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The story of us: Don Eckerle

The 1940 Census added to Don Eckerle's family

The 1940 Census added to Don Eckerle's family information. (May 7, 2012) Credit: Heather Walsh

Don Eckerle peered at the computer screen as his friend and Kings Park neighbor Mark Waldron called up Google Maps and located the house where Eckerle lived with his family in 1940.

"It was a four-family house" on Harmon Street in Ridgewood, Queens, owned by an uncle, John Meyer. Eckerle, 76, knew well. He grew up in what was then a predominantly German neighborhood and lived with his parents, Joseph and Matilda Eckerle, six brothers and sisters. He lived there until he married.

"Grandma lived upstairs with one of her children. Her other son lived upstairs in the next apartment with his wife and two boys .?.?. We lived downstairs with my mom and dad. [There were] seven of us in a four-room apartment," Eckerle said of the children. Next to Eckerle's immediate family was an aunt with her children.

The 1940 Census recorded them all.

Eckerle wonders, though, how the census taker got information from his grandmother, Veronika Eckerle, listed as the head of household for her apartment unit, because she didn't speak English. "I'm wondering if the census taker spoke German, because that would be the only way they could converse," he said.

He laughed as he viewed the present-day image of the two-story, attached house on Google Maps that didn't look more than a dozen feet wide. The retired computer programmer for AT&T Technologies said 20 family members lived in that multifamily house in 1940, when he was 4.

"That's the way you did it in those days," he said of the crowded living conditions. "Didn't think anything of it. I thought everybody lived that way."

Eckerle, the youngest of seven, said he didn't get a bed to himself until his three older brothers left for World War II.

Finding information about his late wife when she was a girl was more difficult. In the 1940 Census, her maiden name, Anna Marie Bottcher, didn't show up at the Queens addresses he was familiar with from their youth. "I've known her since I was about 13."

He thought maybe the census takers had missed her family. "So I start going for her grandparents, and I found her living in a house next door to her grandparents in Brooklyn, way down .?.?. on Lafayette Street," he recalled. "She wasn't living where I expected her to be."

Eckerle has been digging into his family history for about a quarter-century, sparked by a casual comment.

"I was at a family gathering with all my nieces and nephews, who were sitting around in a circle, sort of. I was telling them stories about their aunts and uncles and stuff like that," he said. "And my one nephew said, 'Gee, I hope somebody is writing this all down.' I said, 'Gee, that's a good idea.' "

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