Ferdinand Wenzl

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Johann Ferdinand Wenzl

Also Known As: "Ferd"
Birthplace: Neuwallisdorf, Rakovnik, Czech Republic
Death: March 29, 1922 (65)
Concordia, Cloud County, Kansas, United States (appendicitis, heart problems)
Place of Burial: Steinauer, Pawnee County, Nebraska, United States
Immediate Family:

Husband of Josie Soucek
Brother of Theresa Wenzl

Occupation: farmer, general store owner, land speculator, county commissioner, Nebraska state legislator
Managed by: Roy Wenzl
Last Updated:

About Ferdinand Wenzl

He was born Johann Ferdinand Wenzel in Bohemia in 1856, and came to the United States with his parents and siblings in 1867. He was apparently a man of exceptional abilities; he became a land speculator at the turn of the 20th Century, and owned many farms in Nebraska and Kansas by the time of his death in 1922. Amid all this he served six years as a Pawnee County commissioner in Nebraska, and two-year terms in the Nebraska legislator just after the turn of the century, as a state representative.

    Ferdinand, as most people called him, was nine when his parents brought him and his eight siblings to Baltimore from what they called Austria in 1867. He and most of the family stayed in Chicago for a few years, while his father and older brothers went to southeast Nebraska and established a homestead in Pawnee County; the first home was a dugout hole in the ground; they built a shack over the top of that, having to range far and wide for wood, as there were hardly any trees at that time. There were so few landmarks, and getting lost in the wide open landscape was so easy, that they all had to worry in winter about their children getting lost and freezing to death, even though the country schools or the fields were so close to home. They suffered in winters and labored hard in all seasons, planting corn and wheat, worrying every time a band of Indians stopped to ask for food; there were still battles being fought around them at that time between warrior bands and settlers. 
 Later they built a proper house, and later, each brother established his own farm and homestead, all of them more or less in a circle outward from the original homestead established by Ferdinand's father, Franz; they wanted to be far enough away from each other to establish viable farms but sought to be close enough that they could quickly run to each other's farms in case of Indian attack or illness. All the farms were just two miles or so north of the small town of Steinauer, Nebraska.
  The land was so barren that people frequently got lost, as there were no trees or outstanding landmarks. The Wenzls, like everyone else, at first lacked for plows, tools, and basic necessities; many of these settlers planted their first crops of corn by chopping holes in the thick, black Nebraska sod with axes and picks. Lacking horses and oxen at first, they walked, nearly 50 miles to Nebraska City, carrying grain to be milled, carrying tools and goods home on their backs. Like most other ethnic Germans, they calculated the time of travel in "Stunden," (hours). A nine mile hike was a hike of  "drei Stunden," three hours. At first, they walked everywhere, and thought nothing of it, including in brutal winter weather.
 Not long after setting up on his own, he established a general country store in the tiny, unincorporated community of Tate, a few miles to the west of Steinauer. Some of the ledgers for this store still exist. Because most of the farms were so small at that time, most only 160 acres or less, the rural country was thickly populated with families, and country people both in Nebraska and Kansas established a country store and country schools every three to four miles or so. All these communities, filled with people who had struggled terribly against loneliness and the lack of everything from food to tools to landmarks in the treeless landscape, began to thrive about ten years after the Wenzls arrived in 1867. The Indians went away, the railroads arrived, meaning, for one thing, that Ferdinand and his brothers no longer had to carry a sack of grain on their backs and walk 40-45 miles to Nebraska City to get it milled.
  With increasing prosperity came opportunity. Ferdinand began to seize on opportunities in his 20s, and over his lifetime, though starting with nothing in life, he acquired a large network of farms in southeast Nebraska and Northeast Kansas, each land purchase meant either to add to his farms or be sold to add to his profits. He apparently had a considerable gift for entrepreneurship and acquisition, and when he became a Pawnee County commissioner for six years in the last decades of the 19th Century--and then a state legislator in the capitol of Lincoln for four years at the turn of the 20th, he was firmly established as one of the leading men in his corner of the state. According to his youngest son, my grandfather Emmet Wenzl, his considerable business skills were enhanced considerably by his genial, likeable nature. People respected his successes but also enjoyed his company, sought his opinions, and voted for him to represent them. 
   He married young, at 22, to a young woman he met at a railroad station as he was beginning yet another journey on business. Like his father before him he chose a Czech; Josie Soucek had come over with her parents about the same time as the Wenzls. And like the household he grew up in, Ferdinand and Josie, when they didn't want the children to know what they were talking aboot, would talk to each other in their native languages, he in German, she in Czech.
 They had 11 children together, and the eldest, twins, died of scarlet fever while still toddlers; it must have hurt the new parents terribly. Another son, Michael, died at age five; the frequency of deaths like this were common in nearly all families for millenia before them. 
   With his eight remaining children, Ferdinand was frequently absent because of his legislative work or his travels to acquire more land. Josie sometimes complained about this to him and told him she felt like he had made her raise their eight children on her own.
   He was a Republican and apparently outspoken about it, among neighbors who were mostly Republican. That party even then was modeling itself as the champion of business and the opponent of laws and regulations restricting business; they believed then as now that freedom from taxes and regulation was the catalyst not only for profits but for more democracy, more tax revenue to do all that needed doing, including helping the less fortunate. Democrats, however, were defining themselves even then as champions of the poor and downtrodden, and as protectors of common people and the less fortunate, including from some of the piratical practices of the headstrong businessmen of the day. A wave of populism was sweeping the country, driven in part by fears of monopolies, millionaires and the sometimes cold-blooded outcomes of stock market fluctuations and crashes that put common people out of work and sank prices for farm goods below the level of subsistence for the farmers.

Among Democrats who profited from these worries was Nebraska politician William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic nominee several times for president of the United States. There was at least one gathering in southeast Nebraska where Jennings made one of his impassioned speeches, but the crowd called upon their most popular local Republican, J. Ferdinand Wenzl, to rebut him. "Let's hear the old Dutchman's side," the crowd called out. J. Ferdinand responded with a vigorous critique of Democratic policies and Bryan personally; this shocked Josie, who watched her husband publicly take on one of the most popular politicians in the United States at that time. But afterward the two men smiled and shook hands.

 He had eyes for a deal and ears for news. He came home to the Tate general store one day in the year 1910, as his children remembered, and quietly told his family that the railroad that supported Tate was to be discontinued. He sold the general store quickly, before anyone else in the community learned this news, and moved his family from Tate to one of the farms he had bought recently in Kansas--north of Greenleaf, in Washington County, about 75 miles southwest of Tate, early in the year 1911.
 He and Josie moved to Greenleaf with his three daughters, Martha, Aggie and Ina, and his two youngest sons, Andrew and Emmet. Ernest he had already established on a farm near Vermillion, Kansas, about 50 miles to the east; his sons Phil and Paul were already established in Nebraska with families. Joe Roussek, a Greenleaf boy who would one day become one of J.F.'s sons in law, remembered meeting him not long after the Wenzls moved to Greenleaf, and being impressed with how smart the man seemed to be: curious, interested in all things, a pleasant and engaging talker. Someone in this meeting asked what had prompted him to want to move to Greenleaf, and he said the hills around Steinauer were more numerous and more rolling, (which is true) and that he liked how the fields around Greenleaf, including those around his new home north of town, were flatter, blacker and richer; he thought he and his sons could make a better living here from farming. 
Though Josie sometimes complained about his absences, Ferdinand was by his childrens account a good father. Aggie, Ina and Emmet remembered that he delighted them. "He was just a good Dad," Emmet said later. He worked alongside the boys in the fields of the many farms; he taught them to do as many people from Czech lands still do--establish ponds filled with carp, captured by seining nets, carp considered a delicacy by Czechs, though considered by most Kansas and Nebraskans a century later as trash fish. He played checkers with them, delighting his daughter Ina who would remember it; he organized boxing matches in his front yard with his sons and local boys, personally refereeing these matches, or looking on, smoking a cigar and grinning. He went to church on Sundays with them. His canceled checks show that he subscribed to local newspapers not only from Washington County but Pawnee County, Nebraska. He was among the first in Washington County to get a car, a telephone. He rode around Kansas and Nebraska frequently, scouting new properties. In his last years, he appointed youngest son Emmet as his driver, a job the young man loved because it took him out of the fields and sent him traveling. One day, as they drove down a dirt road in the Kimeo area of south Washington County, Emmet drove the car past several smallish blonde farm girls playing in the roadway. What family is that? he asked his father. "I believe their name is Schroll," his father said. Emmet in a few years would marry one of those girls.
 In 1921J.F. heard that a farm north and east of Greenleaf was coming up for sale; this is significant  because it would become the home to at least five generations of J.F.'s descendants, including me. It had originally been settled, in the late 1960s, by Nels Nelson, Danish immigrant who had served as a soldier in the Union Army and who then took advantage of the Homestead Act; Nelson, like many other pioneers including the Wenzls and Schrolls, had dug a dugout into a dirt embankment to make his first home, and had then built a small house on the property, alongside a creek, four tenths of a mile from the nearest township road to the south. Nelson had died some years before, and the family had become absentee landlords, renting the house to outsiders; but they'd decided to put up up for auction. 
  We have an eyewitness account of this auction, supplied by Joe Roussek, the same youth who'd met J.F. just after the family moved to Kansas. Joe remembers that J.F. very much wanted that farm, and for good reason: it was a rich combination, several hundred acres of rolling pasture hills and fields, (mostly tallgrass pasture) well watered by a creek and several branches feeding into it. 

It would be an excellent livestock farm and provide enough bottomland ground to enhance profits with grain. It was a pretty place, too -- cottonwoods along the creek, tallgrass, wildflowers in springtime, a spring in the south pasture that ran nearly year round. The farmstead with its small house sat in the bottomland next to the creek, surrounded on all sides by slight, sloping hills. The soil was rich and black.

 But other local speculators and farmers had seen the same potential, and bidding at the auction in the old Nelson farmyard was intense. Roussek saw J.F. pacing restlessly, a fat balding old German with a determined air and expressive eyes, considerably agitated before and during the auction. He told Roussek later that he had carefully calculated his own financial resources as well as what he'd determined to be the actual value of the land, and he was willing to stretch things a bit to get what he wanted. But in the end, he stopped bidding, and a group involving the local Cairns family gave the winning bid, overbidding the value in Wenzl's opinion. When it was clear that he had lost, Wenzl made a gesture of sadness and frustration, and went home.
  A few days later, however, auction officials contacted Wenzl and told him that the Cairns family had failed to obtain enough financing to complete the deal; the farm was available to the second bidder now, if J.F. still wanted it. He did, and was quite happy about it.
 That farm would later become the home of his youngest son, Emmet, and the home of Emmet's children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. 
   One year after buying that property, J.F. was thinking big again, and telling Emmet that he was thinking of looking at farm properties in Colorado; with the car he owned, and with the building of new roads going on all over the state, the world was shrinking its distances and J.F. was feeling restlessness and the need to explore new territories again. But one day it was clear he was sick, with pains in his torso, and when he finally surrendered to entreaties that he go to a doctor, that doctor, 45 miles to the west in Concordia, Kan., told him that it was appendicitis and that he had waited too long: the appendix had burst, and fatal infection had set in. J.F. was stunned, and refused to believe this. "Surely I'll get better," he said. But when it became clear to him that he would not, J.F. acted decisively. He gathered his five sons around him, along with sisters and Josie, and explained his wishes. Against the wishes of his ambitious son Phil, he wanted to break up the family farm/land endeavors. Every one of his eight children would receive a farm. All the other properties would be sold, the profits divided among Josie and her children. And then, much to the dismay of Phil, J.F. apppointed youngest son Emmet, only 25 years old at the time, as the administrator of his considerable estate. This surprised Emmet along with everyone else. 
 J.F.s publicly stated reason for this move, as he said from his deathbed, was that Emmet as his driver had accompanied him on most of his extensive business deals of the last several years, had sat in on the negotiations and transactions. He knew where all the land was, and the names of the seller and bankers and values involved.  But as Emmet said later, there was a more calculated and embarrassing reason for appointing the youngest son: Phil,the second son, though a business dealer and farmer of considerable ability, was the son with the bad temper, a man who held grudges, a man who tended to look after his own interests first, and a man who seemed to have a considerable weakness for alcohol. 
 J.F. knew this, Emmet said later, and so took legal steps in writing to ensure that his widow and all his children would be treated fairly and equally. It was a shrewd move, and probably headed off much mischief. But it did not prevent all. Phil, bitter and often drunk, eventually sued Emmet. He lost in court, but much of whatever money there was from profits ended up in the accounts of the lawyers who sorted it all out. 
  After J.F's death, the family loaded the coffin on a boxcar, which Emmet rode in as the train took the body back to Nebraska. It was a cold day and the boxcar ride seemed to take far longer than it did. Emmet was devastated.
 A strange scene took place at the funeral. J.F. had wanted his body returned to Steinauer, the scene of most of his youth and adulthood, the community he had represented on the Pawnee County Commission and in the state legislature; Steinauer was home, not Greeneleaf. Three of his children were buried in Pawnee County. But in small towns like Steinauer, while everyone has many public friends, nearly everyone has secret enemies too. Someone somehow got the ear of the Catholic priest, and told him that J.F. Wenzl, the former important man of the town, had once been a member of the Masons, an organization that had a bad reputation and relationship with the Catholic Church.
 This was true: J.F. like many other state legislators had once joined the Masons, but soon after, when he learned to his great embarrassment that Masonic membership was not approved by the church, had immediately quit the organization. This fact, that he had been a member only a few days, if not hours, was not communicated by the local gossip to the priest. The priest, for reasons that were never made clear, conducted J.F.'s funeral in Steinauer according to all the rites of the Catholic church, but in his homily he attacked and criticized J.F. for joining the Masons.
 J.F.s sons, furious, went immediately to the parish house, where the priest refused to answer the door. This petty scene cost the Catholic church several lifelong members, including Emmet,  Andrew and Ernest, who vowed never to set foot in a Catholic church again. 
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Ferdinand Wenzl's Timeline

July 15, 1856
Neuwallisdorf, Rakovnik, Czech Republic
March 23, 1897
Steinauer, Pawnee, Nebraska, United States
March 29, 1922
Age 65
Concordia, Cloud County, Kansas, United States
Age 65
Steinauer, Pawnee County, Nebraska, United States