Searching for ancestors may be compared to
hiking in the woods on a sunny May morning
looking for morels. They too are hidden, sometimes
under layers of fallen leaves; among
flowers or grass; peeking out at the base of
a tree, and at times they seem to pop up out
of nowhere. After you found a few, you were
encouraged to look for more. You walked and
walked, never tiring for you felt certain there
would be more around the next tree. Your reward,
a blush of brown under the leaves, or a
tiny gleam of white pushing out of the ground.
You parted the leaves, and there under the
groundcover was another morel.
So it is in searching for our roots. At
times we waver in zeal, and then one morning
the mailman delivers a letter with a snapshot
enclosed. A fellow genealogist has thoughtfully
sent a colored photo of your great-grandfather's
tombstone found located in a cemetery
in Ohio. You too have searched in that area,
only to now learn you were but a few miles from
locating his grave.
There may be a letter giving a clue to a
Civil War veteran, or information regarding a
relative buried in Keokuk, Iowa. Then too,
the best information may come from a kind friend
in Sacramento, California who knows of your
interest in genealogy. All are rewards of your
persistence in tracking down a clue, however,
the most important ones may be hidden right
under your own roof.
There is always something mysterious about
attics and the contents of old chests and trunks. In a dilapidated condition, they are usually locked and hidden away in dusty
corners, with their contents waiting for you
to lift the cover and search.
The attic of our country farmhouse had,
if the door was left open, enough light
to scrounge around in the semi-darkness to find
all kinds of interesting things.
In autumn when Mamma and Papa were out in
the field husking corn, Naomi and I planned a
day of adventure. We decided to rummage through
the contents of an old hand-made wooden chest.
Its exterior was padded with cotton batten and
covered with a rose colored, patterned chintz
fabric. We pulled and tugged to open the attic
door and started our search.
The hinges squeaked as we lifted the cover.
We could hardly wait to see the contents as we
knelt on the rough floor to start our investigation.
On the top were dainty pink and blue
baby clothes: booties, bibs, dressing sacques,
pinning blankets, a christening dress, hand
crocheted bonnets, and a precious white bunting,
quilted with blue yarn, and tied with ribbon. Today it rests safe and secure in our local
historical society along with Mamma's
Naomi In Her Christening Dress
Next we found a tambourine, small, dark,
face masks and masquerade costumes, all carefully
folded and packed in neat stacks. We
picked them up, examined them and studied the
styles. And then came Mamma's wedding dress.
What a gorgeous creation, hand made, with rows
of neat tucks, and trimmed with fine lace.
She must have looked lovely on her wedding
day. The next layer revealed gloves in all
colors, along with several lacy fans.
A delightful fragrance eminated from the
chest. Its source, the contents of little
cloth bags of lavender, a chain of tiny black
beads made from crushed rose petals and small
bars of home-made soap, scented with the blossoms
Rose Petal Beads "Mamma" Made
The next layer was even more intriguing.
Papa's swallow tail coat and his black derby
were on top of several celluloid collars, a
white shirt with black pin stripes, and a small
box of collar buttons. We turned aside from
the odor of a crushed cigar left in the pocket
of his vest.
Under Papa's clothing were copies
of The Delineator, a fashion magazine to which
Mamma subscribed. From it she copied
designs for her dresses and hats.
We grew tired of paging through cook books,
bundles of tax receipts, letters tied up with
ribbon, autograph books with worn pages, and
were about to re-pack the entire contents of
the chest and return to playing with our paper
dolls, when we noticed something on the very
bottom, wrapped in a clean white cloth. Unfolding
the wrapper, we discovered a large
brown book. Two clasps had previously closed
its hand-tooled leather covers; one was broken
and its torn remnants revealed a filling of
old newspapers. The other firmly closed the
What had we found? It was a Book of
Sermons. We opened the covers, turned the
first page and read: "A wedding gift to Conrad
Friesch and his wife Rosina Catharina Wandelen,
in memory of their wedding day November 22,
1814." Friesch! Why that was Grandpa and
Grandma's name too.
Naomi and I became budding genealogists at
that very moment, though we did not realize
it. We attempted to read the fine German
script which covered every inch of the front
and back pages of the large book. Scanning
them carefully, the only word we could decipher
was "Napoleon." We concluded we must be French.
We looked at each other, both with dark skin
and dark wavy hair, and asked, "Were the French
dark skinned people?" We always thought we
were German. Almost reverently, the old book
was re-wrapped and returned to the chest, along
with Papa's clothes and Mamma's treasures.
In a few short years Mamma passed away, and
we moved into a new home in the little village,
never having asked her the answer to our questions. We knew from the careful way Papa handled
the old chintz covered chest, that he too
valued its contents.
Years passed, and as young ladies busy enjoying life, we forgot the chest for we were
not interested in our ancestors. Each year at
house-cleaning time we went to the attic, but
gave only a glance at the chest before shoving
it back into a dusty corner.
Naomi and I both married. I had two lovely
daughters, and then, one day looking at my
children for family resemblance, I began to
think of our ancestral background. Suddenly
the old book in the chest became important to
me - the baby clothes, the costumes. Mamma's
wedding dress, and what was more important, the
old Book of Sermons. It had now been transferred
to my cedar chest along with my own
precious possessions. If Mamma placed value
on it, so had I.
A dear friend, the pastor of my childhood
church, was a former professor of languages in
Germany. He very kindly took the time to translate
the faded handwriting from German into
English. What a revelation! Along with birth,
marriage and death dates of great-grandfather' s
family was the following hand-written, short
These few words tell the story of one common
German who had been forced to fight for the
French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte.
As a child, I remember hearing my grandparents
telling of his experience in escaping
from the Russian castle where he was imprisoned.
Apparently the prisoners were allowed to bathe
and wash their clothing in the waters of the
moat surrounding the castle. Great-grandfather
and another prisoner made their escape by
swimming out through one of the drains of the
They began their long trek home on foot, returning
to their homes a year later.
Half starved and ill with tuberculosis, he
arrived home to learn that his family was making
plans to emigrate to America.
A biography of one of his sons tells that
the family emigrated about 1829, "coming directly
to Wayne County (Ohio) and settling in
Congress township, where Conrad followed the
shoe-making trade." Here he remained until his
death 5 months before Grandpa's birth.
After entering the date of his death in the
Book of Sermons, my great-grandmother, Anna
Barbara, sister of Conrad's deceased first
wife, wrote the following verse:
"What God ordains is always good
No wrong his will intendeth.
In wisdom he directs my course
And all my trouble endeth.
Why should I fear when he is near,
Tho need and want o'ertake me,
He never will forsake me."
The remains of my great-grandfather are interred
in a small cemetery in Congress township, across the road from the former location
of the Yellow Creek Church.
We are indebted to the kind genealogist in
Ohio who discovered his burial place, photographed
his tombstone, and sent the picture
and information to us.
Our search in the old chest in the attic
many years ago revealed a wealth of information
and positive proof of our ancestry. It
will be passed down to our children, who will
preserve it for future generations so they too will know about
the "days of yesteryear."
Again the old axiom, "Seek And Ye Shall
Find," has proven true, and we feel fortunate
that our search led us to "Hidden Treasure" in
the old "Book Of Sermons."
"Treasures To Behold"
Copyright © 2000 Bruce DeBoer
Used with permission of the composer