Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2017/Fall/Section 26/Ernest Gerber
|Born||January 12, 1883|
Langnau, Canton of Bern, Switzerland
|Died||December 23, 1940|
Ernest Gerber, (January 12, 1883 - December 23, 1940) was a Swiss immigrant to the United States of America. The most significant portion of his life was spent as a soldier, both under mandatory service for Switzerland and voluntary service for the U.S., but he transitioned to farmer life after his time in the navy.
Ernest Gerber was born January 12, 1883, in Langnau, Canton of Bern, Switzerland. He was the fifth of eight children, and his family ran a Gasthaus, a family inn and tavern. Gerber attended a mandatory primary and secondary Swiss schooling, but chose to not attend college in favor of a career as a tradesman. His attempt at learning a trade failed due to disinterest, and instead at 19 years old, he moved out to work at a soap factory.
However, Gerber had to return home at 21 for mandatory army service examinations and was subsequently drafted into Switzerland’s navy. Sometime after joining the navy, Gerber and his fellow soldiers immigrated to Ellis Island, arriving August 5, 1906. After immigration and leaving the Swiss service, Gerber worked with a family friend until 1914, transitioned to farm life for a couple years, then enlisted in the army in 1917. He enrolled in hospital school and was eventually stationed at Pearl Harbor. After that stint, he was sent on a series of several U.S. relocations and foreign tours, including a few European tours, one African tour, and one South Asian tour. Gerber returned to the U.S. in the fall of 1927 and planned to leave the service with a friend and establish a farm. His partner backed out of the deal but Gerber continued with the purchase, investing in a farm in pieces and then hosting various tenant farmers over several years. Gerber started a semi-successful farming business and planned to add a vineyard in the following years.
Gerber died on December 23, 1940; it is unknown where or how he died.
Swiss Immigration in the Early 20th Century
In the 1850-1914 period, over 40 million people left European nations such as Switzerland, immigrating primarily to the New World; of the immigrant population, roughly 247,770 were of Swiss origin. Immigration specifically to the United States mostly occurred through Ellis Island, a waypoint that served as a definitive transition for thousands of immigrants coming from a diverse set of circumstances and backgrounds. Immigrants primarily came looking for new lives, to expand upon education received from their home countries, and particularly for Swiss immigrants, to satiate the increasing American demand for laborers needed manage its rapid industrialization.
Although the naval service already had a significant portion of troops, during World War I, the Selective Service Act of 1917 was put into place when the U.S. entered the conflict and sent troops overseas. Active registration periods and the draft itself expanded the scope, membership, and power to a level even greater than before; thousands of troops signed up with patriotic intentions or for potential rewards. After the war ended with a victory, troops either concluded their service and exited the navy, continued to be stationed around America, or were sent on tours in Europe or Africa. Around 500,000 men and women were enlisted in the United States navy at this time, making it the largest staffed in the world.
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