Serendipidous Searching: the Quest for Genealogical Rootings

by Robert Alan Kraft
[electronic file with linked images may be found at]

About the Kraft side of my genealogical roots I knew very little. I had known my grandfather and grandmother Kraft, and was in touch with their other progeny, localized as it had remained in the central Connecticut of my childhood. That grandmother was a Peterson, and some of her relatives were also part of my early world, although I despaired of attempting to trace their genealogical roots back into pre-immigration Sweden. Peterson did not seem to be a particularly promising name for such purposes. These Petersons arrived on these shores around 1881, about the same time as my Krafts.

But there was no family lore about the Kraft background, beyond references to the untimely death in Connecticut of my great grandfather Maxmilian Kraft, from somewhere in Germany, and the remarriage of his wife, born Barbara Binder, to someone with the east-European sounding name of Minkwitz. There was, however, an annual "Hummel Reunion" that we regularly attended, and some of those organizers had genealogical interests. Apparently my great grandmother's mother had been a Hummel, whom the imaginative genealogists in the family immediately connected with Sister Innocenta (Berta) Hummel, of figurine fame. It is always nice to have someone famous in the family tree. But beneath the surface loomed a potential problem about which few of my Hummel relatives seemed aware or concerned -- Sister Hummel of figurine fame was Catholic, from a Catholic family, while as far as I could tell, the Hummel heritage that we were celebrating was decidedly Protestant, on this side of the waters at least. Could it be that the silence of tradition on the Kraft side was because my great grandfather Maxmilian Kraft had married a Catholic (assuming the Binders were Catholic as well), which caused a family rift? Stranger things have happened.

In any event, the Hummel Reunion genealogical memory did extend back to the generation that had been born in Germany, and hinted at a location in the area of a town called Trossingen (pop 16,000), on the eastern edge of the Black Forest just north of Switzerland. The reference was quite vague, but I had little else to go on. At least I could find Trossingen on the detailed map, and when I attended a conference in Berlin in the mid 1990s, I rented a car and made the long drive down to that sizeable town, famed as the harmonica capital of the world. Unfortunately, this was in mid August, and all of the offices, civic and ecclesiastic, from which local genealogical information might be obtained were closed. I found lots of Hummels and Binders and especially Messners (another known collateral line) in the area phone book, but few Krafts. I stayed in a charming little hotel, and at least I became acquainted with the general geographical area, to which I hoped to return some day, perhaps with better information from which to start.

In the summer of 2001, at the end of July, two academic conferences central to my interests were offered in that general part of Europe -- papyrology in Vienna (with an excursion to Prague) and Septuagint studies in Basel, Switzerland. And they were scheduled so that there was a full interim day between, even after travel time. The distance from Basel to Trossingen was only a couple of hours driving time, so I took whatever genealogical information I could muster (not much more than before), rented a small car, and drove east through the fascinating countryside along the Swiss and German border and then north to Trossingen. It was a Thursday, 2nd of August, and the appropriate office in the Rathaus (city hall) was indeed open. I had written out my basic questions in German, just in case, but fortunately one of the officers in charge could handle English as well. I also had written out the names, dates, and any other information to facilitate the search. Nothing. None of the people in whom I was interested were born, married, or buried in Trossingen, if those records were complete and accurate. I mentioned my greatgrandfather Maxmilian Kraft, and the immediate response was that "Maxmilian" was a Catholic name, and I might need to check the Catholic records in a nearby city. Wow. Interesting. But she made a phone call to the Catholic archives office and came up dry. If there had been any Protestant/Catholic tensions in the Kraft/Binder alliance, I had been placing the labels backwards. My great grandfather Maxmilian Kraft may have been born Catholic.

There were two other geographical names besides Trossingen in my skimpy records: one was a mysterious "Debigen" (in retrospect, possibly modern Tuebingen) and the other "Bickelburg" or "Bickelberg." The helpful records officer looked for them in her directories and maps, and found a small hamlet called Bickelsberg about a half hour's drive (if you know where you are going!) to the north. By then it was mid afternoon, and I had originally planned to leave by about 4 pm and drive back to Basel through the heart of the Black Forest, taking in its visual beauty as I went. To drive another hour or so in the opposite direction and risk the possibility of encountering darkness during the return drive on unfamiliar winding roads was not attractive. On the other hand, it was not that far to Bickelsberg -- especially if, as my realism led me to expect, I found nothing there to detain me -- and I don't get to this part of the world often, so why not? I checked my map and headed north, to the Rosenfeld area south of Tuebingen and Stuttgart.

Of course, it took longer than it should, but I finally got on the right road and drove towards the expected town. There was a sign, "Bickelsberg," but no real town, just some houses and a store or two. (As I learned later, the population is about 560.) I saw no church, or central square. Dissapointed, I drove a bit farther and past the sign that told oncoming traffic that they had reached Bickelsberg. At least, I thought, I should get a picture of the sign, to record that I'd reached that destination. So I pulled off on the side of the road, got out my fancy new digital camera, and pointed it at the sign. And what to my wondering eyes should appear, on the nearby horizon behind the sign, but a church steeple! At least there was a church to see, so I turned around, drove down the side street in the direction of the steeple, and came to a field and a farm within which the church building was located. The road didn't even pass by the church, but a little cul-de-sac (or whatever the Germans call them) cut around towards the back, and there was a lady watering her flowers at the farmhouse nearby, so I asked her, in whatever German I could muster (once it was clear she did not handle English), where I might find the church records -- or as she responded, "die Bu%cher." She pointed to a red roofed building about a block away, the dwelling of the Pfarrer (pastor) of the Evangelische Kirchengemeinde Bickelsberg/Brittheim (Lutheran congregation). So I boldly drove down and knocked on that door, and met Pfarrer Roland Bu%hler, graduate of Tu%bingen University, whose English was adequate to complement my elementary German. I asked him where I might be able to find the Church records (thinking about archival offices such as the Trossingen area Catholics had), and he pointed to the bottom shelf of his office bookcase! An unespected surprise. What next?

I showed him the name in my notes that was associated with "Bickelburg" -- my great grandmother's sister Margaret Binder, born 21 December 1865. He went to the volume recording births and turned to that date. Bingo! There was dear Margaretta, with a cross-reference to the volume that contained records of her parents and their offspring. And the latter volumes (there were several) opened genealogical doors far beyond my wildest hopes. There they were, my great grandmother and her several siblings, their birthdays and confirmation days, and cross-references back to earlier generations as well as notes on marriages and departures for America! All told, I was able to make digital images of pages of the "Church Books" that took me back three generations on the Binder-Hummel side of my father's family -- back as far as a Jakob Hummel from Tu%bingen who must have come to Bickelsberg around 1750 or so. In addition to the ever intermarrying Binders and Hummels, there were Hallers and Zieglers, Gu(h)rings and Webers and Galsters -- even a Bloibra, if I have transcribed the old German script correctly.

Pfarrer Bu%hler was generous with his time, not only helping me to find and record the desired materials, but also providing me with paleographical charts for reading the old German, letting me send an email message or two from his terminal, and taking me on a quick tour of the Church building, which had recently been renovated but structurally went back to the early 1700s. Martin Luther was there, in image, along with a lovely organ at the balcony level. We even climbed the bell tower. It was a lovely excursion, and I thanked him and took my leave around 6 pm, with a camera full of images and enough excitement to carry me through the Black Forest highways, fascinatingly beautiful even in the encroaching darkness. I turned in the car at the Basel airport and reached my "bed and breakfast" room by about 9:30, to review the various images of records and signs and structures and to prepare for the coming day. The conference was rather anticlimatic after that!

/RAK 25 July 2002/