By Alli Lorensen
I remember my grandfather holding his thumbs against his temples and wiggling his fingers with a victorious grin plastered across his face.
“Bucky, bucky, bucky,” he chanted, as cards were tossed in a pile, signaling the end of the game.
For my mother’s side of the family, we’ve traditionally played the card game, Sheepshead, at family gatherings.
The overarching goal of the game is to undoubtedly win, but to also not finish in last place and earn the dreaded title of “buck,” which my grandfather, Wenzel Franzluebbers, was always quick to taunt us with.
However, Sheepshead is played under a variety of different rules. Even my family has adjusted some of the ways we play.
Cards are worth various point values and consist of trump and fails. Depending on how many people play, certain cards are partners for each dealing and must reach a specific point total from multiple tricks to win the game. But, the overall game last for multiple rounds.
While we call it Sheepshead, in Germany, it’s known as Schafkopf, which is the name my early relatives knew it by.
My great-grandfather brought the Sheepshead tradition to our family card tables when he immigrated to the United States in 1914.
Wenzel Franzluebbers’ father, Bernard, was born on Nov. 29, 1888, and lived in Delbrück, Germany, where he farmed and owned about 40 acres of land. My great-uncle, Joe Franzluebbers, said when Bernard’s brother, George, returned to Germany and left for America the second time, he joined him.
George had previously immigrated to the U.S. with a friend who took him along in search for better opportunity and work, Joe noted. Similarly, Bernard sought to find a good life in America because of lack of jobs in Germany.
The brothers arrived in New York in 1914 on a ship called “Bremen” that was named after the German town it departed from, said my grandmother, Cecilia.
The ship also took them to Ellis Island, where Bernard was declared a citizen.
From New York, Joe said my great-grandfather first traveled to Minnesota, where he spent a brief amount of time before moving to West Point, Nebraska.
There, he met his future wife, Catherine Ortmeier, whom he married on Oct. 1, 1929; they had his first child, Joe, one year later. Together, they had nine children and lived in West Point until retirement.
While there, Bernard worked for other farmers and eventually rented ground but never owned his own land, said Joe’s wife, Rose.
But, it was not all work and no play for the Franzluebbers family, as everyone soon learned how to compete in Sheepshead.
“I could play it before I went to school,” Joe said.
Once Bernard and Catherine retired, they moved to Dodge, Nebraska, but they never stopped playing cards.
My grandmother said she and my grandfather would visit them and Wenzel’s siblings to play Sheepshead, and it was Catherine who eventually taught her how to play.
No matter what Bernard was doing, he would always be up for a game of cards, Cecilia said.
“We’d come there and he’d always be in bed,” she said. “And as soon as somebody would come, he’d get out of bed and get the cards right away, and they would sit in the kitchen and play cards and play Sheepshead.”
My grandmother’s parents, Frank and Mary Wuestewald, also lived in West Point at the time and frequently enjoyed playing the game.
All Franzluebbers and Wuestewald family gatherings inevitably led to arranging the tables for Sheepshead.
My mother, Patricia, said family holidays and get-togethers would bring in nearly 50 to 60 cousins, who would play spoons in sets of 15 to 20 kids at a time, while Catherine and the women played another card game in the kitchen.
Meantime, Bernard and the men lined tables up into one big line to play Sheepshead in the basement or living room for coins, which they sometimes used to pay my mother to sneak away from her games and bring them beers.
Even on my father’s side, my grandfather, Steve, also knew how to play Sheepshead. Steve said his father, William, first taught him how to play.
Steve’s great-grandparents came to the U.S. from Germany and Schleswig-Holstein, and his grandparents came from Ireland. His wife’s grandfather immigrated from Ireland, and somewhere down the line, a relative likely came from England.
They said their relatives immigrated to the U.S. for better lives and those from Ireland likely left to avoid the Great Potato famine.
While my family has enjoyed a number of games over the years, Sheepshead is a card game that was first brought to America for my family in 1914 and is still played and relished by my relatives in 2018. Even my 10-year-old cousin has been eager to learn.
Playing cards is a universal language that has brought my family closer in the past and will continue to draw us together in life’s future hands that we’re dealt.
“It was something you didn’t have to be able to speak with,” Rose said. “Everybody understood it, and it was a good pastime.”