Descendants of German Immigrants discuss Genealogy with Visiting Historian
Oct 01, 2011 (Times Record – McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) —
German heritage races with pride throughout the Arkansas River valley.
Several descendants of 19th-century German immigrants recently met in Fort Smith to discuss their genealogy and share stories about their great-great grandparents and other relatives. Spearheaded by Renate Zyszk, a historian and resident of the German village of Gelnhaar, the group learned more about the 38 German residents who fled their then-oppressive hometown to find new freedom in the Fort Smith area.
“Germans in the 19th century didn’t have enough to eat — they would have crumbs of bread, but you can’t feed your family with that,” said Zyszk, whose visit was her first to Fort Smith. “Sometimes families in Germany had more than four or five children, so you couldn’t feed your family on that.
“And people in Germany left for political reasons then, too,” she added. “People were told what to do — they had no rights in Germany back then. They had no right to vote, and so people left Germany and all over Europe to come to America.”
One of the descendants meeting with Zyszk and her husband, Ruediger, was Charlie Reutzel, a 99-year-old Fort Smith man whose great-grandfather, Casper Reutzel, sponsored several fellow Germans allowing them to migrate from Germany to Fort Smith in the 1800s.
“Casper was able to help Germans come to America, and he lived to about 1901,” Renate Zyszk said. “At the time, Gelnhaar had about 500 people, with 73 people leaving for the U.S.A. From those 73 people, 38 people settled in Fort Smith.”
Casper Reutzel and a business partner eventually opened Bocquin Reutzel General Merchandise in downtown Fort Smith, Charlie Reutzel said.
“Casper had a general store, a hardware store and grocery store, and their big business was buying and shipping cotton,” he said. “They were a big shipper of cotton in this area, and the general merchandise store was located in about the 200 block of Garrison Avenue.
“Now Garrison Avenue looked different back then; there wasn’t a bridge down there,” Charlie Reutzel added with a laugh. “I don’t know how long it would be before the railroad stations had trains coming into Fort Smith.”
The Zyszks and Reutzel joined descendants Nancy Robertson of Fort Smith, David Dick of Lucas, Texas, as well as San Antonio couple Bob and Cathy Lorenz and their son, Joe Lorenz, for a luncheon Wednesday at Dr. Marilyn Barr’s house before visiting Oak Cemetery and the First Lutheran Church on Thursday. Renate Zyszk and pastor Allen Stuckwisch, First Lutheran’s pastor, are hoping to forge a partnership between First Lutheran and the Zyszks’ church, Gelnhaar Lutheran Church.
“We have a letter to our pastor, and we’ll see how it goes,” Renate Zyszk said with a grin.
Zyszk then presented Stuckwisch with a letter to seek the partnership before presenting the descendants with honorary citizenship letters from the Gelnhaar mayor. She and Reutzel also viewed and discussed the large, colorful stained-glass window inside First Lutheran’s sanctuary that was created years ago in honor of Casper Reutzel.
“This started when I mailed a letter to (then-Mayor Ray Baker), who then contacted Charlie Reutzel,” Renate Zyszk said. “Meeting these people now, this is exciting.”
Reutzel stood beaming after he received his honorary citizenship certificate for Gelnhaar, staring at the document’s black, Calligraphy-style writing.
“Renate has done a whole lot of history and research on the families here, and it’s really been exciting to learn this and to meet with the families,” he said. “There’s no telling how many descendants from those original German families are still around here in the Fort Smith area. There could be descendants from 125 families now, because those families spread out and grew after they came here.”
Casper Reutzel, his wife, Katharina (Jager) Reutzel, and their son, Heinrich Reutzel, were among the first in Gelnhaar to move to Fort Smith in 1848, following Johannes and Anna Katharia (Kromm) Beckel and their family. Other Germans relocating to Fort Smith in the 1800s included the Johannes Knopp family, the Karl Beckel family, Johann Beck, Christiane and Christopher Triesch, Heinrich and Caroline Dick and the Heinrich Mehmel family.
Dave Dick, whose grandfather, Henry Dick, came to Fort Smith at age 15, said he was “fascinated” while visiting with descendants and the Zyszks in Fort Smith.
“We plan on keeping in touch with each other,” he said.
“Yes, we have swapped emails and will stay in touch with each other,” added Charlie Reutzel.
The Lorenz family agreed that staying in touch with fellow descendants and the Zyszks will be a long-term priority.
“It’s fascinating to learn so much from research and from Renate,” Joe Lorenz said. “We even learned that we had a relative who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, got shot in the head and lived, and then later fought for the Union. It’s just amazing the history that you learn.”
When asked if Fort Smith was leaving a positive impression, the Zyszks grinned.
“I do want to come back here and visit Fort Smith,” Renate Zyszks said. “And I’m hoping (the descendants) come to my country, too, so we can visit and see each other’s homeland. We must stay in touch.”
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