By Bob Satnan Contributing Columnist
April 25, 2014
COLE CAMP — Neil Heimsoth celebrates his German immigrant roots daily. He is president of the Cole Camp Low German Club and for years has been an integral force behind Zangerfest, the town’s annual German folk music festival.
But his latest project is aimed at keeping the region’s heritage alive so later generations will know about their ancestors and how interconnected many local families are.
The German Immigrants Memorial is being built on land Heimsoth and his wife, Marilyn, donated for the project. Heimsoth, an artist, designed the whole setting, which will include laser-engraved stones bearing the names of original German immigrants from Benton, Pettis and Morgan counties, as well as bricks featuring the names of their descendants.
“I’m president of the German club and I have seen our membership go down,” Heimsoth said. “Every time an old person dies, that’s another person who no longer speaks the language of Low German around here. We’re getting fewer and fewer around here.”
To keep that heritage alive, or at least to foster lasting awareness, he came up with plans for the immigrant memorial.
“I just thought it would be something nice to do,” he said.
The Heimsoths belong to a German club in Wisconsin, too, and that club is working on its own memorial. Neil and Marilyn went up last year to see what was being built and got some ideas for Cole Camp’s monument. On its stones, the Wisconsin group is using a system to code where people came from in Germany and where they settled in Wisconsin. For Cole Camp’s memorial, stones will note the town where the immigrant came from and where they settled, but they also will include a number for each immigrant; the descendant bricks will reference the original immigrant with a reference to generations.
“My great-grandfather was an original immigrant; he’s brick No. 12,” Heimsoth said. “I’m the third generation from him. So my brick will say, ‘Neil Heimsoth, 3-12,’ showing that I am the third generation from No. 12. People really like that aspect of it, because they can trace their whole family like that.”
The central feature will be a 6-foot-tall stone in the middle with a dedication statement along with an illustration of a newly arrived immigrant family on one side and a map of the Hanover region of Germany on the back.
“Probably 95 percent of the Germans who settled this Morgan, Benton, Pettis County area came from what they call Hanover. … The only ones who knew what they were talking about were the immigrants, their kids and their grandkids all thought they meant the city of Hanover,” Heimsoth said. “What they didn’t realize is when they said Hanover, they meant the state of Hanover. Today that is known as Lower Saxony.”
Hanover had 38 districts and the Heimsoths had 38 tiles made to represent each of those districts; those tiles will be placed on the semi-circular wall at the back of the memorial.
The memorial also will feature a pair of plates from an early 1800s building in Berlin; the building was being demolished and local resident Bob Owens, stationed in Germany during World War II, retrieved then and had them shipped back to the United States as part of his personal effects.
Almost 350 immigrant and descendant bricks have been purchased, but there is plenty of room for more. If someone isn’t sure of their ancestry, Heimsoth contacts genealogist Homer Ficken in Fort Worth, Texas, who works for Immigrant Ship Transcribers; that group collects and categorizes data from the ships that carried immigrants to the New World. Families provide him with as much info as possible, and he tracks them back to the original immigrants — all within about a half hour, Marilyn said.
“That has been a tremendous help to us. People come in and want to buy a stone but know nothing about their background, where their great-grandparents came from — we can get it for them. And we give them this information free of charge. … People can build their whole family history and lay it all out there,” Neil said.
Construction on the memorial started in October, and masonry work is only being done on weekends so that slows the pace. Still, the goal is to have everything done in time for the Cole Camp Fair in September. Neil stressed that the memorial is all German descendants in Morgan, Benton and Pettis counties, not just those in the Cole Camp area.
“I really think this is going to tell the story,” he said. “It’s worthwhile, it is going to make a beautiful addition to the community.”