Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A “Jeff City Julius”?

When Groundhog Day rolls around on February 2, everyone hears about Punxsutawney Phil in Pennsylvania, the most famous groundhog of all. But do you know that our custom of using a groundhog to predict the next six weeks of weather came from Germany?

The earliest record of groundhog weather predicting on February 2 is in the 1840s in the quiet German Amish communities of Pennsylvania, but certainly those quiet, reclusive folks were doing it decades before that.

So how did the use of groundhogs to predict weather begin?

February 2 is the feast of Candlemas. It is the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. That is, it is halfway between the beginning and end of winter. On that day in old Germany candles were blessed and put in windows. They symbolized bringing light into a world awakening from deep winter dormancy. Hedgehogs began to arouse from their hideaways at this time of year and folks, who were always looking for signs in nature, turned to them to see what they would do when emerging. In Germany, Candlemas (an English term) is called Maria Lichtmess, which means “Mass for Mary’s Light.” The German folk saying went:

Wenn’s an Lichtmess stürmt und schneit,
ist der Frühling nicht mehr weit;
Ist es aber klar und hell,
kommt der Lenz wohl nicht so schnell.

(If on Candlemas it storms and snows
then spring is not far away
But if it’s clear and bright,
then spring won’t come so quickly.)

Germans who came to Pennsylvania before the Revolution brought this folk custom with them, except that America had no hedgehogs, so groundhogs (woodchucks) replaced them.

The custom remained a local folk practice (superstition?) until—you guessed it!—media and tourists found out about it during a slow time of the year. You know the rest of the story. Punxsutawney Phil got promoted the most to become a national celebrity, but similar events occur throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, and other places where Germans settled. Some towns know how to make a fast buck from media attention!

Our German ancestors here in Jefferson City certainly brought this custom with them. I’ve heard about a few who used to light candles on February 2, and absolutely everyone knows about groundhogs and their ability to predict the next six weeks of weather.

But no local effort has ever been made to create our own “Jeff City Julius” to rival Punxsutawney Phil. (Julius is a traditional German name.)

How about it? Can we have—with the help of media—our own cute little fat and furry weather predictor on February 2 to bring attention to our wonderful city?

Copyright 2012 by Walter A. Schroeder.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Fires and Fire Protection in the Southside

This year, 2012, is the centennial of the professional Jefferson City Fire Department. A volunteer fire department existed as early as the 1840s, but the spectacular Capitol fire of 1911 showed the need for a funded professional fire department, which was organized in 1912. The Old Munichburg district of Jefferson City can contribute to this history.

A century and more ago, people had a constant fear of house fires, especially flue fires. Everyone burned wood or coal for cooking and heating. They had kerosene (coal-oil) lamps for lighting. There was plenty of fire danger around. Sparks showered out of chimneys onto roofs of combustible wood or, later, asphalt shingles and set roofs on fire.

Early on, house fires were fought with water hand pumped from cisterns into buckets that were thrown onto the fire. Later on, fires were put out with “chemical,” most likely hydrochloric acid with baking soda as a propellant. Church records show that as late as 1943 the Jefferson City Fire Department refilled the six soda-acid fire extinguishers of Central United Church of Christ for $3.00.

Before the professional Jefferson City Fire Department was formed, the volunteer fire company’s main station was on High Street. A branch was formed in 1890 in Munichburg on the northeast corner of Dunklin and Washington, on the Moerschel Brewery property. The large brewery itself had two water wells with air-compressor pumps and “48 fire dust hand grenades.”

The 1890s were a decade of major construction in Munichburg. Central Church built its present building in 1891, and Farmers Home (the ECCO building), the Nieghorn House (Bassmann Apartments), Western Steam Bottling Works (J&D Bike Shop), and a new Moerschel Brewery were built and added to the existing Tanner and Morlock mercantile stores and Tanner Foundry and Staihr tinsmith shop.

The “Muenchberg City Hose HQ” had a cart with 500 feet of two-and-a-half-inch rubber hose. The cart was pulled either by volunteer men or by horses.

The Munichburg Fire Department building fell into disrepair, and the cart became obsolete when the professional fire department was formed in 1912 and outfitted with a motorized truck. The Southside Boosters appealed to the city to do something about the dilapidated “shack in which the old time honored reel is housed.” Firemen were afraid “the old structure will topple down upon the man who rings the fire bell.” But the Munichburg Fire Department was not updated and was lost to the Southside. Quite a few German-speaking men of old Munichburg had been volunteers with that former neighborhood fire station.

Several Southside fires have made the newspapers over the years. On May 3, 1916, when horses were still stabled behind buildings, the Fire Department was summoned to the Southside “to extinguish a blaze in a stable in the rear of the Southside Hotel [Bassmann Building]. Some lad had dropped a match in the manger and the blaze quickly made itself apparent. The halter around the horse’s neck was burned before someone extinguished the blaze with a bucket of water. The horse was slightly singed.”

After cars and gas stations came, the March 27, 1919, German newspaper relates the following incident on East Dunklin:
On Thursday evening, while the truck of South Side merchant J. B. Doerhoff [he had the secondhand store later taken over by Milo Walz at 126 E. Dunklin] was at the Waters-Pierce Oil Station and being filled with gasoline, a young rascal went by, lit a cigarette with a match, and threw the still-burning match under the truck. The dripping gasoline on the ground blazed forth in flame and the fire spread over the truck. The fire company was called. It was feared that the Gasoline tank would explode and set the oil station on fire. The fire company pulled the truck away from its place and then extinguished the fire with chemicals. The front part of the truck, where the driver sits, was destroyed.

In the next issue of the newspaper, it was reported that Doerhoff bought a new Republic truck from Heisinger Brothers, using the partially destroyed delivery truck as part of the deal.

In January 1919 a fire destroyed the house of Mrs. Mary Nilges, 805 Jefferson Street. It sat right next to the Nilges Grocery Store on the southeast corner of Jefferson and Ashley. This was doubly tragic for Mrs. Nilges, because only six weeks before, just before Christmas, her husband Theodore Nilges was killed by a broken neck in a car accident nearby. A successful grocer, Nilges had been a city councilman and president of the Southside’s Cole County Bank. The widowed Mrs. Nilges then moved into the second floor above the store, and the house was later rebuilt and rented. The Nilges Store building and house were demolished in 2009.

One of Jefferson City’s most memorable fires occurred on November 10, 1922, when the Lohman mansion, built in 1893 at 933 Jefferson Street, burned. According to the newspaper, the Lohman mansion “for many years was by far the handsomest structure in this city.” Mrs. Amelia Lohman was preparing an elegant tea party that day to announce the engagement of her daughter Margaret, when a neighbor boy, Willie Zuendt, rushed into the house to inform her that the roof was on fire.

In fact, tenants of the Central Trust building six blocks away on High Street saw the fire before Mrs. Lohman was even aware of it. It had already burned for an hour under the third floor roof when the fire department arrived.

The Louis C. Lohman mansion, prior to the 1922 fire.

“Everything was ruined,” according to the paper. Part of the multiturreted roof fell in, causing firefighters to retreat. The cause of the fire was never known. The mansion was later rebuilt and restored to its grandeur, but without the third floor and turrets.

By the way, the dainty petits fours and charming finger sandwiches that Mrs. Lohman had prepared for her ladies’ party that afternoon did not go to waste: She served them to the firemen while they fought the blaze. The beautiful Lohman mansion was demolished by the Salvation Army in 2003. (The image of the pretty sandwiches was copied from here.)

Within more recent times was the tragic arson fire of Central United Church of Christ on April 29, 1994. The nighttime fire raged through the balcony, narthex, and rear of the sanctuary and caused heavy smoke damage throughout, but firemen prevented further damage to the historic church. The sanctuary was completely renovated, six new stained-glass windows were installed to replace the originals too heavily damaged from the heat, and the badly damaged organ was totally reconstructed.

Such tragedies have led to increased security measures for historic and invaluable properties.

Southside residents and business owners today no longer fear fires to the degree their predecessors did, because of better building materials and construction, safer energy sources, and a well-trained, professional fire department.

Copyright 2012 by Walter A. Schroeder.


The Old Munichburg Association joins the Jefferson City Fire Department in celebrating its centennial, 1912–2012!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Past Winters in Munichburg

“Old timers” habitually claim that winters in the past were colder and snowier. That may or may not be true, but all of us remember what we did in wintertime when we were growing up.

It seemed that during every winter in the 1940s, we had several snows deep enough to go sledding on the hills in the Southside. There were no snowplows or trucks that spread cinders or chemicals on the streets. Only on some occasions did city workers spread cinders with shovels from a truck onto the busiest streets. Cars couldn’t make it up the steeper hills and usually got stuck; they simply had to back down to the bottom and try a different street. The police blocked off those hills as impassable, which allowed kids to go sledding on them without having to cope with traffic. That put mothers’ minds at ease.

The steep hill of the 500 block of Broadway, next to our house, was often blocked off. We kids took a running start at the top, at Elm Street, plopped down on our wood Red Flyers with metal runners, and whizzed down for two blocks, passing Miller and coasting all the way to McCarty Street. We marked the spot where we stopped and tried to go farther the next time. The Red Flyers had a steering mechanism, so we sometimes tried to crash into each other on the way down. We went faster with two on a sled, one lying on top of the other, but then we often fell off and the runaway sled jumped a curb or worse, went all the way to McCarty with us sliding and chasing after it.

When we got cold to the bone, we went inside. Mom had a pan of warm milk on the stove, and we poured ourselves cupfuls, stirred in some cocoa powder, and floated a big, fat marshmallow on top to sweeten it. We declared it ready to drink only after the marshmallow melted completely.

Because most everyone walked in the Southside, men shoveled their sidewalks before they went to work in the morning. If it snowed during the day, children were expected to have the sidewalks shoveled or swept with a broom before their fathers came home from work.

We made snowmen, of course. The front-yard terraces of the Southside came in handy for this. We started the snowball at the top and let it roll down the terrace so that it ended up as a big ball on the sidewalk. Three rolls down the terrace produced three big balls that we could stack. Maybe even a fourth. Small pieces of coal made eyes and buttons. All the houses on Elm Street had snowmen in front of them. They were like vigilant soldiers guarding the houses.

Speaking of coal, everyone heated with coal. Much of it was “soft” Missouri coal. It was cheaper, but it didn’t burn “clean” as hard, “smokeless” coal from Illinois did. Coal dust was constantly in the air, and when you blew your nose, whatever came out was always gray and discolored your white handkerchief. People coughed and cleared their throats a lot.

We got our hard coal delivered by October. During the war years, fear of coal shortages made people get their supply as soon as they could afford it. The big coal truck backed up to our basement garage doors. The men extended a long chute from the truck bed into the coal bin in our basement. Large chunks of coal tumbled down the chute into the bin. It was noisy, filthy work.

Mom did her best to prepare her house by shutting the registers and putting rugs over cold-air return vents, but coal dust still invaded through all the miniscule cracks and came to rest on her white window curtains and everywhere. Like most Southside mothers, she took pride in a clean house and spent the next couple of days dusting and washing.

The fire in our coal furnace would die down during the cold nights, and the first thing Dad did when he got up was put a couple shovels of coal into the furnace and get the fire blazing again. During the day, if it got cool in the house (no thermostats), Mom asked me to put a shovelful in the furnace, which I liked to do. I imagined the orange flames of the fiery furnace must have been like the gates of hell that people in church warned me about.

Dad removed the coal ashes every evening, put them in a metal bucket, and set the bucket on the curb of the Broadway Street hill. Alongside he stuck a shovel in the snow so that motorists who got stuck in snow or ice trying to make it up the hill would have some help. It worked, because the ashes kept disappearing, but never the shovel.

My brother and I slept on the third floor of our house, which was really an attic under the steeply sloping (uninsulated) roof. There was only one heat register up there for all that space. When it was time to get up on a cold morning, we would first hang our underpants over the hot air vent to warm them up; then we went back in bed for a few more minutes. Next, we did the same thing with our shirts, and crawled back under the covers under the shirts warmed up. Ditto with pants. When we were finally dressed, we closed the register vent and went downstairs to eat breakfast. It would be wasteful to heat the third floor during the day.

Most of the windows of our house did not have storm windows. Our second floor was high above Broadway and caught the strong, winter north winds, and the windows rattled endlessly. Mom stuffed a lot of newspapers in those windows to keep them from rattling and placed old towels around them to sop up moisture. Of course, we closed window shades and curtains on the coldest days.

Without storm windows, frost formed on the inside of the window panes, and my brother and I played endless games of tic-tac-toe with our fingernails, scratching in the frost. Though our house had extra-thick brick walls, it was not insulated, and once the bricks got cold, the coldness crept into the rooms. No one sat near the windows or the walls.

Broadway School, now the Carpenters’ Hall on Dunklin Street, had a cloakroom for each of the six classrooms. The first grade cloakroom is now the men’s restroom, and the sixth grade cloakroom is now the women’s restroom on the first floor of Carpenters’ Hall. Each pupil had a hook in the cloakroom for hanging his/her coat and a shelf above for caps. We all wore galoshes over our shoes on wet or snowy days, and we set them neatly on the floor beneath our coats. Doing that kept the floors of the classrooms nice and dry.

Parents made their kids wear galoshes to protect their shoes. We only had leather shoes (no athletic or canvas shoes in those days), and they were expensive and needed to last all year. Many of us wore hand-me-down galoshes, since galoshes hardly ever wore out. We even put on our galoshes to go outside for recess on snowy days, which made it hard to run.

Recesses in the snow were fun because we always got into snowball fights, although the teachers tried to stop the fights because the brown pea gravel from the playground would get caught up in the snowball. Since everyone walked, even teachers, school was never cancelled for snow.

Wear’s Creek froze over quite often. We could slide on long stretches of ice around the Washington Street bridge, and if we broke through, it wasn’t too bad, because the water was only a few inches deep. Not so on Wear’s Creek over by Washington Park. We first threw rocks as hard as we could to test the ice before going out on it, which was just as much fun. Hey, winter was a great time!

Copyright 2012 by Walter A. Schroeder.

If you liked this post, you might also like this one, from a Munichburg resident, on the Opulent Opossum blog: “Slippery Slope.”


You will get a warm feeling in your heart when you help stoke the fires of the Old Munichburg Association! Membership fees help us to preserve and improve our historic neighborhood!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Some New Year’s Eve Traditions

What did you do on New Year’s Eve? Do you have any traditions for celebrating the end of the year? German immigrants to Munichburg called New Year’s Eve “Silvester Night.” That name, Silvesterabend, is used in the church records of the German churches in Jefferson City, because folks went to church that night and collections were recorded as taken on Silvesterabend.

The German families in Jefferson City traditionally ate some kind of seafood on Silvester Night, or the next day, New Year’s Day, so they would have money in their pockets in the new year.

Herring seemed to be preferred when I was a kid, but oysters were common around 1900. Some churches, like Central United Church of Christ, had “oyster suppers.” Believe it or not, there was even an “oyster and ice cream supper,” and the church ladies were divided into four different committees to procure the food for it: oysters, cream, eggs, and lard (apparently for frying the oysters).

A centuries-old custom in Germany on Silvester Night was to melt a little bit of lead in a spoon over a candle (lead has a low melting point), then let it drop into a glass of cold water. It instantly cooled into all sorts of weird shapes. The oldest one in the family then interpreted the shapes and told the person’s future for the coming year, somewhat like reading tea leaves or reading palms.

I have not found any record of dropping molten lead into water on Silvester Night in Jefferson City, but there are some local folks who know that German tradition very well, probably from family stories handed down.

This tradition is called in German Bleigiessen (BLY-ghee-sen), or “lead pouring.” Within the last decade Bleigiessen has come back in Germany as a kind of fun game for Silvester Night parties, with the fortune-teller dressed like a gypsy.

Shall we get together next year and try it?


Addendum: I recently found out that, to reduce toxic and environmentally hazardous waste, and to reduce consumption of a limited mineral resource, the German government has for some time prohibited the manufacture of lead for Silvesterabend, so Germans have been importing lead for that purpose from China. Now the German government has banned the sale of China-imported lead, so the Germans will have no supply of lead for Silvesterabend. It will be a dying tradition in Germany.

But perhaps the Germans will become inventive. Some Civil War reenactors, bent on total authenticity, can’t find lead to make authentic musket balls, so they salvage the lead weights used to balance car wheels and melt them down. But then again, balancing car tires will soon no doubt be done with other materials, too. It’s for the best.

Copyright 2012 by Walter A. Schroeder.


This year, we hope you’ll join the Old Munichburg Association. Membership dues help fund all sorts of good projects aimed at improving our neighborhood.