Otto deGruyter

My great-grandfather, Otto deGruyter, was the last of my ancestors to make it to West Virginia, sometime just before 1880.  In the 1880s he went from farm to farm in southern Roane County with a pack and a chest of tools, repairing clocks and watches.  He boarded for a while in Sissonsville, and then lived on Canoe, near Linden, where he was apparently known as “the old Dutchman,”  although he was only in his late thirties at the time.  Otto married Jane Hill in 1885.  Her parents were Henry Robert and Caroline Cosby (Taylor) Hill, who were both from early settler families along the Elk and southern Roane County.  Otto was 40, and Jane only 24, but Otto told her he was 34.  His christening record in Germany and the 1880 Census say he was born in 1845, but every census after that and his gravestone say 1851.

Otto deGruyter on right

Otto deGruyter on right

Jane and Otto lived in Geary District, where my great-aunt Eunice, my grandfather Olen, and my great-aunt Iona were born.  Otto went to work for C.D. Springston in his shop on the courthouse square in Spencer. In 1909, they bought a farm at the edge of town, on the Parkersburg Pike in the hollow between College and Cemetery Hills.  They moved to a house on Chapman Avenue, on College Hill, in 1912.  It was started by John Arnott and completed by Jane’s brother John Hill.  Mr. Springston died, and Otto bought the store.  Olen went to the Philadelphia Institute of Horology to become a watchmaker, and the store became deGruyter and Son.  Iona, who never married, clerked and did jewelry repair in the store for 50 years, working for her father, her brother, and her nephew.  Otto died in 1937.  His grandson, my father, Ferd deGruyter, joined his father Olen in 1946.  The store, with much of the block, burned in 1956.  Ferd rebuilt it.  It was the oldest operating business in the county when he and my mother, Anna Mary McVaney, were killed in a car wreck in 1982.  Watch repair had become a victim of digital watches, and the store building now houses a restaurant, the Main Street Cafe.

Otto was one of five brothers from a family in Venlo, Limburg, in what is now the Netherlands.   Before Otto was born, his parents, Ferdinand Jan deGruyter and Louisa Arnoldina Alydce Venhorst, moved to Moers, which now a part of Dusseldorf, Germany, not far across the Rhine from Venlo.

Brother Martin went to the University of Heidelberg, and then came to the United States, where he served as a major on General Echols’ staff.  Brother Henry went to medical school at the University of Brussels and followed Martin.  A brother, Arnold, and a sister, Josephine, stayed in Germany.   Martin and Henry married sisters, Cynthiana and Julia Crockett, daughters of John B. Crockett, a farmer and salt manufacturer at Marmet, and cousin of  David Crockett.  Henry  was a pharmacist and printer, and Martin a salesman, in Covington, Kentucky, with business interests in Cincinnati.  Otto came first to Covington, where he was naturalized, and then to Kanawha Co., where Martin went in the early 70s.  Martin was a brewer in Charleston, but finally lost all his property.  His son Julius became mayor of Charleston and postmaster, and his grandson Julius a writer and Kanawha County historian.   His son Ferdinand prospected for gold in Nevada and Alaska, before returning to settle down in Sissonsville.