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A Search of the Past

"A Search of the Past." Glen Ullin Times, 28 June 1984, 2.


The faith story for the next two weeks will be about Franz Joseph Duratschek, written by his daughter, Sister M. Claudia Duratschek, OSB. Franz and Clara Duratschek are the grandparents of the pastor at Sacred Heart Church, Father Claude Seeberger, OSB.

The Blind Sage of Glen Ullin
Franz Josef Duratschek

The history of nearly every village and hamlet is the story of a person, venerable in his lifetime and still well known from the anecdotes repeated through the years. Glen Ullin is no exception. It is proper, therefore, in this centennial year to recall Franz Josef Duratschek, the blind sage of Glen Ullin, who for more than 30 years was a distinctive personage in the area. Most town people were familiar with the sight of Franz, tapping his way along the wooden sidewalks of the town. Many had profited from his wisdom that had been distilled from his tragedy, from the readings he had listened to, and from the many points of view garnered through his contacts with all sorts of people. But few knew his origin nor the story of his tragic disability. Therefore it will be told now.

Franz was born in 1866 in Wecehaza, a small rural Hungarian village. He was the only son of a wealthy widow, Genevieve Suess Duratschek, who also had two daughters, Teresa and Anna. At the age of 21, Franz was called to serve in the army of Kaiser Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary. This removed him from his mother’s farm for three years.

During these years Franz was dreaming of returning to the farm “’lord and master”. His mother, on the contrary, was expecting him to return as a compliant manager of the entire estate. Hence, on his return home in 1890, his mother urged him to take as wife, one of the village girls. He chose Clara Filibeck, five years his junior; the parents arranged for the wedding.

The newlyweds made their home in the stone building, which Franz had inherited, from his father, located a short distance from his mother’s house. But his dreams of being a happy farmer, served by loyal farmhands were frustrated by his mother’s autocratic rule. It appears as if she did not ever intend to let loose the reins. Franz would have to cut loose to gain freedom of action.

He explored the plan of emigration offered by the Americans. The Northern Pacific Railway Company was laying tracks from Minnesota to the Pacific coast and needed settlers along the way to make the railroad profitable business. Prospectors from the Northern Pacific were promoting easy and cheap passage to the wide open plains of the United States where free homesteads were to be had. What a bonanza!

Two of his wife’s brothers, John and Joseph Filibeck, had already followed the siren call of “free land” and freedom. They were now landowners along the tracks of the Northern Pacific in North Dakota. Without hesitation Franz announced to his mother that he was selling his father’s bequest and taking his family to America. She refused to consent. If he did not carry on the family business, he was no longer a son of hers. This was no empty threat. He would be disinherited. She had considerable property, but Franz chose freedom.

Franz took his eight-month pregnant wife and four year old daughter Anotonia (Toni), and left for Bremen, Germany, to embark on the Nord Deutscher Lloyd for New York. In his packet was the cash from the sale of the inheritance from his father. Although by this step he forfeited his share of his mother’s possessions, he preferred freedom.

On April 1, 1898, they landed in New York and soon entrained for the West. Their destination was a small village about 50 miles west of Bismarck, North Dakota and a free homestead of 160 acres somewhere along the tracks of the Northern Pacific Railroad.

The family was met at the station by John Filibeck and family and was welcomed into his already crowded home. Here the Duratscheks stayed while Franz selected and filed claim about 14 miles south of Glen Ullin, where he built a two room sod house and a barn. On May 21, a little American citizen, Teresa, was added to the family.

Franz planned carefully the essential equipment necessary to put in his crop in spring. He purchased a steady team of horses and machinery. A couple of cows, a sow, and chickens were added. By fall he moved his family into the clean white-washed sod house. Isolation was complete. There was no Rural Free Delivery; no telephone for a friendly call from a neighbor.

A United States Government advertisement was brought to his attention. It was offering a job of hauling grain to the Fort Berthold Indian Agency. This was a god-send for him. The team and wagon were ready. He secured a young immigrant lad to take care of the chores on the farm and be companion to his family. He applied for the job and left in late November for Mandan with about a dozen other men.

There they loaded the grain and set out northwest for Elbowoods, North Dakota. The group selected Franz’s team as lead team. All went well until they reached the Knife River. It had to be crossed. No bridge was at hand. The men tested the ice. They would risk crossing on it.

Franz’s team started across. When it reached the middle, there was a thunderous crack and team, wagon, and driver sank into the icy water. The other men still on the bank jumped from their wagons to help.

After his rescue, Franz stood in his drenched clothing holding his recovered horses. Soon he turned into an iceman. There was no dwelling for miles around. The wisest thing to do was to push toward Elbowoods. The other men crossed by another way. It was nearly miraculous that after such a lengthy exposure Franz immediately suffered nothing worse than two frozen fingers which later had to be amputated.

Three weeks after his safe return home he awakened his wife and asked her to light the kerosene lamp and look into his eye. There seemed to be something irritating it. By morning both eyes were inflamed. When home remedies brought no relief and the condition worsened, Franz decided to seek the help of the doctor in Mandan. A neighbor took him to town.

The doctor had a small office with a couple of rooms attached to accommodate patients. After a brief examination he put some drops into Franz’s eyes. The medicine seared the eyeballs. The vision was gone.

Aghast at the effect of the medicine, the doctor dismissed the neighbor, saying that Franz would have to be treated a couple of days. It seems that this so-called doctor realized that he had done irreparable damage to the eyes and was at a loss how to proceed.

He kept Franz locked in one of the rooms. The latter was nearly insane from pain. He bribed the male attendant to get for him a sturdy walking stick and then lead him at night down to the railroad tracks. There Franz asked to be turned westward. With the stick along the rail he made his way that cold December night toward New Salem. Fortunately for him, no trains interfered with his trek.

At the New Salem depot a group of people were waiting for the morning passenger train from the west. One of the people drew attention to a man with bandaged eyes, coming along the tracks. He painfully drew near and collapsed unconscious just as the train stopped with a snort.

The first man to alight was the awaited physician for the town. His first patient was lying at his feet. A quick look at what lay behind the bandage caused him to hail the conductor. A short consultation resulted in an order to the brakeman to lift the unconscious man into the train. With a wave to the crowd who had come to welcome him, the doctor explained: “I’m taking my first patient to a hospital in Minneapolis, I’ll come back.”

By the time the reached the city Franz was delirious. His brain was infected. On arrival at the hospital even a preliminary examination revealed the critical condition of his eyes. A consultation resulted in the diagnosis that the suppurated eyeballs had to be removed at once to save Franz’s sanity and even his life. To do this the hospital needed Franz’s signature or at least someone who could sign in his name. In a clear moment Franz sighed. Anything to escape the pain that racked his body.

Meanwhile Clara agonized in her snowbound home. She had not seen Franz nor heard anything about him since he left with the neighbor for Mandan. What could have happened to him? At length a wagon stopped at her door. A man handed her a letter that the thoughtful postmaster had sent her. With trembling fingers she broke the seal. She shrieked. The frightened children clung to her. “No! Not blind.” “No eyes!” There was nobody there to give her comfort. The two little girls mingled their tears with hers. He would be at home in a couple of days. Blind! Meanwhile, at the hospital the sympathetic Sisters packed Franz’s suitcase and thoughtfully inserted a bag of colorful rock-candy for his children.

It was Christmas Eve. The young man who had been helping the family dressed up as St. Nick and brought a rag doll for Toni. Teresa was too young to understand. There was a sharp rap at the door and then it swung open. A man with celluloid shields over his eyes stepped in. Clara flew into his arms and wept piteously. Toni joined her without grasping the situation. At length her mother called to Toni to come and kiss her father. “He is not my father. My father has nice eyes.” Franz asked his wife to open his suitcase, hoping that the rock-candy would draw his daughter to him.

Unobserved by anyone a great change occurred in Clara. The clinging vine type of wife had suddenly been transformed into a valiant woman, ready to shoulder the support of her husband and her two little daughters. Was it the grace flowing from the Sacrament of Matrimony that produced the marvelous alteration in the 27 year old woman? No longer could she confidently rely upon her stalwart, wise husband for support and guidance. She was now to be his bread winner. She had to be his brightness to prevent the engulfing blackness driving him to insanity or suicide. She also had to find the means to provide for him and the children. Unskilled in any trade, unfamiliar with the language of her new homeland, the task seemed nearly hopeless, God was her only hope.

Right at the start she adopted the policy of consulting Franz before any decisions. He carried the purse. By this method of his self-respect was gradually restored. But on that desolate Christmas day, Franz clung helplessly to his wife’s hands as together they tried to face the bleak future. Farming was out. They would have to auction off what he had so hopefully purchased; invest the money in a small frame house, and move to Glen Ullin. There Clara’s two strong arms would attempt to earn the living for the family.

This new role of helpless dependency cast Franz into a deep depression. Death would be an escape from such an intolerable lot of uselessness. Clara could not leave him out of sight. It became Toni’s task to be her father’s constant companion while her mother was working. She had to give the alarm if Franz moved about.

When Father Ambrose, OSB, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, learned of Franz’s plan to move to town, he suggested to the parish that it provide a site for his home. The parish owned an entire town block and only the church and rectory buildings were occupying it. The parishioners gladly donated the southeast corner lots to the stricken family.

Father Ambrose dug the first spade-full of dirt to start the basement for the house. Franz stood bravely beside him and blindly dug into the ground. A warm friendship then began which helped Franz surmount the frustrating first year of his blindness. The pastor guided him to begin to see God’s hand in his misfortune. The priest cultivated in him a deep love and devotion to Our Lady and her rosary. The afflicted man tried to make the best of his condition and tried to learn to do what a blind person could do. His spirits be began to rise; he vied with the birds in whistling their melodies and began to recognize his friends by their footsteps. By and by Franz learned to set the fire in the stoves, pump the water, break up the large lumps of lignite coal, and chop the kindling at some risk. He gathered the dry laundry from the clothesline and swept the sidewalk. Such menial tasks lifted his self respect and made his life worth living. Intermittently there were periods of deep depression when suicide beckoned liberation.

The building was completed and the family moved from their sod shanty to their freshly painted new house in town. The County Commissioners offered a ten dollar monthly assistance.

Franz soon learned that every acceptance of government relief has its price. Not a month passed before a commissioner paid him a visit. Someone had reported to him that the Duratschek house displayed a lace curtain on one of its windows. Such luxury was unbecoming to one receiving government assistance. Franz listened, then arose, tapped his way toward the unsuspecting official, seized him by the collar and pushed him out of the house. “No one is telling my wife what she is putting up in my house. You can keep your ten dollars”. Loss of sight did not make Franz lose his desire for independence. He promptly returned to the county office the first and only check he received.

Franz’s defiant words had been brave words but how did this family fare? The two cows and few chickens which he brought to town helped to furnish food and also a little cash. The rectory and several households brought milk and eggs when available. Clara took in washing and went to homes to do laundry. Penny-pinching was the order of the day. Somehow there was always a little in the larder and the family never had to go to bed supper less.

When Toni was six years old, instead of going to the public school, Clara taught her how to read German to her father. She did this not with a primer but by using the German Catholic newspapers which pastor passed on to the family. It was hard work for the youngster to master a word like “Philadelphia”. The following year found Franz eagerly waiting for 4 p.m. which would bring Toni home from school and the reading could begin.

After five years residence in Dakota, Franz applied for citizenship. Toni led her father into the capitol and saw him raise his right hand and renounce his allegiance to Kaiser Franz Josef and pledge his loyalty henceforth to the United States of America. Because of his disability, the requirement of tilling his homestead was waived. He received the deed for 160 acres. The small income from the rent was a help to support the family. After his death his widow sold the land.

Another source of income came from housing three elderly men, county dependents. These joined Franz in listening to Toni’s reading. It was a scene reminiscent of Hoffmann’s famous painting, “Christ among the Doctors”; Toni sitting surrounded by these bearded men.

Clara’s skillful nursing of Franz during a critical illness induced the doctor to propose another means of adding to her meager income. Because there was no hospital in town, a midwife in the county was a real need. The doctor offered to instruct Clara; she could arrange for a bed in her house. Other arrangements could be made for the three old men.

So popular was she as a midwife that more convenient quarters were required. Franz sold the house hear the church and bought a one-story building, formerly a place of business, on the east end of Main Street. Here a bench before the house became the rendezvous for Franz’s cronies. For years, too, the majority of babies in the area were born in this remodeled dwelling. For maternity care, for ten days the charge ranged from $25 to $35. When the baby was delivered at the mother’s home Clara received $10.

Franz felt the need for reconciliation with his mother. Letters remained unanswered. Would facing her now blinded son soften her heart? Clara agreed that the plan would be worth trying. She hoarded her meager income even more and Franz borrowed an addition $400. By March, 1906, the passage money was collected and the date for departure set. Then the news of his mother’s death reached Franz. Nevertheless, the family set out and spent three months in the home of Clara’s mother. Franz’s sister Anna had inherited the bulk of the mother’s estate; because of Teresa’s loyalty to her brother she received only a token portion.

True to the mother’s word, Franz got nothing. Anna chose to abide by the mother’s decision. So Franz returned to Glen Ullin no richer.

In June, 1909 Franz felt as if he was to lose his eyes the second time. Toni, his faithful reader, left with her Benedictine teachers for Yankton, S.D., to join their ranks. The younger Teresa had not learned to enjoy reading aloud in German and was unwilling to begin. His wife read to him when she had some leisure but that was seldom. So Franz sorely missed the source of contact with the outside world which the reading had provided.

A short time later Clara’s mother in Wecehaza was widowed and needed help. Franz immediately offered to go to Hungary and bring her back to live with them. He left in 1910 with Teresa as guide. They found the widow happy at the thought of joining her two sons and daughter in America. She had packed readily enough but at the last moment changed her mind. She could not bring herself to break the ties of a lifetime. She, as well as her children, was to regret the decision. Because of the bitter poverty during and after World War I, she succumbed.

Franz returned to the tasks that through the years the pastors of the parish thoughtfully had assigned to him. He was the official bell-ringer. Since he could not tell the time, he had to contrive a plan to overcome this difficulty. He noted that the striking clock in his home gave a peculiar tick three minutes before the hour. He practiced until he had found the right speed that would bring him to the church at the exact time to ring the bell. During Holy Mass, he led the Rosary. Here, too, he had learned to time himself for the pauses that were required at certain points in the Mass. He lost this job with the opening of the parochial school (1905). The Benedictine Sisters taught the children to use the Mass Prayers (Offeramus) and to sing hymns.

Benedictine Fathers Ambrose Lethert and Adolph Dingman of St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville, Mn. were followed by Benedictine priests from the Abbey at Richardton. Outstanding among them was Father Alphonse Henn. These dedicated priests accomplished a marvelous transformation in Franz. As his faith, his love of Our Blessed Mother and of the Holy Eucharist grew through his contact with these men of God, his acceptance of his fate made the bearing of it tolerable. A sort of rehabilitation has taken place.

A source of enjoyment for Franz was imitating the call of the meadowlarks, bobolinks, and quails. His whistle often confused the birds but delighted listeners. For years the tapping of the cane and the cheery whistle were familiar sounds in Glen Ullin. Often a friend, coming behind him, was startled when Franz called out, “Hello, Joe”. He had recognized the step of Mr. Geck or someone else.

Franz was a staunch Democrat in politics and a lusty campaigner for Al Smith. He freely expressed his opinion on topics of the day and not a few sought his advice.

Franz knew most of the townspeople. He greeted all who passed through Glen Ullin and related to them the history of the town. Men with problems found Franz a ready listener. They felt better after consulting the “blind man” as he sat on the bench before his house on Main Street.

Teresa meanwhile had reached maturity and married Nick V. Seeberger and became the mother of seven children, two of whom embraced the religious state: Father Claude A. Seeberger, OSB, and Sister M. Judeen Seeberger, OSB.

After being cared for by his faithful wife and loving daughter Teresa, for several months. Franz died at his home in Glen Ullin, May 29, 1935. His body rests in the local Catholic cemetery.

Without a penny of public assistance, but with his loyal, capable wife and his own self-respect, Franz Duratschek, a completely blind man, died a free independent man.

Sister M. Claudia Duratschek, OSB.

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