Going Sideways: The Story of Herman Ortmann

I haven't done a lot of research with siblings, though from what I hear everyone say, it's important to focus not only on the direct ancestors but on the siblings as well, because we can gain insights from that research, too.

My grandfather, William John Ortman, was the last of nine living children of Joseph Ortmann and Annie Schwietering Ortmann.  Joseph and Annie were both German immigrants, but they met in the U.S. and all their children, four daughters (Mary Theresa, Anna, Adelaide, and Catherine), and five sons (Augustus, Joseph B., Herman, Henry, and William) were born in the United States.

Sadly, I have no family lore about the Ortmann clan and no photographs, because my grandfather was disowned when he married and never spoke to his family again.  The party line was that my grandmother was Lutheran and my grandfather Catholic; we really don't know why.  But the result is that with eight great-aunts and -uncles, we probably have more second or third cousins than we can shake a stick at.  So far, I've only discovered one second cousin (hi Bob!), but I'd love to find many more.

I decided to spend some time in newspaper archives, mainly the Library of Congress and the amazing (but sometimes frustrating) Old Fulton New York Post Cards site (which actually is filled with historic newspapers), doing a general search on "Ortmann."  I soon noticed that one name came up repeatedly:  Herman Ortmann, my grandfather's second-older brother.  I started paying attention and came up with many newspaper articles on Uncle Herman, and now am able to put together at least a bit of his life story.

Herman Henry Ortmann was born on November 21, 1888, the third son of Joseph and Annie.  I don't know anything about his childhood, but the Ortmanns were not rich by any means, so he was not a pampered darling.  In fact, by the age of 16, he was working, as a "wagon boy,"  and by 21, he was working in the printing business, which he seems to have made a career of and succeeded at.

In 1911, his father Joseph died and by the mid 'teens Herman was the only one of his brothers left at home.   When WW I began, he asked for a exemption, the cause being "support of mother." 

Unfortunately, the board was not convinced, and Herman was drafted.  The Sun had the following headline on Monday, April 1, 1918:

This headline was followed by a long list of men, column after column, who would be leaving that day.  This is a terrible copy of an old newspaper, but just past halfway down, you can see Herman's name:

First he spent a very short time working with the 152 Depot Brigade in New York State, and then he was shipped overseas to France, where he was part of the headquarters company of the 106th Infantry.  I don't know that he saw any actual combat, but I'm sure he was close enough to know what was going on.

He came back to the U.S. on March 6, 1919, and was discharged on April 2, 1919, one year and one day since he marched off to war.

In 1921, he married Mary Gross, a woman who at 18 had given birth to a child, Herbert Gross, According to the 1910 census, Mary was then living with her husband, John A. Gross, and their newborn child (John and Mary were both 18 years old).  I can't determine what happened to John, whether he died or left Mary, but in the 1920 census, she and her son were living with her father-in-law, Otto Gross.  Herbert was 11 when Herman and Mary were wed.

Herman and Mary had no children besides Herbert; I'm not sure that Herman ever adopted the child, because I don't think Herbert took the surname of Ortmann. 

We can see the traces of a rich life recorded in newspapers of the time.

Herman worked as a printer and seems to have been successful.  By 1930, he was working as a printer in the advertising industry, and that allowed him to buy a home in what seems to have been a new neighborhood -- the houses were built in 1930 and cost $6,000. This photo shows the street they lived on, with the original homes:

204th Street, Bayside, NY     Photo from Google Earth

The Ortmanns seem to have been prominent members of their community.  Though new to the neighborhood, the Ortmanns began to be featured in the social columns right away:


By 1938, birthday greetings for Herman were published in the  Long Island Star Journal.


Herman was very active in the Bayside Veterans of Foreign Wars and over the years filled many roles in that organization, from corresponding secretary to president.  Mary was active too, in the auxiliary.  I was thrilled that my search turned up a photo of the 1932 officers that included Herman (second from right) and may even include Mary, though the face is badly degraded and it says Mary A. Artmann, not Ortmann.  Still, it's likely her.

Through this group, Herbert and Mary planned many charitable events:  dances, Christmas parties, a Western/Cowboy gala (Herman was the jailer of guests who misbehaved). 

They seem to have enjoyed a rich and full life.  Though I don't yet know when Mary passed away, Herman died on the 19th of October, 1960, at the age of 68.

I greatly enjoyed finding things about the life of this great-uncle and his wife.  I have insights that I wouldn't have had otherwise about one of my grandfather's siblings. 


  1. What wonderful finds! You can find so much by following the siblings. If you don't know where the family came from in Germany, an obituary or death record of a sibling might point the way! I enjoyed reading Herman's story!

  2. Thanks -- he's just one of a mess of relatives we know nothing about -- never met them --


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