On the eve of World War I, German Americans Built a virtual Palace of ethnic solidarity
The Schwaben Halle at 215 South Ashley was sold several years ago, but the Schwaebischer Unterstuetzungs Verein (“Swabian Support Association”), the group that built it, is still alive and kicking. Better known simply as the “Schwaben Verein,” the club was founded in 1888 by recent German immigrants. Although the local German community is by now pretty well assimilated, the Verein survives, in large part because of the fun the members and their families have sharing their common ancestry. “Eat, drink, and dance. What else do Germans do?” laughs member Walter Metzger. At the spring Bockbierfest, says president Art French, “the food is different, but we still eat and drink and dance. Any excuse for a party.”
Swabians, who take their name from a medieval kingdom in southern Germany, began immigrating to Ann Arbor as early as 1825, usually when there were economic or political problems in Germany. The 1880 immigrants were escaping the effects of Bismarck’s rule, as well as an economic depression, choosing Ann Arbor because Germans from earlier migrations were already here. But although other Germans in town helped them get established, the new arrivals felt a need for mutual support in the new country.
Tailor Gottlieb Wild, who was born near Stuttgart and served a four-year apprenticeship before coming to America, brought the idea of a Swabian club to Ann Arbor. His story, as related in Samuel Beakes’s 1906 Past and Present of Washtenaw County, is like that of many other Ann Arbor German immigrants: “He came to America when but seventeen years of age, and made his way to Ann Arbor, having relatives in this city, who had come to the New World in 1835.”
In 1887 Wild moved to Toledo to work as a journeyman tailor. He became involved with a Swabian social group there, and when he returned to Ann Arbor the following year to open his own shop, he encouraged his fellow Swabians to form their own association. (Wild’s tailor shop, like the Schwaben Verein, proved impressively durable--it evolved into a popular campus-area men’s store that survived until 1988.)
The Schwaben Verein’s official purpose was to provide a primitive kind of mutual health and life insurance: members paid a $1 initiation fee and 30¢ a month in dues, and in times of need the group would help out with hospital or burial expenses. But from the beginning, the real attraction was the camaraderie. “It was a way to be with people who spoke their language, followed their customs, who had the same outlook on life,” explains president French.
The group’s first meeting was held June 22, 1888, on the second floor of Wild’s tailor shop. Business was conducted entirely in German, a tradition that would continue for nearly a century. Many of Ann Arbor’s retail establishments were owned and run by Germans, so as the group grew they easily found other places to meet. They moved from Wild’s shop to rooms in Michael Staebler’s hotel, the American House (now the Earle, at Washington and Ashley), and when that in turn proved inadequate, to rented rooms above Arnold’s Jewelry Store on Main Street.
In 1894, just six years after its founding, the group was financially secure enough to purchase a building, the former Wagner’s blacksmith shop on Ashley between Washington and Liberty. All seven members of the executive committee signed the mortgage. They reserved the second floor for their meetings and rented the downstairs to blacksmith Henry Otto (who was better known locally as the leader of Otto’s Band).
In 1908 the Schwaben Verein bought a second property: the Relief Fire Company Park, south of Madison and west of what is now Fifth Street, then on the outskirts of the city. (Since 1888 the fire department had been changing over to professional firefighters, and volunteer companies were phased out.) The park was used for open-air events. “Parades and picnics were memorable occasions,” the Ann Arbor News reported. “Entire families turned out, the children to enjoy games and sports while their elders talked on and on about the ‘old country’ and the occurrences in their lives in their adopted land.”
Hardware store owner Christian Schlenker, who was president of the Verein at the time, is credited with spearheading the construction of a permanent headquarters. “Entirely due to his persistence and influence, they decided to build the new Swabian Hall,” W. W. Florer states in volume 1 of Early Michigan Settlements (1941).
The key was a deal between the group and Mack & Co., then Ann Arbor’s largest department store, at 220–224 South Main. Walter Mack agreed to rent most of the planned structure, including the two upper floors and part of the basement. Mack, though the son of a German immigrant, was not a member of the Verein (“Mr. Mack was never affiliated with any fraternal organizations but has concentrated his energies and attention upon his business interests and family life,” writes Beakes), and he did not help with construction costs. However, he agreed to build a steam heating plant, pay fire insurance for the whole building, and provide water for the sprinkler system.
In May 1914 the blacksmith shop was torn down, and construction began on the new building. Local historian Carol Mull, who has done extensive research on the building, finds it probable that some of the brick from the blacksmith shop was reused in the new building. Architect George Scott designed the Schwaben Halle, and Julius Koernke, a German immigrant who had settled in Ann Arbor in 1890, served as contractor.
Enclosed walkways connected the third and fourth floors with Mack’s Main Street store, and the buildings’ basements were joined by a tunnel. Mack used the basement for storage and the upstairs for a dining room, a beauty shop (the holes from the plumbing were still there when the Verein sold the building), and a big toy display at Christmas. The Ashley Street storefront was rented to Hagen and Jedel Men’s Clothing.
The Verein reserved the second floor for its own activities. A large front room was used for dancing and banquets; it had a stage at one end for plays and performances. There was a dressing room behind the stage and beyond that the bar and kitchen. Beautiful woodwork, tin ceilings, a fireplace, and a stained-glass front window with the Schwaben name on it all added to the hall’s beauty. In 1988, to celebrate the Verein’s hundredth anniversary, some of the members donated stained glass for the side windows and transoms.
During World War I, when other German groups were fading out or switching to English, the Schwaben Verein kept meeting and didn’t experience any overt harassment. “The society subscribed to war loans throughout the war and helped in every deserving war charity brought to its notice,” wrote the Ann Arbor News in 1922. While admitting a little defensively that the group was “still carrying its German name,” the paper insisted that “the organization is essentially American and stands for everything which is American.”
The war and subsequent anti-immigrant fervor, as well as Prohibition, cut into the activities of many German groups, but the Schwaben Verein emerged stronger than ever. Helping German war victims from the Württemberg area gave it an additional reason for existing. And although Prohibition lowered attendance at the park, the club met the challenge by selling the land and using the proceeds to help pay off its Ashley Street building.
Member John Hanselmann bought the park and divided it into house lots. The club continued having picnics at Hanselmann’s Grove on Waters Road off Ann Arbor–Saline Road or at members’ farms, such as Walter Aupperle’s property on Frains Lake Road. (The German Park organization on Pontiac Trail is a different group, although there is some overlap in membership.)
In 1922, just eight years after finishing the Halle, the group was able to celebrate paying off the mortgage. “On the eve of Thanksgiving day a gathering of 100 men stood in a darkened room of the Schwaben hall and in hushed stillness watched the mortgage on the building disappear in flames,” reported the Ann Arbor News. “The flickering light of the flames showed up solemn faces and glimpses of the Star Spangled banner which decorate the room. As the last shred of paper fell and the flame died out lights flooded the room and 100 voices rose in acclamation.”
The Verein paid off its mortgage just in time to be ready for the next wave of immigrants. “They came from the very same villages as the men of the eighties and of former decades,” writes Florer. “A revival of interest in plays, concerts, and other social activities began and has continued ever since.”
One of the 1920s immigrants was Gottlob Schumacher, who until his death in 2001 was the group’s oldest living member. Schumacher first visited the Schwaben Halle three days after his arrival in Ann Arbor in October 1923. Staying at the American House, Schumacher was introduced to a fellow Swabian named Gottlob Gross, who brought him over to the club. In a 1988 interview Schumacher recalled that since it was Sunday the hall was supposed to be closed, so the men went up the back stairs from the alley. They rang a bell, and the barman looked through a sliding window before letting them in. Although it sounds like a scene from a Prohibition-era movie, Schumacher insisted that the bar offered nothing stronger than hard cider--although even that was illegal during Prohibition.
Schumacher officially joined the Schwaben Verein three months later. One of his favorite activities was acting in plays the group wrote and performed in Swabian dialect. Walter Metzger, whose parents emigrated from Swabia, recalls that a huge crowd always attended these plays, put on near Christmas. “They filled up the Schwaben Halle, sitting in folding chairs and the benches around the side,” he says. The programs would consist of two or three short, sitcom-like sketches: “There would be a married couple. They would bicker and make fun of each other,” Metzger explains. “Then others would come in--neighbors, relatives. They were humorous. You had to laugh the entire time.” In between the plays, the audience could buy sandwiches and beer at the bar.
The cast were all amateurs, just members who enjoyed that sort of thing—Schumacher, Anton Vetter, Hans Meier, Martin Rempp. Bill and Fred Wente, who worked at Herz Paint Store, did the sets. Bill Staebler, who owned a beauty shop, did the makeup, and members’ wives sewed the costumes. Metzger was just a boy then, but he was put to work with his older brother Hans, who could drive, delivering advertising placards to outlying towns such as Manchester and Bridgewater that had large German populations. Metzger also served as a curtain puller and once even had a nonspeaking role.
In 1938 the Schwaben Verein had been in existence for fifty years. One hundred and fifty members and guests celebrated the anniversary at a banquet at the city’s biggest hotel, the Allenel (where the Courthouse Square apartments are now). After dinner they reconvened at the hall for a program that included music by the Lyra Männerchor (men’s chorus), followed by dancing and a radio program of Swabian folk tunes and songs--broadcast live via shortwave from Stuttgart especially for the occasion.
The plays stopped during World War II, but the group weathered the war, just as it had survived World War I. It no doubt helped that many of the young men leaving to fight the war were themselves of German ancestry. Although local German Americans were firmly on the Allied side, they didn’t forget their relatives in Germany. “We had our own CARE program, helping individually in areas we knew about,” explains French.
The war triggered one last influx of German immigrants. The Schwaben Verein continued a full schedule of activities, including Kirchweihe (literally a church dedication festival, observed as a harvest festival, with strings of radishes, beets, turnips, and cabbage serving as decorations), a children’s Christmas party, an anniversary dinner, and the Bockbierfest, featuring a special beer traditionally made for Lent. For years a group of women, headed by Karoline Schumacher, who was chef at the Old German when she and her husband owned the restaurant from 1936 to 1946, would make and serve such German specialties as liver sausage, roulades, goulash, spaetzle, sauerkraut, and German potato salad. And of course beer was the drink of choice for most events.
German bands from Toledo or Detroit with names like Langecker’s Wanderers, Tyrolers, Dorimusikanten, or Eric Nybower provided the music for dancing. Sometimes the Schuhplattler, a group affiliated with German Park, would perform traditional German dances. For its centennial in 1988, the Verein imported a band from Germany named Contrast.
People who regularly attended these functions became very close. Art French met his wife, then Kathy Rempp, at a Schwaben event. And Kathy’s parents, Mina and Martin Rempp (who, like his son-in-law, was a long-term president), met at a Schwaben event in Toledo.
“We still call each other our extended family,” says Marianne Rauer. “We are our own psychiatrists.” Fritz Kienzle, the group’s flag bearer, once dropped out for three and a half years but missed it so much he went back. “You’ve got to have that gravy on your potatoes,” he explains.
The Schwaben Verein has changed as the local German community has become more assimilated. Originally members had to be from Swabia, but later the group accepted anyone who spoke German. Today, members just have to have some German connection.
Most in the group now are American born, although there are still fourteen German-born members. “The meetings were mostly in German until about twenty years ago,” says French. “There are less and less who can converse in German, so we have to keep translating in order not to keep them out. But we still open and close the meetings in German.”
Though the Verein is still officially an all-male group, in the 1970s, with no change in the rules, women started coming to the hall during meetings. Wives of members who drove their husbands to the meetings, or who just didn’t want to be left alone at home, came up and waited in the bar area, visiting and playing cards until their husbands finished the meeting and joined them.
After Mack & Co. closed during the Great Depression, the first floor was rented to other tenants, including a bar called Mackinaw Jack’s, which left the facade covered with fake logs. Most recently, Hi-Fi Studio, an electronics repair business, packed the space with old TVs and stereos. Even the second-floor meeting room was rented out when the Verein wasn’t using it. Over the years it’s hosted everything from the local Jewish congregation (in the early 1920s) to sports clubs, sister city events, and weddings and other private parties.
French says the group currently has seventy members, of whom twenty or twenty-five regularly attend bimonthly meetings. The average age is about fifty. “Lots join with their dads,” explains Harriet Holzapfel, whose husband, son, and father-in-law were all members. “There’s an age gap,” says Rauer, “but once they are married and have kids they come back. They want their kids to have the Christmas party and family events.”
But the group’s desire to keep the large hall waned, especially since the rest of the building wasn’t producing the rental income it once had. Art French says he’d been looking for a long time, but “I couldn’t get tenants. Everyone wanted to buy—no one wanted to rent.” So in March 2001 the Schwaben Halle was sold to Bill Kinley of Phoenix Contractors and Ann Arbor architects Dick Mitchell and John Mouat.
The new owners removed the fake log-cabin siding from the front of the building and restored the facade as closely as possible to its original look. Inside they made changes to meet current standards, such as wider, fire-code-compliant stairs and an elevator for handicap access.
Meanwhile, the Schwaben Verein members meet just down the street at Hathaway’s Hideaway. “We’re still active, still accepting new members, we still have the activities. We just don’t have a building,” says French. For big events they rent space at either Links at Whitmore Lake or Fox Hills golf course on North Territorial.
Many in Ann Arbor’s German community were sad to see a building that encompassed so much of their past sold. “It was like the soul of the German community, such a beautiful place,” says Marianne Rauer. But Fritz Kienzle points out that the Schwaben Verein was always more that just a building. “People said when you sell you lose all your heritage,” he says. “But the heritage is in you, in your memories.”