Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2017/Fall/Section 26/Ernest Gerber

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Ernest Gerber
BornJanuary 12, 1883
Langnau, Canton of Bern, Switzerland
DiedDecember 23, 1940
  • Soldier
  • Farmer
ReligionCatholic (former)


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.


Early Life[edit]

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.

A traditional Gasthaus[1]


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.

Social Issues[edit]

Swiss Immigration in the Early 20th Century[edit]

In the 1850-1914 period, over 40 million people left European nations such as Switzerland, immigrating primarily to the New World[2]; of the immigrant population, roughly 247,770 were of Swiss origin[3]. Immigration specifically to the United States mostly occurred through Ellis Island, a waypoint that served as a definitive transition for thousands of immigrants[4] coming from a diverse set of circumstances and backgrounds. Immigrants primarily came looking for new lives[5], to expand upon education received from their home countries[6], and particularly for Swiss immigrants, to satiate the increasing American demand for laborers needed manage its rapid industrialization[7].

United States Naval Service in the 1920's[edit]

Although the naval service already had a significant portion of troops, during World War I, the Selective Service Act of 1917[8] 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[9].

  1. Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library. "Gasthaus Bogenhauser Hof (RESTAURANT)" New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed October 26, 2017. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/a4958095-4533-074d-e040-e00a1806792c
  2. Richard A. Easterlin. "Influences in European Overseas Emigration before World War I." Economic Development and Cultural Change 9, no. 3 (April 1961): 331-51.
  3. Bechtel, Dale. "When the Swiss made America." SWI swissinfo.ch. May 11, 2009. Accessed October 24, 2017. https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/when-the-swiss-made-america/6784658.
  4. Rita G. Komen. "Ellis Island: The Immigrants' Experience." OAH Magazine of History, Summer 1999, 31-37.
  5. Tousignant, Marylou. "Ellis Island, a gateway to America, marks 125 years." The Washington Post. January 03, 2017. Accessed October 24, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/kidspost/ellis-island-a-gateway-to-america-marks-125-years/2017/01/03/a5246c2e-c6c9-11e6-bf4b-2c064d32a4bf_story.html.
  6. Carl Rohrer and Irena Sgier. "Switzerland." International Review of Education 42, no. 1/3 (1996): 131-50.
  7. Bechtel, “When the Swiss made America.”
  8. "U.S. Congress passes Selective Service Act." History.com. Accessed October 24, 2017. http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/u-s-congress-passes-selective-service-act.
  9. Howarth, Stephen. To Shining Sea: a History of the United States Navy. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.