The Homesteaders’ Hope: Bohemians and Germans poured into Reedsville and Brillion

March 1, 2018 © Corey Geiger

By Corey Geiger The Brillion News

The following is the first installment of a new feature from Corey Geiger looking into local history. 

Have you ever pondered why so many people with Bohemian and German heritage now call the greater Brillion and Reedsville area their home?

To understand the answer to that question, we must rewind our clocks nearly 150 years. Wisconsin had just celebrated its 20th year as a state. Page scrolls through the 1868 platbooks reveal that many 40-acre parcels were still for sale, as loggers hadn’t even harvested trees in some instances. But, that was all about to change. And quickly, I might add.

My interest in this topic stems from the fact our farm is celebrating 150 years of continuous family ownership in the Burich, Pritzl, and now Geiger families. In many cases, the farm was passed through daughters, not sons, which was customary in the day.

First homesteaded in 1867, this farm was birthed from immigrant dreams by Thomas Burich and his son Albert Burich and Albert’s new bride Josephine Turensky. Together this trio built a house, a small barn, and cleared their 40-acre homestead in the Town of Rockland . . . halfway between Reedsville and Brillion. That farm later passed to Albert and Josephine’s son John and his bride Anna (Satorie) Burich. Later their daughter Julia, and her husband Elmer Pritzl farmed the land from 1940 to 1981. And now their daughter Rosalie and her husband Randy Geiger make up the fifth generation.

To be certain, this story isn’t much different as to any other up until this point. But that’s where the fork in the road takes place. As the sixth generation family member in this lineage, I have been afforded a great opportunity. With the blessing of the editors of The Brillion News, I plan to author a column as our family celebrates this 150-year milestone. However, this story will be about all those immigrants who settled in our area.

This story can be told for three reasons: Anna, Julia, and Corey.

For starters, Anna Burich and her daughter Julia Pritzl were meticulous record keepers. Anna not only had access to Burich Family records, she also kept those for her father Wencel Satorie. This includes original deeds dating back to 1867. Letters back in forth between Wencel and his sister who remained impoverished in Bohemia. Land transfers and journals reveal incredible depth for senior care as Medicare and social security had yet to come upon the scene.

Likewise, my grandmother Julia will help tell this story through her journals and she will bring these stories to life through photos in which she painstakingly labeled dating well back into the late 1800s.

It’s because of this diligent work that we arrive at this intersection in the narrative.

With 23 years as an editor of Hoard’s Dairyman under my belt, I will bring these colorful stories to life each week in The Brillion News pairing narrative with photos. Along the way, I will weave stories of neighbors who interacted with one another to build America’s Dairyland by working with each other to construct farmsteads, loan each other money, and create a support network.

Why Wisconsin?

America was growing rapidly. The Homestead Act had just been passed in 1862. Free land and freedom could be found. Manifest Destiny, the 19th-century doctrine or belief that the expansion of the U.S. throughout the American continents was the theme of the era. And Europe’s floodgates were open as people fled because of poverty and religious persecution. Others simply had a sense of adventure. But most were poor and desperately hoping for a better life. Why else would you leave everybody and everything you know to often ride steerage like cattle on a ship?

Wisconsin was the western frontier back then. Milwaukee’s famed Northwestern Mutual Company got its name because Wisconsin had been part of the Northwest Territory at that point in its history.

For immigrants of that day, Wisconsin had the advantage of many fine ports on Lake Michigan. The Badger State also was not far from Chicago where many ships landed after coming up the Mississippi River. The Erie Canal opened offering easy travel from the East Coast to the Great Lakes, and then Wisconsin.

Yes, those Great Lakes were the main source of transportation in that era . . . as was walking, horseback, or stage coach. These waterways were the nation’s highways before the iron horse (railroads) or the modern day paved highway system.

Many early settlers, including my family, were farmers and the land of Wisconsin appealed to them. While the winters were colder than central Europe, many crops familiar to them could be grown. And citizenship could be obtained in just one year!

New York recruiters

Wisconsin’s New-York-City-based Immigration Commissioner persuaded immigrants to settle in Wisconsin. “Come! In Wisconsin all men are free and equal before the law. Religious freedom is absolute and there is not the slightest connection between church and state. In Wisconsin no religious qualification is necessary for office or to constitute a voter; all that is required is for the man to be 21 years old and to have lived in the state one year.”

And they came.

Most Bohemians and Germans in the Reedsville and Brillion area came from the modern day Germany’s Bavarian region and modern day Czechoslovakia’s Bohemia. To this day, those regions are the only areas in the world that have higher per capita consumption of beer when compared to Wisconsin. Yes, there is direct a connection!

Of course there were other nationalities such as the Irish of Maple Grove who fled Ireland. One million emigrated the Emerald Isle due to the Potato Famine. Another million died of starvation. Ireland’s population has never recovered. Overall, nationality’s tended to settle together and recruit others from their homeland.

Make no mistake, while America promised religious freedom. Religion and the immigrant’s faith in Jesus Christ was everything to them. It’s just that Europe was in a fierce battle as Protestantism and Catholicism struggled for national sovereignty.

Immigrants brought very little with them. However, my Burich and Satorie families brought religious books and bibles in their native tongues. Those, too, were saved by Anna Burich and Julia Pritzl. Most with publication dates from 1840 to 1860.

As this 150-year journey unfolds, you will meet a cast of characters who have long since passed this world. However, the power of archiving is about to meet the power of storytelling.

About the author: Corey Geiger is a 1991 graduate of Reedsville High School and represents the sixth generation in the Burich, Pritzl, and Geiger lineage. He has spent 20-plus years studying local history, researching at the National Archives, and he even found gravesites of relatives in modern-day Germany and Czechoslovakia. He is an accomplished editor for Hoard’s Dairyman; the most widely circulated dairy publication in the world with English, Spanish, and Japanese editions.

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