Seelitz, in eastern Perry County, was a short-lived town near Altenburg. It was one of the seven colonies established in 1839 in the Saxon Migration.
Click on the photos to make them larger.
Not a good location
Gerard Fiehler from the Lutheran Heritage Center and Museum walked me back to where a memorial stone contains the names of some of the earlier settlers. You’ll notice that many of the dates are from the first two years of the settlement.
Seelitz, I was told, was located in a low area that it made it disease-prone. The other problem was that the the early inhabitants were mostly students and professional men poorly prepared for carving out farms and houses from wilderness.
Rev. Stephens exiled
The Rev. Martin Stephan was the leader of the movement. He and his followers, with a communal treasury of $88,000 (you can see the chest it was kept in at the museum), landed in Wittenberg with the goal of farming about 4,500 acres of land that resembled what they had left in Saxony, Germany.
Rev. Stephan, however, was accused of “voluptuous living and dictatorial conduct” and put in a boat for exile to Illinois. It is rumored that he had been tapping the till and some of the wives.
That was the start of the Missouri Synod
Despite all the difficulties, the Saxon immigration was the start of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, which was established in 1847.
I’m starting to work on a project in Perry County tentatively called “The Last Generation,” about the members of the early pioneer families who were the last to speak German as their primary language. My subjects range in age from their 60s to one who is over 100.
I’ve had the pleasure to photograph three members of the Degenhardt family, including Reinhold Degenhardt. I didn’t know his real name was Reinhold until I saw it in his obituary today because everybody always called him “Dixie.”
Reinhold A. Degenhardt’s obituary
Reinhold A. “Dixie” Degenhardt, 97, of Altenburg, MO died March 5, 2013 at Perry County Memorial Hospital in Perryville. He was born on September 25, 1915 in Wittenberg, Mo., son of August G. and Mathilde S. (Poppitz) Degenhardt. He married Thekla Koch on April 21, 1940. She preceded him in death on October 31, 1975. He married Margie Engert Johnson in May 1978. She survives in Altenburg, MO.
Initially Dixie farmed and was later employed as a meat cutter in Jackson, MO. He held various leadership positions (President, Elder, Treasurer, Trustee) at both Trinity Lutheran and Immanuel Lutheran churches in Altenburg. He held various leadership positions with the local chapter of MFA Oil Co. He was active in the Lutheran Layman’s League. He served numerous years as committee man for the Perry County Republican Party. Dixie played baseball for the Altenburg Aces in the 1940’s, softball for the Trinity Lutheran team in the 1950’s, and Dartball for the Trinity Lutheran Layman’s League. He sent food and clothing to the Degenhardt relatives in East Germany following World War II. In 1960, he brought second cousin and East German refugee Heidi Schultz-Netzer to America, providing a home for her, and sent her to high school. Heidi married Albert Boettcher, Jr. Dixie worked at East Perry Lumber Co. from 1967 through 1980. He continued beef cattle farming until 1990.
Survivors include four sons, Larry L. and Pearline Degenhardt of St. Louis, MO, Dewey D. and Marilyn Degenhardt of Jefferson City, MO, Lynn J. Degenhardt of Altenburg, Dean A. and Marguerite Degenhardt of Lisle, IL, one daughter, Connie S. Degenhardt Levy (Griff Gresham) of Columbia; two stepsons, Wayne and Lillette Johnson of St. Charles, MO, Kenneth Johnson of St. Louis; one sister, Paula Holt of Perryville; one brother, Wilmar W. Degenhardt of St. Louis; grandchildren, Grant and Christy, Ryan Degenhardt and Jeanne Aubuchon, Tyler and Sherlyn, Clay and Dori, Jennifer, Dawn, Monica, and David Degenhardt, Carly, Carrie, and Casie Levy, Marvin, Reina, and Tiffany Johnson; and seven great-grandchildren.
I have to credit Wilmar with showing me how important old photos are. I scanned the first batch of Wittenburg photos from 1966, had a stack of Walmart 4×6″ prints made, and showed up at the Lutheran Heritage Center and Museum in Altenburg to see if anyone there could help me identify the people and places. Director Carla Jordan said I should talk with Wilmar.
When we flipped through the aerial photographs, he suddenly exclaimed, “Ohhhhh. This is a rare find. This is the house where I was born.” You can hear him in this video.
Wilmar talks about Seelitz
This was the first inkling I had that my photographs had captured things that perhaps nobody else had. Or, maybe that nobody else had held onto for all these years. Seeing his reaction fueled my interest in doing projects like this.
Lynn showed me Wilmar’s birthplace, which, along with most of the other buildings in the aerial, is still standing. He’s an expert on Seelitz, one of the early German settlements. He explained that the communities in the lowlands like Seelitz and Wittenberg didn’t survive as well as the ridge communities like Altenburg and Frohna. Floods and disease took their toll on the settlements closer to the river.
This is one of the reasons I’ve been working to document the German communities in Perry County. I showed up at the Altenburg Lutheran Heritage Center and Museum a couple of years ago with my laptop full of photos I had taken in Wittenberg and the area, including some aerials of places I couldn’t identify.
Wilmar Degenhardt happened to be in that day and started looking over my shoulder. Here’s his reaction when he spotted the Seeltiz home he was born in and where he lived until he left for the Navy during World War II.