WIsconsin

German Oshkosh & the Turners

 

By Thomas J. Rowland


A German gymnastic movement, spawned by Napoleon’s occupation of most of the German States in the early 19th century, the Turners (Turnverein) made their arrival in America in the wake of the failed liberal revolutions of 1848. This underscores the reality that the Turner movement was rooted in as much political, social, cultural and philosophical underpinnings as it was in its physical expression. To borrow the somewhat hackneyed phrase, the Turners vowed the holistic approach of a “sound mind in a sound body.”

Some of the earliest Turners to arrive in Wisconsin were liberal refugees from the failed revolutions in Prussia. Labeled the “Forty-Eighters” by other Germans, they sunk roots primarily in the city of Milwaukee and along a due westerly route out to Watertown, the place in which one of the most famous émigrés of 1848, Carl Schurz, called home. The lack of radical credentials did not preclude other German immigrants from gravitating to the Turner movement.

 The iconic symbol of the Turnverein was its creation of Turner Halls, sprinkled throughout Wisconsin and a handful of other states (Indiana, Missouri, Iowa and Pennsylvania to name but a few). In order to attend to its holistic mission the halls served as gymnasiums, lecture centers, theaters, music halls, and as a source of political mobilization.  In the late 19th century the Turners played a conspicuous role in American public education and the nascent labor movements. Second generation Turners in Wisconsin would figure prominently in the ranks of both the progressive and socialist movements of the early 20th century.

Winnebago County in the mid-19th century was populated primarily by the so-called “Yankees” who had migrated into the state from points along the eastern coast in the decades leading up to 1850. They would soon be joined by numerous German immigrants from that point onward.  By the close of the 19th century Winnebago County was overwhelmingly German in both ethnicity and character.

One of the earliest expressions of German solidarity occurred in Menasha. There in 1856 Germans created the Concordia Society which would eventually merge with the Menasha Turner Society in 1888. Turner activities were conducted in an edifice named Germania Hall built sometime during the 1860s on 320 Chute Street. In 1927 the organization adopted its final name, the German Benevolent Society. With its fundamental purpose no longer relevant, the hall was razed in 1963. A banquet facility, named Germania Hall, was build upon the same spot, serving the local population for nearly three decades until it ceased operation.

Oshkosh became the home of not just one but two Turner Halls, one on the North Side and the other on the South Side. Recent research has revealed that a commodious wooden structure was built by the Turners in the downtown section (North Side) of Oshkosh in 1874.  The best recreation of the hall reveals that it was not particularly ornate but very utilitarian in character, resembling a common warehouse in many ways. An attempt to turn it into an opera house in 1883 proved less than successful and in 1890 the Turners turned to William Waters to design an imposing brick structure at the old site on the northeastern corner of Merritt Avenue and Jefferson Street.  Much larger than the 1874 structure the new hall was capable of providing the full range of Turner activities much like the hall in downtown Milwaukee. With the general “de-Germanization” of so much in Wisconsin following the Great War the Turners were able to sell the building with its crenellated facade to the Wisconsin National Guard as its Company B armory. It served that purpose until the mid-1960s when the building was razed to make way for an auto repair shop. Today Jackson’s Glass Shop occupies the site.

Four years before he submitted the blueprints for the North Side Turner Hall, William Waters had drafted plans for another hall on the South Side of town. Located on the southeast corner of South Main Street and Tenth Avenue, it was an immense and grandiose wooden structure in the then popular Queen Anne style, sporting a soaring corner tower. It is said that an organization known as the Badger Club assumed ownership of the building in 1902 but before long the edifice was transformed into a warehouse for storing paper products. A fire destroyed it in 1920.

WCHAS Board Visits Peniel Church

Written by board member Patti Yana

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Nestled on the boundary line between Fond du Lac and Winnebago County sits one of the best kept secrets in Fond du Lac County. The Peniel Church, completed in 1856 is located on County Road FF.  The original building was enlarged in 1868 and a kitchen added in 1871. A vestibule was built in front in 1894.

The church began as a Calvinistic Methodist congregation, but by 1920 they were known as the Welsh Presbyterian Church. In 1955 they united with the Presbyterian Church with English services. The Peniel Church dissolved in 1977 and members transferred to churches of their choice in the surrounding community. However, the church is still maintained by a devoted group of nine trustees who keep the building up and running.

The church has no running water, heat or AC, but does have electricity for lights and ceiling fans. An outhouse graces the grounds as a testimony to times past and is still functional today. The church building’s floor actually slopes to the sides to represent the inside of a ship. Stained glass windows, movable pews, a piano, and a working 100 year old organ complete the ambiance of days past. The curious two door entrance takes us back to the days when men and women entered through separate doors and sat on different sides of the church.


The Winnebago County Historical & Archaeological Society decided to help this small dedicated church community preserve this historic building by making a donation to their preservation project. After doing so, the WCHAS Board was graciously invited for a tour last fall. What an awesome historic gem! The building is still occasionally used for weddings and funerals and some Sunday “sings”. However, the main event called a Gymanfa Ganu is held annually on the fourth Sunday every August at 2:30.  Last fall’s “sing” drew almost 250 people to help them celebrate 160 years! This tradition started 93 years ago in 1923. The church even has one member who boasts that she has been at every Gymanfa Ganu starting as an infant! We were also rewarded with a few songs on the historic organ and piano.

The Wisconsin Historical Society’s History of the Oshkosh Welsh Settlement 1847-1947 lists the John Rodgers Morgan family as members. The WCHAS was honored to be a part of helping to preserve this part of history on behalf of the Morgan family.

Volunteer Today!

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Get involved with a great organization! We have several committees to choose from to volunteer in. All of them help to fulfill our society’s mission to promote and preserve local history. Contact us today to get involved and volunteer!

Email- WinnebagoHistoricalSociety@gmail.com

Call (920) 267-8007

Jerry Apps To Speak on Wisconsin Ag History

Jerry Apps

The WCHAS has scheduled Wisconsin’s master storyteller and historian Jerry Apps to speak in August. Apps will talk about his latest book, Wisconsin Agriculture: a History. The richly illustrated release from the Wisconsin Historical Society Press chronicles Wisconsin farming and its evolution over time in a way that will appeal to history buffs, devotees of the state’s agricultural heritage, and those who simply appreciate a good story. Join us Tuesday, August 9th at 6:30 pm in the lower level meeting room at the Oshkosh Public Library. Mr. Apps will have autographed copies of books for purchase.

Check out some of Jerry Apps’ other books