Richfield Historical Society

Richfield, WI

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A Journey to Richfield by Linda Derrick

Imagine being a young boy of seven years old embarking on a journey that would change your life forever. This is what happened to Andre Messer (later called Andrew). In the spring of 1846, he left the only home he knew in Germany to travel with his parents, sister and two brothers halfway around the world to start a new life in America.,

We don’t have a lot of details about their journey. But, with the facts we do have and the recorded history of other immigrants during that time, we can get a good idea of what it might have been like.

The mid-1800s was a peak immigration period for America, and nearly all immigrants were from northern or western Europe. By 1860, seven out of 10 foreign-born people in America came from Germany or Ireland. Many German and Irish immigrants settled in Wisconsin’s Washington County including Richfield, Germantown, Erin and surrounding areas.

We aren’t certain why Andre and his family came to America, but it may have been due to the fact that many German farmers had experienced several years of serious crop failures. We do know that Andre’s parents (Johann and Katherina) were among the millions of German farmers who left their homeland with a hope of a better life in America.

They likely began their journey on foot, horseback or train. They may have trekked hundreds of miles to get to the seaport of Havre. When they arrived at this waterfront, we know that Andre and his family boarded a ship called “Metoka.” Ships at that time, like the Metoka, carried well over a thousand passengers during each trip across the Atlantic. If conditions were favorable, it took approximately two weeks to cross the ocean.

Back then, the ships divided passengers by wealth and class. First and second-class passengers stayed in staterooms and cabins. But most people were in third class, called “steerage.” Steerage was a large, open space at the bottom of the ship. If they were lucky, there were shelf-like bunks to sleep on. We don’t know which class Andre and his family could afford, but we do know that they had enough money to journey beyond the city of their arrival. Many other immigrants with little money to travel further stayed in the cities where they arrived.

Andre’s family first set foot on American soil in New York. This may be where Andre’s name was first recorded as “Andrew.” From New York, the Messer family continued their journey and likely boarded yet another ship to travel the Great Lakes to arrive in Milwaukee. From Milwaukee, they would have traveled over land to get to the Richfield area where they settled. Many times, immigrants arriving in Milwaukee would purchase oxen or horses to pull a wagon or cart to carry their belongings to their destination. Andrew and his nine year old brother likely walked most of the way. His younger siblings may have been able to ride.

It is not known where Andrew’s family first stayed when they arrived in this area. Often new arrivals moved in with another German family who had settled there earlier. The first year they could have hired out as farm hands. In less than two years Andre’s parents purchased 120 acres, and they were farming their own land in Richfield.

Andrew when he was 25 years old

Wisconsin life proved to be good for the Messer family. In 1856, they purchased an additional five acres along the Cooney Creek where they built a saw mill. Andrew would have been seventeen years old at the time, and he probably helped his 50-year-old father in building the Saw Mill. For the next several years, Andrew worked with his father to operate the Saw Mill. It was a prosperous venture providing needed lumber to all the families who continued to settle in the area.

In 1869, at the age of 30, Andrew married Louisa Guenther and bought the Saw Mill and 27 acres from his parents. Over the next few years, Andrew was busy building a big grist mill adjacent to the Saw Mill. He also built a home for his growing family, and it was located just to the west of the mills.

For those of you familiar with the history of Richfield, you know that the 27 acre property that belonged to Andrew is today the Richfield Historical Park. Andrew met with an unfortunate buggy accident and untimely death at the age of 37. The mills and property eventually passed to the Mayer family, but that’s another interesting story in itself to be told in another future article.

For Andrew, even though his life was short, he had realized the American Dream. He had journeyed around the world to settle in a new land, to make a home and a new life. He left a legacy and a history that today we are fortunate to be able to enjoy when we visit the Richfield Historical Park.

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