(Dedicated to the memory of Rex MacBeth, d 14 July 2006)
by Emmett R Smith
THIS Is a story that my Great-Aunty Leona Magly (b 1901) told me (b 1949) in the 1950’s, in LeRay Township in old Blue Earth County. It is about her Grandfather Jakob Maegli (born in Bern in 1827). It seems that that old man was addicted to sharp practice. Indeed, the Swiss on the old frontier of the Middle West were widely regarded as crafty as ticks and a lot of sharpers and tight in financial matters, “Just like Scotchmen, Buddy!” as Leona used to say.
And if the following account is true, well, no wonder!
To begin with a family party of Maeglis settled in the countryside of Kent, Ohio, on their first arrival in America in 1854. There Jakob Magli, or Magly, as the name started to be spelled, got in the habit of going into the town to collect any mail for his relatives from the old country. Then on returning to the family settlement, he would charge each of the other Maglys five cents (!) apiece to hand over their letters. Naturally this game couldn’t go on indefinitely and he was found out just as soon as some of his relatives began to learn to speak more American and go to town for themselves.
“Never mind, Buddy, he was still a young man and not as smart as he got to be later!”
Anyway, because of things like this Jakob (or, now, Jacob) Magly finally got on his relatives’ nerves and decided to light out on his own for Minnesota. Why here Leona could never say to me exactly. But he settled in rural Eagle Lake in 1866 with his wife Anna and his son John. Anna Magly was born in 1821 in Bern and it was said that she was the guiding spirit behind her younger husband’s various schemes and pranks.
If so, she was certainly good teacher.
AFTER Anna Magly died and Jacob Magly got to be an old man in the 1890’s, like many people in that position he began to have second thoughts about his life and try to make up for things. By that time John Magly was married to Mary Schippel Magly, a younger sister of the Mankato architect Albert Schippel, who rather pointedly did not raise his daughters Mayme and Aroline in propinquity to their Magly country cousins, namely my Great-Aunty and her sisters Alma, Emma and Leora.
At any rate, Jacob Magly arrived at a plan whereby he would deed over his homestead and money to his son and family. This was to be in return for a home and care now that he was old, because then there was no such thing as Social Security. And to be sure the young people continued to let the old man keep his place in the old first cabin–but they otherwise ignored him completely! John Magly bought a new scrub tub, scrub board and a garden hoe and some chickens for his wife Mary Schippel Magly, and he began to be seen laughing around with the young women in the health-resort by the mineral waters down in Mankato Springs.
It got so bad at home for neglect that old Jacob Magly, now in his sixties, took to living in old Mankato, in rooms when he could afford them and otherwise even sleeping under the bridge. He did odd jobs and made out as best he could. Then one day by the railroad depot he ran into his friend, Wishnik the Jew.
THERE Were not many Jews in the rural Middle West and there was not a lot of feeling against them as such. But (like the Swiss!) they were regarded as hard bargainers. This is probably because the Jews as a rule did not farm but rather were all sorts traders and businessmen. Accordingly the country farmers probably included the Jews under a broader umbrella of distrust, namely of townfolk in general, and of merchants and bankers in particular.
Wishnik was younger than Jacob Magly and he was a junk dealer.
Now he found his friend, Jacob, sleeping under the depot. He confronted the old man and demanded to know what was going on. My Great-great Grandfather Magly told the whole wretched story, and Wishnik said:
“I can fix you up! Look here, in the wagon, do you see the iron strongbox?”
Jakob Magly wondered where Wishnik had got it?
It turned out that Wishnik had picked it up in a ditch near Kasota where the young Sontag boys of old Mankato had held up a train some time before. “Now look you, Jacob, do you see? Even the key is still in it! Now it is all rusty, but I am going to clean it all up–only now not to sell, sees too?”
Quickly, Wishnik put down his plan and old Jacob Magly “started to grin all over his face just like the old coon in the sweetcorn!” said his grandaughter Leona to me. Then, just as soon as they cleaned up the strongbox and loaded it with gravel ballast from between the railroad ties and locked it all up, and after they stopped at a lawyer’s office where Wishnik gave money to Jacob Magly to file his will, Wishnik gave my Great-great Grandfather a ride home in his wagon. They pulled right in there and under the eyes of all the gaping young Maglys they carried the heavy box into the old cabin.
IN The one-room school the Magly children were all called “Magpies! Magpies!” by the other children, because it seemed that they picked up things they found and put in their pockets.
Now the Magly grandchildren all went “Grandpa! Grandpa!” all the time, and Mary Schippel Magly cooked up nice meals for her father-in-law, did his laundry and even let him sleep in the house. When his son John helped the old man to carry the strongbox inside to shove under the bed, he puffed and puffed and said later to his wife, “I think we’ve treated the old man pretty bad and ought to try to make up for it!”
“You know, ” said Mary Schippel Magly, “I feel the same way! People should be good to their folks just because it’s the right thing to do. And anyway one day we will need our kids to help us out too!”
So the bargain by husband and wife was made and old Jacob Magly lived a good old age during his last years. Every so often, when it seemed that his daughter-in-law was maybe a little crabby, Jacob Magly would return from town and add something more that rattled to the strongbox under his bed.
DURING His last illness in 1899, Mary Schippel Magly made all sorts of good chicken soup for the old man, kept him clean in his bed over the locked strongbox and helped out when her husband John brought the doctor three times at night out from town. The doctor they promised tearfully to pay “after”, and afterward the Maglys took the locked strongbox into town to the lawyer who had Jacob’s will. On their way to town the grieving couple egged each other on to open the strongbox, but “they didn’t dare to because there was a WILL, Buddy!” So while the lengthy probate got underway so that at last the treasure legally could be opened, the Maglys put on the biggest funeral seen up till then in the old Immanuel Lutheran Church in old Mankato, said my Great-Aunty Leona Magly to me.
[Emmett R Smith all rights reserved 14 July 2006]