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Our Rich History: Germans in Newport — a rich cultural heritage reaching back to 18th century

By Don Heinrich Tolzmann
Special to NKyTribune

Part 41 of our series, “Resilience and Renaissance: Newport, Kentucky, 1795-2020.”

German immigrants and their descendants migrated into the Ohio Valley well before the American Revolution, most of them coming from Pennsylvania and Virginia. Johann Heckewelder, a German Moravian missionary who visited the area in 1792, noted their presence on both sides of the Ohio River in his travel report published in Germany in 1797.

Germans were involved in the early beginnings of Newport, and were active in all occupations. They helped build the first roads and streets and other structures. Businesses reflected the arrival of Germans in the area. Heinrich Pickele received a concession in 1795 to open the town’s first tavern, and Johann Bartel established the first brewery in 1798, no doubt brewing the British-style ale that was the common beer of the time.

George Wiedemann. From: Cincinnati in Wort und Bild (1891)

When the Ohio River was frozen in winter, the Bechtel family drove cattle across it to sell at Fort Washington. One winter in the late 1790s, the ice broke, causing father and son to drown, leaving four surviving children; their mother perished in fall 1797. Area Germans, such as Johannes H. Lesner, a German tailor, adopted the surviving children, showing that already before 1800 Germans had formed a small but viable family network.

German immigration was slight in the following years due to the Napoleonic Wars and the Continental Blockade, but slowly increased after 1815. Social, economic, and political discontent in the German states found expression in the Wartburg-Fest, a protest demonstration, which laid the groundwork for revolutions in 1832 and 1848. In their wake, German immigration expanded. Many sought the Ohio River Valley due to the glowing reports of it in the writings of Charles Sealsfield (Karl Postl) and Friedrich Gerstaecker.

The arrival of the 48ers, as refugees of the 1848 Revolution were called, was reflected in the founding of the Newport Turnverein in 1852. (See the Our Rich History column here.)

The rising tide of German immigration was followed by the emergence of the Know-Nothing Movement, resulting in nativist clashes before the Civil War. One such skirmish took place in 1856, when Turners from Newport and Covington gathered for a picnic in Covington.

A gang of youths threw sticks and stones at the Turners in neighboring Covington, leading to fights, with crowds of locals joining the fray. Soon shots were fired, causing the Turners to go to Newport where they hoped to cross the Ohio River from a ferryboat landing. The mayors of Covington and Newport arrived, and requested that the Turners, who were armed due to nativist conflicts, lay down their arms. They replied that they would not as their safety was not assured.

Hofbräuhaus, Newport. (Photo by Don Heinrich Tolzmann.)

Finally, the Turners sought refuge in Newport’s Turner Hall. By this time, Judge Johann B. Stallo, a prominent German lawyer in Cincinnati, had arrived. He advised that the Turners would not surrender their weapons due to crowds that had assembled. In the meantime, Turner Hall was surrounded, but the crowds gradually dispersed. So, the Turners agreed to lay down their weapons for authorities. Felony charges were brought against thirty-one Turners, causing two Germans from Newport, Daniel Wolf and Peter Constanz, to put up the bond for $62,000. After a lengthy trial, the Turners were acquitted, having been ably defended by Stallo.

Nativism receded with the growing sectional crisis that led to the Civil War, and when Lincoln issued his call to arms in April 1861, Turners responded enthusiastically. Since Kentucky was neutral early on, they went across the river and joined the Ninth Ohio Voluntary Infantry Regiment, which was composed mainly of members of the Cincinnati Turnverein. One member of the Newport Turnverein, Carl Klintworth, was mentioned in the regimental history as a member of Company A’s Männerchor, a group that brought German folksong to the unit’s camp life.

Turner Hall served as a center for Newport’s German community, and as a meeting-place for the town’s German societies. One of the most prominent was the German Pioneer Society of Newport, which was founded in 1877, and was a branch of the German Pioneer Society of Cincinnati (1869); another branch was also formed in Covington in 1877.

The founding members came from all over the German-speaking realm of Europe, especially from what is today the northwestern German state of Lower Saxony. This corresponds with the the US Census, which indicates that well over half of the German immigration to Northern Kentucky came from northwestern Germany, followed secondly by Germans from the southern German states, and thirdly by Germans from Austria-Hungary.

Information on these groups can be found in the German-American historical journal Der Deutsche Pionier, which was edited for many years by the well-known German-American historian H. A. Rattermann. The group was social, but also cultural, and aimed to preserve the records regarding German immigration settlement, and influences. It also sponsored various festivities and lecture programs throughout the year.

The Arion Männerchor was another prominent German society in Newport, and was founded in 1883. Named for Arion, the Greek mythological musician and poet, the choir performed at German functions throughout the area. In 1907, Kaiser Wilhelm was selected as an honorary member, and the society received a gift of German music via the German consul in Cincinnati.

German Day was celebrated annually on the 6th of October, the date on which the first permanent all-German settlement was established in America in 1683 at Germantown, Pennsylvania. For German Day’s bicentennial in 1883, the Newport Turners celebrated their annual Turnfest at Turner Hall, and the Covington Turners organized a parade for it. A German church service was held at the Salem Methodist Episcopal Church, which added to the event by commemorating the birth of Martin Luther. The 1898 German Day parade reflected the blending of German and American culture by singing “My Old Kentucky Home,” as well as German folk songs.

German societies met with hard times due to the anti-German hysteria of World War I, which was followed by Prohibition. A major blow for them was the loss of Turner Hall in 1936. This came about not only as a result of the war, but also because of the loss of revenue from beer sales. Without Turner Hall, which had served as a German community center, the local German societies continued to decline in number, with none of them surviving the World War II era.

The war also led to a decline in German church services, and the elimination of German instruction in private, public, and parochial schools. German materials were removed from area libraries, and German street names were changed across Northern Kentucky, including Newport. German food items, such as goetta, and German-style beer, however, remained popular items among German-American families.

“German Street” in Newport was renamed “Liberty Street” during World War I. (Photo by Don Heinrich Tolzmann.)

Beer has always played an important role in German social life, and is considered a dietary ingredient. Newport not surprisingly became a major brewing center. After working in the Kauffman Brewery in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine, George Wiedemann (1833-90), a German immigrant from Thuringia, moved to Newport in 1870. (See this Our Rich History column)

He established the Wiedemann Brewing Company, which became the largest brewery south of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi River. Although it was closed in the 1920s because of Prohibition, it flourished thereafter. In 1967 it was acquired by the G. Heileman Brewing Company, which maintained the brewery until 1983; thereafter Wiedemann beer was brewed elsewhere until Heileman went out of business in 1991.

In April 2003, the first Hofbräuhaus franchise in the US was opened in Newport, and its German heritage no doubt played a role in it being located there. Every month keg-tapping events take place there, involving the German societies of the region. Fat Tuesday and German Day celebrations are held there, sponsored by the German-American Citizens League. This has given a great boost to the interest in German heritage in Newport, as well as in Northern Kentucky.

Adding to the increased interest in German heritage was the dedication in 2014 of an honorific sign on Liberty Street, which had been German Street prior to the anti-German hysteria of World War I. The sign, which was dedicated by the German-American Citizens League in cooperation with the City of Newport, symbolized the renewed pride in the town’s German heritage whose history reaches back to the eighteenth century.

For more information, see: Don Heinrich Tolzmann, ed. and Dale V. Lally, transl., Jr Emil Klauprecht, German Chronicle in the History of the Ohio Valley and its Capital City Cincinnati in Particular (Bowie, Maryland: Heritage Books, Inc., 1991); Don Heinrich Tolzmann, transl. and ed., H.A. Rattermann, Kentucky’s German Pioneers: H.A. Rattermann’s History (Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 2001; reprint ed., Milford, Ohio: Little Miami Publishing Co., 2015); Don Heinrich Tolzmann, George Wiedemann, Northern Kentucky’s Beer Baron: The Man and His Brewery (Milford, OH: Little Miami Publishing Co., 2015); Don Heinrich Tolzmann, German Heritage Explorations (Indianapolis: Indiana University-Purdue University Max Kade German-American Research and Resource Center, 2019).

Don Heinrich Tolzmann is a nationally and regionally noted historian of German Americana. He has written and edited dozens of books, and contributed to many others, including The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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One Comment

  1. Eric Otto says:

    Who were Daniel Wolf and Peter Constanz who could put up a bond for $62,000 when that was about $1.8M in today’s money? Stallo being connected to this is amazing because was an important philosopher at that time as well as being a judge.

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