Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Extra! One man’s amelioration of existence

Critic At Large

Independence Day column

An American flag flies in Holland, Michigan, on a Dutch windmill similar to one that was built in Milwaukee in the 1860s. (Warren Gerds)


One of my great great grandfathers came to the United States in 1847.

He was born in Holland in 1812 and lived in the province of Zeeland.

Records show the reason for his departure from Holland was “amelioration of existence.”

That is a big phrase.

Hard to decipher.

What could that mean?

Thanks to the Internet and ancestry searches, meanings have come clearer for me in the past year.

My great great grandfather, Johannes, married Cornelia in 1837.

They had seven children.

+ Marinus lived for one month.

+ A second son, also Marinus, lived to old age.

+ Cornelia lived for an unknown time.

+ Gerard Cornelis lived for a year and a half.

+ Cornelis Gerard lived for 2½ years.

+ Gerard Frederik lived for less than a year.

+ Frederik Adriaan lived for less than a year.

Frederik Adriaan was born in Holland and died in the United States. Perhaps he died in transit.

By the time Johannes came to the United States, he had buried at least five of his seven children. And perhaps his wife. Johannes would marry again in 1852.

It is not known how Johannes’ children died. Perhaps disease, like cholera. Perhaps meager existence.

The latter seems a likely possibility given the reference to “amelioration of existence.”

By definition, “amelioration” means improvement or change for the better or enhancement.

Johannes was seeking a better life.

The better life was in America.

Documents say Johannes in Holland was either a miller’s hand or a miller. The difference is a miller’s hand is a helper and a miller designs and builds windmills.

Either way, Johannes was very much involved with windmills when he made his way to Milwaukee.

He eventually operated a windmill that was a landmark on a hill at the corner of Ring Street and Green Bay Road.

Starting Aug. 1, 1867, Johannes served the needs of customers. He ran three sets of millstones. One was for wheat, one for pearled barley and one for coarser mixed feed.

“For their brown bread, he blended cornmeal, wheat and rye,” according to the book “Wisconsin Heritage.” “For the animals, he concocted various feeds: more corn for fattening purposes, more wheat at breeding time, more oats when the days grew short and cold.”

Settlers in the region depended on Johannes for their flour because “imported flour cost a prohibitive twenty dollars a barrel (approximately $400 today),” the book says.

This year, I was able to get a sense of Johannes’ work on a visit to a true Dutch windmill (in the photo above) that was brought from Holland, the country, to Holland, Michigan. The thing is three stories of intricate gears and mechanisms and degrees of difficulty not for the feint of heart. Johannes was something else with his mill.

Johannes, whose life in Holland sounds dreadful, had become part of the lifeblood of Milwaukee. “Amelioration of existence,” indeed.

Johannes came to the United States because people in its past made this land a better place. They had the gumption to stand up for their rights against heavy odds – a whole another country, heavily armed and quite capable of war. Those daring souls declared their independence so people like Johannes, who suffered much, could find a better life.

In the United States, Johannes was looked up to. He had more children, most of whom thrived. “Amelioration of existence” came.

The story of Johannes’ windmill ends sadly but colorfully – and including a reference to this day, July 4.

On Oct. 8, 1875, the windmill caught fire and burned to the ground.

A witness told a newspaper what she saw, the spectacular sight of the mill’s flaming blades revolving slowly “like a Fourth of July pinwheel.”

Johannes would move on and start a grocery business and live to age 86.

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