Grandma Gorndt

Home Memorial Writings Photo Album Links

Grandma Gorndt

John's maternal Grandmother was Catherine Gorndt--always "Grandma" to John, "Nana" to Jane and our children. She was born Catherine Schindler, in Chicago in1869, the year the Union Pacific golden spike was driven at Promontory, Utah, first joining Chicago and the East with Pacific tidewater at Sacramento. At that time the Chicago metropolitan area had a total population of about 400,000 (compared with a few scattered hundreds 40 years earlier and 7 million a century later!). It had just overtaken St. Louis as metropolis of the West and was, in percentage terms, the fastest growing major city in the world.

Her family were among the tens of thousands of German immigrants who settled in the city in the 1850s and 1860s. The family lived on what is now the near north side, perhaps 6 or 8 blocks from where the Merchandise Mart today marks the northwest corner of downtown. She had an older brother, William, and a younger sister, Mamie. She once told me that her earliest memory was the night of the Chicago fire (summer of1871), She recalled the brilliant, flickering red glow in the sky as square miles of the city burned south of the Chicago river, and she recalled her parents and neighbors burying valuables in fear that the fire would jump the river and reach their neighborhood. Indeed it did jump the river, but it stopped just short of their district. Another of her early memories was the placement of water and sewer mains in the street in their block, and the resulting removal of the hand pump and privy in the back yard. She recalled a small vegetable garden and a few fruit trees in their yard, and some of the neighbors still kept a cow for milk, cream, and butter.

She married Robert Gorndt when she was very young. Her daughter, Maude (my mother), was born in 1888, when Grandma was only 19. Robert, Jr., was born a few years later. Robert, Sr., was evidently in poor health for some time, and she was widowed when the children were small. My mother was perhaps in 7th grade, her brother, Bob, several years behind that. They lived in a flat near North Avenue, a couple of miles northwest of downtown. Grandma worked as a seamstress to support the children. She used to tell stories of her work sewing baseballs and gloves for Mr. A. G. Spalding--eventually to become the leading brand name in American sporting goods--in his upstairs factory in the neighborhood; and my mother used to talk about running errands to the nearby butcher shop of Oscar Mayer--eventually one of the country's leading meat packers.

The kids had to go to work, of course, to help support the household. Bob began to peddle newspapers and magazines when he was in grade school; and my mother dropped out of school after 8th grade to work as a clerk at the Western Electric telephone equipment plant on the west side. It made all of the switching equipment and phones for the entire U.S. market and was then reputed to be the largest factory in the world, with between 20,000 and 30,000 workers.

Uncle Bob was apparently a hard-working and likeable kid, and his experience selling newspapers and magazines led him eventually to a career as a salesman in the wholesale paper business. My mother learned some stenographic skills and worked in the Western Electric office from about 1902 until she was married in 1916. She had some close friendships among the thousands of young women who worked there. I recall them in later years--especially Agnes (Meyer). Ann (Jernberg), Della (Erickson). and Bess (Hillyer). They kept in touch and continued to refer to one another as "the girls" into the 1950s. A number of snapshots in the albums Jane has compiled show "the girls", sometimes with boy friends, mostly at their favorite summer lake vacation places around Pentwater, in soutwestern Michigan.

Meanwhile, Grandma must have continued to do sewing and housework, and the three-job household managed to live respectably in their flat on the north side. It is my impression that they moved at least once, from the neighborhood around North Avenue, and followed the expanding frontier to newer quarters farther north. I'd guess that they got into the 2000s on Ashland Avenue during those years. By coincidence, that's the area where Evelyn Borchert worked as a waitress and lived with the family of her Cuban-Mexican boy friend, Greg Ortega, in the early 1990s. The flats were typically 3-story walk-ups, brick-faced, in keeping with the post-Chicago-fire regulations. There were also many residual frame flat buildings. I recall as a small boy (early-mid 1920s) visiting Grandma's Schindler cousins who lived closer to downtown and closer to the north branch of the river in what seemed to me to be pretty dingy two story duplexes and fourplexes. One of the relatives lived on Larabee Street, just north of North Avenue, very near where grand-daughter Kimberly Anderson lived in the late 1990s.

Grandma's sister, Mamie, married James Curry, another life-long Chicagoan, son of an Irish immigrant family. Aunt Mamie and Uncle Jim also lived on the north side, a couple of miles farther out in newer neighborhoods. They had two sons--Hayden and Harold--about my mother's age. I did not know those two; and I believe both were in rather poor health and died in their twenties or thirties. They had been drafted into the army before World War I and had served along the Mexican border during the "war scare" at the time of the Pancho Villa uprisings around 1916.

I remember Uncle Jim as slight, intense, chain-smoking, slightly stooped, liked by a very wide circle of acquaintences in a wide socio-economic range, limited formal education but articulate and knowledgeable in the ways of the big city. Like my Uncle Bob Gorndt, he had been a news peddler from the time he was a waif on the street. He had worked up from peddler to distributor. In my early memories he was well-established in the magazine distribution business, supplying dozens of small "news and tobacco" shops, typical of that time. His territory covered the north and northwest sides of the city, but not the emerging suburbs. He drove Buicks and liked to take Mamie's less affluent sister from the city and her more rural--and also less affluent--niece and grand-nephew from Crown Point out riding in the Buick. But I recall vividly he would never cross the city limits. To my great frustration, he always turned back at Howard Avenue on the north or Harlem Avenue on the west as though he had met a stone wall. And I don't think he ever came to Crown Point to visit us. He was strictly a Chicagoan.


Grandma continued to live in her flat after my mother married in 1916. For the first couple of years my mother and dad lived in the same neighborhoood; and Uncle Bob continued to live with her, while he was becoming established in the paper business. Our household moved from Chicago to Crown Point in the spring of 1919, but Dad introduced his nephew, Ernest F. Borchert, to Grandma in 1920. Ernie then roomed with Grandma and perhaps Uncle Bob (Bob might have moved when he married in August 1921) in her flat on the north side while he was working in Chicago in 1920-21.

Ernie was the son of my Dad's oldest brother, Rudoph, who lived in Holdrege, Nebraska. Ernie was about 24 years old when he came to Chicago to work. He had enlisted in the army in 1917, while a student at the University of Nebraska. He was discharged as a corporal in November, 1918, and returned to Lincoln to enroll in the ROTC and complete his degree. He got his BS in Civil Engineering in 1918 or 1919, and was commissioned a lst Lt in the Corps of Engineers reserve. I believe he was the first member of my dad's family to get a college degree, and the only one until I graduated from DePauw in 1941. He came to Chicago to work for a concrete construction firm in 1920. Ernie would see my dad and mother frequently and became a close friend of my Uncle Bob. Incidentally, Ernie was already pursuing his hobby of fancy diving and met future Olympic champion Johnny Weismuller at that time. Both swam at the Northside Natatorium and critqued each other's diving. Ernie dove in the national AAU competition at Detroit in 1922, where Weismuller first distinguished himself nationally. (Incidentally, when Jane and I and the kids were passing through Holdrege in the summer of 1964, Ernie, at age 80, took us to the municipal pool and put on a demonstration of high diving!)

My earliest recollection of Christmas was, I believe, at Grandma's flat. My parents went up there from Crown Point, and there was a gift opening on Christmas eve. While my mother, giggling, kept me in hiding in the back hallway, my Uncle Bob set off an alarm clock for simulated sleigh bells and made an enormous racket in the living room to simulate Santa's descent of the chimney flu of the heating stove. This was probably in 1921, when I was 3 years old. Aunt Mary, his new wife, must have been in on that celebration, too.

Uncle Bob married Mary Costello in August 1921. I recall her as a dark, handsome, cheerful, outgoing and well-spoken Irish girl. Mary was, of course, Catholic, and this produced some concern on the part of Grandma, my mother, and my dad--although all three were fallen away Lutherans, at best. Bob and Mary moved into their own apartment--still in the same north side neighborhood.

I believe that about that time Grandma dissolved her own household and went to live and work as housekeeper for Chicago Mayor William E. Dever (1862-1929). Dever became mayor in 1923.and served until1927, when he was succeeded by the famous William "Big Bill" Thompson. Thompson served from1927 to 1931, preceding Anton Cermak, who died of gunshot in the aborted attempt to assasinate Franklin D. Roosevelt in Chicago in 1932. I am uncertain of Dever's party affiliation. On the one hand, since he served during the Coolidge years, it seems likely that he was a republican; yet for some reason I associate him as a democrat. This could easily be checked out. I recall only one visit to the mayor's house during that period. My mother had me wear my best shoes, pants, sweater and tie. The place seemed a forbidding, Victorian style mansion. Grandma met us at the door, and we visited with her in the parlor. In retrospect I have wondered how Grandma found her way from what seemed like obscurity in one of Chicago's vast array of lower-middle class neighborhoods to the mayor's mansion. I wonder if Uncle Jim Curry helped her make the connection.

When Grandma ended her work at the mayor's home, I think she came to live with us in Crown Point. It was about the time my mother was pregnant with my younger brother, Bill, who was born in 1925. I was about 7 years old. I remember her presence as jovial and helpful. She used a number of "low-Dutch" slang expressions to describe the behavior of my friends and me. I've never found them in the German dictionary so do not know their proper spellings, if indeed they had any! I can only use a combination of German and English phonetics. My overweight friend across the street was always "schwulsock". If I came in from the sandbox wet and dirty, I was a "peltz". If I stumbled, I was a "dullbotch". And if I walked in a careless or slouching way, I was a "hulsbuck". If I failed to suppress a belch at the table, I was a "Suhl". The worst thing to be was a "dreckfink", which no one would translate in my presence. Of course, those are the elements of a foreign language most easily remembered. I used them sometimes when our children were young, and to some degree they still persist in our family.

A year or so after my brother was born, Grandma went to join her brother and sister-in-law, Will and Molly Schindler, in California. Will had worked in the Chicago post office and had retired some time in the 1920s. They were in the vanguard of mid-Western retirees to Pasadena. In one of the albums Jane assembled from snapshots we salvaged from my mother's belongings, there are several pictures of Grandma, Will, Molly, and Aunt Mamie in their California days. They lived the southern California life. Will had a Ford; and the Pacific Electric traction lines went everywhere. She sent back short accounts of picnics, sightseeing in the mountains, orange groves, Catalina, the harbor, Hollywood. Will lived in a small bungalow in the 700 block of (South?) El Molino Avenue in the central area of Pasedena. Jane and I found the block in the 1980s but were uncertain of the house. The area was then embedded in central Pasadena's lower-middle value Afro-American district.

Grandma made one or two trips back to the midwest through the 1920s. She travelled at different times on the Rock Island-Southern Pacific's Golden State Limited, the Grand Canyon Limited of the Santa Fe, the Burlington-Rio Grande-Western Pacific route, and returned once via the Pacific Northwest on the Milwaukee Road Olympian. She collected colorful brochures on the trains, the routes, and places she had seen--the Grand Canyon, Royal Gorge, Salt Lake, Hollywood and 1920s southern California, the Sierras. I studied them until they were dog-eared and, in fact, still have a couple of items retrieved when Jane and I cleaned out my mother's house in the late 1960s. She shifted her place of residence more than once between California, Chicago (where she could live with Aunt Mamie after Uncle Jim died), and Crown Point. There might also have been an interlude with Uncle Bob Gorndt, Aunt Mary, and their family in their home in suburban Glen Ellyn, Illinois. But that would have been brief, because of crowding with their three adolescent daughters. In fact, her being mainly the ward of our household seemed to be something of a sore point between my mother and dad, and also between my parents and Uncle Bob and Aunt Mary.

Grandma eventually drew old-age welfare payments from Lake County; so she had her own minimal personal budget though she depended on my parents for room and mainly, if not entirely, for board. After my dad died in 1950, she lived with my mother until her death in 1964 at the age of 95. I recall her as still erect, nice-looking and spirited, although in her last decade or so she had become more reclusive. She had become a Christian Scientist during her California years then a follower of the "Unity" faith and spent a lot of time reading Unity religious tracts in her last years. How many transplants to California were part of the breakaway religious revivals that were, in turn, part of the breakaway culture of the region? Indeed, her life was a remarkable vignette of her times.










Notes later:

(1) From U. S. Census manuscript records which Jane perused on one trip when she accompanied me to Washington. I infer that these are from the 1900 census. She copied a reference "Cook county, Vol 49, ED 673, Chicago, Hudson Avenue, Sheet 5, line 62.

Gorndt, Robert, born Aug 1866

Catherine (W) born Sept 1870

Maud (D) born April 1890

George (S) born Dec 1984


Robertís occupation: leather cutter

State of birth of Robert and Catherine: Illinois

Country of birth of all of their parents: Germany

The younger child, George, was my Uncle Bob. In all of his business and property records when I was growing up, he was Robert J. Gorndt. My mother and dad, and grandma, would sometimes address him as George, especially when I was smaller. But I always assumed it was a nick-name.

Note that the dates of birth of my mother and grandmother do not agree exactly with the dates in the memoir. The dates I used are those always used by mom and grandma in conversations that I heard.









Back Home Up Next