Historians can be an odd breed.
Most of us are inclined to spend a good deal of time reading about people long gone from this world. We learn about their lives, their wants, their passions. We are, in many ways, caretakers of the dead.
It should come as no surprise then that we have a tendency to spend a lot of time in cemeteries.
For historians and other researchers, cemeteries can hold a wealth of knowledge. But, perhaps more importantly, it connects us to them in a way that reading a name on a page cannot. Here you are, standing just a few feet away from the last mortal remains of that individual.
Everything that you’ve read about them, all the pain, the triumph, is right there in front of you. In some ways, it’s like meeting one of your favorite celebrities. You’ve read about them and studied their lives, listened to their music and watched their movies. If you were to ever meet them face to face, you would know everything about them without ever having seen them in the flesh.
And, as noble as all of this sounds, there are times when I look into someone just because they have a really cool name.
Several years ago, I was going through City Cemetery in Davenport, Iowa, when a particular headstone caught my eye. It was big and granite and gray, with a lovely floral relief carved onto the smooth face of the stone. But it was the name that got me.
Here, right in front of me on a headstone written in German, was the coolest name. Never has there been a more fitting name for a heroic action star.
When I was a little boy, I idolized the action heroes in movies. My dad and I would hit the movie theatres almost every weekend throughout the 1980’s, and there were plenty of stars to choose from.
Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Willis, Van Damme – all of these larger than life, muscular manly men with iron wills and chiseled physiques taking on all of the evils of the world. They were the very epitome of all things cool, and they had really great names to match. Claus Hell was better than them all.
Okay, okay… I knew that he wasn’t really going to be an action hero. But it sure sounded like it! I just had to know more about him.
Claus Hell was born in 1837, in Germany.
He spent enough time in school to receive a basic education, and then went to work as a farm laborer. Claus very likely learned all about farm life from his father John, who was a professional laborer and farmer.
Claus had a good life. He was educated and was skilled in an agricultural trade. At just seventeen, his whole life was ahead of him.
The problem was that there was only so much opportunity to be had where he was. But he knew where there was plenty to be had.
His brother Moses had already left Germany and settled in the city of Davenport, Iowa. He, like so many from Western Europe, had gone to America to find better lives for themselves.
Although we don’t know for sure, it’s possible that Moses, like many other immigrants, wrote letters back home to his family, telling them about his new life in America. Many times relatives were invited to the New World.
Whether it was letters from Moses or some other reason, Claus and his brother, John, decided to take a risk and set sail for America in 1854.
After a voyage lasting nearly two months, they arrived in New York. After a brief stay, the brothers travelled west to Davenport to join Moses.
Davenport was a great place for new Germans immigrants to settle. A few years prior, several immigrants from Northern Germany had made the city their home after being exiled following a failed revolution.
These men and women, called Forty-Eighters after the year they were banished, set about making a good home for themselves. They re-established their old law and medical practices, and opened several businesses and shops. The Forty-Eighters also became involved in city development and politics.
More importantly for the newly arrived Hell Brothers was that they provided a safe haven for their German-speaking brethren. Claus and John didn’t have to be overly concerned with the language barrier as they learned English because they had a huge community of German speakers right there to lend them a helping hand.
They could shop, find work, and socialize without any fear of feeling isolated in a land that was thousands of miles away from anything they knew.
Luckily for Claus, he was a skilled farm worker in the center of an agricultural mecca. The rich and fertile land all around Davenport was being turned into farms by new settlers, and a pair of knowledgeable hands and a strong back was almost always welcome.
For the next two years, Claus worked as a farm hand. In the 1850’s, agricultural technology was very similar in Europe and the United States, so he probably would have felt very comfortable in his role.
However, any good farmer can tell you that each region and climate has its own challenges, and Iowa was no different. Here, it was the virtually endless sea of grass.
The prairie was covered in tall grass with an incredibly thick root system. They were difficult to break through, and it took time and a lot of effort. But before a farmer could plow their field, the prairie sod had to be broken and turned.
Claus probably would have seen this first hand. But where others saw a chore, Claus saw an opportunity.
After talking with John, the brother invested in the specialized sod breaking equipment of the day – a much bigger and heavier plow, and a team of ten oxen. The stronger oxen had the sheer power to break through the tough root system, while the bigger plow had an easier time tearing through it.
With so many new settlers eager to start their new farms, John and Claus had plenty of work for themselves. Over the next six years, they travelled all over Scott County, Iowa, breaking ground on several farms. Bit by bit, the brothers were helping to turn the wild prairie into the farm scape so familiar to us today.
By the early 1860’s, the Hell Brothers had enough money to purchase a farm of their own. Still young and unmarried, they bought about 160 acres of good farm ground in western Scott County. Claus and John built a small house there, and lived together for the next year.
In 1863, the brothers divided their property and continued farming separately. Claus worked hard, and the land was good to him. His long years of endeavor were coming to fruition.
With his well-earned cash, Claus not only invested in improving his farm, but also in purchasing more land in both Scott and Cedar Counties. Just like today, he most likely rented out the ground to others or resold it at a profit.
In 1865, he married Catharina Schumacher. They farmed happily on his original homestead for a few more years, and then moved to a different farm closer to Davenport. By 1874, Claus and Catharina retired from active farming and moved to a home on West Sixth Street in Davenport.
Life continued to be good for Claus and Catharina. They had many friends, and settled into a comfortable life.
They lived at their house at 705 West Sixth Street for thirty years. Claus, being one of the earliest German settlers in the county, was active in the Scott County Pioneer Association.
He remained fairly fit and active into his seventies, and made a habit of taking a walk every night after dinner.
On March 26, 1914, Claus left home and went to visit some friends in nearby Lafayette Square, only a few blocks away.
They sat on a bench and probably talked about what farmers today talk about – crop prices, livestock, politics, and almost certainly the weather. Or maybe, they just sat and enjoyed each others company on a fine Spring day.
When Claus had his fill, he got up, bid farewell to his friends, and began walking home. After a short distance, the old farmer dropped suddenly to the sidewalk. People nearby rushed to his aid, but it was already too late.
Claus Hell was dead at the age of 76.
After his funeral, he was taken to City Cemetery in Davenport and buried. Catharina would join him a few years later, joined with husband again for eternity.
Claus Hell is a great name. It’s a name with weight, with importance. It’s a name that should have a heavy metal soundtrack to it.
He may not have turned out to be the badass action hero that I felt his name implied he should be, but Claus Hell was still a great man.
He came to a foreign land at seventeen years old, knowing only his brothers and not having a dime to his name. But Claus knew farming, and he knew hard work. He seized his opportunity and worked hard, using what he knew to be successful. Along the way, he also helped to change and develop the Iowa landscape.
No, Claus Hell wasn’t an action hero. But he was still a man to be respected and admired.
You have been reading John Brassard Jr., the Kitchen Table Historian. Please check in every week or so for brand new true stories of triumph, tragedy, and everything in-between. If you want to make it easier on yourself, you can subscribe to John’s blog and have new entries sent directly to your inbox, or you can ‘Like’ the Kitchen Table Historian Facebook page, and receive them in your news feed.
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‘Iowa State Atlas, 1905.’ Iowa; Huebinger and Company, 1904
‘Atlas of Scott County, Iowa.’ Iowa Publishing Co, 1905
Downer, Harry E. ‘History of Davenport and Scott County, Iowa, Volumes I & II.’ Chicago; S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1910
Schwieder, Dorothy. ‘Iowa: The Middle Land.’ Ames; Iowa State University Press, 1996
United Stated Federal Census
‘Hell.’ Davenport Democrat and Leader, 3/24/1912
‘Two Pioneers Have Birthday.’ Davenport Democrat and Leader, 6/17/1912
‘Aged Man Drops Dead – Weak Heart.’ Davenport Democrat and Leader, 3/27/1914
‘Hell Funeral.’ Davenport Democrat and Leader, 3/30/1914
‘Pioneers Meet for Reunion at Schuezten Park.’ Davenport Democrat and Leader, 8/11/1914