An American Story: Lena and Wilhelm Open the Golden Browne Bakery

by | Oct 13, 2022 | Crime Writing | 0 comments

My last two blogs told the stories of two women: my mother, Katherine, and my mother-in-law, Adria. Kay Gaffney taught seventh and eighth grade for fifty years, then spent one year at the San Diego Museum of Art studying their collection of fine art before becoming a docent. Adria nurtured her family of four, supported her Marine Corps husband as he rose to the rank of Colonel but never gave up her dream of achieving top-flight status in the game she loved – golf.

Lena Wucherer (my husband’s grandmother) didn’t have a college education or athletic skill or any of the advantages women had in the 1950s. She was born in San Francisco in the late 1890s, had a high school education, was orphaned at twelve, and was raised by the family who took her in working as a servant. She met Wilhelm Wucherer at a German Lodge. Surprisingly, they had the same last name, but that’s where the similarities ended.

The day I met this plucky, rotund, quietly purposeful German Grandmother I knew I was in the presence of a formidable force. Beneath the cordial greeting, firm handshake, and granny housedress with a Kleenex tucked in the pocket, there was a force about her that reminded me of Margaret Thatcher: England’s Iron Maiden. The house was chilly, the décor was bare bones, there were no plants, and only one painting: a landscape of Grandpa’s homeland in Reutlingen, Germany. I felt surrounded by brown furniture, brown walls, and a whiff of mothballs.

She fascinated me. I’m not sure if it was the way she laughed with her eyes or the way she led me into a purely functional kitchen with a sink, stove, and trash can and offered me a slice of coffee cake or just her – simple but profound, humble but proud, aloof but charming.        

I was transfixed when she told me the story of how her husband (who I met only a few times before he died) grew up in a family of bakers. His only work experience was as a pastry chef in the German army until the day he decided to come to the US. His ability to apply for entry depended on finding a sponsor who could vouch for his ability to support himself. Fortunately, Wilhelm’s Uncle Gustov who lived in San Francisco agreed to sponsor his nephew.   

When my husband and I vacationed in New York, we visited Ellis Island and spoke to an immigration officer who helped us research Wilhelm’s trip from Germany (on a ship called The Brenan) and arrived at Ellis Island on November 7, 1011. Wilhelm’s name appeared as number 9 on the passenger manifest. One of my favorite stories about that journey happened after landing in New York, he planned to travel to San Francisco on the Transcontinental Railroad. A member of the local German society gave him a pistol to protect him from Indians.

Lena and Wilhelm’s Golden Browne bakery served as a gathering place for members of the German community to meet for afternoon coffeecake. Their success as a small business enabled them to help other friends emigrate to the US. One such lucky person was a delivery truck driver Wilhelm used in his business who he later helped start a carpet business during a housing boom. This small carpet business became a big company: Bervin Carpets.

The money from this “idea of a bakery” helped support four grandchildren acquire professional degrees: my husband went to medical school, another son went to law school, another son went to architectural school and a daughter received a degree in psychology. Kudos to Lena and Wilhelm!