The Human Side of Genealogy

Inlaws' Love Letters


With one of my neighbors, I have what you might call a genealogical friendship. It has other aspects, of course: I bake red currant muffins for her birthday; she serves homebaked chocolate cookies with tea when I visit; she doctors with brandy the mincemeat that I shared with her for next Christmas's pies. Together, we have foraged in antique stores and even searched old cemeteries for "old roses." But we always come back at last to a mutual obsession with genealogy. Love letters of her in-laws are one of her genealogical treasures.

Her father-in-law, Albert V. Vieregg, died young, at the age of 35, in 1913, the year Mae was born. A married father when he died, he had three children by his wife of 11 years, among them the boy who later married Mae, Robert. Mae remembers receiving a letter from her mother-in-law in 1952 relating how Olga had remembered her 50th wedding anniversary by dining alone in Marshall Field's Walnut Room in Chicago.

Four years before Albert married Olga Bernstein in 1902, he was writing love letters to her while he was serving in the Spanish-American War while stationed in Chattanooga, Tennessee at Camp George H. Thomas, over the state line from Chickamauga National Park Postal Station in Georgia. A 20-year-old bugler for the Second Nebraska Volunteer Infantry, Company M-organized in Grand Island, Nebraska and mustered into service in Lincoln, Nebraska in May 1898-Albert signed his frequent letters to his 18-year-old sweetheart, "yours in love and war." Their daughter Pauline found them in a black tin box with gold pinstriping after Olga's death, and their daughter-in-law Mae has preserved them for her family.

Mae brought out the black tin box to show me the letters as well as other treasures: a silk handkerchief commemorating the Chickamauga battlefield that Albert sent to his girlfriend, as well as a musket ball from the Civil War battlefield (a mere 30 years distant), and some Spanish-American War hardtack that looks just about as edible now as it probably did a hundred years ago.

The letters themselves speak of his absorption in Olga, his concern that he is not a good kisser, his desire to return to Grand Island-all in shaky spelling but unshaken devotion. Albert put two-cent pink George Washington stamps on these letters when he mailed them from April through October 1898. The camp stationery and postal covers themselves are interesting, at least to a former stamp collector and student of American history.

Under the inscription "Remember the Maine," a burly Uncle Sam in his undershirt knocks out a pirate's teeth; saying, "We've got them on the run," a bayonet-wielding Uncle Sam chases the Spanish out of Cuba; Uncle Sam comments on two American soldiers marked "Con-Fed" and "Fed," "I'll match 'em agin the WORLD." The cleverest postal cover welds together a "return to sender" notation on the envelope with a picture of Uncle Sam chasing a Spaniard: "If you don't catch him in 10 days, return to sender."

Reading Albert's love letters and hearing Mae tell me of her mother-in-law's touching, lonely commemoration of her 50th wedding anniversary are even more poignant when I learn of the freak accident that widowed Olga when she was 33.

In Grand Island, Nebraska, the Vieregg family were early settlers from Germany (as were the Bernsteins) who eventually owned the Grand Island Bottling Works for mineral waters, as well as temperance beverages. At the Works factory, someone had propped up an old, apparently unloaded gun. One unlucky day, a bottle rolled towards the gun, then knocked it over; the gun fired at Albert.

In the elegy printed by the local newspaper after being delivered by his lifelong friend Arthur Abbott, Arthur recounted how the intrepid Albert had pursued bank robbers in his car with the help of his brother and a friend, discovered their whereabouts, and thereby materially assisted in their capture. Admiring his friend's character, Arthur spoke of his voluntary enlistment as "the most notable event in his life." Two fellow volunteers died because of the disease and fever that spread in Chickamauga. Albert himself contracted malaria there.

Speaking of Albert's intense involvement in his local community after his return, Arthur noted, "He seems more closely identified with the birth and growth of this city because his parents were among the pioneer residents that nursed the tiny civilization that was forging ahead in what was then a prairie desolation. And he seemed to have inherited the sturdy qualities of those resolute pioneers that transformed this prairie waste."

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