“The German-American Heritage of Scott County, Iowa”
presented by Jim Leach
Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities
St. Ambrose University
June 16, 2012
I am honored to be hosted by St. Ambrose University. This wonderful, faith-based school situated so magnificently atop this historic Mississippi River community is emblematic of thoughtful Catholic education.
I am also honored to be co-hosted by Davenport’s innovative German-American Heritage Center where I spoke earlier this morning
As many of you know, Davenport has disproportionately deep roots in the part of Europe we now call Germany. It almost seems historically out of synch to note that Germany is a more youthful country than our rather young republic. In the mid-nineteenth Century, Germanic Europe had a vibrant culture, progressive universities and a profound tradition in music and the sciences. Yet German politics and social structures had significant feudal elements. Until unification occurred in 1871, Germany was divided into 16 principalities and duchies within which a variety of smaller feudal enclaves thrived. The remnants of serfdom hallmarked much of the agricultural economy, and inter-European and intra-German conflicts were prevalent. In this political and economic setting, strong incentives existed for Germans, especially energetic young adults, to immigrate to America.
Davenport was a destination. A gateway to the West where the first passenger rail bridge across the Mississippi was constructed, it along with St. Louis and Milwaukee has long been considered one of the most traditionally German cities in America. While immigrants came to Scott County from every part of the German nation-in-the-making, the largest share came from Schleswig-Holstein, the northwest corner abutting Denmark. By the end of the 20th Century, the ancestry of citizens comprising Davenport was probably half German, a quarter Irish, and a quarter of other, often mixed, national origins. However, the farm population of Scott County has remained singularly German in heritage
There are three overriding reasons why so many with a German background immigrated to Scott County and why Davenport came to be considered a German-American center. While the area we now call Iowa had a few 17th and 18th Century Spanish explorers who travelled overland and up the Mississippi river from the South and a few French traders who descended by canoe from the North, the vast majority of the state wasn’t populated with settlers until the 1830’s, 40’s, and 50’s, a period which coincided with a significant wave of Northern European immigration.
Iowa must have appeared to be largely an open prairie with fertile land beckoning second and third generation Americans travelling by oxcart and rail from the East alongside first generation settlers from Europe, some of whom landed initially in New Orleans and then came north on the Mississippi by steamship. Very few arrived with assets much greater than the clothes they were wearing. All were prepared to work, and the earliest laid claim to the right to till some of the deepest black earth in the world. Many mistakenly believed that the best land was along creek beds where trees were thickest but all were astounded by the productive capacity of the soil. Indeed, the only thing known about my earliest Norwegian ancestor in Iowa was that every evening in his farm near Decorah he would say a prayer in his native tongue to the land. He never got over how fertile it was.
The second reason Davenport became so widely known as a German heritage city was its identification with immigrants from Schleswig-Holstein who were decidedly intellectual and political in outlook. Some came not only seeking freedom but avoiding the noose, the common fate for political radicals like themselves in many parts of Germany, especially during and after the revolutions of 1848, which were a thwarted European precursor of the Arab Spring. Several of the intellectuals in the midst of the early farmers and merchants started a German language newspaper, Der Demokrat, which became a bedrock community publication that also circulated in German communities in other parts of the country and in Germany itself. These new Iowans, especially the “forty-eighters,” identified with two causes: advancing freedom in their old homeland and abolishing slavery in their new one. Der Demokrat was their mouthpiece and that of a wider American Schleswig-Holstein community. Its voice was so powerful that despite a print run of only a few thousand papers, its hand-to-hand, letter-to-letter circulation caused it to be banned in Prussia in 1858.
The third reason the Scott County German-American community came to prominence related to a new political movement that suddenly caught hold in the Midwest. In 1853 in three meetings in small towns – Crawfordsville, Iowa; Ripon, Wisconsin; and Jackson, Michigan – farmers and merchants came together to forge a new political party. Embracing the Republican label, these Western and Westward leaning Americans coalesced around conservative democratic values – restrained spending, entrepreneurial work, and individual rights for people of all backgrounds. They objected to slavery which the Democratic Party then countenanced and at the same time they rejected the Eastern establishment Whigs who they considered too close to urban banking interests. German-Americans in Scott County identified with and helped promote this new political movement in Iowa and communities elsewhere that welcomed immigrants with a similar German background.
Extraordinarily, within three years the newly formed Republican Party fielded a viable Presidential candidate, John C. Fremont. An explorer and cartographer who had served briefly as the military governor of California and as one of the state’s first two Senators, Fremont ran a competitive but losing campaign in 1856. Despite being married to a daughter of a prominent establishment figure, the first five-term U.S. Senator, Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, Fremont was considered prematurely radical by some in his abolitionist advocacy and too capricious by others in his military forays, even though the westward expansion that he stood for, what came to be called “Manifest Destiny,” was quite popular.
1860 produced a Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, whose “country lawyer” background was initially an even greater question mark in the East than Fremont’s. Scott County German-Americans felt comfortable with Lincoln because of his stance against slavery and his identification with Illinois, a state umbilically tied to Iowa by the railroad bridge from Rock Island to Davenport. In a highly publicized legal case, everybody in the region knew that Lincoln had represented the railroads in a “good vs. evil” law suit against a river boat company that had ignited an old barge and floated it into the bridge. Arson was not a well-regarded crime.
Perhaps Scott County German-Americans also respected Lincoln for his prowess in wrestling where his long arms and gargantuan hands gave him considerable leverage in what was then a popular summer sport at county fairs across the Midwest. Alas, I have come across no evidence that Lincoln’s background as a wrestler was much noted at the time in German-American circles in Iowa.
Whatever their reasons, Scott County German-Americans determined to vouch for Lincoln in similar communities across the country. Lincoln support groups formed with odd names such as “Wide Awakes” in cities like New York and Chicago. They were disproportionately composed of German-Americans. Upon seeing a photograph a year ago at the New York Historical Society at an exhibit that the National Endowment for the Humanities helped fund, it was hard for a moment not to recoil at the image of “Wide Awakes” marching down a lower East-side street wearing brown garb and black hats carrying torches as if they were Roman centurions in uniform. Counter-posed to this photograph was one of a less disciplined rally in Brooklyn of some 30,000 bizarrely named “Soporifics” who opposed Lincoln. The energy, though not perhaps the agenda, of today’s Tea Party may have antecedents in both camps.
The Civil War touched every state. Iowa, replete with newly arrived German-Americans, was whole-heartedly on the Union side, though there was a smattering of division in southern tier counties like Lee which, as in Missouri, had a more divided attitude. Nevertheless, Iowa produced the highest proportion of soldiers of any Northern state, over 20 percent of the state’s males. Camp McClellan in Davenport was the state’s largest staging ground for recruits. A mile to the north of the camp, Annie Wittenmyer of Keokuk, who had helped lead a national movement to upgrade medical care for the wounded, founded an orphanage for the children of soldiers who gave what Lincoln so nobly described as the last full measure of devotion. The consequences of the war for both sides are evidenced to this day at the cemetery on Arsenal Island where Confederate POWs who died in captivity, largely due to small pox, are buried near the graves of Union soldiers.
After the Civil War, Scott County German-Americans stayed loyal to the party of Lincoln, with one significant rift. In the latter part of the 19th Century the Republican Party of Iowa became captive to a single-issue movement led by Carrie Nation, a fiery radical, and Annie Wittenmyer, who as the first president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union had rechanneled her Methodist compassion from the wounds of war to the immorality of alcohol. For German-Americans bread and beer were paired staples of life. Der Demokrat thus became a battle ground for letters to the editor. In the end consensus developed. Scott County German-Americans would stay in the Republican tent because they still couldn’t trust a Democratic Party unable to shake its pro-slavery legacy. They would simply ignore the Iowa Republican Party platform which was too abstemious for their palate.
An 1882 editorial in Der Demokrat captured their feelings: “The contemporary battle of Iowa’s prohibitionists is a battle…for churchly hypocrisy and against German sincerity…for paternalism of the people and against the enjoyment of inalienable human rights.” At the national level, however, Der Demokrat was a “free” paper – i.e., one committed to values rather than a political party. It was prepared to support Democratic presidential candidates who were against prohibition as long as they weren’t captive to lingering pro-slavery sentiment. So, in the 1884 election the paper underscored its independence by supporting the Democratic candidate, Grover Cleveland.
Der Demokrat espoused individual rights rather than social conservatism. Before the war, in a sorrowful editorial on the death of John Brown it averred that Brown was “a victim to the obstinacy of a handful of aristocrats who did not want to give in one inch in the struggle between liberty and slavery.” During the Civil War the editors disagreed with Lincoln for taking too mild rather than too inflexible an anti-slavery stance. After the war, the paper received a letter to the editor laced with anti-Semitic slurs. The letter-writer objected to a compassionate decision of the city council to exempt two Jewish émigrés from paying an $11 license to sell their wares in Davenport. The paper responded by taking the letter-writer to the woodshed. Condemning the writer for his “outrageous intolerance,” the editors asked whether the letter could have been “really written in Davenport, in the free Republic of the United States, in the year 1882.”
“We can take heart,” the paper concluded, that the views of the letter writer “fit southern Russia but not Davenport…Davenport provides no support for a pogrom like those that happen in Russia or Germany. We’re too reasonable, humane and progressive. And that’s that.”
In Scott County, German-Americans remained active in politics, farming and commerce. Men and women with names like Eiboeck, Olshausen, Stibolt, Gülich, Rusch, Müller, Ankerson, Schneckloth, Lischer, Keppy, Nobis, Beiderbecke, Mohr, Werner, Meir, and Clausen came to be leaders of commerce and public life of the county and state. Turner Halls were social centers and German speaking schools part of the public school system. And then came World War I.
In reaction to anti-German sentiment spurred by the war, the Governor of Iowa, William Harding, in 1918 issued the “Babel Proclamation” forbidding the speaking of foreign languages in public, in schools and religious services or over the telephone. Although patently unconstitutional, the Governor’s proclamation was taken seriously. According to local lore, one woman in Bettendorf was arrested by the sheriff after being turned in by a switchboard operator for speaking German on the phone. The incident gives sober meaning to old-fashioned words like “snoop” and “gossip,” but the general attitude it reflected took more than a little out of the heart of community togetherness. German-speaking schools came to an end and Turner Hall activity gradually slackened.
Davenport’s German-Americans didn’t identify with Kaiser Wilhelm II or the concept of a Kaiser. They were proud of their German cultural heritage but the onset of war made them instantaneous American patriots. They cherished the democracy and the economic opportunity they found in their new home. Some of their neighbors were unsure. The same anger and distrust that caused some city orchestras across the country to refuse to play Beethoven or Bach and saloons to ban pretzels brought out a suspicious watchfulness in non-German Iowans. Iowa citizens of German heritage, particularly in Scott County, were expected to be the first in line when war bonds were sold. This practice of being first in line carried over into World War II despite the many Davenporters who travelled at government expense to Europe, without visas or Visa cards, to aim rifles at distant cousins whose families had remained in the old country. My uncle, Aug Mueller, who many here knew well, was a prime example. A young, recently married lieutenant, he met my father for the first time at war’s end in Germany. Both had experienced some of the worst of war.
The first sense I had of what we now so correctly refer to as the “Greatest Generation” came when I was nine or ten years old and mother took me to Dad’s office near the Bettendorf Bridge. It was a hot summer day and the howitzers and other field artillery were being tested on Arsenal Island. The river bed and shorelines, as the name Rock Island implies, are of rock that makes the ground surface shake, even on the Iowa side, and seems to magnify sound when artillery is tested. Exasperated, Mother exclaimed that she intended to urge the local chapter of the League of Women Voters, which she had helped found, take up the cause of stopping the intrusive noise. I have never forgotten my Dad’s firm response: “No, Lois, you will not do that.” And her adamant rejoinder: “Yes, I will.” And his response again: “No, you will not.” And her query: “And why not?”
After a long pause, Dad, who almost never spoke of the war, quietly explained: “Lois, in the hedgerows of Normandy near a town called St. Lo the Germans mounted their most intense counter-offensive of the war. Hundreds of soldiers of the 320th regiment [one of several with the highest casualty rates of the war] are buried nearby. We continued to move forward and every few hundred feet I would call up the artillery. It is quite possible that no one in the history of war ordered more rounds of artillery than I did in Normandy. Where do you think that artillery was made?” He then pointed to the beautiful Mississippi River island that a second lieutenant named Robert E. Lee first mapped in 1832. “Your husband might not be here today if it weren’t for the people who made those guns,” he observed. Mother wept…and gave in.
In World War II employment at the Rock Island Arsenal grew to some 20,000. Many were German-Americans. There, “Rosy the Riveters” carried names like Freda and Hannah, Gretchen and Helga. Indeed, Davenport is an industrial city, a place where people build and make things and work long hours. German-Americans were farmers, bankers, lawyers and intellectuals. They were also bakers, plumbers, electricians, assembly line workers, foremen and executives at John Deere, the Bettendorf Company, French and Hecht, Caterpillar, Alcoa, and a wide assortment of manufacturing firms and associated foundries. While some German-Americans still played the zither, a lumber yard owner’s son, Leon Bismark (Bix) Beiderbecke, celebrated his home town with his cornet and one of the great jazz pieces of the 20th Century – Davenport Blues.