St. Joseph’s Catholic Church Giltner, Nebraska

 The death of my Uncle, Arthur Kline on November 25, 2015 brought to mind the faith of the Kline family.  Arthur is the latest of the family to rest in the St. Joseph’s Cemetery at Giltner.  I wrote this story about the Kline family’s deep faith and their connection with the St. Joseph’s Church at Giltner for the 2002 centennial of the parish. 

St. Joseph's Church

This is a story about one of St. Joseph Church’s founding family’s perseverance in the face of adversity and of the faith that made that perseverance possible.  However it could be the story of any of the founding families of St. Joseph Church.

John and Bertha Kline were married in 1875 at Lincoln, Illinois where John worked as a carpenter.  Bertha was dissatisfied because the work of constructing buildings through out the area kept John away from home a lot.  Bertha’s sister and her husband, Katie and Mike Pressler were already located in Scovill Precinct, Hamilton County, so John Kline came out by train in 1882 and bought 160 acres in Section 32, Scovill Precinct.  The farm cost $1,800.  He paid $900 down but because of drought and depression it took him 16 years to get the second $900 paid off.

The Kline family, consisting of John, Bertha and four children under the age of six, arrived in Nebraska via the Burlington Railroad in early 1883.  They had rented a box car in Illinois to carry their household goods and they got off the train at Harvard.

Shortly after arriving in Hamilton County, John Kline set out to find other German families.  He drove around the country and when he came to a farmyard with dandelions growing he stopped.  They were Germans—the John Shafer family.

When the Kline family arrived in Hamilton County there was no Catholic Church in the area.  The priest from Aurora occasionally held Mass in the homes of various Catholic families.  On the Sundays when no Mass was available the Kline family read from their German language book of Epistles and Gospels.

In 1889 the Saint Ann Church was built at Doniphan, which is located 13 miles from the Kline family farm.  A horse drawn wagon travels about four miles an hour so the Sunday trip to Mass involved about three hours on the road each way. On Sundays John and Bertha arose very early to get the chores done, the lunch packed, the children fed and dressed, and the horse hitched up for the trip to Doniphan.  Those who were going to take communion did not eat breakfast as the fast was then from midnight.

During the cold winter months the three-hour trip was grueling.  The family was already in the wagon on their way when the sun came up.  Their son Dan remembered that they heated bricks in the oven and put them in the wagon to keep their feet warm.  The kids rode in the wagon until they were cold and then to warm up they got out and ran alongside for a ways.  How many of us would attend Mass if we had to endure that much hardship to get there?

During the decade of the 1880s rainfall in central Nebraska was adequate for good crops.  However the winters were cold with frequent blizzards.  The worst blizzard of that decade was the Blizzard of 1888.

The morning of January 12, 1888 was calm and warm.  School children played outdoors in shirt sleeves.  Then literally without warning, a storm roared down from Canada at 50 miles per hour.  When the front hit the temperature dropped almost 40 degrees.  Furious winds swirled snow into a blinding, life-threatening blizzard.  Early that day John Kline had ridden a horse to Trumbull and taken the train to Aurora to conduct business.  The two older boys, Tony and George were at school nearly two miles away.  After the blizzard struck the boys walked with a schoolmate to his house a half-mile from the school and stayed there all night as they could not see to walk further in the swirling snow.  When John Kline got off the train in Trumbull he got on his horse and headed home into the wind.  He arrived home nearly frozen with clothes wet through from the damp snow.  By the grace of God everyone in the neighborhood survived the blizzard.  However, over 1,000 people on the Great Plains perished in what was later known as the school children’s blizzard.

The three-room house on the Kline farm was inadequate for the growing family.  By 1892 there were six children sleeping in two beds in the small bedroom.  In the living room were the parent’s bed, a wardrobe and a cradle for the baby. Most family activities occurred in the kitchen.  During the good crop years of the 1880s John Kline had saved money to build a larger house for his family.  Construction began in 1892 and took almost a year.  The house he built still stands and is owned by his grandson Edward Kline.  [Now by Edward’s heirs.]

The 1890s, known in song and story as the “Gay Nineties”, were anything buy gay in central Nebraska.  At the decade’s beginning commodity prices were low, property taxes were high and railroad freight rates were exorbitant.  In 1893 the nation was gripped by a severe depression—called a panic then. 1892 and 1893 were dry years and crops were poor.  The drought peaked in 1894.  Spring temperatures were abnormally high, reaching 105 degrees in May.  Some rain fell in June, but it came too late for the small grains.

Desperate times call for desperate measures and the cities of Grand Island and Hastings hired rain makers.  No rain fell.  But some farmers still had hopes for a corn crop until July 26th when the recorded temperature reached 112 degrees, and a southerly wind for two full days literally baked the countryside.  By night fall of the second day, brown withered corn leaves were blowing in the roads and the air was filled with the odor of parched corn.

It was a disaster of immense proportions.  It was said that not enough wheat was raised in central Nebraska to winter a chicken.  The Grand Island paper predicted that “farmers would starve before many weeks pass.”  Covered wagons headed back east became a daily sight.  But the Kline family managed to hand on.

John Kline had worked up the ground in a draw on his farm and on the 23rd of July he broadcast onto the dry ground turnip seed saved from the prior year.  In early August a small rain wet the draw and the seeds grew and produced bushels of turnips.  That winter all the Kline family had to eat was ground corn left from the year before, a beef they butchered and those providential turnips.  And they considered themselves lucky.  Their neighbors the William Frasier family had only corn to eat; so the Klines shared their turnips with them.

Dan Kline recalled that during that winter his mother cooked corn many ways, hominy, corn bread, corn mush, fried corn mush, etc.  In later years their daughter, Kate, who was 12 years old in 1894, blamed her foot problems on the fact that she had worn two left shoes, each from a pair that the right shoe had wore out, until the next season’s crop came in.

Bertha and John Kline in 1904.
Bertha and John Kline in 1904.

 

The first resident priest at St. Ann’s in Doniphan was Fr. Dunphy who was assigned there in 1896.  During his seven years in Doniphan he encouraged the Giltner area Catholics to build a church.  But the crop failures and depression of the 1890s made that impossible.  They did collect money for a building fund and by 1901 they had $1,500 saved.  On October 10, 1901 a meeting was held for the purpose of making definite plans to erect a church.  Those present were Joseph Hegenbart, William Luby, Owen McMahon, John Kline and John Shafer.  John Kline was elected head of the building committee.  The parish was formed from outlying portions of the Doniphan, Aurora and Harvard parishes.

John Shafer donated the site for the church and Frank Wanek, Sr. donated the land for the cemetery.  A 28 by 40 feet church was built by John Kline, with assistance from the men of the parish.  The building was dedicated on July 15, 1902 by Bishop Bonacum of Lincoln.  By 1905 there were about 150 members representing 30 families.

The first wedding in the church was that of Lena McMahon and James McNeff in 1912 and their daughter Florence was the first child baptized.  Henry and Jack Wanek were the first altar boys.

John Kline died suddenly from heart failure in March 1914.  He was 66 years old.  He is buried in the St. Joseph Cemetery along with his wife Bertha, who would survive him for 32 years, and several other members of the Kline family.

In 1916 the church, which had become too small, was enlarged and a sacristy was added.  James McNeff was the carpenter.

The beginning of World War I in Europe increased the demand for food products and resulted in higher prices for grain, horses and mules.  With the entry of the US into the war in 1917, the drafting of young men reduced farm laborers and resulted in farmers looking for mechanization.  Among the developments of those years were corn harvesters, binders, threshers, improved steam engines and the growing use of tractors.  Wheat was in such short supply that flour was rationed and marginal land was plowed; the repercussions of which would be felt during the Dust Bowl era.  With higher commodity prices came increased land values.  Farmers forgot the lean years of the 1890s and assumed debts in excess of the earning capacity of the land.  When the war ended grain prices fell dramatically.  In the fall of 1919 wheat dropped from $2.15 to 33 cents a bushel in less than 90 days; and corn from $1.50 to 25 cents a bushel.  A recession had begun on the farm that would culminate in the great depression of the 1930s.

In March 1918 the church’s Altar Society was formed.  The first President was Mrs. Joe Heganbart.  The society met once a month in the homes of members.  During the ‘20s and ‘30s, despite the poor farm economy, the altar society managed to raise money by holding raffles, card parties and dances.  Each year the ladies made a quilt and other items and sold raffle tickets.  The money they raised was used to pay the yearly coal and light bills, furnish the altar boys surplices and cassocks, and to purchase all the regular altar supplies.  In addition they purchased four sets of vestments and a vestment case.  In 1932 the altar society provided $373 to redecorate the church.

Edna Kline Trausch remembers altar society meetings held at her parents home during the ‘20s and ‘30s.  The women had a study club and at each meeting they read and discussed a Bible passage or an article which had appeared in the True Voice newspaper.  Some of the ladies worked on their mending or on fancy work while they participated in the discussion.  At other times during the year the ladies worked on the annual quilt made for the fund raising raffle.

From 1902 until 1920 the parish was a mission of the Harvard church.  Mass was held every other Sunday.  In 1920 Giltner became a mission of Aurora.  Edna Kline Trausch remembers Father Hennessey being driven to Giltner by the Aurora liveryman.  The wagon was sometimes pulled by a team of mules.  In 1933 Giltner reverted back to being a mission of Harvard.

1934 and 1935 were years never to be forgotten by anyone who lived through them.  1933 had been the driest year in 57 years resulting in depleted subsoil moisture.  In May 1934 unusually high temperatures began.  In early June some rain fell, but from June 19th on the region sweltered.  One-third of June’s days topped 100 degrees.  July opened with a 103 degree day which was followed by the hottest month in Nebraska history.  On Sunday July 15th the mercury soared to 112 degrees, establishing a new record, which didn’t last long as the official high on June 19th was 113 degrees.  For 18 consecutive days in July the high was over 100 degrees.  But the heat wave wasn’t over yet.  August recorded 10 consecutive days over 100 degrees.  In all 46 days that summer topped 100 degrees.

The unrelenting heat was bad for those in town but on the farm it was worse.  Most farms were without electricity to power fans, refrigerators or water systems.  Edna Kline Trausch remembers conditions on her parent’s farm “The house was so hot it was almost unbearable, and it didn’t cool down at night because we had to cook with a cook stove.  We slept on the board sidewalk which ran from the house to the wash house”.

As bad as it was the effects of the heat were surpassed by the miserable dust, which gave the “Dirty Thirties” their name. There had been small dust storms in 1932 and 1933, but in 1934 and 1935 huge swirling blizzards of dust blew across the country.  No matter how well constructed, houses could not keep out the fine wind-driven dust.  Housewives stuffed wet cloth and newspapers around doors and windows but the dust still blew in.

In an 1982 interview Leona Kline, wife of Dan Kline, recalled one of the worst dust storms.  “Dan was in the field and he saw the black cloud coming.  He galloped the horses home and turned them loose in the yard.  He yelled “Get the kids in the cave”.   Then I saw the storm coming, the black clouds were just rolling.  We all ran to the cave, we thought it was a tornado.  It was so hot and dusty in the cave we could hardly breath.  Dan held onto the cave door while we all ran down and before he got down it turned black as night.  He couldn’t see and we reached up and pulled him down into the cave.  Once it was letting up a little bit and Dan looked out and said “The house is still there”.  When the storm passed everything was a mess.  There was so much dust in the house we couldn’t see the color of the floor.  Edna had been cooking supper and left the potatoes in the skillet on the stove.  They were completely black.

We didn’t raise anything and we had no feed for the milk cows. That year we sold the biggest milk cow we ever owned for $18.  Nobody now knows what we went through”.

Many businesses and most banks closed.  Many farmers lost their farms to mortgages or to tax foreclosures and moved away.  But even in the face of the worst disaster this area has ever known the Kline’s faith did not waver.  Leona recalled that in the evenings they read the Bible and prayed.  The church remained a constant in their lives.

By 1939 the dust had settled and the economy was improving, but a war that would soon involve the United States had begun in Europe.  Five grandsons of John and Bertha served their country during World War II. Perhaps because of the prayers of their family and community, all returned home safely.  Bertha Kline died in 1946 at the age of 89.  She was among the last of the Giltner area pioneers.

The Golden Jubilee of the parish was celebrated on September 26, 1952 with Bishop Kucera offering Mass.  In 1966 construction of the present building began.  Members of the building committee were Art Kline, Donald Larmore, Eugene Lienert, Clyde Obermeier, Joe Priessler and Ray Wanek.  It was completed in May 1968 at a cost of $90,000.

St. Joseph’s parish has been blessed with five religious vocations.  Father Don Larmore was ordained for the Diocese of Grand Island in 1963; and three daughters and a granddaughter of John and Bertha Kline entered the religious life: Sister Leonardo Kline, Sister Theodore Kline, and Sister Frances Dominic Kline became Dominicans of St. Catharine’s, Kentucky.  Sister Irmina Wunderlich became a Sister of St. Joseph of Concordia, Kansas. Sister Theodore and Sister Frances Kline celebrated their golden jubilee in 1970 at St. Joseph’s Church.  Both sisters spent most of their religious life serving in Nebraska Catholic schools.  They also taught Vacation School in Giltner and Doniphan for many years.  The combined years of religious service of these four women is over 200 years.  This is a record few families can equal.

Sister Theodore and Sister Francis with their brother, Dan Kline at the occasion of the Sister's Golden Jubilee.
Sister Theodore and Sister Francis with their brother, Dan Kline, at the occasion of the Sister’s Golden Jubilee in 1970.

Without the women of St. Joseph’s parish this centennial would never have been possible.  During the poor years of the 1920s and 1930s they worked sewing, cooking,  selling raffle tickets, and praying to raise the funds for the operation of the church.  They purchased coal and paid the light bill.  They purchased the altar supplies and cleaned the church.  But more important than the finances, the women raised the next generation of the faithful and instructed them in the Catechism.  For many years, Kate Kline and Clara Bassett LaBrie taught catechism classes immediately after Sunday Mass.  To illustrate how the women of the parish influenced their children, even as adults, I will tell you a story about my Grandfather, Dan Kline, and his mother.

Sometime in the 1920s Dan had just purchased a new car.  Back then you had to “break the motor in” by driving carefully for the first 500 miles.  Well the roads back then were not graded and graveled and after a rain it was hard pulling through the mud.  While he was till “breaking the motor in” up came a heavy rain so Dan decided he couldn’t risk driving to church that Sunday.  As soon as Mother Kline got home from Mass she called up Dan to see why his family wasn’t in church.  Dan told his mother he was afraid to ruin the motor in his new car.  Mother Kline’s response was “Is that car going to take you to heaven?”

The history of St. Joseph’s Church is much more than the story of buildings or a recitation of names.  It is the story of a community of people and of their faith, which enabled them to face and overcome adversity.