A treasure chest of family history

My Great Uncle, Harold C. Steinke

I swear, I went into the day with the best of intentions on a great post or two to kick off the week. Topics in mind, half written in my head just needing to be spilled on this here page of the inter web, the whole nine. And then family history exploded in my living room and I got distracted. For hours. For the second time in under a week.  So instead of your regularly scheduled knitting blog with the occasional break for gratuitous grandkid and kitten cuteness, tonight I share some of what’s blown my socks off in the last few days. (Admittedly, I don’t miss the socks. No matter how much I love my hand knit socks, it’s far too hot and humid to even think about wearing socks right now…)

The treasury of family history is courtesy of my Great Uncle Harold.  He passed away several years ago which lead to the clean out of the house on Crystal Lake, just outside of Plymouth, WI, that was my Great Grandmother’s home until she died and Uncle Harold’s vacation place until he passed. Unfortunately keeping the house in the family wasn’t a practical option so the contents were sorted and bits of family history were scattered across the states to various family members.  I snagged a few treasures of family history at that time and called it good.

Recently his wife passed and it was time for her sisters to do the same with the home she and Uncle Harold shared in Columbus OH.  Her sisters came across a collection of things they felt belonged with Harold’s family and asked if anyone wanted them.  Mom called my brother and I asking if there was anything we were interested in.  I had a bit of a proud when my brother spoke up about some of Uncle Harold’s WWII war memorabilia (is memorabilia really the right word here, I’m not sure) and mom mentioned there were a number of letters, too.  This is the sort of thing that is right up my alley, the history stuff.  I also asked for claim to any Steinke Bottles or, I could only dream, a box from Great Grandpa Steinke’s soda bottling works.  Anything that told the family history that no one else laid claim to.

WWII Service Medal & Military Photo ID

Last Thursday I received 2 well stuffed boxes priority mail boxes full of mementos, some from the war, some from high school, some from Uncle Harold’s 41 year career with Bordens. A LOT of stuff.  It only occurred to me the next day that that must not be all of it as Mom mentioned there were bottles coming and there were no bottles in these boxes.  Little did I know then…

Letters home

Nor was I too worried, honestly…  I have HOURS of reading material. HOURS and HOURS.  Uncle Harold was a prolific letter writer during his service in Europe from 1943-1946. We read a good sampling of them but decided to really do the letters justice, we needed to sort them into chronological order and start at the beginning. So I did.  They are bundled up and as close to postmark order as I can get them. It is such an interesting glimpse into a man I honestly didn’t know so well but now have a rather intimate portrait of during such a pivotal time in our nation’s history.  To say I’m fascinated would be an understatement.

But like I said, that pair of boxes was hardly a scratch at the surface.  Today UPS arrived at my office with four boxes of stuff.  Four BIG boxes. The wonderful driver helped me load the boxes straight into my car as it would have taken me two trips to get them downstairs myself.  We filled the back of my Outback and had to put the last box on the passenger seat.  And I was very glad she arrived late in the day as the suspense may have killed me had I been forced to wait much longer to get home and dive in.

Box number one literally had me bouncing with joy. Seriously. For an extended period of time. On more than one occasion. It contained the box I’ve been been searching for for the last 15 years. My Great Great Grandfather , Louis Steinke, started a soda bottling works bearing his name at the tail end of the 1800s.  My great grandfather, William Louis Steinke took over the business in later years.  For most of my adult life, I’ve been on a quest to collect anything I can find bearing the family name. I’ve amassed a pretty complete collection of the different bottle styles that were used throughout the company’s history, at least in my family’s time running it and between my grandparent’s home and the lake house, we have a number of photos as well, but the one thing that’s always eluded me is a soda box. I’ve been pretty well convinced I wouldn’t find one ever. Tonight, I received one! Honest to God, jumped around in circles and squealed like a school girl.

The box I never thought I’d see

One of the next things unwrapped was the portrait of Uncle Harold above. This is remarkable in that one of the letters we read the other night talked of having his “bust” made because “I’m going to be famous one day so I may as well save time and money by having it made now”. For the randomness with which we read letters that first night it was amazing to have landed on that one out of the huge stack we’ve got. And unwrapping the portrait produced an even bigger surprise than the soda crate- the original brass stencils from my Great Great Grandfather’s days running the bottling works! I hadn’t even considered the possibility something like that would exist, let alone that I’d hold them in my hands!

Two Louis, One William blob top bottles

There was a collection of bottles as well.  The three blob top bottles are the oldest.  They are the only style I’ve ever seen with my great great grandfather’s brand and are the least common to find with the William L. logo.  There are 5 long neck bottles included as well.  Oddly none of these really produced much excitement as I’ve already collected at least one of each style. Often more as I’ve been a great kid sister and shared my duplicates with my big brother and nephew. The bottles are cool but the box and the stencils are my wow factor on the day.

Scrapbook. I wish we had Volume 1 as well

Another treasure from the boxes tonight is one of Uncle Harold’s scrap books from his days in Europe at the end of the war.  Unfortunately this appears to be volume 2 and we don’t have volume 1, but still another interesting glimpse of the young man I never knew during a very challenging period of time.

Cheese Boxes

Butter Churn

There is a lot of Borden’s memorabilia as well.  Uncle Harold began his career with the company in 1946, shortly after his discharge from the Army and return stateside.  And he remained with the company until his retirement. His career took him all over the US and into many foreign countries. Reading through the letters he received from so many in the cheese industry, it would appear he achieved his goal of being famous some day, at least within his own industry, and it’s amazing to read so many letters from so many people speaking to his role as leader, mentor and friend.  I wish I’d known  this man better while he was alive but I am so pleased to have the opportunity to visit with him now through these bits of history I am so glad someone thought to save and send my way.  I don’t get the sense that he was a pack rat, but it seems he understood the importance of knowing your own history and I’m excited for the chance to know more of mine.


3 responses to “A treasure chest of family history

  1. That is incredibly cool!!! It’s wonderful that you have such a rich family history.

    • I’m still giddy this morning over the soda crate! And I can’t wait to go through Uncle Harold’s letters home now that I have them in order. Though I gotta tell you, this is seriously cutting into my knitting time!

  2. Coolness! You know how I love family history stuff! That is awesome!

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