The Gauer History

edition of April 24 2013

From Wartau, Switzerland to Dubuque, Iowa to Ackley, Iowa to Lake Lillian, Minnesota

The branch of the Gauer family referred to in this article stems from my Great Grandfather Mathias Gauer and Elizabeth Graf originally from Switzerland . They raised a family of 3 in Center Township Dubuque County, Iowa . The first child was Elizabeth born in 1858, then Mary in about 1862 and then (my grandpa) Mathias born in 1864.

My Grandfather Mathias left Dubuque County and married my Grandmother Magdalena Finger in Grundy County Iowa in 1893.

Mathias (Matt) and Lena started a large family and in 1900, moved north to continue farming in East Lake Lillian Township in Kandiyohi County , Minnesota . Matt and Lena died young in 1923 leaving eight survivors who all married and had families. I am one of 42 cousins. My dad, Otto, was born in 1909 and died in 1970.

The families knew very little of the family history as we grew up in Minnesota . The purpose of this writing is to share what we know of the family history to this point. Most of the early Gauer families were farmers that worked the land or carpenters that made houses and barns or cabinets.  Many have served their churches, some as preachers. We have not found any records of criminals or royalty in the family. Today, fewer farmers are required and we are of many vocations.

It may be helpful to have a copy of the family tree handy when you read through this.

view the tree


My great grandfather Mathias Gauer was born in Fontnas near the Rhine River in the Wartau area of the Canton of St Gallen in Switzerland on September 3, 1818. Just up the road is the Wartau-Gretschins Evangelical Reformed Kirche. There is a hiking trail from there up to the ruins of Burg (castle) Wartau.
He had been married to Barbara Senn and had children in Switzerland. His youngest child there would have been 7 in 1856. Barbara died on March 16, 1859 of Lungenschlag (sudden pneumonia).
Our Gauer family records in Gretchins go back to Hans Gauer of 1617. The records were found in 1992 by Michael Gauer the son of my cousin Warren.
We traveled to Switzerland in 2002 with our son Greg and visited Gretschins near Fontnas and started our search to link the family of Great-grandfather Mathias. The record of our travels and contacts in 2002 is on this site. Europe 2002

Center Township, Dubuque County, Iowa

My great grandfather Mathias Gauer left Switzerland and came to America at the age of 37, arriving in New York on the ship Uncle Toby from Le Havre on 22 May 1856 He lived in Center Township, Dubuque County, Iowa in the years from 1856 to about 1895.

The records at the Dubuque county courthouse show an application for marriage to Elizabeth Graf on Oct 27, 1860. Also on Oct 27 he applied for citizenship, saying that he arrived on June 2, 1856 from Switzerland. Elizabeth Graf was born in Uetendorf, Switzerland in 1826 and came to New York on the ship Annawan on December 4, 1857, to be near her brother Christian Graf. Elizabeth had a daughter named Elizabeth on June 1, 1858. We do not know who the father of baby Elizabeth was. She was most likely conceived in Switzerland if dates are accurate. .

Mathias Gauer and Elizabeth Graf had two more children: My great aunt Mary was born in 1863 and my grandfather Mathias known as Matt was born in 1864.

Mathias bought 40 acres (NE ¼ NE ¼ of Section 30 Township 89 N range 1 East of 5th princ meridian ) from James Sims on Dec 8, 1870.

The census of 1880 shows Mathias as a carpenter and a widower with young Matt, 16, in his household; The daughters were on their own already. Mary, 17, was listed as a servant in the Chat Humke farm family of 6 children in Dubuque Township census dist 170. Elizabeth at 22 got married that year to Frank Hill and they continued to live in the area for more than 20 years.

Mary died September 12, 1882 at the age of 19 of inflammation of the womb caused by taking cold

Three months later, Mathias then 64 years old sold his 65 acres in 3 parcels on December 16, 1882 to Christian Graf, William Graf and Joseph Schmitt all relatives of his wife.

The railroad came through the Little Maquoketa valley in 1886.

The last record that we have found for Mathias is on the 1895 Iowa census when he was living with the Donatsch family. The Donatsch family came from Malans, Switzerland only 13 miles south of Fontnas; so very likely they were acquainted there before coming to America.

Frank and Elizabeth Hill were still living in Center Township according to the 1900 census; which showed 7 children born to Elizabeth Hill and 3 living. The first was .a son Edward (later known as Edwin David Hill) born in 1881. The other two children born to Frank & Elizabeth were Frank E Hill in 1891 and Mabel in 1893. Both Frank and Edward were Machinists and had been unemployed 3 months and 6 months according to the census. The family had moved to Meadow, SD. by the time of the 1910 census. In 1923 they moved to Wenatchee, WA and lived out their lives there.

Mabel married Clarence Roy Watson in 1910 and they had two children before she died in 1916. Roy rejoined the family by marrying my dad's sister, Elizabeth Gauer in 1919.

The family records are incomplete

We wonder what was happening with his family in Switzerland at the time that my Great Grandfather, Mathias, came to America. Was he hoping to send for Barbara and their children before she died? What happened to the children in Switzerland?

We do not know when Great Grandpa Mathias died or whether he is buried in the Gauer plot at the Presbyterian Church Cemetery north of Centralia. There is no marker there for him. If he is buried there, we must assume that finances of survivors Elizabeth Hill and Grandpa Matt were insufficient to purchase a monument.

We do not know where Great Grandmother Elizabeth Graf is buried or when she died. Last record for her is on the census of 1870. She may have died before the Presbyterian Church started in 1871.

The 1882 death record at the Dubuque courthouse says that Mary is buried in the Lutheran cemetery north of Epworth and that she was housekeeper for her father. The Highview cemetery north of Epworth is still active. We made inquiry of the caretaker and were told that it was always called the Highview and there was no record of Mary. Our current thinking is that she is probably buried in an old neglected Lutheran cemetery north of Peosta, IA which is the next town 5 miles to the east. We have also looked at the Johnson cemetery east of Epworth and hope to continue the search because of the probability that Mary is buried next to her mother, Elizabeth Graf Gauer. My wife Grace and I have walked through about 7 cemeteries in the area and we found that many of the old stones from that era are missing or in bad condition.

We do not know where Matt lived after his sister died and his father retired in 1882. We next know that my Grandpa Matt was married at the age of 29 to Magdalena Finger in 1893 in German Township Grundy County IA

Magdalena, known as Lena, was born in Kankakee, IL in 1864 to Edward and Rosina Scheiding Finger. We do not know details of where or when they came from Saxony, Germany.

Rural Dubuque County, Iowa

The Great River Mississippi and its valley dominate the terrain in Dubuque. The Little Maquoketa River flows eastward to the Mississippi and defines its deep valley. The Heritage Hiking Trail runs along the river on the old railroad bed. The tributary sometimes floods in the spring and is not large enough for power boating but may be suitable for canoeing during high water. The land in the valley is a mix of woodland and hilly farmland. The early settlers on smaller farms used the valley land for stock farms with cattle and sheep. The land above the valley transitions quickly to the more familiar open flat and gently rolling farm land typical of central Iowa.

Graf, IA is in Center Township, Dubuque County and is located in the very beautiful valley made by the Little Maquoketa River. In December of 1882, our Great Grandfather, Mathias Gauer, ~1820 - ~1895, sold a total of 65 acres in Graf. The 3 parcels of land included 40 acres near the summit of a high hill overlooking the small town of Graf and 16 acres with a home site west of Thielen Road, which was near the bottom of the valley close to the Lattnerville Catholic Church, a school, a saw mill and woolen mill. The rolling terrain looks like the foothills in Switzerland near the Rhine River If you omit the background of the Alps. There is a Swiss valley located 7 miles to the southeast. The small Catholic Church still stands and was built in 1867. Services are held there once a year. The house and mills are long gone.

Today Graf has about 20 houses and no retail business with the exception of a pop machine at the now closed site of Arvel Smith's bar. During our first visit to Graf in September 1997, Arvel pointed us to William (aka. Billy) Graf, who happened to have a Plat Book from 1906 with information on the original Christian Graf family. Billy rode with us from his farm near Bankston to show us the way to the old Presbyterian cemetery north of Centralia where most members of the Christian Graf family are buried. Some members of the large Graf family married Catholics and are in the cemeteries at Lattnerville or Bankston. Some Grafs moved west to the Oelwein, IA area. On a later visit to the area in early April 1998, we learned that Billy had died in November 1997 at the age of 84. He had one lung and was in generally poor health when we had seen him in September.

The Railroad and Travel

The first rails were extended from Chicago to the Mississippi River at Rock Island, IL in 1854. The Great Excursion that year attracted people from all over the eastern US to travel round trip from Chicago to St Paul, MN. The rail leg joined Chicago to Rock Island and steamboats were used on the river to St. Paul, MN. So, very likely, Mathias traveled by rail to Rock Island and by steamboat to reach Dubuque in 1856. The last 14 mile leg of the trip was probably by horse and buckboard to the Lattnerville area where Christian Graf and other Swiss people had settled. It may also have been possible to go out by rail from Dubuque to Peosta or Epworth and the last three miles by horse.

The Heritage walking trail follows the old railroad bed from Dyersville to Dubuque and passes about 500 feet from the old home site of Mathias Gauer. The area was known only as Lattnerville until the railroad came through the valley and Christian Graf donated land for a railroad stop. The first railroad 3 miles south of Graf was The Dubuque & Pacific constructed in 1857. It became the Illinois Central in 1870. The line goes to Waterloo and exists today as the Chicago Central Pacific. It runs on relatively flat and open land through Peosta, Epworth, Farley and Dyersville. Another RR in 1859 routed from Farley to Cedar Rapids through Worthington. It was called the Dubuque & Southwestern and became part of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St Paul RR in 1881.
Remember that the first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869. The Illinois Central line appears on the 1874 plat map 3 miles south of Graf through Farley. Comparison of I874 and 1892 plat maps show that the Chicago and Great Western Railway came through the valley at Graf and Lattnerville during that time. At Loras College in Dubuque we found a section on railroads in the book ' History of Farley, Iowa' 1996 by Farley Historical Society that put the railroad date as 1886. The railroad from Dubuque to Oelwein came along the Little Maquoketa valley thru Graf and North Farley in 1886 and was called the Chicago and Great Western until being gobbled up by the Chicago & Northwestern in 1968 and abandoned in 1981. The rails are gone but the roadbed still exists in the valley today as the Heritage Trail. In January of 1892 the Chicago and Great Western Railway Company took over the bankrupt Chicago, St. Paul, and Kansas City Line. A major repair shop was completed in May 1899 in Oelwein. This was according to the Oelwein Area Historical Society, History of the Railroad in www. The Galbraith' s Railway Mail Service map of 1897 shows the mail stop as Lattners not Graf. The above history shows that the railroad came through Graf after Mathias sold his land. Also interesting to recall is that long distance travel was by railroad in that time and railroads were common and desired for local progress.

Travel time from Le Havre in France on the ship Uncle Toby of New Haven in 1856 was 30 days with 346 people and cargo. There were 2 ships named Annawan. The first one was a Brig (2 masts with square rigged sales). The Uncle Toby and the Annawan may have been larger "Clipper Ships'. We are looking for more information. Trips across the Atlantic were about 5 weeks long If by wooden sailing ship. Many of these ships were unscheduled and carried cargo (like cotton) to Europe and people to America on the return. The first steam ships had paddle wheels and sails in that period. Ship development progressed from that time to iron hulls and eventually to steel ships with twin screw propellers in the 1870s as the use of sail ships declined.

Railroad development in Switzerland was beginning in 1847 but not very extensive by the middle 1850s when Mathias and Elizabeth came. Now, of course, rail and highway infrastructure is a modern wonder in Switzerland with extensive bridges and tunnels to go through the mountainous terrain. The valleys and rivers were there. Did they travel the Rhine to Basel? Travel in northern France west to Le Havre was mostly by rail. Travel time from Basle was less than 2 days. The total time from home to ship was probably a week with road travel and check in.

The Graf Family

Great Grandmother Elizabeth Graf was born in Uetendorf, Switzerland, March 23 1826. Her brother, Christian came to the US before she did. They came from Thierachern near Lake Thun about 137 road miles west of the Wartau area. The Graf family records are in the Kirchenbuch of Evangelisch-Reformierte Kirche Thierachern (Bern) Switzerland and show that their father, Christian Graf was born in January 1798 and mother, Elizabeth Guggisberg was born Feb 8 1801.

Christian Graf was born in 1820 and arrived in the US on Jan 16, 1854 from Switzerland with his wife Mary and their first 3 children, Mary, born 1847, John William, born 1849 and Eliza, born 1853. Christian and Mary had 4 more children in the US: Henry, William (grandfather of the William (Billy) Graf we visited with), Emma and Christian II. The large Graf family grew and prospered in Center Township as stock farmers.

The 1826 Elizabeth Graf was to be our great-grandmother and, at age 30, arrived 3 months pregnant from Havre on Dec. 4, 1857. Her child was born on June 1, 1858 and also named Elizabeth. The name Elizabeth was popular then and has remained so in families today.

The Centralia Presbyterian Church

The small hamlet of Centralia is located on higher rolling land NNE of Peosta and about 2 miles east of Graf. The last service was held in 1996 at the Centertown Presbyterian Church on Y21 Sundown Road less than 1000 ft North of Humke Road. The church building is now used for storage and a newer house is located next to it. The cemetery is still maintained at the back of the church site. Drive on the grass along the North fence line.

The church started in 1872. Christian Graf and many of his descendants are buried in the cemetery.

The 3 pictures below were taken for the 100th anniversary held on Sept 10, 1972.

Centertown Presbyterian

Centertown Presbyterian

Centertown Presbyterian

At University of Dubuque in archives we found the 40 person membership list from 1900 of Centertown Presbyterian Church at Centralia in the Presbyterian 'Directory of Dubuque and Vicinity' . 1900-1901. Frank and Elizabeth Hill were on the list.

We talked to Jim Donatsch, who farms just northeast of the cemetery and made a copy of the cemetery plot locations from his records showing the plot of Mathias Gauer. We looked through a pile of broken stones near his plot but again found nothing conclusive. Jim Donatsch is a descendant of Christian Donatsch born 1832 The 1895 census shows that Mathias then 75 was living with Christian Donatsch born 1855 and Christian Donatsch born 1832. The elder Donatsch was the father of Verena (aka. Fannie) Donatsch born in Malans, Switzerland 1857. The Graf family connection was via Fannie who married the John William Graf born 1849. Lee Graf of Lone Tree, Colorado has helped with information on the Graf side.

Ackley, Iowa

Ackley is a very attractive town located in the very good farm land of central Iowa about 120 miles west of Graf.

Mathias (aka. Matt) born 1864 was married in 1893 to Magdalena Finger in German Township, Grundy County, IA. The Finger farm is on the county line 6 miles east of Ackley and about 2 miles from the Presbyterian Church. We visited the gravesite of Lena's parents at the still active West Friesland Presbyterian Church.

presbyterian church

Ackley is at the corner of four counties with Franklin County to the North. The 1895 census of Osceola Township, Franklin County lists the family with Mathias 31, Lena 25, Lizzie 1, Rosa 1, and Verna 0. Verna was a male.

East Lake Lillian Township, Kandiyohi County, MN

Matt and Lena moved north with their young family in 1900 to East Lake Lillian Township, Kandiyohi County MN. The 1900 census shows that Lena had birthed 5 children with 3 children living.

A house was built in 1915 on section 15 along the North side of highway #7 and 3.5 miles east of Lake Lillian. Photos from the album started in 1917 by my Uncle Clarence are included on these web pages.

Home on Gauer Place

See more of the Matt and Lena story in East Lake Lillian at: Matt & Lena

See my compilation of selected East Lake Lillian local news items from about 100 years ago to learn more about the Gauer family, the Anderstrom family, the railroad, the first World War and other events.

Also read the local news of those times to note the health challenges (before antibiotics) of diptheria, influenza, pneumonia, blood poisoning and infant mortallity.

More recent stories may be found in my Gary' s History: Growing up in Lake Lillian .

Our Minnesota family history details were compiled in the Gauer book of 1986 by my cousins Ruby Watson and the late Lois (Strand) Lunemann.

We maintain and update family records using a Family Tree Maker Program.

Miscellaneous History

Our search for family history is also leading to many questions that relate to general history. What was oing on? Were they involved in any military conflicts? Why did they leave their homelands? How did they travel? What was the route?

Did you know that Switzerland with its current policy of perpetual neutrality had its own civil war? The Sonderbundskrieg, or civil war, of 1847 was a very short protestants vs catholic conflict. That led to the defeat of the catholic conservatives and to a new Federal Constitution in 1848.

The number of foreign born swiss in the U S increased from 13358 in 1850 to 53327 in 1860. A peak number of 8000 immigrants came from Switzerland in the year 1854

This narrative will be shared now and revised and added to as time permits and we learn more about our past..