My wife and I recently travelled to the village of Westfield, New York, on the edge of Lake Erie, the heart of the America’s oldest wine-producing region. Here, I’d expected to learn more about my ancestors. Instead, after seeing the places they lived, hoped and dreamed, my understanding changed. These weren’t my “ancestors.” They were, are, my family. Real people whose dreams created the roots from which my dreams have grown.
Here, with its climate nearly identical to their birthplace in Baden-Württemberg, Germany’s principal wine-growing region, my great-great grandparents Conrad Dimler and Eva Hoffmann, came to farm and grow grapes.
Like Eva, Conrad had been born out-of-wedlock. Consequently, each had their mother’s rather than their birth-father’s names. Their mothers were peasants, possibly gypsies; the name Dimler means “tumbler or traveling entertainer,” and was often used to describe a “noisy, unruly,” undesirable person.
They were rootless, homeless.
Until they planted roots in Westfield. They soon changed their surname to “Teemley,” perhaps because that was what their pronunciation of Dimler sounded like to American ears. Or perhaps to distance themselves from their background—like vine-cuttings used to create a new vineyard, they created a new identity.
Here, with the help of their many children, the Teemleys built a home on a tree-lined path called Parker Lane. Most of the children eventually married and moved away. Only Maria, named for her grandmother in Germany, remained unmarried (she died at 17 and was buried beside her parents).
Conrad’s beloved Eva passed away in 1888, and soon his grip on reality began to slip. Ironically, it was the youngest child, Albert-the-dreamer, never much of a farmer, who became the head of the household. The problem was he’d gotten his girl Amy, the daughter of Westfield’s esteemed Dr. Bowen, pregnant. So, just four months after his mother’s death they quietly married and took over the house on Parker Lane. Five months later, their first child, my grandfather Warren, was born. And two years after that, Conrad passed away.
Suddenly, the two dreamers, my great-grandparents Albert and Amy Amanda, a poet, writer and artist, who’d considered a life on the stage, were parents and homeowners. Amy eventually became a journalist, writing a long-running social column for the Westfield Republican.
And Albert? Around this time, a teetotaling Methodist name Thomas Welch figured out how to make “unfermented wine,” and began hiring nearly everyone in Westfield to either grow or process concord grapes. It’s likely the Teemley farm became a provider for the Welch’s juice company that now dominated the town.
Most of Albert and Amy’s kids grew up and moved away. Only two are buried beside their parents: Marshall, who died as a baby; and Myron, who suffered, I suspect, from “shell shock” (PTSD) incurred as a teenage doughboy on the fields in France, and shot himself, leaving a newlywed widow and one-year-old child behind. Amy died too young, after which Albert lived on alone in town, dying just five years before I was born.
The farmhouse on Parker Lane is now a stone foundation in a field. But Teemley cuttings cropped up in new places.
My grandfather Warren married a petite English girl name Arline, and relocated with several brothers to another wine-growing region in Watkins Glen at the foot of beautiful Seneca Lake. But after his kid brother Myron’s death, Warren packed up his little family and started over in California.
A short time later, their youngest, William (“Wee Willy”) Teemley, my father was born. A dreamer if there ever was one. Tumblers. Travelers. Cuttings. Dreamers.