For this week’s Genealogy and Family History Community “Open Thread” I’m going to offer something completely different. I have no New England ancestors in my tree, so I’ll just have to “punt.” But I trust that this somewhat bizarre family story will be entertaining in its own way. Please follow me below the fold....
As a boy in St. Louis I heard quite a bit about my maternal grandmother’s father. Adolph Moll, or “A. Moll” (as he liked to be known), was a very successful grocer. His main Franklin Avenue store, shown below, is now the site of the city’s football stadium -- and thus has not existed on the site for many years.
Emma Friederike Hedwig (Ballaseus) Moll lived from 1843 to 1926. She was -- as is typical for most such immigrant women, I suppose -- overshadowed by her businessman husband. Here she is as a young married woman in the 1860s:
But I digress. My great-grandmother was for all intents and purposes just a name to me. I can’t remember hearing many stories about her. The one tale that does stand out, however, is the one about her reaction upon seeing her first peanut butter sandwich. When my mother came to the house with one in hand, she exclaimed: “Ach, du Lieber! Katzen Dreck!!” Taken literally, she must have thought my mother was eating cat sh*t spread between slices of bread. Immigrants, as we know, had a hard time in those days adjusting to their radically new environment....
Then there was the other mental image that was passed down to me by my Mom. The old woman took a great interest in her grandchildren, and watched them walk home from school each day from a second-floor window in her home. A somewhat more dignified memory....
One thing that did set her apart, though I didn’t ponder it much as a child, was that somewhat exotic maiden name, Ballaseus. I suppose I assumed it was originally a French name, as it was sometimes rendered by my family as “Ballaseaux” (and there are at least three other common spellings found in either Germany or America). But she didn’t come from France, she came from the Baltic province of East Prussia.
What I didn’t know as a child was that the name was really a Germanized version of what had been an Old Prussian surname. “Old Prussian,” as in a tribal group closely related to Lithuanians that had been subjugated by the Teutonic Knights centuries before. And so we really aren’t interested here in all of East Prussia, but just the northernmost parts that now belong to Russia as part of the Kaliningrad Oblast.
Specifically, I later learned that the family had lived for a century in a small village just west of the city of Insterburg, the village of Gaitzuhnen....
I’d like to tell you that I have established some contact with the family that remained in Germany, since I now know so much more about this branch of my tree than I did as a kid. Alas, the closest I can get is this:
But again, I digress! This diary isn’t so much about the German family as it is about one of the American immigrants from that family. And what a story it is! It’s too bad I don’t have the nice visuals to illustrate this part of it. You’ll just have to “paint the picture” in your head as you read on....
The common male ancestor that Manfred and I had five generations back was Kristions “Christian” Ballasejus, born in Gaitzuhnen in 1773 and married nearby in 1794 to a girl from another “Old Prussian” family. He was, by my count, the fourth generation of his line to serve as the appointed mayor of this farming village owned by the Prussian king. Kristions had at least three sons of whom I am aware, but the one who concerns me is my 2nd great-grandfather Johann Wilhelm Ballaseus (1803-1885). It is his daughter Hedwig who came to St. Louis in 1860 and married A. Moll.
Johann Wilhelm should have become, by virtue of inheritance, an appointed village mayor in Gaitzuhnen in replacement of his father. But it was not to be. As can be seen from his birth year, he had the misfortune of growing up during the period of the Napoleonic wars. And the clear implication is that the destiny of the family was changed forever by these overshadowing events. While his wife and (one-by-one) all of his children emigrated to America, this poor man never to my knowledge made that journey.
Seemingly haunted by what might otherwise have been, he chose to remain in Germany, becoming an Amtsmann (judicial court official) in Marienwerder. I do know that he lived at the Hezner Hotel (opposite the court building), which was a large enough structure that it ultimately became the site of a military academy. My impression was that this was a man struggling to project rectitude and importance -- very much the ideal Prussian!
He and his wife -- who hailed from Johannisburg in the Masurian lakes region of southern East Prussia -- had five children (two girls, followed by three boys), at least some of them christened in the Marienwerder cathedral, or so I was told by close relatives. The eldest daughter accompanied the mother to St. Louis in 1857, but on the way over fell in love with a sailor aboard the ship. As soon as he received his own ship to captain, the two of them were married and she returned to Germany.
That occasioned the call for the second daughter to venture across the Atlantic on her own -- my great-grandmother Hedwig! Not seven months after Hedwig married A. Moll, her mother died and Hedwig was the lone member of the family in this new country. How frightful that must have been for a young girl of 17 years of age!
The three sons stayed with their father for some time. Son #1 came over in 1865 as a sailor on his brother-in-law’s ship; he was only 14. Son #2 also came over as a sailor, but only at the somewhat advanced age of thirty in 1883. Son #3 did not wait so long, but arrived in St. Louis for his 15th birthday (in 1871) to live with his sister and work for his brother-in-law the grocer. It is the middle son we now wish to follow.
Alexander Franz Hugo Ballaseyus was born by one account in 1852 in the area of Stettin, Pommerania (now Szczecin, Poland). He was educated in the Stettin schools through age 17. Later he entered the Hamburg Musikakademie, where he studied under a famous lieder composer. But from 1869 through 1877 he was a sailor, serving on several ships and working his way up to a German Naval Reserve Commission as an Unterleutnant (Lieutenant junior grade). We know this because his seaman’s log was preserved by his family; it is mentioned in some detail in an article appearing in a 1986 issue of the Hawaiian Journal of History (of which more later).
We may think of this man as having followed a “career change” in his mid-Twenties, because once he chose to pursue studies at the Musikakademie it became clear from his next move that he intended to follow his musical interests in preference to the sea. For when he came to America in 1883, via New York, it was to travel on to Chicago to accept a position as a church organist. And four years later he moved to Vermillion, SD to assume the chairmanship of the music department at what would some day become the University of South Dakota. He was there about four years, during which time he was naturalized as an American citizen.
Franz Ballaseyus married a German-American girl in Hoboken, NJ at the close of 1890, and then spent the next four years as a professor of music at the Hollins Institute at Hollins in Roanoke County, VA. Following this they returned to Vermillion long enough for him to earn his baccalaureate degree from his former institution, in early 1897. Soon they were living in New York City, in Manhattan, where he was the organist for St. Peter’s Ev. Lutheran Church. After arriving in New York their third daughter was born, the first two having been born while at Vermillion and Hollins.
But now his prior calling as a sailor shifted his course once again. In entering the Spanish-American War, the U.S. Navy had a shortage of experienced seamen to send across the Pacific. With ocean-going experience and a commission in the German Naval Reserve, Franz had a needed background. And so it was that from June through late October, 1898, he served first as executive officer (Lt., j.g.) and then commander of the U.S.S. Piscataqua, an ocean-going tugboat.
This was no small vessel. Displacing 631 tons, it was fourth in size of the 39 commissioned tugs of 1900. [Largest was the U.S.S. Iroquois, at 702 tons.] At 1600 horsepower, it was second only to the 677-ton U.S.S. Potomac, at 2000 IHP, and with over twice the power of the #4 tug, at 750 IHP. The U.S.S. Piscataqua, like other such tugs of the day, was a single-screw, steel-hulled ship, and it carried four deck guns (rated as “secondary” guns). It was 149 feet long with a 12 foot draft and a crew of about 58 men.
With the quick American victory, however, his services were no longer needed. His second “naval career” came to an end almost as soon as it began, and Lt. F.A. Ballaseyus was honorably discharged from service on 23 October 1898. Still, the experience introduced a new musical horizon to him -- doubtless as a result of putting into port while traversing the Pacific to and/or from the Philippines.
“In July 1900 Ballaseyus accepted the musical director position at Oahu College (now Punahou School) in Honolulu. On September 13, 1900, the Ballaseyus family arrived in Honolulu. From 1900 to 1903, Ballaseyus worked for the college and lived on the college grounds. He also directed the Philharmonic Society, which had been founded in 1901.”And here began his mark on history, that which places him as the subject of a biographical note to the Ballaseyus Music Collection at the University of Hawaii Sinclair Library (from which this quote is taken).
“In 1902, the Honolulu Symphony Society began as a men’s only club of amateur players. Ballaseyus was the Society’s first musical director. He only served in 1902, being replaced after dissatisfaction amongst the board of directors with Ballaseyus’s leadership.”He wasn’t there long, it is true -- but long enough! The title of the scholarly journal article in which he receives significant coverage is: “Early Symphonic Music Organizations in Honolulu and Their Conductors.”
The further history of this man is much less grand. Quoting again:
“The Ballaseyus family moved to northern California and Ballaseyus worked as a high school music teacher in various locations. F.A. Ballaseyus died in 1922 in Alameda County California. He was survived by three children, one of which, Virginia, became involved in music as a composer.”
Sadly, there is some hint from further sources in California that either his marriage broke up or he may have become a bigamist. This is inferred through a 1908 marriage record in Red Bluff, CA that appears to name him. His last years were spent as a silent film piano accompanist in Berkeley, CA.
But the story doesn’t quite end there. It continues with his middle daughter, Virginia Emma Ballaseyus. As a composer, writer and educator, she merits mention in three editions of Who’s Who in American Women. She received a B.A. in Music from the University of California at Berkeley in 1915 before going on to play with the San Francisco Philharmonic.
Anya Laurence, author of Women of Notes: 1,000 Women Composers Born Before 1900, says of her:
“After studying with Darius Milhaud, she taught at the Merritt School in Oakland, California, for many years. Her works are listed in ASCAP, and include California, the state centennial theme song; Mother Goose on Parade (theme song of the children's village at the San Francisco World's Fair in 1939), and numerous other works.”She never married, and lived most of her life in Berkeley. As a newcomer to California, I take pride that my first cousin (twice removed) wrote my adopted state’s centennial theme song. And, if I should have grandchildren, I’m sure they’ll be equally proud to claim their cousin’s “Mother Goose on Parade.”
And so here, in brief, is the story of a small number of ancestors and relatives the existence of whom was totally unknown to me in my youth. How they could NOT have merited some comment escapes me, for truly -- truth is stranger than fiction....