There is a lot of Willman family history permeating some of the
old, simple homes in eastern Grand Island.
Henry and Marie (Stroh) Willman, born in Germany,
and their five children left Frank, Russia, for the United States
in 1905. After arriving at Ellis Island, they wound up in Nebraska,
then spent a few months harvesting sugar beets in Colorado before
returning to Grand Island.
From that point on, the Willmans and three of their
sons built four homes on East Division, South Vine and South Oak
-- the area of Grand Island known as "Rooshin Town."
All four houses are still standing and operational today, eight
to nine decades later.
"Henry (the oldest son of Henry and Marie)
built his home at 510 East Division," said Shirley Bruhn,
a granddaughter of Henry and Marie. "They butchered their
own pigs there and made their own baloney."
A Willman family history further recalls the early
days of Henry and Marie in Grand Island:
"They butchered their own meat and boiled their
own lard and made their own sausage. They raised chickens, tended
gardens and somehow managed to get groceries for the schnitz suppe
(fruit soup), grabble (doughnuts) and blina (potato pancakes)."
This fascinating history has captured Bruhn and
Nancy Demuth, both in Grand Island. They are two of the Henry
and Marie Willman's 18 grandchildren.
The last of Henry and Marie's nine children, David
Willman, passed away in Grand Island on May 2, 2003, at the age
The family's genealogy goes back to Frank, Russia,
one of the "German mother colonies" in Russia. Many
of the villages were located near the Volga River, which led to
the term "Volga Germans."
Some of the earliest memories passed down through
the decades were those of marauding Cossacks and Russian soldiers.
"My mom told stories about the Russian soldiers,"
Demuth said. "They didn't like the soldiers."
The Willman family history adds: "The mothers
of the children would tell them to hide under their beds whenever
the Russian soldiers (Cossacks) would come riding on their big
white horses over the hills."
The Cossacks were an ethnic group that lived in
or near present-day Ukraine. In the 19th century, some Cossacks
received special privileges and formed special units in the Russian
army. (Ironically, during the Russian Revolution, most Cossacks
fought against the Red Army, or Communists.)
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Russians
began preaching hatred of Germans. Prior to World War II and the
Russian Revolution, Germans in Russia were regular targets of
government edicts, harassment and violence.
It also was about this time when Henry and Marie
Willman decided to leave. From the Willman history:
"Finally, the day arrived for them to depart
and with their family and luggage, they boared the boat that would
take them to America. The boat was crowded with other eager travelers
leaving the old country behind, looking forward to a great life
in a new country ...
"Little Marie (one of the couple's children)
remembers peering over the ship's edge, clutching her mother's
hand so that she would not slip and fall. Her first sight that
she remembers was the sighting of the Statue of Liberty standing
in the New York harbor. To the immigrants, the statue meant a
symbol of freedom."
The Willmans were able to rent a house on East Yund
in Grand Island, in the middle of "Rooshin' Town." After
the family spent a half-year working in sugar beet fields in Colorado,
they moved back to Grand Island.
Henry Sr., who went to work with the Union Pacific
Railroad, then built the family's new home at 510 E. Division.
It was the first of four houses that Willman family members built
in the area -- two were on South Vine and another on South Oak.
The family worked hard to make their lives in Grand
Island, accumulating memories along the way.
Henry and Marie had nine children, but lost several
others to stillbirth or miscarriage. One daughter, Frieda, died
of a burst appendix at age 4.
Bruhn remembers her mother, Marie (Willman) Woodruff
telling her that she learned English in the old Dodge Elementary
School. Marie quit school in the eighth grade to help at home,
not at all uncommon for the time.
Bruhn herself recalls learning the Lord's Prayer
in German by age 3.
Henry Jr., an uncle of Bruhn and Demuth, married
a woman who was sent over to America specifically for that purpose.
"Our grandfather wrote back to Russia and asked
if there were any eligible girls 17, 18 or 19 years old,"
Bruhn said. "Our Aunt Katja (Katherine) came over and married
Henry. She liked to read from the Bible."
Bruhn and Demuth also said their grandfather, Henry
Sr., did not know any English when he arrived in Nebraska.
"He signed his signature with an 'X,' witnessed
by others," the family history said. "Later, he learned
a little English."
Henry Sr. died at 69, He had spent nine bed-ridden
years with Parkinson's Disease. In attempts to find a cure, Henry
Jr. took his father to South Dakota to see a healer.
Henry Sr. and Marie are buried in the Grand Island
Cemetery, as well as eight of their nine children. One of their
sons, George, is buried in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
John, another of the children of Henry Sr. and Marie,
was well-known in Grand Island for his two grocery stores.
David was the last of Demuth's and Bruhn's aunts
or uncles to pass away. He died on May 2, 2003, at age 93. David
was a longtime worker at the Cornhusker Army Ammunition Plant.
There is no shortage of Willman stories to pass
down through the years. Demuth and Bruhn say their cousins, children,
nieces and nephews have heard, and remember, many of the family
"Our children are into this," Bruhn said.
"They are aware of their heritage."
Reprinted with permission of the Grand Island Independent.