Germans in Kalamazoo
Germans and Enterprise
From its inception, Kalamazoo has always been a place comprised of people from diverse cultural, religious and ethnic backgrounds, seeking out ways to put down roots and to add to the vitality of the area. In the later half of the 19th century, Kalamazoo saw a significant rise in the influence and clout of German immigrants, many of whom brought to the Kalamazoo area skills and trade knowledge that would contribute to both their prosperity, and add dynamism to Kalamazoo’s Gilded Age. From the 1870’s to the beginning of World War I (1914), the city directories are filled with German names connected to successful businesses, houses of worship and civic organizations. There were brewers (see: Kalamazoo Brewing Company), shoemakers, painters, tailors, grocers, and blacksmiths. The city’s bustling Haymarket District was steered by several prominent German-American merchants who operated businesses out of the city’s large, commercial buildings along Main, Edwards and Burdick streets. It was the savvy late 19th century businessman who understood the value of locating their business in close proximity to the Michigan Central Railroad Depot and the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad Depot.
Samuel Folz, “the Clothing King”, owned a clothing store on the corner of Main and Portage Streets (aka The Humphrey Block) that in 1892, was hailed as one of the largest and “most elaborate” in the state. Folz, an active member of the city’s civic life, went on to become Mayor in 1903, the forth Democrat to do so. When Folz died in 1924, he was serving as postmaster, having been appointed by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916. His obituary lists only a handful of his philanthropic activities and civic involvement: “one of the organizers of the Grand Army Realty Board, president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, director of the Lee Paper Company at Vicksburg, and a member of B’nai Israel.”
“The name of Sam Folz and clothing has become almost synonymous terms to the people of Kalamazoo county, and even beyond the confines of county lines. You may travel from one end of the state to the other and no handsomer establishment in every detail can be seen anywhere.”–from Kalamazoo Illustrated (1892)
In the late 1880’s, The Desenberg Building housed Bernhard and Meyer Desenberg’s grocery company, a tobacco and wholesale enterprise. Bernhard’s music-loving son Edward founded Pretty Lake Camp in 1916, which continues to flourish today. The Kalamazoo Pant Company (aka Kalamazoo Overall Co.) was founded in 1867 by salesman Samuel Rosenbaum, who came to Kalamazoo after outgrowing the smaller Three Rivers market. The Rosenbaum Building survives today at the corner of 300 E. Michigan Avenue and Edwards Street. Carl G. Kleinstuck made his trade in dairy farming along Oakland Drive. Later, the man who called his farm “Little Saxonia” attempted to cultivate a peat fuel enterprise by utilizing the marshy bog on his large property. On the south side of East Main Street lived the Jannasch-Shortt Musical Institute, a musical school operated by multi-instrumentalist Anna Jannasch-Shortt, the daughter of gunsmith Charles Jannasch. The institute operated from 1878 to 1909.
Adam Ehrmann, a Mosbach, Baden native, bought the Columbia Hotel in 1897, expanded and refurbished the dilapidated building, and successfully turned it into one of Kalamazoo’s most crowned inns. Fred Hotop, originally from the German city of Holstein, owned the American Hotel, located northwest of the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad depot, a convenient distance for visitors disembarking the train.
Capitalizing on the area’s paper-producing industry, Otto Ihling moved from Milwaukee to Kalamazoo in 1869, first as a bookbinder and printer, and then as the head of Ihling Brothers & Everard, a company that focused on the production of blank books, journals, catalogs, and government bound publications. Their large facilities were housed in the building at the corner of Main and Edwards streets. Like Folz, Ihling would play a role in the city’s political affairs, serving as Mayor twice, in 1887 and 1895.
David and William Lilienfeld, two of the city’s largest employers in the late 1800’s, struck it rich with cigar manufacturing (Lilies Cigar Company) and wholesale liquor sales. David worked at Mannes Israel’s dry goods store at Burdick and Main streets before he and his brother struck out on their own. Today, the Kalamazoo House, a bed and breakfast, is run out of Lilienfeld’s South Street mansion.
“The D. Lilienfeld and Bro. cigar brands gained broad appeal, with names like Carolina, O.P., Espanola, Figaro, Henry Clay, and Pride leading the way. Along with their good friend Julius Goldberg, D. Lilienfeld & Bro. owned and marketed a cigar brand called Lilies. Though for some years Julius Goldberg would relinquish his interests therein, eventually their Lilies brand would be the blockbuster that would become the flagship name of the Lilienfeld operation.”–(from The Kalamazoo House Bed and Breakfast: The History and Legacy of The David Lilienfeld House, p.11
With a rich array of civic organizations and houses of worship to be involved in, German settlers found community and identity in the plentiful activities outside of the realm of commerce. These organizations supported the unique expressions of German culture during a time period prior to the rise of anti-German sentiment that developed during two world wars.
A.U.V. (Arbeiter Unterstutzungs Verein) Also known as the German Workingmen’s Benevolent Association, the A.U.V. was founded in 1866. The A.U.V. became the German community’s most important resource, a place to assemble, relax, entertain, and organize. “It was organized and operated on altogether democratic principles, where employers, employees, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, regardless of religious or social differences, met on an equal basis.” (The Proclaimer, 1977) In 1897, the group built The Auditorium at 121-23 Portage Street to house their community activities. It was a lively building, hosting a variety of events and activities.
“At one time, the AUV was considered the finest public building in Kalamazoo. It was a veritable baroque palace with club rooms, kitchens, dance floor and a bar of gleaming polished oak that many a proud German-American leaned on while telling a robust tale of the homeland.” (Kalamazoo Gazette, May 13, 1980)
In 1980, a tornado ripped through downtown, damaging the Auditorium beyond repair, leading to its destruction. Today, a historical marker recognizing the importance of the A.U.V. in support of the daily lives of the German community is attached to the westside wall of the Humphrey Building Block.
St. Augustine’s Church
As early as the 1840’s, German Catholics were drawn to a local parish that provided support for immigrants. Twenty years later, most were members of the newly constructed St. Augustine’s Church, built in 1869. German immigrants comprised a significant portion of the congregation, with many of the priests having German surnames. By 1893, 100 German families were members of the church. Hoteliers Fred Hotop and Adam Ehrmann were both influential members of the congregation in the late 1800’s, with Ehrmann serving as a church trustee for many years.
Germania Fire Engine Company No. 3
Founded in 1860 as part of the village’s volunteer firefighting system, a collection of Germans banded together to form the Germania Fire Engine Company No. 3., an outfit of men who pledged to suppress the ever-present danger of fires. In 1860, of the five groups of firefighting companies, three of them were comprised of mostly Germans.
Other organizations that appear throughout this time period in city directories include the German Evangelical Lutheran Church, German Turner’s Society, and the German Harmonia Singing Society.
The German-Jewish Community
Most of Kalamazoo’s early Jewish community were of German descent. Mannes Israel, who hailed from Pyrmont, Germany, is considered Kalamazoo’s first Jewish resident, having arrived in 1844 to start a dry goods store at the corner of Rose and Main Streets. In 1864, the “Alemania Society” was established by Jewish families as an outlet “for cultural, literary and musical purposes” (Mayer, p.26). Israel, along with Samuel Rosenbaum and the Desenberg family founded the Temple B’nai Israel congregation in 1865.
“The families appear to have been generally accepted in Kalamazoo. The men were welcomed into fraternal orders, such as the Masons and the Odd Fellows. They supported the Union during the Civil War, became Republicans, and later many supported the reform movements of the Progressive Era. Some attended Kalamazoo’s liberal People’s Church as well as the Temple B’Nai Israel.”–(Museography, Fall 2003, p.13)
Article written by Ryan Gage, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, April 2022