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, 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]