WILHELMINE HEIDTMAN SPRINGMEYER
The information below has been compiled from a variety of sources. If the reader has access to information that can be documented and that will correct or add to this woman’s biographical information, please contact the Nevada Women’s History Project.
At A Glance:
Born: 1847, Halle, Germany
Died: 1928, Carson Valley, Nevada
Maiden Name: Wilhelmine Heidtman
Race/Nationality/Ethnic Background: German
Married: Herman Henry Springmeyer
Children: Ten (all but one survived)
Primary City and County of Residence and Work:
Carson Valley, Nevada
Major Fields of Work: Mother, Wife, Ranch owner
My grandmother, Wilhelmine Heidtman, was born in 1847 in the small town of Halle, Germany. In school she met Herman Henry Springmeyer, a stubborn, red-haired boy three years older than her who sometimes helped her with her lessons. After he grew up, he joined the Hussars, fought in the Austro-Prussian War, and survived to come home to Halle – and to Wilhelmine. When he told his family that he planned to marry her, they forbade it because of the social difference between them. (The Heidtmans were landless woodcutters; the Springmeyers were landholding peasants.) Herman’s response to this family edict was, “She’s a damn sight finer than I am.”
This family opposition to their marriage was one of the primary reasons for the young couple’s decision to emigrate to America. Their destination – the Carson Valley in the new state of Nevada – because the brother of one of Herman’s friends had written that this was a good place. Altogether there would be five on this journey to the New World, Wilhelmine, Herman, and three of his friends. In 1868 they sailed first to New York, then to Nicaragua, where they crossed the isthmus. Wilhelmine later called it a “hard journey,” and coming as it did from a stoic young woman who rarely took notice of adversity, that laconic phrase undoubtedly conveyed many difficulties. Reaching the Carson Valley at last, the two of them worked on the ranch belonging to H. F. Dangberg, the brother of Herman’s friend, until Herman had learned the country and decided where he would buy his own land.
Family tradition holds that the landowner’s son and the woodcutter’s daughter married at a simple ceremony in Virginia City. In the spring of 1871, they moved to their own ranch, which combined fine, level land bought from Dangberg and Nesmith in the heart of the valley (the present Mack Land and Cattle Company south of Minden). Wilhelmine began keeping house in a primitive cabin with uncurtained windows. She was there alone, her husband out working in the fields, when the Washoe Indians appeared suddenly at the windows, clad only in rabbit skin blankets and breech cloths. Wilhelmine was frightened. They peered in at her, laughing uproariously at every move she made and lifting up their children to see the hilarious spectacle of a young housewife doing her domestic chores. Later they would pitch their rabbit skin tents on an unused tract of land near the river; the men would work for H.H. (as Herman had become known); and their children would play with the young Springmeyers. A few years later a spacious white frame house in a yard shaded with apple trees replaced the early cabin. Working together for the next forty years, H. H. and Wilhelmine developed the Springmeyer Ranch into one of the finest in the valley, with a dairy, alfalfa fields, and Hereford cattle (the first in the valley). The fields filled with horses and the house with children, blue-eyed children with brown or red or chestnut or golden hair. Once when the midwife was late, Herman delivered the baby, with his trusted German medical book open on the bed beside Wilhelmine. All their ten children save one lived and thrived to grow up and marry and have children of their own. Edna, the youngest, blondest, brightest, prettiest child had skipped across their lives like a little fairy and died in a shotgun accident.
Wilhelmine, assisted by her daughters, spent most of her day cooking for the family and supervising the preparation of meals for the hired men in the cookhouse. Sometimes, when the perpetually unreliable cooks left without notice, she had to cook for about twenty men, both local boys and itinerant workers, including a roving band of Civil War veterans who came tramping up the lane in spring when the season of heavy work began. In time life became easier for her. The hard, early days in the cabin were past; the older children were grown; and she no longer carried a baby in her arms as she had done for almost twenty years of her life. But suddenly she, who had never sickened nor faltered in all those years, became seriously ill with quinsy. H. H. took her posthaste to Dr. Black in Carson City. The doctor took one look and declared that her tonsils must be removed immediately. Having no instruments with him, the doctor sharpened his knife on a grindstone in the backyard of his friend Mr. Ardery. Then, under the apple tree, he cut out her diseased tonsils without benefit of anesthesia. Although Wilhelmine had lost a good deal of blood and felt violently ill, she would never have thought of pausing to rest and recuperate so far from the ranch. Shaken but determined, she sat beside her husband in the open spring wagon for the drive of more than sixteen miles back to the ranch. Never before and never again would that drive seem so long. When they crossed the alkali flats near the Cradlebaugh Bridge and the afternoon wind began to blow, she, with the open wound in her throat, had to breathe the acrid white dust that billowed around the wagon. Later, with her sons and daughters clustered quietly around her bed, she whispered, “I would rather give birth to ten more children than make another trip like that one.”
Later she was remembered not only for the pioneer spirit that brought her to a new land so different from everything she had known, but also for her sweet nature. Her son George wrote that when he was growing up on the ranch his mother was “full of the joy of life and living.” After nearly forty years on the ranch, Wilhelmine and H. H. retired to a little turreted Jacobean house painted charcoal gray on the shady back streets of Carson City, where they lived with their daughter Ann. The ranch remained in the good hands of their daughter Clare and her husband, Maurice Mack. Wilhelmine died in 1928 from pneumonia, and the car that carried H. H. to visit her grave each week could not go fast enough to suit him. In a short time, he lay where he had been for all their years together – beside her.
Researched and written by Sally Zanjani, granddaughter of Wilhelmine Springmeyer. Posted to NWHP Web site April 2009.
Sources of Information:
- Zanjani, Sally, The Unspiked Rail: Memoir of a Nevada Rebel. Reno, University of Nevada Press, 1981.