Sunday, July 3, 2022

German Shops And Business Once Lived On The St. Louis Arch Grounds

For casual students of history, the terms primary and secondary sources may cause your eyes to glaze over. For historians, however, the distinction between primary and secondary sources is crucial to understanding the past. Primary sources are documents, such as letters, newspapers, photographs, or other documents, that were created at the time the historical event occurred. They provide a window into past events. Secondary sources are historical works written by people who were not there at the time of the event. They rely on primary sources for information. To create a better picture of history, historians combine primary and secondary sources with careful vetting.

Ernst Kargau’s St. Louis in Fruheren Jahren: Ein Gedenkbuch Fur Das Deutschthum, published in 1893. Don Tolzmann published the 2000 English translation by William G. Bek. If you are interested in reading the book in its original form, the St. Louis Public Library also has several copies in German. One for each branch of its system. The English translation is excellent and precise, as I can attest.

Kargau’s recollections about St. Louis’ bustling German business, political, and cultural life, especially before the Civil War are invaluable as a primary source for anyone interested in the history of the Gateway City. Kargau was born 1832 in Silesia. This was at that time a province in the Kingdom of Prussia. It was the northern German state which flexed its military and political power following the defeat of Napoleon. The United States seemed like a promising country to begin a new life for many German and Prussian states that were under threat of annexation. Karau and millions of other Germans chose the New World. Like hundreds of thousands, he chose St. Louis to be his new home. He was a reporter for many German-language newspapers, including the Westliche Post. Karau was a Renaissance Man who lived in the town, and he died in 1907. He is buried in Hillcrest Abbey Crematory and Sublette and Arsenal Mausoleum.

Karau arranges his book on St. Louis in a German-like manner. This is to say that it is meticulous, organized, thorough, and orderly. He begins with the streets in the original grid that Laclede and Chouteau laid out: Main, First and Second streets. It is almost unbelievable that so many businesses could be packed into such a small space, which was the location of the Gateway Arch National Park grounds. But we learn as Kargau proceeds building-by-building, address-by-address in the first section of his book, that every storefront was filled with a German immigrant plying a different trade. We also discover that some streets were Teutonic. It was not unusual to be surrounded by the sounds and dialects of German being spoken by pedestrians and the businesses that lined the sidewalks. Karau mentions Adam Lemp’s rowdy saloon on South Second Street. This was a restaurant where Old Man Anheuser would sit in court, presumably working out deals to raise capital for the latest investments.

After a detailed description of nearly two dozen streets in St. Louis that have a “German” element, Kargau offers a thematic excursion on the city’s life. Modern readers are familiar with beer gardens. The idea of Sunday drinking was also a new concept to the English-American residents of St. Louis. St. Louis was a French Roman Catholic City, so many new immigrants arrived from Prussia and other northern German countries as Lutherans. Although many of the churches Kargau described still exist, unfortunately, many have been demolished in the past 30 years. He also mentions the Turner societies which were a mix of social and gymnastic organizations. German, unlike English, has an intransitive verb turned for the act or performing gymnastics. The second section of this book has two interesting points. First, the Turner societies have been closed down in the past three decades. Second, the ecclesiastical counterparts have also gone out of business. These organizations are not available to young people.

The final section of this book focuses on the industrial and business achievements of German-American immigrants. Although it’s a common cliche in St. Louis that the Protestant German work ethic led to the creation of many corporations, it is still fascinating to see the familiar faces that still grace factories and offices throughout the area. Karau also reveals that not every industrialist started in the same business field. Eberhard Anheuser for instance was a soapmaker before moving to brew.

Kargau’s book, St. Louis Before the Civil War is an essential read for anyone interested in learning more about this period in our region’s history. His work is not perfect. Karau wrote his book decades after many of his events. He may not have had access to newspaper archives or his journal notes but there are still errors. Although there are some questions about Kargau’s reliability, Kargau provides valuable leads that we can follow to a lost world that lies beneath the Gateway Arch’s legs.

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