Bridges and Buttresses

By Joan Sobczak

While crossing the Atlantic with one friend, one trunk, and one secret, Josef Hueller turned 19. The year was 1847, and he had promised to write to his parents about the opportunities he discovered in America. With his friend, Josef discussed the jobs they would get and staying with the friend’s uncle until, if all went as planned, their families would join them. Meanwhile, Josef imagined what Father John Martin Henni might be like. Talking to Father Henni was the part of Josef’s plan that he kept to himself.

“I look at my father’s hands—callused, with the end of his ring finger on the right hand missing—and they belong to a man different from me,” Josef thought he might say. “Since boyhood, I have preferred books and thought to chores on our small farm, though I did my part. My father has labored on the land and in a factory. Steadfastly, he works, but without enthusiasm. He will come with my mother and young brother when the time is right. “Then,” Josef imagined saying, “it will be my duty to farm—my father’s expectation of me on this new land.”

Many nights during his voyage, Josef stood on the ship’s deck, finding comfort in the sound of a breeze in the schooner’s sails and the constellations overhead. His grandfather had pointed out the stellar shapes during Josef’s boyhood. “It doesn’t matter how far you travel. Just look for the North Star, at the handle’s end of the Little Dipper, to get your bearings,” he had told Josef. Now, at age 19, the grandson could find the brightest star all right, but he still had no idea of the direction that his life would take.

One Year Later (1848)

Nothing in Josef’s reports had given his mother a change of heart about leaving the homeland. He had described the lake, the rivers, the cozy church serving as Milwaukee’s cathedral, and the people who welcomed newcomers like old friends. Two settlements, one on each side of a river by the same name, comprised Milwaukee, but the townspeople liked to say that they lived in either Kilbourntown (on the west side) or in Juneautown (on the river’s east side). “Many here in Kilbourntown speak German,” Josef had assured his mother. “The smell of sauerbraten cooking wafts in the air, though surely none make it as delectably as you.”

Josef and his friend had both found work in a grist mill. They learned that Kilbourntown had gotten its name from an ambitious land speculator undeterred by the swampy ground. Byron Kilbourn seemed to have no problem finding people to buy land, even sight unseen, and besides, landfill could always be added. On the opposite riverbank, the thriving settlement called Juneautown had sprung up around the log cabin built by a French-Canadian trader named Solomon Juneau. Now, land in Kilbourntown sold because it was available. Juneautown was filled up.

In the latest news from home, Josef saw that his father had decided the time had come to set sail. With the letter from home in his pocket, Josef walked to church on Sunday. Instead of sitting in a middle pew as usual, he sat at the back. After all of the other faithful had filed out and Father Henni had come back inside, Josef asked for a moment with him.

 They went to the priest’s house, where Josef found himself seated in a room that appeared to serve as parlor, office, and closet. When Father Henni asked what had brought Josef to see him, Josef said, without looking up, “I have been thinking of the priesthood.”

 “I see.”

When Josef didn’t elaborate, Father Henni—ever one to enjoy a serendipitous journey, even just in conversation—steered their talk to easier, general topics. They discussed the turmoil in the German Confederation and the difficulty of achieving unity when the middle class, the laborers, and the upper class all had different rallying cries.

“Here, too, we have a rift,” Father Henni said. “In the South, we have Africans living in servitude. Even the landowners who desire to free the slaves experience themselves a sort of bondage—the economic pressures, yes, but also the question of where the freed slaves would go and how they would manage. Knowing what to do is not always easy.”

“What do you think will be the outcome?” Josef asked.

Father Henni chuckled, “A country, or two, ever in need of faith.”

The kindly cleric listened attentively, and Josef eventually got back to the topic of becoming a priest. “We are heart and mind and body and soul,” Father Henni remarked. “Thinking only gets you so far. Pray also, as will I, when I think often of you.”

The Family Reunited (1849)

“Clock weights! Some saloon keeper shoved them into the cannon on account of not having a real cannonball, and he would have lit the fuse, too, but some lawyer stood right on it and said, ‘Enough! There’s already a girl dead in the house! You can’t just go launching artillery in there!’” Finally, ten-year-old Otto stopped long enough to take a breath.

“Slow down! A girl killed in whose house?” Mrs. Hueller asked in a fret. “Where have you been with such danger about?” Josef would have intervened to calm their poor mother, but Otto started right up again.

“Hans said I could help him peddle his papers. It was Old Man Kilbourn’s house, and a posse was there and plenty mad about a half-wrecked bridge. A cannon aimed right at his parlor—that’s how mad they were. Have to be a good aim, though—right through the window. The house’s brick. I delivered his paper, so I know, up close. Clock weights! They would have bounced right off, don’t you think?”

By that time, Josef had pieced things together but didn’t interrupt. Their father took his turn in the conversation. “You are saying, Otto, that somebody killed an innocent girl and fired a cannon into Mayor Kilbourn’s house?”

“Would have, excepting for the girl already sick and died, but not from the posse, and the lawyer on top the cannon. All Kilbourntown had to do anyhow was demolish all the bridges, and we’d win the Bridge War!” Otto exclaimed, with his rapid-fire mind skipping to the next exciting part of the story. 

“Bridge War?” the family patriarch asked sternly. “I suspect that your friend has been telling tales.”

“True! All true!” Otto protested indignantly. “One bridge was half-wrecked anyway, like I said,” and he pounded one fist into his other hand for emphasis, “after that schooner piloted by some drunken east-sider captain smashed right into it.”

“Which bridge?” their father pressed onward.

Otto couldn’t remember all of the details and ignored the question to get on with his recap of the most impressive parts of the account. “Then, the posse went out and used plain old hammer blows to wreck it more. And then, Juneautown was mad! So they wrecked the last bridge so Kilbourntown didn’t have to do it. Kilbourntown wins the Bridge War after all!”

“Otto! You cannot expect us to believe that every bridge is destroyed, yet all of our neighbors seem to be sitting calmly around their supper tables, instead of rushing to the river’s edge,” his father admonished.   

At last, Josef explained. “This skirmish, it really has come to be known as the Great Bridge War,” he said, catching the told-you-so nod of his brother from the corner of his eye. “It happened a couple of years before I got here, apparently pretty much the way Otto told it.  Milwaukee was a city divided. Always will be, if our Mayor Kilbourn has his way about it.”

Josef continued to explain that, as developers, Kilbourn and his business partner had opposed any bridge over the Milwaukee River. He preferred to bridge the Menomonie River instead. That way, people coming north from Chicago would come right into Kilbourntown, and Juneautown would be cut off—“very good for business here,” Josef said. “He also made sure the roads did not line up with Juneautown’s, thinking it a way to thwart potential bridge building between here and Juneautown.”

The youthful pragmatist, Otto, chirped in, “What, people couldn’t just get off the other side of the boat?”

“Ocean ships are too big for the Milwaukee River. Mr. Kilbourn actually commissioned a specially made boat to bring passengers ashore at his dock or the bay. You could only get to Juneautown by walking five blocks or so and then taking a regular ferry—quite a bother,” Josef elaborated.

Not to be outdone as the events’ expert, Otto added, “Looks like Old Man Kilbourn didn’t get his way, for once, because those bridges were built cockeyed, as anyone can see who sees straight, to connect the streets on both sides. That’s why there was the war. Hans’s dad was right there, first hand.”

“Well,” their mother finally said, “now we have silly, slanted bridges. I, for one, miss our pretty, cobbled lanes in Niederberg. It is such a very pretty place we left.”

Then, remembering the girl in Otto’s story, she learned from Josef that the poor lass had not been killed in the Bridge War but had passed away just before. She lay in state with the cannon outside. “Bless her soul,” Mrs. Hueller added sadly and made the sign of the cross.

Josef knew that his mother was homesick. Anyone who met her would know. She always deferred to her husband’s wishes, but she had a knack for turning just about any topic to a reminder of where she would rather live. Josef expected that her outlook would improve a bit when he soon told her his plans.

He would go to see Father Henni again the next day. The family had grown accustomed to his solitary walks on Sunday afternoons, even back in Niederberg, and assumed that he walked without destination, just to think about things. That was his way. Otto was the talker; Josef, the thinker.

As a child, Josef would stand outside after church and gaze upward in thought. Even now, he could still close his eyes and feel the dizziness when looking skyward to the top of the 250-foot belltower of Konstanzer Münster (Constance Cathedral). When Otto, eleven years younger than Josef, got old enough, the brothers would conjure up imaginary adventures of medieval knights on Reichenau Island, surrounded by the placid water of Bodensee. Suddenly, in their minds, the lake was a moat, crossed over on a drawbridge to a castle with flying buttresses. Now, Otto dreamed of returning home and telling his friends about his ocean crossing and adventures in the new American State of Wisconsin. He, too, missed home. 

The following day, after the family’s noon meal, Josef set off. Father Henni would surely be home on a Sunday afternoon, keeping holy the Lord’s day. 

Soon enough, he came to Jefferson Street and spotted Father Henni halfway between Milwaukee’s temporary cathedral and the house that doubled as home and a fledgling seminary. Fr. Henni enthusiastically began the conversation.

“There is a place. The Potowatami natives call it ‘Nojoshing,’ meaning ‘land that goes into water.’ That is where I envision a proper seminary to be. We will have our own kilns for brick making and the woods for lumber. Father Salzmann—have I spoken of him to you before?—says that he will keep traveling, collecting funds and books, too, for we will need a library.            

“But now,” Father Henni said, “tell me about your progress in discernment of whether you might one day be a priest.”

They talked for a while, and Josef felt a bit closer to a decision. That night, as Josef and Otto lay in their bunk beds, with Otto on top, the younger brother said, “Who needs a lake here that is so gigantic that it looks like an ocean, instead of a moat?” The excitement of the Great Bridge War had been eclipsed by loneliness in a boy whose best friends were all far, far away.     

Thinking of Father Henni and his future seminary on Milwaukee’s lakeshore, Josef answered, “Me, I like things big—big ideas, big goals, big lakes even. One of these days, we will have an adventure so that I can show you something.”

“When? Show me what?” Otto perked up.

“It has to be at night, with no clouds or just a few overcasting, so we can see. We two will go out when Father and Mother have gone to sleep.”

“See what?” Otto persisted.

“Just wait. Perhaps next Friday or Saturday, if it is clear.”

The following Friday night, Josef and Otto snuck out of the house in stockinged feet, then put on their shoes to walk. Josef had left a note on Otto’s bed, just in case their parents awoke and found them missing.

En route, Otto asked, “When you’re all the way grown up, are you going to think backwards, too?”

Josef smiled and waited, figuring that Otto would explain.

“Father works harder than ever since we got here. Don’t think I can’t tell. And that makes it worse for him, right? But he says life here is better.”

Picturing their father’s large hands, the same way Josef sometimes did, Otto continued. “The biggest callus Mr. Kilbourn has is probably on the side of his finger because he has to write huge numbers in his ledger all the time. Being rich like that would be better. Only, Father says I have it backwards. But I don’t, right?”

“So, you would rather be a land speculator than work the land?”

“A what?”

“Buyer and seller of land.”

“Sure. Who wouldn’t like to be rich, like Mr. Kilbourn, instead of ordinary townfolk like us, I mean?”

“Father, for one.”

Otto asked, “And you?”

Josef didn’t answer. In the dark, he had to watch for the path leading downhill to the shore of the lake. “I’ll go first. When I stumble on roots and rocks, you will know where they are,” he teased, half seriously.

“Why couldn’t you just show me whatever I’m supposed to see in broad daylight, which is when people can actually see things?” Otto asked. 

They made their way down to the sandy beach, with Otto looking around expectantly, hoping to spot the object of their adventure before Josef could point it out. Seeing nothing extraordinary—actually nothing much at all—he decided to try once more to prove his point.

“It must be fun to be rich and boss people around and live in a mansion, when you can’t even line up streets on your side of the river with the other side’s.”

“That was on purpose,” Josef reminded Otto. “Mayor Kilbourn is a land surveyor by trade. He knew what he was doing. Now, are you ready to see what we came here for?”

“How? There’s no moon even.”

Josef told Otto to stand directly in front of him, with both of them facing the lake. “Look straight ahead, not down. Look way beyond the sand,” he said.

On that windless night, the water rose up into the horizon, black on black. They couldn’t tell if stars were in the sky or reflecting on the seemingly endless water.

“Makes me feel like I’m in the sky,” Otto said excitedly. Then, water lapped over his shoes. “Whoa!” he exclaimed, just as Josef lifted him up and took a couple of steps back.

“To me, it looks like heaven and Earth coming together,” Josef said. “Do you see?”

“Heaven’s not dark,” Otto said before another idea came to mind. “Will it ever freeze over for skating, I mean all the way, even in the middle, like Bodensee?”

Josef knelt in the sand and put his arms around his brother’s small shoulders. “It gets ice, but maybe there’s always open water in the middle. I’m not sure.”

“Here, you have this huge lake and a tiny cathedral that shouldn’t even count for one because it is so small, if you ask me. Backwards here, again.”

“Konstanzer Münster was built more than 1,000 years ago. Father Henni says that we will have a proper cathedral. It will be big.”

Sometimes, Otto caught even Josef off-guard. “Is that where you went—to see Father Henni, but not in church?”

Josef started to ask how Otto had guessed but then said simply, “Yes, I went to him sometimes. He said that there will be, not only a cathedral, but a seminary as well.”

Otto replied that he already knew about the current seminary, so small that it fit in Father Henni’s house, “like he’s a schoolmarm, excepting that he can’t be a marm, so I don’t know what you would call him, except for ‘Father,’ like we already do. So, you can let me know if you go there. But if you do, you’ll be a priest here in America forever, and I might as well forget about Niederberg. Maybe I can become a master brewer here then, the best beer in town. I know, I know, we already have twelve breweries here, but did you know that there are something like 250 saloons?” Where a boy of ten got all of this information, Josef truly wondered. 

“So, you can picture me a priest, in a cassock and everything?” It was a question Josef planned to ask Father Henni, too.

Otto answered, “Or an astronomer. With a huge telescope right up there on the hill.”

On the walk home, Otto mused that, perhaps one day, he would buy Byron Kilbourn’s house and load his beer onto the railroad that came practically to the door so that he could have customers in saloons as far as the rails ever went.

“I thought you liked things smaller, like in Niederberg. That sounds more like a big plan,” Josef said.

“Backwards!” they both said at the same time. 

 _____________________________________________________________

In her group for National Novel Writers’ Month, the leader christened Joan “Unplugged,” because she still drafts all of her creative writing in pencil. “Bridges and Buttresses” is a bit of an anomaly, because Joan typically integrates poetry into her stories. Writing seems to be in the DNA, because the writing group’s leader was her brother A.J., a self-employed editor and published author. Two years after A.J. unexpectedly passed away, Joan submitted this story in honor of the brother who commented, encouraged, and continues to inspire her.

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Since 2000, The Copperfield Review has been a leading market for short historical fiction. Copperfield was named one of the top sites for new writers by Writer's Digest and it is the winner of the Books and Authors Award for Literary Excellence. We publish short historical fiction as well as history-based nonfiction, poetry, reviews, and interviews.
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