Saturday, April 2, 2011

698 12th Street, Milwaukee

This wooden house is typical of the homes built in Milwaukee in the middle of the 19th century. They were put up rapidly to cope with the influx of immigrants and were usually divided into several flats.

At the time of the 1900 census, Jan Wittak rented the front flat to the Hauta family and the upstairs flat to the Hesse family while he and his family and his tailoring business occupied the bungalow in the rear. The house to the left was the Powondra Funeral Home. Also on this block were two bowling alleys, a bakery, a knitting works, a cigar factory, a drug store and a steam laundry. They lived blocks away from the Schlitz Brewing factory and close to Schlitz Park, a beer garden that provided entertainment for the whole family.

This picture was taken during World War I; the star in the window indicated a member of the family (Frank Wittak) was serving in the military. At this time, his older brother George was living in the upstairs flat with his wife, young children (shown on the porch) and his mother-in-law. Marie, who was one of these children, remembers being shushed a lot. She wrote: “Living downstairs with my grandmother were my dad’s three brothers and two sisters, who I surmise were not too tolerant of the noise of young ones.”

After George bought his own house a few blocks away, his sister, Helen and her new husband, Joe Fridl lived in the upstairs flat. Caroline, Jan's widow, lived in the house, with stepson, Joe, until her death in 1933.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Marie Fitzgerald 1917-2009

Marie Wittak was born on February 19, 1917 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She was the fourth child of George Wittak and Mary Trost, but she enjoyed the role of the youngest child until she was seven years old when her mother gave birth to twins: Jack and Jeanette. She's the baby in this picture where she's shown with her older siblings: Josephine, Clarence, and George.

Marie attended grade school, as did her siblings, at St. Boniface. When she graduated, she and her friend, Marion Fuhrman, split a two-year scholarship. Marie attended Cathedral High School, which was located in downtown Milwaukee, about a half hour away by streetcar. Her high school picture (to the left) was published in the paper when she took second place for her essay on the Monroe Doctrine in a contest sponsored by the Fourth degree Knights of Columbus.

Although she won a scholarship to Rosary College in Illinois, she stayed at home to help contribute to her family. Through her high school, she heard of an opening at the General Electric Supply Corporation and started working there as a file clerk. The headquarters were in downtown Milwaukee, only a few blocks from Monarch Manufacturing, where her father worked. She attended evening classes in psychology and philosophy with her friend, Felice, at Marquette University. She and Felice also traveled to California to visit Marie’s sister, Josephine, who had moved to Los Angeles after her marriage.

Marie enjoyed working—she worked her way up from file clerk to secretary to one of the managers—but she did not enjoy the weather in Milwaukee. After her trip to visit her sister in Los Angeles, she requested a transfer to the Los Angeles office which was accepted. She rented a bedroom in a house for a while (housing was tight because so many people had moved to L.A. to participate in the war effort) and then moved into a cottage at 1039 39th Place in the courtyard where her sister Jo lived with her husband. It cost $40 a month, more than one week’s pay at that time, and was within walking distance of the Coliseum, the Rose Gardens and the LA County Museum.

Marie loved many things about California: “it was beautifully warm, the fragrance of the orange blossoms in the air, and it seemed like Paradise compared to the cold winters where I was always slipping on ice.” She was godmother to Jo’s first child, Mary Jo, a role she also enjoyed.

At an Arthur Murray dance, Marie met Earl Fitzgerald. They made a trip to South Dakota to visit his relatives and Milwaukee so she could introduce him to her parents. The picture on the right, shows Marie between her parents and the very weather conditions, cold and ice and snow, she left Milwaukee to escape.

Marie Wittak married Earl Fitzgerald on January 28, 1950. Earl had moved to Los Angeles after getting out of the Army where he was in the Corps of Engineers, serving in the Philippines. He got a degree in Engineering at Los Angeles City College and began working for the City of Los Angeles as a Civil Engineer. His office was in the newly developed San Fernando Valley where he was responsible for designing storm drains.

In January of 1951, they bought a brand new house at 7803 Genesta Avenue in Van Nuys and in September 1951, their first child, Nancy, was born. Cathy was born in 1953 and Timothy in 1956. Marie left her job at General Electric when she got married but she missed it. After the kids were in school, she took a part-time job working one day a week for the local parish, St. Bridget of Sweden.

This Christmas picture was taken at the home of Jo and Bob Gugisberg, where the families gathered every year to celebrate the holidays. The two sisters, Jo and Marie, were close and talked on the telephone weekly. The Gugisberg’s lived in Temple City, and the drive from Van Nuys to Temple City took about an hour. The kids always liked to watch out for the cat faces painted on the covers of the drains that covered pipes running into the Los Angeles River. They also enjoyed seeing their cousins, Mary Jo and Robin. Cathy played the accordion and Nancy the piano to entertain their relatives.

Marie and Earl continued to enjoy dancing, first square dancing, and then round dancing. Earl worked as a civil engineer for the City of Los Angeles until his retirement. He died in 1983. Marie sold the house in Van Nuys and purchased a home in a retirement community in Ventura in 1994 so she could live near her son, Tim, who lived in Ventura with his wife and daughter, Taylor. (Nancy and Cathy had already moved to Seattle and Reno, in 1983 and 1990, respectively.)

Marie had a major heart attack in 1997, and after that she lived in a series of nursing and rest homes. For the last few years of her life she was lovingly cared for at Greenhills Care Home. She died peacefully on February 6, 2009 at Community Memorial Hospital. Her funeral Mass was held at Our Lady of Assumption Church in Ventura on February 11, 2009 and she was buried beside Earl Fitzgerald at San Fernando Mission Cemetery.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Tim Fitzgerald 1956-2008

This post contains the obituary for my beloved little brother who died April 30, 2008. I planned to post the history of the family from the older generations down, not the obituaries of people in my generation. So I'm very sad, for many reasons, to be posting this entry. Yet I feel it is probably an appropriate place to remember him.

Timothy Edward Fitzgerald was born October 29, 1956, the son of Earl and Marie (Wittak) Fitzgerald of Van Nuys, California. He attended St. Bridget of Sweden Elementary School, Notre Dame High School and California State University at Northridge where he pursued a degree in Geology. As a young man, he helped his father build two houses, one a cabin at Big Bear Lake, which later became a favorite getaway for Tim and his family. From an early age, he had a talent for fixing mechanical objects, so it’s no surprise that he became a electronics technician for the United States Post Office, fixing mail sorting machines, primarily at the Oxnard branch but also occasionally for the Thousand Oaks Branch. He also collected and restored old cars, including a 1942 Ford Coupe, 1972 Chevy El Camino, and a 1970 Plymouth Roadrunner.

On April 20, 1991, Tim married Julie Frazier of Ventura. His beloved daughter, Taylor, was born on November 22, 1993. Tim and Julie were divorced in 2006 and Julie and Taylor moved to Round Rock, Texas, a suburb of Austin. Tim kept in touch with his daughter by calling her every day and making frequent visits.

Tim died at home on April 30 as a result of complications from a fall. He is survived by his daughter, Taylor, her mother Julie Fitzgerald, both of Round Rock, Texas; his mother, Marie Fitzgerald of Ventura, California; his sisters, Nancy (Waverly) Fitzgerald of Seattle, Washington and Cathy Fitzgerald of Reno, Nevada; and his niece, Shaw Fitzgerald of Seattle, Washington. Tim will be dearly missed by his closest friend, Edward Del Toro, and the entire Del Toro family who he considered his second family.


Monday, February 12, 2007

Caroline Filipensky Wittak

Caroline Filipensky was 19 years when she went to live in Milwaukee with the 41 year-old widowed tailor, Jan Witak, and take care of his house and his three orphaned sons.

She had grown up on her father’s farm in Fox Point, now an exclusive section of Milwaukee, but then it would have been rural land, about an hour out of town by horse and buggy or cart. Her father Carl was a prosperous farmer. He owned 35 acres of land worth about $1,300 in 1870; by the time he died in 1896, the value had increased to $4,500.

A shoemaker by trade, Carl Filipensky left Bohemia with his wife and four young daughters in 1854. On the journey over, his wife died. According to family stories, he left his two youngest daughters in an orphanage in New York City and when we went back later to retrieve them, they were gone.

By 1856 Carl was in Milwaukee and on May 3 1858 Carl married a young woman of Bohemian ancestry, Maria Horockawale, who was 24 at the time they married (he was twice her age at 48). Maria brought with her to the marriage, a daughter, Katharina, who was two years old. Together Carl and Maria had four children: three girls and one boy.

Caroline was the oldest child of this new family. She was born in 1859 and claimed July 4th as her birthday because she said she didn’t know the actual date. She was six before her next sibling, sister Emily, was born, followed in three years by a brother, Frank and two years later, another sister, Mary. But she also had three older half-sisters, Agnes, 14 years older and Maria, 11 years older, and Katharina, the closest in age, only three years older than Caroline.

Caroline’s father, Carl, seemed to thrive in the rapidly developing city of Milwaukee. Though he was listed as a shoemaker on the ship manifest, when he got married in 1858 he listed his occupation as layer, and by 1867 he was buying and selling real estate. On the 1870 census, he was enumerated as a farmer. He grew spring wheat, rye, oats, peas and beans and Irish potatoes. He also had one cow and six swine and 2 working oxen for a total value of all farm production of $564.

Family stories tell how the girls walk to fetch water from the nearby creek, carrying the heavy buckets of water back to the farm. Since the one cow produced 150 pounds of butter, I assume they were also churning a lot of milk. It was probably a hard life. The oil painting at the left depicts the farm.

By 1870, all of Caroline’s older step-sisters had moved out. Agnes married at 16 to Valentin Kehres, and Marie at 18 to Wenzel Frana. Both men owned property near the Filipensky farm. Her closest sibling, her step-sister Catherina, was also gone from the farm. She was not enumerated with the family in the 1870 census.

We don’t know how Caroline learned about Jan Wittak’s need for a housekeeper, perhaps through some Bohemian association or the Bohemian church. His wife had died in October 1878 leaving him with three young boys, ages 8, 6 and 2. Caroline moved into his home at the rear of 698 Twelfth Street. Jan worked as a tailor out of the house.

Nine months later, on 6 July 1879, two days after her 20th birthday, Caroline married Jan Wittak, who was 41 at the time. They had seven children in the next sixteen years: Frank (who died when he was 4), George, Anna, Mary, Frank, Henry, and Helen. Her last child was born when she was 36 and her husband was 57. All of the children were born at home.

Shortly after Helen was born, Jan made a trip back to Bohemia and was gone for two months, leaving his wife alone with their six children, ages 13, 11, 9, 7, 4 and 4 months, and her three step-sons, ages 25, 23 and 19. The older boys were all working at the time, according to the 1894 City Directory which lists Anton as a bookkeeper, John as a printer and Joe as a laborer.

Although it seems like a difficult life for a 20 year old woman, she was following in the footsteps of her mother who also married at a young age to a much older man. Plus she may have profited from watching her mother deal with stepchildren. I notice that Carl’s children by his first marriage left home pretty quickly after he married Maria but Caroline’s stepchildren stayed at home much longer.

Her oldest stepchild, Anthony, lived at 12th Street until he was 35 when he moved to Chicago where he had a successful career as an accountant. Caroline’s second stepson, John Jr. left at the age of 24 when he married one of Caroline’s nieces (Albena, the daughter of her oldest halfsister, Maria and her husband Wenzel Frana). But Caroline’s third stepson, Joe, who was only three when she married his father, never left home. He was still living with his stepmother when she died in 1933.

In 1896, the year after Jan came back from Bohemia, Caroline’s father, Carl, died. He made Jan and Caroline the executors of his estate. In his will he lists as heirs his wife and all of his children (Maria, the oldest daughter had died before him). He also listed as legates his grandchildren, including all eight of Katharina’s children, but none of Jan and Caroline’s children.

There was a strain of mental illness (probably bipolar disorder which has affected members of the family a generation later) in the Filipensky line. In his will, Carl notes that his son Frank (age 28 at the time) is an insane person. Caroline’s youngest sister, Mary, also had mental problems, although apparently they had not surfaced at the time her father wrote his will (she was 26 at the time). I found some of her writing while going through family documents at my Uncle Jack’s house, sheets filled with nonsensical words, and my cousins remember going to visit her in an insane asylum.

Caroline's husband, Jan Wittak, died in 1907 at the age of 69. He left his entire estate to his wife with the understanding that she would divide it evenly among the children when she died. At the time Jan died, Caroline was living in the house with her stepson Joe who was 31, and her children George, 25, Anna, 23, Mary 21, Frank 19, Henry 16 and Helen 12. George married the following year and moved to the upstairs flat with his wife where they began raising their own family.

My mother, Marie Wittak, the daughter of George Wittak, was born in the house on 12th street as were her two older brothers and sister. Both she and her sister, Josephine, remember being shushed a lot as children. My mother writes; “Living downstairs with my grandmother were my dad’s three brothers and two sisters, who I surmise were not too tolerant of the noise of young ones. Once my brother got in trouble because when the uncles were playing cards one evening he tied one of their legs to the leg of the chair.” When Caroline wanted her grandchildren to go home, she would begin speaking in Bohemian; Josephine understood enough Bohemian to know it was time to leave.

The portrait below, probably taken around 1905, shows the three sons of Jan's first marriage in the back row: Joe on the left, John second from the right and Anthony to the far right. My grandfather, George Wittak, the oldest child of the second family is also in the back row. His sister Mary is on the left and his sister Anna on the right. In the front row, Henry is on the left, and Frank on the right, with Helen, the baby, in between her parents.
Caroline’s children moved out gradually as they married and began their own families, but it was a slow process. Mary married at age 22 in 1908 a young man who her parents did not want her to marry because he was deaf. Tragically she died the following year giving birth to their first child who also died. Henry was the next to leave at age 25 when he married Jessie Cerny in 1916. Frank was serving in the Army in Europe at this time. Also in 1916, Caroline’s mother Mary came to stay with her and died in the house at Twelfth.
Anna stayed at home until 1920 when she married at the age of 36 to Matt Kalina. Helen, the baby of the family, married in 1922 at age 27 to Joe Fridl and they moved into the upstairs flat which her brother George and his family had occupied previously. Frank was the last to leave. He married at the age of 40 in 1927. When he moved out, Caroline was 68 and living with her stepson, Joe, who was 55. She died six years later in 1933.

According to her grand-daughter, Josephine Wittak Gugisberg, “Caroline was a good baker and did Bohemian cooking. She liked soup and served it a lot. In later life she was cold and stayed near the stove or, in summer, out in the sun.”

Monday, January 22, 2007

Jan Vitak/John Wittak

My great-grandfather, John Wittak, like many immigrants to American in the 19th century, went by many names. He was christened as Johann Chrisostomos Vitak. He was buried under the name of Jan Vitak. In between he was known as Johann Vitek, John Wattek and Jan Wittak. Like most Catholic children, he was named after a saint, in this case the 4th century Bishop, John Chrysostom. For brief biography of that saint, see:
The name Wittak means "welcomer."

Jan’s father, Matej Vitak, was a master servant who was born in Straziste in Bohemia, a small village southwest of Prague. When his first wife, Marie Bartova, died, leaving him with three children, Matej, who was then 37, married 19 year old Marie Kuchtova, and they had seven children together. (This theme will repeat in Jan’s life). Jan was their second child. He was born on January 9, 1838 in the small village of Lasovice in southern Bohemia. His mother died on March 11, 1857 when Jan was 19.

At this time, Bohemia was part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Two weeks after his mother's death, on April 1, 1857, Jan entered the Austrian Army. He served in the 9th Engineer Corps for fourteen years. According to his service record, he spoke German and a little Bohemian. He participated in the Seven Weeks War with Prussia (June through August 1866) and in the defense of Cracow. He was probably involved in the construction of the defenses around the impressive fortress in the shape of a dexahedron which the Austrians built in Krakow. For a look at this structure and the barracks where Jan might have lived, see this website:

On February 4 1868, Jan married Josefa Vojickova. He had just turned 30 and she was 19. It’s unclear how they met but since their first child was born in Straziste (where Jan’s father was born), it’s possible she was a local girl. That child, Marie, died 8 days after her birth, but the following year, Josefa gave birth to a son, Antonin. Also during that year, Jan left the Army. And the following year, they left for America.

They sailed from Bremen on the German ship Leipzig and arrived in Baltimore in July 1871.The passenger manifest lists Jan Witak 33, Josefa 23 and Anton age 11 months and says their last legal residence was in Stragist, Austria (Bohemia). Josefa must have been pregnant when they left, for her second son, John Wittak, was born on 27 Feb 1872 in Milwaukee.

According to a family story, Jan had learned tailoring in the Army and his boss in Mirovice, Bohemia wrote him a note of introduction to a tailor named Adler in Milwaukee who gave him a job right away. There was a prominent clothing manufacturer in Milwaukee named Adler but it’s not clear how his patronage would have benefited Jan who is listed in the 1880 city directory as working out of his home. Perhaps Jan did piece work for Adler. He worked as a tailor until he was sixty-four.

The Wittak family first stayed on Sherman Boulevard in Milwaukee, but soon moved to a wooden house at 698 12th Street. It had two units and the Wittak family occupied the rear bungalow for most of the time they lived at this address. The house in front was divided into two flats which Jan rented out.

Jan and Josefa had three more children in the next six years, Josephine, Joseph, and Anna, but the two girls died young. When Josefa died at age 30 in 1878, she left behind three sons: Anton (8), John (4) and Joseph (2). Family tradition implies that she was an aristocrat, too delicate to survive the hard condition she endured in America where she worked in her husband's shop. “Life in America was too rugged for his wife as she was used to refinement,” wrote my aunt, Josephine Wittak Gugisberg, who was recording what she knew about her family's history.

To help look after his three sons, Jan hired a young woman, Caroline Filipensky, whose father, also a Bohemian immigrant owned a farm in Fox Point, north of Milwaukee. Caroline and Jan were married in July of 1879 when he was 41 and she was 20 and had seven children of their own, thus almost exactly duplicating the configuration of Jan’s original family.

In 1895, shortly after their youngest child was born, Jan went back to Bohemia to visit his family. Fortunately his sons, Anton (25), John (23) and Joe (19) would have been able to help their stepmother with the younger children: George (13), Anna (11), Mary (9), Frank (7), Henry (4) and the baby Helen.

The family portrait (below) was probably taken around 1905, two years before Jan died, and shows the blended family (Caroline and Jan’s first child had died at the age of 4).

Jan died at the age of 69 and was buried at Calvary Cemetery. He left his entire estate to his wife, Caroline. The house was willed to her for her lifetime, then to be divided among the children. My Aunt Josephine wrote of her grandfather: "John Wittak was very religious, strictly honest and hard working."