An American Family: A Reminiscence by C.F.C. Arensberg

Conrad Frederick Covert Arensberg purchased a handsome Gemunder violin in the summer of 1890. It still remains in the possession of his family. As the history that follows indicates, the Arensbergs may not be a “typical American family,” but their history parallels that of many of the immigrant families in America, past, present, and hopefully to come: a vague and obscure past in a far-off land, followed by resettlement, prosperity, contentment.With a nod to the cultural and social values of their ancestors, they yet fully embrace their new existence. In short, this represents the “American Dream.” —Ed.

Conrad Christian Arensberg and his children in recital

Conrad Christian Arensberg and his children

My grandfather, Conrad Arensberg, came to America in the 1833. He had lived in Germany at a place called Martin Hagen in Hesse Cassell. He landed in Baltimore, and proceeded by Conestoga wagon to Pittsburgh with the intention of taking a boat down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans, where there was a colony of Germans, some of whom he evidently knew.

In Pittsburgh he met another group of Germans who planned to travel west to Iowa. Among them was Marie Elizabeth Dierker, whom Conrad married on February 8, 1836, when she was 19 years old and he 30. The pair decided to stay in Pittsburgh, to raise their brood of ten children, and they entirely lost track of the rest of the group who had preceded Elizabeth to the West.

My grandmother, Elizabeth, had come from Fenne, a principality of Osnabrueck, in Hanover, and my own father once made the pilgrimage to Germany, to see the towns where his father and mother had lived. In his father’s home town he found the church still standing, but the house where he had lived burned down. He also found the town where his mother had grown up, although in this case, the Dierker house was intact, but her church had burned. The family was Lutheran, and among my books is the family Bible, listing births and deaths of a number of successive Conrad Arensbergs, along with several religious volumes with illustrations of pietist type.

My grandfather’s mother, Susanna Dehn, was supposed to have been a baroness. Following her death in 1807, my great-grandfather, Konrad Arensberg (1774-1854), married a woman with whom my grandfather was not friendly. At some point my grandfather brought his father, and presumably his stepmother, along with their son, Louie, to Pittsburgh. What became of my great-grandfather and his wife and Louie we never heard. My grandfather lived at the corner of Ross street and 2nd Avenue in Pittsburgh and there my father was born on August 17, 1840.

The only things of my grandparents which I still have, besides the books, are a violin he brought with him from Germany, a brass box for its strings, and my grandmother’s earrings, crescents that swing from a chain.

I remember both of my grandparents as merry and kind. My grandfather must have been a musician. He had a band in the Mexican War. His clarinet, which apparently the leader carried, was in the possession of Uncle Lou, but it is now lost along with his sword. He also left many volumes of manuscript music. There is a family legend that when the French occupied the village where the family lived, their Colonel, thinking to appoint him the regimental mascot, sent for my grandfather, who was an “infant prodigy,” to hear him play the violin. But my grandfather, under strict instructions from his father, played so badly, that the Colonel dropped the mascot idea forthwith.

There are other stories floating in my memory: someone in flight from the soldiers, was it my grandfather?… hid in the hay in a barn, and the soldiers ran pitchforks through the hay to discover him. They indeed wounded him, but he lay silent and escaped. Another story was of someone who was one of the Hessians in the Revolution. Another was about my great-grandmother on her deathbed, desperately wanting to reveal something to her son, who however didn’t get home until after she was dead. There were others of still more mythical past: Ruthven Arensberg who sacked a nunnery and lost the family titles as a well-merited consequence. Somewhere I have some pictures of the ruins of Castle Arensberg on the Ruhr which the Buergermeister, or local mayor, gave to me.

Ella, my wife, and I visited the town and the ruins of the Castle some years ago. The ruins are on a steep hill, indeed it could be called a mountain, at a sharp turn in the river. Ella talked to some locals, a man who was sitting on a bench and a nun. They told of the castle on the next peak, and how the two communities fought each other. They met in battle on the bridge over the river, and the weight of the two vans broke down the bridge, drowning them all in their heavy armor. The old fellow, Graf Gottfried von Arensberg, who left his land and castle to the church in the 14th Century, has a fine monument in the Cathedral at Cologne, on which he lies in effigy with his two dogs at his feet. Ella points out that he died without legal issue. My son, Conrad, tells me that the name Arensberg is gothic, meaning eagles, and that the English equivalent would be Eggleston, or something like that.

My grandfather must have earned his living as a saddler. In the Army records he is listed as an armorer. He had a cane, which my son Conrad now owns, which has Andrew Jackson’s face carved at the top of it, so he must have had strong political views.

Conrad Christian Arensberg

Conrad Christian Arensberg, painted in 1915 by his cousin, John Raphael Covert (1881-1960)

My father was named Conrad Christian Arensberg. The name Christian belonged to the Reverend Gailey who baptized him. There was, I am told, a custom at the time to name the baby after its baptist. After the birth of my father, the family moved to Lawrenceville and lived for many years on 40th Street near the fork in the road where Butler leaves Penn Avenue. Down on Allegheny River lay the United States Allegheny Arsenal with a lovely gatehouse and officers’ quarters building, now destroyed. The Arsenal was the scene of riots, when Secretary of War Floyd, of Buchanan’s Cabinet began shipping to the South just before the Civil War. Wainwright’s Island lay at the bottom of 36th Street, where Washington and Christopher Gist spent Christmas Eve in 1756, after Washington upset his raft and fell into the river.

My father got what education he had at German School. As a boy he worked at a store where Kaufmanns now is, and he was working there at the time of the cholera outbreak in Pittsburgh. He was not a healthy boy, and when he was about 14 or 15 he was said to have consumption, and was sent out West to Iowa for his health. From his diary:

My health failed me, caused by slight bronchial hemorrhages. Our family physician, Dr. James Robinson, advised my going West and living on the prairies until I regained it. Under this advice in the spring of 1857 I left home for Elkport, Clayton County, Iowa, where we had an old family friend living by the name of Woodall. My journey was made on a steamboat to St. Louis, Mo., where I changed boats and two weeks after leaving home I landed in Dubuque, Iowa, the homesickest boy that ever lived. From Dubuque to Elkport I staged it, over dangerous roads with a pistol in each hand. I arrived at my destination on a Saturday morning, in a pelting rain, soaking wet and muddy. My friends were glad to see me and showed it by putting me to work the following Monday, saying it is not healthy to be idle. There I contracted the prairie itch, which I did not get rid of for several years. I was never intended for a farmer and after some disgusting farm work I decided to quit it and go to school teaching. Passing my first examination which granted me license to teach for six months, I was elected to teach a common school in a German settlement, at Communia Colony, Clayton, County, Iowa, at a salary of twenty dollars per month, and out of this I boarded myself. This I did with a family named Bowman, they ran a public house in connection with their farm. They charged me seventy-five cents per week for my boarding. I walked twelve miles every Saturday to get my washing. The country abounded in danger wild animals and poisonous snakes. My term having expired and desiring to continue teaching I was obliged to take another examination, but before doing so, decided to spend the money I had saved by taking a trip to the Mississippi River to St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minn. To this day this trip has the most pleasant recollections of any I made in my earlier life.

He taught English in the school there, but he had his German to help out when his immigrant pupils didn’t understand. He needed a certificate in order to teach, and to get one he walked many miles, the day before Christmas, to the Superintendent of Schools’ house to be examined. When he arrived, the Superintendent was playing his fiddle and father played too. Later, when Father asked the Superintendent to examine him, the old fellow made out a certificate and handed it to my father with the remark that, “anyone who could play fiddle as well as that didn’t need to be examined to teach school in Decatur County, Iowa.” Once in his teaching career he punished the errant daughter of a local farmer. This started a quarrel which the farmer wanted to settle by having my father marry the farmer’s daughter. After the fall of Fort Sumter the President called for volunteers to serve, as I remember reading it, for 90 days. My father came back from Iowa to Pittsburgh and enlisted. The thing then to do was to organize a company and go off as a Captain, which Father did, but someone stole his recruits overnight so he started off on foot alone, and joined the Army during the battle of Antietam.

My Uncle Lou was already there as a Private in Pennsylvania’s Independent Battery B which was Hampton’s Battery and my father’s principal recollections of the battle was Uncle Lou constantly calling out to him “Connie (or really Louie), keep you head down.” My father stayed in the Army some three or four years. After he was wounded he served in Harrisburg as a clerk to the Provost General. Again from his diary:

While I was employed in Harrisburg, Lincoln was assassinated. His remains lay here in the Capitol Representative Room, on his way to final burial at Springfield, Ill. While he was lying in State here, I was one of the honor guards and stood at the head of the coffin during the time the people were passing and viewing the remains.

Army life may have agreed with him. At least he was no longer “consumptive.” He organized a band or an orchestra, and transported the instruments himself, including a bass fiddle in a coffin lashed to caisson. We children had his cap and canteen and played with them until they were worn out or disappeared. I remember that there was a daguerreotype around the house, which he had picked up at Antietam or Chancellorsville on the battlefield. It was a picture of a young girl, some dead soldier’s sweetheart, and when Susie, Charlie’s daughter, found it, she gave it to the War Museum at Richmond, Virginia, as a more proper place for it than a Yankee’s cabinet.

My father would not visit any of the battlefield sites until he had been out of the service 50 years. He then went on a trip to see the battlefield at Gettysburg, and found that Hampton’s Battery had been at the stonewall, bordering the field across which Pickett led his disastrous charge. The charge was stopped, and only Olmstead, if that was his name, got beyond the guns. A monument marks the spot.

Dr. Mary Walker

Dr. Mary Walker

At Gettysburg my father was badly wounded in the scrimmage, or in the aftermath, when a cannon burst. The explosion killed one man, Charles Bright, and wounded my father, who was taken to a hospital, improvised in a church in Boonesboro, Md., near Gettysburg. The surgeons wanted to cut off both of his legs, but they were dissuaded by his brother, Louie, who worried that Father would not be able to return to his work as a mason. Among his attendants at the hospital was the famous Dr. Mary Walker in trousers and tall hat. When Father recovered sufficiently he was invalided home. The day he returned my grandmother was in the kitchen making bread, arms covered with flour. Suddenly the little family dog went wild with excitement, the door opened, and there was Father home again. Years later, when my father bought the house
at Oakmont, we found a little graveyard with a shaft monument to the memory of Charles Bright, the soldier killed by my father’s side.

Charles Bright's Headstone

Charles Bright

Father retired from the army and returned to Pittsburgh where he worked for a man named Michail McCullough. McCullough was an Irishman who had first come to Pittsburgh as clerk to William B. Stanton. Stanton had come up from Steubenville, Ohio and was practicing law in Pittsburgh, until Lincoln, who had met him over some litigation involving rivers, made Stanton Secretary of War. McCullough, the clerk, went on to become a prosperous lumberman. A lifelong bachelor, he had a big place, a city square of 44th Street between Butler Street and Penn Avenue where he lived alone.

During the Rebellion, as my father called it, McCullough buried gold on his place, and was generally thought to be a difficult and opinionated man. There are some pictures of him somewhere, with his cane, frockcoat and tall hat. When he died in the 80’s, he made my father he executor of the will, and William H. Kerr, McCullough’s lawyer, who had been a friend of Father’s in the Army, and had fought at Fredericktown in General Alan Humphrey’s division, was co-trustee.

My father met and married 23-year-old Charlotte Lavinia Wallace in 1869. She was the daughter of a Scotsman who had built a plant&emdash;in Connecticut, I think&emdash;to make crucibles for use in the new method of making steel. He interested my father in a similar project, and with Lavinia’s brother-in-law Harry Dubarry, Michail McCullough, and a traction magnate in Pittsburgh named Louie Dalzell, the firm of McCullough, Dalzell Crucible Company was formed. The firm built a factory on a piece of land, which included
Wainwright’s Island at the foot of 36th Street, and the business survived until the 1930’s, when at the death of my half brother, Elmer, the business was closed and the land sold. My father and his wife Lavinia had two or three children, but only Elmer Eugene survived. The family lived in a house on 44th Street above Butler Street, and that is where Lavinia died in childbirth, in 1874. Aunt Martha, whose name was really Julianna, kept the house for my father after Lavinia’s death and raised Elmer until my father remarried.

Conrad Christian Arensberg and Flora Belle Covert, my mother, were married in the 1877. Flora Belle or Florabel was the daughter of John Jay Covert whose family lived in Fayette County near Brownsville, and Maria Strickler, the daughter of a local farmer. Covert had been in the war, as some kind of Methodist minister in Ligonier, and my mother was born there, in a house which still stands, next to the Church. In 1869 the family was living in Beallsville, a town near Uniontown, and my mother remembered the young men
going off to war from there. Beallsville was the place that my mother loved best and talked about most. She also spent time at the Covert place at the “Great Bend” of the Monogahela River, Fayette County and at the Strickler place in Fayette County, the home of her maternal grandparents. Her grandfather Covert, also John, taught her Astronomy and to ride a horse “bareback” over the hills.

The Coverts were Amish. The family had first gone to Holland, as many English puritans did, and from there immigrated to New York. The oldest son stayed in New York, where he ultimately owned a plantation on the Hudson River. He or his heirs leased it to someone for 99 years, and at the end of the term an association of descendants was organized to reclaim it, but without success. Grant’s Tomb is built on part of the tract, and in my memory there is the grave of a young Covert near the tomb. One Covert brother, whose son’s name was Morris went West, died and was buried in Uniontown, the gateway to the West. The graves of Morris and his wife Amy Doney were in a neglected graveyard in back of a stable, and my mother got me to move what was left of the remains to a Covert family graveyard near East Millsboro in Fayette County. It’s just up the hill from Arensberg Ferry, which still exists there.

There was not much to move, just some bone splinters and some rusted nails. The graves had headstones, which told where the oblong of the graves were, and the sexton who did the digging knew deep bodies were usually buried. So he dug to that depth, and found whom he found, and put the handful that could be identified as remains into two boxes—one for each person—and buried the boxes with the headstones in the East Millsboro graveyard.

Covert Homestead

Covert Homestead

Morris Covert must have built the old Covert homestead. Charlie has a picture of it in his office. Someone should look up the record or the original patent for the land. The tract patented was called “Dispute Ended.” My grandfather’s name was John Jay; where he got the Jay I don’t know. I never heard how my father and mother first met, but it most probably was at the home of “Uncle Robison.” Robison was a Virginian who first appeared in Fayette County hiding from the Sheriff in a coal mine on the Covert farm. Why he was wanted by the Sheriff is unknown. At any rate he is supposed to have said “If I ever get on my feet I’ll buy the Covert farm.” He got on his feet and eventually bought the Covert farm and for good measure married my grandfather’s sister Amy. He became a highly successful doctor and had an office in Lawrenceville. They had no children of their own, but adopted a child named Josephine Wilgus. After studying medicine at Ann Arbor, my Uncle Louis went to work as an assistant to Dr. Robison. Eventually he fell in love with and married the Robison’s adopted daughter Josephine. No doubt my mother was often at Uncle Robison’s house and met my father there. Dr. Robison was an enigmatic figure—a cultivated man with courtly manners, dueling pistols that I always wanted but never got, and a passion to buy land. When he died he left his adopted daughter over two thousand acres, mostly in Fayette County, but some in Allegheny County, at Moon Ferry on which the Airport is built.

My mother and father apparently went to the great Centennial in 1876 in Philadelphia together. They settled in a house on 44th Street where all their children were born, Walter, Conrad, Charles Frederick Covert, Edith and Francis Louis, each about two years apart in age.

Oakmont House

Oakmont House

Meanwhile the Crucible business continued to grow and in the early 1800’s my father bought a house and five acres at Oakmont on the Allegheny Valley Railroad. The house had been built by someone named Masury and then sold to McCargo, then Superintendent of the Railroad. The railroad ran to Pittsburgh along the river, and past the Crucible plant, so that my father could get on the train at Oakmont and get off at 36th Street, Pittsburgh, where the plant was. Life in Oakmont was simple. I remember my mother asking me to go down to the railroad and tell the conductor of the 7:30, the early southbound train, called the “market train” to wait—she would be down in a minute. So the conductor waited with his watch in his hand, and my mother leisurely came down and got on the train.

A number of families moved to Oakmont in the 1880’s. The Gravers, the Armstrongs, the Pauls, the Johnsons, the DuBarrys, the Wades among others and some of them built houses along the railroad. The community was originally a part of “Verner Station,” later Verona, but Oakmont was soon separated from Verona as the Borough of Oakmont. The town grew and built a school back on 4th Street. All of us went to the local school for awhile, except my sister Edith, who was tutored by my Aunt Elizabeth. Later my brother Walter and I and no doubt Elmer went to Main Street School in Pittsburgh, going down in the morning marketing train, and returning about 4 PM as I remember. After Main Street we went to the Central High School on the hill above the Pennsylvania Station, now torn down.

There was a remarkable teacher there at the time, a man named Sleeth. He was an elocutionist, knowing pages of Shakespeare by heart, which he would recite at the drop of a hat. He also had a great love for Harvard and did much to persuade my brother Walter to go there when he graduated from high school in 1896. Walter and Jim McCloskey were roommates for a year or so. Later Walter and I roomed together and had many mutual friends: Aurthur W. Ryder, who became a great Sanskrit scholar. Ernest E. Southard, who became a professor in the medical school, Pitts Sanborn, Murray Seasongood, John Albert Macy, who married Ann Sullivan, the teacher of Helen Keller, and many others.

Walter was editor of the Harvard monthly and class poet of 1900 as I was class poet of 1901. After graduation he went to New York, and for a time was a reporter on the old New York Sun. Then he became interested in modern art, and with his wife Louise began gathering the great collection of paintings now in the Philadelphia museum. He also wrote two little volumes of poetry. He died in California in 1954, soon after his wife’s death, and he and his wife, through their estate established the Francis Bacon Foundation.

My sister Edith, after being tutored by her aunts Elizabeth and Amelia, went to several schools in the East, among them Rye. She married Philip Marsden Prine, son of a neighbor in Oakmont. They had two sons, Charles Philip, who became an Episcopalian minister, and Francis who died young. My brother Francis after going to school in Oakmont went to Shady Side Academy and from there went to Harvard where he graduated in 1904 with a BS degree from the law and scientific school. Then he worked at Jones and Laughlin Steel mill, a week on the day shift, and then a week on the night shift. When he shifted from day to night he worked continuously for 16 or more hours. Then he began working for McCullough Dalzell where my half brother was working. They did not get along together. My father brought over from England a young man named John Arthur Jackman, who had been trained at Morgan Crucible Company, and Jack and Frank became great friends. My mother gave Frank some money to found the Vesuvius Crucible Company, and he and Jack worked there and made it a highly successful company.

Frank married Florence Dangerfield, the daughter of an Englishman who had a successful candy business in Pittsburgh. Both Frank and Florence died in their early seventies. They had no children, but they adopted Alan, a boy from the Louise Home, a Methodist institution, and raised him. Alan went to Harvard and Virginia and later worked for Vesuvius. He married Jane Throckmorton of Oakmont. Jane and Alan had two children, Frank and Jane. My half brother Elmer Eugene never went to college. He spent some time in New York, working for the shipping firm W.R. Grace and Company. He married Margaret Graver, a neighbor in Oakmont. They had no children. Elmer died of lung cancer and Margaret survived him many years.

Louis Arensberg

Louis Arensberg (1842-1934)

My father had four brothers and three sisters. His brother Louis, two years younger, became a doctor. He served as an assistant or a partner of Dr. Robison, and as I have said married Dr. Robison’s ward Josephine. Eventually Louis went to live on the Covert farm in Fayette County which Dr. Robison had bought and left to Josephine. Louis practiced medicine and farmed. He was in the Pennsylvania Legislature for a time. He had three sons: Rob Robison, Fred (Louis Frederick,) Lolly (Charles Lawrence) and Bessie Arensberg. Robison married Alice, a cousin of Brashear, the lens maker, and she died leaving Rob three daughters and three farms.

Not knowing his Shakespeare well enough he gave the three farms to his daughters, one each with an arrangement that he was to live with his daughters, moving from one farm to the others. The scheme lasted a month. Rob married and until his death lived in Pittsburgh with his wife and his portraits of Uncle Robison and Aunt Amy. What became of the pictures I don’t know.

Another son of Uncle Louis, Fred, became superintendent of Brownsville Water Works. He and his younger brother Lorrie married sisters. Fred had a number of children whom I don’t even know the names of and Lorrie died childless. Bessie married a young Brownsville man, Reilly Mac Mullen, and had a daughter Rachel who became a nurse. Rachel King now lives in Brownsville. Bessie divorced her husband and went to Cambridge, Massachusetts to live. She died a few years ago.

Father had a sister, Aunt Martha, who died unmarried at about 90. She was a great teller of fairy stories to us children. Then came two more brothers, Bernard Frederick and Edward Baldwin who were both oil brokers in Pittsburgh. Uncle Ben married Caroline McCullough. They had no children. Uncle Ed lived with Aunt Martha and never married.

There was a fourth brother of my father’s who died young, Frederick. Then came the twin sisters Elizabeth and Amelia who never married. They were very pretty and very bright and desperately wanted an education which they never did, although they managed to get a summer session at Amherst.

When my mother died in 1916, father sold the house in Oakmont to the Catholic Church for a nunnery. Father bought a house on Hobart Street facing Schenley Park, where he lived with his daughter and her husband and their son Charlie Philip.

My grandfather Covert, who seemed to be a doctor as well as a preacher eventually moved to Pittsburgh, and he and his son Alexander Willy had a drugstore on the corner of Butler and 44th Street. Uncle Will had two sons. He had married Mary Lutton of Pittsburgh, who was an artist of sorts. Their oldest son John Raphael Covert became a distinguished artist in New York. He never married. The second son of Uncle Will’s died at 3 or 4 years. His wife, Aunt Mary lost her mind and was in Dixmont many years until her death.

My mother had one sibling, an older sister, “Aunt Frank.” While she had no children of her own, late in life, she married the son of an Army colonel who already had three or four sons. Aunt Frank died many years ago.

Perhaps it is no matter that you died.
Life’s an incognito which you saw through:
You never told on life—you had your pride;
But life has told on you.

—”To Hasekawa” by Walter Conrad Arensberg

Charles Frederick Covert Arensberg, (1879-1974) was an attorney who practiced law in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Soundpost Online gratefully acknowledges the help of his grandson Charles S. Arensberg in assembling and preparing this material.

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