Good evening, friends… It is an honor to be here. I’m feeling twice honored this year. As many of you know, I was asked to be the keynote speaker at the 175th anniversary celebration for New Bremen and Wapakoneta held at the county courthouse. It was an especially enjoyable afternoon. I tried to speak on that occasion about the economic future of New Bremen and towns like New Bremen across America. In this century, towns like New Bremen will be great places to raise families and companies, and great places for lives and careers. All of us have friends who live in larger cities. The tax rates are difficult, the commute times to work are punishing, the cost of living is excessive, and it is not a life where you can even let a kid ride a bicycle around town.
If you think about new inventions in just the last 25 years - inventions like the fax machine, cell phones, overnight mail, and computer assistance for information, shopping, and communications, the changes are staggering and they work in favor of small-town life, taking away what used to be the advantages of larger cities.
The economic health of an area most surely does have its consequences. The prices of property, the care of the physical infrastructure of the community, a welcoming tax climate… All of these things find their place in the ability of a town to be successful; and success can build upon success, just as failures can also compound. No community can ever stay the same. Each day, every community is in the process of getting better or getting worse. It happens in tiny and subtle ways we do not notice at the moment; but over a decade, one sees the consequences.
I won’t point out particular communities, since good manners should have a place on a night like this, but I think we all know which of the communities in our immediate area have less and which have more going for them as compared to the same towns 25 or 50 years ago. Just think of our local Auglaize/Mercer/Shelby County experience as a story being replicated all across this country.
No future is assured. New Bremen as a town, and all of us individually, are a work in progress each year. Improvement always has more to do with whether or not we have identified the right questions or as I sometimes joke, “Are we just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?”
Most of my working day is about the future, questioning where Crown is going, challenges to be faced, and working to be ready for where the next step is going to take us. My job has been about trying to imagine the future as an essential step in charting a course with the company’s other leaders.
Tonight, however, is a little different. I have been asked to step out of character and reminisce about my memories of growing up in New Bremen, and reflect a bit on New Bremen’s past. Of course, I will follow the request.
With apologies to those of you who already know the story, let me start with my great-grandfather, Henry Dicke. Henry was the youngest of 16 kids born to Cord Dicke, when Cord was 68 years old. The Dickes were New Bremen area farmers by trade and over the years, Henry and his wife lived on a couple of different area farms. Their final farm, however, just south of town, is where the Amsterdam Shopping Center is today. Like all good local Protestants, Henry’s Lutheran prayer book was in German, printed in Chicago. I remember Leo Topp telling me what it was like as a young boy to help Henry plow that farm with a horse and plow, resting for 10 minutes to give the horse a break after each pass around the field with the plow. Leo’s point in telling me the story was to illustrate how modern machinery had made farm work today so much less social, and more relentless, without breaks. But I stray from my point…
Henry thought farming was no good way to make a living. Trying to buy a farm with very little family financial help and raising six kids of his own with my great-grandmother Emma Maurer Dicke, left him without the time, energy or resources for much else. He made each of his six kids promise that they would find something else to do, and they all did. They may have earned their livings in other ways, but the family involvement with farms and farming has remained unbroken. Dora Dicke Maurer (Henry and Emma’s oldest child) was an amateur genealogist, so I can tell you that one branch of the family or another has been involved in farming each year for roughly 500 years. If we had the facts, I’m sure it would probably go back even further. It always makes me smile when somebody tells me that farming is in the genes. Thanks to Aunt Dora, I understand.
My parents met and married in Dayton, Ohio, where my grandfather, Carl Dicke (his nickname was “C.H.”) was an executive with the Master Electric Company. World War II was in progress and as the war ended and I was born in 1945, my grandfather Carl and Carl’s brother, Allen Dicke, decided to start a company in New Bremen. They owned a farm in partnership, where they raised the “Crown” breed of mink and agreed to use that name temporarily until they thought of a better one. Allen had once visited the home of an ancestor in a town called Kronenberg (literally translated, that means “Crown town”) in Germany, but the family lore does not suggest that was a part of the naming decision. The older brother of Allen and Carl, Oscar Dicke, thought the whole thing was just a “risky venture” and declined to be involved. Oscar was probably right, but you know how brothers can be. Carl took a little offense at the comment. Both brothers, however, were just as happy not to have their bossy older brother involved, but had felt a responsibility to make the offer. Oscar was a character. He once told his wife not to buy a 25 cent plant because if she bought the 15 cent alternative, it would grow soon enough.
Some of my very earliest memories of New Bremen are of the grand elm trees covering the streets with a canopy of leaves. They were planted on the edge of the street itself, where the storm sewers are today, and I remember how the streets would become impassable with tree branches whenever there was a rain storm. In the fall, there were leaves everywhere, large piles being burned…. And I still associate the smell of burning leaves with my childhood in New Bremen. I still recall the concern each year about the polio season.
In 1951, Allen decided to sell his part of Crown to Carl and Jim. Then, in December of 1952, just before Christmas, Carl died of a heart attack at the age of 50. He had experienced his first heart attack in his 30s. Whatever the medical situation was probably would have been repairable with today’s technology and he lived with it for a long time.
Carl had been full of opinions. He thought I should have a horse, because knowing how to handle a horse was very important. He thought I should be paid well for good work, so he gave me a silver dollar for being the ring-bearer in my aunts’ weddings. He thought I should appreciate God’s beauty and to distract me at another family funeral, he showed me how to squeeze a snapdragon blossom to make its jaws open and close.
Grandpa Dicke died less than 90 days after my younger brother was born. There is only one picture of the two of them together. I had just turned 7 and remember St. Paul Church being filled to overflowing for his funeral, as it often happens when a young man or woman dies while all of the friends are still alive. Carl was the youngest of the six siblings and the first to die. As a 7-year-old myself, I did not really appreciate that he was still a young man. Certainly, I did not appreciate the pressures on my 30-year-old father.
Dad was always working. He would come home from the office for a meal and then go back to work. He would come home late and be out early. Mother loved music and art, and was a gifted pianist. She would have the radio on during the day, and we might sing along with some tune; but when dad came home, the radio would be turned off to give him a little quiet. They were, and are still, extraordinarily devoted to one another. To give Mother a break, I would go to the office with Dad or Grandpa, so I don’t remember a time when I was not sitting in on Crown business meetings. Jack Earl, the school art teacher and now a famous ceramic artist, helped with the new look for the TV antenna rotator control box, shaping the design in grey wet clay, and explaining the math of clay shrinkage.
Some weekends we would go to Dayton. I-75 had not yet been built. My mother wanted Dad to have a break from work; but at the kitchen table on Canterbury Drive, work continued. Grandpa Webster and Dad and I would talk, while Dad would spread papers out on the kitchen table, looking for insights from his wise father-in-law. My mother’s father, Warren Webster, was a businessman of remarkable wisdom and insight, who had left school and gone to work at age 14.
Later, I realized just how much pressure my dad was carrying. At 30 years of age, he had a young struggling company trying to get established with no capital, a young family, was the sole source of support for a widowed mother, and had a brother-in-law who needed some help to continue medical school. Dad spent a lot of time culling the newspaper classified ads, looking for things Crown needed to see if they could be found as bargains. One of my second cousins said to me one day when I was about 8, “My grandfather says your father will go broke.” It seemed to me like a silly thing, but later as I told my father what had been said, he just looked at me, got very, very red and said, “You don’t need to worry about that.” And that was the end of the subject. Actually, life was good and I was not worried, but I clearly sensed it was best not to continue the conversation.
There was a lot about my childhood experience that was like an extended family. I could tell you about warm memories of baseball and Red Finke driving around town in that Model T Ford with a portable PA system, announcing, “Come to the ballpark”, with all of the game particulars. Of course, in those days, there was only one ballpark. There are great memories of the old Central School and my classmates. In our first grade Dick and Jane reading book, I thought Jane looked like my classmate, Suzanne Luedeke. Our home was at 107 North Franklin Street, now the Kuhn family home. Our phone number was “133” and sometimes the operator would even tell a caller, “I know they are not home right now, but they should return this evening.” New Bremen was even more of a fish bowl than it is today. Great-grandma Dicke lived nearby, and there were cousins and uncles all over town - on Herman Street, Washington Street, Franklin Street, Walnut Street, Main Street, Eastmoor Court, and probably some I’m not recalling. We had so many great and dedicated teachers, starting with Dorothy Harlamert in the first grade and going from there. Town bullies existed of course but they were few and far between. We raced bicycles in the town park and played cowboys and Indians. In the 1950s, that was the thing to do. For 5 cents, you could get a paper bag of licorice buttons at the drug store.
In the town park was a Rodman cannon facing south, as all small town cannons in Yankee land faced south after the Civil War. A new book is about to be available about New Bremen in the Civil War. I have a few copies here tonight, just off the press. It may surprise you to know that New Bremen did not vote for Abraham Lincoln, but when the war came, our young men enlisted and my great-grandfather’s older brother, William Dicke, died in the Battle at Vicksburg. Two other soldiers from this area even came to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
One thing I want to share with you tonight, however, is something that I’ve never spoken about before. It probably should be a little embarrassing, but I think it speaks volumes for the kindness and understanding of the people of this town.
As a kid, I was entrepreneurial - I guess I still am. I remember seeing an ad in a comic book for salesmen who wanted to sell boxes of greeting cards and stationary. I talked my reluctant parents into advancing me the money for some inventory and I started going door to door, pedaling my goods. A couple of the residents asked if I was selling to benefit the scouts or anyone and, of course, I truthfully said I was not. A few looked at me strangely and asked my name. Many did not buy, but some did, and I did sell my inventory. Everyone was kind though, and it was that learning experience of going door to door and dealing with a town full of kind adults that was a great learning exercise. It was great, however, because the adults of this town were very understanding and supportive of young people, even when there was no reason to do so.
It is a little amazing to think of what this town was like 175 years ago. Companies of German settlers would gather in Cincinnati, could buy a town site already incorporated and surveyed and platted, ready to go, as it were. Our founders saved the money, however, did their own paperwork, and to this day, we have a few little survey glitches that don’t quite line up.
Spring would break, the settlers would rush to come, girdle trees, plant some crops, build a cabin, and generally try to get “set” enough to survive the first winter. The effort was back-breaking, the work relentless, and the old German expression about work hours applied - “We work from can to can’t.”
If you want to read an interesting book, let me suggest a new one just out called “White Cargo” by Don Jordan and Michael Walsh. It is about Britain sending indentured servants to America as the earliest form of slavery in this country to pick cotton and do other work. It was cotton, of course, and the invention of the cotton gin, that made the demand for German flax diminish and played a part in the wave of German immigration. One of my Maurer ancestors even left a record of his own reasons for coming to America. On the ship crossing to America, he wrote these words:
“The thought came to me early in the month of October 1832 that I should like to go America with my children. From the moment I resolved to go, I became happy and carefree. It seemed as though I were transformed. At work and in marching, I was never tired. I could make a 2-hour march in 1½ hours. Thank God for the wonderful gift of health and for the light and happy heart.
The conditions that influenced me to go to America are as follows:
So, I think Philip Maurer sounds a little like Ayn Rand, wouldn’t you say?
Let me pause here, if I may, for a little translation of Mr. Maurer’s words…
A loaf of bread was called a ten-pound loaf. It was really a dense and heavy bread. But a loaf really weighed about 8 pounds, still quite a loaf of bread and all-purpose food.
A franken was a unit of currency derived from the French franc, following the years of French occupation. There were also units of currency called reich, thalters, guldens, krenzers, florins, and dinars. In other words, there was no unified banking system or currency system as we would think of it today. Moving from one currency to another was costly.
As close as I can calculate, the prospect of an 80-acre farm in Ohio at $1.25 per acre would have cost less than 1 acre of German farmland, a tremendous incentive for people to come to America for the opportunity of prosperity and freedom…
As for the bad people in the next town, I wonder what Phillip Maurer thought of the notorious Girty brothers in St. Marys, when he finally did arrive here. Some things don’t change.
So, anyway, when they did arrive, what were their aspirations for this community? A look at German communities like Kronenberg and Lauterechen might give us a clue. Often, farmers in Germany actually lived in the community and would go out to their fields in the daytime, a throwback to the medieval needs of security. America would be more modern. Some of New Bremen’s local economic success stories in the first hundred years focused on the use of local resources – pork packing, brick making, blanket making, furniture making, retail selling and food processing. A lot of local characters and “nicknames” were an outgrowth of the fact that this was a community where there was a closed economic loop, where people essentially were mostly dealing with one another. Local credit and local confidence was a substitute for the fact that capital was not always very available. Even in retirement, my great-grandfather, Fred Kamman, harbored sore feelings against people who put on airs, but had not paid their accounts with him as a local merchant. He made sure the Kamman account book is in the family library. The descendents of the deadbeats are not here tonight, as far as I know, but if any of you want to consult the book, it can be arranged.
Regardless of the initial aspirations for the community in 1832 and its capital constraints, it seems there was a big effort to sculpt the topography to place Lock One in the center of the town. Many of you probably know that the watershed point actually starts in Jackson Township, in the woods just south of Amsterdam Road. From that point, the Kuest Ditch passes through my backyard and eventually passes through the Bremenfest Park. In 1992, when we excavated the basement for Crown’s Washington Street office building next to the old fire station constructed in 1895, we not only found approximately 10 feet of fill dirt, but we actually found a drainage pipe at the depth of 12 feet made from a hollowed log covered with a board. In other words, I think they were making a real effort in the 1830s to use the ground coming from the construction of the canal to sculpt the topography of a town center to suit their purposes and create the place for Lock One.
Cheap oil, for much of the last century, fueled the American economy. Many of us in this room are old enough to remember a time when most of the township roads were stone and dirt. Cheap oil made it possible to pave them. At the end of World War II, a surplus of heavy earth-moving equipment was sold on the market and all over the United States, it became economical to buy a “useless” woods and inexpensively remove the timber, turn it into a proper farm field for crops or grazing, and to do so in a way that made an economic profit. Man and machinery have continued to transform this area for 175 years.
I left New Bremen for high school at Culver in Indiana and college at Trinity University in San Antonio. There was a whole chapter of my formative years when I was able to spend only a little time here in New Bremen. Perhaps this accounts for my attachment, when so many of my New Bremen classmates came to live elsewhere. What do they say? Absence makes the heart grow fonder? As a young married couple, we lived at 27 South Herman Street, and New Bremen was still a friendly place. I will never forget one of the STAMCO strikers knocking on the door one cold evening to see if I wanted to join them for a poker game in the strike trailer. See, it was still a friendly town…
Thank you for the invitation to speak this evening. It has been fun to relive some old memories. Mostly what I want to leave you with this evening, however, is this observation. I believe this town will continue to do well because of the special people who live here. The people who live in New Bremen are special because they like to work well, they like to play fair, and they like to leave things better than they found them. These qualities which have served our town so well in the past will continue to be important to success in the future. Communities that work at creating a planning process and then proceeding openly and cooperatively to fulfill the dream will always outperform communities where the norm is confrontation and unpleasantness.
Thank you and good evening.
James Dicke, II