In The History of Early Pioneer Families of Winedale, vol II, Grandpa Henry writes:
“When (our foremothers) came to America, they had very little food, clothing, and shelter. They built log houses for shelter and open fires for warmth in winter…. they had back-breaking household chores and many worked along with their husbands raising crops and food for the winter. In hot or cold weather, they had their work to do. A bitterly cold winter morning was wash day. Outside on a wooden bench was a row of wooden tubs with cold water, and nearby there was a black pot with water and homemade soap that boiled over an open fire with the family laundry in it. The mother’s job was to scrub, pound, beat, and boil the family laundry until the cloth was clean and her hands were chapped and raw. Seasons changed from cold to hot. Stifling, muggy days in midsummer brought ripe vegetables that needed to be canned right away. All day the women stood over hot, wood-burning stoves. Everything had to be canned fresh out of the garden so that the families would have food in the winter. Many of these mothers were pregnant and had to carry the extra weight and pain doing their daily chores.”
Alvine Tonn was born on February 15, 1872 in Puderwitz Posen, Germany. She was the daughter of Gustav and Wilhelmine Tonn nee Hinze. She immigrated to the United States between 1887 and 1889 (census records provide conflicting dates and ship manifests are unavailable) along with her siblings Emma and Paul, who were both under 7 years old. She went to work as a domestic for Peter and Regina Jaeger, who were both relatively well to do, on account of Peter’s position with the ox-freight line.
At the time Alvine left her home in Germany, women had few rights. Married women were under legal guardianship of their husband and those who were unmarried were under guardianship of the nearest male relative. German women could not attend universities or work in most professions. Even marriage was a struggle, and couples could not be legally married unless they had sufficient money, goods, or permanent residency. Thus, many young women sought to leave Germany for a life in which they could work, own land, and marry freely. It was not uncommon for young women to work as domestics in the homes of German families who were already living in the United States. These work arrangements were made prior to the woman leaving her homeland. The family paid her way to the United States and she worked in their home to pay off her fare. At the age of 21, she would be freed from her debt.
On February 20, 1893, just five days after her 21st birthday, Alvine married Peter and Regina’s son Henry with Pastor Jacob Graul officiating.
Henry and Alvine’s wedding photograph
Alvine and Henry lived on Peter Jaeger’s homestead and managed the farm until 1899 when they purchased the von Bieberstein farm. They moved onto the farm in 1900 along with Emma and Paul Tonn. Their main crops were corn, sorghum cane, cotton, and feed for cattle. Henry and Alvine lived in a beautiful five-bedroom home, which stands to this very day. Together they raised seven children (their first child, Alma, was born on July 28, 1894 and lived for one day. Their last child Helmuth was stillborn on January 11, 1919). Alvine was a member of Winedale Lutheran Church and was described as an earnest Christian who practiced her religion throughout her daily life.
Like most rural German immigrants of her time, Alvine spoke minimal English and faced challenges assimilating to a foreign culture. She was expected to be strong, resilient in both body and soul, have lack of consideration for herself and a friendly obligingness to others. Her time spent as a domestic for Peter and Regina Jaeger as well as cultural conditioning from her German upbringing certainly equipped her with the skills needed to make frontier success possible for her own family. Alvine was a small statured woman, not even reaching her husband’s shoulder. When I look at the snapshots passed down in our family, I cannot begin to imagine such a physically small person managing such a large farm, especially with children underfoot.
Alvine, Henry, their daughter Elsie, and her son Earl, Feb 24, 1918
Alvine’s children are no longer living and only one of her grandchildren is with us. Joyce Schkade, daughter of Henry Teuffel and Elsie Teufell nee Jaeger, shared that each summer, she, her mother, her Aunt Ida, and Ida’s son Emmett visited the Jaeger farm. She looked forward to visiting her “Summer Grandma” and can still picture her coming out of the porch and into the yard to welcome them. Being a child from the city, Joyce did not fully understand why her grandmother could not play and talk with her much. But she was in awe of her grandmother’s ability to accomplish the many tasks of managing a family and a farm. Looking back, she realizes that her grandmother was not uncaring, rather, she was exhausted. Children were not as much of a novelty as they might be to a grandmother from the city. And what little time was left over after chores was divided among many children, grandchildren, and other relatives helping on the farm.
Although Joyce did not have the opportunity to know her grandmother well, she recalls the time that she stood in the kitchen watching her grandmother cook. The conversation was short and there was little interaction between the two. Many people were coming in from the field and Joyce walked out of the kitchen. She remembers vividly seeing her grandmother enter the dining room with a large platter of 15-20 ears of golden corn. The bright yellow corn was so beautiful and so lovely that Joyce did not want people to eat it!
Alvine passed away at home on March 7, 1936. Joyce describes her mother talking to Ida and calling up to the farm frequently to check in on Alvine’s health. When it became clear that she was not getting better, Ida, Elsie, Joyce, and Emmett drove from Port Arthur to Brenham. She remembers from a child’s point of view the nervousness and concern as they made their way in the rain to their grandparent’s farm. The children did not understand that grandma might pass away. Once their car made it to Mill Creek, they spotted a friendly farmer in his field and asked if the bridge was passable and if Alvine was still alive. They were relieved to get an affirmative response to both questions. At the house, Joyce was allowed to see her grandmother for a few minutes. Alvine, who looked so tiny in the bed, took Joyce’s hand and smiled. The children were sent out and Alvine passed away soon afterwards.
My research for this biography led me to the Portals of Texas website where I found a lengthy obituary for Alvine. The obituary, written more like a news column, describes a beautiful affair, with music, flowers, and many mourners. Pastor Brunotte conducted funeral rites at the house and the family processed to the Jaeger Witte Cemetery. The casket was first, followed by the pastor, and finally family and friends. Joyce and Emmet led the procession of family and friends since they were the oldest grandchildren. Joyce laughingly remembers walking one step ahead of Emmett so that she could be “first.” The Round Top church choir sang hymns both at the house and at the grave site, and the family surrounded the Alvine’s grave with a great multitude of flowers.
I admire Alvine for living a life I can only imagine. She had many opportunities such as managing her own farm, home, and family that she would not have had, had she stayed in Germany. Grandpa Henry writes, “It isn’t enough to say farm women lived tough lives. They did. But their spirits were tough too.” Each day Alvine met the challenges of farm work and motherhood with grace and humility. She was rewarded with an adoring family and a legacy of love
Henry C. Jaeger oversaw construction of cradles around his parents’ graves.
The Jaeger Witte Heritage Cemetery Association oversees the continued care and maintenance of Alvine and Henry’s graves
For more information on the experiences of strong women from Germany, visit: