The USA in 1940: The Gehrzes of Milwaukee

Today I’ll wrap up a three-part exploration of what’s revealed about my grandparents and their families in the 1940 U.S. Census. We started among the Petersons and Nelsons of western Wisconsin, and will now cross the Badger State to meet my father’s forebears.

My dad’s dad grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which is a much bigger haystack in which to search for needles (1940 population: 587,472 — larger than Denver, Houston, and Seattle) than rural Pierce County. But because Great-Grandpa Gehrz happened to be a prominent judge, his death occasioned a lengthy obituary in the Milwaukee Journal that gave his address, which made the process considerably easier. (An utterly fascinating obituary, by the way: I knew that Great-Grandpa Gehrz was a judge, but didn’t realize that litigants twice tried to impeach him, or that he once stormed into another judge’s courtroom in order to confront a lawyer who had accused him of having a conflict of interest.)

Now, if you don’t have an address for your city-dwelling ancestor and are wondering how to begin to pick from amongst dozens of “enumeration districts,” don’t despair! You can search the 1930 census by name. If your ancestors didn’t move between then and 1940, you can at least find the enumeration district and go from there. (You will need to use a convertor to turn the 1930 district number into one for 1940.)

Unfortunately, that didn’t help me find my dad’s mother, Mary Gilbert Laubscher. While the 1930 census put eleven-year old Mary with her widowed mother Cora in Lynchburg, Virginia, by 1940 both mother and daughter were in or around Evanston, Illinois: Mary as a student at Northwestern University; and Cora married to Thomas Moody Campbell, one of the country’s leading scholars on German literature and the dean of Northwestern’s graduate school. Though Evanston wasn’t a big town then or now, I wasn’t about to go through all 50 of its census schedules.

While at Northwestern, Mary was in the same sorority as Jane Gehrz, daughter of Judge Gustave Gehrz of Milwaukee. (Presumably, this is how she got to know my grandfather, Jane’s law student brother Robert. Again, my knowledge of this side of the family is a bit thin…)

The Gehrzes of Milwaukee in 1940
My grandfather (Robert Gehrz) is third from the top, the oldest child of Gustave and Paula Gehrz of Milwaukee - U.S. Census

Like my Swedish-American relatives on the Wisconsin-Minnesota border, the Gehrzes of Milwaukee were just one generation removed from being Europeans. Gustave Gerhard Gehrz was born exactly a century before me, the son of Johann Gehrz, who in 1870 left what was then Thorn, Prussia.

Distribution of Gehrzes in Germany today
Distribution of Gehrzes in Germany today, relative to population -

(Now known as Torun, Poland — thanks to the border adjustments that followed World War II. According to the family history site Dynastree, only one Gehrz is to be found in Polish phone books. There aren’t that many more in Germany itself: perhaps five dozen. See the map to the right for the, er, highest densities of Gehrzes in Deutschland.)

But the similarities largely end there. For while my great-great-grandfather, great-grandfather, and grandfather Peterson were all farmers (indeed, all farmed the same plot of land), the Gehrzes were models of upward mobility. The son of a tailor, Gustave graduated first in his class as a schoolboy, learned bookkeeping and typing, and taught himself French and Latin. (And German, the obituary adds — hinting at a different kind of immigrant experience than what was happening with the Petersons, in whose home Swedish was spoken into the 1920s). He never went to law school, but had the highest score in his group when he passed the bar at age 21, became a partner in his firm four years later, and was elected to the bench the year after World War I. In Milwaukee at least, having a German surname was no obstacle in 1919. Though there would be no more Gustaves and Gerhards in the family tree; his children all had English names, as did their children.

Five years before becoming a judge, Gustave had married Paula Frey, the daughter of a local tinware manufacturer. (The company great-great-grandpa Frey helped found went on to make the first lunch box featuring a licensed character — Mickey Mouse — if Wikipedia is to be believed.) Gustave and Paula’s oldest son, my grandfather, was Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and then graduated from its law school before being commissioned as a naval officer in time for Pearl Harbor. Daughter Jane, meanwhile, spent two years at Wellesley before finishing at Northwestern.

Evidence of the family’s success is all over the census schedule, and makes for a stark contrast with the working class origins of my mother’s side of the family. The Gehrz family house (2331 E. Newberry Blvd.) was valued at nearly $15,000 (about a quarter-million in today’s dollars — adjusted only for inflation, not the vicissitudes of the housing market… Update: the Zillow estimate puts the house at nearly $450,000).

The Gehrz House, 1940
U.S. Census

That was at least six times the value of the Peterson farmhouse in Trenton Township. And rent in the Gehrzes’ neighborhood was triple what my Nelson relatives paid in the tiny town of River Falls. But Judge Gehrz could surely afford to live in such a neighborhood. His salary was recorded as “$5000+,” the highest level on the schedule — and the same recorded for the most famous person to show up in the 1940 Census, the head of the household residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW in Washington, DC (be patient: it’s on the second-to-last page of the schedule).

(Gustave’s Wellesley/Northwestern-educated daughter, meanwhile, reported earning all of $150 for eight weeks of work as a stenographer. She was married two years later, then in the mid-1960s went back to school and worked as a teacher for almost fifteen years.)

Perhaps a cause and surely a consequence of this affluence is the advanced level of education evidenced on the schedule, which we’ve already encountered in the stories of Gustave’s two oldest children. (Youngest child John was still in high school in 1940.) Great-Grandma Paula is also described as having had some college education (“C-1”).

By contrast… My mother’s paternal grandfather, Gust Peterson, indicated that his schooling stopped in 3rd grade; 8th grade for his wife and two youngest sons (26-year old Alvin and 17-year old George, my grandfather). Great-Grandpa Nelson also left school around age 14; his wife is listed as having finished 10th grade, which may or may not reflect her studies as a nurse.

But the Nelsons had moved to River Falls in part for educational opportunity, with the older children walking two miles each way to the high school on the other side of town. In 1940 my great-aunt Irene was about to become the first Nelson to finish high school. My grandmother was about to start it, and her six children would all receive at least some education past 12th grade. Most all of their children would finish (or are currently finishing) college.

One of 3rd grade-graduate Gust Peterson’s grandsons became a renowned physicist; one of his great-grandsons put a Yale doctorate to use as a blogger who occasionally teaches.

<<Read the previous post in the series

2 thoughts on “The USA in 1940: The Gehrzes of Milwaukee

  1. Chris, I just discovered your article while my roommate and I were discussing our heritage through the etymologies of our names. Thank you so much for your gift of this look at our family history. I appreciate it and admire it very much! You have helped filled an emptiness in my heart that I didn’t know I had, and still don’t know how deep it is.

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