German Time Traveler

An Adventure Through Time

by Julia Strehlau-Jacobs  |  Friday Jul. 1st, 2016

Do you sometimes think back to the times when Grandparents had the most interesting stories to tell, or even the boring ones? Stories that usually start with… ‘When I was your age’ or ‘back in the day’? Those anecdotes usually point out how the Grandparent generation has done things differently- they describe change. Change which sometimes brings about a generational disconnect, maybe even misunderstanding. Today, they say the world has become ‘smaller’ when it really hasn’t. People are connected more than ever. The exchange of information is immediate. We travel at the highest speed, and time is of the essence.

And if we consider all the opportunities that we have nowadays it is even more fascinating to decide to just do it all different…
…To do it just like they did, you know, back in the day.

As a nation of immigrants, many Americans know a little bit of their family’s immigration history; what country their ancestors came from and reasons for leaving. Others go back overseas to find their own roots in the distant country, and again others still have family in the Old World. As a young nation, and with all matters of documentation available, the settlement of the United States has been documented rather extensively. From the early settlements by the British and first encounters with the Native tribes, to the times of Ellis Island, which was established due to the high numbers of immigrants who sought a new life in the New World. Today the island serves as the first place to go for everyone who is researching American immigration history. And this is the story of how a 26-year old German woman puts aside contemporary means of travel and does it like Otto Dahl did it back in the day.

It seems as just in time for Immigrant Heritage month that Sibylle Randoll has scheduled her arrival in the town where her great-great-grandfather arrived in 1881 when he left Germany to explore the Wild West. More precisely, he came here to Bozeman, Montana as a leather manufacturer. Otto Dahl, he was, just like Sibylle is today, 26 years old when he got into an argument with his father who, in the heat of the moment, told his son to go to America and make his money there just like his brother did. It is unknown what the argument was about, but Otto took the opportunity and decided to travel far in order to learn the ways of leather manufacturing in a town on the American Frontier. Other than those who settled there and started a life in the American West, Otto Dahl left Bozeman in 1882 in order to go back to Barmen where he took over the family leather manufactory after his father’s death. The greatest gift he left for his ancestors is the journal which he kept during his journey. As the last one in the family who was able to read the historic German Sütterlin script, his granddaughter transcribed the journal for the next generation. And it was at Christmas in 2012 when Sibylle read in those journals and came up with her glorious idea. She wanted to travel in the footsteps of her great-great-grandfather.

In her blog ‘explories’, a word that describes exploring stories, she debates what authenticity in travelling means to her. With a graduate degree in tourism management the question of how to travel “right” has come up many times. She argues that there really is nothing left that has not been explored by anyone. However, that did not stop her from wanting to travel authentically according to 1880 standards. The inspiring notes of the Niagara Falls Otto had left behind, made her wonder what it would be like to travel the same route with the same means of transportation. The idea was born. Her travels were supposed to start in Barmen and should take her to Bozeman. She wanted to see what Otto saw, eat in the same places, stay in the same hotels, or with friends along the way. She had a unique guide book, written by her great-great-grandfather titled: Meine Reise nach Amerika. 1880-1882. (My Travels to America).

Strongly encouraged by friends and family, Sibylle committed time and organizational expertise to make it happen. Though one can try hard to mimic 1880 travel standards, today’s means of transportation will most likely be much more comfortable and not authentic enough. There needed to be a travel accessory that would make the historic journey, well, a little more complicated, yet exceptional. A dress. A dress in the style of the 1880’s. And it has everything: the corsage, the bustle, 4 pieces of undergarment, 2 pieces of dress, a hat and an umbrella. The idea was that Sibylle is to wear the dress in all these places of which she knew Otto had visited. Equipped with her personal guidebook, dress and other travel supplies, Sibylle started her journey on May 4th, 2016 in her Hometown Vaihingen/Enz in southern Germany to travel to Wuppertal-Barmen, the city Otto Dahl once left in 1880.

As a first stop, the discoveries in Barmen were already like a jackpot. Sibylle and her cousin once removed went to explore the building where the leather manufactory of the Dahl family was once located. In a coincidental encounter with the current owner, the time traveler had the chance to rummage in old records of the house and the factory. Sibylle and her cousin got lost in their own worlds when reading through the old letters, certificates and accounting books. She describes it as an overwhelming moment to encounter such a treasure. The next morning Sibylle put on her dress and left Barmen at the train-station at about the same time her great-great grandfather left 136 years ago. The next stop: Bremen. Here she checked into the same hotel as Otto did and had dinner in the local Ratskeller Restaurant. Bremerhaven would be the last stop on her journey in Germany. As the capital of emigration from Germany, the city honors its unique history with the Deutsches Auswanderhaus (German Emigration Center), where Sibylle is able to trace back Otto’s last steps before he set to sea.

From here the journey went off the historic path for logistical reasons. Whereas Otto went aboard a ship which took him from Bremerhaven to Southampton and from there to New York City, Sibylle had originally planned on taking a container ship that would have taken that exact same route. However, that line got cancelled and she almost had to fly to New York. But then, something way better came across her way. Interrupted by a short flight from Hamburg to London, Sibylle was to board the Ocean Liner Queen Mary 2 to depart Southampton with destination New York City seven days later - an experience that is so incredibly unique, yet authentic and a little bit romantic. On the afternoon of May 10th, in her historic wardrobe, Sibylle waved good bye to the Old World. Now the journey had really begun: the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.

On May 17th Sibylle disembarked the Queen Mary 2 to start her American adventure. After a few days in New York City with stops on Liberty and Ellis Island, meeting the German Consul General for lunch and drinking good German beer, her travels continued aboard Amtrak trains with stops at the Niagara Falls, Chicago, Kansas City, Denver and Salt Lake City from where she would go North and finally arrive in Bozeman, Montana in mid-June. Despite all the historic means of travel, Sibylle is making use of all the channels available to her to keep her audience informed. Her blog is online available under explories.de. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter under the same name: explories. There will also be a follow up article to this story in the August issue of Bozeman Magazine which will focus on Sibylle’s journey through the country and all what she was able to find out about Otto Dahl’s stay in Bozeman.