Saturday, August 27, 2016

Joseph L Stenger – Kickapoo, Illinois

My great grandfather, Joseph L Stenger turned 138 on August 25, 2016. (1) I only have very faint memories of him as he died when I was just four years old.  My maternal grandmother would take me with her to visit him in the nursing home and I would share my candy with him.  Wonder if he remembers that too?

He was born in a farm just south of Kickapoo, Illinois to Frank and Anna Maria Schmitt Stenger. (1)  He was a first generation immigrant whose parents had both come to the United States from Germany separately as children.  Joe was their eighth of nine children and their youngest son.  He would have grown up with not just his siblings but many cousins as well.  The Stenger and Schmitt families in Kickapoo were prolific and he would have found his school and church filled with many close and extended family members.

Figure 1 - Joseph L Stenger - First Communion

Lucy Loescher would have moved to Kickapoo from Peoria, Illinois with her parents in 1886 when Joseph L was about seven years old.  She was an infant at the time of her arrival in town.  Lucy’s parents ran several businesses in the area.  They both would have attended church and school at St Mary’s in Kickapoo so they certainly knew each other and their families well. 

Joe and Lucy married at St Mary’s Church in Kickapoo on 23 May 1905. (2) This was a “double ring” ceremony as Lucy’s older sister Mame married Bernard “Ben” Heinz on the same day.  In many families, the youngest son would normally be looking for a job or farm to live on away from their parents.  The older sons in the family tended to take on their father’s farms.  But in the Frank Stenger family, the older boys made their homes away from Kickapoo.  The oldest son went to Mendota, Illinois and then two others (along with a sister and brother in law) moved to Platte County, Nebraska in the 1890’s.

Figure 2 - Left to Right - Lucy Loescher, Joseph L Stenger, Mame Loescher, Bernard "Ben" Heinz on their wedding day
Joe’s remaining local brother Henry and his wife Emma took over their father’s farm while Joe and Lucy made their home just down the lane.  Today this is on the north side of the Kickapoo-Edwards exit on Interstate 74 in Illinois.  Lucy had seven children and one still born infant – Frank, Monica, Mary, Clementine, Joseph S, Rose and Florence.  Joe and Lucy’s children would walk to school about a mile each way into Kickapoo along with their Henry Stenger cousins.  It must have been wonderful when the weather was nice but the winters would have been hard.

Joe was not yet middle age by the time that both of his parents had died.  He was 32 years old when his mother died in 1910 and 40 when his father passed in 1918.  But, his mother-in-law, Rose Nufer Loescher was still going strong!  She was a seemingly larger than life figure in Kickapoo and especially in the lives of her children and grandchildren.  (See the end of this article for links to related blog posts about the Loeschers.)  In 1927 Rose Loescher had a will drawn up for herself.  There is nothing unusual about that as she had quite a bit of property and personal effects that would need to be disposed of when she died.  What is unusual I think is who she named to manage her estate and be responsible for the probate process.  Rose had eight children.  Her oldest and only son, Frank A Loescher would have been the natural choice as her executor.  But she went down a different path.  Her will names two executors – her son Frank A and her son-in-law, Joseph L Stenger (3). 

This designation is interesting to me in a couple of ways.  First there is the issue of a mother publicly indicating in her will that her oldest and only son was likely not up to the task of settling his mother’s estate without help.  But given that she felt the need to provide some assistance to her son in the role of executor why did Rose select Joe Stenger?  She had six son-in-laws at the time she drafted her will.  (One son-in-law was deceased.)  Joe Stenger was not the son-in-law with the most money or property nor did he live the closest to Rose.  Maybe he got along the best with Frank A?  Maybe it was done because her son lived in Peoria and Joe was local?  Or, maybe Joe was the son-in-law she had the most trust in.  Isn’t that a highly valued trait when looking for an executor of your will?  Or maybe….it was all of these factors.

I asked my great aunt (daughter of Joe and Lucy) about why her father would have been named as executor in his mother-in-law’s will.  Aunt “F” was not surprised to hear about this.  She indicated that Joe and Lucy were both very close to Rose and that Rose relied on them and trusted them in many things.  When Rose passed in 1938 Joe would have spent many hours in court proceedings, managing the businesses Rose had at the time of her death (including a farm) and selling her property.  This would not have been easy given he had his own farm to tend to and family to feed.

What of Joe’s relationship with his own siblings especially after his parents had passed? His next oldest brother Henry lived very close by and the two families would have seen a good deal of each other as they went about working on their respective farms and through school and church.  The oldest Stenger brother, Jacob, made his life in Mendota, Illinois and would come to visit periodically.  But four of the Stenger siblings went to Nebraska at various times in the 1890’s and raised their families on the Great Plains. 

No doubt there was a great deal of correspondence that went back and forth between Kickapoo and the various Nebraska counties that the Stenger siblings settled in.  But we also know they visited.  We know that the Nebraska siblings and their children made trips back to Kickapoo and later on when automobile travel became common we see the Kickapoo family visiting in Nebraska also.  Yes….Joe and Lucy actually made it out of the state of Illinois to visit Stenger family in Nebraska.  My mom recalls that Joe and Lucy would have family gathers which included the Peoria County based siblings of Joe’s also.  The Svymbersky’s of Peoria and the Schlink’s and Volz’s no doubt were in attendance.

My mother remembers that her grandfather made wine.  I assume this is a skill that Joe would have learned growing up from him immigrant parents.  We can suppose that the knowledge for this must have come over with his parents from Germany.  On special occasions Joe would bring out his small tray of small classes with his latest batch of wine for his guests to sample.

In May 1955, Joe and Lucy celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.  Mame and Ben Heinz were also both alive and a very large and multi-day celebration took place at Silver Lead just east of Kickapoo for this “double” anniversary party.  My mother recalls that there was a lot of preparation for this big event and that it was the talk of the family for some time to come.

Figure 3- Lucy and Joseph L Stenger - 50th Wedding Anniversary
Eventually, Joe and Lucy decided it was time to retire from the farm and move into Kickapoo.  They sold their farm as none of their children were interested in working it.  They moved to a very small house just down the street from the Loescher saloon (where Lucy grew up).  There was a kitchen, living room, two bedrooms and a small basement.  Although not very big that did not stop them from hosting family gatherings.  There was a long table in the basement for the men to eat and the kids would find spots where ever they could find room.  The women would eat in the kitchen and living room after everyone else had been tended to.

Their retirement years were no doubt lean (as their young family life had been) but they always seemed to get by.  In the early 1960’s Joe had a stroke and although Lucy tried to care for him at home it was just to much.  He spent his last few years in a nursing home in Peoria.  Joe died on 31 December 1966 and is buried in St Patrick’s Cemetery in Kickapoo just a few yards away from his parents and grandparents. (4)  He was a kind and gentle spirit that lives on today in his remaining daughters.  We recently had a family reunion in Kickapoo of the descendants of Joe and Lucy Loescher Stenger and it is obvious that Joe’s gentle spirit lives on in them as well.

Copyright ©2016 – Diane Minor – All Rights Reserved.

Related Posts - 

(1) Baptismal Register of St. Mary's Church, Kickapoo, Illinois, digital image, (Peora, Illinois:  Catholic Diocese of Peoria), 15 Sep 1878, "Lawrence Joseph Stenger".
(2) Peoria County, Illinois, marriage certificate, Joseph L Stenger and Lucy Loescher, 23 May 1905, Peoria County Clerk, Peoria.
(3) Peoria County Circuit Court, Peoria County, Illinois, probate file no. J788, Rose Loescher; Peoria County Circuit Clerk.
(4) Peoria County, Illinois, death certificate no. 93688 (31 Dec 1966), Joseph L Stenger, Peoria County Clerk, Peoria.