Just Shy of the Mississippi
my great-great-great-grandparents Peter and Elizabeth Sehnert came to America from Germany around 1850. They had no friends or family waiting for them when their ship landed, and they knew absolutely nothing about the New World. So they used a simple method to find a home. They rode the trains inland as far as the trains could go.
It took them more than a week. They traveled in swaying monotony from the industrialized cities of the Northeast through the newly cleared farmlands of Ohio and Indiana. Only west of Chicago did the settlements thin out and the landscape start to look almost pristine. The train service out there was sporadic and the cars were almost always empty. People said you could ride a train through Illinois from sunup to sundown and not see another living soul except the conductor.
The Sehnerts reached the end of the line at a country station just shy of the Mississippi River. They could have kept going; a lot of people did. Those were the years of the Gold Rush and the great westward migration: as fast as new settlers were arriving in Illinois, the old ones were packing up, selling out, and heading west to California. There weren’t any bridges yet across the Mississippi, and there were so many people, wagons, and animals piling up at the ferry points that the wait for a crossing sometimes lasted for days.
But the Sehnerts weren’t tempted. The journey west was overland through Kansas, or by steamship up the Missouri, through a dangerous country that seemed to be over the edge of the world. So they stayed on what they thought of as the civilized side of the river. They bought a small farm in the open country near Greenville, Illinois.
The name Sehnert is an old one. It goes back deep into the Middle Ages and the ancient farming communities along the Rhine. (It has an archaic and peculiar sound even to a lot of Germans, who tend to think it’s a misprint of Schnert.) Peter and Elizabeth arrived in America with the vast weight of their ancestral values still intact. They were humble, God-fearing, churchgoing, intensely taciturn people; they would no more complain about their lot in life than they would ask a neighbor for help in an emergency.
But there was one way in which they couldn’t help but stand out: they were Catholic.
The heartland in those days was thinly settled but thick with eccentricity. It was a world of ranters, fire-tongued preachers, Pentecostalists, snake handlers, and river baptizers; and the tide of new immigration from Germany was bringing in a florid assortment of socialists, Freemasons, Fourierists, labor agitators, mesmerists, and radical utopians who wanted to get back to the land. (“Latin farmers,” they were called, because all their knowledge of farming came out of Virgil’s Georgics.)
There was only one thing all these people agreed on: Catholics weren’t to be trusted. There were a lot of reasons. Catholics owed their primary loyalty neither to the old country nor the new, but to the sinister pope sunk in the corruptions of Rome; they held weird rituals involving blood; their confession box was a fount of indecency. One of the most popular forms of literature in those days was the hard-hitting mock-journalistic exposé of the secrets of the Catholic Church. These were widely distributed and avidly read—with good reason. Once you got past the somber introductory warnings, they proved to be about the adventures of lascivious priests and the goings-on in orgiastic nunneries.
So Catholics like the Sehnerts had to be discreet. Their parish church was a modest white clapboard steeple house hidden down a meandering dirt road. Most Sundays there was no priest. Catholic priests were rare sights in southern Illinois in those days; one could be counted on to pass through Greenville only a couple of times a year. That meant no mass, no confession, and no communion—only a devotional meeting conducted by the parishioners themselves, following guidelines supplied by the local church hierarchy. (Church officials assured the faithful that, whatever it might say in the catechism, private repentance was acceptable in the eyes of God if there was no priest available to hear confessions.) A Protestant spy would have been bitterly disappointed; the services were decorous and mouse-timid compared to the ecstatic, rafter-shaking revival meetings of their neighbors.
Things were just as restrained at the Sehnert farm. There were no images of the Virgin on display, no crucifixes, no catechisms. The family didn’t own a Bible. The only mystical book that Peter was ever observed perusing was the Farmers’ Almanac.
But this is not to say there was no spiritual drama in Peter Sehnert’s life. The way the family remembers him, there was nothing in his life but spiritual drama. He was the archetype of the thundering patriarch, half hard-hearted farmer and half Old Testament prophet—the sort of man who saw the hand of God in everything, from early frosts to summer droughts, from the weakness of a newborn baby to the vigor of a young calf.
Men like Peter knew what God demanded of them: unceasing struggle against unforgiving odds. Peter’s standards were passed down to his descendants. My family has always been contemptuous of the lazy, the weak, the self-pitying, the fallen, and the soft—the categories into which Peter assigned just about everyone he ever met. He regarded such people as being fit only to be cheated. So while nobody ever forgot his rages, even more memorable was the sight of his rare, deep-glowing bliss when he got the better of a neighbor in a business deal.
Otherwise, his chief glory was his solitude. He took no interest whatsoever in the outside world. He was not known to spread gossip or listen to rumors or read newspapers or pass the time of day with anyone. Whole days went by without his saying a word to his wife and children.
This wasn’t an uncommon way of life. The heartland was scattered with immigrant families doing just what the Sehnerts did—not so much starting their lives over as starting the world over, like Noah and his family after the flood. Many were seen in town only twice a year, at spring planting and at harvest; they’d do their business as quickly and tersely as they could and then ride out again, vanishing down the ragged dirt tracks between cornfields to resume their existence alone with God.
There used to be a story in the family—it was still current in my childhood—about just how isolated Peter was. They said that he was wholly oblivious to the Civil War (or, as they called it in Illinois, the War of the Rebellion). He was too old to fight, and his sons too young, so the whole event passed him by. He finally learned about it one spring morning when he was out working in the fields. That was when he heard a mysterious noise: a sweet, distant humming that seemed to come floating toward him from all directions, fading and surging again as though it were emanating from the land itself. The church bells were ringing out to proclaim that the Union had been preserved.
Peter’s idyll lasted more than twenty years. But history finally caught up with him after the war. Agricultural prices went into a catastrophic decline, and farms throughout the Midwest began failing. Peter was a stubborn man and kept going through several disastrous seasons. But at last his health and his finances were ruined. He lost the farm in the mid-1870s and he died soon afterward.
Peter’s oldest son, John Louis, took over as head of the family. Nobody thought he was half the man his father was. He had no interest in farming, in hard work generally, or in a life of righteous isolation. Even in his early childhood he was running away from the farm; he’d escape into town and spend the day with the idle kids outside the general store, until his silently ferocious father arrived to collect him. Nor did he have any use for religion. In later life he had a taste for gambling and for the ladies; he would blandly lie about this to the priest each week and complacently kneel for communion.
But he did inherit one thing from Peter: a love of making deals. He liked to be known as a sharp businessman, in an age when “sharp” meant something close to “outright larcenous.” When he was a young man, he started going by his initials, because “J. L. Sehnert” made him sound more like a tycoon.
Soon after his father died, J.L. met and married a town girl named Franciska Spengel. She was from a German Catholic family who lived in Highland, Illinois. She had no more desire to be a farmer’s wife than J.L. did to be a farmer—so they borrowed money from her parents and opened a hotel in the small town of Pierron.
Pierron was a wholly typical Illinois farming community. It was a cluster of freshly built houses around a train station deep in the countryside. The houses were white clapboard, with peaked roofs and railed front porches, and their neatly manicured lawns were edged by flower beds and ringed by picket fences. The business district consisted of a barbershop, a feed barn, a general store, and a smithy. There was also a government building made of stone that served as a combination courthouse, county clerk’s office, jail, and emergency storm shelter. The total population was around two hundred people, and rather more chickens, cows, horses, and pigs.
Pierron had never seen anything like J.L.’s hotel. It was a smart two-story building with a sprawling stable attached. Above the door was a big carved sign bearing the slogan The Oakdale House—Ample Entertainment for Man and Beast. Its saloon had brass railings and a bar of varnished wood; on the second story were rooms to let, spartan but clean, with fresh linen on the beds and lace curtains on the windows. The hotel caused a sensation when it opened. The saloon immediately became the unofficial town hall, and everybody knew to look there first for the sheriff, the justice of the peace, and the local notary.
J.L. and Franciska had several good years in Pierron. Their first children were born there in the winter of 1875, in the attic room above the Oakdale’s saloon: twins George and Mary. George was a weak child, but he survived; Mary died in infancy—nobody bothered to record why. The third child was my great-grandfather John Sebastian, afterward known as Bosh. He was born in January 1876; the town barber (who doubled as the doctor) was in attendance, while J.L. tended bar downstairs. It was said in the family that Bosh arrived in the middle of a blizzard so fierce the bar’s customers never noticed the cries of either the mother or the child.
In the mid-1880s, the citizens of Pierron finally got around to naming the streets so the post office could make regular deliveries. They strained their imaginations to come up with Main Street and Railroad Street. But there was no debate at all about what to call the dirt track in front of the Oakdale. It was named Sehnert Street. To this day, that’s the biggest honor anybody in my family has received.
But the Oakdale never made much money. While the saloon did a steady business, the rooms were almost always empty. J.L. had to come up with countless short-term schemes to keep the place afloat. His best idea was to buy newfangled farm equipment, train his hotel employees as operators, and lease them out to local farmers for the spring planting and the fall harvest. When this didn’t make him rich, he gave up. He sold the hotel in the summer of 1888, and he and his family left Pierron for Edwardsville.
Edwardsville was the biggest town in the county. In fact, its population of three thousand made it one of the biggest towns in Illinois. To modern eyes, it would have looked like an idealized image of bucolic peace: it was a cluster of slanted roofs and white church steeples nestled among green forested hills. But its inhabitants thought of it as a bustling industrial zone. It had coal mines, machine shops, factories, and several towering flour mills. (These last were notorious fire hazards, and over the years they all went up in titanic blazes that the whole town gathered to watch.) It also had a big commercial district. The streets were unpaved, and in summer the reek of the horses was overpowering, but the storefronts were brick and stone, and several blocks had even been wired with electric streetlights. They were switched on from dusk to midnight whenever it was cloudy.
The town was also large enough to support an old-fashioned, fully articulated class system, of the notoriously suffocating heartland variety. There were aristocrats in hedge-hidden mansions, who measured out their lives by cotillions and charity balls; there was a relentlessly churchgoing middle class; and there was a rowdy working class, whose taste in entertainment ran to burlesque revues and raree-shows. There was also a thriving German community. As in a lot of downstate towns, the German-born and their children made up between a third and a half of the total population. The Germans had their own groceries and bakeries and meat markets; they had their own newspapers (brought in from Saint Louis and Chicago); there were classes conducted in German in the public schools; many of the Protestant churches had regular services in German, and the German Catholics had their own parish church, strictly segregated from the Irish—it was an imposing stone building that stood across from the town square, with its own full-time priest.
There were ten hotels and rooming houses in town. They too had a caste structure. The top of the line was fancy indeed: the Saint James Hotel. It was at the heart of the commercial district. It was three stories of pale, elegant brick topped by a mansard roof. The interior had plush carpeting, deep-varnished mahogany, and polished brass. It even had an eight-hundred-seat theater where local drama clubs and visiting professional companies staged performances—though it was called an opera house, not a theater, because “theater” was a vulgar word; it connoted burlesque.
J.L.’s new hotel was far down the scale from there. It was a two-story clapboard building, with a saloon on the ground floor and the rooms to rent upstairs. It stood on the southwest edge of town, in an area of recently cleared woodland along the new commuter railroad corridor, a couple of hundred yards down from the station. “Sehnert’s Hotel” was painted in huge letters just beneath the roofline to catch the eye of new arrivals peering around uncertainly on the platform.
Sehnert’s Hotel was austere. The beds were hard; the saloon was dark and loud. But it was a popular and prosperous business from the first. (German-run saloons and hotels were preferred by the Anglo working and middle classes, because they had a reputation for cleanliness and propriety.) The clientele were commercial travelers, itinerant craftsmen, laborers looking for work at the local factories, and farmers up from the country for a day or two to buy equipment and supplies—anybody, in short, who’d be impressed by its slogan: First-class Service, Reasonable Rates, Courteous Treatment.
Excerpted from The Distancers by Lee Sandlin. Copyright © 2013 by Lee Sandlin. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.