German Time Traveler

Merging Past & Present pt.2

Julia Strehlau-Jacobs

We all know the expression “to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes”. While it can mean to question someone being judgmental, it can also refer to actually experiencing what someone else has experienced. Now, Otto Dahl’s shoes are 135 years old, but Sibylle Randoll put them on and retraced encounters and adventures he made during his six-month stay here in Bozeman.

Previously I wrote about why Sibylle went on her journey - of how she wants her expedition to be as authentic as can be. Travelling by ship, train, and bus, wearing an 1880’s dress in places she knows her great-great-grandfather had visited, and staying with friends and friends of friends along her way. And so far it all panned out just like that. Since she left New York, where she said good-bye to her mom, she has not had to make one reservation at a hotel. Her travels through the country were very eventful. Exploring German Heritage on her way, she visited many museums and breweries, had good beer, and saw places that Otto visited. Her greatest adventure along the way was a visit with the Amish people who lived close to Kansas City. This gave her an insight into the traditionalist Christian group that has its origins in Switzerland. She explored the Pennsylvania Dutch language in conversation with her hosts and took part in a family gathering where there she sang traditional German songs. Her train and bus travels would eventually take Sibylle to Montana. And this is where we continue to tell her story: Virginia City, Montana.

Virginia City is famous for being a living ghost town. History is everywhere; and as destiny is part of Sibylle’s travels, during her time there, a Victorian Ball took place – a perfect occasion to wear her authentic Victorian dress. The attention she drew wearing the dress led to many surprises. She encountered a Bozeman couple who restore historic carriages and were very interested in what Sibylle had to tell them about Otto’s journey. The two offered to give her a ride to Bozeman the next day. Not knowing what she would get into, Sibylle gratefully accepted. She had studied Otto’s memoirs very intensely, having to know where he went and what he saw, in order to do the same. Sometimes he even sketched drawings of the landscape. When he did not draw, he described it in a very picturesque language. Here is an excerpt from his journal about his travels from Virginia City to Bozeman:

The next day the journey continues at four in the morning. Due to the steep path we have to leave the carriage and walk for one hour up a high hill. Then the carriage takes us through narrow valleys to the Meadow Creek, which is running through a wide and fertile valley. At 8 o’clock we arrive at the Meadow Creek Station where we have an excellent breakfast, whose price of one dollar shows it, too. We are in the middle of the Rocky Mountains, the peaks of the highest mountains we see, are covered with snow. The valleys which we are driving through now, along the Meadow Creek, the Madison and the Gallatin River, seem to be very fertile. Gorgeous looking, well-fed cattle, like I had never seen before, are to be seen on the grazing-land. The journey soon takes us by several gold panning claims which seemed to be exploited. One can tell that we are in the area of Montana which is rich in ore. At lunch we arrive at the Madison River, which is about as wide as the River Mosel, running along wide meadows. We soon cross the river and arrive in Elk Creek at 4 o’clock, where one traveler leaves us. Here we turn out of the wide Madison Valley. It goes on over several hills, towards a different valley, which we arrive at in Gallatin-Bridge in the evening. The three rivers Gallatin, Madison and the Jefferson in the West unite in Gallatin and converge to form the Missouri River, the longest river in North America, which in St. Louis feeds an incredible amount of water to the Mississippi River. After the car change there, we continued our journey towards our destination on an open wagon, loaded with boxes and luggage. […] Finally, at 10.30 in the evening, we arrive in Bozeman, the final destination of my travels. From New York until here I had covered a distance of about 3200 miles or 5150 kilometers […].  

From the beginning Sibylle had said that she was most excited for the moment when she would get to Bozeman. But now, with the journal in her pocket and in the company of history buffs, the last stage before entering Bozeman would be most intense. Sibylle was able to recognize places from descriptions alone. Her tour guides even went off the highway and partially took her onto the trails that Otto went on. Sibylle was in awe and in tears. The connection she felt was overwhelming. Yet, her favorite moment was the arrival in town. The ‘Welcome to Bozeman’ sign, which, today, decorates Main Street by the mall, would make her realize that she had made it, just like Otto did on August 11, 1881.

The time Sibylle had calculated for in Bozeman would be three and a half weeks, barely enough to completely walk in the footsteps of her great-great-grandfather. However, she took not a day off and research started right away. Her days were filled with going through newspapers from 1881/82 at the Gallatin History Museum. She had contacted the museum on Christmas 2012, when she first had the idea for the trip. In an email she explained that Otto Dahl had stayed in Bozeman for six months and established the first tannery in Montana, hoping there would be documentation of it somewhere in the historic files. At the time, Rachel, one of the employees at the museum could only find the owner of the farm Otto had stayed at, August Gottschalk. When Sibylle first started her research there, she found her email in a file that Rachel had started. Now Sibylle is also documented at the museum as a visitor to Bozeman.

Bits and pieces, like a public invitation to the Christmas Ball at the Spieth and Krug Brewery, or the death notice of President Garfield in the newspapers, enlightened the time traveler and made Otto’s memoir yet a little livelier. Sibylle also visited the old Gottschalk farm. She was able to get the original survey from the university which allowed her to retrace Otto’s descriptions and drawings. It turns out that one house had been moved a few feet, but other than that all the original log structures were still in the same place. The current resident offered her to stay there the next time she is in town, upstairs in the room, which of course, was the room Otto first resided in. He describes: “There were steep stairs leading from the living room to the attic, which also entailed a separate room for possible visitors. […] Consequently I had to clear my room in the attic and move over into the old house”. Before she left the farm, Sibylle went into Bridger Creek to refresh, just like Otto did: “Right through the possessions runs the Bridger Creek, a wide creek, in its clear spring water where I went swimming until early October.” Sibylle would probably say that her research was more than successful, yet there is one thing she was not able to find; the registration of Otto’s tannery business. Sibylle even went to Helena in order to look for it in the archives there. However, the documents with the months which Otto was in Bozeman were missing.

Besides doing research, Sibylle contributed to Bozeman’s Historic Walking Tours as a special guest in which she shared Otto’s stories and drew attention to the audience with her authentic dress. She also explored Montana’s outdoors, went to Yellowstone National Park, and cruised the Beartooth Highway. She was invited to soar above the Bridger Mountains, which of course she accepted. From there she was able to get a view of the valley that few have chance to see. As the European Soccer Championship was going on during her stay, she brought together a small group of Germans and celebrated the Mannschaft. She is now headed back East, always on the hunt for German heritage. Her ongoing journey will lead her to Bismarck, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Indianapolis, several cities in Ohio and Pennsylvania, Washington DC, New York City and Detroit. She will return to Germany in October after her 27th Birthday, the same age Otto was when he returned to Barmen.