Before its address changed, St. Anthony the Hermit Parish was the focal point of the small, flourishing farm community named Fussville, a country town eventually annexed into the village of Menomonee Falls.
From 1844 until the late 1950s, the triangular parcel of land tucked within what is now known as Appleton Avenue, Lilly Road and Good Hope Road was the unincorporated community of Fussville. German immigrants settled on the lush land, ideal for farming. It was there that 18-year-old Antonia Claas and her husband Henry, 22, began their married lives following their wedding Oct. 23, 1907, at St. Anthony’s.
Each day throughout her married life, Tonie, as she was lovingly called by all, wrote a brief entry into her diary. After she died, her plethora of journals made their way to various grandchildren and resided in many households. Granddaughter Mary Jane (Gross) Peschmann has faded memories of her grandmother, aside from a vision of her as a small, fragile and slightly hunched older woman in her new home on Claas Road.
Following a project she worked on with a local historian to share stories of the lost village of Fussville, Peschmann recalled her grandmother’s journals and wanted to read them all. Her cousin, Tom Zimmer, who had also read parts of them, gathered the journals and brought them to her house. Peschmann initially planned to write a story about her grandmother, who chronicled their farm life from 1907 until her death in 1954, and were continued by her grandfather until his death in 1963.
“Tom delivered the journals to my home on Dec. 8, 2017. I felt it was significant that it was the feast of the Immaculate Conception and perhaps she was overseeing this project,” said Peschmann. “I started in earnest after the holidays, took the summer off and was back at it in fall.”
Following Christmas in 2018, Zimmer and Peschmann visited during a family funeral. He inquired as to her progress and she asked him to help since said she feared she wouldn’t live long enough to complete the book. The cousins scoured the diaries, as well as photographs, clipped newspaper articles, recipes and obituaries, and collaborated on the book. Tonie’s Journals: Memories of a Fussville Farm Wife was sent to the printer in late October 2019.
“I hope readers come away with an appreciation of the hard work of farming, the strong bonds of family working together and the deep faith that my grandparents exhibited,” said Peschmann, a member of St. Jerome Parish in Oconomowoc. “This book gave us the chance to recognize the unsung lives of farm wives. I started out wanting to know more about her and ended up loving her dearly. I had a lot of laughs at the funny phrases and misspellings, but that added charm to her writing.”
While Zimmer, who belongs to St. Joseph Parish in Libertyville, Illinois, was only 5 when Tonie died and has few memories of her, he recalled attending her funeral.
“Grandpa Claas lifted me up so that I could see her lying in the casket. I remember how sad he seemed after that, whenever anyone spoke of her,” he said.
The diaries chronicled farm life, the Great Depression, Prohibition, the Chicago World’s Fair, the Dust Bowl, wars, weddings, deaths and other simple entries such as washing the car, having a baby, getting a new tractor and plowing the fields.
Zimmer, who grew up on a farm, gained a renewed sense of appreciation for his grandparents through Tonie’s journals.
“My grandparents had already retired from the daily work of the farm. I had never considered that grandma’s life might have been so taken up with the rigors of planting, cultivating, weeding and harvesting, tending to livestock and so many, many other tasks as she described them,” he said. “I realized that there were many parallels between her life and mine, only in a vastly different time and two generations removed.”
While the farm supplied their livelihood, their faith was the cornerstone of everyday life. Faithful Catholics, Tonie and Henry were regular Mass attendees, volunteers and supporters of their parish. In addition, Tonie had a devotion to the Infant of Prague and in January 1928, she was received into the Association of the Holy Childhood, a charity to provide assistance to children in foreign lands. Before Tonie’s death, the couple commissioned a statue of the Infant Jesus for St. Anthony’s.
“I knew there was an Infant Jesus statue at St. Anthony, but I never knew of our family’s connection to it until I read grandma’s journal entries,” Zimmer said. “In the fall of 1953, she recorded that she and grandpa had ordered and purchased it, to be donated to St. Anthony. She died in January 1954, before the statue was finally received. When it was, my mother and Grandpa Claas delivered it to the church where it was put in a place of prominence.”
Over the years, the statue had a hand repaired, disappeared for a while and then reappeared, and began looking shabby. While working on the book, Zimmer and Peschmann realized the stories appealed to a wider audience than just the family; so they decided to use the proceeds to pay for its restoration.
The statue, originally purchased and later restored by T. H. Stemper Co., was reinstalled at St. Anthony’s on June 9. Plans are for Peschmann’s brother, Fr. Ralph Gross, former pastor (and now retired) of St. Bruno in Dousman, to bless the newly restored and displayed statue.
“I’m sure grandma and grandpa are smiling down on us,” said Peschmann. “I’m hoping that the parishioners of St. Anthony get a renewed sense of those who worshipped there before.”
While both Peschmann and Zimmer have a strong faith, working on the book gave each a knowledge of the foundations of their faith entwined with their grandparent’s legacy.
“Now I find myself talking to my ancestors and having a fuller realization of the ‘communion of saints.’ Last summer, while at Mass for the Feast of the Assumption, I remembered that Aug. 15 was my great-grandmother Rozalia’s birthday. So, in my prayers, I wished her a happy birthday and thought, ‘Bet no one’s done that in a while, as she died in 1921,’” Peschmann said. “We needed to stop at the grocery store on the way home and as we turned into the parking lot, the car license plate ahead of us read, ‘Rosalia.’ That was as strong a thank you as I could ever have received.”
For a copy of Tonie’s Journals: Memories of a Fussville Farm Wife
Purchase Directly from Mary Jane Peschmann, 1257 Wrenfield Way, Oconomowoc, WI 53066.
In person: $20 or via USPS: $25
Contact her at: 262-237-0572.