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Grandpa Julius Wohlfeld:
Jewish Immigrant - Furrier - Klondike Goldminer

When my mother first saw me, I was all red and wrinkled and had enough dark hair down to my shoulders that I could have used a barber. She took one look at that prune face and cried, "Take him back!"

A few hours later, my maternal grandfather picked me up and stated, "This is the most beautiful baby I’ve ever seen." My mother eventually changed her mind and grandpa never changed his.

My grandfather Wohlfeld was a powerfully built man, about five feet seven inches tall, with a square, stubborn, rock solid jaw, and a barrel chest. He had straight, even teeth, with which he would sometimes bend a nail to show off. He had been to the Klondike twice during the gold rush of 1898 and 1899. There he started using the name Joe instead of Julius, by which he was known for the rest of his life. He never picked a fight, but never backed away from one — and he never lost a fight he couldn’t prevent, no matter what size his opponent.

He’d had two years of formal schooling in his native Austria before he was put out by his father to apprentice as a furrier at age eight. At twelve, he was shipped off to work for a cousin in London, lest he be impressed into the army by the Austro-Hungarian Empire under which he lived. In London he learned English and for the remainder of his life spoke with a slightly British accent overlaid with his native German one. During that time he taught himself to speak, read, and write five other languages.

One of the great prides of his life was that he had read the entire Encyclopædia Britannica from cover to cover. When he reached seventeen years of age and was able to grow a mustache to look a little older, he made his way to America as a journeyman furrier. But as long as I knew him he was clean shaven, no longer sporting the full, drooping, dark mustache he wears in the photo with Grandma when they were first married.

In 1874, he met his future wife, Jenny Marx, while at his first job in New York. He was holding tight to a savings passbook of four hundred dollars he’d squirreled away while working in London.

Jenny had been born in New York City. When she was four years of age, her parents separated and her mother took her back to the family in Berlin. Jenny’s maternal relatives were well-to-do. In Berlin she lived in a grand house with many servants and had fine tutors. She was raised to be a perfect lady, knowing a little music, playing a few pieces on the piano, and learning to sew extremely small stitches.

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My grandmother, Jenny Marx Wohlfeld in 1887. At age 17, she is already married and the mother of one child, Carolyn.

At fifteen, the family had a serious financial reversal and Grandma was shipped off to New York to live with her father. When she arrived at his apartment, she found herself in the midst of a menagerie. There was a "stepmother" (though her parents had never been divorced) who resented having to take care of another mouth. There was also (as Grandma was wont to say) a "bunch of little bastards" running around the house.

The proper young lady moved out the following day.

Jenny was ill prepared to make her way in the world; the only thing she could do to make a living was fine needle work. She got a job sewing silk linings for ladies coats in a fur factory. That’s where she met Grandpa.

They were married about six months later, shortly after he opened his first factory on 10th Street in New York. He was just eighteen and she was sixteen.

Fifteen years later, in 1895, Grandpa moved his family to Indianapolis, where he established himself as that state’s first furrier. They had two daughters by then, Carolyn and Esther, and Grandma was pregnant with her third child, who turned out to be my mother, Miriam, born that August fourth.

I never did figure out how the relationships worked, but as far as I’ve been able to understand, my great- or great-great- grandmothers on each side of my family were sisters, sharing the name Boehm, thus making my mother and father third cousins.

I’m not sure whether that makes me my own fourth cousin. 

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