Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Oesterhaus Family: A Geary County Story

            I have always been interested in family histories: my family, other people’s family, it doesn’t really matter. What matters to me are the stories of the people that came before us; that’s probably why I became a historian. So, imagine my delight when, just a few weeks into my position at the Geary County Historical Society last year,  I came across an entire family history collection that had been donated to the museum and was waiting to be added to the system! Everything from baby clothes to original German immigration documents greeted me when I opened the box—and so began my love affair with the Oesterhaus family.
            The story of the Geary County Oesterhaus family starts with Dietrich “Hermann” Oesterhaus. Hermann was born on June 2, 1821 in Heerseheide, Germany. As a young man, he married Philopena Caroline Justine Blanke before they immigrated to the United States in 1852 and settled in Evansville Indiana. While starting their new life in America, Hermann and Philopena had five children: Lena, Matilda, Lewis and twins Fred and August. They stayed a few years in Indiana before they moved their young family to Kansas.
Lewis Oesterhaus, age 12, Circa 1868
            In 1867, Hermann and Philopena bought land from Henry and Hannah Mihleman outside of Junction City. This purchase was just the beginning of the large land purchases the Oesterhauses would make in years to come.
            Now, the Oesterhauses were a large family, so the story could branch into several different directions, but the story that the museum’s objects tell is the story of son Lewis Oesterhaus and his family. Lewis met his wife Mary Klusmire when their families traveled together through Kansas, though the families did not settle near to one another—the Oesterhauses in Geary County and the Klusmires in Holton, KS.
            Lewis and Mary were married on June 3, 1878 and settled on Oesterhaus land outside of Junction City. When they celebrated their anniversary 52 years later, Lewis recalled “the trip [to take Mary from Holton to Junction City] of one hundred miles meant slow travel with a team and wagon over narrow, rough roads and fording streams because of few bridges over them…requiring almost a week to go and return again.” Once they reached Geary County, Lewis built a stone cottage of three small rooms that they lived in for seventeen years.  Their first child, Anna Matilda, was born in that stone cottage on March 3, 1880. It was during a spring blizzard and Lewis was gone, no one was able to come. So, Mary gave birth alone.
The Oesterhaus children: John, Mabel and Anna
circa 1890
            They eventually had two more children, John and Mabel. The photographs of the children donated to the museum indicate that Lewis and Mary Oesterhaus were prosperous. The children were always well dressed and there are multiple portraits of them throughout their childhood—a sign of wealth in an age when photography was a luxury.
            And the Lewis Oesterhauses had a good reason for their prosperity. At the turn of the 20th century, Lewis Oesterhaus and his partner, Jacob Winner—a local butcher— had a contract with Fort Riley to supply the military base with their beef. It is likely that through this business, Lewis’s daughter, Anna Matilda Oesterhaus, met her husband, Fort Riley’s beef inspector and cavalry veterinarian, Charles Jewell.
Anna and Charles Jewell on their wedding day
December 22, 1906
            When Anna and Charles were married, Anna wore a dress made out of Piña—a fabric made out of pineapple fibers—that Charles brought home for her after he was stationed in the Philippines. They had one daughter, Mary Jewell. It is Mary Jewell’s descendants who generously donated so many of the Oesterhaus heirlooms to the museum.
            Lewis and Mary Oesterhaus’ son, John, attended Kansas State University and became a veterinarian, later founding the Kansas City Vaccine Company. Youngest daughter, Mabel, stayed in Junction City. She also attended Kansas State University before becoming a teacher at several rural schools near Junction City.
            Many of the Oesterhaus heirlooms are now on display at the Geary County Historical Society in our local genealogy case, including: German immigration papers from 1850, a large family photograph of the original Oesterhaus family, a tintype photograph of Lewis Oesterhaus and the Piña fabric that was used to make Anna Jewell’s wedding dress. If you have local family history objects or stories, we would love to talk to you! Open Tuesday-Sunday, 1pm-4pm.