Ernst Heinrich Tornedde

Ernst Heinrich Tornedde was born July 29, 1855, in the tiny village of Brunsen in the Braunschweig (Brunswick) region of Lower Saxony in present-day Germany. The identity of Ernst’s parents is unknown. However a DNA match points to Johann Heinrich Christoph Tornedde and Engel Hedwig Binnewies Tornedde, a married couple who lived their entire lives in Brunsen in the late 1700s and early 1800s.  I have yet to sort out their exact relationship to Ernst, but I am excited for this clue about his lineage.  Other clues have surfaced about Ernst’s family, too, mostly through a collection of old letters that recently came to light. The letters, translated from the Gothic script in which they were written, reveal that Ernst had a step-brother named Heinrich and that his parents were still living well into the 1890s.

The Port of Hamburg lies on the River Elbe in Hamburg, Germany, 68 miles from its mouth on the North Sea. From 1850 to 1934 police recorded information about millions of European emigrants departing from this port, including our own Ernst H. Tornedde.

Little is known of Ernst’s early life. At some point, he left rural Braunschweig and moved north to Harburg, on the southern shores of the river Elbe. Harburg is now a borough of the port city Hamburg, where on June 8, 1881, just shy of his 26th birthday, Ernst boarded the S.S. Frisia, bound for New York.

The Frisia, owned by the Hamburg-America Line, brought nearly 47,000 immigrants to the United States between 1872 and 1885.

Upon reaching America, Ernst made his way to Steubenville, Ohio, where his sister Caroline had immigrated some years earlier. Ernst was by trade an iron molder and would have easily found employment in one of the many iron or rolling mills in Jefferson County.

Sometime prior to his departure for America—we don’t know when—Ernst met Wilhelmina Bremer Mainzer, a widow with a young daughter, who also lived and worked in Harburg. Meanwhile, in Ohio, the Bremer and Tornedde families had become connected by marriage when Ernst’s widowed sister Caroline married Wilhelmina’s brother Wilhelm in 1880. (It surely seems possible that the two families had known one another for some time.) By early 1882, Wilhelmina was making plans to follow Ernst to Ohio.

Wilhelmina and Helene set sail from Hamburg on May 14, 1882 and arrived in Steubenville the first week in June. Ernst Tornedde and Mrs. Minna Mainzer were married on August 29, 1882, in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. The Torneddes welcomed their first child, Martha, in April 1884. Two years later, the family would pull up stakes and move to Peoria, Illinois, a booming industrial city with better economic opportunities.

Ernst, c. late 1880s or early 1890s

Ernst traveled to Peoria a month in advance of Minna to secure work and suitable housing. Over the course of the next month he wrote weekly, affectionate letters in German to Minna describing his job, housing prospects, the cost of living, and the city. He never failed to say how much he missed his family and always signed off with sweet sentiments: “Many thousand kisses to you, dear Minna, Helene, and darling baby, from your loving Papa.” Ernst’s letters offer interesting tidbits about daily life in Peoria in the 1880s. He earned $2.50 a day at the foundry where he worked and paid $4.25 per week for a room plus meals. He reported that a nice apartment could be had for $6 or $7 a week and that the price of coal was the same as in Steubenville, 6 to 7 cents a bushel. He informed Minna that Peter Pehl (another German-born iron molder whose family Ernst had briefly stayed with on his arrival in Peoria) purchased a lot for $200 and was building a house for $900. He noted that you could buy meat and almost everything else on Sunday. Ernst’s letters may have involved a bit of salesmanship, too, to allay any anxieties Minna might have had: “Peoria is a pretty town…The whole city is lit up with electric lights, there are several horsedrawn streetcars, 13 trains come through, there is a museum and a public library, both free of charge, there are several theaters with performances on Sundays…”

The Union Depot in Peoria opened in 1882, at the foot of State Street. The depot was active for nearly 70 years. The building (then used as a post office) was destroyed by fire in 1961.

As the time drew near for Minna’s departure, Ernst included specific instructions about things to pack and the train ride, and assured Minna that he would be waiting at the station. By this time, Minna was six months pregnant. I wonder what she thought when she read, “Don’t sell the little stove; you can put it in a wooden crate, except for the pipes. Take it along the day you start out, also some bedding and china packed in straw, which we can use here. I’ll leave all the rest of it up to you; you’ll be busy.” Somehow Minna managed the trip with Helene and Martha in tow (and perhaps the little stove!), arriving in Peoria in April of 1886. Three months later, in August, son Ernest was born.

Martha and Ernest, c. mid-1890s

The Torneddes settled in to Peoria life. Ernst was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in November 1887. He worked steadily as an iron molder and soon became a foreman for O’Rorke & Company, which primarily made castings for agricultural implements. By 1891, Ernst was able to buy his family a home, located at 711 Johnson. (Peter Pehl lived across the street at 708 Johnson, on the lot he bought for $200. I wonder if the Torneddes built their home too?) In the late 1890s, Ernst bought a corner grocery on Steubenville, just a few blocks from Johnson, although he did not retire from foundry work for another twelve years or so.

Wilhelmina died unexpectedly on March 29, 1907, after a brief illness. With his children grown, this must have been a sad and lonely time for Ernst, who so loved his family life. A year and a half later, Ernst sailed to Germany for a month-long visit. When he returned to Peoria, he brought with him a young German bride, Martha Seitz Tornedde. Ernst and Martha made their home at 132 Steubenville, in back of the grocery. Daughter Martha, now married, continued to live at the family home on Johnson. Son Ernest went back and forth between the Steubenville and Johnson addresses.

Hilde, c. 1928

Ernst, c. 1909

In July 1910, Ernst and Martha welcomed a daughter, Hilde. Ernst’s daughter Martha never warmed to her stepmother (who was just three years older than Martha), or to her half-sister Hilde, who was close in age to Martha’s son Edward. I can imagine that Martha’s rebuff was a source of sorrow for Ernst. But by all accounts, Ernst was as devoted to his second family as he was to his first, and their household was a happy one.

Ernst died on September 15, 1934 in Peoria, at age 79. He was survived by his wife Martha, daughters Martha and Hilde, and three grandsons. His son Ernest died the previous year.

A person’s “footprint” here on Earth—the documents, photos, letters, and family lore they leave behind—can help us understand who they were and how they lived their life. In Ernst’s case, it is clear that he worked hard to provide financial comfort for his family. Like many German immigrants of his era, he was industrious and thrifty, a skilled tradesman who owned his own home and a business. His children were educated and well-dressed. In later years he had the means to send his wife Martha and daughter Hilde on a trip to Germany to visit Martha’s family.  But the most lasting impression I have is hearing Ernst’s voice in his letters to Minna—reassuring, optimistic, warm, loving, romantic—the voice of a dear, sweet man I would like to have known.

RIP, Grandfather Ernst.

16 thoughts on “Ernst Heinrich Tornedde

  1. What a sweet man. I can’t wait to visit Germany and walk in his footsteps as much as possible. That always makes the trip more meaningful. I can’t believe I knew his second wife Martha (Hilda Mama) but she is a faint memory. I did not know her name was Martha. Wish I could have met Great Grandpa Ernst. What an interesting life he had in Germany and the USA. I do remember his daughter Hilda, her husband Walt, and their two children Lynn and Linda. Loved this post. Looking forward to visiting his neck of the woods in Germany. Love, Mom

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    • Thanks for your comments, Mom. Knowing Ernst’s second family personally brings everything closer to home, doesn’t it? I look forward to learning more about Ernst’s story before he immigrated. Not sure what we might actually be able to find, but just being in his birthplace in Germany will be meaningful! Looking forward! Txo

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  2. Another great post, TT! I too really connected with the details from the letters. It is so cool you had those to work with. Could you imagine building a house for $900?! Crazy to think how much that’s changed.

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    • Another note- I completely forgot about this relating to your trip to Germany (thank you, grandmas comment)! The girls are very lucky to have a family history guide like you to take them along 🙂

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      • Thanks, Em! The letters were an amazing find, for sure, and add a lot of richness and detail that wouldn’t otherwise be known. I’m looking forward to checking out where Ernst and Wilhelmina were born! TTxo

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  3. Great story! 132 Steubenville in now a side yard of 128 Steubenville. Was that the same storefront on 711 Johnson with the “cordiale intente” between Ernst wife and the landlord? I wonder if they moved to Steubenville St. because it reminded them of Steubenville, OH?

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    • Thanks, Andy, for always being tuned into the details! It was fun to take a “Google Earth” tour of the old ‘hood with you, and to imagine what it was like back then. I have wondered about the name of Steubenville Street, too, and if Ernst may have even named it? I look forward to doing some more research on this in the Peoria real estate records on my next visit! Txo

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  4. So interesting that there are the letters that really bring his personality to light! I really enjoyed that aspect. It is so interesting to compare the wages and prices of things to now. I agree with Emmy — imagine building/buying a house for $900; imagine saving enough while earning $2.50/day. Thanks, Sissy, for helping us know our ancestors! ❤

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  5. It was quite a revelation to realize that Ernst was a bit of a romantic! His written endearments to Wilhelmina reveal a part of his character that we would not have known about. What a treasure these letters are! And, of course, he clearly demonstrated his gender when he asked Wilhelmina (at that time, 2 children and 8 months pregnant) to bring along the stove and the dishes packed in straw generously leaving other “details” up to her to manage. Our trip to Germany will be so enhanced by knowing so much about his life. Thanks for the hours, days and months of research!
    Much appreciated.
    Love, ACXO

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    • Thank you, Auntie, as always, for your comments and memories and input…not to mention your encouragement to reach out to our long lost Tornedde cousins! It has been so fun and rewarding to connect/reconnect. I look forward to Germany, too, and “feeling” our ancestors as we walk in their footsteps. XO

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  6. Another wonderful entry in your family chronicles, Cousin Terri! I so enjoy reading them, even if I’m a little late to the game sometimes. ; ) Your last paragraph especially resonated with me. How I treasure the insights those letters give us into the hearts of our ancestors. Can’t wait to hear what you find out in Germany. xxxooo, Cousin mmm

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    • Hi Cousin Mary, thank you so much for following along and for your comments! The beauty of having these stories on the internet (for which you are my divine inspiration!), is that they are out there, for whoever may be interested, whenever…no late to the game :). I am so grateful that there have been generous “keepers” on both sides of my family tree who have preserved these wonderful letters and memories! Txo

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  7. Oh my gosh, it was so much fun reading all of your comments. And I am anxious to hear about the trip to Germany! What a WONDERFUL opportunity….knowing so much history about the family, thanks to Terri’s dedication to our family tree! Please keep me in mind when you post details of the trip! LOVE to all the CANNADAY clan!

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    • Hi Kathy, thanks for your comments! I am having so much fun with this project, and it’s been a great way to connect/reconnect with our dear cousins! We’ll keep you posted on Germany. Txo

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  8. I LOVED getting together again with you and cousin Sharon in Canton Illinois this year! Hopefully we will see you in Florida too! Isn’t our family wonderful!

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