My grandparents, Jacob & Lena (Zimmerman) Willems, were step-brother and step-sister in a marriage my family says was arranged by the Mennonite Brethren Church. Grandma's father, Heinrich H. Zimmermann (1866-1934), was a widower with 5 children, whose wife, Maria Dyck Zimmermann (1861-1905), died soon after the family arrived in Canada (1903) from a Mennonite colony in what is now Ukraine. Grandpa's mother, Elisabeth Bolt Willems (1858-1943), was a widow with 9 children whose husband, Cornelius Willems (1885-1902), died two years after the family arrived in Saskatchewan in 1900 from Mountain Lake, Minnesota, the place where the family settled after emigrating from a Mennonite settlement in Crimea in 1875. Jacob & Lena were married in 1909. They moved to Reedley, California in 1919.

There is an even earlier couple important to this history, Gerhard Willems (1820-1900) and Katharina Rempel Willems (1823-1875), Cornelius' parents. Their story reaches back to the early years of Mennonite sesttlement in the land they knew as South Russia, a story of migration from the North Sea to the Black Sea, from Eastern Europe to North America.

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Friday, November 14, 2014

New Blog: The Gift of Laughter ~ the Story of a California Mennonite Family

Although I may add a few things from time to time, this blog is essentially finished.  I have begun a new blog-book about the family I knew growing up—parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.  It covers the period between 1919 when my Willems grandparents moved from Saskatchewan to Reedley, California and ends in 1954 when my parents moved with their children to Phoenix, Arizona.  The title of the new blog is The Gift of Laughter ~ the Story of a California Mennonite Family.  You can access it by clicking on the following link:

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The H.H. Zimmermann Pulpit

            One of the delightful surprises of writing this blog is being found by other Willems and Zimmermann descendants.  The photos of the pulpit below were sent to me by Dennis Zimmerman who lives in Winkler, Manitoba.  He is another great-grandchild of Heinrich H. Zimmermann.  HHZ’s son Henry (1895-1977) was Dennis’ beloved grandfather.

            The pulpit is in a scale model replica of the Brotherfield Mennonite Brethren Church near Waldheim, Saskatchewan.  I’d heard that my great-grandfather Zimmermann made the pulpit for the Brotherfield MB Church, but gave it little thought.  The snapshot my dad had was dark.  I couldn’t see any details, just saw the usual pulpit shape.  I had no idea how beautiful it was until I saw these photos Dennis sent.  

            My aunts Mary Davis and Rosella Noble said that their Grandpa Zimmermann was a carpenter and made beautiful cupboards in people’s houses when he lived in Reedley.  They also said he painted flowers on them.  Those flowers can be seen on the top of the pulpit.    

            Heinrich Zimmermann was not just a carpenter.  This pulpit is a beautiful piece of furniture, and I’m wondering if the factory where he worked in Sergejevka might not have been a furniture factory.  The Mennonites in Russia did build furniture, and this pulpit looks very much like some of the painted furniture in the book, Mennonite Furniture: A Migrant Tradition (1766-1910).[i]  I’ve not yet found mention of a furniture factory in Sergejevka, but that does not mean there wasn’t one there.   I will see if I can find out more information.

[i] Reinhild Kauenhoven Janzen & John M. Janzen, Good Books, 1991.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Publication Announcement

The photos below of the Zimmerman-Willems family and the earlier one of Maria Dyck Zimmerman have been published by the California Mennonite Historical Society in their Fall 2013 Bulletin.  They accompany an article I wrote about the Heinrich H. Zimmerman 1905 Zionsbote letter.  It was mailed out last week and can also be read on their website at the link given below.  This is an excellent publication, and back issues are well worth reading.  They include not just individual life stories, but articles by Mennonite historians and scholars as well.

The article in the CMHS Bulletin is short, only 2000 words.  The full story of Heinrich & Maria Dyck Zimmermann is posted on the Pages section in the column on the right.  All it requires is a “click” to bring it up.  Also in the “Pages” is the story of Heinrich H. & Elisabeth Boldt Willems Zimmerman.

While I’m at it, I’ll include a link to another published piece I wrote that can be found online—“Jacob & Agnes,” the story of my father’s courtship and elopement with my fourteen year old mother and the scandal that ensued.  It was published in the January 2012 issue of the Journal  of the Center for Mennonite Writing at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Zimmermann-Willems Family Portrait (c. 1916)

There were actually three Zimmerman-Willems marriages in my family:

1) my great-grandparents, Heinrich H. Zimmerman & Elisabeth Boldt Willems Zimmerman;

2) my grandparents, Jacob and Lena (Helena) Zimmermann Willems; 

3) my grandfather's younger brother and grandmother's next youngest sister: George & Anna Zimmermann Willems.

The photo below was taken around 1916 in Saskatchewan, Canada, most likely in the town of Waldheim.

 Note: Elisabeth is wearing a traditional Russian Mennonite head-dress:

Front row:
            Heinrich and Elisabeth, the parents are seated in the center.  Seated next to them are their two oldest children and their spouses.  Lena, my grandmother, sits next to her father.  Jacob, my grandfather, sits next to her.  Seated next to Elisabeth in the front row is her oldest child, Cornelius, and his wife, Tina.  Standing behind them are all the rest of the Zimmerman and Willems children as well as the spouses of those who were married.
Middle row:  the women (left to right):
Margaret Willems, Elizabeth Jantz; Marie Zimmerman, Marie Goertzen, Kate Willems, Anna Jantz; Anna Zimmerman Willems
Back row:  the men (left to right):
Abe Jantz*, Pete Goertzen, *Henry Jantz, George Willems, Henry Zimmerman; Jacob/Jack Zimmerman; Henry Willems   
*Note:  The Jantz men were brothers--Abe Jantz was married to Elizabeth Willems; Henry Jantz was married to Anna Willems.  Other husbands: Pete Goertzen was married to Marie Willems. George Willems was married to my grandmother’s sister Anna.

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Zimmermann-Willems Marriage: 1906

“On 18 March 1906 [Elisabeth Boldt Willems] joined hand in marriage with Brother Heinrich Zimmermann, preacher of the Mennonite Brethren church.  They lived in Bruderfeld, Saskatchewan for fourteen years, and in the year 1920 they settled for the first time in California  and in the year 1926 for the second time.”                                          
                                                                                                 EBW Z Obiturary (Zionsbote 5 Jan 1944)

             Heinrich Zimmerman must have been a very tired groom when he pledged himself in marriage to the widow Elisabeth Boldt Willems on March 18, 1906. –Zimmerman family information[i] indicates that the marriage ceremony took place the same day that the Zimmerman family arrived in Saskatchewan! 

             It would not just have been the groom who was travel-weary when the widow and widower said their vows.  Heinrich’s five children, ages four through thirteen years, were likely beyond tired, exhausted from the trip, shell-shocked from all the disorienting changes that had taken place in their young lives—the long trip from their home in South Russia in 1903, their mother’s debilitating illness when they arrived in Winkler, her death April 6, 1905.   Now the children had traveled to another brand-new home to live with people who were strangers to them.    They now had nine new brothers and sisters. A woman they’d never before seen was now to be their ‘mother’. Would their new stepmother be kind?  Would their new stepbrothers and sisters be nice? 

     I doubt that anyone at the time gave any thought at all to how Heinrich and Elisabeth’s children felt about their parents’ remarriage.  Even in today’s psychotherapeutic culture couples are often oblivious to their children’s perspective when second marriages are made.  A hundred years ago, I doubt that the question would even have glimmered.  The decision to marry was one for the adults to make: Heinrich was a good man; Elisabeth was a good woman; children needed both a mother and a father.  How could anyone doubt that everyone would be better off because of this marriage?  Looking at it now, though, looking at what it must have been like for the new stepbrothers and stepsisters, one can see that bringing those two families together was not likely to produce one big happy “Brady-Bunch” family. 

When Heinrich and Elisabeth exchanged vows on March 18, 1906, it was not just a new couple that emerged.  That wedding was the marriage of two families.  On that day, whether they wanted it or not, Elisabeth’s nine children and Heinrich’s five became stepbrothers and stepsisters.  

Elisabeth’s children

            Cornelius                                23        b.  1 May 1882
Jacob                                      22        b.  8 Aug 1883
 Elisabeth                               20        b. 12 Sep 1885
Anna                                       18        b. 14 Sep 1887
Gerhard (George)                 16        b. 30 Nov 1889
Heinrich (Henry)                   14        b. 25 Apr 1892
Maria                                      11        b. 22 Oct 1894
Katherina                                7         b. 11 Jul 1898
            Margareta                              5         b. 13 Jun 1900

         Looking at the list, what is quickly obvious is the wide range of ages.  The two youngest children, Margareta and Katherina, were just little girls.  The two oldest, Cornelius and my grandfather,Jacob,, were fully grown young men.  Cornelius and Jacob were both still single, but both had already staked out homestead claims.  Elisabeth, who was 20, and Anna, who was 18, were old enough to marry, so it was possible that one or both were gone.  But even if all four of the older siblings had left home, the house would still have been full.  At least six people were living in Elisabeth’s house when the Zimmerman family arrived, and the number could have been even higher. 

        My grandfather and his brothers and sisters had to be curious about their new stepbrothers and sisters.  The younger kids may even have been excited about gaining new brothers and sisters.  But there must also have been resentment, too, and possibly some hostility, especially after Heinrich and his family actually moved in.  Six new people had to be fitted into an already crowded house.  The coming of the Zimmermann’s must have felt like a home invasion.
Heinrich’s children

Lena                           13        b.   5 Feb 1893
Anna                           12        b. 25 Apr 1894
Henry                         11        b.   4 Dec 1895
Marie                            6        b. 25 June 1899
Jacob                            4        b. 21 May 1901

The Zimmerman brothers and sisters were moving into the home of an already established family, a family that was both bigger and older than their own.  Six of the new stepsiblings were older than Lena, the oldest of the Zimmerman children.  Four of the Willems stepsiblings were males, new older brothers.  My grandmother Lena and her brothers and sisters probably felt more than a little overwhelmed and intimidated.  They must have felt like intruders, outsiders unsure of their welcome.  This big, new family was probably more than a little bit scary.

Tension and conflict among this crowd of siblings and step-siblings could not have been avoided.  Be that as it may, this initial marriage of the Zimmermann and Willems families eventually produced two more Willems-Zimmermann marriages: 
--February 6, 1909, Jacob Willems married Lena Zimmermann..
--May 19, 1912, Jacob’s younger brother George married Lena’s younger sister Anna.

[i] Zimmerman emigration history, full text:  “Left Russia, 28 July 1903 and arrived Halifax in Aug. 1903 and went on to Winkler, Manitoba, Canada.  Then moved, in Mar. 18, 1906, to Sask. Can.  In Nov. 1920, the Zimmermans came to Calif. Reedley.  Then Jacob D. Left for Chicago in Nov. 1924 then went to Canada 1925 in Dec.  Then went to Calif in 1926.”   [This was part of the packet of Xeroxed family information received from my aunt Mary Davis in 1994.][i]