Roots Lead Man to German Family Tree

Article in Times-Herald, Newport News, Virginia
by Nancy Davis, Times-Herald Staff Writer

There is an air of reverence about the scene.

As if in prayer, Dr. Bill Thompson, his wife, Marion, and his mother-in-law, Elly Gruenwald, bow over the coffee table, squinting at the baroque loops and imperious spikes written by a man who lived three hundred years ago.

Thompson: "What's this word here? Inscazemen?"

Frau Gruenwald: "Yah!!! Yah!!!"

Silence. Then, a rapid exchange in German.

A psychologist at Fort Eustis, Thompson tripped over his "roots" four years ago. He's been digging ever since.

The records he and his family are painstakingly deciphering belonged to his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather.

And Thompson is seven generations removed from the town of Gimbsheim as it existed in the 18th century, when grandfather Johann Michael Kimmel, the unterfauth ("the right hand of the duke"), levied fines against village mischief-makers.

Thompson remembers grandfather Rev. Simon Kimmel's stories of a mysterious German ancestor whose four sons settled in the Pennsylvania-Dutch community of Thompson's childhood.

As far as the family could discern, the Kimmels emigrated to the United States from a German town near the Alsace-Lorraine area, but journals and family Bibles, hoarded, then memorized at Kimmel family reunions, failed to pinpoint the town.

Spellings varied wildly. Was it Gimbshimen? Was it Gibschmien?

At the time, Thompson didn't care, he admits sheepishly.

But when he was stationed in Germany, met and married his outfit's translator and became part of a very German family, the old stories came back to haunt him.

Where was Gibshmien, or Gimbshimen, or Gimsmen?

In 1975, he began to search in earnest.

"We rode to about eight or 10 towns with spellings like those in the family records." Mrs. Thompson laughs.

All for naught, it seems.

"Each time we made an inquiry, we found there were no Kimmels," Thompson nods. "Frankly, the Germans keep very thorough records. Our [ ig ...e] was that we knew the four sons emigrated, and we knew their names."

Then, one day by accident, the Thompsons found their Kimmel at a volleyball tournament.

Mrs. Thompson's volleyball team was to play a match in nearby Gimbsheim.

"I thought nothing of it." she smiles. "We had nearly given up hope."

While she tossed the ball, Thompson shot the breeze with a group of old folks.

Did the name Kimmel sound familiar? "No," they admitted but anything was possible. Why not consult the town historian, Helmut Mahlerwein?

Mahlewein listened attentively to Thompson's story and then welcomed him home. He was long-lost family.

The town's written records, which dated back to 700 A.D., mentioned the solemn unterfauth, his rowdy sons and the duke they served.

Moreover, unterfauth Kimmel's hand-written reports, recording his judgements and verdicts, were still in the cellar of the city hall.

Together Mahlerwein and Thompson unearthed the past, family skeletons and all.

In their day, unterfauth Kimmel's progeny must have been the town's wild and crazy guys. Records show Kimmel had to fine his offspring for racing horses across the duke's newly plowed fields.

On another occasion, the Kimmel boys decided to take a little detour to the pasture. The duke's grain supply proved too much of a temptation for the audacious four. They loosed their oxen in the duke's oats, and paid a high price for it, too, when Dad found out.

Thompson, who has laboriously worked his way through 10 percent of the unterfauth's archaic regional dialect written in an obsolete floral script, has found more evidence of the brothers' daredeviltry.

In one of the unterfauth's rulings, unidentified persons broke into the local beer house, and drank down the entire stock.

Thompson speculates the names may have been withheld because of Dad's embarrassment.

Unterfauth Kimmel was not without faults himself.

Town records show he was fined eight pounds of [flsh] for breaking cobblestones on a jaunt in a nearby town.

But his sons proved to be his downfall, it appears. Documents indicate they were banished from Germany, possibly for plotting the overthrow of the duke, Thompson speculates.

Kimmel, who remained behind with his unmarried daughter, was stripped of his power, although he was allowed to continue his duties as a scribe.

"You know," says Thompson affectionately, "I think my twins have taken after the Kimmel sons." He points to a door, Steve and Sam, 10, recently demolished in a breakneck bicycle race.....

Details on the pages of the Kimmel Family Record web site come from the collection of
Timothy W. Kimmel of Fort Wayne, Indiana.  You can contact Tim at

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