It was a celebration of heritage — 400 years of family history.

Last month, Fremonters Gene and Peg Steffensmeier and three of their 10 children went to Germany.

There, they joined Germans and other Americans in celebrating a farm that has been in the Steffensmeier family for four centuries.

Twenty-nine Americans made the trek for the event which included food, music, dancing and conversation.

The American descendants of German immigrants would gain a sense of connection and see how family characteristics and values — like hard work and faith — have continued to be passed down through the generations.

“It was a wonderful experience of the German Steffensmeiers getting to know the American Steffensmeiers,” Peg said. “They (the Germans) were quite amazed that 29 American Steffensmeiers would pay the expense of coming to their celebration.”

And it was quite a celebration, which started with a big meal. Entertainment included songs from a bagpipes group and later traditional German dances performed by dancers in traditional costumes. There was a large room with games and other activities for children.

Supper featured a barbecue with four different types of meat, along with vegetables, potatoes and lots of desserts — including four different types of ice cream for cones for the Americans.

The hosts, Franz and Gerlinde Steffensmeier, live on the dairy farm that has been in the family since 1619. The farm is at Mantinghausen, Germany, about 2 ½ miles from the Rhine River.

Mantinghausen, a small village of about 1,000 people, is the birthplace of the Steffensmeiers.

The first mention of this village occurs in an official document in the year 1293. The Steffensmeier name dates back to 1577.

An inscription on a beam on the farm shows that Engel and Martinus Steffensmeier constructed property on it in 1619.

One son, Stephen, would remain on the farm, where his great-grandson Franz lives today.

But two other of Engel and Martinus’ sons — Bernhard and Franz — would come to the United States after a cousin, who’d come to America, told them about all the opportunities they could have here.

Times were tough in 1871 and Bernhard — one of the younger sons who had no chance of inheriting his dad’s farm — came to America via a ship that year with his future wife, Gertrude (Morfeld) Steffensmeier. Franz and his wife came to America the next year.

Bernhard and Gertrude married and settled in the Olean area, which is by Dodge. They had six sons and a daughter.

Life in Nebraska was hard. The Steffensmeiers lived in a sod house. Stories include those of snakes hanging from the house’s rafters, locusts that devoured crops and snowstorms.

Before a church was built in Olean, the Steffensmeiers still walked about 15 miles to St. Charles to attend Christmas Mass.

“They were very faithful people,” Steffensmeier said. “Their religion meant a lot to them.”

The Steffensmeier’s children grew up, married and had families of their own children.

But one brother, Martin, and his wife, Katherine, died in the 1918 flu epidemic.

“She died one day and he died the next and she was five months pregnant. They are both buried in the same coffin at Olean,” Steffensmeier said.

Another of the Steffensmeiers’ sons was Joe, who with his wife, Helena, had six sons and a daughter.

But their daughter died of a ruptured appendix before her fifth birthday. A doctor had come from Omaha to operate on the child on in the family’s home, but it was too late. Another son was little when he fell into a water tank and died.

Joe’s son, Ed, would grow up and run a Chrysler dealership in Dodge. Ed’s son Gene and his cousin, Mark, took over that dealership.

Gene inherited the Dodge franchise and obtained the Fremont franchise.

Today, he owns the Gene Steffy Chrysler dealership in Fremont and Gene Steffy Ford dealership in Columbus.

Gene and Peg met on a blind date years ago. The subjects he loved in college — like math and accounting — were opposite of the ones she loved — English and philosophy.

But both loved what was important — children, hard work and their religion.

“It was a good combination,” she said.

And one that’s worked for 46 years.

Peg Steffensmeier taught first grade for a year at Guardian Angels school and then kindergarten for two years for West Point Public Schools.

Gene runs the dealerships.

In 1995, Steffensmeier won a Chrysler award trip to Berlin. While there, Gene and Peg found a phone book number for Dr. Johann Steffensmeier. They left a message, saying they might be related.

“We met him and found that we were completely related,” Peg said. “His great-grandfather was a brother to Gene’s great-grandfather Bernhard.”

At lunch, Johann said he normally has an unlisted phone number, but it was mistakenly put in a phone book that year.

Johann Steffensmeier would contact his cousin, Franz, who was excited to meet the American Steffensmeiers.

In 1996, Franz Steffensmeier came to Fremont and he attended the large Steffensmeier reunion in the Dodge Auditorium.

“He was overwhelmed with all of the relatives,” Peg said, smiling.

The relationship between the German and the American Steffensmeiers continued to grow. Franz and his wife, Gerlinde, appreciated that Peg had learned some German and that Gene and Peg’s son, Ed, spoke the language.

“Americans are known to want the Germans to learn English, but the Americans hardly ever make an effort to learn German,” Peg said. “They bragged about me to the whole village.”

More than 300 Steffensmeiers — German and American — attended the 400th year celebration on July 13 in Mantinghausen.

Back in Nebraska, Peg Steffensmeier has compiled large notebooks of family histories — complete with text and copies of photos — to pass down to her children and other extended family members.

It’s something she enjoys.

She and Gene also enjoyed the celebration at Mantinghausen.

“I had a wonderful experience of seeing how happy Franz and Gerlinde were,” she said. “He’s the glue that keeps the German Steffensmeiers together.”

The celebration brought a sense of connectedness. Family members were able to see common characteristics. Some were physical, but others reflected values such as an importance placed on hard work and religion.

And perhaps it showed that some characteristics can stay with a family — even after some of them have gone off to live in America.

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News Editor

Tammy Real-McKeighan is news editor of the Fremont Tribune. She covers news, features, religion stories and writes the weekly faith-based, Spiritual Spinach column.

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