Local History: The Legacy of Lawrence’s German community

The Turnhalle building at the southwest corner of Ninth and Rhode Island Streets.

In the mid-1800s, German immigrants in Lawrence were spread throughout town, forming their own groups and businesses, but that didn’t stop them from gathering for a good time or to help each other in times of need. And you can still see signs of that time today.

Above the door at 900 Rhode Island St., the word “Turnhalle” is inscribed, and the keystone of the door’s arch bears the date “1869,” when the building was built for $5,000.

In German, doing acrobatics or gymnastic exercises is called “turnen” and a person performing them is a “Turner.” In the United States, these German-derived groups focused on physical exercise as well as social activities.

A 1993 thesis by Katja Rampelman titled “Small Town Germans” details the building and its amenities: “The Turner Hall itself was a two-story brick building. The first floor housed a full gymnasium. Among the items of gymnastic equipment were mats, double bars, clubs, rings, and a balance beam. Furthermore, there was a stage with a grand piano on the east side of the building for dramatic productions … In the basement, the visitor found a bar extending from the north to the south side. Here, adults could purchase beer on tap from the Walruff brewery, … Furthermore, walnut card tables … for an occasional game of cards, and two bowling alleys were used to train members for bowling competitions. A cook stove next to the bar allowed the preparation of food.”

The Turners as an organization were about more than just recreation; they were also a vital support system for immigrants at a time when governments offered less help to people in need than they do today. If a member of the Turners got sick and could not work, their family was paid $3 a week out of the sick fund. Also, insurance was available so that widows and orphans would be cared for and funeral expenses would be paid.

The Turners got the money for these and other programs through their dues — a $4 admission fee and a 50-cent monthly fee — as well as entrance fees for public events.

The Turners also had an instrumental music group, Buch’s Military Band, from 1878 onward, and by the turn of the century the band gave concerts during summer months in the city’s parks, alternating between South Park and Watson Park.

Rampelman’s thesis, in discussing Lawrence’s German immigrants who were part of the Turners, says that “unlike places with a large German population, Germans in Lawrence did not settle in specific areas in town. Instead they lived widely distributed on the east and west side of town.”

“As in big cities, ethnic groups in smaller places also created their separate organizations,” Rampelman wrote, including a German-language newspaper and two churches. In 1865, 15 businesses on Massachusetts Street were owned by Germans. Thirty years later, the number had doubled to 30 businesses. In 1905, 26 of these were still in operation.

Unfortunately for the immigrants, these trends wouldn’t continue for long. When the United States entered World War I, anti-German sentiment surged across the country, and the organizations that German immigrants founded suffered as a result.

But those institutions still left a lasting legacy in their communities in many ways. While the Turnhalle building may not be a vibrant community hub today, another thing built by the Turners in Lawrence is still a community landmark and gathering place. It’s the bandstand in South Park, which Buch’s Military Band erected in May 1906, and which is still used for concerts and events in the park to this day.


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