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History – Eric Bernhardt Wilkens
History – Eric Bernhardt Wilkens
Author: Ron Charest
Date: February 29, 2016

Eric was born in Blexen, Germany April 29, 1901 to Johan and Anette Wilkens. He had four (?) brothers and ___ sisters (?); Otto, Henry, ________.

Blexen is a small town across the Weser River from the busy seaport of Bremerhaven, at the mouth of the North Sea. Eric grew up on his parent’s farm tending their animals and vegetable gardens. In his free time Eric fished in the rich salt estuaries of the Weser River and North Sea and spent a lot of time on the water.

Eric was only 13 when World War One started so he was too young to be drafted and missed the horrors of that war. At some point Eric started working in a shipyard, probably in Bremerhaven, as a carpenter. While working there he met and became close friends with Willy Stolle. After several years at the shipyard he and Willy joined the German Merchant Marines as a deckhand and roamed the world by sea.

At least some of Eric’s cruises took him to the Indian Ocean and South Pacific islands. He told one story about pulling into an island so small he was actually able to walk around it, following the beach line, in less than one day! He said that at one point he was wading in waist deep water as the beach was pretty steep.

In the early 1920s (possibly about 1924) Eric’s ship docked in New York harbor and Eric “jumped ship” to remain in New York. At that time Germany was suffering from post-World War One reparations and the economy was crumbling. Staying in America probably seemed like a better option than returning home. Eric did not have any immigration papers and so became an illegal American immigrant.

Eric found free-lance work in New York City as a carpenter, house painter, and general handyman, and rented a small apartment in Manhattan. At some point two of his brothers also immigrated to New York, Henry and _____. Eric also had at least one uncle living in New York who owned an ice cream parlor, “Wilken’s Ice Cream.”

One day, after two years living in his Manhattan apartment he walked around a corner and ran into his best friend Willy Stolle. Willy had also left the Merchant Marines and settled in New York some years prior, and had been living literally around the corner from Eric.

Eric met Martha Reichelt and on February 4, 1927, they were married. We believe they only had a civil wedding as we have no record of any church ceremony. At about the same time Willy Stolle married Anna _____ (?). Eric and Martha settled into an apartment at 331 East 97 Street, on the Upper East side of Manhattan. On October 20, 1927, what would become their only child Martha Herta was born. Martha was delivered in their apartment attended by a Doctor Hoffmeister. Doctor Hoffmeister would later deliver three of Martha’s four children.

Willy and Anna Stolle became Martha Herta’s Godparents and were present at her baptism.

Those must have been good years for the Wilkens family. Eric continued to work as a freelance house painter and carpenter, and his wife took in work as a seamstress while tending to their daughter. In 1930 Eric and his family moved to a brand new detached single family home at 115-26 _____ South Ozone Park, Queens. This would have been a more expensive property for the times, as cheaper homes were block-long “row houses,” (town homes). Eric explained he wanted to live in a house that he was able to walk around.

Shortly after they moved the Depression hit, and times became difficult. Eric converted the second floor of their new home into an apartment and they took in borders to help pay the mortgage. Baby Martha was moved downstairs onto the main floor, sleeping in a convertible couch in what had been the living room. Eric and his wife slept on another convertible couch in what had been the dining room. There was no closable door between the two rooms so privacy would have been scarce. Eric finished their basement and that became their living space for guests and entertaining.

They had a vegetable garden in their small backyard, with lush grapevines growing on a trellis over their backyard patio, and kept pigeons and rabbits in the loft over their detached one-car garage. Eric went fishing in the bays and estuaries around the western end of Long Island every chance he had and helped feed his family with fresh fish. Altogether, the family survived the very difficult Depression years reasonably well.

When World War Two started Eric’s illegal entry into the United States caught up with him. In the early 1940s, with America at war with Germany, the FBI started an investigation of Eric on suspicion that he was a German spy and/or Nazi sympathizer. To add fuel to the FBI’s suspicions, Eric had once attended a meeting of a local New York City chapter of the America Nazi party out of curiosity. Although he never became involved with the organization, his visit was apparently recorded by the FBI.

One day two FBI agents showed up at the house wanting to “talk” with Eric. Eric hid in the attic and his wife and daughter denied knowing where Eric might be. Shortly after that incident Eric went to Canada. He lived there two years and was finally able to legally enter the United States and rejoin his family. While he was gone his wife and daughter supported themselves as best as they could with seamstress work and odd jobs.

When his daughter Martha started working she rented out the upstairs apartment. She met Armand Charest and on May 29, 1955, they were married. After marriage they continued to rent out the upstairs apartment until about 1959 when they bought their own home further out on Long Island in the town of Farmingdale.

Eric and his wife frequently visited, and frequently were visited, by Martha’s growing family. They had many friends within the local German expat community and hosted frequent parties. Eric continued to fish as often as he possibly could. On occasion he would drive out to Moriches bay on the south-east shore of Long Island to fish. He owned a 2.5HP outboard motor and at Moriches Bay he would rent a small (about 12 foot) wooden boat. He’d sling his outboard onto the boat, motor out into the bay, and spend the day catching flounder, eels, and an occasional puffer fish. Once or twice each summer he’d bring along one or two of his grand-children and introduce them to the joys of fishing in salt water from an open boat.

Eric’s grandchildren remember that Eric could make literally anything from wood. His tools consisted of a saw, hammer, hatchet, drill brace, and assorted files, chisels, and screwdrivers. He did own an electric circular saw and small electric drill, but rarely ever used them, preferring to use his hand tools. He used his garage as his home workshop, and it was always filled with the wonderful smells of paint and fresh-cut wood.

Eric was a house painter in the days when oil paints were the only type of house paint available. He mixed his own colors using tubes of tints, knew numerous painting techniques that produced exotic finishes, and was a master at hanging wallpaper.

Eric did not trust doctors and refused to get annual checkups or take medications. About 1965 he suffered a small heart attack. He was forced to take medication and rest at home for a while, but as soon as he felt better he stopped his medications. He was advised to work less but ignored the doctor’s advice and went back to working full time.

In the mid-1960s Eric and his wife started driving down to Florida once each spring to visit friends who had already retired and moved there. On April 6, 1967, while driving down to Florida for their spring vacation, his wife Martha was killed in a pedestrian auto accident.

Now a widower and semi-retired, Eric continued to live at his home in South Ozone Park. In 1969 he took passage on a cruise ship, possibly the SS France, for a trip back to Germany. It was his first trip back to his home country since he left in the early 1920’s. In 1970, now 69 years old, he sold his house and moved in with his daughter’s family in Farmingdale. Although semi-retired he still had customers back in South Ozone Park who would call him to do jobs. He spent a lot of time commuting and after one year in Farmingdale he moved back to South Ozone Park to a small apartment. He made another trip to Germany about 1972 again by passenger liner, possibly on the RMS Queen Elizabeth 2.

In the early 1950’s Willy and Anna Stolle purchased some farm property in the village of Burlingham, Mamakating Township, in the Hudson Valley area of New York. Willy had built a home there, but was killed in an automobile accident about 1955. Anna kept the property, living and working in the Kew Gardens section of Queens during the winter and staying at her Burlingham property in the summers until she retired. Eric and his wife would visit during the summers and helped Anna keep up the property. After her retirement Anna lived there until she died in 1970, and with no children of her own her Godchild Martha acquired the property.

The property sat vacant for two years until Martha and Armand’s family moved there in the summer of 1972. When they moved Eric, now 71, purchased a small outbuilding on the property and converted it into a small but comfortable cottage for himself. He completely retired and over the next few years built a hobby farm to keep busy. He eventually acquired chickens, pigeons, doves, ducks, milk cows, several sheep, and a pig. He also tended two vegetable gardens and assisted Martha and Armand’s family with renovating the property.

Not only did Eric refuse to take medications, he eschewed the use of any chemical fertilizers and insecticides in his garden. He was an “organic gardener” years before the term was invented. He used the manures from his milk cows and other farm animals for fertilizer and soil conditioner. To control insects he would walk his gardens several times each day with a small coffee can filled with kerosene. As he discovered insects eating his vegetables he would flick them into the kerosene. His gardens were lush and healthy, and his daughter’s family shared the bounty of his farming.

Those were happy years for him. His only disappointment was that he couldn’t continue to fish. It was several hours’ drive back to Long Island where he could get to salt water, a drive that increasingly became too difficult. He tried freshwater fishing but did not like it much, so eventually gave it up.

Starting in 1975 Eric periodically suffered bouts of what appeared to be “drunkenness,” although he wasn’t drinking alcohol. While the bouts lasted he would stumble and slur his words, and staggered when he walked. These bouts would typically only last for several hours each time and he appeared fine afterwards. His family suspected he was having strokes or minor heart attacks, but Eric refused to see a doctor, explaining that he’d lived so long without one.

On October 24, 1978, Eric worked a full day around his cottage, seemingly in good health, tending his animals and gardens. By now his milk cow had just given birth to a calf and was being milked. His pig, the runt of the liter when he acquired it, had grown to about 1200 pounds. He was tending to 80 chickens, a small flock of ducks, several dozen pigeons and doves, three sheep with a rather nasty ram, and was winding down his garden for the season. His daughter Martha came home about 5:00PM that day and chatted briefly with him, then went inside her house. Eric went into his cottage for dinner. Several hours later a neighbor came by for eggs and found Eric in his living room chair, dead. The suspected cause of death was either a heart attack or stroke.

Eric was buried with his wife in Pinelawn Memorial Cemetery, Farmingdale, Long Island. He was survived by his daughter Martha, four grandchildren and one great-grandchild, and some of his family still back in Germany.

Editor’s Note: This history is very much a work in progress. This story will be updated and expanded as more information becomes available.