Happy Pioneer Day from SE Idaho! My mom has reminded me several times over the past few months that I had made a goal to write about my ancestors. It is a hard task. Today, though, I am going to share a little bit about one of my ancestors that I consider a pioneer. A pioneer is defined as one who goes forth to open or prepare a way, to initiate. This is one of many of my ancestors that I thank for preparing a way for me to live the life that I do, to worship freely, and to progress to a potential that they only dreamed would be possible. To my ancestors, both “pioneer” and non-pioneer, thank you.
Bertha Emilie Marie Ladewig Skinner
- Born: August 24, 1886 in Konigsberg, Neumark, Prussia
- Died: June 29, 1975 in Montpelier, Bear Lake, Idaho, USA
Bertha was my great-grandmother. She was a strong-willed, independent German lady that faced much in her life and endured to the very end.
Bertha was born in Prussia to Herman Ladewig and Augusta Polzin. She had nine siblings; she was 4 out of 10. She never talked much of her childhood. After completing 8th grade (the equivalent of our high school), she became a painter of postcards. She brought some with her to the USA and would show these to her family members.
Bertha heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ from missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She was baptized on June 16, 1910. She was 23 and went against the wishes of her father to join the Church. This decision was not accepted by her family and she was basically disowned. At this point, she was wanting to come to America to be with the Saints. Her father, however, was afraid that she would marry a polygamist and strongly discouraged her. She was sponsered by the family of one of the missionaries that taught her to make her journey to America. She arrived in New York on June 12, 1913. She was 26, single, and on her own.
Bertha worked for this family for a time, in exchange for their help in her journey. They worked her every Sunday. She went to work for a Catholic family that gave her each Sunday off. She would state, later in life, to be careful of who you trusted and worked for. People do not always act according to what you think they will.
She met David Patterson Hunter Skinner (and I’m sure glad she did). He was a widow with three children and she was 30 years old (pretty much an old maid in those days). Apparently, they had both gone to a dance (separately, as they had not met yet). David was a pretty popular guy and several young woment wanted to sit by him. He refused them all and said that Bertha could sit by him. Let us all breathe a collective sigh. They were married January 17, 1917. They went on to have six children: David Herman (10/13/17), Clifford John (9/17/19), Evelyn Bertha (9/23/21), Esther Pearl (10/10/24), Dorothy Augusta (9/2/26), and Betty Ermatrude (7/12/28).
Bertha did any kind of work she could do to help bring money in for the family. She worked as a nurse, cleaned offices, bottled and sold horseradish, picked and sold mushrooms, baked bread, took in washing and ironing, plucked geese and ducks. This was all in addition to taking care of the home and children.
Now, life gets hard. On October 12, 1937, David was killed in a car accident. Bertha was suddenly a 51-year-old widow with a house of children to finish raising. Her six children were ages 9-20. Bertha was with David in the accident. He had gotten out of the car to crank it and was hit by an upcoming car. She had been hospitalized and the funeral was held several days later, after she was released. She had been encouraged to sue the man who had run into David. She refused saying, “Money won’t bring him back.”
Bertha found a house that could be bought for back-taxes, and it was in such bad condition that she would not let her daughters see it until she had time to clean it out and scrub it down. She lived there until her death.
She had the opportunity to return to Germany as an interpreter for a local family. Her eldest step-daughter, Mary, offered to care for the children so she could go. Bertha refused, stating that she did not want to leave her children for that long. This was the only time that she had an opportunity to return. She did stay in contact with her sister, Elizabeth, for many years.
Bertha had trouble with her legs for many years, by the end she could not get around. After her youngest, Betty, married, they moved in with Bertha to assist her. They lived together until Bertha died.
Bertha never once died her hair. She had long, dark hair. It was always braided and put in a bun. When she died at 89, her hair was still dark! Imagine having that wonderful trait!
Bertha was a “round” lady. I say that in jest but I have been told that she was nearly as big around as she was tall.
Bertha was a wonderful cook that made a German braided bread every Christmas. She also crocheted and braided rugs.
- When Bertha started speaking in German, her family knew to turn their ears off. Some of the only German that would escape her lips was not necessarily nice! She often spoke German when angry or excited. Her accent remained very thick her entire life.
- Bertha was very fussy about the way chores were done. The chores were scheduled and never rushed. There is a story about when my grandma (Esther) and Evelyn were to do the dishes and they rushed so they could go play. Well, Bertha saw they weren’t scalding the dishes they way they were supposed to be doing and made them take out all the dishes and start from the beginning. Ha!
- Bertha blamed her bad legs on having to stand out in the snow to cut wood, so she insisted her daughters wear long brown socks to keep their feet dry and warm.
- Bertha never went to town without hat and gloves.
- Bertha had a Certificate for Life Membership from the Genealogical Society of Utah!
- Bertha was very proud of her family. She loved visits from her children and grandchildren. My mom related about when she visited her just a few days after giving birth to my oldest brother. When Bertha asked the name, my mom replied David. Bertha commented that she was very touched and happy that my mom would name her son after her grandfather (Bertha’s husband). My mom had not taken that connection into account when choosing a name. She never told Bertha and let her think that this name was chosen for that connection deliberately. It made both of them happy.
- She wrote a short note to my grandma (Esther), when she was only about 12, to always remember that she would always be her best friend and that she loved her very much. Another collective sigh. There is a picture I ran across this weekend where it is plainly evident how much my grandma loved her mother, as her arms were around her.
So, what do I learn from Bertha’s life?
- Keep going. Life is hard and will always be hard. This too, shall pass. There is no way through the tough times but through, so keep on chugging along.
- Faith is not just about going to church. Faith is about doing what is right for you no matter what the outside forces are saying. Take the leap.
- Never look back. You don’t live in the past.
- You can do hard things. Life is about persevering and finding the joy in the journey.
- Stay busy. Idle hands and all that.
I cannot wait to meet Bertha and greet her enthusastically. If she had been even half as brave as she was, I may not be here. She was determined to make a better life for her and her children. So Great-Grandma Bertha: thank you for all you were and all you did to ensure that I have the opportunities and the life that I do. When I meet you, I will give you a great-big Germanic bear hug. I’m sure those exist.
I do not have any good, clear pictures of Bertha. So, family members – if you do, please send some to me!
Happy Pioneer Day from The Mad Pianist!