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  • Writer's pictureKaren L Kurtz

Two Portraits

Updated: May 20

There were just two formal portraits of the Johannis "John" and Mary [Bollinger] Kurtz family. They are my clan, but they're mostly unknown to me. Except for Jake―the one I would call "Grandpa" much later in his life.

This is a photo I studied a lot when I was young, noting the strange garb, the hide beneath their feet, and their faces which bear a strong resemblance to relatives at our family reunions.

Back: Aaron, 21; Catherine,33; Uriah,28; Emma,24; Josiah,28; Amanda,35; Daniel, 17; Mary,30.

Front: Jake, 18; Wyella, 39; Johannis, 65; Mary, 60; John, 26; Lizzy, 37.

I wondered if the family portrait was a birthday gift for their mother, who had just turned 60. Surely it was an effort to gather all 12 children at the photography studio in Canton, Ohio on that Friday in October, 1896, in the middle of the fall harvest. They probably drove several buggies 15 miles south to the city from their various farms around Hartville, the small town where they (and I) grew up.

My parents had pointed out that the six sons (who came along after the five older daughters) broke with church tradition in their attire. They all had jackets with lapels and ties. The twins in bow ties, even! The three eldest sons had families, yet none wore the beard expected of them. I recall being disappointed that the older sisters still wore plain dresses with white bonnets, adhering to the old ways. Just recently, I noticed that Emma, the youngest sister who stands between the twins, introduces a bit of fashion. Although she wears the bonnet, her dress seems to have a sheer fabric above a ruffled, modestly scooped neckline, and there is a scalloped trim at her waist.

The family portrait foreshadows an evolution occurring in their church. Around the turn of the century delegates from German Baptist Brethren congregations across America would adopt a new progressive agenda, causing conservative factions to split off from the denomination. Nationally, their church’s official name would change to "the Church of the Brethren.” The townspeople of Hartville, however, would continue to call them the "Dunkards" or “the River Brethren” (and not always kindly) referring to their custom of adult baptism in the local lakes and rivers.

Ervin Jacob "Jake", my grandfather, seated on the left was a month shy of 19. (When I was young, I knew which one was my grandpa because he cocked his head that same way, even as an old man.)

He and his younger brother Daniel Webster “D.W.” may have felt a closeness, being at the end of the long line of siblings. But they were put in an awkward situation when their parents announced that only one child—one of the sons—would be allowed to pursue a higher education. Perhaps the family had limited finances, or maybe they just needed help with farming at home. It seems that the daughters were not even in the running.

Jake desperately wanted to be the “chosen” one, but he was not. Having his education cut shorter than he wanted was a lifelong regret that brought tears to his eyes as an old man whenever he talked about it.

I recall my Grandpa Jake showing off his mental math skills and being proud of his pencil sketches in a small notebook. And when he was in his 90s, he rattled off the business transactions he’d made throughout his life―the sale of land, equipment, or horses or a flock of sheep. Always keeping a balance sheet in his head, as if the final judgement on his life depended on whether the bottom line came out right.

I can imagine the weight of parental expectations Daniel must have carried on his shoulders. He didn’t let them down. He would soon be off to school in faraway places, making education his lifelong pursuit. He would receive his doctorate at Yale, study in Europe, serve as pastor in several churches, as president of McPherson College in Kansas, and as president of Bethany Theological Seminary in Chicago. He would publish several books and would be remembered by many for his progressive vision for the church. (photo: DW Kurtz)

Four of the sisters born into this family would become teachers at the one-room public school on Lake Center Road where Jake, other siblings, nieces and nephews attended. I don't know what training was required of teachers, but I do know that women were forced to resign when they married.

I’ve often studied the images of my great-grandparents in this portrait. John Kurtz had already retired as pastor of the East Nimishillen congregation. His sermons had always been delivered in high German. The whole family, however, spoke a casual dialect of Pennsylvania Dutch at home. (Even though the Kurtz family had landed in America 150 years earlier.)

Daniel later wrote that his father, John, was the kindest man he’d ever known. He was large, weighing in at 350 pounds, and had to have an extra-wide buggy custom built for him. It was noted in family stories that when John died in 1901 the floorboards in the parlour of their family home had to be shored up in anticipation of the combined weight of his coffin and all the mourners who would file by it.

More than one relative has mentioned that Mary was known for her biting temper. (After a dozen kids, who can blame her?) Her countenance had a sadness even before she was widowed. It was a weight-of-the-world look my Grandpa Jake also carried.

The other family portrait, taken twelve years earlier, circa 1884, has only the twelve children.

Back: John,14; Uriah, 16; Catherine, 22; Josiah, 16; Mary, 18.

Middle: Whyella, 27; Jake, 7; Amanda, 24; Daniel, 5; Lizzy, 25.

Front: Emma, 12; Aaron, 9.

Jake was 7 years old when this was taken. He stands up tall, wearing a jacket he’s almost outgrown. He would live to be 97 someday, twenty-five years beyond his younger brother, Daniel.

Jake’s two eldest sisters, Whyella [pronounced Vi-ella] seated on the left by Jake, and Lizzy, seated on the right end, were both toddlers when Lincoln was elected president. Amanda, seated in the middle behind her youngest sister, was born during the Civil War.

In this 1884 portrait above, Mary, 18, places her hand on Lizzy’s shoulder. Lizzy has just been through a year of mourning. Her husband died a few weeks before she gave birth to their daughter, who died, too, within days. I imagined a closeness between her and her younger sister, both in black.

In the 1896 portrait, Mary leans lovingly forward and rests her hand lightly on Lizzy, who is again seated in front of her.

A photo brings humanity to the impersonal statistics recorded in a family tree.

It is rare for any of us to be remembered three generations beyond our existence. As important as my grandparents were to me, my children have no memory of them.

When I gaze at the two old portraits—these ancestors who I don’t really know—I get a sense of the natural order of things. There is a proper time for ego pursuits and for all the ways we identify ourselves in this existence. And there is a time to let them go.

Perhaps aging gracefully is a process of understanding the impermanence of earthly things. And accepting anonymity when it comes. As it surely will.

~K L Kurtz

Ervin Jacob "Jake" Kurtz Jake & Emma Emma Kurtz Brumbaugh

Other Blog Posts I've written that are related Kurtz Ancestry are:


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