that held letters, post cards and pictures that were received from Wilhem Westhues starting from when he first arrived in America, continuing over the ensuing years from his son, our Uncle Theodore, in Glasgow.  Clearly, the Westhues family in Germany treasured these communications with several generations of their American family that continued through two world wars and more.  Amazing!  I wonder if that treasure box still exists.

During our stay, we enjoyed tours of the garden and fields (where I took a photo of Elisabeth and Franz, then expecting their first child), the village, the family burial plot, more good country food, laughter, and increasing mutual fondness. We parted with warm hugs and a few tears.

Sadly, all five of the splendid people we visited have passed, but the memory of my time with them will never pass.  Another joy of this experience was returning to my parents' home in Glasgow to share my experience and show our photo slides to Uncle Theodore, Uncle Will, Uncle John, and my Dad, Fritz, all of them first cousins to the other Theodore in Werne.  Uncle Theodore, who was 12 when he emigrated, remembered his cousin and the homeplace from his youth, and was especially pleased that I had brought back stories and photos.

Third visit back: me in 1971

Thirteen years after Jenny's visit, in 1971, I made my first trip to Europe. It was for a language course at the University of Montpelier in southern France. By then, my Uncles Theodore, Will and Henry had died. Nobody in the American branch of the Westhues family any longer had childhood memories of Germany. I did not know where the homeplace was or who might be living there. All I knew was that Werne was the name of my grandfather Wilhelm's hometown. I very much wanted to see the place, even if nobody with my surname still lived there.

Since my return flight to Canada was from Brussels, I decided to get there by way of Werne, not far out of the way. It took me all day, early morning to very late at night, to travel the 800 miles by train from Montpelier to Geneva, then up the Rhine Valley to Werne. The whole town seemed to be asleep when I arrived. A half-hour’s walk brought me to the center of town, where I found food and lodging at the Baumhove Hotel, a hostelry that had been there, so I learned, since the fifteenth century.

After breakfast the next morning I asked the desk clerk if she knew anyone named Westhues. She said yes, that a man of that name worked at the bank down the street. I walked there and asked for him, simply showed him my passport.

For the next two days, Ludger and his wife Wilhelmine, along with their daughters Birgit and Ruth, shepherded me from one Westhues household to the next. First was the homeplace, where Franz and Elisabeth were raising their family and where Antonia lived with them, Theodore having died some years before. We visited the farmstead of Franz’s and Ludger’s brother Joseph and his family, and then the home of their sister Maria Hibbe and her family. The warmth of all these cousins’ hospitality toward me was much like what Jenny felt. Their kindness took me by surprise, overwhelmed me, and I am grateful for it still.

I remember my conversations with Franz and Ludger, and how deeply I found myself respecting their seriousness about life, also the pride they took in their work, their families, their country, and their culture. In my faulty German, I mistakenly referred to Franz with the word for a peasant farmer, Bauer, and he patiently corrected me, explaining that he was a Landwirt, one who treats farming as a business and manages it not like a peasant but as a rational man. Germany was still divided into East and West in 1971. Reunification was still twenty years in the future. Franz told me he was sure it would never happen. "We would be too powerful," he said.

Unlike Bebe and Jenny, I took no photos of my visit. Indeed, I had no camera with me, harboring at that time the eccentric notion that picture-taking distracts from full, direct appreciation of life. Ludger kindly sent me later the photo below that Wilhelmine had taken at the front door of the homeplace. That's Franz at left holding little Ursula, Ludger next to him, then Antonia, then me. Of the three girls standing in front of Elisabeth, I forget which is which, but that's her son Ewald at far right. As of 2018, Ewald and his wife Anne own the homeplace.

Exchange visits to the Missouri and Münsterland homeplaces since 1971

With increasing prosperity in both America and Germany in the past half-century, and lower cost of transatlantic flights, visits between the German and American branches of the Westhues family have become more frequent. I cannot begin to list them all. Two major ones were the travel of German relatives to the centennial celebration in 1992, of Wilhelm and Theresia's arrival in Missouri, and then three years later in 1995, the trip of Jenny's four older siblings — Fred, Lois, Harold, and Joanne — back to Werne. This webpage documents just the three early trips that renewed family ties across the ocean after six decades without face-to-face contact.

I should end on a note of caution. Whoever finds in this webpage encouragement to go see a homeplace for oneself, whether the one near Glasgow or the one near Werne, or indeed a homeplace in some other genealogical line, should please be mindful that the people who own it and live in it, those who are its current stewards, have their own jobs, commitments, and routine. They cannot be expected to drop everything and entertain distant relatives who decide to drop by. Anybody wanting to visit should be more thoughtful than I was in 1971, get in touch well in advance, and arrived prepared to defray the bother and cost of intrusion. A homeplace is a rare and precious resource, a heritage that deserves respect and care from all concerned.


Sincere thanks to Doris Staub Petrie and Genevieve Westhues Ames for the photos from 1952 and 1958 respectively, and to Jenny for her memoir. This webpage is in grateful memory of our cousins in Werne who so kindly and cordially welcomed us into their homes.