Saturday, July 18, 1936: Minnesota’s biggest baby

Posted on May 3rd, 2007 – 7:14 PM
By Ben Welter
Minneapolis Star front page

One night last summer I was browsing Minneapolis Star microfilm from July 1936, looking for stories about that steamy month, one of the hottest on record in the Upper Midwest. I found plenty of interesting news about the heat wave, but I also spotted this eye-popping front page featuring a “life-size” photo of “the largest baby ever born alive” in Minnesota. Baby Boy Schmitz, later baptized Jacob, tipped the scales at just under 16 pounds. Holy Toledo!

The Minneapolis Star covered the story intensely for several days, reporting on almost every angle of the unusual birth, the mother and father, their farm and Jacob’s dozen siblings. The paper even published photos of an average-size boy born about the same time in a Minneapolis hospital, so that readers could see just how BIG this Schmitz lad was.

A 2006 interview with one of Jacob Schmitz’s siblings follows this initial report by the Star’s Nat S. Finney, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize in national reporting at the Minneapolis Tribune in 1948.

State’s Huskiest Baby
Tips Scales to 16 Lbs.

Mother and Son Doing Well After Battle by Doctors
To Bring Infant to Life After Birth

By NAT S. FINNEY
Staff Writer for The Star.

Graceville, Minn. – Baby Boy Schmitz, weight at birth 15 pounds, 15.2 ounces, height 24½ inches, head 16 inches, chest 17 inches, across shoulders 8 inches, July 16, 1936, Western Minnesota hospital.

In such laconic scientific terms, without a word about Mrs. Veronica Schmitz, the mother, medicine records the birth of the largest baby ever born alive in Minnesota – as far as a day’s check of doctors and records shows.

Today Helen Wilson, superintendent of the hospital at which Baby Boy Schmitz was born, reports baby and mother “coming along just fine.” But when Miss Wilson tells you that, there’s something about the way she says it that reminds you of somebody cheering his head off in whispers.

STORK ARRIVES TWO WEEKS LATE
TO DELIVER BABY BOY SCHMITZ

There’s a whale of a story of motherhood behind the dry-as-dust medical reports, the professional calm of Miss Wilson’ s words, the simple statement that Baby Boy took six ounces of “nursery mixture” this morning, hollered his head off to get it, and apparently thought it was swell when he got it.

It’s not a man’s story. It’s a woman’s story. This correspondent asks the kindly indulgence of all mothers as he tries to tell the story.

Baby Boy Schmitz didn’t arrive on time. He is what doctors call a nine-and-one-half months baby. When he didn’t come on time Mrs. Schmitz’ doctors got worried – later on in the story you’ll understand why. So Thursday they gave Mrs. Schmitz some medicine which starts a mother’s labor.

Labor began at 6 p.m. The baby was born at 9:30 p.m. The doctors and the nurses tell you that; but when you look at the records of the hospital you discover that three doctors and three nurses attended the birth of Baby Boy Schmitz.

THREE DOCTORS, THREE NURSES
GET ON THE JOB IN A HURRY

The doctor in charge (you can’t use his name because of the ethics of the medical profession) is a tall, strong chap. He started the delivery with one nurse assisting him, Miss Rose Boylan. Half an hour later he called desperately for another doctor and another nurse. They came as fast as they could.

Another half an hour and an emergency call for another doctor and another nurse was sent out. They came. Then for an hour and one-half the six of them worked to bring Baby Boy Schmitz into the world alive. Mothers will understand that. There isn’t much that a man can say.

When Baby Boy Schmitz was born he wasn’t, properly speaking, alive. Life was there, ready to start, but it couldn’t start by itself. The tall doctor who had charge put it plainly this way: “They have to cry, you know. You have to make them cry.”

So the tall doctor, tired, half-prostrate from the extreme prairie heat in the delivery room, went to work. He worked for an hour and one-half to get life to really start in that great baby – the largest ever born in Minnesota alive.

He used the prone pressure method of artificial respiration.

“I breathed for the baby with my hands,” he put it. “You place your hands on the baby’s back like this, and press. Then you release the hands quickly. You keep that up until the baby breathes for itself. It was hard because my arms were so tired.”

He used hot and cold water baths – quick changes between hot and cold, calculated to shock Baby Boy Schmitz into life.

Jacob Schmitz on scale
SO BIG: The Minneapolis Star returned to the Schmitz farm in July 1937 to torture the poor birthday boy by propping him up on a scale for this photo.

USES ETHER BATHS,
ALSO SPANKS BABY

He used ether baths. The instant evaporation of ether gives the baby a sensation of extreme, burning cold. He used an injection of a drug called coramine. He spanked Baby Boy Schmitz. Slapped him. Jounced him.

And after an hour and one-half life took a firm grip of Baby Boy Schmitz. Life’s clutch stopped slipping, so to speak. Baby Boy Schmitz settled down to some steady crying. Then slept, breathing peacefully. Then woke. Then howled.

“You get to know that howl,” Miss Wilson chuckled. Then when she saw this writer didn’t get it at all, she said: “Men are pretty dumb. What I mean is that you get to know by a baby’s crying when it’s hungry.”

It was just two and one-half hours after Baby Boy Schmitz’ clutch on life stopped slipping that he woke up hungry.

“You can believe it or not,” the tall doctor said, “but he took four ounces of nourishment – nursery mixture we call it.

YOUNG HUSKY EATS
AND THEN SLEEPS

“I stopped worrying about Baby Boy Schmitz right then. He has eaten and slept like a daisy since then.” This nursery mixture is just high grade corn syrup, water and milk. Miss Wilson couldn’t bother to say in what proportions. “Every mother knows about it,” she said.

All this work over Baby Boy Schmitz leaves Mrs. Schmitz pretty much out of things. When Baby Boy was delivered, Mrs. Schmitz went to sleep.

“It wasn’t as bad as you might think,” she smiled Friday. “I think the twins were worse, and the boy that died – that was much worse, oh, much.”

Mrs. Schmitz, sandy-haired and hazel-eyed, shook hands and smiled at callers. She’s a real woman, a big woman. She’s five feet 11 inches tall and “weighed” 190 pounds before the baby was born. She has a warm, grand smile, and a soft, strong voice. There is about her both twinkling good humor and deep, warm calm. She’s 37, and this was the fifteenth time she has been in child bed.

MOTHER ANXIOUS TO
GET BACK TO GARDEN

“I’m tired, of course. And this hot weather bothers me. But I really feel perfectly all right. The only thing that worries me is that I’ve got to get back to my garden. This hot weather has spoiled so many things, and we’ve got to have vegetables to can and cabbage to put down.”

Later Mr. Schmitz said that last year Mrs. Schmitz put up 850 quarts of vegetables and two barrels of kraut for the winter. And most of it’s gone. It takes a lot to feed 12 children and a baby, and the Schmitz family, what with conditions that affect farmers with 200 acres of land in western Minnesota, doesn’t have even pennies to kick around. The farm is near Dumont, Minn.

WORRIES ABOUT SKUNKS
GETTING HER CHICKENS

Mrs. Schmitz does a job that would make many a woman faint just at the description of it. She has – now – 13 children to care for. Her kitchen garden looks to be a little more than one acre, and she and the youngster care for it. She has a large flock of chickens – “they are mighty important these days,” she says, “and I hope the skunks don’t get the chicks while I’m away.”

Mrs. Schmitz’ home has some conveniences – not many. It would seem desperately few to city mothers. And then, to top it all off, Mrs. Schmitz helps her husband in the field when the rush of harvesting is on. That is, she has in the past; and she sees no reason why she shouldn’t this autumn.

“Not for harvesting,” she laughs, “but later. I’m all right, you know.”

Jacob Schmitz, six-feet-four-inches in his sox, lean and tanned, just turning 40, denies the size of the babies comes from his side of the family.

THINKS BABY’S SIZE
FROM MOTHER’S FAMILY

“Unusual births are in Veronica’s family; I mean in Mrs. Schmitz’ family. She was part of one the like of which I never heard. She was a twin. She was born at nine months. The other twin was born at six months. I’ve talked to a lot of people and I never heard of a case like that, did you?”

Jacob Schmitz explains his wife’s maiden name was Veronica Cordie, and she was born near Richmond, Minn. “Her father was French and her mother German. The red hair (he patted Eugene’s red top as he said it) and the freckles come from her side, and I guess unusual births do, too.”

Then Mr. Schmitz tells you about the twins. They are, barring only his strapping youngest son, who won’t be named till Mrs. Schmitz is ready, the apple of his eye.

“The twins weighed 11 pounds and 15 ounces for Vernon and 9 pounds and 15 ounces for Veronica. That’s pretty near a record, too. We even got a letter from President Roosevelt congratulating us on the twins.”

OTHER CHILDREN ALL
WERE BIG WHEN BORN

The twins and Baby Boy aren’t the end of the unusual birth story, either. Before the twins were born a baby boy that died weighed 14 pounds. The one doctor that tried to deliver the child at the Schmitz farm couldn’t get help there in time, and the baby died.

Then there’s Elizabeth, now 3, who weighed 12 pounds at birth; and Katherine, now 6, weighed 11 pounds – a pretty big baby girl. The rest of the living children are Laura, 8; Louise, 9; Eugene, 11; Reinhard, 12; Donald, 13; Vivian, 14; Valeria, 15, and Victor, 18. Seven of them are in school at Dumont. Victor, the eldest, hopes to get into a CCC camp this fall.

Mr. Schmitz and his wife regard their family as nothing unusual. The country around Graceville is pretty new country, and large families aren’t unusual in new country.

“We have our troubles taking care of them all,” Mr. Schmitz says. “But they’re all perfectly healthy. Never have to call a doctor.

“For a while in 1934 when we lost our stock because of the drouth, the going was pretty bad. I guess we’ll make out this year, but it’s pretty bad now.”

Schmitz family on Jacob's first birthday
SO, SO BIG: The Schmitz family gathered before the lens of a Minneapolis Star photographer in July 1937. Top, from left, were Mrs. Schmitz (holding Veronica), Vivian, Valeria, Donald, Reinhart, Eugene and Mr. Schmitz (holding Vernon). Just behind Jacob, from left, were Louise, Laura, Katherine and Betty. At least, that’s what the handwritten caption on the back of the photo says. Dave, if you see any errors, please holler.

MAY 2007 UPDATE: I interviewed one of Jacob’s younger brothers, Dave Schmitz, last summer. He’s now 66, “semi-retired,” with a wife of 45 years and a couple of adult children, all living in Wheaton, Minn. Dave’s weight at birth? “Eleven and a half pounds.”

Memories of Jacob: “We called him Junior. Outside the family, he was Jake. … One of the things I really knew him for and respected him for: He had a handicap [a form of polio that struck at age 5] and never let it get in the way. He was loved by every single person that knew him. … [His illness] left him with shakiness of the hands. He’d grasp something and have a hard time holding it. He had a hard time eating. He tried to cover it up. Nobody cared, but he did. It left him with a slight stagger.”

Jacob Schmitz at 21
  Jacob Schmitz at 21.

Still, Jacob did his share of work on the farm. “He could fix things,” Dave said. “I can see him painting some of the old machinery Dad had. He was handy. He did a lot of things for a kid who had a handicap.”

Did you rib Junior about his birth weight? “We used to tease him about being the famous one. He was the kind of guy to just shrug that off.”

Did the fame translate into money for your family? “My folks always said they never got a dime” from Junior’s story.

Your mom must have been special. What do you recall about her? “When you mention Mom, the word that pops into my head is how fussy she was, keeping the house nice, and how hard she worked. … We’d stand in a line before going to school. You had to pass inspection. You didn’t get out of the house until she checked your nails and ears. … We’d didn’t have a lot of modern conveniences. She was very, very fussy about cleanliness. …

“She was a very good cook, did a lot of canning. It was not uncommon for us to go into winter with 1,200 to 2,000 quarts of food. Like tomatoes or beans. It would take like two, three jars to feed the family. You had to open up enough to feed eight to 12 people plus friends, relatives, a threshing crew. She’d go out with two dishpans full of sandwiches to feed the threshing crew. One kid would carry the water, another the sauce. It was all things that took work. She canned all this stuff. It was just awesome how that woman worked.”

Memories of Dad? “He was a giant of a man. He was 6 foot 4. He ruled the roost. He never, never, ever struck you. When he hollered, you just froze in your tracks. He wasn’t a mean guy. He had a way with his tone of voice that could just make you stop in your tracks. Very stern, but very fair. He made sure that he explained things to all of you. …

“He had a lot of friends. He wasn’t the kind of guy who went up town and hung around and used the bottle. He abstained from alcohol and never smoked. He had some brothers who struggled with alcohol. … If the teacher chewed your butt in school and called him because you did something wrong, you’d be more worried about him than the teacher.”

After high school, Jacob attended the State School of Science in Wahpeton, N.D., for two years. “He wanted to be a schoolteacher,” Dave said. “I think the funds ran out. He was the only child to attend college.”

Jacob went on to work for the Traverse County Highway Department. “He was a handyman,” Dave said. “He kept things clean, made coffee. Also worked in sales, rototillers, things like that. He used his own rototiller to till gardens to make an extra buck.”

In 1967, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died in his bed. He was 31 years old.

“Junior owned his own house,” Dave said. “He was renting out the bottom and stayed upstairs. He was a kid that was proud to be somebody. Everything that he had he acquired through hard work and a lot of guts. … I was at home when I got the call that my brother Reinhart had found him. It was probably one of the worst days of my life. We were good buddies. We talked a lot. We were really a close-knit family.”

Comments are closed.