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Gernatt family celebrates years of history for the 60th time

Esther Gernatt Waterman Dittenhofer recalled many memories of her parents, John and Martha Gernatt, who established the family reunion, which is now held annually.
Dan Gernatt Jr. looks at one of the tables filled with photos and mementos.
COLLINS—Sixty years ago, John and Martha Gernatt decided that since family was so important to them, it was only natural to have a celebration each summer, when their children and subsequent generations could gather together. This fledgling gathering has grown into an annual reunion that now numbers in the hundreds, all descendants of John and Martha, who came to this country well over a century ago.

On July 20, the Gernatt Family Reunion was held at the Collins Conservation Club. Not only were new additions to the family celebrated, but recollections of the past were also prominent in the minds of many.

The day’s festivities began with an upbeat, yet still dignified, Mass, with Father Joe Porpiglia of St. Joseph’s Church in Gowanda as celebrant. David Bolen provided the musical accompaniment via his guitar.

During the service, Fr. Joe welcomed all the youngsters to the front by the makeshift altar to raise their voices in song. “This Little Light of Mine” had even the most timid of singers belting out notes, to the delight of the sizeable crowd gathered inside the club’s main hall. The children also had the opportunity to learn and participate during various aspects of Mass.

As the service continued, an amusing moment arrived. The solemn ritual of Communion included a visit from a very friendly canine, who came trotting through the hall. The dog seemed eager for attention and enjoyed the ocasional scratch behind the ear given to it by the worshipers.

As Mass concluded and before leaving the hall to partake of a feast provided by all the family members, Martha Gernatt (aka Bernie Folts) made an appearance. She greeted everyone and said, “Keep getting together” to assure future reunions were held.

Once the crowd, which appeared to continue growing through the afternoon, was fed, a number of those from the more mature generations were eager to relate their stories about the Gernatt Family reunions. After tallying all the comments, it became clear that of all the stories told, it was John and Martha Gernatt who were the most popular subjects.

Ray Waterman and Mary Linde, who grew up in the house next to John and Martha, their grandparents, noted that they had a “real upbringing from not only our parents, but our grandparents.” The elder Gernatts lived on Jennings Road in Collins at that time. Their daughter, Esther, married Al Waterman in 1946. The newlyweds settled in a house next door and bought the chicken business from John, building the poultry endeavor to include over 12,000 chickens. As this was a time of large farm families, Esther gave birth to 12 children. Today, Esther’s son, Peter, and his family live in John and Martha’s house.

Nancy Yocum, the daughter of Ruth Gernatt Howard, also shared her memories of her grandparents She recalled how John suffered with bad arthritis and would take paraffin baths to relieve the pain. Crocheted card boxes was just one example of Martha’s creativity that Nancy remembered.

“Gramma gave so much of herself,” Nancy says, explaining that Martha always personalized and created gifts for the family, such as the card boxes and handkerchiefs.

Joyce Gernatt Kehr shared a rather amusing tidbit about her grampa John.

John would call Joyce “George.” This moniker came about because the priest who baptized her was hard of hearing. As the priest conducted the rite of Baptism, he baptized her “Martin George” rather that her given name, Martha Joyce. This faux pas delighted John, who would call her “George” when the mood struck.

Joyce, too, remarked on her gramma Martha’s creativity and ingenuity. Aprons, rag rugs and the personalized handkerchiefs are just a few of the gifts she received. She also recalled that John called Martha “Schatze,” German for sweetheart, and that John was issued an award from the Erie County Fair for having the most offspring in attendance. (In all, the Gernatts had 10 children.)

Dick Gernatt, the second child of John Gernatt Jr., remembers going to the Clinton-Bailey Market with his grandfather to sell eggs. In addition, he recalled the tragedy of house fires that struck not only John and Martha’s house, but the home of his maternal grandparents as well.

One of Dick’s most poignant memories was that Martha always had something cooking and even today he can almost smell the sumptuous aromas emanating from his gramma’s kitchen. One thing in particular stands out for Dick about his grampa John. As an accomplished businessman, John would “do figures. If it didn’t work out [the math],” Dick says, “Grampa said just add a zero somewhere,” which would apparently solve the problem.

The last surviving offspring of John and Martha Gernatt, Esther Gernatt Watermin Dittenhofer not only recalled but lived many of the memories that others at the reunion spoke of. She and her family lived next to her parents for 43 years and witnessed her father’s farming capabilities. Cattle and hogs were also part of the mix, aside from raising chickens, that kept her father busy.

Esther noted that no one needed an appointment to go to her parents’ home. “Their door was always open,” she says. Family was always important to John and Martha, and Esther recalls that the family reunion actually started in their basement. She also remembers her father stressing the importance of reading and saying, “’If you learn to read, you can do anything.’”

One of the most impressive things about the reunion was the recollections of John and Martha; everyone knew their history.

John Gernatt arrived in Springville from Austria in 1888. Martha Harles Harms had already moved to this country from Germany with her family and was working at the Borden’s Condensary in Springville. This is where she met her future husband. They married in 1907. In 1913, the couple moved to a farm on Brown Street in Collins, using a remodeled chicken coop as their home. It was around 1946 that John and Martha moved to Jennings Road.

Others who enjoyed having their memories jogged during this year’s reunion included Bill Tingue, Marie Gernatt Tingue’s son, who was once a race car driver at Holland Raceway. Joe Gernatt recalled some of the themes from past reunions, such as a Western theme, complete with a watermelon seed spitting contest; and a Hawaiian theme, based on leis and a luau. One year, Joe says, he was the Candyman. Covered in varieties of candy, the kids had a great time chasing after his, grabbing the goodies.

From the humble beginnings of the annual Gernatt Family Reunion, as minutes from the Aug. 8, 1954 affair reflect, a total of 71 individuals were in attendance, the event has surely grown; one year, it was said, there were over 600 at the reunion!

All too often we get caught up in the rat race of life and forget to slow down and spend time with our family. The Gernatts, like other families in the area, prove that at least for one day, they can forget their problems.
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