Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Wilhelm Zietzke: A Not-Quite-Ordinary Life

Some people are just “characters.”  Wilhelm Zietzke (1830-1913) falls into that category.  (I’ve written about Wilhelm’s son Emiel in another post—he was a character, also!)

According to his death certificate, Wilhelm was born in “Misslowitz, Deutsch Poland” in 1830.  Myslowitz is the German name of this town, but “Mysłowice” is the Polish name, and it’s now a part of Poland; this is one of those areas that has been part of a number of different countries over the years.  He gives his birthplace as “Poland” in 1885 and “Germany” in 1910; his son gives his father’s birthplace as “Poland” in 1920 and as “Prussia” in 1930.  Suffice it to say that, from what I can see online, Hitler was not kind to Myslowitz...   But Wilhelm left for America in 1861. 

The Museum of the Rockies provided me with a biographical sketch of Wilhelm published in 1885.  This told me that he went first to Cincinnati, Ohio; then to St. Joseph, Missouri; then onwards to the Wild West frontier  town of Helena, Montana Territory by 1865.  He was a prospector and then a carpenter there.  By 1868 he had relocated to Bozeman, Montana.  His first job there was building a log house for General Willson, and the biography concludes by saying that he is a successful building contractor. 

Eventually Wilhelm gave up carpentering and by 1900 had opened a cigar and confectionery store in Bozeman, and a photo survives.

But Wilhelm was more than a prospector, a carpenter, and a shopkeeper.  He was also very clever.  On the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office website (http://www.uspto.gov) I found out that he held a number of patents for some very useful things.  Here is the patent drawing for one of them—an early can opener.  He also held patents for an early sash window, a butter churn, and a “combination tool.”  Genius must run in the family; his son held patents as well, and two of his grandsons. 
Wilhelm married Emilie Prebe in 1883, when he was 52 and she was just 23.  If he was married before that time, I don’t know about it—but I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that he was!  (In the spirit of “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” see my post on his son Emiel.)  They had three children.  Not a happy marriage, apparently, as evidenced by the fact that in the 1910 census, they had separated.  He had moved to nearby Sheds Bridge, Montana, where he opened a small store.

In his later years, Wilhelm had a ‘peg leg.’  A picture exists of him standing outside of his store, peg leg and all.  Wilhelm’s 1913 obituary quite contradictingly says this about it:  “He had to have his right leg amputated some five or six years ago after a long illness.  He learned to be quite active again, but was more or less of an invalid from the time of his loss of a limb until his death.”  

Many people of his generation were born, grew up, married young, worked a farm, had children, and died…  But then there are those like Wilhelm, who added a few extra twists.

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