Time with the Rickel family (my mother Gretchen’s ancestry). This is an excerpt from a writing I stumbled across. It sounds very much like what I’ve heard about my Grandfather Armin’s father. His father, H.W. Rickel was the first known German of this family branch to come and settle in America in the late 1800’s. I made a note or two in ( ) throughout. I am unclear as to who the author of this work is; might be Walter Pitkin-1944.
One day Harry Rickel asked me (the writer of this story) to come over to his house. I went. And that simple act was one of the three or our main turning points of my life. It brought me into a new culture which was complete and exciting. It was the first one I had entered, next to the one I grew up in…
It was our second high school year when I met Harry. He was different. He was a certain serious interest in things that few other students showed. At the same time he was hail-fellow-well-met. He was utterly unlike the Germans around us on Fourteenth Street. I soon learned how and why.
So, it Begins…
The Rickels lived in a big brick house on the northern side of Adelaide Street. To us, of Fourteenth Street, it was a king’s palace. Yet, it was only a comfortable dwelling with high ceilings and many rooms, all furnished well but plainly.
One by one, the family appeared. First the mother, a sweet, simple woman who reminded me in some ways of my own mother. Then the two oldest brothers, both so much older than I that to them I was just a kid. They heeded me little. Then Martha and Armin, the two youngest. Martha was a darling of eight or nine years; I quite fell in love with her. Armin was a clever boy with a bright smile. He won me, too, on the spot. All was well. Yes, but what was that noise outside?
A harsh noise. A loud noise. A noise from a human throat. A noise indicating anger. And so, in came Mr. Rickel, lord of the manor. A small, slightly bent man, with thin, tight lips, he was trying to shake off a bad tempter. Somebody who had come up the walk with him had enraged him, and he did not try to suppress his fury.
The family hushed. Mr. Rickel rumbled and bumbled around, uttering something in German. Then Mama Rickel said something to him in German. Then the older sons. I fell out of the parade.
When we sat down for supper, the old man had subsided. Then he said to me, in excellent, crisp English: “If you want to be around here much, you must learn German.”
Thenceforth he was sprightly, told stories, poked fun at the boys and girls, and was altogether charming.
“You study Greek, under Sherrard?” He lifted his brows. “Now, see here, you fool!—” this to (his son) Harry. “You should learn Greek. But you are too lazy.” And then into a rasping diatribe against the unambitious Rickel children.
The victim sat must throughout it. That was the custom. How different from us Yankees! We’d have talked back. And not too sweetly, under the criticism.
What was this? A tall, slender bottle of Rhine wine being poured into glasses around the table. Wine! None of that wicked stuff in our Prohibitionist home. When Uncle Walter craved wine, he sneaked off with me to Put-In-Bay. Here the family drank it unashamed. Yes, this was a new culture indeed.
Such wine! Put-In-Bay never grew its equal. Old man Rickel grinned, and poured me another glass, and then another. Oh, yum! Incidentally, I ate like two pigs, too. And such food! A potato salad the likes of which had never hypnotized my tongue. Cold cuts of every sort, all the finest. Black rye bread. Heaps of strong cheese…. But enough! I must get back to trivial matters.
Did Harry and I sit on the porch? Did we lie on the lawn? Did we go upstairs? Did we fall asleep at the table? Who knows? Not I. All I recall is my wandering home late that night, vowing that German pumpernickel was the best pumpernickel to be had for a nickel, and that some day I must go to Germany where the wine came from. Hooray!
I took to dropping in once a week, then twice.
“You must take German lessons from Hermann,” Mr. Rickel insisted. “It is a shame you do not understand us half the time. Yes, you go see Hermann, tomorrow.”
So, to Hermann I went. The teacher dwelt along the railroad tracks on the east side. He was a hulk of beery fat through which two merry little eyes peered, for all the world, like a little pig looking under a fence…or something.
“We begin now,” he said and set a stein of beer in front of me. He uttered sundry short sentences having to do with beer and drinking in company. He began “Prosit” and worked up. After an hour of this, he brought in a china coffee pot, which drained while I babbled at my best.
My best was bad. Sherrard was getting my best. I didn’t have genius enough for two bests. So, I gave Hermann my second best and made a fair start. And before winter set in, I had caught my stride. Hermann was pleased. But old man Rickel was delighted, although he was stingy with compliments.
Harry began taking me around to the Harmonie Verien, the best German club within many hundred miles. There I met the grand of Germans, the Marxhausens, the Carstens, the Muellers, the Breitmeyers and a score more. There too I began to discover that my German was a wretched blend of the real stuff and second-generation American German. The latter was what I heard and used with boys and girls of my own age. It enraged old man Rickel. He used to berate Harry by the hour for getting words out of order or using the wrong gender. But little did that help anybody. The second generation was growing up American. The larger background of culture that made German what it was no longer existed in Detroit. But the German elders didn’t understand that one must have the total situation in order to develop habits suited to it.
As this was the first alien culture into which I moved, I observed it closely and came to many conclusions about it. Some of these came much later, of course; but they may be stated here, without ruining my story. I liked enormously the willingness to work hard, the eagerness to learn everything about a subject, the almost brutal frankness, the neatness and the marvelous plain food. I could not understand the mania for singing and for games. And I powerfully disliked the power of the elders over the young. This marked the widest breach between our old Yankee world and the German.
The older men puzzled me for a long time. They worshiped Abe Lincoln (1809-1865). Old man Rickel would speak of Abe as if Abe were God. I never could do that, though I too admired Abe in my own way. Other men of the passing generation then would praise America and our democracy more fervently in private talks than any Fourth-of-July orator could. At length this grew clear.
Old man Rickel was a little boy back in Germany when in 1848 Carl Schurz (1829-1906) and his band joined the revolution, to overthrow the old regime. Ailing, Schurz and the others fled to America, where they received with hurrahs by our own patriots. Many of them grew rich, famous and powerful here. Our people took them in warmly. These revolutionists later joined the Union Army and fought to preserve the Union. Abe was their Commander-in-Chief.
Alert, ambitious German boys followed the blazed trail. Between 1850 and 1880 thousands of the keenest, most democratic among the youth of the fatherland came over here. And out of their number grew up the German community centering around the Harmonie Verein…
Merchants, manufacturers, chemists, engineers, physicians, professors—of such was the group made up. No wonder that I came to dislike the French and Irish and Poles and other groups out our way! I did not understand at the time that I was making an unfair comparison. I was setting over against the cultured, prosperous upper-class Germans our own rabble of poor, struggling toilers, not one of whom had ever enjoyed what we today call a high school education.
Thus, are our prejudices formed.
Old man Rickel shaped my life as much as anybody else. He never knew it. I wish I might have told him before he died. He would have been pleased.
He had a fanatical love of German learning. Germans knew best, Germans studied hardest. Germans made the greatest discoveries. The only thing wrong with Germans in the old country was that they were political morons. They allowed the Hohenzollerns (German noble family that ruled Brandenburg and Prussia from 1871–1918) to kick them around.
“Philosophy and psychology?” said he, many a time. “If you ever wish to amount to anything in those fields, you must study in Berlin.”
“Arabic?” said he again. “If you don’t go to an Arab country to learn it, you must go to Berlin.”
In this he was supported by his son-in-law, Dr. Osius, a keen physician (who had) lately arrived from Germany. Osius was German of the Germans. In time I found out how and why. He laughed softly when anyone mentioned Johns Hopkins Medical or Harvard Medical.
“In time, I am sure,” he would say, “these will become great institutions. But as yet—” And then a polite and devastating shrug…
Note; a shrug is a sign of disrespect
Note; Put-In-Bay was the name of a steamer, and Put-In-Bay is a village in Ohio with a wine history. To get started see– https://historicdetroit.org/buildings/put-in-bay AND http://www.heinemanswinery.com/about-history.asp
Note; I have no knowledge about the families of Marxhausen, Carsten, Mueller or Breitmeyer, but I did know the Osius family.
Note; Harmonie Verien – referred to in the text. Translates to harmonic society. There is a site that sells a print with a description of what this might have stood for. See https://www.artbybryanhaynes.com/shop/augusta-harmonie-verein/ The site says – “The Harmonie-Verein (Harmonics Society) organized on January 13, 1856 would offer German immigrants festivals and events in the language and traditions of their homeland, strengthening the sense of community and easing the harshness of frontier life…”
Note; more recently found information —
The People of Early Michigan Harry Rickel Chapter 5, Page 105: GERMANS; excerpt by Walter Pitkin.
Walter Pitkin, excerpt from “Germans” in On My Own.