Sunday, March 27, 2016

"Stumble in, Fall Out" - The Life and Art of William "Hicks" Bergenstock

Hicks was living as caretaker on a remote piece of unoccupied land owned by Tom "Spook" Doughtery in Meckesville.

“Aren’t you afraid to live out here, all by yourself?” asked the young visitor.

William "Hicks" Bergenstock outside Berger's Hotel in Albrightsville.
Most who knew him considered "Hicks" to be his last name.
His paintings were simply signed "Wm. Hicks."
His gravestone simply reads "Bergenstock."
Picture courtesy of Jean Keiper.
Hicks answered by reaching beneath his pillow.  His arm swept through the air in a circle, retrieving the revolver in one motion.  

But his index finger deflexed on the return arch.  The two reeled from shock of the crack as dust swirled around the sunlight coming through the plank and clapboard wall.   
The youngster had to promise never to mention it to anyone what happened, least of all to Spook.


The one room shanty was one of many homes for Hicks.  Both as a child and throughout his life, he moved around a lot.  

Besides Spook, Hicks lived with Roger Meckes, at Bergers Hotel, at the Getzs, and with anyone who would take him in, in exchange for paint or wall-paper hanging. 

Hicks cultivated a simple and happy life, enriched by his artistic and musical talents even though it sprouted from a childhood garden of turmoil.
Hicks' Mandolin - A gift from Hicks to Jean Keiper.
She remembers Hicks singing to her and teaching
her guitar and mandolin as a little girl.
One of his favorite songs: Red River Valley.

Adversity can pull a family together or it can tear it asunder.  


William Alfred "Hicks" Bergenstock was born to Alfred and Emma (Beidler) on January 25, 1890.  He was the grandson of a Civil War private, Henry Bergenstock. 

Alfred and Emma Beidler married at Allentown’s Salem United Methodist Church when he was twenty-one and Emma was one day shy of her eighteenth birthday.  The next year, Alfred’s father died.

Their family soon followed.  Alfred and Emma first had three boys and then four girls.  William or “Hicks” was the second oldest.  All were the men worked as moulders in an iron works early on.  
His paintings were signed with a simple "Wm. Hicks."   Either this was more
convenient than
writing out "Bergenstock" or he simply preferred to be known
by Hicks is unclear.  His talent was undeniable. 

For Mabel's 15th birthday in 1911 there was much music and merriment.  

Hicks sang bass in a quartet self-proclaimed as “Holy-tare-ra Rib-and-tare-re” with fellow iron moulder Adam Strohl (baritone), Peter Brendel (second tenor) and “Monks” Reese (first tenor).  

Hicks also played some “ragtime” songs on the piano.  The night was complete with food and a session of haas-im-pfeffer cards too.

A similar time was had later that year for the 20th birthday of brother Walter on Halloween.  This time, it was sister Mabel who gave the musical entertainment. 

(Mabel’s son, Russell Dauscher would later distinguish himself musically, playing trombone in the Allentown Band, Les Baer Orchestra, his own Russell Dauscher Orchestra, the Pioneer Band, Catasauqua Band, and the Dorney Park Riverboat Band.)
One of William "Hicks" Bergenstock paintings that remain at Chubby
Berger's Hotel in Albrightsville.

The Bergenstock family seemed to be on a pleasant path in 1911.

But there were unsteady tremors.

It was another year and another move into another rented apartment.  Father Alfred testified on behalf of Landlord Ed Henninger owner of a hotel known for its salacious and unsavory characters which was targeted by the Anti-Saloon league of Philadelphia.  
All the Bergenstock boys started work by the age of fourteen or younger.  And they all moved out by 1915.  Likewise the four sisters married their way out of the house by the time they were 18.  

Hicks seemed to bounce from job to job too.  At times a moulder, then in a shoe shop, then back as an apprentice in the steel works.  Somewhere along the way he lost an eye and permanently injured his right side.

He had a manner of walking that involved lunging forward by lifting his entire hip and leg as a stationary unit.  An injury that certainly could have occurred in the iron works in his young adult years. 

All three brothers were of the age to serve in World War I, but only Walter has a draft card.  Perhaps Hicks had already been disqualified due to physical impairment.

By 1917 Alfred was brought before the Allentown Aldermen on at least two separate occasions for desertion and non-support of his wife.  He offered some money to her, but Emma refused it on the grounds it wasn’t enough.

Hick’s brother Private Walter “Ellsworth” suffered a “serious wounding” in battle in September 1918.

The final unraveling of the Bergenstock family occurred on August 17th 1928.  

Alfred was estranged from Emma and living at the Order of Owls’ home in Allentown, working there as bartender.  At around 3:00 pm, Alfred placed a gun to his head and ended his life at 60.

Very little is known of Hicks during the twenty year period between the great wars.  

He disappears. His name is absent from all census and city records.

We do know creativity lurked within his mind taking shape in music, painting, and in making miniature toys of wood.  
Jean Keiper of Albrightsville has many fond memories of Hicks as a
young girl.  Like most people, she accepted for fact that his name
was William Hicks.  Not only did he sing for her and took time to
teach her to paint, he also gave her these miniature toys.  Several
residents of the area have similar items and paintings.

The wood work was a leftover from his shoe cobbler days.  

Many residents of Albrightsville still cherish these items made by Hicks.

One of his longest residences was at the American Hotel in old Mauch Chunk (today’s Inn at Jim Thorpe).  He lived there from at least 1940 to 1942.

Toys in Scale: The cradle is only 5 inches long.


It appears during this time he permanently severed all ties to his family.


On his draft card, Hicks put down Ben Freed as the person who would always know him.  (Freed owned the American Hotel and Hicks no doubt painted for him.)  (Hicks' brother Walter answered the same question on his draft card as "No One.")

Today, residents of Albrightsville have nothing but fond memories of him.

During one stay with the Getzs, Arsula Getz watched Hicks walk backwards up the back stairs to his room.  When she pressed him for a reason, Hicks replied, “So I won’t have to turn around when I come down tomorrow.”

One of many of Hicks' paintings that survive in the area.  A talented fine
art painter, he survived on painting interiors of homes and exteriors of barns.

When one Albrightsville couple was set to leave on a short honeymoon to Allentown, Hicks slipped one of his glass eyes into the bride's suitcase, explaining he could "look out" after them while they were gone.


Hicks lived a nomadic, bucolic life, never owing to a master.

Owning little in possession, still he rarely imposed on others for things like rides to town.  

Otherwise, he was as free as a bird.  He lived as though somehow whatever he needed would always be provided.

For one of his last homes, Hicks had permission to squat in a small, one-room house across from the Albrightsville Fire Company.  Neither a drunk or a teetotaler, Hicks knew how to have a good time.  A sign at the road welcomed all of similar spirit: "Stumble in and Fall out."

He lived the longest of everyone in his family, further evidence of a life well lived.




William Alfred Bergenstock died in Lehighton in February 1982, just after his 92nd birthday.  

One of his last paint jobs was for St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Albrightsville, the little white church with its own little graveyard atop a plateau in Northern Carbon County, a green patch of paradise of solitude for Hicks.

This last exchange assured Hicks of his final resting place there. 

He painted Christ's ascension, transcending the earth through the clouds.

A simple marker marks the end of a life that knew how to live a simple and happy life.

One lasting story and testament to his keen wit and lifestyle lies in the history of this painting at St. Paul's.  The church paid his room at Berger's Hotel while he worked on the Christ mural, a job like many that he would stretch out as long as possible to reap maximum benefit of his housing allowance.

But along the way, Hicks kept the congregation in stitches and baiting them to church each week, making the curious wonder what he could have done next.  One week Christ had a wristwatch.  The next he'd sport a handle-barred mustache or maybe a cigarette flopping from his lip.

If only these and other walls could talk.


One of Hicks' final works, it assured his final resting place.
St. Paul's Lutheran Church, Albrightsville.









Hicks is nearly in the far corner of St. Paul's graveyard.  A simple marker
reads "Bergenstock."








The Remains:

Alfred Bergenstock defended the reputation of Ed Henninger, an Allentown saloon owner, in court.  He either moonlighted or patronized his hotels (the Astoria and American) in Allentown.  

The Philadelphia Anti-Saloon League brought the case to trial in Allentown in 1909 after a sting operation.  They produced a long list of women (of dubious backgrounds) who were called to testify. 

One woman was accused of feeding her infant while drinking a beer.  Livelihoods were questioned.  Detectives testified the rates quoted to them by these women as $4 for a short time or $7 for overnight.  

Two of women refused to take the oath upon the Bible because they eschewed belief in the Christian faith.  Researching the names of these young women reveals a subculture of struggled and shortened lives.


~


None of the brothers ever settled and stayed in one place very long.  All of them seemed restless.  They boarded in short stretches mostly with strangers, occasionally with a sister, doing manual labor jobs.  

Only one of the three brothers may have married.  There is some evidence that Walter "Ellsworth" was briefly married in 1922 to an Elenoria Buchert.  If so, they had one child, Charles, who died after 25 days in September of 1922.  

None of Walter's subsequent records show he was ever married.  Severely wounded in action in September 1918, his 1934 application for veterans benefits declares no wife or children.  His WWII draft card answered "No one" to the question "Who will always know you?"  He is buried alone in Allentown's "Grandview Cemetery."  He died in February 1960. 

At one point Walter lived with Mabel’s estranged husband in Whitehall.  Mabel supported herself and their son by working in a cigar factory in Allentown.

~

Sister Helen spent the last 10 months of her life at the Allentown State Hospital.  A year prior, she took a near fatal dose of bichloride of mercury.  She died nearly two years later of the effects.

Though Alfred had deserted her in life, Emma stayed true to him in death.  She arranged herself to be buried next to him in Highland Memorial Park in Allentown.  

Helen is buried with them.   She was the youngest and first of the siblings to die. It is unclear where her surviving husband Charles is buried.  

~


Oldest brother Edward Henry Bergenstock apparently drifted his way out to Ohio.  Social Security records indicate an "Edward H. Bergenstock" born in Pennsylvania on 1 December 1888, died there in November 1963.  His headstone in Highland Hills Ohio gives no birth information.  There is no record of him having a family there.

~

Along with his father, two friends of Hicks also took their own lives.

Adam Strohl, an early friend from the iron foundry and quartet partner, drown himself in the Lehigh River in 1935.  He left a widow Emma at 529 Hickory St in Allentown.

American Hotel owner Ben Freed was two years younger than Hicks.  Of Jewish-Russian descent, he emigrated here from England.  He distinguishing himself locally by owning movie houses in Weatherly and White Haven before purchasing the American Hotel.  He served America in WWI.

Freed took his own life feeling despondent over the loss of control over his bowels, bladder and legs in 1959.  He took a heavy rubber band to tighten a plastic bag over his head.

~

Mabel seemed to have been the one who held the family together.  Her name appears more than any other on important family papers and death certificates.  

Their mother Emma lived her last years in her home.  Mabel's husband Calvin appears to have deserted her sometime after Emma’s death in 1936.

Sister Eva is buried with her husband Fred Brown in Northwood Cemetery in Emmaus.


Mabel's estranged husband is buried in St. Mark's in Allentown.  

There's no record of a grave for Mabel.  

~

There is no way of knowing whether Hicks knew about the deaths of his family and friends.  Those who knew him cannot recall him ever talking about his family.  

Speaking to two relatives of his alive today, a nephew and great nephew, neither man can recall knowing more than being related to the Bergenstocks.  

Neither man knew their uncle nor had any evidence from his life.