Sunday, January 14, 2018

Wanted: Herman Levy

Herman Levy was my great grandfather – his son, Sig, was my paternal grandfather.  I wrote about Herman HERE.  He is also one of my greatest brick wall ancestors and I’d like nothing more than to break down this wall and learn about his life before he arrived in America somewhere in the 1870’s.  Let’s look at what I know about Herman.

From the book The History of Fresno County; the San Joaquin Valley I learned that Herman was born at Filehne, Germany on May 20, 1856 and came to the United States at the age of 17, with an uncle, I.H. Jacobs.  He settled first in Merced, then Borden, and then on to Fresno.  That’s a good start.

Except that his fifth (fourth surviving) son, my grandfather’s younger brother, Ben, wrote in his autobiography:

“My father was a refugee from Germany and came to the United States in his twenties [so not at 17?].  Several of his cousins came to California along with him and settled in small San Joaquin Valley towns.  Each cousin settled in a different town to seek his livelihood.  My father settled in Borden (Madera County) [what about Merced?] just south of the present city of Madera.  The town is no longer in existence.  My father and his cousins left Germany to get away from the rule of Bismark, which was not to their liking.  In Borden, he operated a general merchandise store.  I have had grandchildren of these pioneers that have told me how their grandparents were given extended credit by my father in order that they could get established.

When the county seat in Fresno County was moved from Millerton to Fresno, my father came to Fresno.  He worked for the pioneer firm of Kutner & Goldstein Co., [more on that in another post] which later had stores in practically every town in the Valley.  Later, my father owned and operated a clothing store on Mariposa Street and later moved to an enlarged store at the corner of J (Fulton) and Mariposa Streets.  This store was destroyed by fire and my father then became the sole agent of the New York Life Insurance Co. which he held until his death.

He died in our home at 1761 Van Ness Avenue on March 6, 1918 at the age of sixty-one.  He had sisters [how many sisters? what were their names?] in Germany whom he never saw after leaving Germany for America, but he corresponded with them throughout the years.

There’s other tidbits in the autobiography (I’ve learned A LOT from Ben and am so thankful that he wrote all of this down) but this is the majority of the information about Herman.

Ben did include a photo of the house he died in, which is a bit eerie.

Herman Levy House 1761 Van Ness Avenue Fresno
1761 Van Ness Avenue, Fresno, California – date unknown

I also know this to be true from Herman’s death certificate, which was one of the first death certificates I obtained in 2010.

DC Herman Levy

If you look closely, you can see the place of death as 1761 Van Ness, and the date of March 6, 1918.  I also read first hand accounts of his death in the letters my grandparents wrote back and forth during that time.  So I know these facts to be true.

Another interesting tidbit, which might be hard to read, is the name of the physician who signed the death certificate:  Floyd L.R. Burks.  Probably won’t mean much to anyone except my siblings but as a child I remember Dr. Burks!  In fact, my parents hoped that Dr. Burks would be their savior and would be able to figure out a way to get me to stop sucking my thumb (whatever he tried didn’t work as I was finally successful at Girl Scout camp).  And, I seem to recall my parents telling us that my dad was given the middle name of Floyd in his honor.

What else do I know?

In 1880, Herman was living in Borden with a servant (?), Alvin Ward.  The census tells me that Herman was a merchant, born in Prussia, and that his father and mother were both born in Prussia.  Alvin Ward was born in Tennessee and was a clerk in store (maybe Herman’s store?)

1880 Census

Of course we all know what happened with the 1890 census so the next time I find him in a census was 1900.  He was living at 946 K Street in Fresno with his wife, Goldie, and their sons Herb, Leon, Sig, and Ben.  Also with the family was a servant, Sally.  He had been married for 16 years (1884) and immigrated to America in 1875.  That all checks out because Ben included a photo of the house at 946 “K” Street and stated that it was later known as Van Ness Avenue. (Oh boy these censuses are hard to read).

1900 Census

And here’s the photo of the house at 946 “K” Street which was built in 1887. As luck would have it (remember, my family saved everything), I not only had this photo in Ben’s autobiography but the original photo, as well.

Levy House Van Ness Avenue Fresno 1890

Of course I had to blow it up so I could see the people.  Unfortunately, I don’t know who the woman on the porch is but these folks are Goldie, Herman, and the three sons Leon, Herb, Sig.

Levy House Van Ness Avenue Fresno 1890 cropped

Based on Sig’s age, I’m going to guess that this photo is from late 1889 or very early 1890.

By 1910, the census shows Herman was at 846 K Street (I can only assume that’s a typo) with the entire family.  Also enumerated with the family was Katarina Nielson, servant, and Albert S. Blair, lodger.  Herman stated he was born in Germany, both parents were born in Germany, immigrated in 1873 (it was 1875 20 years earlier), was not naturalized, owned his home mortgage free, could read and write, and was an Insurance Agent. 

1910 Census

Now I can find all sorts of mention of Herman in Fresno up until his death and know A LOT about that period of his life.  But I’m not having any luck prior to 1873 or 1875 (whichever it was) – who were his parents?  Ben mentioned sisters but no brothers?  Was his uncle, I.H. Jacobs, his mother's brother?  So, was her maiden name Jacobs?

I’m getting ready to go on a research trip (Salt Lake City!) and desperately want some clues before I go so I can spend some time finding Herman.  I’d love any suggestions on where to focus my attention.  But if nothing else, I’ve documented the major details that I know about his life.

Herman, come out, come out wherever you are!


  1. Fascinating! Thank you for sharing your family with us!

  2. So he was never naturalized---that's too bad because maybe his citizenship papers could have answered some of your questions. I assume you've searched for him on ship manifests, passport applications, etc. What have you found out about I H Jacobs? Maybe that's a lead? Good luck!

    1. I've looked for both of them individually and together. But I'm not giving up!

  3. What an interesting collection of pictures and stories. I know you were glad to find so many similarities between the book and your uncle’s story.

    1. It's amazing how one little detail jogs a memory. Seeing the name Floyd Burks really put me back about 50 years.

  4. Debi, You are doing a great job considering all of the information you've been given and sorting it out! Best wishes as you continue your search, and on your research trip!