John Zuschka

When John Zuschka died, the residents of Arenzville gathered up his belongings and held an estate sale. Among the items in John’s house were 3 candles, 1 silk hat, 2 flannel shirts, 2 pillowcases, 1 piece of leather, a songbook, 24 hens and 3 roosters, 1 gallon of lard, 1 frying pan, 4 bedposts, 1 spoon, 1 horse blanket, and 20 bushels of corn. 

He wrote in his will that his debts should be paid and all remaining monies be given to the school in Arenzville, “ . . . to defray the expenses of teaching; religion and morals in the German and English languages. John Zuschka, 12th day of March, A.D. 1843.” 

No one knows where Zuschka was born, but anyone who attended school in Arenzville is familiar with the name. His was the town’s first funeral and being a bachelor without any relatives, he gave his estate for the building of a new school.  The only direct quote we have from him comes from Tade and Hester Lovekamp’s history of Arenzville, where John said, ““I had drifted about the world, never receiving any kind words or treatment until I came to Arenzville.”

John Zuschka came to Arenzville with nothing in his pocket but hope for a future and was soon employed by Francis Arenz, the man for whom the town is named. By what was described as “hard work and frugal habits” he managed to acquire 80 acres just east of Arenzville, and so he felt that upon his death it would be fitting to give all his worldly possessions to the Arenz and his brother J.A. The Arenz brothers told Zuschka that neither of them needed any further wealth and suggested that John give his estate to the school. 

The Lovekamps said that, “Mr. Zuschka was not captivating in appearance, small in size, but he possessed a large soul, full of honesty and trustworthiness.” The willing of his worldly possessions to the school seemed appropriate and although more than one Arenzville student dreaded the day they had to learn to spell “Zuschka,” the man holds a cherished place in the town’s heart. In the early days of the school, the classes would make a spring pilgrimage to the top of the cemetery overlooking Arenzville to visit his grave. 

He died in 1843, some six months after writing his will, and it appeared as if the school’s benefactor had gathered in stores for the winter since his estate inventory also included 1 lot of smoking tobacco, 3 pounds of candles, 4 pounds of sausage, 20 bushels of potatoes and a new mouse trap. The total amount of his personal effects came to $106.72. The folks of the town found among his papers a notice stating that eight dollars was paid for the making of a coffin by George Gunther and Carl Vogel. The coffins in those days were made locally from the neighboring timber. 

The Zuschka School stood for 75 years then in the 1984-85 school year the state safety standards began to catch up with the large brick structure. In October of 1985 over a hundred Arenzville citizens met at the town’s Legion Hall and seventy generous folks donated the money to buy the entire square. An effort was made to save the bell from the old building before the wrecking crews took charge, but sadly the bell-lowering rope was not match for the weight of the Zuschka bell and it came crashing down at the feet of the Arenzville Fire Department. 

Zuschka Square is now home to smaller building serving as polling place, town council headquarters, and bingo parlor for the town, a colorful assortment of playground equipment, and Zuschka Memorial Apartments, which are under a 99-year lease to the Cass County Housing Authority. 

It would be interesting to know what brought the young John Zuschka to Arenzville. By the time the History of Cass County was written, he was described as “an old bachelor without living relatives who drifted about from place to place, receiving his first kind words and employment in Arenzville.” The original school was built in 1892 providing a grade school and a two-year high school, but the school burned down in 1908 during school hours. It’s believed that a spark from the furnace ignited leaves in the building’s gutters and the frantic whistle of a passing train was the first alert to the town’s citizens. Within a year a new school was built and the building was used until 1969 when the consolidated classes of Triopia moved into the new building near Concord. 

All that’s left of John is a grave marker on top of cemetery hill, near his old farm. The current monument was donated by the children of Arenzville school. 

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About the author

Ken Bradbury is an adjunct instructor of theatre at LLLC after retiring from Triopia. He entertains on the Spirit of Peoria riverboat and is the author of over 300 published plays. Website: creativeideas.com

View all articles by Ken Bradbury

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