Florence Zula Shafer Witthoft (1890- 1986)
My mother, Florence Zula Shafer Witthoft, descended from early German/Palatine settlers in the Mohawk Valley in New York State. All her new-world ancestors arrived before the Revolutionary War, and many fought in that conflict. Mother was quietly proud of her pre-Revolutionary forbears. I grew up hearing their names: Shafer, Clum, Haner, Finkell, Kilts.... Mother enjoyed researching these early families. Her organizational ability and attention to detail made her a superb genealogist. She recorded her research by hand; the facility of the computer would have delighted her. Her children inherited her organizational skills and attention to detail. My sister and brother, Florence and Herman, continue to build on Mother’s genealogy research. And I have adopted the task of recording my husband’s Finnish roots.
As long as I can remember, Mother pursued genealogy as a hobby. She would say that her ancestors were not “important” people, they were common folk, good hard-working people. Mother was particularly interested in her Kilts ancestors, an interest sparked by her paternal grandmother, Sophia Kilts Shafer, who died in 1918 when my Mother was 28 years old. Sophia Kilts married Daniel D. Shafer in 185 1. Three and a half years later, they left for Illinois with their two baby girls. Life in Illinois was difficult for them. While there, in August 1856, a son, Manillious, was born; he died seven months later. Eleven months after Manillious’ death, my grandfather, Wellington Shafer, was born. Tragically, on February 13, 1860, six days before my grandfather’s second birthday, his father, Daniel, died. Sophia was six months pregnant. Sometime after the birth of her baby, Sophia and her four small children traveled by train to New York State to live with her Kilts relatives in Schoharie County. Mother’s interest in her Kilts ancestors led her to help organize the Kilts Reunion in 193 1; she was historian of that organization for many years. Mother would be delighted to know that her son, Herman Wellington Witthoft, continued her research on the Kilts and Shafer families and is publishing his research on the Shafers.
I am the fourth of six children; I was a quiet little girl after an older sister and two rambunctious boys. I like the way my school-teacher mother and minister father raised me. Each of us six children has different memories, different reactions to our childhood.
I record some of my recollections here. Mother was born on Easter Sunday, April 6, 1890, to Ida Adelaide Finkell and Wellington Shafer in the Town of Root, Montgomery County, New York. She spent her growing-up years on a farm in the village of Argusville, New York. Her brother, Arba Edward, born two years before Mother, died when he was only three years old. Mother referred often to his death; one wonders how the death of this oldest, and only, son affected the family. Mother’s sister, Mary Elizabeth, was born the year after Arba’s death, when Mother was two years old. The sisters remained close all their lives. My grandmother protected her daughters from the “male” farm chores; she was determined that they obtain an education.
When Mother and her sister Mary attended Oneonta State Normal School, my grandmother went with them to cook and to keep house. After graduation from Oneonta State Normal in 1909, Mother attended Syracuse University. In 1914, she received her Bachelor of Arts degree with highest honors in the Department of Biblical Language and Literature. She was elected to the honorary fraternity, Phi Beta Kappa. (According to family folklore, I lost Mother’s Phi Beta Kappa key, when she allowed me to wear it when I was eight or nine years old.) In 1915, Mother completed her Master of Arts Degree in the same department at Syracuse. Her master’s thesis, The Historical Background of the Book of the Covenant, is a scholarly 114 pages.
Mother was beginning her Ph.D. studies when my grandmother called her home to Argusville. Mother taught for several years in the area grade schools. In 1920, Mother joined the Academy faculty at Hartwick Academy and Seminary at Hartwick Seminary, New York. She taught English and history the first year and mathematics and biology the second year. My father, Charles Martin Witthoft, was a ministerial student in the Seminary’s Theological Depa.rtment. Mother and Dad had met some years earlier, and their friendship turned to romance. They were both 31 years old and chafed under the Hartwick “no-marriage” rule for students. In spite of that rule, a year before Dad graduated, they were married in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Argusville on April 30, 1921. In 1934, after parishes in Athens and Bronx, New York, our family settled in East Schodack, a small village south of Albany, New York. I was four years old. It was a wonderful place in which to grow up-safe for children to play and to wander. Mother was in charge of the pre-confirmation Sunday School classes, and she led the opening services. She was tone deaf; as long as the pianist hit the right note, Mother could, too.
I can still hear her voice leading the singing. Mother postponed her career as a school teacher for 27 years and became mother and school teacher to her six children. When I became a mother, her voice came through mine (clean up and you’ll find it); her approach to problems became mine (what are you going to do about it?). In public, a withering look from Mother set me straight-with no words spoken, Mother seldom smiled a full smile because she was self-conscious of her crowded teeth. When my daughter was little, I told Mother how much Lauri was like her. Mother’s immediate response: “Get her teeth fixed.” We did. Lauri, too, had crowded teeth that the orthodontist “fixed.”
I remember Sunday afternoons with joy. Sunday was a day of rest, and the minister’s family set the example. Mother’s brood of six attracted the neighborhood, so to ensure a quiet Sabbath, we were not allowed to play outdoors. On pleasant Sunday afternoons, we often visited friends and family in the country, where we enjoyed the time outdoors as noisily as we pleased. Other Sundays, Mother entertained us with Bible games she invented. Sometimes we entertained ourselves with a special game of “hide-and-go-seek all-over-the-house.” (This happened only when my two older brothers consented to play with their two younger sisters.) We spent hours looping dominoes around the dining- room table for that one moment of joy, the “domino effect.” Mother cooked a big Sunday dinner, so Sunday night she turned the kitchen over to us: We popped popcorn, made fudge, experimented with homemade potato chips (a tedious task not tried often).
We sat down for meals together. At breakfast and supper we sang grace, Dad leading, and at lunch, we recited the Lutheran, “Come Lord Jesus and be our guest....” I remember nights when I returned home late from a playmate’s house and heard, through the open windows, the family singing the supper grace, “Every evening seems to say....” Our family had its own birthday blessing, which we call “The Witthoft Birthday Song.”
During the war years, Mother cared for her parents in our home in East Schodack until their deaths. She kept the family running when Dad joined the war effort and took a midnight-shift job in addition to his ministerial duties. In 1947, Dad accepted a call to Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Chatham, New York. Two years later, at age 59, Mother began her second teaching career. She taught in rural grade schools around Chatham for 11 years before retiring in 1960 at age 70. Mother and Dad were good hard-working people. They lived the Christian faith. And they raised six good hard-working children.
When Mother and Dad were 79 years old, they made their second trip to Texas to visit my family in Austin. I carefully planned our sightseeing; Dad had suffered a stroke a few years before. They enjoyed the day trips and didn’t appear tired. One day remained, a day of rest, before they flew to California to visit my brother and sister. The night before their “rest day,” I told Mother it would be a shame for them not to visit San Antonio, an interesting city only an hour and a half away. Mother broke into a broad toothy smile, and said, “Let’s go. 1” And go we did-a wonderful 14-hour day.
Mother, your “Let’s go!” attitude lives on in your children. I know that you are pleased with us, your off-spring, and that you love us with all our idiosyncrasies and faults. To you, Mother, your children dedicate this volume.
Austin, Texas, 1999
Table of Contents Schaffer
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