Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Jefferson City’s Early German Clubs: Turners and Germania

By Walter A. Schroeder, for Historic City of Jefferson

There’s a saying that when three Germans get together, they will organize and form a club with bylaws. That was certainly true among immigrant Germans in Jefferson City in the 19th century, but the clubs faded away after 1900 and are little known today because their German-language records inhibit research. In their heyday, German social clubs promoted the businesses and trades of their members and provided socialization in their traditional German way of singing, drinking, and dancing. These selective clubs were for men only, and they lacked membership from laborers and common folk.

The first of the clubs was the Turners, or Turnverein, organized in 1868. It was founded by Ernst Anton Zuendt, a freethinker and the first German teacher at the new public school. The principle of the Turner movement was the Greek ideal of “a sound mind in a sound body.” “Turner” means “gymnast,” and gymnastics were its principal exercise.

The local Turners in 1869 established a Turnergarten on a hill in the 600 block of Madison Street, opposite what is now Central Dairy, in an emerging Munichburg. As described by Julius Conrath Jr., the sprawling Turner Garden had a brick meeting house and “a long, wooden building . . . where wine, beer, and sandwiches were sold. Great crowds would gather there, particularly on Sunday afternoons. . . . We had a turnmaster who put us through the various exercises, and on the grounds were bars, racks, horses, swings, rings, and other appliances on which we performed.” Among events at the Turner Garden was an 1872 “masked military ball” for the Franz Sigel battery, a unit of Missouri German immigrants that had fought for the Union in the just-ended Civil War. Several of the Sigel unit’s veterans were residents of Jefferson City.

Zuendt resigned his public school teaching position in 1876 and left Jefferson City. The Turner Club disbanded in the mid-1870s. Ernst Friemel acquired the Turner Garden site in 1881 and turned it into the popular Friemel’s Garden. [For more on Friemel’s Garden, a hilltop gathering place for cold beer, sandwiches, picnics, music concerts, and dancing, see Walter A. Schroeder, Breweries and Saloons in Jefferson City, Missouri, (Jefferson City: Old Munichburg Association, 2009), 28–30.]

As the Turners faded, immigrants formed the Harmonie Club, or Harmonie Gesellschaft, primarily for singing. It was formally organized May 26, 1873, with 73 members. In 1873, it opened its own building, Harmonie Hall, in the 300 block of Madison Street. Harmonie dissolved about 1880 but reformed as the Germania Club.

On Feb. 8, 1883, German-speaking residents organized the Germania Club. “Germania” is the personification of the German nation—counterpart to Britannia for the United Kingdom and Columbia for the United States—and was associated with the drive in Germany to unify the German people. Germania clubs were established in many American cities.

In 1884, founding member Fred Binder [pronounced BINN-der], prominent local builder, built the Music Hall building, 236 E. High St., next to Bragg Hall (city hall), specifically for the Germania Club. At that time, the club had 55 members in business and the trades. The second-floor “Music Hall” was one single room, 90 by 30 feet, with 140 chairs, a stage, and dressing rooms.

Photo: The Music Hall, built in 1884 by Fred Binder for the Germania Club, was at 236 E. High St. next to Bragg Hall, the city hall. The distinctive, large plate glass windows were to allow the maximum of natural light into the hall before electricity. The Music Hall has been replaced by the current building that houses Samuel’s Menswear. (Source: 1900 Illustrated Sketch Book of Cole County, p. 231.)

The Germania Club held its grand opening on its first anniversary, Feb. 8, 1884, and met weekly thereafter. The club hosted visiting lecturers, presented dramas in German and English, and provided frequent musical entertainment by visitors and local groups. It was a cultural center for the growing city. The Music Hall building is no longer standing. The site is now occupied by Samuel’s Menswear.

The Germania Club served as a chamber of commerce to promote members’ businesses and provide a networking forum. Among its nearly 100 members were Binder, Dallmeyer, Priesmeyer, Brandenburger, Porth, Stampfli, Wagner, Knaup, Obermeyer, Bruns, Heinrichs, Fischer, Meyer, Monnig, and others who had High Street businesses. Wives attended its elegant social events. The club held weekly dances and masked balls and hosted parties for visitors from Germany. A local orchestra or cornet band provided music for the club’s activities. Germania gave annual Christmas parties for children, one of which in 1893 was attended by 250 children who sang, danced, and received gifts.

The Germania Club was the high point of German socialization in Jefferson City. It was the largest, most prestigious, and most active social club for German businessmen and civic leaders. It reached its peak in the 1890s, which marked the decade of greatest prominence of German-American identification and influence in Jefferson City.

By 1900, these businessmen and civic leaders were fluent English speakers and were fast losing their identity as a separate ethnic group. They also were members of other civic groups that provided larger forums for intercourse like the Commercial Club/Chamber of Commerce. They were serving in elected city offices and on the public school board. Assimilation was nearing completion. Thus, there was no longer a need for separate German social groups.

Walter Schroeder grew up in Jefferson City’s historic German Southside now known as Old Munichburg. A retired professor of geography, he is devoted to preserving cultural history and is the author of five books on the history of the Old Munichburg neighborhood.

Copyright © Walter A. Schroeder, 2021

[This article first appeared in the Jefferson City News-Tribune’s “Cole County History” series on Saturday, March 6, 2021. Slight editorial changes have been made in square brackets and to update for 2024 the name of Samuel’s Tuxedos and Gifts and the number of JC history books authored by Walter Schroeder. —ed.]

For more on the history of German Turner gymnastic societies, including the club swinging those societies are associated with, enjoy this YouTube video by Oliver Janseps.

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