When Tragedy Became Farce
The first play performed in German in St. Louis was meant to be a tragedy, but it was closer to theater of the absurd. As St. Louis German newspaper editor Heinrich Boernstein related the tale in his memoirs, the performance started when a down-on-his-luck actor named Herr Riese showed up in town in 1842. Seeing the dire need of the man from Berlin, some fellow German immigrants offered to help him ply his trade. They rented a room above a German tavern called Zum Bremer Schlüssel and prepared to produce Friedrich Schiller’s tragedy The Robbers.
As with all pioneers, producers had to improvise. They couldn’t find an actress to play the character Amalie. So players talked about her, but she never made an appearance. That was the plan, anyway. Then there was the matter of the armchair where a character called the Old Moor was to sit. The group lacked such a chair, but somebody found a crate and covered it with a bed sheet. What happened next was either by accident or mischievous intent; no one is sure. Somehow the bed sheet became tangled with the curtain. When it went up, the bed sheet rose with it, and the Old Moor fell on his boden. The audience roared.
More trouble ensued when the performance resumed. Hunting rifles and revolvers used for the robbery scene made sufficient noise, but they also filled the place with thick gun smoke that wouldn’t go away. Then Riese refused to perform the fifth act unless he could stab an Amalie as the script demanded. So the tavernkeeper’s cook volunteered, or was volunteered, to assume the role. Riese brought the knife down, but when she didn’t collapse just so, he slugged her.
Few people saw anything else; the smoke was too thick. People coughed too much. No matter. At the end, the audience still cheered. Then—good Germans all—the actors went downstairs to the tavern and drank away their profits. People liked The Robbers so much that the company put it on again in Belleville. Once again, the actors celebrated afterwards by investing all their profits at a tavern. A brewer hauled the stranded pack of pickled performers back to St. Louis in his wagon. The company was no more, but a tradition of German theater was born in St. Louis.
There are Names . . . and There Are
How blessed were St. Louis Germans Henry Noll and Otto Rung? With a nationality known for double “m’s,” double “n’s,” double vowels, and “sch’s” in multi-syllable last names, the monikers of Noll and Rung were simple and hard to misspell. It was useful for them when they signed up for the overwhelmingly German Missouri Volunteers at the beginning of the Civil War. Pity the poor person who had to write the more difficult German names by hand on lists of those who also volunteered: Hy Zudderrovest, Captain William A. Hequembourg, Mich. Feuchtenbemer, Herman Strattelgahan, and Nic. Schwartztrouble.
Eventually, peace came, and the city’s Germans went about making their livings and their names. Unfortunately, some still had names they might have wanted to unmake. One of them, Dietriche Sommerfruechte, owned a popular tavern on Broadway. Around Pine and Main was the F.W. Aufderheide Commission House. An actress with a difficult name, Fanny Janauscheck, performed in St. Louis during a visit here from Germany. The dry goods store Buddecke & Droege was on Fourth Street near Convent Street, along with Brandtstetter’s bakery, John Wamsganz’s shoe store, and Biedenstein’s grocery.
There was purpose behind those names, or at least originally. The name of Julius Weinbrecht, chairman of the academic committee of the Concordia Turners, meant “wine breaker.” Perhaps an ancestor stomped on grapes for a living. Two words emerge from a translation of the last name Henry Koenigkraemer, another of the Germans in the Missouri Volunteers. “Koenig” is “king” or “ruler,” while “kraemer” means “grocer,” “shopkeeper,” or “owner” of a small retail store. Joseph Spiegelhalter’s last name meant “mirror holder.” It was nothing like his actual profession of physician and city coroner.
The more difficult German names may have been descriptive in Germany and a source of pride in America. But here they also made life harder for those who had to spell them. The answer for many German Americans anxious to fit into their new homeland was to shorten and Americanize their names. The “vons” in the names were dropped. “Geltmann” became “Goldman.” They often eliminated a syllable in a four-syllable name. Today the task of spelling many German names is not as hard as it once was. But it’s still too easy to render “Schroeder” as “Shroder.”
Barney Dickmann Goes to the Mat
We can’t help you, the attorney general said. Don’t even bother the president. Go away. A lot of other mayors who heard that would have gone away and told the newshawks waiting for a story, “Well, we tried.” But Bernard F. Dickmann, a German-American who was mayor of St. Louis from 1933 to 1941, gave the president an offer he couldn’t refuse. The president backed down, and the St. Louis riverfront never was the same.
Dickmann—most called him Barney—learned the ways of politics early. His father, Joseph F. Dickmann, was born in Prussia in 1856, immigrated to the United States, settled in St. Louis, and married Maria Eilers. Born in 1888, Barney Dickmann, one of six children, grew up while his father was elected mayor three different times. He went into real estate and climbed the Democratic Party ladder. In 1933, he was swept into the mayor’s office on the same Democratic wave that made Franklin Delano Roosevelt president the year before.
The new mayor went to bed as late as 1:30 a.m., but he was always up by 5:45 a.m. so he could ride his black horse “Big Boy” in Forest Park before work. Then he rode off to City Hall, where he worked like a horse to get what he wanted for St. Louis. With his prodding, a $16 million bond issue was passed to finish projects not yet completed from earlier bond issues and put the jobless to work. Soon, he was working on an even bigger project, which would change the way the whole world views St. Louis. He made the acquaintance of Luther Ely Smith, a lawyer and citizen activist who proposed clearing a moribund warehouse district on the riverfront and replacing it with a park around a memorial just as imposing as the Washington Monument. Soon, Dickmann was pushing for local and federal money for the monument, to be called the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.
That done, Dickmann and Raymond Tucker, commissioner of the city agency that dealt with smoke pollution, turned to passing a tough ordinance to clear up the city’s smog. Though the law eliminated smoke so thick motorists sometimes turned on their lights at midday, Dickmann was convinced the law was a major factor in his defeat for a third term in 1941. But two years later, he started a new career when he was appointed city postmaster—a job from which he retired in 1958.
It made for a glowing resume but didn’t tell the rest of the story. In 1968, after the Gateway Arch had been erected, Dickmann revealed how some behind-the-scenes arm-twisting kept Luther Ely Smith’s dream alive. It was late in 1935, and St. Louisans were looking for federal money to start clearing land for the riverfront memorial. Planners predicted the project eventually would cost $30 million. Actually, Congress had approved an outlay, but the president still had to sign an executive order for the money to be released. Attorney General Homer Cummings nixed the idea. He told the president that he couldn’t approve an order that depended on future federal funding.
Dickmann turned up the heat. “I told him: ‘Mr. Attorney General, you can be sure that St. Louisans—and Missourians, aren’t going to take this lying down,’” Dickmann told a reporter for the Globe-Democrat in 1968. “I reminded him that Mr. Roosevelt would be up for re-election shortly,’ I said—and he knew I wasn’t kidding,” Dickmann said. “‘You can be certain that he won’t carry Missouri if he doesn’t give us the green light on the riverfront—now. I’ll see to it that he doesn’t, if I have to campaign against him personally.’”
Cummings apologized, but stated there was nothing he could do. The next day, as Globe-Democrat staff writer Walter E. Orthwein told the story, Cummings called Dickmann: “‘I’ve got good news for you—good news. We’ve just found a new law that will enable the president to go ahead and sign the riverfront order.’” That law allowed the Department of the Interior to receive title to historic sites as national shrines. The federal government came through with $6.75 million to match the city’s $2.25 million. And Dickmann was convinced it wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t dug in his heels.
The City’s Brightside
When Vincent C. Schoemehl was mayor, reporters took note of a sign in his office with a decidedly German message. The plaque put up by the last mayor of German descent read, “Ready, Fire, Aim.” Some would say it was an admission he was prone to act first and think later, but Schoemehl contends the impression was out of context. The advice actually comes from the management consultant book In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies, by Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman. Schoemehl said the real meaning is that it’s better to act than to wait for every scrap of information. “It’s a phrase that I still think is very pertinent to the way you do business,” Schoemehl said.
The slogan seems appropriate for a descendent of Germans, who are known for bold, quick action. Actually, Schoemehl is only a quarter German. He is half Irish and a quarter Polish, but he is proud of his German heritage.
Schoemehl traces the German branch of his family to Frederick (Fritz) Schoenmehl, who was born in the village of Gundheim, about thirty-five miles southwest of Frankfurt, Germany. Early in 1866, when he was twenty-four, he boarded the ship America at Bremen, Germany. He arrived in the United States around April, just two months before Prussia and Italy began their Seven Weeks War with Austria and several German states. A family legend has it that Fritz high-tailed it out of Germany so he wouldn’t have to fight in the war.
Fritz settled in the Soulard neighborhood of St. Louis and married another German, Elizabeth Otto, in 1873. They moved in with Elizabeth’s father, Nicholas Otto. Fritz worked as a painter and bartender before he died in 1910. In his death certificate, his name is spelled “Schoemehl,” without the “n” before the “m” he had when he arrived in America.
Fritz’s son Henry sold jewelry and shoes. During the Depression, he sold magazines door-to-door. Henry’s son Vincent Sr. was a housepainter and wallpaper hanger. Vincent Sr. married Lucille (Wojciechowski) Miller. They had eleven children, all of whom still live in St. Louis. Vincent Jr. was born in 1946. He grew up in Pine Lawn, graduated from the old DeAndreas High School, and moved to the city’s Skinker DeBaliviere neighborhood in 1965. After receiving his history degree from the University of Missouri–St. Louis, he sold office equipment and started an advertising and marketing company. Then he began his political career.
“I just got to know some of the neighbors,” Schoemehl said. “It was the 1968 presidential election. We were all opposed to the Vietnam war,” he said. So he started working as a volunteer for Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign. It was the kind of thing his great-grandfather Fritz might have done. In 1975, at twenty-eight, he was elected alderman in the Central West End’s Twenty-Eighth Ward. Only six years later, at thirty-four, he defeated incumbent James Conway to become mayor. While he and his wife, Lois (Brockmeier) Schoemehl, sent their two children to St. Roch’s School in the West End, he stayed in office for three four-year terms. He chose not to run for a fourth term in 1993, the year after he lost a bid for the Democratic nomination for governor.
Like most politicians, Schoemehl saw a mix of good and bad results while in office. The football Cardinals left town, and Schoemehl couldn’t find the money needed to follow through with a pledge to reopen the shuttered Homer G. Phillips Hospital on the North Side. Population decreased and crime went up, but that wasn’t his fault. He claims one accomplishment was bringing down pension costs, including those for police officers and firefighters. In his first term, the number of city employees dropped from about 11,350 to about 4,700. Downtown saw steady growth, and his Operation Brightside initiative helped with neighborhood cleanup, recycling, and painting over graffiti. Operation Brightside is best known for the planting of perennials ranging from tulips to crocuses to the favorite daffodils. Now called Brightside, the organization celebrated its thirtieth anniversary in 2012. “Operation Brightside was, I think, a major success. People still talk about it, and they pop up every spring,” Schoemehl said, referring to the bulbs planted.
Schoemehl remained active after he left office at the relatively young age of forty-six. Until 2001, he had an alternative energy consulting business. Since then, he has been president and CEO of Grand Center, which promotes and works to revitalize the arts district around North Grand Boulevard generally between Lindell and Delmar. He suspects his German lineage didn’t hurt him as he climbed the ladder to the city’s highest position. “It was helpful in my political career because at the time there was a very strong German heritage,” Schoemehl said. “Certainly the German name helped.”
After 162 Years, Still Going for the Carom
Once, craftsmen pushed elephant’s tusks into lathes and turned them while they used a cutting instrument to form ivory into useful shapes. Pipe bowls. Silverware handles. Bracelets. Billiard balls. Skilled ivory turners did well. Ernst Schmidt did very well with the trade after he left Celle, Germany, and arrived in St. Louis in the mid-nineteenth century. He set up shop downtown in 1850 and started selling ivory billiard balls, ten-pin balls, and smoking pipes. Pool balls pushed everything else out, so he made that a specialty.
A.E. Schmidt Billiard Co. is still around. In its sixth generation, the family business is one of a handful of American companies that still make pool tables. It no longer makes ivory balls. It stopped importing ivory in 1966 when it became illegal. The company kept making balls from ivory imported before 1966 until around 2005. “It’s not something that we’d really want to do,” said company owner Kurt Schmidt, Ernst’s great-great-grandson. “Not only is it politically correct, but it’s a waste.” Today’s super-hard plastic balls are as good at making bank shots as any ivory ball—and they are better for elephants.
In Ernst’s day, his ivory balls did so well that he branched into billiard tables. He found markets for them in pool halls and in breweries seeking to entice saloons to switch to their products by giving away pool tables. Ernst followed a notably German business style. “He was very frugal. Didn’t spend much money on anything,” Kurt said. “He wanted his family with him. And really not much has changed. We’ve all been about the same way.”
The company grew after Ernst’s son Oscar joined the firm. Oscar eventually named it A.E. Schmidt Co. for his wife, Anna Elizabeth Schmidt. His sons, Edwin and Ernest, were challenged when Prohibition closed bars and the Depression killed business. Ernst’s philosophy of frugality was passed down to his son and grandsons, which helped them get through the Depression. Since they couldn’t afford a truck, they delivered tables—piece-by-piece—in streetcars. They offered credit when others didn’t. In good times, they reasoned, people would remember that. The firm expanded and started shipping tables throughout the country.
A new generation arrived when Edwin’s two sons, Arthur and Harold, joined the company after World War II. They promoted their product in two TV programs in the 1960s, “Beat the Champ” and “Billiards for Dollars.” The later went national for a couple of years. Arthur’s son Kurt was eighteen when he started with the firm. He has always loved it, he said. Under Kurt, the factory moved in 2004 to 720 Koeln Avenue in South St. Louis. It has a local store in West St. Louis County. While tables haven’t changed, technology has made it easier to make them. In three minutes, computerized routers add details like fleur de lis that once took craftsmen days to complete. At the firm’s plant, completed wooden parts are lined up awaiting assembly on a floor with a light covering of sawdust. In another room, pool table rails with a fresh coat of finish dry on a rack.
The company makes about one thousand tables a year, but the Chinese are bearing down. The firm is one of only four surviving American pool table makers. Nonetheless, Kurt remains hopeful. So does his son Michael, who’s joined the business. Kurt doesn’t think the Chinese can match the quality. It may be the German in him. Germans are stubborn, he said. He is proud of his heritage. And, in case you are wondering, Kurt does play pool but says he’s not good at it.
German Funeral Homes
Harry Schrader wouldn’t have it. No daughter of his would work on bodies in his funeral home, or any woman, either. Ruth Schrader Arft still went into the room where they embalmed the bodies at the family’s funeral home on Manchester Road in Ballwin. “I saw the bodies on the tables, but I never was permitted to watch the process,” she said. When she was old enough, she helped arrange funerals and did business but never worked on bodies. Today, at ninety, she’s the matriarch of Schrader Funeral Homes and Crematory, a 144-year-old West County business.
Founded by Arft’s great-grandfather, the company is part of a proud tradition of St. Louis funeral homes founded by Germans. One of the earliest was founded by Christian Hoffmeister, an immigrant from Hanover, Germany, just before the Civil War. Hoffmeister arrived in St. Louis in 1844 and opened the Great Western Livery Stable in 1858 in what is now the 7800 block of South Broadway. He founded a horse-drawn public carriage line and then provided horses and carriages for funerals. The company soon was in the funeral business. Dignity Memorial, a national chain of funeral homes, acquired Hoffmeister in 1991. That was nearly a decade after Dignity Memorial acquired Kriegshauser, another local funeral home founded by a German, in 1982. George Kriegshauser started the business in 1891.
John L. Ziegenhein & Sons Funeral Home is a local funeral home founded by a German-American that remains independent. In 1900, John L. Ziegenhein Sr. and his four brothers founded the funeral home at the corner of Texas Avenue and Cherokee Street on the South Side. They had help in a high place: their uncle, St. Louis Mayor Henry Ziegenhein. In 1931, John L. Ziegenhein Sr. opened his own funeral home at 7027 Gravois Avenue. In 1995, the company he founded opened a second location at 4830 Lemay Ferry Road. When no immediate family members were available to take over the business, it passed into the hands of key members of the extended family in 1995.
The St. Louis Public Library’s online listing of funeral homes, parlors, chapels, and undertakers since 1886 includes a number of homes with decidedly German names. Biederweiden had one location in the North Side, and another on Chippewa Street near Grand, not far from the Wingbermuehle Funeral Home. North St. Louisans attended the Bromschwig and Heitzenroeder homes, while the Oxenhander home offered funerals at 4460 Washington Avenue.
Schrader Funeral Homes and Crematory has withstood the test of time as well as the pressures to sell out. The business began in 1868 when Frederick Schrader started making coffins for his neighbors in a building just east of the firm’s current home at 14960 Manchester Road. Schrader came to the Ballwin area in 1846 and started making furniture. It was natural that he would add coffins as a sideline. Soon, Schrader and his son, William, were also providing carriages and horse-drawn hearses for funerals, while keeping the furniture store. Seeing the importance of the business, William went to school to learn embalming and received his state embalmer’s license. The family built a new funeral home, second-floor dwelling, and furniture store in 1910. With additions, that building is at the core of the present Schrader building.
Ruth Arft remembers growing up in that building, the daughter of William Schrader’s son Harry F. Schrader and his wife, Ethel. For this youngster, there was nothing unusual about growing up among the dead. “People used to say, ‘Aren’t you afraid?’” she said. “It was such a part of my life that I never considered it.” Arft held on to that attitude after she married Henry “Hank” Arft, who played first base for the St. Louis Browns from 1948 to 1952 and then followed his wife into the family funeral business. After Harry retired in the 1960s, Ruth and her brother Harold A. “Skip” Schrader became co-owners and funeral directors. Hank was active until he died in 2002. Harold is semi-retired and Ruth retired, but both still are involved in the business.
Today, a fifth generation handles the operation: Peggy Arft-Goethe and her husband, Dennis Goethe, and Steven Schrader and his wife, Cathy. In recent years, the firm bought another funeral home at 108 North Central Avenue in Eureka. Nathan Arft, the son of Peggy and Dennis, has indicated he wants to join the family funeral business before his parents retire. This funeral home is one German-American business that refuses to die.
Beer, Bands, and Bunds
For good food and good brew, there was no better place than the Black Forest. When the weather turned sultry, the outer garden of the restaurant at 6432 Gravois Avenue was the place to be. “Waitresses would scurry about, bringing schooners of sudsy beer to thirsty customers at long tables, while the costumed band struck up lively tunes,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch said. “A customer who bought the band beer was rewarded by the leader’s urging, ‘Give him a big hand and make him feel like home.’”
On the eve of the Second World War, however, people worried that more was in the air than polkas and Gemütlichkeit. Restaurant owner Peter Heimig grew weary of it all. Friends said he tired of the talk that he was a Nazi sympathizer. So in 1939, he sold the place and bid auf wiedersehen to America. He moved his family back home to his native Germany. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch said after World War II that Heimig was a local leader of the pro-Nazi Amerikadeutscher Volksbund (German-American Bund or German-American political association), which met at the restaurant.
When new managers took over the cafe, Uncle Sam didn’t have to worry about treasonous goings-on there, only about getting his fair share. In 1957, the place was closed for non-payment of $7,200 in federal withholding and cabaret taxes. To pay the debt, the IRS sold off furniture and equipment from the bar, kitchen, and dining room. But if the Black Forest Restaurant and Garden is gone, a German element remains at the address. It’s now home to the Concordia Turners Gymnastic Society, one of numerous groups Germans founded in the St. Louis area to exercise the mind and body. Also, another restaurant with a similar name, Eisele’s Black Forest at 3126 Cherokee Street, made every meal a fest until the day it closed in the 1990s. Now as then, the spirit of Gemütlichkeit survives at 6432 Gravois Avenue in the Concordia Turners.
Flavorful Food to Remember
The hasenpfeffer, spaetzel, and sauerbraten at Eisele’s Black Forest were enough to make it a favorite for Lester Joern. A dentist who practices not far from Ted Drewes on the South Side, Joern had made the German restaurant at 3126 Cherokee Street a stop for suppers worth remembering. But in the 1980s, Joern had a new reason to remember the place: a waitress named Helga. He had studied German in college but didn’t remember much. As he researched his German heritage, he found he needed to read letters sent to him from Germany. Enter Helga. “She used to help me with my German,” Dr. Joern said. “She made me order everything in German.”
Eisele’s Black Forest is one of a long list of elegant German restaurants that closed long ago in St. Louis. So did its sister restaurant, the Bavarian Inn at 3016 Arsenal Street, the German Inn at 4135 South Grand Boulevard, the Golden Horn Restaurant at 6983 Gravois Avenue, the Alpine Inn at 3553 Delor Street, and numerous others. Something about those places made them perfect for making memories.
Ed Golterman, who waged a lonely fight for years to reopen the Kiel Opera House, remembers growing close to his grandfather at German restaurants. Guy Golterman, a key person in the building of what became the Kiel, took him in a Yellow Cab to German restaurants such as Schobers Wine Restaurant at 6925 South Lindbergh Boulevard and the Bismarck Café downtown at 410 North Twelfth Street. Reporters at the Bismarck said hello. Wherever they were, Guy Golterman dropped a little sherry or brandy in his grandson’s turtle soup.
Malcolm Magee didn’t have as pleasant an experience at the Bavarian Inn at 3016 Arsenal Street in November 1982, but he did make a memory he will never forget. Magee, a professor of history and religion at Michigan State University, lived in St. Louis at the time and sold bearings and power transmission equipment. One day, intent on making a sale, he took a couple of Anheuser-Busch decision makers to the Bavarian Inn. When one ordered “steak tartar,” Magee ordered the same.
Then the meal came: “a bloody fresh ground blob of hamburger with a slab of onion topped with a raw egg,” he wrote. “Both of them were grinning and I forced myself to continue talking about how our bearings and service were ‘the best.’” He was holding it down until he saw blood on the bread. “I grabbed a swig of my iced tea. As I swallowed I noticed that the tallow from the raw meat was coating the inside of my mouth and caused the tea to bead up.” Finally, he sent the meat back to be cooked. He didn’t make the sale, but he learned a lesson. “From then on I ordered food that had ingredients which had made the acquaintance with the inside of an oven.”
Seekers of Their Teutonic Past
On the second Wednesday night in May 2012, a man with a gray beard, wire-rimmed glasses, and more than his share of white hair stood at a podium and held forth about a nineteenth-century German baron known for exquisite maps and photographs of the American West. Steven Rowan delightfully moved from one story to another as people do when they love their topic. Rowan, a University of Missouri–St. Louis history professor, has penned, edited, or translated eleven books, generally about the German immigrants of the nineteenth century. On this night, his subject was his latest book about Germans in America, The Baron in the Grand Canyon: Friedrich Wilhelm von Egloffstein in the West.
Some tables in the back of the auditorium of the headquarters of the St. Louis County Library held maps of various parts of Germany in the nineteenth century. Other tables displayed brochures about genealogy, including one for the German Special Interest Group of the St. Louis Genealogical Society, the sponsor of the gathering where Rowan spoke. About forty people listened attentively to the professor’s words. They were lovers of Germandom and seekers of whatever fact they could find about their German ancestors. Some had traced their ancestors back just a few generations. At least one, Dorothy Johnson, has traced one line of her lineage—theoretically, at least—back to Charlemagne.
Johnson, a wife, mother of three, and a software engineer, confesses she spends “too much and not enough” time on the topic. “There is always something new out there to look at,” wrote Johnson, who figures she is at least 90 percent German. DNA tests traced most of her relatives back to Prussia and Germany, wrote Johnson, the daughter of the late St. Louis Globe-Democrat photographer Paul Ockrassa.
Johnson caught the bug when she was just a teen. “My dad was always interested in genealogy and over the years traveled several places to do research and meet with distant relatives,” she wrote. It also was a way to keep track of her mother’s super-sized family. Her mom was one of ten kids, and she has fifty-eight aunts, uncles, and first cousins. “I have always enjoyed history, so family history fits right in. I love researching and finding new information and I just can’t stop doing it. The connections are fascinating and I am constantly finding surprises. And more data is made available nearly every day.” When her kids were younger, Johnson could take them on trips to cemeteries to find out about her past. Now she finds it harder to involve them on trips to places like Illinois, Kentucky, and Kansas. But she keeps trying.
Linda Seiferth Gurney has been able to involve at least one of her children in her quest for her past. Her oldest child, Olivia Fischer, loves to share in Gurney’s discoveries. Olivia, who lives in St. Louis’s Southwest Garden neighborhood, always is imagining what life was like years ago in her neighborhood, Gurney said. “I’ve spent countless hours on this,” said Gurney, who is one-quarter German. In her projects, she has subscribed to Ancestry.com and other resources, such as Fold3.com. She has spent plenty of time at the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center looking into her past.
Gurney, whose maiden name is the very German-sounding Seiferth, noted that her interest in history was heightened in the last couple of years. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate how different our world was 100-plus years ago, and how hard my ancestors worked to create the world I now enjoy. I also feel a strong personal connection to my ancestors and want to get to ‘know’ them better,” Gurney wrote. “I have a renewed appreciation for the challenges my ancestors faced back then, and how they did the best they could with the resources at hand. I wish certain values of the past were still in place in today’s popular culture.” A prize possession is a German family Bible with a detailed birth registry of her St. Louis ancestors dating from the 1850s, complete with old German newspaper clippings in it. She has had the birth registry translated into English.
Gurney’s main interest is her great-grandfather Edward M. Seiferth, a businessman whose parents came from Saxony. From 1888 to 1908, he was a partner in a game and poultry business that received orders from near and far. “They once received an order for two American eagles . . . to be shipped to Russia!” Gurney wrote. He was the president of Acme Automobile Co. and went into the fur wholesale business. A true mover and shaker, he was a sponsor of the 1904 World’s Fair, an organizer of the Raw Fur and Wool Association of St. Louis, and an original guarantor of the St. Louis Municipal Theater Association, now the Muny.
Where Gurney’s interests focus on one person, Gerald Perschbacher has uncovered things about his ancestors fifteen hundred years in the past. As founding group leader of the German Special Interest Group in the St. Louis area, Perschbacher has done work that has benefited hundreds of seekers of their German ancestors. A 100 percent German, the writer and national editor for a Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod publication notes he always was interested in genealogy. He writes that he has uncovered things that he never believed could have happened to his family since the year 1400. Perschbacher’s son and daughter have joined the pursuit and have accompanied him to Germany for research. They have held documents signed by their ancestors in the 1400s.
“You can’t study your ancestry without feeling as though you are walking in the shoes of your predecessors. You are ‘them’ today—imbued through genetics with a rich blend of innate abilities and features that you contribute toward the present generation. The flow of history swirls with achievements by everyone’s ancestors. Studying genealogy and the accomplishments of ancestors deepens the meaning of life,” Perschbacher wrote.
Perschbacher’s family traces itself to Schaafheim, in Hessen-Darmstadt, Germany. Going back to 500 AD, Perschbacher’s ancestors were pastors, teachers, lawyers, and leaders of villages. One Perschbacher even went on trial for being a witch. Fortunately, she was found not guilty but still had to endure torture. “When I realize that two of my ancestors fought for Napoleon in his invasion of Russia in 1812, it makes me feel a unique rush of excitement when I hear the 1812 Overture. Having had four ancestors on the Union side in the Civil War gives me a richer appreciation for our flag. The Union soldiers risked life and limb to preserve that flag and the Union it represented.”
Much of Perschbacher’s work now is focused on the German Special Interest Group, known as G-SIG for short. The group began in 2005, when two German-Americans, John Wittenberg and Hermann Eisele, decided they wanted a subgroup of the St. Louis Genealogical Society to deal with German ancestry. The society also has African-American, Irish, Italian, and Jewish special interest groups. Perschbacher signed on as G-SIG’s first leader, and the German American Heritage Society of St. Louis became its co-sponsor. Today, it involves more than seven hundred families in a dozen or so states and several countries. For that work, he received the Carl Schurz Heritage Award from the German American Heritage Society of St. Louis.
To Perschbacher, it’s not just a hobby. “German Americans used to be a very proud part of our society,” Perschbacher wrote. “Then came two world wars and Germans were seen in a skeptical light. Just check the new books at a large book store and see how many are on Nazi Germany. There is much more to German heritage than one war. So there was a need to reclaim the meaning of German heritage.”
Katie Strauser is one of those who want to rediscover the meaning of her German heritage. A pharmacist who lives in St. Charles County, she first became interested in studying her ancestors when she had a family history project as a freshman in high school. After gathering information from family members, she started doing her own research in college. Since then, she has spent numerous hours on the Internet ferreting out more facts about her ancestors.
“I have learned about many important ancestors and I am always fascinated to find out about them,” wrote Strauser, who is seven-eighths German, with a tad of Irish tossed in. Joseph Ehreiser was among the most prominent of her ancestors. Born in Baden, Germany, he immigrated to America with a mere $1.75 to his name. He came to St. Louis, worked on the Mississippi, and then went west. He got rich in the California gold fields and then came back east to Pacific, Missouri. There he founded a hotel and was one of the founders of the Pacific Bank. Strauser also counts among her ancestors the founder of the Pabst Brewing Co. and the founder of what became the Miller Brewing Co. A distant relative traced that branch of her family back to 1630 in Germany. She has also traced her last name back to the Pennsylvania Dutch before the American Revolution. “Most of my ancestors came here sometime in the nineteenth century, so it was very cool to see that this branch has been here so long,” Strauser wrote.
Strauser offers a simple reason why she works so hard to uncover her ancestors. “I do this because I am fascinated by finding out how my family came to be and I think I also like uncovering the mystery. It’s like a puzzle to solve.” Indeed, it’s not just any puzzle, but a complicated one that adds more pieces the further you dig. So it is for those who learn the tales of Germans who sailed to America and made their way to a certain city on the Mississippi River. The image becomes bigger, more complex, and more wondrous as the story is told. And what an amazing story it is.
Acknowledgments and Sources
As always, the one I must acknowledge the most is my wife, best friend, encourager, and proofreader-in-chief, Lorraine. She was always ready on Sunday nights to check and recheck my essays and find the typos and sentences that made no sense. Time after time, she ventured to the Compton Branch Library downtown to copy research materials. She allowed me to write this work and was willing to be without my company on all the nights I slaved over it. I couldn’t have written it without her. Second on the list is that brilliant editing and marketing team at Reedy Press, Matt Heidenry and Josh Stevens. It’s a privilege that they allowed me to write this second book for them. Kudos to Jill Halpin for superior design. And I can’t forget my good friend, editor, and proofreader, James Rygelski.
I wrote this book while the St. Louis Public Library’s Central Library was closed for much-needed renovations. During that time, the library’s St. Louis research facility relocated to the Compton Branch. That could have made my job harder. Thankfully, librarians Bill Olbrich, Adele Heagney, and Cynthia Millar did a stellar job of locating material and answering my frequent questions. I also must thank those at more than a dozen other research facilities, libraries, and museums who also pointed me to the perfect source material. They are the Archives of the Archdiocese of Saint Louis; the Department of Archives and History of the Concordia Historical Institute, Clayton, Missouri; the Gaylord Music Library, Washington University in St. Louis; the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center in St. Louis; the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center, St. Louis; the Morrison-Talbott Library, Waterloo, Illinois; the State Historical Society of Missouri Research Center, St. Louis; St. Clair County (Illinois) Historical Society; the St. Charles (Missouri) Historical Society Archives; the St. Louis County Public Library; the Richardson Memorial Library, Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis; the St. Louis Jewish Community Archives; and the Washington (Missouri) Historical Society.
People at these institutions helped me produce a collection of short essays about the Germans who came to St. Louis that are both historically accurate and entertaining. My goal was to tell true stories of a fascinating aspect of our city’s history. In collecting information, I interviewed nearly eighty people. Some conversations lasted just a few minutes. In others, I quizzed patient interviewees for hours on multiple occasions. Two who deserve special mention are University of Missouri–St. Louis History Professor Steven Rowan and historian and genealogist Gerald Perschbacher.
In my search for details about German St. Louis, I perused more than one hundred websites, more than seventy books, and nearly fifty publications. In one publication, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, I read more than 220 articles from the 1880s to the present. More than fifty items catalogued as “other sources” range from funeral homes’ pamphlets to a doctoral dissertation about early German musicians and singers to an unpublished history of the family of former St. Louis Mayor Vincent C. Schoemehl Jr. I hope the list of that information will provide a starting point for future researchers. Up to now, such information has always been in the back of the book, in a bibliography. Frankly, though, most people never look at it. We’ve decided they’d rather see that space devoted to stories about real people. So the bibliography is online, at stlouisgermans.com.
Now some final words of thanks. I thank my great-great-grandfather, Louis Charles Merkel, one of the many Germans who came to St. Louis and remade the town. I thank God for my many friends who made this book possible. And I thank Him for you, for reading this book. I hope you find the same joy from these pages that I found in writing them. May you learn what I learned and perhaps have a laugh on me. If we meet somewhere, I’ll shake your hand firmly and offer the biggest danke schoen I can muster.