The German Settlers

written by C.E. Carroll


[This essay was written ca. 1955 by one of the original members of the Libertyville-Mundelein Historical Society.]

Desplaines3In an earlier article we discussed the settlements in Lake County by the Yankees and the Irish and these were the first settlers—the first two roots of our Heritage, but we find that there was at least one other major root and several minor ones that supplied the genes from which our great county evolved. This other major root was the German settlement.

The migration of Germans to America was especially heavy from the time of the revolutions in Germany in 1848 until shortly after the Franco Prussian war in 1870, and this great influx probably stemmed from the anxiety to escape military service and the longing to acquire some of the low-priced, fertile lands in the new world.

The German Empire that we knew at the time of World War I did not exist prior to 1870. There was, instead, a federation of some 25 separate states, some of them established in very ancient times. There were among them kingdoms, principalities, duchies, grand duchies, a few republics, and several "Free Cities," each with its own rulers and laws and many with their own dialects, but all coming, more and more, under the domination of Prussia, the most powerful of them all. For the king of Prussia became, in time, the Kaiser, or Emperor of the whole group, but before this was finally accomplished, the lot of the common people had become increasingly hard.

For the most part, these were small farmers and tradesmen. Under Prussian domination every able-bodied man was subject to conscription, and army life under the Prussians was a very strenuous one, for Prussia was preparing for war first with Austria and then with France.

It is not strange, therefore, that any young man who could get out of Germany did so, and America was the most logical goal. Sporadic revolutions had broken out in some parts of Germany, but from these the poor man had little to gain, even if they were successful. If he helped the middle class to overthrow the nobility, he would still be the underdog. The idea of freedom had a stronger appealso he migrated to America, if he could.

There were thousands who came during those troubled years and of those who eventually reached Lake County, the greater part were from the northern provinces, Hanover, Mecklenburg-Schwerin, and Pomerania, but a considerable number of Bavarians came to settle near the present Fremont Center and many of those in the Long Grove neighborhood were from Alsace and Luxemberg. There had been numerous settlements of German people in America, dating from Colonial times, so the conditions in this country were not unknown to those who sought to migrate now. Many had relatives and friends here who no doubt advised them as to the best locations to seek as their new homes. Unlike the Irish, who for the lack of such advice or pre-knowledge picked the heavily timbered or swampy clay lands on the east side of the Des Plaines, we find the Germans flocking to the rich rolling prairies north and west of Chicago. Many settled in Cook County where such names as Holstein and Schaumburg still bear witness of early German occupancy. Many more took up land in New Trier and Northfield and eventually came into the western part of Deerfield in Lake County, but there seems to have been a regular pattern of settlements along the Rand road from Niles north andwest, and from it to the Old McHenry road.

We might say then, that the main stem of the German settlements in Lake County was the Rand road, just as Milwaukee Avenue was the main stem of the Yankee settlement and the Green Bay that of the Irish. Of course, there were side shoots and branches from all of these as time went on, and some notable exceptions were the groups that settled about Prairie View, Lake Zurich, Fremont Center and Volo.

Since there was practically no unoccupied land left in Libertyville Township, there were very few Germans who came here early, and those who came at later dates bought farms originally "homesteaded" by Yankees or Irish. We might mention the Baumann and Treptow families who came around 1872 and the Rutzens shortly after. These all located on Milwaukee Avenue, south of the Village. There was quite a colony of Germans on the Buckley road and upper St. Mary's. This included the Stolzmanns, Schrecks, Elferings, Kristans, Schwandts, Naumanns, Numsens and Brixens, many of whom are still well known in this area.

The settlements in the western part of the county were probably the earliest and many who came to that sector in the 1840s and 1850s are still represented there. If space permitted we could tell the stories of fifty or more families who were settled there before 1860.

There was a Post Office established at what is now Long Grove in 1847 and Michael Sigwalt was the first Postmaster. The office and the settlement that grew up about it were known as Muttersholz, named after a village in Markholzheim, in Alsace, many of the settlers having come from that region. Charles Stempel was one. He came to Lake County in 1850 and worked as a farm hand for several years for $13.00 a month, but, being ambitious, saved his money and bought a small farm, and by 1854 opened a general store at Long Grove which prospered. He was helpful in bringing many of the German families to Lake County. He advanced passage money to some who repaid, or worked out, the debt later.

There were other prominent Long Grove families established even before Stempel. One that bore an important part was that of William Knigge, the ancestor of the numerous Knigges of Mundelein and Libertyville, who came to America with his parents in 1847. His claim was "staked" in Ela Township and there the family entertained many of the later emigrants until they could get their own cabins built.

Knigge, at a later time, opened a General Store at the present Mundelein, then called Rockefeller. This was carriedon for many years by his sons. The Germans who came in the early years traveled across the Atlantic in sailing vessels and the passage was invariably a rough one, taking many weeks. When Conrad Ritta came here from Prussia in 1844 with his family, the voyage lasted 13 weeks during which time their three-masted ship was nearly destroyed by storms. Their early life ashore was one of great hardship also, for they were obliged to live for a time in a log cabin with a hay roof.

By hard work, they were able to till some land and raise some crops for sale, but these had to be hauled from Fremont to Waukegan where oats brought only 10 cents per bushel, corn nine cents, wheat 30 cents, and pork $2.25 per Cwt. To eke out this meager income, Conrad wasforced to work as a laborer on the Illinois and Michigan Canal.

His experiences were typical of the time and the people, but he, like most of his neighbors, prospered in the end and he left a rich farm. We shall not in this article discuss in detail the settlements of Deerfield, for the story of that area was very thoroughly done by the late Marie Ward Reichelt in her history of Deerfield a few years ago. She wrote the biographies of some thirty German families for that work. [ History of Deerfield, Illinois, by Marie Ward Reichelt, for Deerfield Post, 738, American Legion. [Glenview, Ill.] Glenview Press, 1928.]

The Libertyville-Mundelein Historical Society is deeply indebted to Mrs. William Hecketsweiler and George Wirtz for the information we have on the settlements in Fremont. This we can only use briefly here, but have in detail in our files.

Lake County owes much of its present eminence to the Germans. They came here poor. They were good farmers. By industry and thrift they prospered, even in greater measure perhaps than their more fortunate Yankee neighbors. It was probably due to their efforts that Lake County had more acres in cultivation at the time of the Civil War and produced more of the needed foodstuffs than any other Illinois county, and we find many German names on the rosters of Lake County companies in that great conflict and in all wars since.

The Germans were active in all matters of civic welfare, in the establishment of our roads and schools and of many churches, both Protestant and Catholic. Many of them have filled township and county offices with distinction and they still do.


Postcard images provided by the Libertyville-Mundelein Historical Society.