The Joseph Fritscher Story


It was a beautiful clear Spring day in New York City when Joseph Fritscher at the age of twenty-four, the older of Anna’s sons, arrived with his mother, brother and older sister.  They had traveled on the S.S. Oder from Bremen, Germany where they first boarded, and then spent most of the voyage in the cramped darkness of the steerage level with little opportunity to be on the upper decks of the ship. The trip was long and the comforts were few, but they looked forward to a better life in America where they had heard that land was available and they could live among others from their homeland. 


Finally on May 28, 1876, the ship entered the New York harbor through the Narrows, the passageway between Staten Island and Brooklyn.  There was no Statue of Liberty lifting her lamp to greet the Fritschers as they arrived; the famous statue was not unveiled until over ten years later on October 28, 1886.  But as they passed through the harbor, the Fritscher family may have seen several men working on the steel pilings and suspended steel wires of the Brooklyn Bridge, which was being constructed.  It was not until 1883 that the Brooklyn Bridge, the longest and highest of its day, opened over New York's East River.


The ship anchored at quarantine near the Staten Island shore since local authorities required the quarantine to guard against smallpox, typhoid fever or cholera that sometimes occurred among the shiploads of unwashed and unhealthy immigrants.  As the family clustered on the deck of the ship at quarantine, the official health inspector scanned all of the passengers quickly for signs of contagious illnesses and examined the ship's records for details of deaths or births at sea. The ship was then allowed to proceed up the bay and anchor near Castle Garden.  After a customs inspector checked their luggage, they were accompanied by a landing agent, and taken from the vessel on a tugboat to the Castle Garden pier.


On landing, they were examined by a medical officer to determine if the health inspector might have missed anything at quarantine. They were then taken into the rotunda, a large circular space situated in the center of the depot, which had separate compartments for those who spoke languages other than English.  The Fritschers spoke German, and so were assisted by a German speaking registrar. They gave their name, nationality, former residence and intended destination.  The registrar for the Oder, probably to save time, simply recorded the intended destination for everyone as “United States.”  The interpreters were careful to accurately record information, but they processed hundreds of names on a daily basis and were human enough to err on occasion.  Thus the Fritscher family was incorrectly recorded on the passenger list as 'Fritschler.'  In addition, Anna, the oldest of the three siblings, who was born in 1851, was incorrectly recorded as being seventeen years of age instead of her actual age of twenty-seven.  It could be that the family intentionally made Anna appear younger than her actual age.  Anna was deaf and dumb, and there were strict health guidelines for immigrants entering the country.  If Anna's health or mental condition were questioned it could mean that the entire family would board the next ship for the return trip to Austria.  After completing their registration, they were directed to the railroad agent where they could purchase tickets to their destination without danger of being defrauded or subjected to extortion, which frequently happened outside Castle Garden.  Finally, the day had come for the family to gather together their few belongings and board the train that would take them to their new life in Minnesota.  The railroads were slowly building westward through the plains.  Several years earlier a railroad had been built that joined both the East and West coasts of the country, but progress was slower in bringing railways to the smaller towns in the Midwest and plains states.


In southwestern Minnesota, Indians and early settlers found a beautiful land covered with prairie grass and wild flowers. There were ducks, wild geese, curlew, pelicans, prairie chickens and some big game. Before the railroad arrived, towns clustered close to rivers and streams that provided transportation for people and goods. Farmers grew much of their own food, taking their grain to the local mill for grinding into flour and feed. Rapid expansion of the railroad in the 1870s and 1880s changed all that.  Land sold for five to ten dollars an acre but some on the Okabena lakeshore in Jackson County brought $50.00 to $100.00. The government gave the railroads the odd numbered sections of land adjoining the railroad to encourage their continuation.  Through government land grants, railway companies had acquired nearly one-fifth of Minnesota's total acreage. Now the companies began selling it to settlers and speculators. They turned other tracts of land into town sites, platting towns along the tracks to spur development. In Nobles County were about 70,000 acres of railroad land, of which fully 25,000 acres had been sold to settlers by 1879.  Railroad expansion brought thousands of immigrants into the state.  The little townships of Adrian and Avoca, Hersey and Heron Lake, all were along the railroad, and all were communities where the Fritschers and their friends and relatives settled.


The Catholic Church was interested in bringing religion to the plains, and saw the opportunity to assist especially the Irish and German immigrants in establishing new homes and communities in the region.  Bishop John Ireland had come to Minnesota in the 1870’s and had stationed priests first in the northern and central sections of the state, and finally in the south and southwest sections.  In 1877, Father C. J. Knauf was sent by Bishop Ireland to Adrian to build a Catholic congregation there.  By December of 1878 there were sixty families in the growing local Catholic community, including Anna Fritscher and her three children.   It was Father Knauf who performed the marriage of Joseph Fritscher and Theresa Appel, and later baptized their first child, Wilhelmina.


Families coming to America were encouraged to leave their homeland by others already here, and often based their decision to locate in a particular place more on community than on the value or quality of the land they would take as a homestead.  German speaking families settled near other German speaking families, and Irish speaking families wanted to settle in Irish speaking communities.  Likewise religion played a large part in the development of the community, and the Catholics were especially interested in building communities of Catholics.  Immigrants found themselves surrounded by people who spoke their own language and observed their same customs, making the transition to the new location much easier.   The Catholic Church had congregations of Germans or Irish speaking families, although Bishop Ireland favored English and was opposed to the immigrants continuing to speak their native languages.  This view caused some confusion and dissention in the Church, and for the most part immigrants sought out congregations where Mass would be said in a familiar language.


After a long train trip across the new land, the Fritscher family arrived in the town of Hersey in southwestern Minnesota. The town was located directly on the Luverne and Sioux Falls branch of the Sioux City and St. Paul Railroad, near the state line of Iowa.  The little community which that same year changed its name to Brewster, was located in Nobles County, Minnesota. Nearby was Adrian, one of several colonies under the control of the Minnesota Catholic Immigration Bureau. Adrian, Minnesota was a small farming community in Nobles County, with only three houses, two stores, one hotel, and a wayside station.


Life in Minnesota was difficult, but the Fritschers and other Austrian families who had settled in Minnesota were used to hard work. They were farmers, and both women and men were accustomed to the difficulties of farm life. For several years beginning in 1871 in the spring and summer, grasshoppers had plagued the farmers of the region of South Dakota and Minnesota.  By the time the Fritschers arrived in 1876, the plague had lessened somewhat, but overall the problem continued for another two years.  The grasshoppers devastated some farms and orchards in the area.  There were reports of clouds of grasshoppers visible from miles away, arriving and devouring everything in sight.  But by the end of 1878, farmers were able to begin recovering from those difficult years.


By 1880, the family had been in America for only about four years.  It was on October 16, 1880, when the earliest blizzard ever in Minnesota, struck southwestern and west central counties.  Huge drifts exceeding 20 feet in the area lasted until the following spring.  A smaller blizzard several years earlier had resulted in a drastic temperature drop, with seventy deaths, hundreds of cattle lost, and trains that were stuck for days in high drifts.  The Fritschers in 1880, were enumerated on the Federal census in the township of Alba in Nobles County.  Once again, their name was misspelled by the recorder.  This time it was spelled as 'Fritzer'.  But one can easily imagine the sharp German accent of Anna quickly saying Fritscher and having it heard by the census taker as Fritzer.


In 1882, Joseph was twenty-nine years old when, on May 23 of that year, he married Theresa Appel, in St.Adrian Catholic Church in Adrian, Minnesota. Theresa had been born on May 4, 1854 in Austria, and her family attended Mass at St. Adrian. The two very likely met at one of the many German Catholic sponsored social functions in the community. The next year their first child, a daughter named Wilhelmina, was born and baptized at St. Adrian. They remained in Nobles County, but moved closer to Heron Lake where they became members of the parish at Sacred Heart Catholic Church. Records of the baptisms of their next four children Charles Joseph, Mary Theresa, Augusta and Rudolph were all found at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Heron Lake. About three years later, in 1885, Joseph’s brother, John, at the age of twenty-nine, married Francisca Pelzl at Sacred Heart Church, and they too began to raise a family on a farm in Nobles County, near Heron Lake.


In the winter, snows were so heavy that families could be isolated in their homes for weeks.  Jan 12, 1888 started as a mild day - children were in school, and people were working outside.  Then an abrupt cold wave struck with blinding snow, and the temperature fell to -37 degrees F.  Children were sent home early from school, but many died.  The number of deaths totaled two hundred in perhaps Minnesota's worst blizzard.


Farther west and south, there were more Catholic communities being developed, and in Texas, two brothers named Flusche had formed a company to create several German speaking Catholic communities in that state. The German Catholic community at Pilot Point, Texas was the largest of the three German communities that developed in Denton County in the late nineteenth century. This colony was founded by the Flusche Brothers in 1891, at the request of banker A.H. Gee and J.M. Sullivan of Pilot Point.  Emil Flusche, a Catholic entrepreneur, had successfully founded similar colonies in Iowa and Kansas, and in Texas at Muenster and Lindsay. The Flusche brothers distributed flyers and posters in many of the areas in the eastern and northern states, and published advertisements in German Catholic newspapers.  They advertised that: "Catholic businessmen, craftsmen, and especially older persons of means who want to live a quiet life near the Church in the most beautiful, healthy area" were encouraged to settle there.  In Pilot Point, they promised, the summers were not as hot as those in Minnesota. The farming conditions were excellent and Texas was in no danger of being taken over by the fanatical, "slippery hypocrites" that had thrust many a northern state into "servitude".  Their claims of the mild winters and the beautiful and abundant land with plenty of fresh water and timber were too much for the Fritscher family to ignore, and they began to consider the move to the wild frontier state of Texas.


The first German colonists to arrive at Pilot Point were Herman Boerner and his son-in-law Louis Tschoeppe from "Neu Braunfels", Texas.  Later, the Boerner family became closely allied with the Fritscher family as their children began to marry. Mass was first celebrated on November 4th, 1891 in the little community, and largely through donations, St. Thomas Catholic Church was built.  It was consecrated on March 7th, 1892.  As reported in the local newspaper, many of their protestant neighbors attended this event to "watch these Catholics worship their wooden God."  In the rich farmland, north almost to Tioga and east to Gunter, hundreds of German speaking Catholics settled and farmed, isolated from the English speaking culture around them. The first Catholic school had opened in 1891, and most of the children only learned English when they began attending the parish school at Pilot Point, where half their classes were in English, and the other half in German.


In 1892, Joseph and Theresa Appel Fritscher and their five children, ranging in age from about nine to just under three years of age, moved to Texas to live in the newly formed German Catholic community at Pilot Point.  Older relatives recalled that the family didn’t tell their friends exactly where they were moving, since Texas was thought to be such a wild and uncivilized place.  When they moved, Joseph brought his mother and his deaf sister, Anna, as part of his household.  They traveled by train since, once again, the town had been developed along the rail lines.  Land records show that they sold their land in Minnesota after they had already arrived in Texas.


In Texas, the family became members of the parish at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Pilot Point.  They farmed and raised their family there in the beautiful little community a short distance from the County seat of Denton.   However after only four years, Joseph's wife, Theresa, died on October 12, 1896, and she is buried there in the St. Thomas Cemetery.  Joseph, with the help of his aging mother, raised the five children alone until 1909, when he married Susanna (her last name is unknown), at St. Thomas.  They were recorded on the census of 1910 where Joseph, age 57, Suzie, age 48, Rudolph age 20, and Joseph's mother, age 82 and sister age 60 are found in Pilot Point.  Joseph's mother, Anna, died shortly thereafter, of pneumonia, on March 30, 1911.  His sister, Anna, has not been located in church or census records since the 1910 census.


It was in 1894 when, Johann (John) Fritscher, Joseph's younger brother, moved with his wife, Francisca Pelzl Fritscher, and their family to Pilot Point, Texas, and began building a farm there.   Many of the friends and other relatives of the Fritschers also moved to Pilot Point. Descendants of Francisca’s brother Frank Pelzl (Pelzel) can still be found living in Pilot Point.  But another branch of the Fritscher family remained in the Heron Lake, and the southern Minnesota area, and their descendants are still found in that  area today.