The Great Trek: Glasgow to Glennonville
Kenneth Westhues, 2016
The basic story is well-known: at the direction of St. Louis Archbishop John Glennon, a 32-year-old priest named Fritz Peters founded the Catholic colony of Glennonville in Dunklin County, Missouri, in 1905. It is also well-known that Father Fritz's mother Theresia, his brothers Henry and George, and George's wife Anna and their children, all pulled up stakes in Glasgow, where the Peters family had lived since arriving from Germany in 1888, and moved to join the Glennonville colony.
I never knew until this year exactly when or how they moved. Now I've learned some fascinating details from two reliable sources.
First, in the digital newspaper collection of Chronicling America, maintained by the Library of Congress, are early twentieth-century issues of an informative weekly called the Chariton Courier, published then in Keytesville, Missouri, the county seat of Chariton County. The paper had a correspondent in Lewis' Mill, a hamlet on the Wabash Railroad in the southeast corner of Chariton County, two miles north of Glasgow, in Howard County. The Peters family farm lay next to Lewis' Mill, along what later became Highway 5.
On November 30, 1906, the Courier reported that “quite a number of farmers in this section will soon leave for Dunklin County, to locate. We hope for all of them much success. Those going are Ben Fortman and family, George Peters and family, Fuemmeler brothers and sisters, and John Bader. Several others are thinking of making that same promised land their home.”
Three weeks later, on December 20, 1906, came this report: “Monday of last week was a lively day at Lewis’ Mill when the parties who left for Dunklin County were preparing for their journey. As many as 40 wagons were there hauling for their friends who left the next day for their new home. A more jolly set of men the writer never saw together at one time.”
The Chariton Courier published no further details about that trip. Eight months later, however, on August 30, 1907, a news item lets us know that the migrating families did indeed reach their destination: “Herman Peters is now prospecting in Dunklin County, Mo., where his mother and brother are residing. Herman has sold his 147-acre farm near here to Chas. Aholt for $82.50 an acre [the equivalent of about $2000 in 2016]. Mr. Aholt got a bargain as this is one of the best tracts of land in the county.” We know from other sources that Herman did not, in the end, cast his lot with Fritz, George, and Henry in Glennonville. He later ran a grocery store in Jefferson City.
How did the migrating families make the trip? My first thought was that a wagon train was formed in Lewis' Mill, and the families traveled along dirt roads, the same way settlers had traveled to the western states half a century earlier. But it seemed unlikely they would have undertaken such a journey in December. Might they have let a steam locomotive pull their belongings by rail?
The answer is in another historical document new to me, the transcript of an interview conducted in 1966, by Father Donald F. Molitor for his master's thesis at St. Louis University. The thesis was on the history of the Glennonville colony. Among his interviewees was George Fortman, then 77 years old, who had been part of the migration reported 60 years earlier in the Chariton Courier. George was 17 years old at that time, the second oldest boy in the Ben Fortman family. He provided Father Molitor with an eyewitness account of the journey.
They traveled by train, Mr. Fortman said, departing on December 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception. That he remembered the date was a Catholic holy day is a measure of how deep was the migrants' faith. He said they loaded livestock, farm machinery, and household goods into five boxcars the day before: two for the Fortman family, two for the Peters family, and one for the Fuemmeler brothers. He told Father Molitor the trip from Glasgow to their new home took no more than three days. The boxcars were left at a stop on the Frisco Railroad called Valley Ridge. Colonists who had arrived earlier helped the new arrivals transport their goods the few remaining miles by horse and wagon. Mr. Fortman recalled that water in the swamp through which they traveled was up to the axles.
Knowing that these founding families traveled together, along with when and how they made the trip, helps us understand the extraordinary strength and cohesiveness of the Glennonville colony. Shared migration to a new homeland binds people together. The archetypal example is the exodus of the ancient Jews from Egypt to Canaan. Examples from the 19th century include the “Great Trek” of Afrikaners to the Transvaal in South Africa, and the “Great Exodus” of Mormons to Utah in North America.
On a small scale, the Peters, Fortman, Fuemmeler, and Bader families made a similar trek from Glasgow to Glennonville, joining with a handful of others to lay the economic and cultural foundation of that community. The matriarch, my Great-Grandmother Theresia Peters, by then 72 years old, was part of that exodus. She died less than a year later and is memorialized even now in the name of the Glennonville parish, St. Teresa’s.
I am grateful to Russell Weisman, Senior Historic Preservation Specialist in the Missouri Department of Transportation (MODOT), for directing me to the information reported above from Father Molitor's master's thesis. Weisman kindly referred me also to Otto Kochitzky's 1903 Map of the Lowlands of Southeast Missouri, which shows where Glennonville came to be located, a little northeast of the older towns of Campbell and Malden, and about a mile south of a now extinct hamlet called Caligoa. Respect and appreciation also to Father Molitor himself, for having done that thesis 60 years ago, and to Darrall Hirtz, for having gathered so much information about Glennonville in his centennial history of St. Teresa's Parish (2006).