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A chance meeting in Schaffhausen

Jun 30, 2013 - By Randy Tucker

It's how my family came to be.

They knew they were making history, and it was the greatest adventure of their lives. It was one of the most poignant comments made in The Crossroads of Our Being, the opening sequence of the Ken Burns documentary The Civil War.

What type of courage did it take to leave small farms in Arkansas, Tennessee and Ohio to embark on the great campaign? While history is rife with stories of battlefield bravery and indomitable courage, there is a quiet variety of courage found in the simple act of finding your own destiny and making irreversible decisions.

When Clara Emma Vock boarded the Veendam at Boulogne-sur-Mer, France on Feb. 3, 1925, she said goodbye to her father and never went home again. The 19-year old was destined for America and marriage to a dashing former dragoon in the Swiss Cavalry who was scratching out a hardscrabble existence in the wilds of west-central Wyoming.

That didn't matter to the Swiss girl born into a wealthy family in Schaffhausen on July 2, 1905. She was heading to a new life in an unknown land, far from the familiarity and creature comforts of home.

Clara met her future husband, Eugene Gasser, as a teenager when Eugene was a college student in Schaffhausen. She was only 17 when he left for America in 1922, but she was determined to follow him across the Atlantic to Wyoming.

Her father made arrangements for her to be escorted from the Veendam directly to the railway station in New York City, bypassing Ellis Island in the process. Three weeks after saying goodbye to her father she arrived by train in Lander.

A female chaperone met her at the station in the small Fremont County town and took her to a hotel. The next day the young couple was married at the court house in Lander.

The first few months were spent in a wagon on the lonely extremes of eastern Fremont County but Clara couldn't stand the isolation. They moved to Riverton for a few years, where their first three children, Eugene Jr., Ruth and Ralph were born.

In 1932 the young family moved west to the Bar G ranch and worked there until 1934. They moved back to Riverton and, after a few years farming during the Great Depression, they purchased 10 acres from Ed Barnes on what is now Gasser Road just north of Riverton and settled into their permanent home.

Clara was an amazing woman, fluent in German, French, Italian and English. She was well educated as a wealthy Swiss child and graduated from a seven-month finishing school in France, where she learned cooking, sewing, accounting and French in 1917. Clara lost her mother when she was 7 and was raised by a stepmother.

The extremes between well-to-do Swiss society with the grim realities of life in the 1920s and 1930s in Wyoming are hard to fathom, but Clara was an amazing, hard-working woman. Together they carved out a successful existence in the harsh Wyoming climate.

Clara's two youngest daughters, Jeanette and Nellie were born after they moved back to Riverton and life settled down to the routine of feeding and caring for Eugene and her growing family.

Eugene Jr. was a football player at Riverton High School in the early years of World War II before going to war himself in the Pacific in 1944. Clara hated football and was never a fan of it, even though most of her 11 grandsons played it as well. It was a violent sport she never really understood. Sending her oldest boy off to war was even more traumatic, the long months with no news after Eugene was wounded were the longest of her life.

In the classic manner of larger families, there were still children living at home when grandchildren began to arrive.

The summer months of the 1960s featured gaggles of grandchildren descending on the two-bedroom house on Gasser Road.

Eugene had moved a line shack down from Dubois years before for extra bedrooms, and the grandsons had great adventures in those endless summer months in the cabin, as we called it.

During a stretch from 1971 to 1978 there was at least one grandchild graduating from high school each year.

While the family gatherings were fun, it was Clara's cooking that holds a special place in many memories. Whether it was homemade bread, donuts, minute steaks or her incredible cream puffs, Clara's culinary skills were the stuff of legend.

The old refrigerator and deep freeze on the back porch held special things for hungry grandchildren as well.

I can still feel the chill and sense the excitement cracking open those old appliances for a summertime treat.

Clara was never much for pretense, and she had a grip that made her sons and son-in-laws cringe when she caught their hands just right. As the grandsons grew up and teased Grandma we found just how quick she could humble you with a twist of the wrist as well.

The family gathers for our first reunion since losing grandma in 1993 with all five of her children and 16 of the 17 surviving grandchildren attending. Clara and Eugene would be proud of the nurses, teachers, attorneys, physicians, engineers, police officers, IT professionals, businessmen and yes, even the collegiate athletes that came from their chance meeting nearly a century ago in Schaffhausen.

They are the essence of the American story.

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