Sunday, October 30, 2011

Settling In

If Elizabeth and Barend had looked a block and a half north when they stepped out onto Broadway as they left Albany’s Union Station, they would have seen an old Dutch-style house called coincidentally the Vandenburgh (with a “u”) House.[1] Demolished in the 1940’s, it was one of the last remaining physical reminders of Albany’s Dutch colonial origins. 

Albany received its city charter in 1686, but settlement by Europeans in this riverside port area goes back to the early 17th century, when the Dutch West India Company began trading for furs with the rival Mohican and Mohawk peoples who inhabited the nearby islands and forests. If our grandparents had looked a block or two west from the train station, they may have been able to glimpse the First Church of Albany, whose pulpit, carved of Flemish oak and adorned with an hourglass to time the Dominee’s sermons, was brought from Amsterdam in 1656, purchased for the grand sum of twenty-five beaver pelts.[2] The church's current building dates from 1797.

According to census records, when Barend and Elizabeth arrived in Albany, the city's population  was just over 100,000; it would grow to 135,000 in the next forty years, when it began to decline due to migration to the suburbs.   

New York State Capitol - Roof renovation 2011

Albany’s Capitol building was undergoing major renovations in the spring of 1911, in the aftermath of a devastating fire earlier that year that had collapsed a large portion of the building, decimated the museum collections, and virtually destroyed the State Library that the building had housed. (Coincidentally, a project to restore and renovate a different section of the building's roof is taking place as I write this.) Also damaged in the tragic fire were priceless archives that documented Albany’s early Dutch history.[3] In mid-1911, the State Education Department, which was to be the new home of the library, archives, and museum, was nearing completion across the street from the Capitol.

New York State Education Building

Barend and Elizabeth settled in Albany’s South End, a warren of two-story homes inhabited by immigrants from the Netherlands, Germany, Ireland, Poland, and Italy. Family lore has them living, appropriately enough, on Elizabeth Street. But the 1920 census record shows their address as 75 Third Avenue, which is just around the corner from Elizabeth Street. Barend is mistakenly listed as “John VandenBerg”; his occupation is shown as carpenter. Elizabeth kept house and looked after the couple’s five children born by that time: Jacob, Elizabeth, Louisa, Jasper, and Grace (my mother, who is listed as a six-month-old in the census report). Stepping out on the “stoop” to look for playmates, the children must have heard a polyglot stew of languages and inhaled the rich aromas of spaghetti sauce, kielbasa, and corned beef and cabbage, as well as their mother’s traditional stamppot.

Church on Jay Street

On Sundays the family walked a mile or so to the Fourth Reformed Church on Jay Street. Coincidentally, one of the couple’s great-grandchildren now lives on that block, almost directly across from the now-abandoned church. Jay Street is one of the last streets in Albany to still have the old cobblestones, probably placed in the 1920’s, now picturesque although showing their age.

Jay Street, Fall 2011

Grandma Elizabeth’s cookbook, Eenvoudige Berekende Recepten (“Simple Hearty Recipes”) contains the following recipe, which she may have cooked for her growing family on Third Avenue. It is as tasty today as it was a hundred years ago.

 Stamppot with Apples and Bacon

-        1 kg. (2 pounds) sour apples
-        1 ½ kg. (3 lbs.) potatoes
-        400 grams (about 1 lb.) lean bacon
-        10 gr. (2 teaspoons) salt

- Wash the bacon with warm water and cook it for about half an hour in ½ liter (2 cups) boiling water.

- Peel and rinse the potatoes, and set them to cook in the same pot with the bacon, adding the salt.

- Peel and quarter the apples, removing also the cores, and place the apple quarters in the pot.

- Let all boil for about 30 minutes, taking care that the water doesn’t boil away. Add a bit more water if necessary.

- Remove the bacon from the pan and mash the apples and potatoes together. Crumble half of the bacon and stir it into the potato mixture.

- Serve with the rest of the bacon alongside or on top of the potatoes.

Stamppot with Apples and Bacon

(I used only half the amounts called for, and it turned out to be plenty for the two of us now at home.)

[1] Rittner, Don. Images of America: Albany. Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, S.C. 2000.
[2] Alexander, Robert S. Albany’s First Church. Newsgraphics Printers, Delmar, NY. 1998.
[3] Restoration and translation of these 17th century documents continues to this day under the aegis of the New Netherland Institute, funded in part by a grant from the Dutch government.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Arrival at Last

If you haven't already read the last two posts, you may want to read those before continuing here.

Elisabeth and Barend did indeed leave Loosdrecht the day after their wedding. They traveled by train to Rotterdam, from whence they embarked on the SS Potsdam, one of the Holland America Line's huge passenger ships. Finding the correct quay among the vast maze of docks and ships must have been a challenge. At that time, and for many years after, Rotterdam was the world's largest seaport, with thousands of ships jockeying for position among its waves and wharves.

SS Potsdam 1900
I have only vague memories of Grandma and Grandpa Vanden Bergh from my earliest childhood, when they were both in their 60's. So it is difficult for me to imagine how they must have felt as a pair of twenty-somethings just beginning their life together as they searched for their ship among the floating behemoths at Rotterdam's seaport. Did they trudge along slowly with apprehension? Or trip gaily and giddily, finally out from under the watchful eyes and intrusive thumbs of parents, siblings, and employers?

Did they stride up the gangplank with nary a look back over their shoulders, or with heavy hearts and a lump in their throats as they thought of family, friends, and the fatherland they were leaving behind? We may never know for sure, but I believe that they must have had mixed feelings, perhaps a stew of apprehension and exuberance common to many who leave their countries of birth behind to seek a fresh beginning in a foreign land.

In any case, once aboard the crowded ship, Barend and Elisabeth must have felt some satisfaction that their frugality and good luck had enabled them to purchase second class tickets. In fact, in later years, Grandma Elisabeth always wanted people to know that they had traveled second class, not steerage!

The passage across the Atlantic Ocean took ten days. The ship's manifest lists their last name as v.d.Bergh, and in the far right column under Destination, "New York" is crossed out and "Hoboken" (New Jersey) is inserted, apparently the port at which immigrants who did not travel as steerage were processed. Although Barend and Elisabeth did not pass through the doors of Ellis Island, they were indeed part of the Great Immigration that took place between 1892 and 1924, when 22 million immigrants came through the ports of New York and New Jersey.  Their names are inscribed with 700,000 others on the Wall of Honor at the site of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum.

Ellis Island as seen from Staten Island Ferry

From Hoboken, Elisabeth and Barend must have gone by ferry across the river to New York City, where they found their way to Grand Central Station, which was undergoing a ten-year-long construction project during this era. The new terminal, that which we know today, would not open until 1913.

The New York Central Railroad took them the 150 miles (240 kilometers) north to Albany, the capital of New York State, where they had decided to settle.The train would have left them off at Albany's Union Station, an imposing granite structure completed in 1900. The station, now vacant, stands on Broadway in downtown Albany, across from a quiet park where government employees enjoy the autumn sun on their lunch breaks. But a hundred years ago, the area was far from quiet. Albany was a major hub for travelers, with a hundred trains a day arriving at the station from all points of the compass. Barend and Elisabeth must have stepped out into the spring sunlight dazzled by the chaos of trolleys, cars, and horse-drawn wagons competing for space along the street lined with hotels and restaurants.

Union Station in Albany, NY

Looking left and right, they caught sight of a policeman and showed him a crumpled piece of paper with a name scrawled on it -- Schij, a family from Loosdrecht who had emigrated earlier  -- and an address in Albany's South End. The officer directed them to which trolley they should board to find their friends' neighborhood, which would soon be their neighborhood as well.

To be continued . . .

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Making Plans

If you haven’t already read the previous blog post, “Starched Caps and Aprons,” you might want to read it before continuing here.

Elisabeth 1905
As Elisabeth stood staring into the empty money jar  --  a decade’s worth of savings gone in an instant  --  she heard the front door of the house slam shut. She would later learn that as she was coming in the back door on her way home from work at the Pastor’s house, her sister Louisa was going out the front door with Lijsje’s money in her pocket.  Louisa was on her way to proudly present the Pastor with a gift  --  Elisabeth’s secret cache, knowing all the while that she was actually giving his own money back to him. Ah  --  but how impressed he would be by Louisa’s wealth and generosity!

And what could Elisabeth say to her sister when she discovered the truth? At that time, their father was no longer living, and with their mother weakened by illness, Louisa, as the eldest daughter, pretty much ran the household  --  with an iron hand.

This incident may have strengthened Lijsje’s determination to start anew in another country.  In time, Elisabeth began to work in a different household. Her new employer, known only in family lore as “Juffrouw”  --  “Miss” or “Madame,” may have been either the mayor’s wife or a schoolteacher.  She apparently looked upon Elisabeth as a faithful and competent servant.

Upon Juffrouw’s death, she left a small inheritance to each of her household staff.  Her generosity enabled Lijsje to replace her lost savings  -- and then some.

Barend's family 1910
By this time, Elisabeth and Barend were apparently “courting” and making big plans. We don’t know as much about Barend’s early life, except that he also came from a large family. After completing elementary school, Barend was apprenticed to a carpenter to learn the skills involved in working with wood. Learning this trade served him well, since he worked for a wagonmaker once he and Elisabeth arrived in Albany. 

Barend and Elisabeth’s wedding took place in Loosdrecht on May 18, 1911. After the ceremony, the families had a small reception for the young couple. It was at this party that Barend  --  transformed from youth to head of household by his uttered vow and the swipe of a pen  --  stood up and announced: “Elisabeth and I are leaving for America  --  tomorrow!”

Record of marriage in Family Booklet

To be continued . . .

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Starched Caps and Aprons

Grandma Van den Bergh was born Elisabeth Daams in Loosdrecht, Netherlands, in March of 1886. At the age of thirteen she was sent out to work as a domestic servant along with her sister Hendrina, probably after the death of her father. Her first job was at the home of the local Pastor, where she started out as a scullery maid, scrubbing pots and pans in the kitchen, and eventually worked her way up to pastry chef. You may already have seen the photograph of Elisabeth and her sister Hendrina in their white starched maids’ uniforms, looking like characters from that old British drama, “Upstairs, Downstairs.” The neatly creased and starched aprons and caps must have been pressed with an antique iron heated by charcoal, such as you see in museums or old historic homes.

Hendrina and Elisabeth circa 1900

How many skinned knuckles and calloused fingers did Elisabeth endure before being allowed to learn other household skills such as baking and cooking? We may never know, but one story from this era has been handed down by my mother’s generation: “Lijse” (Dutch for Lizzy, pronounced “Lisha”) was apparently a spunky young lady, unafraid to ask for what would enable her to do her job properly. The Dominie or Pastor, being a frugal Dutchman, was a bit too thrifty in his purchase of household soap. The amount rationed for washing the dishes was not sufficient to get them clean, and Lijse informed him of the situation in no uncertain terms. He was probably taken aback by being accosted by such an outspoken servant. Household servants did not talk back in those days. I can picture the scene, he in his stiff black clerical garb, she in her starched white apron. Perhaps for once the sermonizer was left speechless, his pipe dangling from mute lips. And I’m sure that Lijse got the soap she needed. 

Later, as a pastry chef, Lijse understood that her success depended on fine ingredients and the right tools, well maintained. She grew to be a very good baker. The Pastor’s wife frequently entertained the church ladies, and Lijse had to prepare special pastries for these tea parties. She would often be summoned to the parlor at the close of the occasion to receive compliments from the stiffly corseted visitors: “Lijse, het was lekker!" ("The cake was delicious"). Perhaps she prepared Dutch apple cake or sand cookies  -- rich with butter, sugar, and cinnamon.

It may have been while working at the Pastor’s home that Elisabeth met her future husband Barend Van den Bergh, perhaps at a village festival. We don’t know as much about our grandfather’s early life. He may have worked as a gardener on a wealthy family’s estate, perhaps cultivating the tulips we know so well in the Capital Region of New York State. Or perhaps he was a carpenter, since he worked for a wagonmaker once he and Elisabeth arrived in Albany.

Unusual for a Dutch woman, Elisabeth never learned to ride a bicycle  --  it was something about not being able to get the hang of balancing on the two-wheeler. So she would walk everywhere, and plot the distance to various destinations by how long it took to walk there. Barend lived in s’Graveland, a village about 6 kilometers (4 miles) from Loosdrecht, so although today one can drive there in not much more than 10 minutes, perhaps a hundred years ago it took an hour or more to walk there, maybe less if you could take a shortcut through the fields. 

Early on, Elisabeth made up her mind to emigrate. She told Barend, “Ik ga naar Amerika”  --  “I’m going to America.” Relatives in the Netherlands have asked me why I thought our grandparents wanted to leave their native country; after all, life is good now in the Netherlands, a prosperous and forward-looking country with a long reputation for tolerance and liberalism. But Elisabeth’s young adulthood around the turn of the 20th century was an era when great waves of immigrants from all parts of Europe debarked on American shores. Perhaps like so many other immigrants of that era, Elisabeth was hoping for a better life in America, where her own children would not have to work as servants. 

With that goal in mind, Elisabeth worked hard and saved every guilder she could in hopes of purchasing passage to the New World for herself and her future husband. At the end of each week when Lijse received her meager wages, she would wait until no one else was upstairs in the house where the family lived next to the smithy, and conceal a portion of her earnings in a can up under the eaves in the room she shared with her sisters. 

One day, at the end of a particularly long and trying workday, Elisabeth tiptoed up the stairs in her neat white apron and cap, checking over her shoulder to make sure that no one was following. She reached up over the bed to the secret cache of savings. But no coins jingled in the can this time. The money she had worked so hard to save was missing!

To be continued . . . 

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Of Blacksmiths, Bicycles, and Clocks: Elizabeth's Forebears in Loosdrecht

Hammer, tongs, anvil, forge: These were the tools of three of Grandma Elizabeth’s brothers as well as several generations of her forebears. In the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, blacksmiths produced many important tools and farm implements as well as shoeing horses. Gates, grilles, railings, lanterns, cooking utensils, and decorative items were forged by pounding red-hot metal with hammer and chisel. As we will see, Daams blacksmiths also manufactured several unusual and popular articles.

The first known record of a Daams blacksmith was the betrothal notice of Cornelis Damen or Daams in the tiny hamlet of Stroe in March 1733, where the groom’s occupation was listed as smid, or blacksmith.[1]

Daams smithy in Loosdrecht, circa 1960

Some 85 years later in 1818, another Cornelis Daams purchased the smithy where Elizabeth was born in 1886. This building, which still stands in Loosdrecht, stayed in the Daams family until 1971, when the last Daams blacksmith, Jasper the son of yet another Cornelis, retired. The 1818 Cornelis purchased the property for 200 guilders: 100 up front and the second 100 the following May.

Hendrik Daams, born 1816
A mid-19th century photograph shows Hendrik Daams, eldest son of Cornelis and Louisa Frederika, seated next to his anvil. He is wearing the typical Dutch wooden shoes, which must have protected his feet from sparks flying from his forge or the heavy tools he wielded. Hendrik’s specialty was manufacturing stoves and heaters. It was also this Daams blacksmith who made the first push-bicycles seen in Loosdrecht, quite possibly the first seen in the Netherlands.

Imagine the astonishment of the townspeople to see a neighbor or two gliding smoothly along the road hands on handlebars and feet in the air. These primitive cycles were a far cry from the thousands of urban cycles now streaming through the streets of Amsterdam. They did not have inflatable tires, but apparently metal wheels covered with rubber. The cycles were not equipped with brakes or pedals either; the riders simply pushed them along the road with their feet.

The youngest child of Cornelis and Louisa Frederika, born in 1836, was my great-grandfather Jasper Daams  --  the father of Grandma Elizabeth and her nine siblings. (Two died in early childhood.) This Jasper was a skilled tradesman, whose talent in metalwork enabled him to repair the clock in the town hall of Oud-Loosdrecht, much to the satisfaction of the Town Council. He also manufactured copper water pumps in various sizes  --  small models for the kitchen and larger ones for watering troughs for farm animals.

When Elizabeth was three years old, her father also constructed the first iron-clad boat to be seen in Loosdrecht (and maybe one of the first in the Netherlands). Of course, the townspeople thought that it would sink right away. But it did not. This episode did, however, result in one casualty: after painting the boat, Jasper set it in a farmer’s field to dry. A cow grazing in the pasture licked the painted hull and died, poisoned. Great-grandpa Daams had to compensate the farmer for the loss of the cow, and probably did not have enough money to build another boat after that!

Daams Family 1903

In Elizabeth’s generation, the trade of blacksmithing was again handed down from father to sons. In this photo taken in 1903, a couple of years after Jasper’s death, Elizabeth’s brothers “Freek” (Frederik) and “Kees” (Cornelis) were both blacksmiths. Eldest brother “Joop” (Johannes) had probably already moved to Rotterdam to practice the same trade. Only the youngest brother  --  another Jasper  --  shown here at age twelve, did not take up the family business. 

Although no longer in the Daams family, the old smithy where Grandma Elizabeth was born still stands, as this photograph taken by Robbertjan R. in the summer of 2011 indicates:

Former Daams Smithy, Loosdrecht 2011

[1] The source of much of the material in this post is an article sent to me by Cousin Robbertjan in Amsterdam: “De geschiedenis van een smidsfamilie,” by J. Daams Czn., in Historische Kring Loosdrecht, Number 96, February 1994. (Dank je wel, Robbertjan!)