Wilhelm and Emma Sondern Speik

Thirteen was a dicey age for an immigrant boy in 1870. When Wilhelm stepped off the ship there were no child labor laws in America, and a lot of children left school and went to work at that age (or even earlier). This may have been the fate of young Wilhelm Speik. On the other hand, his mother might have sent him to school in hopes that he would learn English. I have found no helpful records to answer this question, but will supplement this blog entry if something turns up. If he did not speak English, he must have picked it up quickly; he became a naturalized citizen of the USA in 1877 at the age of 20. He took the oath in Cook County Superior Court in Chicago. By 1880, he had moved to San Francisco and was living in a boarding house with, one assumes, co-workers: several young men who were, as he was, making cigars for a living.

I don’t know what brought William to San Francisco and to cigar making. Had he already met Emma Schneider? Did she teach him the craft? For coincidentally–or not–I have found another cigar-making German immigrant in San Francisco in the 1880 census, who married William Speik in May of 1881.

A Few Words About the Sonderns

Emma Schneider was the daughter of Carl Sondern and his first wife, Carolina Gruben. Her mother died when she was still a child, and her father remarried.  Emma was born in Germany (probably Westphalia) in June of 1843. When she was nine years old, in 1854, her father and stepmother, Clara Kuhlmann Sondern, brought her to America aboard the Helios. They had no other children with them. Carl Sondern was listed in the English version of the ship’s register as a “carriage maker,” but every indication is that he worked–in America, at least–as a cigar maker. So I’m not sure if that was a mis-hearing on the part of the ship’s clerk or if he really was a carriage maker, not a cigar-maker, in Germany.

carl sondern
Carl Sondern, date unknown

Certainly by 1860 he was making cigars. He lived in Philadelphia with his wife, teen-aged daughter Emma, and a five year-old son. Judging by the neighbors listed on the census form, they lived in an area containing lots of immigrants working at such jobs as rope-maker, hosier, laborer, etc.

The Sonderns’ little American-born son, Gustav, died at six years old in 1861. Near that time or shortly thereafter, daughter Emma married a fellow Philadelphia cigar maker named Carl Schneider, and took up the family craft of cigar making herself. I find her father still in Philadelphia in 1866, but at some point not long after that he and his wife Clara went home to Westphalia. I don’t think their American dream panned out very well, and the loss of their little boy must have been heartbreaking. Carl and Clara Sondern made out their wills in Germany in 1872. I don’t know when Clara passed; Carl seems to have lived until 1888.

Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, Emma and her husband Carl Schneider had at least three children together: Clara, born 1863; Josephine, born 1867; and Valentine, born 1869. Little Josephine died in 1871 and the Schneiders moved to San Francisco shortly thereafter. They had another daughter in California, Ida, born 1874. But the marriage broke up, either directly after Ida was born or while Emma was still pregnant. I am pretty sure I found Carl Schneider still in California in 1900, living in the gold mining town of Columbia (now a state park) and calling himself “widowed” … as divorced people used to do. Or, of course, he may have remarried (as Emma did) and actually was widowed by 1900. Either way, I believe he and Emma divorced in 1874–quite shocking, back in the day, but not unheard-of.

Emma Schneider, in the 1870 census, is making cigars alongside her husband in Philadelphia. By 1875, she’s single in San Francisco, living with her children and at least four employees, making cigars at 1208 Market Street–the heart of San Francisco’s busy commercial district. She is listed in the San Francisco Directory as “Mrs. Emma Schneider, cigar manufacturer.” Bless her heart–she’s an entrepreneur!

And somehow, some way, by 1880 she connected with William Speik.

William Speik meets Emma Schneider

William was considerably younger than Emma, only 24 to her 37. Why would a 24 year-old man be interested in a middle-aged divorcee? Why not her 18 year-old daughter, Clara? It doesn’t seem possible that theirs was a love match, but evidently they had enough in common to decide they should team up. Marriages were often based on financial considerations in those days, and a woman alone had a hard row to hoe. So Emma may have had good reason to want to remarry, matters of the heart aside. As for William, it’s likely that he was influenced by financial considerations as well. Emma had a considerable inheritance coming to her from Germany–or so she believed, and probably represented to William. More on that later.

In San Francisco, cigar making was booming. But stiff competition was arising from Chinatown. The white cigar makers came up with what was, for that day, a clever marketing strategy: They prominently advertised their cigars as being made with “white labor,” the inference being that the cigars were higher quality simply because they were made by people of European heritage. William Speik was Trustee for a time of the White Cigarmakers’ Association, only resigning from the post when he was about to be married.

from cigarhistory.info

William was full of plans. Preparing for his wedding, he rented a house in Stockton. It had no furniture–apart from a very handsome bedroom suite he picked up at a bargain price–but it was home. Or so he tried to assure his bride-to-be. Why Stockton? ‘Tis a mystery. It may be that, similar to today, Stockton was a much cheaper place to live than San Francisco, and somebody probably told him it offered more sunshine. Stockton also was a port city. Although the town was a considerable ways inland, a deep water channel ran from San Francisco to Stockton, making it relatively easy to travel back and forth via ferry. Emma, a city-dweller since childhood, seems not to have understood that William was able to get an entire house for them; he explains in one of his letters that it’s not really possible to find a flat or just rent a few rooms in an agricultural community like Stockton. This is probably true, but I definitely receive the impression that young William was delighted by the prospect of starting married life in an actual house. He was ambitious and goal-driven (“I want to make 2.000 cigars this week. I already have made 700. That means working every evening, only not on Saturday evening. I can make here from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. 300 and in the evening another 50…”), and may already have been planning for the cigar store he would eventually have in Modesto. In their early correspondence, their tone with each other is businesslike and friendly as they hash out the arrangements for packing and moving, discussing what to take and what to leave, what furniture needs to be purchased and what pieces can wait. The letters contain affectionate language along the lines of “sending you kisses,” but no protestations of undying love or gushing emotion.

st markus kirche san francisco

On May 5, 1881, Emma and William were married in the impressive St. Markus Kirche at Union Square in San Francisco. EPSON MFP image

Emma’s first taste of California’s Central Valley–in the summer of 1881–came as an unpleasant shock. After the cool and temperate climate of San Francisco, she found the inland heat oppressive, and since she didn’t know a soul she was completely dependent on William for companionship. When business took him away from her even for a short time, she felt intensely lonely.

Family lore whispers that Emma was “difficult.” I would take that assessment with a grain of salt, since one of her daughters lived with her for many years when she might just as easily have left home and moved in with friends or lived on her own. But it’s hard to get a clear picture of Emma from the records, photographs, and fragments of correspondence left to us. On the one hand, for a single woman–an immigrant, no less, with several young children–to run a business on Market Street with several employees strikes me as an extraordinary feat. On the other hand, her letters are filled with complaints and excuses for not working, or not working harder. In San Francisco she “just doesn’t feel well,” in Stockton it’s “too hot to work,” she’s lonely, she’s miserable, she can’t go on, etc. She may have suffered from depression. Or she may have been trying to manipulate her young husband through “guilt-tripping” him. It’s hard to tell.

Emma Fights for her Inheritance

A tortuous trail of correspondence through the U.S. and Prussian consulates indicates that Emma tried to cash out at least some of her inheritance “in advance,” and at first ran into difficulties due to her name change. The Will specified that the money should go to Emma Schneider, not Emma Speik!

Prussian thaler

And then another wrinkle appeared. Remember, Emma was the daughter of Carl Sondern’s first wife, who died during Emma’s childhood. According to the laws of the ‘levisch-Märkisches area where the family lived at the time (what we call Cleves, a part of Germany near the Dutch border), when Emma’s mother died, Emma was entitled to receive half her mother’s estate. The other half should have gone to the widowed husband. Instead, apparently, Emma’s portion was “assumed” by her father; Carl Sondern took it all, not just the half he was entitled to by law. The action may have been perfectly innocent; he may not have understood the law, or he may have intended to hold it in trust for his little girl. But his little girl was a grown woman now, newly married to a young man long on ambition and short on funds. Emma was the rightful owner of at least 100 Thaler–valuable silver coins–and enlisted the help of the U.S. Consulate to get them on her behalf.

The case dragged on for years. It appears that, despite her best efforts and the intervention of the U.S. Consul, Emma received nothing until after her father died in 1888. The final reckoning was written out by the Court Bailiff in Hamm in October of 1889. Emma received, after all the many deductions for postage, executor fees, court costs, etc., 7,411.65–Marks, not Thaler. The Prussian Thaler went out of circulation in 1857 and was replaced by the German gold mark. The sum she finally received in late 1899 or early 1890 was worth somewhere in the neighborhood of two thousand American dollars–or approximately $50,000 in today’s dollars.

These funds seem to have provided the boost Wilhelm needed to move the family business into a handsome storefront and become William Speik, Tobacconist. In fact, it was just after New Year’s Day in 1890 that he apparently bought out his partner, A. Paulsen, and became sole proprietor of the Modesto Cigar Company.

The Children of William and Emma Speik

Ida Speik McNeill
Ida Speik

Little Ida Schneider, just six or seven when her mother married Wilhelm Speik, grew up in their home and went by Ida Speik, not Ida Schneider. The children born to William and Emma considered her their sister. Ida was a pretty girl; at the age of sixteen she rode a fire truck in the 1890 4th of July parade in Modesto as the “Fire Queen.” She was also an expert needlewoman who worked as a tailoress while still in her teens.

The other Schneider children did not move with their mother to the Central Valley when she became Emma Speik. Clara Schneider was in her late teens and seems to have moved in with a neighbor family in San Francisco and continued making cigars, although she maintained ties with her mother and her mother’s new family.

Young Valentine was a troubled child. He may have been severely affected by his parents’ divorce when he was only five. In the 1880 census I found him living in an orphanage in Marin County, apparently “given up on” by both his parents at the tender age of ten. He never forgave them and later committed revenge crimes against them (breaking and entering, theft, etc.), declaring to the press that he was deliberately attempting to disgrace his family. Neither military service nor a stint in San Quentin managed to cure him of his rage. I find no record of him ever marrying. He lived for the most part in San Francisco, working as a house cleaner, house painter, and–what else?–cigar maker, and died in 1941 at the age of 72.

Clara turned out well. She married into one of the storied pioneer families of California, the gold-mining Pages of Yankee Hill, and seems to have lived in Columbia and its environs for at least twenty years. Sometime between 1900 and 1910 she and her husband, Michael Page, moved to San Francisco, where they remained until their deaths.

baby FAS
baby Frederick

But Emma and William had three children together. In January of 1882, Frederick Adolph Speik was born in Stockton.

maro frederick 1889
1889: Frederick Speik with his nephew, Maro Page

In 1886 another son, George, was born. By 1890 the family had moved to Modesto, where William ran a business on Front Street–possibly purchased, at least in part, with the money his wife had finally received from Germany.

By the time Matilda Marguerite Speik (“Tilly”) was born, in January of 1891, Emma was 47 years old. Only a few weeks after Tilly’s birth, little George died of diphtheria and was buried in the Modesto Citizens Cemetery in Modesto. He was just five years old. Sadly, he passed away in the evening and was buried the next morning, probably due to fear of contagion.

Meanwhile, William Speik was becoming a prominent citizen. He served as Foreman of the Modesto Volunteer Fire Department’s Hook & Ladder Co. No. 1 and can be spotted in the Modesto newspapers testifying in court on various matters, attending Lodge meetings, donating a prize at the Odd Fellows ball, etc. He is spoken of in 1893 in the San Francisco Examiner as “a leading cigar manufacturer” and in the Modesto Bee in 1900 as a “thoroughly reliable man.” The family residence was at the corner of 13th and F Streets, which seems to have been in a nice, upper middle-class neighborhood.

little george 1890
George Speik in 1890

Divorce Reshuffles the Family

In 1892, William Speik gave Emma a signed and witnessed statement promising to give her “all property that is in my possession” if she were able to obtain a divorce. He wanted out, whatever it cost him–including the store on Front Street. She divorced him, took the store and everything they had, and William went back to Chicago, where he married Mary Schlott in December of 1895–a fellow German immigrant, 22 years younger than Emma. They had two children together: Myrtle Regina Speik, born in October of 1896, and William John Speik, born in 1899. Frederick lived with his father and stepmother while attending the University of Chicago, but from his letters to Emma he seems not to have gotten along well with his stepmother. (Although it’s possible, of course, that he was sparing her feelings by portraying his stepmother in an unfavorable light!)

Emma stayed in California’s Central Valley and lived with her daughter Tilly, who never married. She ran the store on Front Street and lived at 522 12th Street, Modesto, until sometime between 1915-1920, when she and Tilly moved to the beautiful climate of Glendale, where Tilly got work as a teacher in an elementary school. By this time, son Frederick was a prominent physician and businessman with a beautiful home in nearby South Pasadena. Emma died in Glendale of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 7, 1924.

1918 believed 2B Emma Speik with grandkids Fred Jr and Madeleine
Emma Speik in 1918 with grandchildren Madeleine Speik and Frederick Speik Jr.

William, an experienced merchant and businessman by the time he returned to Illinois in the 1990s, ran a store in Chicago. He seems to have done well. By 1910 he was living at 2034 Augusta Avenue, a tidy-looking three-story brick house with bay windows and gables. Unfortunately, he died in May of 1910 due to gas inhalation. At the inquest, the jury could not conclude whether his death was accidental or a suicide. The family, while grateful to avoid the stigma attached to suicide in those days, apparently suspected that William took his own life. In the 1910 Chicago directory, his widow Mary is running the delicatessen William evidently left her.