In Her Own Words

By Lisa M. Schmelz | Photography from Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division 

Emily Duval, 24, is seated on the porch of Black Point Estate, more aware of the rarity of this opportunity than you’d expect from the average millennial. She holds herself with a poise not unlike the privileged women who once sat here in corseted Victorian attire. A 2015 graduate of UW-Milwaukee, she holds a bachelor’s degree in history and political science. Today, she brings stories of this turn-of-the-century “summer cottage” to life. On a recent afternoon, the sky a perfect blue over the shimmering waters of Geneva Lake, Duval is keenly aware of how fortunate she is to time travel for a living.

“This is the oldest of all our furniture,” she says of the wicker furniture she, the estate’s director, David Desimone, and a visitor are holding court in, her gaze fixed on the manicured lawn. “Our gardener says this gives you an Antebellum view of the yard. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon.”

It certainly isn’t. While the view may be Antebellum, the topic of conversation on this day comes a half century later. World War I, the Great War, the War to End All Wars, claimed the lives of more than 20 million, and wounded over 21 million. It would also touch the lives of German-Americans, who though loyal to America had understandable concerns about their homeland. Caught in the crosshairs were the descendants of Chicago beer baron Conrad Seipp, a German immigrant who began construction of Black Point in 1887. And among those descendants was his granddaughter, Alma Schmidt Petersen.

A JOURNEY TO THE HOMELAND

Born to wealth and privilege, her parents, Otto a physician, and Emma, the daughter of Seipp, provided her with a trip to Germany after her college graduation from Mt. Vernon Seminary in Washington, D.C. But her tour of ancestral lands intersected with the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Like many in her social class, she journaled often and her papers provide a front-row view of life in Germany as it prepares for war.

“She’s a remarkable woman, and one of the reasons that Black Point continues to be a destination today is she raised her children in the spirit of someone who valued this place and what it offers,” Desimone explains. “She gave us a view of World War I, through the eyes of a (20-year-old) woman in Europe, when this massive conflict is about to break out, and she experiences it first hand, not via a textbook. She’s very American, yet very German, and it’s just by fate that she’s there. She leaves America for Germany just days after the Archduke is assassinated.”

“And the whole time, she’s writing in her diary and she’s writing letters home,” interjects Duval, who is near the same age now that Alma was then. “She’s with a number of friends and relatives, and she’s an upper-class woman. She goes out to the theaters, she’s having dinner with family, with well-known people, and leaders in the military who are, of course, very pro-German, and she meets a German soldier named Fritz, who continues to write her after she escapes through the Netherlands. And none of this is forgotten because the papers are still with us.”

AN AFFLUENT YOUNG WOMAN’S VIEW

Indeed, Alma’s papers are a treasure trove and held at the Newberry Library in Chicago. They chronicle a time in history when the world didn’t quite know what to make of the powder keg that was Europe. Initially, her words underestimate the enormity of what is about to transpire. In her entries aboard the SS Vaterland, which sets sail on July 7, 1914, she makes no mention of Ferdinand’s assassination. Her diary is filled with other details such as the measurements of the ship:

950 feet long

100 feet wide

28,000 tons

490 feet – length of the promenade deck

1,130 feet – length around the deck

4 ¾ times around = 1 mile

The journey to Germany took seven days, and Alma doesn’t mention how many miles she logged around the deck. But in the “Incidents” section of her diary, she notes some of the other ways she passed the time. She has a position that comes with wealth and specific expectations, and life for young women at her station in life could be a round of endless calls and parlors. Here is how she passed some of her time at sea:

Dance on evening of July 8

Saw a porpoise on July 10

In Gulf Stream on July 9th, 10th, and 11th, consequently hot weather

Birthday July 11th – dinner

Uncle Henry and Aunt Clara’s wedding anniversary July 12

On July 14, Alma notes her arrival in Germany at 5:30, omitting whether it is morning or evening. While waiting for the train to Hamburg, she has her first beer in the motherland. Her subsequent early entries focus on motor trips through the old section of the city, luncheons, cathedral tours, and drives along the Rhine. By July 25, she and the extended family are traveling to Heidelberg, dining with German military officers.

“Nothing but rain.”

“Joined all our friends … for dinner … Ida took me to a dinner at the home of Major and Mrs. Nolte, the commander of the troops in H (Heidelberg). Met interesting officers . . . While at dinner received news that Serbia had refused Austria’s demands.”

WORLD-CHANGING EVENTS

In a nutshell, Austria wanted Serbia to accept an inquiry into the assassination of Ferdinand. Serbia was also to cease all anti-Austrian propaganda, and take steps to eradicate terrorist groups in its borders like the Black Hand, which was believed to have assisted in the killing of the archduke. Add to this the fuel that was militarism, alliances, imperialism and nationalism rampant through Europe and you have Alma heading into the center of it all. Still, her focus is on the little things. On July 26, she again laments the weather, more rain, makes mention of who she dined with, and then, in a way people often do when they are trying to maintain normalcy on the edge of the abyss, makes this declaration:

“Austria has declared war on Serbia. People not much worried.”

For nearly two weeks she is not worried. She describes sailboats, luncheons of caviar and lobster, good and bad theatrical performances, staying in bed a half a day to recuperate, and the up and down health of her grandmother, Catherine Orb Seipp, who was one of the family members with her. Even a month after the Archduke’s assassination, she still isn’t fretting:

“City crowded with people expecting war. Situation not considered critical by Barresses (possibly a family she has met in Germany). In morning, went through castle and Rathaus.

On July 30, however, she strikes a different note, penning this:

“Rain. Visited Mrs. Bartholomay (a family member) and saw (“Glaspalast.”) Exhibition of pictures not exceptional. Visited Mr. and Mrs. Wm. B. in afternoon . . . War question becoming serious.”

Logistics of cold hard cash are the topic of conversation on August 1, in a letter she writes to her father:

“Everything is war here. It’s the first thing we hear in the morning and certainly the last thing at night. Last evening we were kept awake by people cheering and singing ‘Die Wacht am Rhein’ (A German patriotic anthem). It is really most uncomfortable although at first was most interesting . . .  I am not doing any shopping now since everyone is holding back money. It is impossible to get any gold now, but the paper money is accepted. I cashed my first $20 at the hotel. But from now on, I shall have to go to the bank.”

Her letters home soon cease, but the entries in her diary do not. At some point, and it’s hard to pinpoint when, she meets a German soldier. They dance, and he is smitten. After she returns safely to America, via the Netherlands, the lowly private named Fritz Hirschberger continues to write from the battlefield.

A SOLIDERS LETTER’S SPEAK OF HOPE

So who was Fritz Hirschberger? Beyond a soldier in the German army, and an admirer of Alma, it’s hard to say. Whatever time they spent together in Germany, and it appears to have been in Munich, would have been under the watchful eyes of many. He speaks longingly of the time he and Alma orbited the world together, as if it were all a beautiful dream before he was inserted into the nightmare of trench warfare. His rank, even when he finally became an officer, was minimal. But war brought social classes together, and like many soldiers who wrote letters during the war, he put on a brave front:

Dear Gracious Miss Alma, . . . . First I would like to thank you for the lovely card, which I liked very much. I often think of you. It was a shame that we so seldom saw each other. I believe we would have had a lot of fun together, having had the time. My mind was constantly thinking about going to the front …. Many of my friend(s) are already dead. An uncle and a cousin have also fallen. I think of the wonderful hours that we spent together. Hopefully, you will return to Germany after the war. And then I will have time to show you what the life of an officer can be like. Now we work and fight, but when we return as winners, and are healthy, we can start our lives with enthusiasm and be happy again. Hoping for our happy reunion.

Alma’s letters and cards to Fritz have been lost to time. Their only record is left in what Fritz recalls in his. Over a hundred years later, you can still feel his heart swelling in a letter dates November 6, 1915:

My Dear Alma, Above all, many thanks for your loving letter, which naturally made me extremely happy. I received it while on the front line, at 2 a.m. A fellow soldier woke me. I was to take over duty in the trench. Quickly, I read it by the light of my flashlight. Five minutes later I was wounded. I was directly in front of the trench. An English soldier crawled undetected and threw 10 to 15 hand grenades into our trench, and one of them exploded in front of me, and threw me back with much force. The left side of my body received 12 metal splinters through my arm, upper arm and close to my lung . . . I have fully recovered and will return to the front on November 9 . . .

LIEUTENANT FRITZ HIRSCHBERGER

We don’t know what happened to Fritz after the war or if he survived to its end. We do know what happened to Alma and her family. She married Dr. William F. Petersen, gave birth to three sons, one of whom would gift Black Point to the State of Wisconsin, and committed her life to civic work, including Hull House in Chicago. We also know that during both World Wars her family took great pains to declare their allegiance to the United States, even changing the name of their estate from its former German moniker to Black Point. Alma’s father, Otto Schmidt, would be fiercely pro-American throughout the war, but then dedicated himself to post-war German relief efforts.

ALMA’S SPIRIT LIVES ON AT BLACK POINT

Hidden down the hill from Black Point is a mid-century home that serves as the nerve center for the estate’s administrative staff. Duval has an office here. A week after showing a visitor the Antebellum view of the estate, she is in the kitchen, making sandwiches for tourists. As she places them in brown bags, she reflects on Alma.

“I can just hear her voice in those letters and diaries,” she says. “She was very descriptive, even when she didn’t write a lot of words. You got a sense of where she was and what was happening. And that she put it all down on paper, and that it is still here with us today, it’s like she is still with us today.”


Editor’s Note: Accounts from Alma’s diary are printed as she recorded them. At times, they do not align with timelines established by historians. Her July 26 entry that “Austria has declared war on Serbia. People not much worried” could have been written on July 28, with a mistaken date recorded or she could have been referring to news accounts that a declaration was imminent.

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