Old West Side Story

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, August 2001,
August 2001

Author: Grace Shackman

The Germans in Ann Arbor

A century ago, German immigrants and their descendants were Ann Arbor's biggest eth­nic group. Starting in 1829, and continuing for 100 years, Germans immigrated to the area in waves, fleeing political and eco­nomic troubles in their homeland.

Most came from small villages surrounding Stuttgart in the kingdom of Wurttemberg. They called themselves "Swabians" after the country that encompassed Wurttem­berg in the Middle Ages. "The name stuck although the country didn't," explains Art French, president of Ann Ar­bor's Schwaben Verein.

The Schwaben Verein (roughly, "Swabian Club") was one of dozens of institutions through which Ann Arbor's German-speaking community re-created their European culture. For generations, immigrants and their children could worship in German, attend parochial schools taught in German, and even get their local news from German-language newspapers.

Most lived in what is today the Old West Side Historic District. By 1880 "one-third of the population [of Ann Ar­bor] were Germans or of German extraction," Marie Rominger recalled in an unpublished history written in the 1930s. "These formed a closed community so that that part of the city to the west of Main and south of Huron was occupied almost exclusively by Germans, and on the streets there, one could deem oneself in Germany, for the German language was very gen­erally spoken by old and young."

German pioneers

Conrad Bissinger was probably the first German to set foot in Ann Arbor. A baker from Mannheim, Bissinger arrived in Ann Arbor in 1825, one year after the town was founded. He found a small settle­ment of log cabins, too small to support a baker, so he moved to Charleston, South Carolina, where he plied his trade while saving money to return to Washtenaw County. In 1830 Bissinger bought land in Scio Township, settling on it in 1831.

Daniel Allmendinger arrived in Ann Arbor after Bissinger in 1825; he also left but returned sooner--in 1829, accompanied by two other Germans, Jonathan Hen­ry Mann and Ernst Peter Schilling. All three were origi­nally from Wurttemberg but were living temporarily in German settlements in the eastern United States: Mann in Reading, Pennsylvania, and Schilling and Allmendinger in Dansville, New York.

According to the Mann family history, written in 1930, "They visited Ann Arbor and were much pleased with the village and while Mr. Schilling remained, the other two returned home for their families, having decided to make Washtenaw County their future home."

Schilling had brought his family with him and so was able to settle immediately on the eighty acres he bought in Scio Township near Park Road. Allmendinger bought land in Scio closer to town--part of the property today is occupied by the Westgate and Maple Village shopping centers--and started his farm before returning east. "The story is told that on this trip Daniel brought on his back all the way from Dansville, New York, four hundred small fruit trees," says the Allmendinger family history. "Daniel planted his fruit trees and a crop of corn on his new land and then again returned to New York. The following au­tumn he came back with his family."

Mann, trained as a tanner in Germany, was the only one of the three to settle in the village and ply his trade rather than farm. According to the family history, "he bought a lot on the corner of Washington and First for twelve dollars and the lot next door on Washington for a pair of shoes. His specialty was tanning deerskins, which must have been plentiful in what was then a frontier town. "He set up a workshop at the rear of his home," Marie Rominger writes. "Here he tanned the hides that were brought him, from all the surrounding country/He would accumulate the leather thus tanned, and when he had a sufficiently large pack, he would load it on his back and start afoot on the old Indian trail for Detroit, the nearest market."

A German magazine writer, Karl Neidhard, met Mann in Pennsylvania while writing about German settlers there. In 1834 another reporting trip brought Neidhard to Ann Arbor, where he was overjoyed to encounter Mann again. "The whole family [the Manns had seven living children] lived in a house with two main rooms, a kitchen, and attic rooms," Neidhard wrote. "A small barn gave shelter to a horse and a cow, while a tract of land sur­rounding the house and extending down the slope of a hill furnished feed for the animals and supplied the family with vegetables and, presently, with fruit. A wild plum tree had already been transplanted into the garden. In the lower part of the garden, a small creek [Alien's Creek] drove a mill wheel."

Peasants and political refugees

Mann wrote to his brother-in-law in Stuttgart, Emanuel Josenhans, "giving a very favorable account of what he saw of the new territory and the route by which it could be reached," his son Jonathan wrote in the 1881 History of Washtenaw County, Michigan. "Mr. Josenhans circulated the letter amongst the peas­antry in the neighborhood of Stuttgart. The consequence was that numerous immigra­tion was started for Michigan by a class of small farmers and mechanics who had very limited means."

Seven more German families came in 1830, and by 1832 there were over thirty. Most of the Germans immigrants who fol­lowed in the next 100 years came from the same villages, drawn by family ties and sponsorships. They came for better eco­nomic opportunities, for political freedom, and to avoid military service.

Disastrous harvests and political and economic dislocation after the Napoleonic Wars motivated the first wave of immi­grants. Jacob Stollsteimer came in 1830 because of crop failure caused by a drought. Frederick and Maria Staebler im­migrated to Scio Township from Wurttemberg in 1831 "to escape Metternich's con­straints and the looming threat of Prussia," according to a memoir by their great-grandson, Neil Staebler.

The abortive revolution of 1848, and the social unrest caused by subsequent efforts to reestablish monarchies in the German states, spurred the second wave of immigra­tion. This group was smaller than the first but often better educated--for instance, Marie Rominger's father, Dr. Karl Rominger, fled to avoid criminal prosecution for his involvement in the failed revolution. A medical doctor, trained at the University of Tubingen, he was also knowledgeable in geology, and in 1869 he was appointed the state geologist.

By 1855 there were estimated to be more than 5,000 Swabian Germans in and around Ann Arbor. Non-Swabians also were coming to the area by then, drawn by the large German-speaking population. According to Irving Katz's The Jews in Michigan before 1850, Jews immigrating from Germany and eastern Europe favored Washtenaw County because "many of the farmers in this county were recent German immigrants themselves, and the Jewish ar­rivals found here the language of their na­tive land and a place where they could earn a living, mostly as peddlers, until they could establish themselves as mer­chants, manufacturers, or craftsmen." The earliest arrivals, the five Weil brothers, came in the 1840s, followed by their par­ents in 1850. In 1845 the first Jewish wor­ship services ever held in Michigan were conducted in the Leopold Weil home on Washington.

In the 1870s and 1880s, more Germans fled the effects of the 1870-1871 Franco-Prussian War and German chancellor Otto von Bismarck's "iron fist." Christian Schlenker came in 1871 after his parents died in an epidemic that broke out during the war. He and his three siblings were sponsored by their uncle, jeweler Jacob Haller. Schlenker started a hardware store that lasted four generations.

German immigration slowed from 1893 to World War I, because the German econ­omy was doing fine while the United States went through several severe recessions. But one final wave of Germans came after World War I, es­pecially in the 1920s, as the United States prospered and Ger­many fought staggering inflation--baker William Metzger left when it took a bushel basket of money to buy a loaf of bread. Sponsored by Ann Arbor baker Sam Heusel, grandfather of radio personality Ted Heusel, Metzger took over the restaurant that be­came Metzger's, and his brother Fritz became owner of the Old German. A third brother, Gottfried, ran the Deluxe Bakery, sup­plying the black bread used by both restaurants.

A missionary from Basel

In 1832 Jonathan Mann wrote to the Basel Mission House asking that a pastor be sent so that Ann Arbor's Germans could hear preaching in their own tongue. (Al-though in Switzerland, the Basel mission was close to Wurttemberg and received much of its support from people in that region.) Basel sent a recent graduate, Friedrich Schmid, a twenty-five-year-old German from Waldorf.

Schmid arrived in Detroit on August 20, 1833, and from there walked to Ann Arbor, where he lived initially with the Mann fam­ily. "They received me with love and friendliness, and I at once found myself at home in their cabin," Schmid wrote in a letter to his superiors in Basel. He described Ann Arbor as "a little village, mainly of English people, only a few German families are in the city, the remaining families, perhaps forty to forty-six, live out in the woods and forest."

Since most of the local Germans were farmers, Schmid's con­gregation decided to build their church in the country. Daniel Allmendinger donated an acre on a corner of his farm (today part of Bethlehem Cemetery on Jackson Road). Work commenced in November and was finished by the end of December. "A little church in the forest has been erected upon a beautiful hilltop," Schmid reported. "It is thirty-two feet long and twenty-six feet wide, completely of wood, built at a spot which a few years ago was a wilderness where bears and wolves roamed." The first Ger­man church in Michigan, it was formally named the "First Ger­man Evangelical Society of Scio" but known commonly as Zion Church.

On his visit in 1834, journalist Karl Neidhard walked out from Ann Arbor to attend services with Mann. "Soon there were oth­ers, men with pointed hats and women wearing Swabian bonnets appeared from the bush and joined us. ... About a hundred peo­ple attended. I was told that no one was absent excepting those whose state of health or whose advanced age made the long walk inadvisable. Mr. Schmid . . . rose and delivered a very sound and moving sermon which was not only listened to in absolute silence but was also understood and appreciated I am sure. As far as pos­sible, he spoke in the Swabian dialect. The rituals were those of the homeland. The German hymns, the profound calm of the nearby forest, the simple log house and the good-natured faces of the country people, who, far from their fatherland, were thanking the Lord for leading them safely across ocean and land to the far­thermost frontier of Christianity--all of this was for me a most moving scene."

A year after his arrival, Schmid married Mann's oldest daugh­ter, Sophie Louise. "Our wedding took place on the fourth of Sep­tember in our little Zion Church," Schmid wrote. "My entire con­gregation came and received us with singing as we approached the House of God." As a wedding present, the bride's parents built them a house.

By 1836 the congregation had grown to more than eighty, and so a second church was built three miles away on Scio Church Road. Originally called the "German Salem Society," it is today Salem Evangeli­cal Lutheran Church. Schmid preached at Zion on Sunday morning and at Salem in the afternoon. His house was built on a six-acre site across from the Salem church, so he could grow food instead of buying all his groceries in Ann Arbor--a considerable savings, since he and Sophie Louise eventually had twelve children.

In his missionary capacity, Schmid also ministered to other German communities all over southern Michigan. He was directly responsible for starting twenty churches, but if one includes all the congregations where he was the first to give a sermon, the number is between forty and seventy.

Schmid's traveling ministry also led to his being an informal land agent: if new arrivals couldn't find what they wanted in Washtenaw County, he could guide them to other German commu­nities. The Schmids hosted many Germans when they first arrived. "At times the parsonage resembled a hotel, with this difference--that the guests were free to come and go without charge," recalled their son, Frederick Schmid Jr.

Almost all the earliest arrivals started out as farmers, even those who had practiced a trade in Germany. But as Ann Arbor grew bigger and farmland grew scarcer, more Germans settled in town. By 1839 the in-town German population, tired of the week­ly three-mile trek to church, asked for more convenient services. Schmid began alternating between country and village, initially preaching in the Presbyterian church and the County Courthouse. In 1845 the congregation bought a lot at First and Washington, di­agonally across from Mann's house, and started building. Bethle­hem Church was finished in 1849. The same year, Schmid moved to town. After that the original country church on Jackson was used only for weddings and funerals, until it was torn down in 1881.

Settling the Old West Side

In 1845 merchant and developer William Maynard bought a large parcel of the land just west of the village and began dividing it into house lots. Maynard's property extended west from First to Seventh, north to Huron, and south to Mosley. (Though Maynard prosaically used numbers for most of his streets, Mosley is named after his mother's family.)

Maynard's subdivision, conveniently located between Bethlehem Church and the German farming community to the west, was the natural destination for the town's rapidly growing German popula­tion. They built not only houses but also factories, businesses, and recreational fa­cilities in the area we now know as the Old West Side.

Alien's Creek, running north along the eastern edge of Maynard's subdivision (approximately where the Ann Arbor Rail­road tracks go today), attracted industries that needed water, such as breweries and tanneries. Other business people located downtown, including pharmacist Christian Eberbach and cabinetmaker Florian Mueh-lig. In 1852 Muehlig starting making cas­kets as an offshoot of his furniture busi­ness, which later segued into today's Muehlig Funeral Chapel. Jacob Haller, trained as a watchmaker in Germany, set up shop on Huron Street in 1858.

In the post-Civil War economic boom, factories owned and run by Germans flourished. In 1866 John Keck started a furniture company at 405 Fourth Street (now the Argus Building). In 1872 David Allmendinger (Daniel's nephew) started an organ factory in his home; by 1907 he employed 107 men and had built a large brick factory at the corner of Washington and First. The same year Christian Walker founded a successful carriage company; his Liberty Street factory is today the Ann Arbor Art Center.

Germans also dominated the Main Street shopping district. In 1860 Frederick Schmid Jr. joined with his brother-in-law, Christian Mack, to start what became Ann Arbor's leading department store, Mack & Co. In 1867 Philip Bach built a store for his dry goods business at the corner of Wash­ington and Main; the building continued in that use until 1980 (it's now the Hopper Hathway law office). Across the alley on Washington, William Herz opened a paint store (today Cafe Zola). Henry Schlanderer apprenticed to watchmaker George Haller (Jacob's son) and took over his business in 1911. Today two downtown jewelers, Seyfried's and Schlanderer's, can trace their lineage to Haller's.

The farmers were not forgotten. They could grind their wheat at the German-owned Central Mills at First and Liberty, have their horses reshod at many German-owned blacksmith shops, buy harnesses and work clothes at Ehnis Brothers on Liberty, and get agricultural supplies around the corner at Hertler's on Ashley. When they were done, they could stop at several nearby workingmen's bars to so­cialize before returning home.

The factory and business owners built large homes near their businesses. In 1870 Peter Brehm, owner of the Western Brew­ery on Fourth Street, built a Second Empire house at 326 West Liberty. (Brehm's brew­ery now houses the journal Mathematical Reviews, while his home is the Moveable Feast restaurant.) That same year, Christ­ian Walker, owner of the carriage factory, moved into an Italianate house on the cor­ner of Seventh and Liberty. Gottlieb Schneider lived at 402 West Liberty, just a few houses away from his mill. In 1890 David Allmendinger built a house for his large family at 719 West Washington and developed extensive grounds that includ­ed two ponds and a gazebo.

Their workers built more modest homes, often on lower ground near Allen's Creek or its tributaries. The earliest were simple buildings, such as the 1850s cabin house at 626 West Liberty that housed la­borer William Kuhn, his wife, Catherine, and their eight children. Later homes, built between 1870 and 1920, included exam­ples of all the major styles of the day, in­cluding Queen Anne and Colonial Re­vival. Most, however, were simple vernac­ular structures, usually wood with five or six rooms. Although not unusual architec­tural specimens, they did (and do) evoke a pleasant way of life, with front porches en­couraging neighborly visits along the tree-lined streets.

The new home owners developed their grounds as they would have in Germany, planting flowers and vegetables they were familiar with. Many residents had grape arbors and made wine from the grapes. Those with livestock, a horse or a cow, had barns. Today the Old West Side is dot­ted with such structures, now used for garages, but two doors, a small one for the horse and a larger one for the buggy, are often discernible, as well as hitching posts and carriage steps.

A German society

When Friedrich Schmid arrived in 1833, all the German Protestants in the area were delighted just to have services in their language. But as the population grew larger, different groups began breaking off. The congregation of First German Methodist Episcopal, forerunner of today's West Side Methodist, were the first to leave, in 1846. In 1896 they built a church in the heart of the Old West Side on the corner of Jefferson and Fourth (now home to the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints).

The biggest split took place in 1874 and is still talked about today. When Schmid retired from Bethlehem in 1871, the new pastor, Hermann Reuther, drew big crowds, and church leaders decided a new church building was needed. When about half the members refused to con­tribute to the cost, they were expelled and started a new church, which returned to the old name of "Zion."

Both congregations are still flourishing today, Zion as a Lutheran church, Bethle­hem as a United Church of Christ congregation. Bethlehem built the first phase of its beautiful fieldstone complex on South Fourth Avenue in 1895; Zion moved to its present home overlooking West Liberty in 1956.

Trinity, the city's first English-language Lutheran church, was organized in 1893 with support from Zion. The church served not only non-German Lutherans but also Germans who wished to become more assimilated into the mainstream cul­ture. Also in town were a handful of Ger­man Catholics, such as the stonecutter families of Baumgardner and Eisele, who joined the Irish and Italics at St. Thomas.

The last predominantly German church, St. Paul's Lutheran, was organized in 1908 after U-M students petitioned the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod to send them a pastor. The congregation located in the Old West Side, first on Huron Street and then in their present place at 420 West Liberty. St. Paul's attracted many of the fi­nal wave of German immigrants in the 1920s, since it continued to offer German-language services as the older congrega­tions were switching to English.

Churches weren't the only custodians of German culture in Ann Arbor. In 1848 a German-language school was organized for grades 1 through 8. Classes were held in the basement of Bethlehem Church un­til 1860, when a school was built on First Street. By 1873 the school had 121 pupils. From 1875 to 1918, Zion also ran a parochial school for grades 7 and 8.

In 1861 a public school opened on the corner of Jefferson and Fourth streets; originally called the Second Ward School, it was renamed in 1898 in honor of Philip Bach, who had served on the school board for thirty-four years and as mayor in 1858-1859. Although the instruction was in English, most of the students and teach­ers were German.

Musical institutions were central to Ann Arbor's German society. Christian Gauss, whose son went on to become a dean at Princeton, was a member of the Mannerchor, a men's singing group that met once a week. One of the senior Gauss's prized possessions was a flute that he had brought from Germany; he regular­ly played duets with his neighbor, black­smith Henry Otto, an excellent violinist. Otto was also the leader of Otto's Band; under him and his son Louis, thd band played for most major town events.

Reuben Kempf was sent by his parents to Basel to study for the ministry, but when he started following bands around town, officials at the seminary suggested he switch to music. In 1890 Kempf and his wife, Pauline, opened a music studio in their home at 312 South Division (now the Kempf House for Local History). The Kempfs owned the first grand piano in town, a Steinway; the university borrowed it for concerts.

German clubs were everywhere on the west side. The Turnverein (Gymnastics Club) exercised on land they owned south of Madison between South Fourth and South Fifth streets (approximately where Turner Park Court is today). Just to the west, German volunteer firemen owned the Relief Fire Company Park. The Schutzenbund Park, which belonged to a shooting club, was nearby on Pauline, where Fritz Park is now. Other clubs met in Hangsterfer's Hall or Fred Rettich's Orchestrian Hall on Main, or at the Germania Club in the Staeblers' Germania Hotel (now the Earle Building).
The Schwaben Verein (officially Schwabischer Unterstiitzungs Verein) was founded in 1888. Originally a burial socie­ty, it was also a social club, mostly for Ger­mans who arrived during the 1880s wave of immigration. Originally members had to be from Swabia, but today it's open to any German or person of German ancestry. In 1908 it bought the Relief Fire Company Park (the Fire Department had by then be­come professional), where it built a club­house, beer garden, and small bowling al­ley. (The bowling alley still stands, much altered, at 731 South Fifth Street.)

The Schwaben Verein left the most durable mark on the city. In 1914 it built a four-story headquarters on its Ashley Street property, after reaching an agree­ment to rent most of the space to Mack's Department Store. Mack's, by then the city's premier store, was directly east of the new building, facing Main, and con­nected to it by an enclosed bridge. The Schwaben Verein used the second floor for meetings and social gatherings. After Prohibition was instituted in 1919, the group could no longer operate a beer garden, so it sold its park, using the money to pay off the Ashley Street building. Reenergized by the final wave of German immigration in the 1920s, the Schwaben Verein has lasted into the twenty-first cen­tury, although it recently sold its building.

Many other German institutions, how­ever, closed in the wake of of the anti-Ger­man hysteria during World War I. Although German Americans had been citizens for generations, had been prominent in civic af­fairs, and had fought in America's wars (during the Civil War, Ann Arbor's Steuben Guards fought side by side with the Yankees), they were still suspect. Elsa Ordway, who attended Bach School during World War I, recalled that her class was walked to Hill Auditorium to hear a talk on German atrocities, and that the children were required to write reports when they returned. T. H. Hildebrandt, a math professor who played the organ at the Congregational church, was fired. In later years, when elderly Germans were asked whether they spoke German, they would often answer, "I used to know it, but my family stopped speaking it during World War I."

According to a church history, the First German Methodist Episcopal Church changed its name in 1919, "when the Ger­man language fell into disrepute because of World War I." According to Louis Doll's History of the Newspapers of Ann Arbor: 1829-1920, Eugene Helber, editor of the German newspaper Die neue Post, "took a somewhat too outspoken pro-Ger­man stand during World War I, with the result that he was summoned before feder­al court to show cause why his paper should not be barred from the mails." Ac­cording to Doll, Helber changed not only his policy but also his language, publish­ing from then on in English.

The nationalist fervor hastened a process that had already begun. By then the Bethlehem school was already bilin­gual, and the church was alternating be­tween German and English for services. Zion's services had been exclusively in English since 1910.

Decline and rebirth

The Old West Side went into a decline during World War II and the years imme­diately following. The nineteenth-century houses were aging, and Germans with the means were moving to newer homes. At the same time, the economic boom that ac­companied the war had caused an acute housing shortage, and many of the once gracious family homes were cut up into duplexes or apartments. After the war, de­velopers started tearing down houses to build small apartment buildings, stark modernist cubes that clashed with the sur­rounding Victorian survivors.

The Old West Side Association was formed in 1967 to fight a proposed devel­opment that would have replaced all the houses on First between Jefferson and Madison with apartments and condos. The early activists were a mixture of longtime German American residents, such as Harry Koch and Florence Hiscock, and newer ar­rivals interested in preserving the area's vernacular urban environment, such as U-M art professor Chet LaMore and land­scape architect Clarence Roy.

In 1972 the Old West Side was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, one of the first neighborhoods of ordinary homes to receive this recognition. The next year the association started its popular homes tour to show how livable old homes could be. In 1978 the Ann Arbor City Council passed a historic-preservation or­dinance that protects the outside of homes from inappropriate remodeling.

Today, senior citizens living in the Old West Side are likely to be of German ori­gin, but the younger people represent an ar­ray of ethnic groups. Many descendants of the original Germans still live in the Ann Arbor area, although not necessarily in the Old West Side. Besides the Schwaben Verein, two other German groups still function: the Greater Beneficial Union (GBU), a fraternal organization that pro­motes German American culture, and the German Park Recreational Club, which during the summer months hosts picnics featuring German music, German dancing, German food, and German beer at its beer garden on Pontiac Trail (see Events, Au­gust 25).

New residents of the Old West Side of­ten make major changes to their houses, adding skylights, hot tubs, and backyard decks, and enlarging rooms by tearing out walls. But in one matter, they are true to the original spirit. Most have moved into the neighborhood seeking the old-fash­ioned sense of community that the original settlers established. People are choosing to raise their children on the Old West Side, adding on to their houses, rather than move.

"Everybody watches each other's chil­dren. They are in and out of each other's houses," says Christine Brummer, presi­dent of the Old West Side Association. "The parks are always in use. You always see people walking in the streets.

"It's another regeneration."


[Photo caption from original print edition]: Missionary Friedrich Schmid led construction of the 1833 Zion Church —the first German church in Michigan. (Upper left) The first Bethlehem Church after the split of 1874. (Left) One of a hpst of civic groups, the Germania Club took its name from the Germania Hotel—todays Earle Building.

[Photo caption from original print edition]: German farmers scarcely needed English to navigate nineteenth-century Ann Arbor. They could buy supplies from German-owned stores and grind their grain at the German-owned Ann Arbor Central Mills on First (right, today the Millennium and Cavern clubs).

[Photo caption from original print edition]: German shopkeepers and industrialists built much of downtown Ann Arbor, including the Ann Arbor Carriage Works on Liberty (left)—today the Ann Arbor Art Center.

[Photo caption from original print edition]: The David Allmendingers relax in their gar­den on the Old West Side. Workers and busi­ness owners lived side by side in the German neighbor­hood.

[Photo caption from original print edition]: In 1873, this German-language school on First Street enrolled 121 pupils. German institu­tions and language survived for generations in Ann Arbor—but were largely swept away during the anti-German hysteria of the First World War.