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Christmas has a German flavor at restored schoolhouse

Jean Gernand stands in front of the restored German School on CR 1000W, Huntington County, IN.
Photo by Cindy Klepper.

This story, like all good fairy tales, starts with a wicked stepmother.

There's adventure, danger, a fairy godmother - and a magical Christmas ending.

So, here goes:

Once upon a time (the late 1830s) a teenage girl lived with her family in a far-away land (Germany). The girl's stepmother was so wicked, the story passed on to her descendants goes, that she gave her only the fat from the meat at dinner time, and the girl would throw the fat out the window to the dogs.

So the girl's father gave her money to pay her passage on a ship to America.

Anna Marie Bosch was only about 17 years old when she got on that boat.

Once in America, the ship made a stop in New Orleans. White slavery was rampant there, and a man tried to capture the young girl for use as a slave. But, the story goes, Anna Marie kicked off her shoes and ran to safety.

On the ship, she met another passenger - John Ott, a brewmeister in his native Germany - and the two eventually married and opened an inn in Cincinnati, OH, where John could make his beers and wines.

Anna Marie and John eventually ended up on a farm in what is now Huntington County, part of a large community of Germans. They built a church, they built a school, and they were fruitful and multiplied.

Fast forward a century and a half. The church, founded as St. Paul's German Evangelical Church, is thriving under its new identity, St. Paul's County Line Church. The school, though - where as many as 70 students once showed up every day to receive religious instruction in the German language - is sagging under the weight of the years, used only for storage.

Enter the fairy godmother - more commonly known as retired high school teacher Jean Goebel Gernand, the great-great-granddaughter of John and Anna Marie Bosch Ott. Ger-nand rounded up the far-flung descendants of that German community, convinced them to contribute the money necessary to restore the school building, and spent two years converting the building from a decrepit storage shed to a repository for the area's German heritage.

Now, it's done.

And Gernand invited the community to stop by on Sunday, Dec. 21, to share in a candle-light Christmas program highlighting the area's German past.

The brick school building at 3995N-1000W was built in 1887, Gernand says.

The school at first had been held in a log building that had previously served as the com-munity's original church.
By 1887, the log building was showing signs of wear, Gernand says. Church minutes, translated from the original German, show that Gernand's great-grandfather, Ludwig "Louis" Goebel, and another man were appointed in January of that year to raise the $900 needed to build a new school. A week later, they came back with the money in hand, and the new brick school building was up and in use by fall.

The German children attended a nearby school for their academic lessons, Gernand says, but came to the church school for daily religious instruction. The school was open year-round, she says, and the teacher was paid $15 a month.
The school discontinued its original function during World War I (1914-18), Gernand says.

"That was a bad time for people of German ancestry," she says. "But it was used for years after that for Sunday school classes and class parties."

Sportscaster Chris Schenkel, who died in 2005 at age 82, recalled riding his bicycle from his home in Bippus to the school for confirmation classes, she says.

The building fell into disuse about 20 years ago and has been used since then for storage, Gernand says. It still belongs to St. Paul's County Line Church, where Gernand grew up, and she convinced them to let her restore the old school as a tribute to the people who built it.

"This is where I've been hanging out the last two years," Gernand says. She's done most of the work herself - "You don't have to have any committee meetings," she says.
The building needed a new roof and tuckpointing, as well as "just a complete do-over" inside, she says. Gernand tracked down and contacted descendants of the original members of the German community, and 70 of those families - some now living in Massachusetts, Virginia, Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois and Georgia - sent in contributions that covered the cost of the restoration.

"I had worried about it for years," she says. "I knew it had a bad roof, and I knew that the church wasn't financially able to do anything with it."

Gernand has assembled artifacts showing different aspects of life in the German community - education, domestic life and farming - and has also begun to assemble the history of the families who lived in the community.

The Christmas program, like the school, reflected the area's German heritage. The Christmas story was read in both English and German during the program. The Sharp Creek Singers, a group of teachers and staff members from the nearby Sharp Creek Elementary School in Wabash County, sang Christmas carols.