Seeking the roots of big family tree

Pity the poor desk clerk at one Marina del Rey hotel.

Sixty guests, all named Gerstenberger, are spending the week there after converging on Los Angeles as part of an unusual attempt to trace their ancestry back 800 years.

It's the fourth time that the Gerstenbergers' "World Family Reunion" has united Gerstenbergers from Europe and North America.

About 90 Gerstenbergers attended the first one, which was staged in the tiny hamlet that started it all: Gerstenberg, Germany.

"Most of the American Gerstenbergers were shocked that we had a homeland," Mark Butler, a 54-year-old Anchorage resident who is taking part in the reunion with his mother, Lois Gerstenberger Butler, said Friday.

Most of the American Gerstenbergers were also shocked to learn that there were so many Gerstenbergers out there.

Jerome Gerstenberger, 76, of Ventura said he has made a habit of checking local phone books for other Gerstenbergers when he travels. But he said his search is inevitably unsuccessful.

"I was flabbergasted when I found out there were other Gerstenbergers. It was awesome," he said.

That's why Jerome Gerstenberger bought seven copies of a 1993 book by Duane Gerstenberger. Called "Gerstenberger Immigrants and Their Descendants in America -- A Compendium of Vital Statistics," it lists the lineage of about 3,500 Gerstenbergers in the United States.

Jerome Gerstenberger donated several copies of the Gerstenberger book to public libraries in Montana and Minnesota and gave the rest to members of his family.

Duane Gerstenberger, 76, is a physician from Sun City, Ariz. He said he got the idea to research Gerstenberger history after deciding in 1988 to have a party to celebrate his mother-in-law's 100th birthday.

"I had to make sure she was really turning 100. I didn't want to throw the party if it wasn't really her 100th birthday. So I went back and searched through old records," Duane Gerstenberger said.

His Gerstenberger research has taken him to old German churches, where musty records traced the roots of several Gerstenberger families. Unfortunately, other potentially important records were destroyed during World War II.

More recently, Duane Gerstenberger has turned to DNA in hopes of more closely tracking Gerstenberger lineage -- perhaps back to the "Adam and Eve" of Gerstenbergers. That would have been in the 1200s, when inhabitants of the village of Gerstenberg, population 600, simply used the town name when they were required to begin using last names.

So far, it appears that there are four Gerstenberger lines -- in Germany, Iowa, Kansas and Minnesota.

On Friday, Duane Gerstenberger was collecting the DNA of reunion attendees on the patio outside the Courtyard by Marriott Marina del Rey hotel. Karl-Heinz Gerstenberger, 75, of Clinton Park, N.Y., swiped his mouth with a cotton swab to contribute his sample.

"The desk clerk had a whole bunch of Gerstenbergers pop up on the computer when we checked in. He was kind of flustered," said Karl-Heinz Gerstenberger.

His wife, Charlotte Gerstenberger, said their granddaughters have factored in the moniker as they consider marriage. "They're looking for someone with a shorter last name," she said with a laugh. "Sometimes on forms there's just not enough room to spell it out."

Near the hotel swimming pool, Rico Gerstenberger, 33, of Duisburg, Germany, relaxed with his parents, Winfried and Gisela Gerstenberger. "It's important that we create a network," Rico Gerstenberger said.

Ferdinand Lucas, whose mother is Maria Gerstenberger Lucas, agreed. "I've made a lot of friends with the American Gerstenbergers," said Lucas, 27, of Frankfurt, Germany.

Bob Gerstenberg, 70, of Austin, Texas, is attending the reunion with his wife, Peggy Gerstenberg. Their branch of the family shortened their name by dropping the final "er."

"These people here are all good friends now," Peggy Gerstenberg said of the Gerstenbergers.

Mark Butler said this reunion, which has attracted Gerstenbergers from the age of 4 months to 87 years, will end Sunday. He was asked how it felt to be a Butler surrounded by Gerstenbergers.

"He feels privileged!" chimed in Jerome Gerstenberger.


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