Brooklyn and the American Dream grew up together. While many other cities and towns across America have hosted immigrant communities throughout their histories, there is something about Brooklyn that trumps other places in imagery, legend, fact and lore – it was, and is, a special sort of “Gateway to the American Dream.”
The American Dream as realized in Brooklyn embodies prospects of religious freedom, economic opportunity and the promise of a better life than formerly known in the places left behind. This is as much the case today for the recent arrivals from the Caribbean, Latin America and Eastern Europe as it was in earlier centuries for those from Holland, England, Germany, Ireland and Italy. Most of the life experiences of the millions of immigrants and their descendants who knew Brooklyn as the gateway to the American Dream in earlier eras have faded into vague memory or vanished entirely. But long ago, on dusty streets and behind tenement doors throughout Brooklyn, there were children, challenges, struggles, laughter, worries, tears and dreams.
How better to understand what it must have been like for millions than to look at the life and times of a single immigrant family as they pursued the dream of a better life, as tenements and streets were teeming with humanity; as churches, schools and neighborhood businesses were being constructed in record numbers; and as horse-drawn wagons filled alleys around the neighborhood breweries. These sights defined and marked the geography of East Williamsburg (then known as the Eastern District of Brooklyn) in the 1880's as well as any neighborhood signposts along Bushwick, Metropolitan, Union and Montrose Avenues.
The Diefenbach Family made quite a go of it in Brooklyn in the 1880s. Theirs, like so many others, is a story of thrift, faith and hard work, punctuated by challenges of childhood illness and death, and striving to acquire a better home further down the block, or beyond the corner store. As generations of immigrants have marked decades of dreams and life stories within Brooklyn, and then moved away, not all has been forgotten.
A combination steamer/sailing ship, the W.A. Scholten, arrived in New York Harbor in October 1880. The ship’s manifest indicates that Caspar Diefenbach, age 24, occupation: baker, carrying a passport from Nomborn, Prussia (which had become part of unified Germany in 1871), was aboard. As the young German immigrant took in the sights and sounds of the city from the railing of the ship, there was not yet a Statue of Liberty to greet him. Also aboard was a young German woman, Catharine Herrmann, age 20, occupation: laborer. She too was out of Nomborn – a small village built around farming and forestry in the Rhineland, located six miles from the medieval city of Limburg an der Lahn and 50 miles north of Frankfurt. The immigrants were processed at Castle Garden on the Lower Manhattan waterfront, as Ellis Island had not yet been established as the reception center for new arrivals to America.
Why did the young baker, Caspar Diefenbach, leave the natural beauty of the German Rhineland, with its patchwork of verdant forests, county villages and meandering deep brooks? Among the factors which might have influenced the bold decision to leave the land of his ancestors, and pursue a new life in a new land, were the following:
Political Unrest and Poverty – In 1848, Europe was in turmoil with many nations engulfed in revolutionary civil wars, and a three-year war between Prussia and Denmark erupted during this period. Three shorter wars followed in 1864, 1866 and 1870 with Denmark, Austria and France, respectively. Even though Germany was rapidly industrializing during this period, most citizens remained poor, and farming was on the decline. Nomborn had survived past calamities, while some neighboring villages were simply abandoned. Caspar had knowledge of these national and local histories as well as the knowledge that his family was deeply rooted in the history of Nomborn – his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had all lived and died there. But his family ties might have been weaker than in previous generations because Caspar was less than two years old when his father died. The young man felt that his chances for success would be better in America, and he made the fateful decision to leave family and friends behind, not knowing for certain if he would ever see them again.
Love and Marriage – The Herrmann Family, also out of the German Rhineland, had emigrated to America in 1866, when their oldest daughter, Catharine, was six. At age 20, as a young adult, she returned to visit family in her native village of Nomborn. When she returned to America in the fall of 1880, she brought back with her a souvenir – the baker, Caspar Diefenbach, and they were married the following year.
Sibling Rivalry – Caspar Diefenbach’s only surviving sibling, an older brother named John, had become a successful surgeon, meaning the Diefenbach family may have been relatively prosperous at the time. Regardless, Caspar’s future as a baker in Germany would be played out in the shadow of his older brother. His future in America would allow him to seek independence and self-determination. Over many decades, Caspar and Catharine Diefenbach traveled back to Germany to visit John and other family members, but for whatever reason, John never visited his brother in America.
Hope – Independence and the possibility of a better tomorrow were dreams that had already come true for the young man. Caspar, who was looking at the Manhattan “skyline” on August 29, 1880 (it would be eight years before New York erected its first skyscraper) was about to set foot on American soil. Within two years of arriving in Brooklyn, while employed as a baker working for wages, he would be married and become a father. Through these early years, he was working long hours, saving and planning on having a business of his own some day.
Settling in Williamsburg, Brooklyn
The two young Germans were more fortunate than many. As they left Castle Gardens, they did not succumb to hustlers in the crowd offering them luggage service, travel service, lodging, employment and overpriced goods. They had a most valuable connection in Brooklyn: the Herrmann family. Catharine's parents John Herrmann and his wife Maria Henkes Herrmann had immigrated to America in 1866 with their young daughter. Catharine’s father, a tailor, had established himself in Brooklyn, participating in German-American church and social organizations and was a member of the Union Guard. He would be able to introduce his future son-in-law to potential employers and give him other guidance about life in the big city. In 1880, Brooklyn was growing rapidly; it was the third-largest city in the United States, behind New York and Philadelphia (Chicago and Boston ranked fourth and fifth, respectively). Being unmarried, the couple would live apart for their first few months in America. After Catharine's travel abroad, she moved back in with her parents and five siblings at 137 Montrose Avenue, directly across the street from Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church.
Caspar Diefenbach meanwhile obtained lodging at 80 Bushwick Avenue. There was a neighborhood bakery nearby, located at 168 Bushwick Avenue, and no doubt the young man wasted little time before meeting the proprietor and learning about employment opportunities in the area. The location of this bakery shop was exceptional, strategically positioned on a busy thoroughfare, a few blocks from the Otto Huber Brewery on Meserole Street, which in turn was adjacent to a passenger and freight train terminal. The young man did not know it as he walked through the bakery shop door on that first visit in 1880, but in time, it would be his destiny to run this neighborhood business with the words “Diefenbach Bakery” painted on the storefront window.
Caspar worked as a baker in an orphanage for a few years after his arrival in Brooklyn. Considering the times, steady employment in an institutional setting was a godsend, as it helped to integrate the new immigrant into the community, provided secure roots, and allowed for modest savings. How fortunate was this young man when one considers the plight of so many bakers in the 1880s? Back in Germany, there was such an oversupply of bakers that some young men traveled across Europe seeking employment. For those who were employed, wages were pitifully low, with many bakers being single men, unable to afford families. Rarely was there a day off throughout the entire year. In the 1880s in Germany, most bakers worked 14 hours a day, seven days a week – that adds up to a 98-hour work week. Humane relief finally came for German bakers in 1896 when the government issued a "decree limiting the hours of work and improving sanitary conditions in Germany’s bakeshops. The law prohibited work before four A.M. and most Sunday work, and introduced the thirteen-hour workday.”
Times were also difficult for bakers in Manhattan and Brooklyn during this period. German-American bakers were among the lowest paid workers in the metropolitan area. Most bakers worked in cellars under tenement homes, routinely working from sunrise to sunset for eight to ten cents an hour. To make it, Caspar Diefenbach would have to change occupations or somehow get his own bakery shop. He could not make it working for wages.
With work uncertain, the church was an important part of the family's life. The Herrmann and Diefenbach families were deeply religious. Caspar was named after Father Caspar Diefenbach, who had officiated at the wedding of his parents in 1850. Most Holy Trinity was more than a church to these families; it became the foundation of their lives. The two families would take great pride in the fact that Catharine’s younger sister would grow up to become a nun, Sister Eulalia.
Just a few months after Caspar's arrival and Catharine's return to America, the couple were married on January 30, 1881 in Most Holy Trinity Church. It was a grand church for those times, and the parish was the oldest German Catholic congregation in Brooklyn. The Diefenbachs were married in the second church in the parish’s history, which was constructed in 1853-54. The church also served as an important crossroads and social center for the community, with five priests active in parish activities in 1881. It was a short trip to the alter that day for the bride, as the Herrmann residence was directly across the street from the church. For the next decade, they would raise a family and start a business, almost all within a few blocks of the spot where they began their pursuit of the American Dream.
If you would like to follow this blog, subscribe to our RSS feed or sign up for updates via email in the box above on the right (this is separate from the Urban Oyster email newsletter). For questions or comments about this blog post, please contact Andrew Gustafson (email@example.com).
 Schneider, Dorothee. Trade Unions and Community: The German Working Class in New York City, 1870-1900. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994, p. 182.