A Thrifty Family’s Legacy: The Waterloo Area Farm Museum

The Waterloo Area Farm Museum, ten miles northwest of Chelsea, is a living monument to a memorable immigrant family.
Johannes and Frederica Seybold, together with her two children from a previous marriage, arrived in 1844. With money from the sale of their house and property in Swabia in southwest Germany, they bought an eighty-acre farm and log cabin from Englishman James Goodwin. Over the years, with hard work and thrift, the family built the showplace ten-room brick house (more than 2,200 square feet) that is now the museum.
One of the founders of the museum, Hattie Beckwith, born in 1910, was the wife of the family doctor in Stockbridge. Before she died, she told me much of the history of the farm’s owners.
In 1862, Seybold’s stepson, twenty-four-year-old Johann Jacob (“Jake”) Rühle, enlisted to fight in the Civil War. He signed his name “Realy,” which is how “Rühle” is pronounced by Swabians. He was one of a half-million men of German descent who fought in the two-million-strong Union army.
Jake Realy fought at Wilderness, Spot sylvania, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, and Fort Stedman. Seriously wounded at Horseshoe Bend, Kentucky, he was assigned light duty until war’s end. He carried a bullet in his left lung the rest of his life.
Johannes Seybold died in 1865, and his widow, Frederica, eventually deeded the farm over to Realy and the neighbor he married in 1868, Catharine Archenbronn.
A “bond of maintenance” spelled out in detail the care that Realy and his wife would provide Frederica in exchange for the farm. The contract, popular among Germans, ensured the widow had her independence. Clauses specified the particular two rooms Frederica was permitted to occupy and the part of the cellar she could use for storage. Son and daughter-in-law were to take care of her two cows, provide water, stove wood, and specified amounts of wheat, pork, cider, apples, potatoes, and oats. Realy would also plow the middle third of the kitchen garden for his mother each year.
Jake worked his family hard. Two daughters married and left home, but four sons and daughter Sophia helped with the farm work even as adults. Their father also opened a cider mill, and the family prospered: the Realys got a phone in 1901 and bought a piano in 1903. They had guns for hunting. Peacocks walked their grounds. Sophia was proud of her beautiful china but so frugal she wore shoes with holes in the soles.
Her father set the tone for typical Swabian thrift. For a long time he refused to have a water pump installed in the kitchen, feeling it was a luxury. The four boys bought a Carter car in 1912, and it lasted the rest of their lives. After a monthly trip to town, they’d jack the car up to preserve the tires.
Neighbor Martin Hannewald, born in 1913, said the Realys always used Wood Company farm equipment. Long after the company went out of business and parts became unavailable, the Realys kept the machinery working, repairing it themselves. The Realy boys only got haircuts during the waning phase of the moon, believing that kept their hair from growing back as quickly.
Like other Swabian farmers, the Realys made use of everything. They even harvested the hay growing in marshes. They spread it on fields where cattle were put out to feed. Hannewald recalled, “You could see next summer that corn was two feet higher.”
Though they worked hard, the Realys did not cut short their leisure time. When the dinner bell rang, they’d stop work, no matter how many people were waiting to have apples pressed at the cider mill. One time, the township treasurer stopped by to collect on a tax bill. The Realys kept him sitting until they were through with dinner.
At the mill, the Realys kept their gasoline engine in another building, so the odors wouldn’t get in the cider. But they had no use for state health regulations. Hannewald recalled that when the state required all apples be washed before being processed, the Realys spit and sputtered and swore in German. “We don’t want water in the cider,” he recalled them saying. “We want just apple juice.” They were also required to use new cloths for filtering. But instead Sophia would wash them, and they’d be used again and again. Eventually the state closed the mill.
Alcohol was important for the Realys, as it was for most German-Americans. They fermented their cider into “orchard tea,” a clear, strong alcoholic drink. According to Hattie Beckwith, the Realy family had forty barrels of the hard cider in their cellars-some to be sold, but much to be consumed. Even when they were quite old, they’d totter down to the cellar and get some orchard tea for a visitor. Otherwise, no business could be transacted. Neighbors would often be awakened in the middle of the night by the Realys, singing and carousing. During Prohibition, the Realys sold quart jars of their home brew. According to Beckwith, the Realys drank so much hard cider that one died of alcoholism. As the hearse left with the casket, a remaining brother confided to a mourner, “I gotta have a drink.”
When the Realys became too old to work the farm, they sold their property to the state, retaining a lifetime lease on the house and outbuildings. The last of the family died in 1960. After a group of local people acquired the house for a museum, they found much evidence of the Realys’ frugality. There was, for example, only a single, original layer of wallpaper on the walls. The Realy home was a lived-in museum.
[Originally published in the February, 2011 issue of the Community Observer of Ann Arbor.]
This article was expanded in the book, Celtic Germans: The Rise and Fall of Ann Arbor’s Swabians. A summary of the 400-page book and a selection of its 160 photos may be found at a website: http://www.celticgerman.com The book is available on Amazon. Another book by George Wieland about Swabians is Stubborn & Liking It: Einstein & Other Germans in America. A website with photos is at: http://www.stubborngermans.com and it is also available on Amazon.