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I wanted to share this family photo of Hermann Wegner with the community. Location: Springvale Twp., Fond du Lac Co., Wisconsin. Date: 1911.
Click here for the image details page or here for the full-sized version (4721 x 2897).
It's a photo we've had in the family photo collection probably since it was taken. On the back is written "Herman Wagner family, Brandon, Wis." My Dad said he was named after this man. My Grandpa Bill and Grandma Betty may have visited him in the early years of their marriage, but they never told my Dad much about the relationship. Dad always assumed that Herman was my Grandpa's sponsor when he immigrated from Germany in 1908.
So the photo sat in the drawer, year after year, along with all the other old photos. When I got into genealogy back in the early 90's I looked for a family connection. I looked for any 'Wagner' surname associated with my Grandpa Bill's family.
Now here's the thing. My Grandpa Bill was always tight lipped about his childhood. He was born illegitimate, the birth record we got from Potsdam where he was born lists no father. Apparently that was quite a stigma in those days. Worse, his mother either died or abandoned him. He seems to have grown up in an orphanage before being taken in by his grandmother, Wilhelmina (Goetsch) Wetzel.
In my 1990's research, scouring the church book in Greifenberg, Germany where Wilhelmina and family lived, I did uncover a 'probable sister' of Wilhelmina Goetsch Wetzel who 'married a Ferdinand Wegner'. I did not make a copy of that record, and I didn't run across any other reference to this Ferdinand. The surnames didn't exactly match, and Wegner/Wagner is a very common name, so I wrote it off as coincidence.
25 years passed and my genealogy interest faded, only reviving last fall when I began anticipating visiting Wisconsin on a hiking trip. I'd have a chance to dig into family history while I was there.
The most intriguing mystery to me has always been trying to unlock the mystery of my Grandpa Bill's past, so I pulled out my old disorganized file. There was that photo of 'Herman Wagner'. There was a 1958 letter from Grandpa Bill to me as an 11 year old doing a homework assignment. It was the only letter he ever wrote (my grandma Betty was the letter writer). I had asked him to tell me about 'Christmas in Germany' - and the way he described his experiences in that letter are the only evidence we have of his time in an institutional setting. Stashed along with that letter were a number of other letters sent to me at the time (1957 and 1958) when I was writing every one and asking for old postage stamps for my collection. In there was one written by my Grandma Betty that mentioned "We're going up to Brandon to visit Margaret Lange. She's Grandpa Bill's cousin".
Brandon? Cousin? I had not saved that letter for its genealogy content, it was just in the stash of old letters I had kept in a box because some of them still had old US stamps enclosed.
Okay. Who is this Margaret Lange? Is she a daughter of Herman Wagner? Is it possible that she's related to Grandpa Bill's unnamed father? A quick general search of records on Family Search showed Margaret Lange but no hints to her maiden name. Using various filters searching just using the given name Margaret I came across a Margaret Guenther. That name rang a bell. Grandpa Bill and Grandma Betty also visited Guenthers. Lo and behold, Margaret Guenther and Margaret Lange were born the same year. Margaret Guenther's mother was named Emma, but no surname given. Her father was Charles. Could Emma be the link? Or could Grandpa Bill's father have been a Guenther? Or was the connection between Margaret Lange and Margaret Guenther just a coincidence?
The clincher for that connection and the major breakthrough came when I returned to my files and found a newspaper clipping from 1938 about Charles Guenther's accidental death from a farm accident in Waupun, just a stones throw away from Brandon. It named his daughter as Mrs. William Lange. Better yet it gave his wife's surname: Emma Wagner! Bingo!
Armed with that I went back to the internet and uncovered Emma's mother was Johanna Goetsch! Double bingo. Johanna was the woman who married that Ferdinand Wegner who I had noticed back in the early 90's and her birth record named the same man as her father, Johann Goetsch, who is the father of Wilhelmina (Goetsch) Wetzel. They are indeed sisters.
So what about Herman Wagner in the photo? Is Emma his sister? There are several Herman Wagners in Fond du Lac County at the time, but Emma's father Ferdinand spelled his name with all e's. Once I widened my search to include that spelling I found the right one, spelled Wegner, living in Springvale Twp, right on the eastern outskirts of Brandon.
Herman appears in every census from the time he immigrated in the 1880's. Through those and his marriage record I was able to identify every person in the photo with certainty.
No longer was Herman Wagner a mystery man.
But what about Grandpa Bill's father? Well, that mystery remains. We had my Dad's y-DNA tested, and I'll continue to search. Stay tuned.