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Chapter 6 - Paul Sterner


                PAUL STERNER
                1821    1914

     Paul, my grandfather, was born March 16th 1821; I
have been unable to learn just where he first saw the
light of day but it was probably on the little farm near
Unionville where his mother still lived as the Hauser
widow in the sixties and which Uncle Henry has just des-
cribed for us so beautifully.  Everyone who might have
given me accurate information is now dead long ago.  So
Paul's early life is a complete blank, my first known
fact being that in 1853, when he was 31, he married a
daughter of the well-to-do Ritter family - Catherine
Elizabeth Ritter.  My cousin Willard Fritz had vague mem-
ories of things overheard when he was a child over fifty
years before and said that Elizabeth Ritter was visiting
Unionville, or some farm in that neighborhood, when she
met Paul and they fell in love, she the daughter of one
of the great old families and he the poor cobbler, ten
years older than she.

     What happened for some time after the marriage is a
further blank, the first glimpse we get being in 1859
when we find them living in the little settlement of In-
dian Hill where Paul is operating a lime kiln during the
day and repairing shoes and harness by night.  At that
time the four oldest children had already arrived, having
been born somewhere in Lehigh County, possibly Unionville.
Apparently all was well with the romance then, Paul work-
ing day and night to support them all - and more children
arriving regularly - two more, my father Willard and his
sister Sarah, being born there at Indian Hill.

     So, by the time the Civil War had started, there
were six children -

            Amelia Catherine  1853

            Jane              1855

            Henry William     1856

            Alfred L.         1858

PAUL STERNER Willard Jonas 1859 Sarah 1861 But, shortly after Sarah's birth, came a series of events about which a curtain of evasion and mystery has been drawn like a pall. As Uncle Henry once told it to me, the tragedy started like this... In the second year of the Civil War Paul, then well into his forties, enlisted at Harrisburg against his wife's advice as a saddle-maker and leather worker with the grade of sergeant solemnly promised him; but, after he had signed up, he discovered that the Recruiting Ser- geant had lied to him and that actually he was a private in a line regiment ordered South. Boiling with rage and, doubtless with humiliation at this confirmation of his wife's judgement, he slipped off the train, was posted as a deserter, and disappeared completely from view. His family never saw him again for twenty years. He had al- ways been an expert axeman in addition to his other skills and he now went into the woods with the lumber crews up in the Williamsport region. Other than this vague know- ledge, the whole period of his life from 1862 to 1882 is a complete blank. That left Elizabeth and the children quite destitute. She moved to Nescopek, near her father Enoch Ritter's farm. Henry, as we have seen, visited his Grandmother in April 1862 with his father; but in December he returned for an indefinite stay alone. It must have been somewhere in this interval that Paul vanished. It is not clear how Elizabeth supported the younger children. Mother, at the age of ninety-one, has given me the following version - "While the father was in the Civil War, the mother with her six children moved to a small cottage on Kirk- endall Hill near Nescopek where she had many old friends. 25
PAUL STERNER The road led past two Kirkendall farms - and the Swank farm - with all of which later the three boys became clo- sely identified - Henry with Leonard Kirkendall, Alfred with the Swank family, and Willard with John Kirkendall's." "I remember hearing from Willard that he, being the smallest boy, when they moved there and found they had no key to the small house, was lifted up through a window to open the door from the inside, and how frightened he was at the sound of his own feet echoing through the strange empty rooms." "Later all the children attended the little country school down the road a bit." It is not completely clear how Elizabeth supported the little (not so little) family; doubtless her father helped out. Mother gives us a further hint - "It was Willard's care to look after a mischievous little sister, Sarah, after school, for their mother had daily employment with a neighbor's wife on a farm. He re- called that one day Sarah upset a pail of white-wash over the kitchen floor - and how he frantically tried to clean it up before his mother got home. He went out after to resume his play and returned to find it whiter than ever." "Later, one by one, as the boys grew, they became members of the three neighboring families, doing chores about their farms, treated as their own - but always with the same ambition - education - and always a deep affec- tion for those foster homes which lasted throughout their life-times." So the years passed while Paul stayed on in north woods and the three boys, working hard on the farms during the long vacations and after school and before, doing the milking and other chores by lantern light in the early winter mornings, attending the rude ungraded mountain school when there wasn't other work to do, reached their 26
PAUL STERNER teens. All three were ambitious and intelligent and were determined to better themselves and get away from such a background. Yet it is interesting to note that all thro- ugh their lives both Dad and Uncle Henry loved working in the earth, and Alfred eventually settled on a farm near Upper Sandusky, Ohio after teaching school there for a while. Be that as it may, all three of them, when they were old enough, invested their savings in the tuition to take them through Millersville, a teacher's preparatory (now a State Normal) school near Lancaster. All through their time at Millersville they worked at odd jobs, wait- ing on tables, anything. All but Willard graduated. He left in 1881, just before he would have graduated, to take a school that was offered him. This school was in Carbon County, an ungraded one in a little village called Rockport on the Lehigh River near Wetherly. The second daughter, Jennie, had married a man named Henry Fritz who lived there and was on the School Board. So, with this turn of events, Elizabeth too moved in with her youngest daughter Sally. Not too long there- after, doubtless at Jennie's invitation, Paul returned from his twenty year exile - perhaps a general amnesty for deserters was declared at that time. If Jennie hoped to play the part of Cupid to her ag- ing father and mother, those hopes were soon dashed. Ex- actly what followed is not clear, as we get only shadowy glimpses. My father cared only for his mother and refer- red to his father, on the rare occasions when he so much as mentioned this period to me, as a drunkard as a was- trel. Uncle Henry, on the contrary, calls this the wild- est exaggeration and Willard Fritz backs this up. Accor- ding to both, Paul was a hard worker all his life; that somehow, during his youth, he had acquired a good educa- 27
PAUL STERNER tion and was still at this period and to the end of his days a student, fond of books, and well read in both Eng- lish and German. But his wife, who considered such pre- occupations sheer idleness, had become embittered at the mess she felt he had made of their lives. In addition, she surely had cause for bitterness at the way he had de- serted his family and her for all those years. It is true that, being posted as a deserter, he could not re- turn; but he could surely have helped her meet the bud- get - although - to give him his due - we do not know that he didn't. Whatever the true facts, the situation which follow- ed his return gives us a picture, sad and sombre, of two tortured people chained together by what? - necessity? - common love for the daughter Jennie? Why did Paul come back at all? But he did and for years these two people who hated each other, ate and slept at their daughter's home, neither acknowledging the other's presence nor ex- changing a word except on the rare occasions when Paul would have a few drinks with his friends (and he had many) and come home somewhat the worse for wear; whereupon the most terrific word battles would ensue. Willard remembers those scenes. All the children loved the old man and feared their grandmother. He tells how there would come these scenes of sudden fury in which the usually kindly Paul accused her of being a wanton - using names no child should hear. At such times poor Jennie would hustle the children out-doors - where they would listen, half-frightened, half delighted, beneath the windows. It all suggests clearly that there may have been more behind this twenty year hegira of Paul's, his occasional over-drinking, the sombre twilight of their last years together. There is a story there but it is baffling and obscure. It reminds me of the time I saw 28
PAUL STERNER Mount Washington in New Hampshire, its summit swathed in torn black snow clouds. Occasionally, through a rent in the thick mist would come a fleeting glimpse of the white cold remoteness beyond - savage, bleak - but fascinating. Paul I never saw. When I visited Rockport in 1903, as detailed later in the Diary, he was still living in a little place of his own he had built practically next door but Dad did not even mention him and I had no idea he was so close. Willard told me of this too. It seems that one sum- mer when Willard was about nine, Paul left for several weeks while he returned to the north woods to get out a large tan-bark contract. With the proceeds he then built himself a little shack combining a harness, saddlery, and boot-making shop, behind which was his sleeping room. As Willard tells it, he came in from Wetherly with some of his friends and the little building was thrown up almost overnight. Grandmother's rage when she saw what had happened was indescribable for some unknown reason. So thereafter Paul ate at Jennie's at one hour while Eliz- abeth ate at another. I came to know Grandmother Sterner when she visited us at Belmar in 1897. Of that visit I have one or two surprisingly vivid memories, nor are they any pleasanter than Willard's. I was tremendously impressed by her Ger- man Bible which she faithfully read every morning after breakfast. I remember too how, when she fell sick the following March, I was left one day alone to watch be- side her as she lay dying. She was unconscious but restless; her hands wandered about as though searching for something. I thought it was my hand she wanted so I timidly surrendered it to her hot, harsh grasp; upon which she grabbed it, dragged me irresistably across the 29
PAUL STERNER bed (I was eight at the time and very skinny) and crashed me against the opposite wall. I was unhurt but very much startled. One other incident comes back very clearly even now, perhaps because my mind was so strangely refreshed about it years later. Mother gave me a tiny box-trap with a revolving wheel like a squirrel's cage in which I caught a little mouse and kept it as a pet. I named him Sharp Eyes. Grandmother Sterner was horrified; to her mice were vermin and should be exterminated at once; but mo- ther refused explaining that this particular mouse was my pet and therefore just as much a member of our family as any one. Whereupon Mother Sterner got up early one morn- ing, threw the cage and its helpless little occupant into a pail of water, and drowned my little pal Sharp Eyes. Mother didn't tell me of my pet's exact fate for years. Then, thirty years later when workmen were repairing the back steps, they discovered the little cage with the wi- thered mummy pet still in its revolving wheel. It so chanced that I was home from Philadelphia for the week- end, saw the cage and its contents lying where they had thrown it, and so the long forgotten story came out. Paul survived his wife by many peaceful years. Shortly after my visit to Rockport in 1903, Aunt Jenny moved to Harrisburg and took a house next to her married daughter Clara Bittner. The old man at first refused to go with her, literally up to the last moment; in fact, he appeared just as they were boarding the train so that the conductor had to hold up proceedings for two minutes till Paul got to the station and he too climbed aboard. He lived on there at Harrisburg with Jennie another ten years. Whatever drinking he may have done during his long life could not have injured him much for, even when his time finally came at the age of 93, he did not die 30
PAUL STERNER quietly in his bed. As Willard told me - Down the street from Aunt Jennie's house was a fire- house. It was Paul's custom of an evening to take a long walk before going to bed. Often he would drop in at the fire-house and play a few games of checkers while having a glass of beer with the boys. On the night of June 15th 1914 he stayed on at the fire-house later than was his wont. When he reached the house all was in darkness, the family asleep, so he let himself in quietly, took off his shoes at the foot of the stairs in order not to waken any- one and, carrying his shoes carefully, tip-toed softly up in the dark. Somewhere near the top he tripped and fell crashing to the bottom of the flight. When the fam- ily rushed out and lit the lights, they found him lying sprawled in the lower hall, dead with a broken neck. Even in death my paternal grandparents shunned each other. Elizabeth was buried in the Ritter plot in Ber- wick; Paul lies beside his oldest daughter Amelia in the Laureytown Cemetery. So, shaking our heads sadly, we proceed to the next in line, my father and your grandfather Willard Jonas Sterner 31


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Last updated November 26, 1995.

Todd L. Sherman (afn09444@afn.org)
© Copyright 1995 by Todd L. Sherman. All Rights Reserved.