Rebuilding Lawrence’s German history
Stories surrounding 140-year-old community building strange, tragic
It should come as no surprise that the history of Lawrence’s oldest standing community building is tucked away like thousands of other items in Ernst & Son Hardware.
In the downtown Lawrence store that was established in 1905 and greets you at the front door with a fine German name, there are unexpected items propped between a pound of nails, a box of bolts or other goods that the 78-year-old proprietor will try to sell you.
It is those unexpected items that will spark the stories of Lawrence’s hidden history: an intricately crafted, early 1900s wooden box that once held horseshoe nails from a long since gone German hardware store up the street; a letter from post-World War I Germany that in the days of hyper-inflation took 420 billion marks to mail; a sign advertising Winchester firearms that surely must occasionally recall a painful family memory.
Today, though, the item is a bit more straightforward: a pile of papers from a cluttered shelf that includes a master’s thesis on Lawrence’s German-American history.
It is a tale that doesn’t often get told, for reasons that are not at all lost on Rod Ernst.
“Two world wars with Germany,” Ernst says with a pause, “kind of haven’t been the best public relations.”
But it is a story that soon may see light. An item that Ernst and his family have had tucked away for more than seven decades is set to get noticed again.
The Lawrence Preservation Alliance last week purchased the 1869 Turnhalle building at 900 R.I. from Ernst. The building — once the center of German-American life in Lawrence — is believed by local architectural historian Dennis Domer to be the oldest community building still standing in Lawrence. It predates the sanctuary of Plymouth Congregational Church by a year.
For 28 years, the old stone building has housed Free State Glass in its basement, and not much else that anyone would remember
“It is basically a building with a business in its basement,” said Dennis Brown, president of the Lawrence Preservation Alliance. “It can be so much more than that.”
Indeed, it already has been.
The Turnhalle building (pronounce it “Turnhalluh”), is proof that history can be stranger than fiction.
Lawrence’s oldest community building has its roots firmly planted in two activities you may not expect to see in tandem.
“Beer-drinking and gymnastics are quite a combination,” Brown said.
But it was a combination that would bring hundreds to the corner of Ninth and Rhode Island streets in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Turnhalle was the home to the Lawrence chapter of Turnverein, a longtime German club that had an odd requirement that all male members between 18 and 30 participate in gymnastics classes.
To old Germans, the idea isn’t odd at all. The Turnverein was founded in the early 19th century when Germany was still occupied by Napoleon, and gymnastics were a way to bring young men together and run them through drills that, not coincidentally, often involved handling a staff-like object that was similar in size and shape to a rifle. By the time the group arrived in Lawrence, the gymnastics requirement fell under the idea of a “sound body led to a sound mind.”
What was easier for all to understand was the beer drinking. This was a German organization, after all, and a beer garden was a necessity. Even during Prohibition, the organization was allowed to keep its beer garden through a cultural exception in the law.
Perhaps at least partly for that last reason, Peter Zacharias, a downtown jewelry shop owner who has extensively researched Turnhalle, estimates the organization had about 500 members at its peak in Lawrence.
Today, the building is largely empty, except for the glass-blowing operation in the basement. The main level still includes a theatrical stage, a balcony and a hardwood floor with markings of where gymnastics equipment was bolted.
The 17-foot-tall ceiling still has a clevis that supported gymnastic rings or ropes. And Zacharias said records show the building also had an old rope and pulley system once used in what was then billed as Lawrence’s “most fantastical” wedding — the bride and groom were lowered into the ceremony via a basket.
Turnhalle certainly was the center of Lawrence’s German-American community, but there was much more to the scene.
Domer said documents indicate there were 800 German-speaking residents of Lawrence in 1895, back when Lawrence had a population of less than 10,000.
Up until at least 1917, Lawrence still had a German-language newspaper, and the editor of the paper indicated there were more than 1,000 residents who considered themselves part of the German-American community, according to Katja Rampelmann’s 1993 Kansas University master’s thesis, which is considered one of the seminal texts of Lawrence’s German-American history.
In the early 1900s, it would be inconceivable that anyone would ever forget the influence of German-Americans in Lawrence. The names of Poehler, Bromelsick, Barteldes, Wiedmann and others dominated the Lawrence business scene.
“When you look at the list of members here, you really are talking about many of the founding merchants of this town,” Brown said.
Turnhalle is proof of a sad story, littered with both slow and quick deaths.
As it was later described, World War I hit German-Americans like a “thunderclap from a cloudless sky.” America’s entry in the war spelled the beginning of the end for the Lawrence Turnverein.
German-Americans everywhere began to retreat from their heritage, and, according to Rampelmann’s thesis, the Lawrence Turnverein admitted no more new members following the outbreak of World War I.
“I think it was a very tough period in Lawrence for German-Americans,” Domer said. “These were people who had been engaged in the community, had been community leaders for so long. Suddenly, there was a great deal of shame. To just even be around German-Americans was considered an offense by some.”
No longer taking new members, Turnverein was destined to die a slow death in Lawrence. By the mid-1930s — Ernst believes it was 1935 — his grandfather purchased Turnhalle.
With it came a few pieces of gymnastics equipment and the remnants of a two-lane bowling alley that had operated in the basement. But by then, the time for fun and games had long since passed.
Even prominent businessmen, like Ernst’s grandfather Philip Ernst, had been left scarred by it all. Ernst said there is a story from the period that still survives in the family.
William Wiedmann, owner of an immensely popular candy shop at 835 Mass., crossed the street one day to shop at Ernst’s hardware store.
Wiedmann purchased a single shot .410 shotgun.
“Grandpa, being nosey like he was, asked him what we was buying it for,” Ernst said. “He said he was going to shoot rats.”
Wiedmann walked across the street into his shop and shot himself in the head. In a suicide note, Wiedmann made sure to proclaim that he had always been pro-American.
“It disturbed grandfather very much,” Ernst said. “Wiedmann had become very distraught about the anti-German feelings related to the war. That’s what prompted it.”
If a candy-store suicide isn’t a sorrowful enough turn, Zacharias said there is a cruel irony to the entire time period, too.
The first Germans to come to Lawrence — members of the Turnverein — came after unsuccessfully fighting against the autocratic power of the German governments in the Revolutions of 1848. In other words, they weren’t fond of the German state either.
“They hated the Kaiser as much as anyone,” Zacharias said. “Probably more. Yet here they were just lumped in with the Kaiser. They were pretty badly misunderstood.”
Now, the question for Turnhalle is whether it has another story left in it.
Brown and members of the Lawrence Preservation Alliance are betting on a comeback story. No one is predicting a return to gymnastics and beer drinking, but LPA members believe the property is well-situated for a renaissance.
The property already has commercial zoning, and Brown said the intention is to keep the designation. It also is located just one block from a host of new development that is expected to bring more than 100 new living units and multiple businesses to the intersection of Ninth and New Hampshire streets.
The LPA is hopeful it can capitalize on the momentum to help raise considerable funds — an estimate hasn’t yet been developed — to restore the exterior and ensure the stability of the structure.
The rehabilitation of the interior will be left to a commercial entity that hopefully will buy the building, once the LPA ensures its future by placing preservation-oriented restrictions and covenants on the property.
But the group is hoping it gets more than just money — although that’s important — from the community.
“I think it will bring out many stories from people who haven’t had many opportunities to tell them,” Domer said. “I know there are hundreds and hundreds of these German-American stories out there. We just haven’t been paying attention to them.”
Brown, a veteran of several local historic preservation projects, goes even a step further. He thinks the building project has a chance to create something dramatic.
“Thirty years ago, Liberty Hall was in the same situation,” Brown said. “Now, look at what has happened there. We don’t how and we don’t know the details yet, but the end game is for this building to be a vibrant part of our community.”
And a reminder of one that used to be.