Week 35: #52 Ancestors – At Work
By Eilene Lyon
This week’s project began as a story about my 4th great-aunt, Catherine Delle, who is credited with establishing the first kindergarten in Madison, Wisconsin. You know I like to write about successful women from my family tree.
As I researched, I ended up finding more occupations and careers than I’ve ever seen in one family before. Some of these people deserve articles of their own, so this will just be a summary. I was first pleasantly surprised, then astonished. I hope you will be, too.
Catherine Delle and Frederick C. Moessner
Catherine Delle, the fourth of six children by Richard Delle and Magdalena Breckner, was born in Kastel-Mainz, Hesse, Germany, in 1840. When she was 12, the entire family emigrated to America and settled in Janesville, Wisconsin.
Catherine married Frederick C. Moessner in 1858. Fred was also a German immigrant and had a career as a baker and confectioner. After the war, the Moessners settled permanently in Madison and Fred established his own shop at 211 King St., between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona. The family, which eventually comprised five daughters and one son, lived upstairs.
Margarethe Meyer Schurz founded the first kindergarten in America in Watertown, Wisconsin. She learned the principles in Germany from Friedrich Froebel, who originally created the concept. Many other German-American communities wished to follow suit.
Catherine Delle Moessner, who had read Froebel’s magazines, called an organizational meeting in 1879. Two years earlier, she started a play group in her home which served as the impetus for planning a kindergarten. However, the official first class at Turner Hall in 1880 was taught by Mrs. George M. Neckerman. Neckerman claimed to be the person who instigated the Madison kindergarten movement.
Both women probably have equal claims – it was a community effort at any rate. Madison was a forerunner in early childhood education. That’s why it’s ironic that by 1935, the Madison school board deemed kindergarten too expensive to be funded by public money.
Stella Moessner Goldenberger
Catherine and Fred’s first child, born Estella Josephine, married a divorced man by the name of Benedict Goldenberger. Stella followed the most traditional path of any of the Moessner children, having two children of her own and being a housewife.
Benedict had several careers, starting out as a cooper (barrel maker), then teaching school, and finally working as a railroad postal clerk. When he died in 1914, Stella opened her own corsetiere shop and later operated a rooming house. One of her volunteer jobs was working as an election clerk.
Alma Lena Moessner
Like most of her siblings, Alma Moessner never married. At age 22, she advertised painting lessons for 35 cents each. She then headed to the Art Institute of Chicago. Upon her graduation in 1901, she accepted a position as the director of the Fort Wayne Art School in Indiana. Later she returned to Chicago to pursue her career as a professional artist. You can see her work here.
Adelia Moessner Evans
Delia is the only other sibling who married. All the others got together regularly, per the Madison newspapers, but Delia is usually not mentioned. She married John Evans and had two children. John had a career as a wagon manufacturer in Evansville, Wisconsin, before his untimely death in 1905 at age 38. Delia returned to Madison and worked for a time as a manicurist, then as a clerk.
Lillie Elda Delle Moessner
Lillie Moessner obtained her bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1898. She received a special award at commencement for her thesis in the field of physics. She became a school teacher, working in Wisconsin and Chicago. She later moved to Los Angeles, where she registered as a member of the Socialist Party.
Frederick Richard Moessner
Dr. Richard Moessner attended medical school in Chicago, interned at Cook County Hospital, and spent his entire career working as a physician/surgeon in Chicago. One of his pastimes was hunting. He never married, but apparently had a zest for life. Spending the winter of 1941 in Florida, he’s quoted as saying, “Some will die working and others while playing. I choose the latter. The philosophers say the end of all human endeavor is futility.”
Flora was the youngest child. She started her working career as a clerk in a collections office. She probably attended secretarial school, because she later became a stenographer. One company she worked for manufactured surgical instruments. Another was an advertising agency. She also played the piano and was frequently mentioned in news items as supplying music for a variety of occasions and organizations.
Two of Catherine Delle Moessner’s grandchildren need to get in on the act. They are the children of Stella Goldenberger: Olive Monona Goldenberger and Benjamin Monona Goldenberger.
Olive also attended the University of Wisconsin, and upon graduation taught high school languages and literature. A year later, while visiting her grandmother in Chicago, she decided to join 200 others trying out for the new Chicago Civic Opera. She aced the audition and sang with them for 18 years, marrying one of the violin players from the orchestra.
She adopted the stage name of Olivia Monona. She then went on to a 17-year career with the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. In 1934, she performed on the radio with Lily Pons, a diva from the 1920s to the 1970s. She also performed with Enrico Caruso. Olivia sang contralto parts and was known as “the world’s leading opera chorus girl.”
She took part in a big international tour in South America in 1937. Her repertoire included 200 operas in several languages that she could sing from memory. After her successful career, Olivia retired to Little Rock, Arkansas, and a couple of her aunts lived with her for many years.
When Olivia died at a Madison, Wisconsin, nursing home in 1976, her estate was worth over $356k. She left it all to one of her two nieces.
Benjamin Goldenberger learned a few magic tricks from a neighborhood optician while he was in grade school. He soon became the bane of his teachers’ existence, whether it was a pencil, eraser, or squiggling worm he pulled from his classmates’ noses and ears.
When Ben’s father died in 1914, he dropped out of high school to join the vaudeville circuit. According to his WWI draft, he was working for the Chicago Northwestern Railroad in 1918. He went on to serve as a corporal in the wartime Army.
When Ben returned to professional entertaining, he shortened his name to Ben Berger, and later changed the spelling to Bergor. He was known for his one-liners and fast-handed card tricks. But his real claim to fame was as an escape artist. He could escape from any prison or handcuffs, mystifying and occasionally angering law enforcement personnel.
Ben also has a historic footnote as the first magician to perform a trick on television – in 1931 (yes, TV was a thing then, invented in 1927).
Ben married Alvina Topel, his magician’s assistant, and together they performed a feat called the “substitution trunk illusion.” Alvina would be wrapped in a straightjacket and locked in a trunk. Ben stood on top of the trunk concealed by a tent. Within seconds, the tent opened to reveal Alvina on the trunk and Ben wrapped in the straightjacket, locked inside.
Three years in a row, this stunt won Ben the escape-artist award at the annual Houdini Club convention. Mrs. Bess Houdini, Harry’s widow, presented the trophy to him, which he kept permanently after the third win. She allegedly whispered in his ear, “Congratulations! That’s one Houdini never thought of.”
Feature image: A view of the skyline of the Madison Isthmus and Lake Mendota from Picnic Point in Madison, Wisconsin. (Wikimedia Commons)
Ancestry.com for census records and city directories
Butterfield, Consul Wilshire. 1880. History of Dane County, Wisconsin … preceded by a history of Wisconsin, statistics of the state, and an abstract of its laws and constitution and of the Constitution of the United States. Western Historical Co., Chicago, pp. 753, 1015.
Google Earth for images
Newspapers.com for The Capital Times (Madison) and Wisconsin State Journal (Madison)
Rankin, Katherine H. and Elizabeth Miller. 1998. The Historic Resources of Downtown Madison To accompany the Downtown Historic Preservation Plan. City of Madison, p. 17.
Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison.