History of the Founders of First Lutheran Church
Johann (John) Findorff, father of John H. Findorff researched and written by Alice Drake, First Lutheran Board of Trustees
Johann Findorff’s family was part of the early settlement of Middleton in the 1850’s and one of the contributing founders to the current church building that dates back to 1866.
Johann’s Early Years
Johann (John) Findorff (1840-1889) and Lesetta (Lisetta) Harloff (1849-1931) are the parents of John H Findorff (1867-1948), who is was the founder of J. H. Findorff and Son Construction Company.
Johann was born in Hanover, Germany and arrived in America in 1855 at the age of fifteen. Although it cannot be confirmed at this time he may have been aboard the
vessel Elbe that sailed from Germany on 4 July 1855. If so, it appears he was traveling alone. To date, the name of another Findorff on the Elbe has not been found. Further, First Lutheran Church records report his arrival year as 1859. It has not been possible to confirm either date at this time.
An article in the History of Dane County, page 1210 names Johann’s father as John and his mother as Lisette. It could be that Lisette was the name Johann’s mother but this might also be an error. The 1870 census record for Johann reports him living with Margaret Findorff, age 55. No ship record for her has been found for her. Margaret may have been his mother. After the 1870 census no record for her is found. Johann married a woman named Lesetta. It might be that error was made when writing the article (they have been found in other such sketches) or it could be a coincidence that Johann married a woman with the same first name as his mother.
Marriage and Family
Johann married Lesetta (Lisetta) Harloff, the daughter of Joachim (James) Harloff and Dorothea (Dora) (Sophie Dorothee Freiderike) Elver on 16 March 1866 in Middleton, Dane, Wisconsin. Lesetta was born in Mecklenburg, Germany and came to Wisconsin with her parents arriving in America on 2 September 1852. She was two years old.
After Johann and Lesetta married in 1866, they lived and farmed in Middleton on 90 acres just north of where the first log church was built. There were seven children. John H. (20 May 1867) was the first born, then Gustof, Josephine, Paulena, Hermena, Fredericka, and Albert.
First Lutheran Church Involvement
Johann Findorff is among the thirty-one members who each donated $82, provided a team to haul building materials from Madison, and gave their labor to build the second church, known then as “the big white church on the hill.” In 2016 that building will celebrate its 150th anniversary.
The eldest Findorff settler, Johann, served as trustee, treasurer and clerk of what was then called the Independent German Lutheran Church of Middleton. An article in the History of Dane County, page 1210, written in 1880, says Johann’s political leanings were conservative. He was active in local government serving as assessor, treasurer and holding membership as one of the Board of Supervisors. The articles states “Mr. Findorff is a first-class farmer and business man, enterprising, and a good man in the community.”
Johann was only 48 at the time of his death in 1889 and is buried in the “old” cemetery where the log church first stood, just north of the present building on Pleasant View Road. His funeral was recorded in the church’s handwritten funeral record book for that year (written in German). Part of his tombstone remains, although unfortunately, the cemetery is now managed by the city of Madison and is in disrepair. Lesetta died in Cairo, Illinois at the age of 82 in 1931. There is a large grave monument in the newer First Lutheran Cemetery listing Johann, Lesetta, and several of their children: William, Albert, Hermine, Frances, and Pauline.
John H. spent his childhood as a member of First Lutheran Church. He is mentioned in church records into the 1930’s as a member of the cemetery association and also in notes from the Ladies Aid. He is listed as living at 601 W. Wilson Street in Madison. John H. was the founder of J.H. Findorff and Son, the Madison construction company who has built just about every iconic Madison-area landmark including part of the State Capital, Monona Terrace, Yoast’s Department Store, the Overture Center for the Arts, and many buildings on the University of Wisconsin campus, including the iconic Red Gym.
Currently our board is working with Antje Petty of the Max Kade Institute for German-American Studies at the UW, who is assisting us in translating our church records into English. We hope to discover more about the church’s history and founders through this process, and to share them with the public here.
Note: Johann’s wife Lesetta was the daughter of Joachim (James) Harloff and Dorothea (Dora) (Sophie Dorothee Freiderike) Elver. Dora’s brother, Charles (1849-1930) would stipulate in his will his intent for a Madison park to be created after the death of his wife and daughter. Charles was the uncle of John H. Findorff. The park is Elver Park, Madison, Wisconsin.