From Leather to the Pulpit

Not all of my great grandparents could read and write which perhaps explains why I have not heard of any letters or family records containing their thoughts and reflections. My wife Ellen on the other hand is more fortunate. Her great grandfather Louis Henry Wagner (1857-1945) began a diary when he was 15 years old. In all, Louis filled four leather bound diaries in his lifetime although he did not make daily entries during his ‘diary days’ of December 1872 to November 1891.

While census records along with birth, marriage, and death vital records help build a framework of family activities, Louis’ diaries put ‘meat on the bones’ of that framework, helping to explain how events unfolded and decisions were made. In reading through Louis’ diaries, I was particularly taken with his entry of August 4th, 1877 when he provided a summary of the events of the previous four years during which time he had fallen away from using his diary.

Louis wrote:

“Recalling the principle events which happened within the last four years, it is quite probable that I may miss some very important occurrences for which though I am myself to blame, since I neglected to keep a diary until the beginning of the present year.

In the Fall of the year [18]73, I quit schooling and bargained with my uncle [Louis Breithaupt] to learn the tanning trade to which Grandpa [Jacob Hailer] would not consent since the term I was required to serve – being five years – would take me some months longer than my 21st birthday. This afterwards proved a benefit to me. The bargain was made as Uncle today certifies on Grandpa’s back porch. Of course, all orally. It was as follows: That I was to stay in the tannery three years – being taught there in that time everything that was to be learned. The remaining two years I was to serve in the store. I was to receive my board at his house and either an annual pay of $50.00 or annually $30.00 and the remaining $100.00 at the end of the term of five years. This was left to my option. Of course, I decided for the former.

Grandpa said: Do as you please; but I’ll not consent.

But there remained the old story: I had to do anything and everything. Was to do this and was to do that. Never set to work at anything to be learned at the trade. I complained. Uncle told me to work at anything I liked in the tannery. I did so as well as I knew how but being a boy of 16, I failed the object I sought after. As matters stood, I was perfectly disgusted with Uncle on my apprenticeship.

I was therefore heartily glad when Will [William Henry Breithaupt] went to Toronto on 17th March 1874, and gave me a chance to get into the leather store. I therefore took that position to which Uncle did not even say a word, knowing full well that I would earn him more there than in the tannery. Here I remained until the Fall of 1875.

In the meantime Will had taken a “B” certificate in Day’s commercial college and returned. Being not always needed in the store, we were sometimes sent to the tannery to make belts – something we hated to do more than anything else.

As it had been granted me in the bargain to go to some college during the term of my apprenticeship and as I was perfectly sick of being at home, so I insisted on Uncle that I would like to go the Northwestern College at Napierville, Illinois in the Fall of 1875. As he could do nothing else so he gave me always a mute reply which I took for his consent.

I consequently took leave of Berlin on or about the last of August….”

It was near the end of his first term at Napierville that Louis describes he “embraced true religion which afforded me unspeakable happiness” that lead him to a career as a minister in the Evangelical Association, like his father before him.

I sometimes find it difficult to determine the occupation or series of occupation that my great grandfathers pursued, let alone have a description left to me of exactly how my ancestor found his vocation.

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