Landmarks Association of St. Louis

The Glories of Germanhood: A History of the Turnverein in St. Louis: Chapter Two

| by Andrew Wanko,

Chapter Two: Turnverein History in St. Louis

1. Turnverein History in St. Louis

Four Periods of Significance

The following information is a heavily condensed summary of the long and varied history the turnvereins of St. Louis wove through the region, the purpose being a large-scale contextual framework rather than an encyclopedic description.  A detailed observation of each diverse society is presented in the section "Four: The Turnvereins of St. Louis, Missouri."

The long legacy of the turnverein movement in St. Louis is most easily viewed in four periods of progress and change.  The first, from 1850 to the close of the Civil War in 1865, features the birth of the first turnverein in St. Louis and the unwavering values of turnverein mentality being put to trial by fire.  The second, from 1865 to roughly 1880, marks a rapid, patterned expansion of new societies predicted by the city's ethnic and economic landscapes.  The third, from 1880 to the beginning of World War I in 1914, shows the result of St. Louis' urban landscapes drastically changing and witnesses one of the most powerful explosions of the turnverein movement in the United States.  And finally the fourth, from 1914 to the present, begins with the first signs of slowing and the end of a long chapter in the turnverein movement's powerful march towards a sound body and sound mind.

One: 1850-1865, Birth in the Cradle of Liberty

 Central Turnhalle at 10th and Market

On May 12, 1850, the first turnverein west of the Mississippi River was organized in St. Louis and christened with the progressive name Bestrebung ("Endeavor").  The giant name fit awkwardly on the society's first meeting hall, a modest little building they were allowed to use at Collins and Cherry Streets, under what is now the Lumiere Casino and Hotel.  Quickly, they outgrew this building and moved to a more powerful position on 10th Street between Market and Walnut in November of 1855.  The name of the society was changed to St. Louis Turnverein, and their hall was dubbed the Central Turnhalle.  The society became a beacon of German principles to St. Louis Germans, and an inspiration for all halls to follow by successfully maintaining membership and growing.

At the dawn of the Civil War, over 500 members were enrolled at St. Louis Turnverein, the only society in the city.  The chasm created between the polarizing ideologies of the Civil War became an opportunity for the turners to prove, as Friedrich Jahn did against Napoleon in the Lutzow Free Corps, that they would fight against injustice even to the point of possible death.  These German-Americans, themselves political refugees from their own failed struggle for freedom in the German revolutions, were adamant in their responsibility to defend liberty by freeing the southern slaves.  The Union campaigns for cohesive democratic political structure and nationalism were ideas Germans fought for in 1848.  This shared history strengthened old ties to their German ethnicity, but also to their American ethnicity in the "new fatherland" as these principles were pursued on American soil.

The St. Louis Turnverein's operations nearly halted as vast numbers of its members eagerly volunteered for service in the Federal (Union) Army.  Many Union volunteer regiments were made up of German immigrants and some almost entirely of turnverein members, such as the "Western Turners," the nickname given to the 17th Missouri Regiment.  On January 1, 1861, the St. Louis Turnverein boldly announced that it was temporarily halting all activity at the Central Turnhalle to reform into "a military organization for the defense and liberty of the Union."  The men of the turnverein camped and trained within its walls, drilling in bayonet and fencing practice under Constantin Blandowski, who would become the first Union Army Officer killed in the Civil War.  The Turnhalle was a literal fortress for these fighters, as St. Louis primarily sympathized with the Union but had much divided allegiance to the Confederacy.  Only two miles from the Central Turnhalle was Camp Jackson (now the SLU Frost Campus grounds), which held over 2,000 Confederate militia men.   Many Turners were among the small group of soldiers that successfully captured Camp Jackson and defended the St. Louis Arsenal's vast stockpile of Union weaponry.

At the close of the Civil War, the Turnerbund recovered nationally, as did the St. Louis Turnverein.  In 1866 the hall reopened as a traditional turnverein, and was greeted with a higher enrollment than ever.  The Central Turnhalle on 10th street was officially knighted as "The Cradle of Liberty" by the North American Turnerbund.  A celebration for the fall of Camp Jackson was held every year at the Central Turnhalle, and orators visiting St. Louis "whether German-American or otherwise, never addressed a German nationality audience without making at least one reference to the heroic deeds of the St. Louis Germans in the Civil War."

Two: 1865-1880, A concentrated Explosion of Interest

At the close of the Civil War, the St. Louis Turnverein remained the only society in the city, even though St. Louis was a massive German population center.  The main reason for this lack of other societies was the particular tightness that the St. Louis German community had in their rooted location downtown.  Up to the 1850s, St. Louis had exploded as a centrally-packed commercial leviathan due to its situation on the Mississippi River.  The commercial value of St. Louis, and therefore the labor jobs available to immigrants, depended on proximity to the river.  In 1850, 83% of all residents of Ward 1 and 42% of Ward 2 (which make up downtown St. Louis) were Germans, all immigrants.  They worked in the densely packed waterfront warehouses shipping goods to Memphis, New Orleans, and beyond.  These two wards held over 50% of all Germans living in St. Louis, with all other sections of the city having scattered numbers.

The beginning of construction of the Pacific Railroad westward from St. Louis in 1853 started a new dichotomy of river and rail commercial activity diversifying the St. Louis landscape.  The formerly dense commercial activities began decentralizing and spreading westward along the rail lines in the mid-1860s, as well as to north and south industrial areas along the riverfront.  This period of shared importance given to rail and river traffic created the first inner neighborhoods of St. Louis, like Soulard, Old North St. Louis, and Hyde Park.  Many Germans moved outward and settled in pockets around the new work opportunities found in these neighborhoods, and subsequent turnverein associations appeared beginning in the late 1860s.

 South St. Louis Turnverein at Carroll and 10th

This spreading outward began to be a problem for many Germans desiring turnverein society life but lived too far from the Central Turnhalle to make regular attendance a feasible option.  This issue of distance would spawn the first branch societies in St. Louis: the South St. Louis Turnverein, established in 1869, and the North St. Louis Turnverein, established in 1870.  Both locations started as a turnschule, a primary-level education facility, for children of St. Louis Turnverein members living nearby.  Only four years after the south-side turnschule opened, it was decided that the long distances all members living south of Chouteau Avenue were forced to travel was unmanageable.  The school was reformatted into the South St. Louis Turnverein, which served the Lasalle Park and Soulard area.  The North St. Louis Turnverein was founded the following year for members living around the German concentration in Hyde Park.

                  Map depicting districts of attendance covered by the North and South Turnvereins.


Three: 1880-1914, The St. Louis Turnbezirk

St. Louis of 1870, well-established as a commercial vitality with rail on land and by boat on river, existed in bustling corridors along these services.  Large neighborhoods of the city we now like to think of as "close in," to Downtown, like Dutchtown, JeffVanderLou, and Tower Grove South and East, at this time were mostly fields and open land with dwellings scattered loosely.  By the early 1900s, the city would fill outward toward its boundaries and release the pressure on its dense transportation lines.

In 1874, the world famous Eads Bridge became the first span across the Mississippi River in the nation.  This leviathan structure looming over the St. Louis waterfront's cargo ships was the deathblow for river traffic.  Its three massive steel arches vaulted the longest length of any in the world (6,442 feet) and connected St. Louis by land in all directions. Large-scale manufacturing such as flour mills, meat packing plants, breweries, foundries, and clothing manufacturers popped up all over the cityscape.  The massive appetite these institutions had for materials was fed by the railroad, and their appetite for laborers fed by the ever-increasing number of immigrants flocking to the city.  This decentralization of industry created even more pockets of immigrant settlements, but now in a much less predictable pattern.  In stark contrast to 50% of all St. Louis Germans residing in downtown St. Louis in 1850, only 8% remained by 1880.


                 St. Louis boasted 13 Turnvereins by 1910.  The above map depicts their locations.


During this period, turnvereins exploded across the city as each German enclave desired their own locale for social identity, a role that a single, central hall could no longer fulfill.  One contributing reason for success of turnvereins was the General Assembly of the State of Missouri's Incorporation Act, which freed the assembly and promotion of German social institutions and traditions without much restriction.  This made them very attractive to immigrants seeking exactly the well-known comforts they left behind.  The turnvereins provided a shelter in a strange new world, a place to socialize and integrate with others of a shared background, and a place to celebrate the good feelings for the fatherland.  The turnverein was a new adoptive family that provided a concrete foundation upon which to establish a new American existence.

 Turnverein at 1508 Chouteau

For a time, St. Louis boasted the largest collection of turnvereins in the United States.  As a testament to the growing power of the city, the executive seat of the North American Turnerbund was transferred from Chicago to St. Louis in May 1878.  St. Louis held this honor until 1898, when the honor and responsibility was voluntarily passed on to Indianapolis.  With the St. Louis Turnverein (which moved to a gigantic hall at 1508 Chouteau in 1888) as the flagship society, the group of societies in the city made up a district known as The St. Louis Turnbezirk.  The district eventually had 18 member societies, of which 11 were located within St. Louis.  While a great variety of German societies, such as sangerbunds (singing societies) and kunstler-vereins (artist societies) were present across the patchwork cityscape of late-1800s St. Louis, only the Turnbezirk could possibly be considered encompassing enough to give a sense of leadership or cohesion amongst the German enclaves.  The widely spread pockets of German settlement had little connection with others aside from the monthly meeting of all Turnbezirk member societies.  These meetings became fertile ground for each neighborhood representative to disperse ideas and keep note of happenings elsewhere.  The Turnbezirk offered overarching organization and inclusive, team-thought mentality contrasted with the motivational opportunity for inter-society competition.

The member societies of the St. Louis Turnbezirk by 1911 were:


In St. Louis: 

St. Louis Turnverein, 1850

South St. Louis Turnverein, 1869

North St. Louis Turnverein, 1870

St. Louis Socialer Turnverein, 1872

Carondelet Germania Turnverein, 1872

Concordia Turnverein, 1881

West St. Louis Turnverein, 1887

Schweizer National Turnverein, 1887

Rock Spring Turnverein, 1891

Northwest Turnverein, 1892

Southwest St. Louis Turnverein, 1893

Tower Grove Turnverein, 1906


Outside of St. Louis:

Washington, MO Turnverein, 1859

Hermann, MO Turnverein, 1860

Centralia, IL Turnverein, 1864

Highland, IL Turnverein, 1866

Mount Olive, IL Turnverein, 1897

Little Rock, AR Turnverein, NA

Staunton, IL Turnverein, 1909


Nationally, the American turnverein movement peaked in 1894.  At that time there were 317 societies, with more than 40,000 members and 25,000 children active in National Turnerbund activities.  In the midst of this late 1800s success, problems appeared that would permanently change the movement's dynamic motivation.

Four: 1914, A Series of Events to Set the Downfall in Motion

 Tower Grove Hall at S. Grand and Juniata

Many of St. Louis' turnvereins, especially the older, central locations, showed the first signs of slowing around 1910 as German settlement groups expanded southward and westward into the farther reaches of the city.  Rather than tight rings of German brethren living in close proximity to their turnverein, communities began to spread as a wide web of scattered connections across new sections of the city like Marine Villa and the Tower Grove neighborhoods. Immigration from Germany had been slowing for almost 35 years by 1920, and as the central German-American populations moved outwards they were replaced by Slavic and Asian immigrant groups. 

A noticeable gap in turnverein community had begun to make itself more apparent in the earliest years of the turn of the century.  The elder members, German-born men who had experienced strife and social outcasting as they worked to forge a new life in America, had an entirely different viewpoint from the new groups of German-American youth.  The young members, having been born in America and raised in its norms, had no first hand connection to the struggles of 1848 Germany.  Most of them were not fully fluent in German, and were openly accustomed to America's "salad bowl" of mixed cultures. 

In 1905, driven by younger members determined to adjust the turnverein to better fit their needs, the St. Louis Turnverein elected a man named Julius Seidel as society president.  Seidel's main point of election was his claim that he would make English the co-official language of the society, with all debates and proceedings conducted in English and German simultaneously.  This enraged older factions who viewed this change as a personal attack on all they had fought to create, and a disgrace to turnvereins everywhere.  This attempt in fact was a direct disobeyance of the North American Turnerbund's edicts, which demanded all member societies use only German, and the debated question of using English soon was brought up in national discussions.  One year later tensions boiled over again, this time at the Rock Spring Turnverein, when eleven young members brought forth a letter of resignation that they demanded Rock Springs President Charles Happel sign for his lack of consideration given to youth issues.  Happel suspended all eleven, who fought this all the way up to the National Turnerbund's panels.

A substantial decline in attendance caused the South St. Louis Turnverein and St. Louis Turnverein, once the second largest society in the country, to consolidate into one group in 1918.  The merging of societies was a forecast of the ills on the horizon for the St. Louis Turnverein, as Chouteau was well on its way to becoming a massive industrial and warehouse district and losing most of the surrounding residential fabric.  The 1919 and 1920 annual meetings of the St. Louis Turnbezirk saw only more problems, once again over the use of English between older and younger groups of turnverein members.  At the 1919 meeting an enormous argument broke out over the continued use of German as the official language and the power of the Turnbezirk as a controlling entity over individual member societies.  Over the course of the two-hour argument, many conservative elder members threatened resignation as the younger faction demanded that freedoms of individual halls be broadened and adapted to new issues.  The older factions had built these societies through dedication and integrity, but it was now the unaffected young paying the debts of a stubborn group that refused to yield.  This dissatisfaction from all angles was coupled with a series of influenza outbreaks in the winters of 1916-1920 that kept festivities to a minimum.

As individual groups weakened from within, two looming events struck from outside that left the turnvereins helpless.  The 1914 killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by a Bosnian-Serb student began World War I, a terror that that would eventually leave more than nine million military combatants dead.  Germany, the largest member of the Central Powers, would become the primary enemy of the United States shortly after.  Americans developed harsh anti-German attitudes during World War I, and began persecuting and distrusting German social groups.  Given turnvereins' fiercely political history, they were especially vulnerable.  During this time, the German language was banned in schools and universities, and German-language journals and newspapers were aggressively shut down.  The turnvereins suffered greatly due to this, and most changed their official language to English to avoid harassment.  Many societies even dropped the German element out of their name, becoming the anglicized "Turners" rather than turnverein.

 Satire concering German reaction to Prohibition

The passage of Prohibition in 1920 was the second crippling blow to turnverein vitality (as well as all of St. Louis) by removing a core German tradition - the culture of beer.  If foamy lager beer could not flow at the turners' festivals, balls, and Sunday picnics, neither could the hearty German spirit that kept the societies vibrant and wealthy.  Many turnverein societies had a saloon within their hall, sometimes also having street access for passers-by, that was a primary source of revenue.  As the saloons instantly ceased and the money generated by them was removed, debt began to pile up.  The closing of the multitude of German-owned breweries dotting the St. Louis landscape left thousands of Germans unemployed, and therefore unable to afford turnverein membership.

Over the next 20 years, the cultural assimilation suffered during this period seemed irreversible, even after the end of World War I in 1918 and the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. The name of the Nord Amerikanischer Turnerbund was changed during this period, becoming the anglicized, patriotic "American Turners."  The measured drain of life from the movement is evident during this period in the halving of North American Turnerbund membership, which dropped from 38,751 in 1911 to 16,000 in 1943, during the repeat anti-German frenzy of World War II.  Membership was up to nearly 25,000 after World War II due to the vast number of German immigrants flocking to the United States, but the cultural vitality and shared bonds the societies before represented were gone.  By this point, most of the turnvereins had consolidated membership, converted to regular dance halls and bars, or just shut down completely.  While the American Turners still carry on with the uplifting message of "a sound mind in a sound body," a chapter had closed in German-American history that sadly would not be reopened.

As of 2011, 54 turner societies still exist in America as beacons of mental and physical soundness.  One is still in operation in St. Louis.  The Concordia Turners, organized in 1875, meet regularly in their hall at 6432 Gravois Road.  The Schiller Turner Hall, built in 1910, still exists as a public hall (owned by the American Legion) for conventions and festivals at 210 Weiss Road in Lemay, St. Louis County.