“Silent Night, Holy Night”

Local family’s connection to Christmas hymn & other Christmas snippets


Pfeil & Danielson Family

“My uncle Ob had the most beautiful tenor voice, and my mother had the most beautiful soprano voice. We were always so busy working there wasn’t much time for singing, but this is one thing I’ll always remember. On Christmas Eve my mother and Ob would sing Silent Night in German. It was the most beautiful thing you could ever hear. The house would be kind of dark and shadowy because they just had kerosene lamps. I have such a mental picture of it. The Christmas tree with all the home-made trimmings and stuff in the corner. Ob and mother would sit together, and they would sing.”

Kathryn “Kay” (Danielson) Miller (1916-2012) shared this memory during an oral interview conducted by Elmer Mattila and Taito Mattila in January 1996.  Kay also explained her family’s personal connection to that particular Christmas hymn. Her mother immigrated from Germany to work for her uncle Jacob Mohr.  “He had a big hotel in Cass Lake, and he had one in Deer River. The lumber people used his hotels. He was back to Germany to visit, and he brought my mother here as a chambermaid to serve at the hotel. She started at Cass Lake. He was a cousin of my mother. He was an uncle or some relation to the Joseph Mohr who wrote the hymn Silent Night.”

For this column I will show you the depth of research I sometimes do for my articles. Using the interview done twenty-five years ago as a starting point, this is what I believe to be true based on documented records.  Over time the names have been Americanized, so for continuity I am using those spellings here.

~ 1867 Jacob Mohr was born in Germany and immigrated to the United States when he was eighteen.

~ 1896 (about) Jacob marries Theresa. Theresa immigrated from Germany in 1891.

~ 1900 the Mohrs owned and managed a hotel in Cass Lake.

~ 1904 Theresa Mohr returns to Germany, brings Marie Pfeil back with her. Jacob may have also made the trip.

~ 1905 (about) Jacob and Theresa established the Mohr Hotel in Deer River.

~ 1906 (about) Marie Pfeil marries John Danielson.

~ 1916 Kathryn “Kay” Danielson born to John and Marie Danielson.

Kay makes three statements which I will explore further.  We will see what can be verified and what conclusions if any can be drawn.

[1] Jacob Mohr brought Marie from Germany to work at the Mohr’s hotel. 

~ On September 3, 1904, Theresa Mohr is a passenger aboard the ship La Savoie returning from Germany to New York.  Accompanying her is 19-year-old Marie Pfeil.  Both list their destination as Cass Lake, Minnesota. ~ The 1905 Minnesota State Census lists Marie as a chamber maid living and working at the hotel owned by the Mohr’s in Deer River.

Notes: Did Kay have the specifics incorrect about who brought Marie to Cass Lake or did Jacob perhaps come home on a different ship.

Conclusion: Marie did immigrate to Cass Lake to work for the Mohr’s.

[2] Jacob Mohr was a cousin of Marie Pfeil’s mother (making him 2nd cousin to Marie)

~ Resources are unavailable to determine without Marie’s mother’s maiden name

Notes: One of the handwritten notations on the ship manifest for 1904 when Theresa and Marie are traveling to Cass Lake is “cou” beside each of their names.  This perhaps denotes cousin (or 2nd cousin).  If so, (a) it is possible the term cousin was extended to Theresa through marriage to Jacob, (b) Marie was also a cousin to Theresa, or (c) Kay had the relationship mixed up and it was Theresa and Marie who were related, not Jacob and Marie.

Conclusion: Undetermined familial relationship.

[3] Jacob Mohr was an uncle or some relation to Joseph Mohr

~ Jacob Mohr was born in 1867.  Joseph Mohr was born in 1792, seventy-five years before Jacob.  Therefore, it is unlikely Jacob was an uncle to Joseph. 

Notes: He certainly could have been some relation.

Conclusion: Undetermined familial relationship.

So, let’s look at Joseph Mohr. My online search repeatedly brought me to articles written by Bill Egan, noted Christmas historian. He writes for Christmas Magazine and provides Christmas research for Charles Osgood of “The Osgood File” on CBS Radio.  He is thought to be the foremost Silent Night scholar in the U.S.

It is believed that Josef Mohr was born to Franz Mohr and Anna Schoiber in Salzburg, Austria on December 11, 1792.  Mohr’s father deserted him and his mother, thus they lived in poverty.  His musical ability attracted the attention of the choirmaster of Salzberg Cathedral who sponsored his early education.  Mohr was ordained at the age of twenty-two and served in the village of Mariapfarr for two years.  He wrote the poem Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht while there, but did not share it until he was the curate at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf. 

The most credible story of the first performance of the poem set to music for midnight mass December 24, 1818, was the result of a broken organ. “Fr. Mohr wanted music for the Christmas service. He walked to nearby Arnsdorf, where his friend Franz Xaver Gruber was schoolteacher and church organist and asked for his help in creating a new song for Christmas. He gave Gruber a poem he had written two years earlier and suggested that it could be set to music for a guitar accompaniment with two solo voices and chorus. At that time, it was decided that the two men would sing the song with Mohr playing guitar and singing the melody and Gruber singing the bass part.

Returning to Oberndorf to prepare for the midnight service, Fr. Mohr was greeted by Gruber several hours later with the completed song. Gruber also served as organist and choirmaster in Oberndorf. It would be an easy rehearsal for the choir, since they would merely repeat (in four-part harmony) the last two phrases of each of the six verses.

As the two men, backed by the choir, stood in front of the main altar in St. Nicholas Church and sang Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht! for the first time, they could hardly imagine the impact their composition would have on the world. They were just trying to get through a difficult situation by providing music for Midnight Mass.” [http://silentnight.web.za/history/index.htm]

An organ builder heard the carol several years later when he was at Fr. Mohr’s church, obtained a copy of the composition, and shared it with several traveling families of folk singers.  One such family, the Strasser’s sang the song in a concert in Leipzig in December 1832.   The first known performance of ‘Stille Nacht’ in the United States took place near New York City’s Trinity Church in 1839. It was another twenty-four years before an English version of the carol was published.

Based on the information I gathered (no doubt there are international researchers who could take this further). there is not a straight line between the Mohr’s of Deer River and Joseph Mohr. A curvy one…perhaps! 

I found another Christmas story about Kay’s mother. Kay’s father suffered from tuberculosis so between the time this was written and his death in 1934, he was frequently a patient at the Ah-Gwah-Ching Sanitorium near Walker, Minnesota.

Has Christmas Spirit ~ 12-13-1928 Deer River News

“When it comes to doing more than one person’s share of the work of the world, you must hand the palm to Mrs. John Danielson of Oteneagen. Mrs. Danielson does a woman’s work in the home and manages the farm in the absence of her husband, who is in the San near Walker.  But she always has time to remember her friends.

Last Tuesday Mrs. Danielson brought to the News office the largest Christmas wreath we have ever seen.  It is approximately 14 feet in circumference and represents many hours of labor.  It was her gift to the local commercial club, in appreciation of courtesies extended by businessmen here.  It is a beautiful piece of work and will adorn the front of the building in which the club rooms are located, during the holiday season.

On behalf of the club, the News extends thanks and the season’s greetings to Mrs. Danielson for her splendid remembrance.”

A Letter to Santa

I found a handwritten letter to Santa Claus in a vertical file labeled Christmas at the Itasca County Historical Society. The letter, from 1929, was written in cursive by nine-year old Avis Irene Jorgenson.  The return address was East Grand Forks, but a clue in the letter steered me towards the possibility that there was an Itasca County connection.  Perhaps you will notice it as well. I have left the spelling as Avis wrote it.

December 19, 1929

Dear Santa Claus,

I hope you come to my house on Christmas eve and fill my stocking for I have been a good girl.  I expect to get a doll bed, a game, and a telephone.  I am going to tell you not to give the boys and girls in Mrs. Reeves’s room any presents for they are not believe in Santa Claus. Will you give Miss Gunna Christmas presents because she believes in you. I am so anxious for Christmas to come that I can hardly wait for you to come and fill my stocking, and Miss Guns’s too.

Your friend,

Avis Jorgenson

I recalled the family name of Gunn in the Grand Rapids area and wondered if that might have been the last name of the teacher in Avis’ letter, and if so, if she might be related to the Grand Rapids Gunn family. Using   Ancestry.com I learned Margaret Elizabeth Gunn was born in 1902, and that her parents Daniel and Anne owned a hotel in Grand Rapids at the time of her birth.

The 1930 United States Census shows that Margaret E. Gunn, age about 23, is living in a boarding house in East Grand Forks.  Her occupation is listed as teacher. I think it is a fairly safe bet to assume that Miss Gunn received her teaching certification from the Normal School in Grand Rapids, and at least for the 1929-1930 school year, taught in East Grand Forks.  In December 1935 she married Louis L Laurent, who was from East Grand Forks.  They resided in Grand Rapids and were part owners in a retail grocery store.  Avis married Oscar Legvold and remained in Polk County.

A Grown-up Letter to Santa

In 1930, the Itasca Iron News held a contest for the best letter to Santa Claus. Alma (Hermanson) Larson, of Bovey, was proclaimed the winner. The Bigfork paper reprinted the letter because Alma Larson is a sister of Esther Knight of Bustitown.

Nov. 29, 1930

Dear Santa Claus:

Do you know that mothers look forward to your coming too?  Only we call you Love or the Spirit of Christmas.  You know, we are only grown-up children who need so many., many things that you can give us.

First of all, send me Patience, enough to last through all the trials that daily appear; then give me Understanding, that I may be from day to day, a better mother, a better friend, a better neighbor.  And Charity, that I may see the good in all and not the small unimportant faults that I so easily find.  Give me a Joyous Spirit that I may spread cheer and sunshine along the way and that those whom I meet may know that I have walked and talked with the Master.  And give me Hope, the greatest of all gifts brought to the world by the birth of the Christ child.

And last of all I want a star, a bright guiding Star, to teach me how to use the precious gifts you bring.  And may the holiday season be a happy and blessed one for all the world, dear Spirit of Christmas.

Mrs. N.C. Larson

[12-19-1930 Bigfork Times]

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