A Dubuque German-American on immigration

Trip Start Nov 25, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of United States  , Texas
Friday, January 5, 2007

Different eras, different homelands, but sharing hard work and dreams



The storefront next to City Hall advertised Old World sausage. Family had plied the German method of an ancient recipe, integrity and care for the customer; of hand cuts and fills and packaging; of waiting on people and caring that the family name meant something.

People still talk about their childhood memories in Dubuque, of waiting in line at Trenkle's and getting a free taste from the old man behind the counter, where the products were lovingly placed by big, calloused hands.

Generations of customers understood lean times, hard work and freedom. They knew the meaning of work because they'd cashed their packing-house check a block away. They appreciated a working man serving up a slice of their own providence. The dreams of the packing house were dreams old Henry Trenkle had turned into a small enterprise that lasted nearly 100 years.

If he lived today and his name were Hernandez, their stories would be remarkably similar. A working man hopes to make a life and leaves his home thinking he'll get a chance. He hopes he can move about freely, attend church each Sunday and have a say in his own affairs.

He thinks, "Maybe I can help my family. Maybe I can build a future with hard work and a little luck."

Even as he made his way from ancestral roots in Baden, Germany, Henry must have prepared to endure hardship, and he must have had an abiding faith to cross an ocean to a foreign land. He started as an apprentice before he tried out the American dream.

I never met my great uncle Henry. He was an Iowan born in Germany. My family has been farmers and meatpackers, similar in their way to the Hernandez family. My grandfather had a farm and implement dealership in Farmer City, Ill., before the Great Depression. My dad walked the kill floor, cleaned the slop and knew the freezer and line just as I learned these tasks as a young man.

My family moved to Mason City, California and Chicago during the years my dad tried to better himself in the meatpacking business and provide for the family. Both Dad and I worked in a little packing house in Chicago in the old Union Stock Yards.

So the Hernandez and Trenkle families have known the meaning of work. Each has prayed the prayer of freedom and walked the long lines of despair, hoping for a chance, looking for a miracle - a seed of hope only America plants.

I remember driving into the yards to work a second shift on the line. An old Polish woman threw hams at me so fast I'd cut my hands on the cans I packed. I also remember getting hit with a small ham while I washed my hands before a work break. A young Mexican found out my dad signed the checks. The Trenkle clan had made it to the office where decisions and payroll were hung. The message behind the ham was primitive but good to remember: You're not better than us.

My dad made his way through the strict, tough ranks. He eventually became a member of the board at Bluebird Inc. in Philadelphia.

Sometimes, when I read about Mexican immigrants and their prayers to work, to build a family and to gain the freedoms and prosperity of American citizenship, I think we all must have turned a distant corner to have forgotten our own fathers and their fathers and the dreams and hopes they carried in their hearts.

What makes a country great if it's not heart, sacrifice and dreams? I'm a son of the Iowa soil and the packing house. Give people a chance, and they will return it many times.

That's the American dream, our heritage and a promise. It's what has brought good, simple people to this land. In my family, that means something.

TIM TRENKLE lives in Dubuque IA.
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billiegreenwood on

Re: A Dubuque German-American on Immigration
Thanks for your comment, Jowang, and welcome to the U.S.!
Yes, there are many ways one could dichotomize the population of immigrants: male/female, or asylum-seeking/non-asylum seeking, for example. Legal status could be employed that way.

Jack Dunwoody on

I`m of Scot-Irish-German-Luxembourg decent. But no matter what I was at the time Trenkles was the only place for veal loaf or braunschweiger. This is what Dubuque misses today. To many things are sliding into the history books.

billiegreenwood on

I can taste it now, Jack. You are so right.

Jack Dunwoody on

Are you related to the Tim Trenkle that writes pieces for the TH and Des Moines Register? He and I are having lunch tomorrow.

billiegreenwood on

No, I'm just an old-time Dubuquer who grew up on Trenkles meat.

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