Archive for Sunday, September 30, 2012

Rebuilding Lawrence’s German history

Stories surrounding 140-year-old community building strange, tragic

Dennis Brown, president of the Lawrence Preservation Alliance, which recently purchased and plans to restore the Turnhalle Building, 900 Rhode Island, thinks the building project has a chance to create something dramatic. "We don't know 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," Brown said, pictured inside the building Thursday, Sept. 26, 2012.

Dennis Brown, president of the Lawrence Preservation Alliance, which recently purchased and plans to restore the Turnhalle Building, 900 Rhode Island, thinks the building project has a chance to create something dramatic. "We don't know 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," Brown said, pictured inside the building Thursday, Sept. 26, 2012.

September 30, 2012


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.


blue73harley 1 year, 6 months ago

A little late to the party here but kudos to Chad for another great local story. I read it in my hardcopy paper on Sunday and forgot to check in here to say thanks.

Also thanks to Stan Trekell for the great photo above.


blindrabbit 1 year, 6 months ago

The differences in treatment of persons of Japanese and German ethnic groups in the United States prior to and during WW2 speaks volumes to racial bigotry. Japanese from the Western States were required to register and many were sent to relocations camps throughout the United States. This prejudice was based on the phony fear that persons of Japanese ethnicity were going to somehow cooperate with the Empire of Japan against the U.S. As time would prove, this was a trumped up program based on unsupportable fear. In reality, the United States had much more to fear from citizens of Germanic Ethnicity when it came to possibilities of treason and cooperation with Nazi Germany, a regime with much more potential for world domination than Japan. Many citizens were actively involved in "Bunds", especially in larger Eastern U.S. cities, many of these groups had active ties to Germany. Also, the world had much more to fear from Germany, having just whipped them just 20 years earlier in WW1.

As for anybody apologizing for the bombing of German Cities in WW2; just remember what the Luftwaffe had done to London, Warsaw and many western Russian cities to cause this retaliation. Much of this bombing was done to break the will of the nationistic German peoples who radically stuck to the Nazi dogma throughout the war and to decimate the German war machine which had decentralized it's war industry including using civilians to shield war production!

Give me a break!!!


Liberty275 1 year, 6 months ago

Being of French and English decent, I don't keep up on things German unless they are trying to start another war, I lived there for three years and found everything except the guesthouses, the Roman Ruins and the abandoned weapons caches blown up in the woods by German troops retreating from the 3rd Army a little mundane. The people were always courteous, but it seemed to roll up it's cultural sidewalks at dark.

Where I was, you had two choices, drink or not drink, so I spent lots of nights in tiny bars with the locals or chasing german girls in discos (that name was an anachronism to Americans at that time, but we didn't care). The old men were funny, the old women were scary and everyone under 30 spoke English, especially the high school girls doing shots with you. Sort of like Kansas with different consent laws and less inane speed limits.

Berlin of course is a different story. I imagine it's as much a big city as any we have.


StanTrekell 1 year, 6 months ago

The correct spelling is Wiedemann.


geekin_topekan 1 year, 6 months ago

If you haven't noticed, you're in Ahmerka now. Talk Inglish and fly the Merkin flag or get out my country.


Larry Miller 1 year, 6 months ago

I spent many happy years working there when Audio House was there in the '60s and '70s


hipper_than_hip 1 year, 6 months ago

"....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."

Here's a link:


mrjcg2 1 year, 6 months ago

Really interesting article - mixing beer and gymnastics! Most excellent!


Bike_lover 1 year, 6 months ago

My father and his friend were trying to float a canoe they built on Potter's Lake. It got out to the middle of the lake, which is more like a pond, and sank. They weren't good swimmers and were trashing around in the water when one of the German POWs turned up, jumped in and rescued them. My Dad thought the fellow was working at the Van Camp plant.

It's interesting because growing up in Lawrene we were pretty much White people and didn't think much about being of any heritiage group besides plain vanilla American. Yet, in the first grade, which was in the early 1960s, we learned and preformed the Christmas song "Silent Night" in German as a part of the Christmas program. Some teacher must have known German well enough to think that would be appealing.


Clark Coan 1 year, 6 months ago

More recent German history: There was a German POW camp just north of 11th & Haskell. One building remains. Those POWs would be "farmed" out to farm workers to area farmers. Also, they built the beautiful Danforth Chapel on campus. Germans sure know or knew how to build in stone!


jevenator 1 year, 6 months ago

You should include those additional photos from the print article here.


jevenator 1 year, 6 months ago

Honest study of history most often reveals a complex story. The question becomes how do we celebrate through preservation and events when the picture isn't entirely rosy? However, if a town can manage to accomplish this, it's Lawrence. I look forward to watching this evolve and I support it completely. Well done, Chad. Nice work. Very engaging and well-constructed feature.


fiddleback 1 year, 6 months ago

For those interested in the Turner Society, KU has a collection of materials from the Lawrence chapter that are now housed in the remodeled Sudler Annex, the little stone building north of campus that was formerly the student radio station. I believe the New York chapter also recently gave KU some of their collection.


atiopatioo 1 year, 6 months ago

Are the Kansa Tribe members helping build the German history in Lawrence too?


Matthew Herbert 1 year, 6 months ago

This building was also used to host concerts put on by the Americana Music Academy. I saw Slipstream, an awesome bluegrass band, play there once in about '04


senegal66025 1 year, 6 months ago

In 1917 all German Nationals had to register has "enemy alien.s" Their wives also had to register even if they were US citizens. In Eudora the Sheriff of Douglas County came to the E&R church and announced that there would be no German spoken in the church. In Jefferson County the Sheriff came to my great grandfather and annouched that all Germans were expected to make a "contribution" to the war effort. Cash was called for. My great grandfather told him that he figured he had already made the contribuiton since he had two boys that had been called up and were going off to war.

The Kansas German didnt have it as bad as the Japanese in WWII but there was discrimination and presure put on for something that they had nothing to do with.


Bill Lee 1 year, 6 months ago

As an army brat I lived in Germany for five years of my youth, so I've always had an interest in things German. This article brings back some great memories for me. I've shopped at Ernst & Sons for nearly 40 years, and I'm sure I will again.


FlintlockRifle 1 year, 6 months ago

If you haven't been inside Ernest & Sons, please do it sometime soon. If you are looking for something no longer made just head down town, this is probably the only hardware store like it left for several hundred miles from Lawrence .Great store and store owner-----


jazzttt 1 year, 6 months ago

To Liberty275: Ernst and Sons is @ 826 Mass, think it's right next to the Flea Mkt in the old JCPenney Bldg (or, right next to the Patee Arcade pass-through) A small Oktoberfest might be an idea for a fund-raiser to help restoration.


Jennifer Klopp 1 year, 6 months ago

It's important to keep history alive. Thanks LJWorld and LPA.


jazzttt 1 year, 6 months ago

In the mid-1950s, my German teacher Mrs Buller @ LJHS (later CJHS) offered a snack prize to anyone who could identify where the Turnhalle was located. I couldn't, but it helped spark an interest in local history that persists to this day. Was completely unaware of the prohibition exemption. I knew about the Biergarten and Kegelbahn. This could be an annex to the Lawrence Arts Ctr for small-scale productions like a readers' theatre which wouldn't conflict with the Theater Lawrence on NH, or whatever it is called. Too late for this year, maybe a small Oktoberfest with locally brewed stuff from the Free State might be an idea.


Liberty275 1 year, 6 months ago

Where is this hardware store?


gilly 1 year, 6 months ago

I'm glad this building is getting some attention!


irvan moore 1 year, 6 months ago

so what happens to free state glass


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