From the Iowa City Press Citizen By Michael Knock
photo by Matthew Holst

Saturday, December 22, 2001
 updated 28 Sep 2010

Families have long roots in county

Today's story about the Melleckers of Johnson County kicks off a week-long series celebrating people who, long ago, came to the area, got married and settled down to raise their families.

Their reasons for coming were many - jobs, adventure, family. For generations, their descendants have helped shape Johnson County.

Like Jack and the Beanstalk, the story of the Mellecker and Birrer families in Johnson County may best be symbolized by a bag of beans.

"Mollie Beans," that is. As Catherine (Mellecker) Simon tells it, her great great aunt, Mollie Brockman, brought the beans with her when she came to America from Germany in 1852. The family moved to a small home in north Iowa City in 1869, where Mollie enjoyed growing vegetables and sharing them with her friends and neighbors.

Each year, Mollie would save seeds from the current harvest to plant in her garden the next year. Because she never married, the habit of growing and saving the beans was passed down to the family of her sister, Christina (Brockman) Birrer, who passed it on to subsequent generations.

Today, those yellow beans continue to thrive in Mellecker gardens around Johnson and Washington counties. And like those beans, the Mellecker family has sunk deep roots into the soil of eastern Iowa.


Family patriarch Bernie Mellecker poses in front of four generations of Melleckers at St. Stanislaus Church which his family helped build in 1856 and descendants helped restore in 1997.
Joseph W. Mellecker and Mary Magdalene Birrer are shown on their wedding day April 28, 1896.

Proof of that history can be found in the bill for Joseph and Magdalene's Mellecker's 1896 wedding as well as the bow tie Joseph wore to the ceremony. The family also still has a pocketwatch owned by Joseph Birrer before he was killed in a mine explosion in France in 1816 as well as a wardrobe by patriarch Francis Xavier Mellecker more than a century ago.

To the Melleckers, those memories are like a comfortable chair or a favorite quilt. They are not meant to be stored away in a box or hidden behind glass, but taken out and enjoyed.

"Our grandmother was the first recycler," Eileen (Mellecker) Yotty said. "She never threw anything away. Some of the pages of her scrapbooks were the white butcher paper they wrap meat in."

"I know she still used flour paste," added her sister Catherine (Mellecker) Simon.

Two families

Those scrapbooks tell the story of two families: the Birrers and the Melleckers. The Birrers came to Johnson County from Bourbach le Bas in the Alsace-Lorraine region of France in 1846 while the Melleckers, also from the Alsace-Lorraine, came in 1853.

"We don't know why they left," Bernard Mellecker said. "That part of Europe was constantly changing hands, though. One year it was part of France and the next year, part of Germany. That might have been why they decided to come to America."

The land they came to also was in flux. Iowa had just become a state. Mesquakie Indians, though officially removed from the area to Fort Des Moines in 1843, still lived in southern Johnson County along Sand Road, a few miles from the Birrer family homestead in Liberty Township.

Bernard Mellecker said he remembers that when he was a boy, his great grandfather, Martin Birrer, would gather the family around him to tell stories about those days.

"He would talk for an hour or so," Bernard Mellecker said. "Then after he started repeating himself, our grandmother would come in and say, 'Dad, you should go to bed.'"

Birrer, who lived to be 101, died in 1943.

"I don't remember a lot of it," Bernard Mellecker said. "It didn't mean that much at the time. He told me about the Indians, though. He told us that Indians were not allowed to come into anyone's home. They had to stay outside. Why that was, I don't remember."

Martin Birrer also told the story about his father, Nicholas, who drowned in Old Man's Creek while coming home from a school meeting on March 21, 1870.

"The horse came home without him," Bernard Mellecker said, remembering the tale about his great grandfather. "No one knows why he decided to ford the creek instead of using the bridge."

At the time, the creek was swollen from the spring snowmelt and Nicholas Birrer's body was not found until a week later.

The Mellecker family followed a similar path in America. Francis Xavier Mellecker, also known as F.X., was a distiller, a carpenter and a farmer when he brought his family to Johnson County in 1853. In fact, F.X. carved the altar in St. Stanislaus Church outside of Hills using just a steel blade knife.

That altar still graces the front of the little rural church.

"It still has the original layer of paint on it," Catherine (Mellecker) Simon said.

Phyliss Mellecker, wife of Bernard Mellecker, passed away 05 Sep 2010; see her obituary at http://iagenweb.org/boards/johnson/obituaries/index.cgi?rev=296955

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