Johnstown honors immigrants with house museum
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Audio Slideshow: Take a virtual tour of the history and restoration of the Wagner-Ritter House in this multimedia presentation by Marylynne Pitz and Darrell Sapp.
Click photo for larger image.
JOHNSTOWN -- Anna Wagner Ritter lived and worked in this noisy, gritty urban whirlpool of iron and steel during the 1870s and somehow eluded deadly childhood diseases as well as the horrific flood of 1889.
The only surviving daughter of 13 children born to German immigrants, Mrs. Ritter also endured a widowhood that included rearing three children under the age of 5 while living with her aging parents. To support her family, she took in laundry and worked as a cleaning lady at the Germania brewery.
A participant in daily Mass at Immaculate Conception Church, her stroll down the block and visit to that sanctuary no doubt provided some rare moments of tranquility besides a chance to pray for much-needed strength.
Mrs. Ritter's home, where she spent most of her 102 years, survived the Johnstown Flood and has become a museum.
"You can stand in the actual place that survived the Johnstown Flood. It's purely a fluke that it did. It should have, in all likelihood, floated away. The buildings around it protected it," said Dan Ingram, a historian and curator of the Wagner-Ritter House & Garden.
The spartan, wooden structure opens to invited guests today at 4:07 p.m., the moment when a wall of water, let loose after the South Fork dam gave way, rolled down the hills and struck this city. The natural and man-made disaster killed 2,209 people. The new museum opens to the public on Saturday.Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette
Curator Dan Ingram says the museum will use the story of centenarian Anna Wagner Ritter's life to show visitors the history of working class immigrant families.
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Like families all over this Cambria County community on May 31, all nine of the Wagners prayed on the second floor of their home as the water rose to 13 feet. The Wagners rescued a woman who floated past by pulling her in through their second-floor window.
For working-class people of that era, privacy was rare and comforts were few. The Wagner home -- known as a 2 over 2 -- is 24 feet wide, 28 feet deep and has about 1,000 square feet of living space in its four rooms.
Nine people lived in the home, which was heated by two wood-burning stoves and, after the turn of the century, gas-powered heaters. By the 1890s, the family had cold running water. In 1936, after a major flood that year, city officials compelled Anna Wagner Ritter to install an indoor toilet. For decades, the Wagners had used a privy in the back yard.
"The back yard held a few peonies and wild roses, but mostly it was a work space," Mr. Ingram said, adding that the Johnstown Garden Club volunteered to research and build the raised garden beds typically planted by German immigrants. A hops bush was planted because the Wagners brewed beer.
Aside from the threats of flooding, the 19th-century domestic life for immigrants was physically rigorous. Mrs. Ritter lifted irons that weighed at least 6 pounds, as well as heavier wash boilers full of wet laundry. Wash was hung in the attic after a climb up a steep, narrow staircase.JAHA (top) and Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette (below)
Much of what was learned about life in the Wagner-Ritter house is the result of archeological digs (above) that unearthed thousands of itms, including an elixir bottle (below).
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"These women didn't need to work out. They just did housework. They must have had extraordinary upper body strength," Mr. Ingram said.
Andrew Johnson occupied the White House in 1866, the year of Mrs. Ritter's birth, and Lyndon Johnson was president when she died in 1968.
Such facts are readily found, but unlike the tycoons who benefited richly from coal, iron and steel, the Wagners did not leave behind the diaries, letters, bank records or painting receipts that make it easier to create thought-provoking interpretations of their lives.
"I'm sure that George Wagner had no idea that anybody would turn his house into a museum," Mr. Ingram said.
For the past 14 years, Mr. Ingram and a team of 10 volunteers studied maps and tax, birth, death and census records, and interviewed descendants. Tom and Janet Donaldson of Johnstown researched the family's genealogy.
The project experienced a two-year setback in 1999, when a fire destroyed a building next door, and the flames damaged the roof and interior of the Wagner-Ritter home.
But the persistence demonstrated by immigrants prevailed, and the roof was repaired. A visitors center connected to the historic home was built in 2004.
After Robert and Eugene Ritter donated their family's home to the Johnstown Area Heritage Association, about 70 volunteers participated in an archaeological dig that unearthed 28,000 artifacts, including remnants of a soda pop bottling business.
Thousands of shards of pop bottles were found, the remains of a bottling business established by George A. Wagner Jr. and his youngest brother, Peter. That initial venture failed, but Peter Wagner, who had worked as a brewer, later operated the Wagner Bottling Co. in the Johnstown neighborhood of Cooperdale, where he made soda through the 1930s.
The Wagners lived in Cambria City, a section of Johnstown named for the Cambria Iron Works. They had plenty of company because in the 1850s Pennsylvania had the greatest number of German immigrants. There were Irish immigrants, too, but the Wagner children spoke German, and their parents read a newspaper called The Frei Presse, which meant Free Press.
Most residents in Cambria City, including the Wagners, owned their own homes, unlike residents of nearby Minersville, which consisted of company housing.Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette
Built in 1860, this is how the house looks today.
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George Wagner, the family's patriarch, arrived here from Bavaria and found work stoking a furnace at the nearby Cambria Iron Works, just across the Conemaugh River. He married Frances Hegele, another immigrant from his homeland.
As head of the household, George Wagner worked in the iron mill for 50 years.
"There was no Social Security. You had to work or you had to depend on your children to take care of you," Mr. Ingram said.
Of the couple's 13 children, the seven who survived, from eldest to youngest, were Joseph, George A. Jr., John H., Anna, Aloysius, Adolph and Peter.
The family's matriarch, Frances, would probably be amazed that anyone would scrape off 13 layers of wallpaper in her home to find the original wallpaper and pay a historian to re-create the last layer, an elaborate pattern with brown, red and taupe in the style of Charles Eastlake's designs.
"The wallpaper historian was aghast at the fact that the border does not match the paper. He was truly appalled at the choices Mrs. Wagner made. He was suggesting we do a more appropriate border," said Mr. Ingram, pointing out how the vivid Pepto-Bismol pink in the border clashes with the wall covering.
But Mr. Ingram insisted on accuracy, reasoning that even if a 19th-century version of Martha Stewart existed, Mrs. Wagner was not paying her any attention.
Richard Burkert, executive director of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association, said the cost of restoring the Wagner-Ritter home and gardens totaled $750,000. His organization, a nonprofit with 1,000 members, led the effort to restore the home.
The organization, Mr. Burkert said, is using Johnstown's local history to tell the national stories of industrialization and immigration.
The Wagner-Ritter House and Garden, he said, "is going to read like the Middle Ages to schoolchildren."
If you go
The Wagner-Ritter House & Garden opens to the public on Saturday and its hours will be from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Entry to the home and garden will be free Saturday and Sunday.
The regular $6 admission fee also allows visitors to tour the Johnstown Flood Museum at 304 Washington St., and the Frank and Sylvia Pasquerilla Heritage Discovery Center at 201 Sixth Ave. The flood museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. but through Labor Day, the flood museum and discovery center hours are extended on Fridays and Saturdays until 7 p.m. For more information, visit www.jaha.org or call toll-free 1-888-222-1889.
First Published May 31, 2006 12:00 am