A Search of the Past
"A Search of the Past." Glen Ullin Times, 28 June 1984, 2.
The faith story for the next two weeks will be about Franz Joseph
Duratschek, written by his daughter, Sister M. Claudia Duratschek,
OSB. Franz and Clara Duratschek are the grandparents of the pastor
at Sacred Heart Church, Father Claude Seeberger, OSB.
The Blind Sage of Glen Ullin
Franz Josef Duratschek
The history of nearly every village and hamlet is the story of
a person, venerable in his lifetime and still well known from the
anecdotes repeated through the years. Glen Ullin is no exception.
It is proper, therefore, in this centennial year to recall Franz
Josef Duratschek, the blind sage of Glen Ullin, who for more than
30 years was a distinctive personage in the area. Most town people
were familiar with the sight of Franz, tapping his way along the
wooden sidewalks of the town. Many had profited from his wisdom
that had been distilled from his tragedy, from the readings he had
listened to, and from the many points of view garnered through his
contacts with all sorts of people. But few knew his origin nor the
story of his tragic disability. Therefore it will be told now.
Franz was born in 1866 in Wecehaza, a small rural Hungarian village.
He was the only son of a wealthy widow, Genevieve Suess Duratschek,
who also had two daughters, Teresa and Anna. At the age of 21, Franz
was called to serve in the army of Kaiser Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary.
This removed him from his mother’s farm for three years.
During these years Franz was dreaming of returning to the farm
“’lord and master”. His mother, on the contrary,
was expecting him to return as a compliant manager of the entire
estate. Hence, on his return home in 1890, his mother urged him
to take as wife, one of the village girls. He chose Clara Filibeck,
five years his junior; the parents arranged for the wedding.
The newlyweds made their home in the stone building, which Franz
had inherited, from his father, located a short distance from his
mother’s house. But his dreams of being a happy farmer, served
by loyal farmhands were frustrated by his mother’s autocratic
rule. It appears as if she did not ever intend to let loose the
reins. Franz would have to cut loose to gain freedom of action.
He explored the plan of emigration offered by the Americans. The
Northern Pacific Railway Company was laying tracks from Minnesota
to the Pacific coast and needed settlers along the way to make the
railroad profitable business. Prospectors from the Northern Pacific
were promoting easy and cheap passage to the wide open plains of
the United States where free homesteads were to be had. What a bonanza!
Two of his wife’s brothers, John and Joseph Filibeck, had
already followed the siren call of “free land” and freedom.
They were now landowners along the tracks of the Northern Pacific
in North Dakota. Without hesitation Franz announced to his mother
that he was selling his father’s bequest and taking his family
to America. She refused to consent. If he did not carry on the family
business, he was no longer a son of hers. This was no empty threat.
He would be disinherited. She had considerable property, but Franz
Franz took his eight-month pregnant wife and four year old daughter
Anotonia (Toni), and left for Bremen, Germany, to embark on the
Nord Deutscher Lloyd for New York. In his packet was the cash from
the sale of the inheritance from his father. Although by this step
he forfeited his share of his mother’s possessions, he preferred
On April 1, 1898, they landed in New York and soon entrained for
the West. Their destination was a small village about 50 miles west
of Bismarck, North Dakota and a free homestead of 160 acres somewhere
along the tracks of the Northern Pacific Railroad.
The family was met at the station by John Filibeck and family and
was welcomed into his already crowded home. Here the Duratscheks
stayed while Franz selected and filed claim about 14 miles south
of Glen Ullin, where he built a two room sod house and a barn. On
May 21, a little American citizen, Teresa, was added to the family.
Franz planned carefully the essential equipment necessary to put
in his crop in spring. He purchased a steady team of horses and
machinery. A couple of cows, a sow, and chickens were added. By
fall he moved his family into the clean white-washed sod house.
Isolation was complete. There was no Rural Free Delivery; no telephone
for a friendly call from a neighbor.
A United States Government advertisement was brought to his attention.
It was offering a job of hauling grain to the Fort Berthold Indian
Agency. This was a god-send for him. The team and wagon were ready.
He secured a young immigrant lad to take care of the chores on the
farm and be companion to his family. He applied for the job and
left in late November for Mandan with about a dozen other men.
There they loaded the grain and set out northwest for Elbowoods,
North Dakota. The group selected Franz’s team as lead team.
All went well until they reached the Knife River. It had to be crossed.
No bridge was at hand. The men tested the ice. They would risk crossing
Franz’s team started across. When it reached the middle,
there was a thunderous crack and team, wagon, and driver sank into
the icy water. The other men still on the bank jumped from their
wagons to help.
After his rescue, Franz stood in his drenched clothing holding
his recovered horses. Soon he turned into an iceman. There was no
dwelling for miles around. The wisest thing to do was to push toward
Elbowoods. The other men crossed by another way. It was nearly miraculous
that after such a lengthy exposure Franz immediately suffered nothing
worse than two frozen fingers which later had to be amputated.
Three weeks after his safe return home he awakened his wife and
asked her to light the kerosene lamp and look into his eye. There
seemed to be something irritating it. By morning both eyes were
inflamed. When home remedies brought no relief and the condition
worsened, Franz decided to seek the help of the doctor in Mandan.
A neighbor took him to town.
The doctor had a small office with a couple of rooms attached to
accommodate patients. After a brief examination he put some drops
into Franz’s eyes. The medicine seared the eyeballs. The vision
Aghast at the effect of the medicine, the doctor dismissed the
neighbor, saying that Franz would have to be treated a couple of
days. It seems that this so-called doctor realized that he had done
irreparable damage to the eyes and was at a loss how to proceed.
He kept Franz locked in one of the rooms. The latter was nearly
insane from pain. He bribed the male attendant to get for him a
sturdy walking stick and then lead him at night down to the railroad
tracks. There Franz asked to be turned westward. With the stick
along the rail he made his way that cold December night toward New
Salem. Fortunately for him, no trains interfered with his trek.
At the New Salem depot a group of people were waiting for the morning
passenger train from the west. One of the people drew attention
to a man with bandaged eyes, coming along the tracks. He painfully
drew near and collapsed unconscious just as the train stopped with
The first man to alight was the awaited physician for the town.
His first patient was lying at his feet. A quick look at what lay
behind the bandage caused him to hail the conductor. A short consultation
resulted in an order to the brakeman to lift the unconscious man
into the train. With a wave to the crowd who had come to welcome
him, the doctor explained: “I’m taking my first patient
to a hospital in Minneapolis, I’ll come back.”
By the time the reached the city Franz was delirious. His brain
was infected. On arrival at the hospital even a preliminary examination
revealed the critical condition of his eyes. A consultation resulted
in the diagnosis that the suppurated eyeballs had to be removed
at once to save Franz’s sanity and even his life. To do this
the hospital needed Franz’s signature or at least someone
who could sign in his name. In a clear moment Franz sighed. Anything
to escape the pain that racked his body.
Meanwhile Clara agonized in her snowbound home. She had not seen
Franz nor heard anything about him since he left with the neighbor
for Mandan. What could have happened to him? At length a wagon stopped
at her door. A man handed her a letter that the thoughtful postmaster
had sent her. With trembling fingers she broke the seal. She shrieked.
The frightened children clung to her. “No! Not blind.”
“No eyes!” There was nobody there to give her comfort.
The two little girls mingled their tears with hers. He would be
at home in a couple of days. Blind! Meanwhile, at the hospital the
sympathetic Sisters packed Franz’s suitcase and thoughtfully
inserted a bag of colorful rock-candy for his children.
It was Christmas Eve. The young man who had been helping the family
dressed up as St. Nick and brought a rag doll for Toni. Teresa was
too young to understand. There was a sharp rap at the door and then
it swung open. A man with celluloid shields over his eyes stepped
in. Clara flew into his arms and wept piteously. Toni joined her
without grasping the situation. At length her mother called to Toni
to come and kiss her father. “He is not my father. My father
has nice eyes.” Franz asked his wife to open his suitcase,
hoping that the rock-candy would draw his daughter to him.
Unobserved by anyone a great change occurred in Clara. The clinging
vine type of wife had suddenly been transformed into a valiant woman,
ready to shoulder the support of her husband and her two little
daughters. Was it the grace flowing from the Sacrament of Matrimony
that produced the marvelous alteration in the 27 year old woman?
No longer could she confidently rely upon her stalwart, wise husband
for support and guidance. She was now to be his bread winner. She
had to be his brightness to prevent the engulfing blackness driving
him to insanity or suicide. She also had to find the means to provide
for him and the children. Unskilled in any trade, unfamiliar with
the language of her new homeland, the task seemed nearly hopeless,
God was her only hope.
Right at the start she adopted the policy of consulting Franz before
any decisions. He carried the purse. By this method of his self-respect
was gradually restored. But on that desolate Christmas day, Franz
clung helplessly to his wife’s hands as together they tried
to face the bleak future. Farming was out. They would have to auction
off what he had so hopefully purchased; invest the money in a small
frame house, and move to Glen Ullin. There Clara’s two strong
arms would attempt to earn the living for the family.
This new role of helpless dependency cast Franz into a deep depression.
Death would be an escape from such an intolerable lot of uselessness.
Clara could not leave him out of sight. It became Toni’s task
to be her father’s constant companion while her mother was
working. She had to give the alarm if Franz moved about.
When Father Ambrose, OSB, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, learned
of Franz’s plan to move to town, he suggested to the parish
that it provide a site for his home. The parish owned an entire
town block and only the church and rectory buildings were occupying
it. The parishioners gladly donated the southeast corner lots to
the stricken family.
Father Ambrose dug the first spade-full of dirt to start the basement
for the house. Franz stood bravely beside him and blindly dug into
the ground. A warm friendship then began which helped Franz surmount
the frustrating first year of his blindness. The pastor guided him
to begin to see God’s hand in his misfortune. The priest cultivated
in him a deep love and devotion to Our Lady and her rosary. The
afflicted man tried to make the best of his condition and tried
to learn to do what a blind person could do. His spirits be began
to rise; he vied with the birds in whistling their melodies and
began to recognize his friends by their footsteps. By and by Franz
learned to set the fire in the stoves, pump the water, break up
the large lumps of lignite coal, and chop the kindling at some risk.
He gathered the dry laundry from the clothesline and swept the sidewalk.
Such menial tasks lifted his self respect and made his life worth
living. Intermittently there were periods of deep depression when
suicide beckoned liberation.
The building was completed and the family moved from their sod
shanty to their freshly painted new house in town. The County Commissioners
offered a ten dollar monthly assistance.
Franz soon learned that every acceptance of government relief has
its price. Not a month passed before a commissioner paid him a visit.
Someone had reported to him that the Duratschek house displayed
a lace curtain on one of its windows. Such luxury was unbecoming
to one receiving government assistance. Franz listened, then arose,
tapped his way toward the unsuspecting official, seized him by the
collar and pushed him out of the house. “No one is telling
my wife what she is putting up in my house. You can keep your ten
dollars”. Loss of sight did not make Franz lose his desire
for independence. He promptly returned to the county office the
first and only check he received.
Franz’s defiant words had been brave words but how did this
family fare? The two cows and few chickens which he brought to town
helped to furnish food and also a little cash. The rectory and several
households brought milk and eggs when available. Clara took in washing
and went to homes to do laundry. Penny-pinching was the order of
the day. Somehow there was always a little in the larder and the
family never had to go to bed supper less.
When Toni was six years old, instead of going to the public school,
Clara taught her how to read German to her father. She did this
not with a primer but by using the German Catholic newspapers which
pastor passed on to the family. It was hard work for the youngster
to master a word like “Philadelphia”. The following
year found Franz eagerly waiting for 4 p.m. which would bring Toni
home from school and the reading could begin.
After five years residence in Dakota, Franz applied for citizenship.
Toni led her father into the capitol and saw him raise his right
hand and renounce his allegiance to Kaiser Franz Josef and pledge
his loyalty henceforth to the United States of America. Because
of his disability, the requirement of tilling his homestead was
waived. He received the deed for 160 acres. The small income from
the rent was a help to support the family. After his death his widow
sold the land.
Another source of income came from housing three elderly men, county
dependents. These joined Franz in listening to Toni’s reading.
It was a scene reminiscent of Hoffmann’s famous painting,
“Christ among the Doctors”; Toni sitting surrounded
by these bearded men.
Clara’s skillful nursing of Franz during a critical illness
induced the doctor to propose another means of adding to her meager
income. Because there was no hospital in town, a midwife in the
county was a real need. The doctor offered to instruct Clara; she
could arrange for a bed in her house. Other arrangements could be
made for the three old men.
So popular was she as a midwife that more convenient quarters were
required. Franz sold the house hear the church and bought a one-story
building, formerly a place of business, on the east end of Main
Street. Here a bench before the house became the rendezvous for
Franz’s cronies. For years, too, the majority of babies in
the area were born in this remodeled dwelling. For maternity care,
for ten days the charge ranged from $25 to $35. When the baby was
delivered at the mother’s home Clara received $10.
Franz felt the need for reconciliation with his mother. Letters
remained unanswered. Would facing her now blinded son soften her
heart? Clara agreed that the plan would be worth trying. She hoarded
her meager income even more and Franz borrowed an addition $400.
By March, 1906, the passage money was collected and the date for
departure set. Then the news of his mother’s death reached
Franz. Nevertheless, the family set out and spent three months in
the home of Clara’s mother. Franz’s sister Anna had
inherited the bulk of the mother’s estate; because of Teresa’s
loyalty to her brother she received only a token portion.
True to the mother’s word, Franz got nothing. Anna chose
to abide by the mother’s decision. So Franz returned to Glen
Ullin no richer.
In June, 1909 Franz felt as if he was to lose his eyes the second
time. Toni, his faithful reader, left with her Benedictine teachers
for Yankton, S.D., to join their ranks. The younger Teresa had not
learned to enjoy reading aloud in German and was unwilling to begin.
His wife read to him when she had some leisure but that was seldom.
So Franz sorely missed the source of contact with the outside world
which the reading had provided.
A short time later Clara’s mother in Wecehaza was widowed
and needed help. Franz immediately offered to go to Hungary and
bring her back to live with them. He left in 1910 with Teresa as
guide. They found the widow happy at the thought of joining her
two sons and daughter in America. She had packed readily enough
but at the last moment changed her mind. She could not bring herself
to break the ties of a lifetime. She, as well as her children, was
to regret the decision. Because of the bitter poverty during and
after World War I, she succumbed.
Franz returned to the tasks that through the years the pastors
of the parish thoughtfully had assigned to him. He was the official
bell-ringer. Since he could not tell the time, he had to contrive
a plan to overcome this difficulty. He noted that the striking clock
in his home gave a peculiar tick three minutes before the hour.
He practiced until he had found the right speed that would bring
him to the church at the exact time to ring the bell. During Holy
Mass, he led the Rosary. Here, too, he had learned to time himself
for the pauses that were required at certain points in the Mass.
He lost this job with the opening of the parochial school (1905).
The Benedictine Sisters taught the children to use the Mass Prayers
(Offeramus) and to sing hymns.
Benedictine Fathers Ambrose Lethert and Adolph Dingman of St. John’s
Abbey, Collegeville, Mn. were followed by Benedictine priests from
the Abbey at Richardton. Outstanding among them was Father Alphonse
Henn. These dedicated priests accomplished a marvelous transformation
in Franz. As his faith, his love of Our Blessed Mother and of the
Holy Eucharist grew through his contact with these men of God, his
acceptance of his fate made the bearing of it tolerable. A sort
of rehabilitation has taken place.
A source of enjoyment for Franz was imitating the call of the meadowlarks,
bobolinks, and quails. His whistle often confused the birds but
delighted listeners. For years the tapping of the cane and the cheery
whistle were familiar sounds in Glen Ullin. Often a friend, coming
behind him, was startled when Franz called out, “Hello, Joe”.
He had recognized the step of Mr. Geck or someone else.
Franz was a staunch Democrat in politics and a lusty campaigner
for Al Smith. He freely expressed his opinion on topics of the day
and not a few sought his advice.
Franz knew most of the townspeople. He greeted all who passed through
Glen Ullin and related to them the history of the town. Men with
problems found Franz a ready listener. They felt better after consulting
the “blind man” as he sat on the bench before his house
on Main Street.
Teresa meanwhile had reached maturity and married Nick V. Seeberger
and became the mother of seven children, two of whom embraced the
religious state: Father Claude A. Seeberger, OSB, and Sister M.
Judeen Seeberger, OSB.
After being cared for by his faithful wife and loving daughter
Teresa, for several months. Franz died at his home in Glen Ullin,
May 29, 1935. His body rests in the local Catholic cemetery.
Without a penny of public assistance, but with his loyal, capable
wife and his own self-respect, Franz Duratschek, a completely blind
man, died a free independent man.
Sister M. Claudia Duratschek, OSB.