Our Ancestors Brought Us Better Plumbing

Grandfather’s toolbox held stories of basic survival.
Our Ancestors Brought Us Better Plumbing
Jack Zohner

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My great grandfather, Wendelin Zohner, served his carpenter’s apprenticeship in Austria and the Moravia area. Wendelin Zohner became a skilled cabinet and coffin maker. I opened his toolboxes last weekend for the first time in many years and expected to find only tools, but I found so much more. There were hidden stories inside.

Wendelin and Julianna Zohner, his pregnant wife, left for America in June of 1892 because the opportunities were more promising and taxes were too high with the existing corrupt government.

After arriving in New York, Wendelin and Juliana traveled to Nebraska. They settled initially in the Bellwood area and lived in a very small washhouse owned by a relative. Julianna gave birth to my grandfather there. Imagine spending a cold Nebraska winter in a washhouse with a wood stove and no plumbing.

During their first winter, Wendelin rode on horseback to build their home and outbuildings on a farm about 10 miles away. This was in addition to hunting, fishing, chopping wood, and all the other things needed for basic survival. Eventually the buildings were completed and it was time to get back to carpentry for others.

Wendelin was an opportunist who created beautiful things out of what was available. I have two of the cabinets he made from apple crates in the late 1880s. There were very few nails used. Joints were dovetailed together with very precise cuts.

Wendelin’s side job was making and repairing shoes. He had cast iron cobbler shoe molds of all sizes. Evidently it was another chapter in his need for survival.

I found Wendelin’s toolboxes were full of wooden carpentry tools. Odds are very good he made those tools. There were obviously no cords or batteries. The story they told was it took hard work to run them. The toolboxes also contained ornate lettering and trim for coffins. There was a geometry book and a book on carpentry. There was also a small pair of old glasses with oddly hinged ear support.

One message from the Wendelin toolbox story is in understanding what our ancestors went through in comparison to what we have today. Some might say we are spoiled and do not appreciate modern conveniences. Perhaps that’s true to some extent, but many of us do have complete appreciation for our ancestors, because it has not always been an easy road for us. We appreciate their sacrifices and do not feel guilty enjoying life to the fullest.

The reality is we still work hard in different ways. We have full lives and are searching for free time to get it all done. It’s just different today.

One nice way we are different is plumbing. We went from homes with no plumbing and outhouses to homes with at least one bathroom.

It’s difficult to imagine what our ancestors went through to bathe or wash clothes. Odds are the odors were much different then.

Our bathrooms today can be basic or really nice. For example, my wife, Deb, and I had a steam shower installed during a recent remodel. It’s a far cry from what Wendelin and Julianna went through, and is a really nice feature. It’s like a garage door opener – once you have one it would be tough to go without it.

Wendelin drilled his own well and hand-pumped water. He was at the mercy of what was available for water quality. Today we can improve all water, which is especially important to remove things like nitrates and arsenic.

Instead of hand pumps we have automatic faucets that work great. Deb and I have a Moen kitchen faucet that works manually or touchless, controlled by the wave of a hand.  

Wendelin spent a lot of time heating with wood or cobs or whatever he could find. It was unhealthy and uncomfortable. Today we can attain any temperature, relative humidity and quality of air. The smallest particles can and should be filtered out to keep lungs healthy.

Wendelin’s story is a reflection of many of our ancestors who immigrated to the United States. They had it tough, but the benefits of the freedom in America and a brighter future was worth it. Today we can improve our lives by picking up the phone and calling the professionals to help make life better.

There is a value in looking in the past, but a better value in moving forward and adapting to the great changes ahead.

About the author: Jack Zohner is the owner of John Henry’s Plumbing, Heating & Air Conditioning in Lincoln, Nebraska. 



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