Thursday, March 25, 2010

Discovering Family

Zaleschitz's Silk Mill - Where Leroy was killed 1910

Some of my fondest memories of growing up were the memories my grandmother shared with me. Her seemingly disconnected and at times contradictory stories, often left me with more questions than answers.

Everyone has special memories of their grandparents, but I believe that I was truly blessed to know my grandmother “Mammy,” Mary Strauch Rabenold. Not only did she share stories of her upbringing in 1880s Carbon County, but more importantly, she inspired a curiosity in me to learn more.

I’d hear things like, “Poor Leroy was only fifteen, when the shuttle on the loom struck him on the head and killed him.” In my mind, the ghostly vacant silk and weaving mills in Lehighton and Jim Thorpe came back to life to me. But just as the story began to form, she’d switch gears saying, “And your grandfather was raised by a one-armed Civil War veteran in Mahoning Valley.”

How could that be? Where were his parents? “They farmed him and his sister out.” Then it was, “Oh poor Jenny was killed by a trolley at Glen Onoko at a Sunday School picnic.”

Rapidly shifting gears and forgetting to clutch, she’d take off with, “Your grandfather, Zach Rabenold, was a servant to the sheriff in the county jail.” I thought you said he lived in the Mahoning Valley with that Civil War guy?

These unresolved conflicting stories remained as lingering questions until Jack Sterling, former president of the Mauch Chunk Historical Society, found the 1900 census records showing Zach as the servant of a Mr. Jonathan Gombert. Gombert had a farm in Mahoning Valley. In 1861, he enlisted in Company “G” of the 81st Pennsylvania Regiment, losing his right arm at the battle of Antietam in 1862.

But how did Zach get to the jail? Betty Lou McBride, owner of the Old Jail Museum in Jim Thorpe explained that Gombert was the Sheriff of the county jail from 1900 to 1903.

These nuggets of information prompted me to travel to Lehigh University, where my great uncle Carl Strauch, Mammy’s youngest brother, was a professor from 1934 to 1974. Upon his death, he bequeathed his written works to the Linderman Library.

Among the collection are his unique notes, manuscripts, first-hand accounts from Thoreau and Emerson, a letter from Orson Welles, and references to friendships with Robinson Jeffers and H.L. Mencken. It contained a treasure-trove of family letters that helped connect Mammy’s stories, giving them a rich mosaic with color and emotional depth.

Among the collection, I discovered a set of letters from our distant family in Germany, including correspondence with Else Adolph of Friedberg Germany, the future Mrs. Otto Muller. Could Else and Otto still be alive and living at the same address?

I sent off a letter. A few weeks later, I received a letter from Else Muller. She and Otto, both 82, were doing fine. I learned how my great aunt Elizabeth Strauch, endured great pains to reconnect with her family in shattered Germany after the war, sending her family “very precious care packages that were not very cheap.”

My Aunt Elizabeth, whom I never met, helped her struggling cousins in Germany, whom she never met. Because of her graciousness, there’s a sweet six-year-old granddaughter of Else and Otto Muller, named Elizabeth—after her distant American cousin whom she never met.
Caroline "Lena" (she died of TB shortly after this photo was taken), Heinrich, Carl (the youngest in the front), sister Anna Margaret (behind Carl), then mother Anna Margaret (Foesch) and Elizabeth "Lizzie."  Back row is Henry, Leonard, Kate (who married Floyd Harrier), Louie, Willy, Mary, and Edwin.

It was then, as if some tattered pieces of a fine lace were miraculously rejoined, when several generations of Strauchs were connected in a new web of human of understanding.

Else (Adolph) Muller was an English teacher in Germany.

Post Note:
After eight short months and a few letters retracing some vague family connections, I was sad to receive a letter from Else Adolph Muller's daughter Hanna, who fortunately found my letters and took the time to regretfully inform me of her mother's passing.

According to Hanna, a few months before her death Else selected the following poem from Gertrud von le Fort.  It is loosely translated by Hanna:

"Do not welcome me
When I am arriving
Do not bid me farewell
When I am leaving.
For I am coming
Whenever I am coming
And I am leaving
Whenever I am leaving."


  1. I enjoy very much your words and the mood and point of your beautiful blog :)

  2. This is very sad, but I think it is wonderful that you shared this with everyone :)

    Do you take all your pictures yourself? They are all amazing.

  3. Love the personal history. I also love this area. I actually picked Lackwanna County, Carbondale as the locale of the book I'm working on. The main character has a German dad and a Lenape mother, so it's fun for me to read about your German connections.

  4. Thanks for the looks everyone...This area is so rich in heritage and scenery, I'm glad you enjoy viewing it through the site. And yes I do take most of these pics, but it's the view of so many vistas around here that make the magic. I'm no photographer.