Peter Josef Mies Biography

by Frank P. Mies (translated to contemporary Engish by John C. Mies II)

Childhood Years

Joseph Mies was born in the little town of Geistingen, Germany, Feb. 14, 1834, a son of Gottfried and Anna Shutz Mies. He was the third child of a family of 9 children, 8 boys and 1 girl. His parents owned a small patch of ground which was too small to provide abundantly for the household, and the family lived on the plainest of food and wore homespun clothing. His stern parents' commandments were law. Punishments were severe, and the parents expected hard work of the children. The old home had bare furnishings. The table was of heavy oak with a deep bowl-like depression in the center to hold the mixed food. Around the edge were smaller depressions, used instead of plates. Underneath the table a small strip held the spoons. The food was usually some kind of soup, and many a time the cupboard was low.

Gottfried Mies was a farmer, and owned five morgen (about three acres), about what the ordinary small farmer owned, and it had to be tilled carefully in order to produce a living. The land was separated into small divisions and the family lived in a small village. In his younger days, Joseph was kept busy doing chores, helping about the farm in any way which he could. He often spoke of how he came home between school hours to help to do some work, such as flailing grain on the barn floor.

In the evenings, during his early boyhood, he would go with the younger people to their social gatherings. He had a good singing voice, and he would sometimes go along to small adjoining villages where they would sing.

Apprenticeship as a carpenter

At age sixteen, Joseph was let out as an apprentice to a carpenter and cabinetmaker. His master was a stern but good man, and Joseph spent three years with him. He worked two and a half as an apprentice, and six months as a tradesman. He received pay only during the last six months. His apprenticeship cost his father 17 kronen, (about $150.00), and he had to live and eat at home. His father also furnished the wood with which he worked. Upon completing his apprenticeship, the apprentice was required to make a specimen of his work. Joseph made a long plane, which was considered a fine piece of work. After the completion of his apprenticeship he was offered 17 groschen a week, plus food and lodging. His father thought this was too little and wanted him to work in a mine where he could earn more, but Joseph did not want to be a miner.

Immigration to the United States

When Joseph arrived at the age where he was eligible for military service, he had no desire to enter into it. There was talk about drafting him and having him report soon. Joseph was now working in another village as weighmaster and toll collector on a hard road. This put him in touch with the outer world, and the he began to entertain longing desires towards immigrating to the United States. He had repeatedly informed his parents that he did not wish to go into the military, and had also told them he desired to go to America. But his mother, who felt that he could not avoid army service without disgrace, sternly told him that he must go to the army. He prevailed upon his father, who was more lenient, Gottfried mortgaged a small piece of his land in order to raise money to await the time when the boy could travel to America. It was an uphill fight, and the danger of being caught as a deserter fleeing from the country deeply concerned the family. Furthermore, he had very little money. At about this period a number of other persons, in all about 19, were collecting from the different villages to go to market. The boy longed for a chance to go also but did not see how he could leave the country without being detected. A chance, however, seemed to offer itself, in that a cousin who had secured the necessary papers for passage became sick and could not go. Joseph decided that he would go under his cousin's name. He had barely left the borders of his own hometown when a sweetheart who didn't want him to leave reported the fact to the burgemeister. The burgemeister, who knew Gottfried well, might have exercised the powers of his office and prevented Joseph's escape, but did not do so because of family friendship. As the young boy journeyed onward to the seaport, he thought he could see the telegraph wires quiver as they bore messages concerning his leaving the country and demanding his recall. About 20 years later when he returned to his country he visited the burgemeister who told him that it was only through his leniency that he was allowed to escape, and he might have stopped his passage before he even arrived at the city of Cologne. It was evident that Joseph was frightened by the thought that he might be discovered in that he hid for three days in the vessel he was on before he felt bold enough to venture around the ship. In late October, 1854, at the age of 20, he arrived at the New York harbor.

As a young boy he was rather delicate, and at his home had the nickname of "Skinny" because of his slightness. He often thought of it later and wondered what a sight he must have made upon his arrival in the new country, with his odd clothes and the little cap that barely covered the top of his head.

Work as a lumberjack in Michigan

Upon his arrival at New York, he journeyed on to Albany and through Buffalo and Toledo, and finally landed in Chicago, where there were no friends to await his arrival, and the only money which he had in his pocket was 10 . In walking up and down the streets he came across a fellow passenger who was even worse off than he himself, so that the young man was finally prevailed upon to divide his money with him. The friend bought 5 worth of tobacco with the money thus secured, and he himself bought 5 worth of apples. This was his supper, and when it grew dark he found a lumber pile and slept there that night. In the morning, he found that there was a wharf close to the place where he slept, and that a vessel was beginning to unload lumber. The dock hands were busy preparing the vessels for the return trip, and when the call came for breakfast, the young man, who had mingled among the workmen, was jokingly jostled along with the others and went in with them and had his breakfast. After breakfast, the unloading of the boat was completed, and the vessel journeyed back over the Lakes into Michigan, the young man being one of the passengers. He had been offered a job at $13.00 a month to go into the pineries in Michigan, which he did.

Upon his arrival at the camp, he was a sorry sight in contrast to the strong, rugged men who had trained as lumberjacks, and he soon saw that he was too frail to endure the hardships of exposure and toil, but he was taken on as a chore boy and helper of the cook. A short time after his arrival the mess house burned, and he lost all his belongings except the clothing that he wore. This was a hard blow, as he now had neither money nor additional clothes. The mess house, however, was soon built up again, and he entered into the spirit of the camp life. He was able to make a little money on the side by sharpening tools, for which the men gladly paid him. He observed closely the work of the men, and soon became a favorite among them, but being a mere boy, he was not allowed to undertake the more difficult work.

After the floods of spring in 1855, the camp broke up. He had earned some money and he started back on his journey to Chicago, feeling more pride in himself in that he now had some money in his pocket. He was in a position to call upon some friends who were located near what is now Mendota, Illinois, where they had settled several years before. He spent the summer of 1855 with his friends, helping in the  fields and also doing carpenter work. With the opening of the camp work in the pineries, he returned to Michigan. This he did for three years. The camp life had now left its impress upon him, and he was now more rugged and able to endure most any hardships encountered by the men in camp. During camp life he had been compelled to touch elbows with the roughest men, and had to take his own part in physical encounter many times to protect himself, but during all of this period he kept himself free from the vices of most of the men in the camp. Consequently the three years left him a hard and rugged young man.

Journey to Africa

It was at this period that the gold fever came upon him and he decided to go to the gold fields of California by way of New York and the Isthmus of Panama. He took what money he had and went to New York, but upon arriving at New York, found that he could not go by way of the Isthmus, and not having money enough to go around by Cape Horn, he decided he would go as far as he could, and bought a ticket to Cape Town, Africa. He felt that he could secure employment on the way, and thus finally reach his desired destination. The trip to Africa was a long and tedious one and was made in a sailing vessel. The vessel struggled against adverse winds, and journeyed first in one direction and then in another direction, making the journey a very long one. At Rio De Janeiro, South America, a stop was made to lay in a supply of provisions. There being a northeasterly wind at that time, they finally came within sight of the Island of St. Helena, which was made famous by the banishment of Napoleon. Before reaching Cape Town, their destination, the vessel was almost wrecked several times, and it was only with great effort that it was kept from being dashed against the cliffs. Smallpox had broken out among the crew, and the boy was quarantined at Cape Town.

During this journey, the young man learned a great deal about the work and life of sailors, and learned to know all about the ship's rigging, the tackles, and other parts of the boat's equipment, and assisted the sailors in their work At the time that the Equator was crossed, it was the old joke that every person on board must have his face blackened. The young man, however, was too nimble, and climbed the rigging, thus escaping the initiation rite.

After the inspection of the boat at Cape Town, it was decided that certain passengers could land, the young man being among this number. He immediately sought work and finally succeeded in securing it in a copper mine, where he stayed for six months, and then felt that he was ready to move on further towards the place of his destination. In the copper mines he came in contact with a class of people such as he had never seen and never desired to see again. They were a rough, low class.

During his stay at Cape Town, he ascended the Snow Mountains, climbing to the top of one of the peaks, and from the lofty elevation thus attained, he watched the raging of a storm below him, which left an impress upon his mind which he never forgot, and about which, in his later life, he spoke many times.

The gold fields of Australia

At Cape Town the common talk was the gold fields of Australia, so he decided he would try his chances in the New World and arranged to go to Melbourne over the Indian Ocean. On the journey they passed Madagascar and through the Channel of Mozambique in a northeasterly course, but the climatic conditions were not favorable for their food supply, and there was almost mutiny on board. The passengers were put on the lowest rations that he had ever experienced. He and other passengers tried their best to make terms with the cook and thus secure special concessions, but even with money they could not do so. Eventually Melbourne was reached in safety, and he landed in a new and strange land.

Upon arriving at Melbourne, he immediately betook himself to seek work, and finally found work upon a church building belonging to the denomination known as the Church of England, where he worked for 13 months. It was during his stay in this place that he discovered that by reason of the numerous Chinese that the coolies were nicknamed "Joe," as likewise were many other people, and that was a common nickname. He therefore decided that during his stay in Australia he would be known as John. Because of his faithfulness and effort while working on the church building, when it was complete he was given work on a Government jail, where he likewise earned good wages, which he saved with exception of employing it in the gold field. By this time he had saved sufficient money that he felt able to repay his father the money which he had loaned to him for his voyage to the United States. It was while at Melbourne that he was momentarily made homesick for the new land of his adoption by seeing sacks of flour unloaded at Melbourne which bore the stamp of the rolling mills at Mendota, Illinois. It brought back to his mind vividly the harvest fields and the friends with whom he had boarded a number of months before. It was no uncommon sight for rough and rugged men who were this far away from civilization, to break down and cry upon seeing some familiar reminder of their home country.

Upon leaving Melbourne, he went up the Darling and Murray Rivers into the gold fields of Australia, where he worked as a miner, and finally staked out a claim. It was not long before he again prospected for himself, and finally located a claim which was adjacent to one of the best paying claims in that territory. He associated himself with a partner and they began work prospecting and anticipated that they would be abundantly rewarded for their work. After about two years of work, and during which time they spent approximately $5,000 of their earnings, it was found that the mine could not be worked to advantage, and they were compelled to abandon it. This was a great blow to both of them, as they had been offered huge sums of money if they would sell their rights.

During the mining period in Australia, towns grew up overnight, and this he had observed in the two towns of Castle De Main and Ballarette. It was while in the mining fields that one day he came across a bulldog, who had, in the quest of game, become fastened in a hole and was unable to get out. The dog had evidently been lodged in there for some time, and showed the greatest degree of affection for having been released. He became the constant companion of the young man during his stay in Australia. When a family by the name of Froelich decided to go to America, he gave them the dog, which they took with them. Several years later when Mr. Mies had occasion to visit them in America, the dog came running down to meet him, and was overjoyed to find that he was his old Australian friend. The dog had fully remembered the kindness shown to him in a land thousands of miles away, and Joseph made his way to the front door without any interference by the dog. Mrs. Froelich was very  surprised to find that a stranger had gained admission to the house without her being informed by the watchdog, and was also overjoyed to see her old Australian friend.

During his stay in Australia, he again came in contact with the roughest of miners, and had to combat the elements of nature. It was here he saw many different kinds of birds, reptiles and animals; also many new kinds of fruits and tropical vegetation. It was also in Australia where on a particular occasion he decided to take the stagecoach to the city to take passage on a boat, but found that the stagecoach was filled. He decided to make the journey on foot. On that journey he covered a distance of 50 miles with a day's time carrying luggage weighing 14 lbs.

Back to America and the Civil War

It was at this time that he decided that he wished to go to San Francisco on a sailing vessel. The journey took 177 days, during which period they passed New Zealand and Friendly Islands, encountering some severe storms. A stop was made at the Sandwich Islands for provisions and water, which gave them plenty of time to see the Islands. It was here that the grave of Capt. Cook was pointed out to them.

Upon reaching San Francisco, all was excitement, for the country was then in the throes of the great Civil War. He enlisted as a soldier and became a volunteer in Company A, but later was changed to Company C of the Second California Infantry. It was the expectation that all the companies would be sent East but for some reason or other Company C was kept to guard the Coast of California. This company camped on Presidio Heights, Camp Lincoln, Cape Mendocino, and also in Northern Washington. On several occasions they were compelled to put down Indian riots. On his journey through Washington, he saw timbers more wonderful than those which he had seen either in Michigan or any other lands he had visited. Because of his knowledge of lumber, he was detailed to get a flagpole for the camp, and selected one which was 108 ft. long and about 10 inches in diameter at the base. He also saw an entire building constructed out of the trunk of one tree.

The soldier's life, for a considerable part, was spent in idleness, and in order to have something to do, a great deal of time was spent in sports and various kinds of exercise. At one time a foot race was proposed between some of the soldiers and the Indians. Two of the best Indian racers were selected, against which the young man, the subject of our sketch, was pitted. Considerable surprise was occasioned by the fact that he outdistanced one of the Indians, and was but a short distance behind the other.

It was also during his army life that many men gave themselves over to debauchery and drinking, spending all the money which they had earned. It was at this time that Quartermaster, P. Y. Baker, was in need of some money, and gave Joseph 80 acres of land in Potowatomie County, Kansas, as security for a loan.

At the close of three years of service, he received his discharge as a soldier, and went back to San Francisco, where they received their proper payment and their discharge papers.

San Francisco to New York via Panama, and to Illinois

After having completed his service as a soldier, he decided to re-visit the eastern US, and left San Francisco by boat for Panama. He made his way across the Isthmus to Colon. At Panama, the jam of the crowd was so great that in going from one place to another he lost his suitcase, which contained many of his treasured relics. He reached New York in the early part of 1865, and made his way back to LaSalle County, Illinois completing a trip around the world. At Mendota he was received with warm welcome by some of his friends, but as the Civil War still left its likes and dislikes among the people, the fact that he still wore a uniform made him an object of detestation among what was known as the Copperhead Democrats.

He renewed his friendship and acquaintance with the Enenbach family, whom he had known in the Germany, and where he was always a welcome guest. There were several young ladies in the family which made the Enenbach home a more attractive place for young men. He spent the summer at Mendota, working either on the farm or at the carpenter trade, and during this period coming more and more a frequent caller at the Enenbach home. The friendship between himself and one of the Enenbach girls, Elizabeth, was fast becoming a friendship of real love.

Building the Union Pacific Railroad

It was about this time that the Union Pacific Railroad was being projected from Omaha to San Francisco. After the arrangement of certain plans between himself and Elizabeth, it was decided that he should seek employment on this new railroad. Therefore he made a trip to Omaha by stagecoach by way of Davenport and Council Bluffs. The journey to Omaha was made in safety and he secured work on the railroad. In the spring he helped to build the shops and round house at Omaha and to do other construction work. By reason of his faithfulness he gained the recognition of the Superintendent, S. B. Reed of Joliet, Illinois, and was put in charge of the tank builders.

Marriage in 1867

In the latter part of the winter of 1866, he sent for Elizabeth to come to Omaha, where they were married on Feb. 4, 1867. After the marriage, the new bride took up the work of boarding the men who worked under him in tank construction work who desired to take meals at the camp. His camp was soon known over the entire line, and transient boarders began to patronize the camp, because they knew they would have a good meal. It also reminded them that they were not entirely away from civilization. The camp life was not without its dangers. A good many of the men who frequented it were rough and bloodthirsty, while on the other hand, the Indians were a constant source of danger. Many times raids would be made during the night, in which guards would be killed and property of the camp or railroad stolen. Also at one time the Indians tried to wreck a train by stretching a rope across the track and stopping it in that way. On another occasion, in the shipping of provisions, kerosene had become mixed with the flour, which was unknown to the cook, and in the baking of biscuits it was found they were not edible because of the strong taste of kerosene. Without any special thought about the matter, Elizabeth threw the biscuits outside, which was observed by the Indians, who quickly ran and picked them up, and then sat down to eat them. When they found they were not edible, they became very much angered, because they felt it was a joke that had been played on them purposely, and it took some considerable explanation to assure them that it was not meant as a joke on them, but was simply a matter of carelessness on the part of one of the men of the camp. Carloads of provisions were many times broken into, and the contents of the car either destroyed or stolen.

Mr. Mies supervised construction of all of the water tanks that were built from Omaha to Ogden City. As the work of construction proceeded further westward, the campers finally left the land of the Indians and came into the land of the Mormons. Although the hardships in this section of the country were not as great, they were nevertheless not without danger, as the Mormons were very jealous of their church rights and anyone who said anything contrary to the Mormons was liable to be punished for the same. The meeting of the two branches of the railroad was finally consummated at Ogden City, and the completion of the two lines was commemorated by the driving of a golden spike, at which numerous officials of the railroad were present. Speeches were made which commemorated the passing of the stagecoach and the coming of the great iron monster. During this time spent on the building of the railroad, a son, Will Mies was born to the couple on the plains of Nebraska, and was the youngest person present at the driving of the Golden Spike in Utah, May 10, 1869.

In later life, Mr. Mies told of many peculiar things that happened in the wild and rough life in camp. One of the things that caused a great deal of merriment among the men was when Joseph ordered a pair of boots for his brother Peter, who was working for him. Peter was an exceptionally large man, with exceptionally large feet. The boots were shipped in a box car, and when the car was opened, it was found to contain but the single pair of boots, which was considered a huge joke by the men in camp. In the transmission of money, great precaution had to be taken, and many times it was sent in kegs similar to nails or other merchandise.

Upon the completion of the railroad, Superintendent Reed was very pleased, as were the contractors McGrath and Thitman. When it came to settle up, they ordered that Mr. Mies should be given an entire outfit of clothing, from head to foot. He had the confidence and respect of all with whom he had dealings, President Reed, Vice President Durand, Superintendent of Construction, and all those in charge.

During his work on the railroad, he found it necessary to have a command of the English language for the purpose of ordering goods and likewise in the early period of his work upon the road, to write his love messages to the girl he had left behind. In order to facilitate his acquiring of the writing of the English language, he bought a little dictionary, which he prized very highly as one of his keepsakes in later life.

The Farm startup, 1869

Joseph and Elizabeth had saved up $4,000, and decided they should buy land and engage in farming. Through the assistance of Henry Schutz, a second cousin of Mr. Mies, they bought a quarter section of Government land in Livingston County, which was later destined to become their homestead. Sometime in the latter part of June, 1869, Joseph came to Pontiac, and made his way to the farm by horseback. Before returning he decided upon some of buildings to be erected, and later in the fall he returned with his brother-in-law and started the building. The lumber was hauled from Odell, Illinois, and a house and stable were built. In October of 1873 the entire family, now consisting of wife and four children, Will, Henry, John, and Frank, were brought from Mendota. The first year of farming was not very successful, by reason of inexperience, and unfavorable weather conditions.

Back to Mendota and the railroad, 1872-1876

Discouraged by the farming results, Joseph decided to work on the railroad again, and moved his family to Mendota, IL, where they lived for four years. It was during this period that he visited Germany, the first time since leaving, almost 20 years before. Upon his arrival at his home, he had changed so much that it was almost three days before his mother could make up her mind that he was her son. He stayed about three months, after which time he returned and made arrangements to return to the farm, which was in the latter part of March, 1876.

Back to the farm

The years from '76-88 were the years in which they were really tested, for here it was at times that there was no crops raised, no money on hand, the earnings of the U.P.R.R. long vanished. They had made some sad mistakes. They had built on a large scale, the old home was known as "the mansion on the prairie". It was built for two families, the family and the tenant were expected to occupy the same. This was not even tried out. It was at this period that the real crisis came and brought them to the final decision that the only thing they could do was to remain or lose all they had invested. Between the period from '72-76 they had bought and sold a 40 acre plot of Elizabeth's old home in LaSalle County and it was with this money another 80 acres of land was bought. The land he had in Kansas had also been sold, but at an earlier period, in the fall of '69.

1875 was a good year for farming, but the year that they came back, 1876 was wet, and they raised little in 1877. 1878 was better and some grain was raised, but prices were low, about 28 for corn. Odell, Illinois was the nearest grain market...with far away markets, farming was an expensive proposition. Joseph could not adapt himself to livestock, where good profits were being made. He had a large family on his hands and not much help to him, and he had a discouraging situation. Some of older children remembered those trying years and recalled incidents that to people today would seem impossible. The family had to endure more than the average settler.

Joseph had made a serious mistake in building a $1,000.00 home and paying an enormous price for labor. His neighbors had taken advantage of him, because he had built and bought other things out of the ordinary. He had the first buggy and when it was sold at the sale in '72 was quite a curiosity. All of these things brought about a jealousy that could not be overcome. They did not realize the stress he was was under and the burden he was carrying in those years from '76-86. He had land with interest and taxes due every year, he realized little on the sale of crops, none on livestock, for when he again established himself in '76 was glad to buy what ever there was offered to him by his neighbors and through inexperience he bought what was not desirable and at too high a price.

For 10 years discouraging conditions prevailed. Land would not sell, railroads and navigable streams still remained on blue prints. Joseph always wanted to sell out, but could not. He wanted to go back to railroading, yet he believed his wife was right. The farm was the best place to raise the family. One can see the trials of both of them. They had no loyal friends and neighbors to help them.

The years of 1880's were better. The corn crop of 1884 was about 4000 bushels, and prices in the summer about 28-30 cents. He now had closer markets, two railroads had been built through this section, yet land was still a drag on the market. He was offered $35.00 [per acre] but there was no cash on hand to make the deal.

Success in farming at last

It was in the 80's that tile draining was being done and wonderful results followed. He had done some in 1884-85 and saw the possibilities. The boys were now of some help to him and fuller contentment followed. Both were now becoming more mature in years and were beginning to realize that farming was to be their lives work. In 1895, however, Elizabeth died and he was to carry on without her. From now on to the close of 1900 brought him the richest rewards, seeing the children reared and brought to maturity with out stain or blot, adding a chapter to human life that stands out almost unparalleled in our County. He and Elizabeth had triumphed in the end. They built better than they knew, and their labor would not go  unrewarded. Their early experiences in subduing the virgin sod, their experience on the wind swept prairies, the extreme wet and dry years which no crops were raised at all symbolizes to us that it took incredible courage and patience.

Joseph Mies died July 25, 1900.


Thursday, January 24, 2002

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