Wheeling Ethnic Groups – The German Story

The “Bone and Sinew” of Wheeling 
By Seán P. Duffy

Perhaps the largest wave of immigration to Wheeling came from Germany, beginning in the 1830s.  The Riesters were among the first German families to arrive, circa 1832, and Ohio County recorded the first local naturalization of a German immigrant in 1837.

The establishment of churches is a reliable indicator, and the first German church in Wheeling, St. Johannes German Evangelical, was established in 1835. Zion Lutheran followed in 1850. St. Alphonsus, the first Catholic German Church, was established in 1856. German Catholics built St. Michael’s in Edgwood in 1897.

The largest number of Wheeling’s ethnic Germans can trace its ancestry to the Hesse region in southwestern Germany, but significant numbers also emigrated from Hannover and Württemberg.

German - Schmulbach IllustrationPolitical upheaval and war in 1830, 1848 and 1870-71 – and the attendant desire to prevent their children from becoming cannon fodder – motivated Germans to emigrate in droves. Many chose Wheeling because of its inexpensive land, which often so resembled the homeland. Still others were lured by companies that recruited immigrant labor, and established immigrants often sent for friends and relatives back home.

Millions left Germany for the United States, and by 1900, West Virginia was home to nearly 7,000 people of German heritage. As a manufacturing and transportation hub with abundant jobs, Wheeling was an attractive destination. Enough Germans had settled in Wheeling before the Civil War to get the attention of Restored Virginia Governor Francis Pierpont, who referred to them as the “bone and sinew” of the city. Early arrivals settled in North Wheeling and Out the Pike, but most chose the Eighth Ward in South Wheeling – then known as Ritchietown. City directories brimmed with familiar German surnames such as Altmeyer, Braunlich, Buch, Dieringer, Dimmey, Dorsch, Duecker, Ebbert, Emmerth, Fischer, Franzheim, Grubb, Hess, Niebergall, Nolte, Nunge, Pfister, Schenck, Schramm, Schuetz, Seibert, Storch, Strauss, and Wolfe, just to name a handful.

Their numbers included Jewish immigrants from German regions, such as stogie maker Augustus Pollack and prominent businessmen like L.S. Good. Pollack in particular, was very active in German American affairs. In addition to organizing the first German Civil War volunteer company, he spearheaded an effort to raise money for German war widows and orphans and was named president of the 1885 Saengerfest.

Like most immigrant groups, German Americans encountered a certain amount of native prejudice. The language barrier was challenging, but with the help of the German Beneficial Union, Wheeling’s Germans adapted well. Many churches offered German language services, the public schools employed German language teachers, and at least one German language newspaper existed in the city into the early part of the  twentieth century.

Numerous immigrants worked as dairy farmers, or in steel, nail, glass, or cigar manufacturing. German dominated businesses included groceries, bakeries, butcher shops, confectionaries, and barber shops. Notable Wheeling businesses established by German immigrants and their progeny include Bloch Brothers Tobacco, Dieckmann Florists, the Stifel companies, L.S. Good, Menkemeller Drugstore, Wenzel Meatpacking, Stroehmann Baking, German Bank of Wheeling (now Wesbanco), Germania Half Dollar Bank, German Fire Insurance Company, Altenheim and Ziegenfelder Ice Cream to name just a fraction.  Membership in the nation’s first central labor organization, the Ohio Valley Trades and Labor Assembly (based in Wheeling by 1885), was dominated by German American skilled workers, including steelworkers, bakers, carpenters, and brewery workers.

German - schmulbach German immigrants were also well known for their beer brewing expertise. Henry Schmulbach and Anton Reymann operated Wheeling’s largest breweries. Schmulbach also developed Mozart Park—essentially a large beer garden. Reymann operated his own beer garden at what is now Wheeling Park. In fact, beer gardens were everywhere in Wheeling at the time, from Seibert’s Pavilion in Edgwood to the island amusement park at Warwood. Other Wheeling breweries operated by German immigrants included Uneeda, and Balzer. The breweries employed a large number of German immigrants, including one named Valentine Reuther, father of Walter, who became a nationally respected labor leader and remains one of Wheeling’s best known native sons.

German immigrants also brought winemaking to town and established grape vineyards. Rev. Peter Kreusch, for example, owned a prominent one on Wheeling Hill in an area still called “Vineyard Hills.” Of course, Wheeling was home to enough saloons to keep up demand for the brewers’ and winemakers’ products. Sixty-two saloons lined Main and Market streets in 1886. By 1904, that number had more than doubled, and most were operated by men with German surnames.

German Americans also made significant cultural contributions. Henry J. Arbenz, for example, founded the Wheeling Conservatory of Music in 1890 and international opera star Eleanor Steber was of German descent. Between 1855 and 1961, the town was home to eleven German (choral) singing societies, including stalwarts, Arion, Mozart and Beethoven. The societies would sponsor a total of three Wheeling Saengerfests (regional German singing festivals that also celebrated German heritage) in 1860, 1885 and 1906. The Turner Society emphasized athletics and operated Turner Hall.

German - dancersBy 1914, Wheeling was by any measure, a robust German town. But in just a few years, its distinctive German character would be virtually erased.

None of the great breweries would survive state and national prohibition. Meanwhile, America’s entry into the Great War sparked an anti-German backlash that caused dramatic changes in Wheeling.

In 1918, all German language instruction in city schools was discontinued. Later that same year, established Wheeling businesses like the German Bank dropped the word “German” from their corporate names. In addition to its impact on businesses, the anti-German sentiment cut deeply into what was once a vibrant cultural scene. All of the German singing societies became extinct, except for the Beethoven, which survived into the 1960s. The evils perpetrated by Nazi Germany ensured the permanence of these changes.

Although only scattered architectural features provide evidence of its golden age, Wheeling remains a fundamentally German town. Its city directory still brims with German surnames, and events like Oglebayfest have revived interest in its deeply entrenched, if firmly assimilated, German roots.

Note: The information on the German community in Wheeling would not exist without the invaluable past research of Dr. William M. Seaman, Dr. Edward C. Wolf, Margaret Brennan and Mary Lou Henderson.

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