Ash Wednesday this week brought to mind a long-forgotten tradition of our Luxembourg ancestors who settled at St. Donatus, Iowa in the 1850s and then in Adams County, Nebraska in the 1880s.
Pre-Lenten carnival (“Karneval” in Luxembourg) is a Catholic tradition and is found almost exclusively in Catholic countries. We are all familiar with Mardi-Gras, the French pre-Lenten celebration at New Orleans, Louisiana. However, Luxembourg also has a tradition of pre-Lenten Karneval celebration, known to our ancestors as Feusend.
In our grandparent’s time the 40-day Lenten period of fasting and abstinence was strictly observed. People refrained from drinking alcohol or eating meat, milk products and eggs. Of course all sweets were forbidden during Lent. No parties could be held and no weddings solemnized during Lent. The English word “fast” (to refrain from eating) is related to German fasten. Another word for the pre-Lenten season is Fasching which dates back to the 13th century. In modern German: Fastenschank is the last serving of alcoholic beverages before Lent.
Since the Middle Ages, in the small villages of Luxembourg, young men have dressed in costumes during the week before Ash Wednesday and gone from house to house collecting eggs, fat and flour that was then used by the women to make pancakes (Paangecher), waffles (Eisekuchen, Wafelen), fried dough balls (Nonnebréidercher, Fuesbréidercher) and fried pastry knots (Verwurrelter). The pancakes were eaten on Shrove Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday), also known as “pancake day.”
In some Luxembourg villages, the end of the Karneval period each year was marked by the burning of “Stréimännchen” (straw man) late on Shrove Tuesday. This tradition dates back to pre-Christian times and symbolized the end of winter. The Christian religion adopted customs it could not suppress and changed the meaning. The modern meaning of the straw man burning is a symbolic burning of the sins committed during Karneval.
During the 1970s and 1980s I interviewed many of my older relatives asking them about the lives and customs of my ancestors. In January 1982 I interview, my great-aunt, Elizabeth Kaiser Pittz, youngest sister of my Grandmother, Catherine Kaiser Trausch. Elizabeth was born in 1900. Following is what she told me about the Luxembourgers pre-Lenten parties in Adams County.
“Before Lent they went masquerading. Like they do now for Halloween. People would give them money and then they would go celebrate somewhere. Get a keg of beer with the money and have a party for the families of those that went masquerading. If the house was big enough they would have a dance. We went to several of them. Just the Luxembourgers, the Theisens, Konens, and Mousels, and some Germans around did that. They would go to all the houses. They called it “Fuesends Boken.” [sic] We didn’t know who they were when they come; we tried to guess. George and John [Kaiser] used to go masquerading. Some girls went too, but mostly boys.
When they came to the door, they said they wanted a treat. They would come in and pull jokes around the house. We’d give them a treat and then they would go. When I was around 18 or 19 years old they still went, then we got together and had the parties, just before Ash Wednesday. There wasn’t any certain day; for a couple weeks before Ash Wednesday you could expect them (at the door) any time. They wore regular masks and old suits and ladies dresses. Some people wouldn’t let them in, but we always did; we kids always looked forward to that. Then in later years you couldn’t trust to let people in any more and it all fell apart.”
Next year when you read about Mardi-Gras, remember that our ancestors once held similar parties in Adams County.
Today, February 2, 2016 while I am snowbound by the blizzard of 2016, I am reminded of my parents’ stories of the winter of 1948-49. That winter Nebraska residents struggled through the worst winter in memory. Ironically, the first blizzard, which began on Thursday, November 18, 1948 followed the warmest November 15th on record—71 degrees. On the 18th the Hastings Tribune under the heading “Winter Bearing Down On City” reported cold, gusting wind, but no snow fall at 3 p.m. Bert Trausch was picking corn by hand on his farm six miles south of Juniata. When the wind changed and clouds moved in, he decided to make a trip to Juniata to purchase coal, a fortuitous decision as it would be weeks before he reached town again.
Thursday’s forecast called for clearing skies, scattered showers and colder temperatures. Thursday evening, Bert drove his small herd of cattle, including the family milk cow into his large barn. The loft was filled with hay. Unlike many thousands of other cattle, they would survive the winter well fed.
Edna Trausch still had lettuce in her garden west of the house. She was covering it with a canvas at night and the days were warm and dry. On November 18th the weather changed; a cold wind came up in the afternoon and it began to snow. She decided to cut the last of the lettuce about 4 pm, but it was so cold and snowing so much that she couldn’t protect it from freezing as she picked it. They also still had watermelons stored in the corn crib and that was the end of them.
When the snow started they carried in cobs from a ring in the yard west of the house and wood from a pile in the yard, plus a little coal from the coal shed. It was all stored on the back porch and lasted a few days until the weather cleared. The only source of heat in their old farmhouse was a large, round heating stove in the kitchen.
By Friday, November 19th Adams County was in the grip of a severe blizzard, just the first of the winter ahead. Forty mile-per-hour winds whipped snow into drifts as high as ten feet.
Transportation came to an abrupt stop. The last bus to reach Hastings arrived from Omaha late Thursday. The Burlington passenger train was stranded at Hastings. It was Monday before trains were again operating. All hotel rooms in Hastings were filled and the lobbies were packed with people for whom there were no other accommodations.
Juniata, with a population of 300, hosted about 1,000 stranded travelers by Saturday. Some had been in their cars since Thursday night. Cars, trucks and buses packed Juniata’s main street. The Juniata gas station sold over 1,000 gallons of gasoline to stranded motorists. The two Juniata grocery stores were stripped bare of anything that could be eaten uncooked. A group of truckers built a fire on main street–which was a gravel road at that time— to warm themselves and the cans of beans they had purchased.
Juniata lost its electric power, which was supplied by Hastings Utilities, about midnight Thursday and did not regain it until Saturday about noon. Despite their own troubles with the storm, Juniata residents strove valiantly to aid the stranded motorists. The school auditorium, located on main street, was opened to the travelers and a soup kitchen set up.
Saturday a caravan of about 25 cars and trucks pulled into Juniata behind a bulldozer owned by Kansas-Nebraska Natural Gas Company. Their cross country trip from Minden had taken nearly 24 hours.
Autos were stalled in the streets all over Hastings, including one on the Union Pacific tracks at Fifth Street. No damage was done to the car as the only train that left Grand Island that morning was stuck in drifts just outside the city. The weight of the snow caused one entire block long greenhouse owned by Davidson’s to collapse. None of the plants in the building could be saved.
The area began digging out from the storm on Saturday, November 20th. Most roads in central and southwest Nebraska were closed. Kenesaw was without electricity and water for two days.
At the Trausch farm the drifts were six feet deep in spots, but the back and front walks were swept clean. The top front porch was full of snow and Bert went up to the balcony during the storm to scoop snow off because he was afraid it would collapse under the weight. Rural roads remained impassable, in some cases most of the winter. Trausches were without mail for at least two weeks. When the mailman got through he came from the east and went back that way. The drifts were above the car roof and Bert had to scoop out the mailbox which was on the west side of the road then.
Assumption Road going west along the County Farm shelterbelt was drifted ten to twelve feet deep. Three miles east the big draw by Kothes was drifted level across and was closed until spring. There was no equipment big enough to move that amount of snow.
REA electric lines wouldn’t reach the Bert Trausch farm until mid-1950, and they never had a telephone on the farm, so the fact that many electric and phone lines were down in the country did not inconvenience them.
December was colder and wetter than normal. New Years day 1949 dawned bright and clear. But another blizzard howled into the western plains on January 2nd, and on the 3rd it began to sleet in Adams County. The snow already on the ground absorbed the moisture and turned to ice. On January 4th more snow fell and sun spots, caused by the reflection of the sun on ice crystals in the air, appeared. Some people considered them a bad omen. The temperature plummeted and on January 9th the high was only zero. Winds whipped the snow and refilled cleared roads and farm yards. January 11th the Tribune printed a plea for area farmers to feed starving game birds.
On Saturday, January 22nd, in freezing temperatures, volunteer firefighters battled a blaze in the Bud Renschler home in Juniata. Both Bud and Maxine smoked and left cigarettes and matches laying around. The younger kids, Pat who would turn five on the 29th, and Donis age 3, were playing with matches, throwing them, lighted, into a crack in the closet floor. Mike, age 6 months, was too young to be involved. The fire began under the floor and gutted the closet and bedroom. The rest of the house was damaged with smoke and water. Many of the family’s possessions were lost, but no one was injured. The six Renschler children shared the closet and all their clothes were lost. Bud, an avid hunter, owned several long guns. Neighbors had helped carry furnishings out of the house and set them in the snow. Following the fire, Bud noticed a stranger carrying his guns away. He accosted the man and retrieved his guns. Years later as an adult, Pat still felt guilty for his part in starting the fire.
Snow and ice continued through January and into February. On January 26th Operation Snowbound, conducted by the Fifth Army, was born to assist ranchers in the sandhills. On January 28th Adams County was staggering under another four inches of snow driven by high winds. Highways were again blocked; Burlington trains were stalled both east and west of Hastings. Those rural roads that had been opened were again drifted shut.
Uncle Will and Aunt Lena (Kline) Wunderlich lived in the sand hills five miles north west of Burwell at that time. It was so bad there the National Guard was called out to help feed starving cattle. Caterpillars were used to dig out hay piles and make paths to the hay for the cattle. The National Guard arrived at the Wunderlich farm with a caterpillar and drove right into the yard. The guy driving it said “Where do you want me to dig?” Will Wunderlich answered “Well, not there—you’re on top of my barn.” (Lena Kline Wunderlich was a sister of Grandpa Dan Kline). Dan and Leona Kline missed the terrible blizzards; they were in California visiting relatives that winter.
In February Adams County received its first rotary snowplow, and immediately began the task of widening narrow lanes that had been scooped through drifted roads. Toward the end of February a new menace was added—mud and standing water made rural roads and unpaved streets impassable. The first week of March the rural roads were so bad Roseland’s school buses were unable to make their rounds. Some students were forced to walk in the mud as far as five miles to school. One rancher quipped “The army got us out of the snow, now it’ll take the navy to get us out of the mud.”
Bert Trausch recalled the many cars he pulled out of the mud that spring on the Assumption Road, an arterial east-west road running from Assumption to Glenvil. Snow had drifted ten to twelve feet deep across the road and when it melted the road became a quagmire with ruts 15 inches deep. Cars became high centered and almost impossible to extricate. Each time someone came to the door for help he spent several hours working with his team of horses and was covered with mud from head to toe, overalls, coat and all. His wife, Edna had to wash these mud encrusted clothes in a gas powered Maytag. She was tired of all this extra work and instructed him to take money if it was offered. He hitched up four horses and worked until after dark on the third stuck car of the day. When Bert returned to the house he had 50 cents for several hours’ effort and Edna had another batch of muddy clothes to wash.
The infamous winter wasn’t over yet. On March 12th winter did an encore. Then many area creeks and rivers flooded from the melting snow. March went out like a lion with heavy snow and high winds on March 31st. South Central Nebraska saw the last snow of the winter on April 14th, when a combination of rain and snow fell. It would be several more weeks before all rural roads were passable.
The winter of 1948-49, an almost continuous series of blizzards, was the worst winter in Nebraska history. It is estimated that 500,000 head of cattle perished on the plains that winter. Six Nebraskans died, none of them in Adams County. The Burlington railroad called the blizzards the most prolonged, intense, widespread and costly in the line’s history.